Monday, March 14, 2016

Where Do I Come From? Finding Answers With DNA

Really, some of us don’t know, and the information has been kept from us.  DNA is an amazing thing.  Who would have dreamed that those of us who had been kept in the dark regarding our origins can now know where we come from with just a small sample of DNA?

I was adopted at birth and the records sealed.  Though the state I was born in had recently allowed adult adoptees to request copies of original birth certificates, my father’s name was left blank on my birth-certificate.  For me and many like me, finding our biological roots is only possible with DNA testing.

Your DNA test will tell you a bit about your ethnicity, but it is not going to tell you who your parents are – unless your parents have also taken the same test.  Unless you’re one of those adoptees who hits the jackpot with an immediate family member showing up as a DNA match when your results come in, figuring out your biological roots is going to take some work.

I was not one of those who hit the jackpot and my search took a great deal of work and required me to think outside of the box as well as enlisting the help of a dear friend.  My search took about a year and a half and probably a couple thousand hours of research.
I’ll talk here about where to start, and some of the basic concepts of searching.
If you’re thinking about DNA testing, I recommend starting with Ancestry DNA.

I tested at Ancestry and 23andMe, as well as transferring to FTDNA and uploading to Gedmatch.  If you do your research, you’ll read the advice to “fish in all three ponds” – referring to the “big 3” DNA companies, which are: Ancestry, 23andMe, and Family Tree.

Each of those companies has its advantages.  There was a time I would have recommended starting with 23andMe, however, they recently doubled their price and changed their website – and I do not believe their new format is as helpful to searchers as it was in the past.  Also, as Ancestry has a great price and is always running sales, it seems more and more people are testing at Ancestry DNA, possibly making it the biggest “pond” to fish in and the place I would advise starting.

On the other hand, my closest match, the one that helped me solve my puzzle, is a cousin who had tested at 23andMe.  If I hadn’t tested at 23andMe, I probably would not have solved my puzzle.  So – the idea of “fishing in all three ponds” is really good advice.  Of course, I would advise starting with Ancestry.

Once you get your Ancestry results, you can transfer those results to Family Tree DNA (this is what I did, and it’s cheaper than taking another test).  If you’re male you may also want to look into taking the Y test at Family Tree.

You’ll also want to upload your Ancestry results to

If you’ve not gotten good results from Ancestry, Family Tree, and Gedmatch, then I would go ahead and order that 23andMe test:

Once those initial results come back (from any of the "big 3")…

First step:

Look at your match list and see who your closest matches are.

For comparison, here are screenshots from my Ancestry results, and my daughter's Ancestry results:


My daughter's:

You may notice a huge difference in the number of "4th cousins or closer".  I have 44 and Lauren has 285.  Most of those cousins of Lauren's are on her father's side.  The reason there are so few on my side is because my side of the tree has recent immigrants.  

Surely I have as many cousins - but I imagine most of them live in areas of the world where DNA tests either aren't sold yet, or are still too expensive or not practical.

The tests are now being marketed in Europe and I hope to find more European cousins in coming years.  For now, the relatively low number of matches made my search difficult.

Just to give you an idea of how quickly the database is growing, here is a screenshot of my results that I had saved to my computer just one year ago:

In one year, I've gone from 16 to 44 matches in the "4th cousins or closer" range.

Now, to 23andMe.  Here's a screenshot of my top matches, and my best clue, from one year ago:

These top four matches were all anonymous and had never responded to messages I had sent.  The last one in this screenshot had listed four surnames (which I grayed out in this screenshot, for privacy).

This being my best - and really my only - clue, I had to start with certain assumptions.

Assumption #1:  The four surnames listed are the surnames of this cousin's grandparents.  (Grandfather's last names, and Grandmother's maiden names.)

Assumption #2:  This is a 3rd Cousin.

Why does this matter?  and how does this help?

Consider that first cousins share a set of Grandparents, and that second cousins share a set of Great-Grandparents.  Third cousins, then, share a set of Great-Great-Grandparents.  If the four surnames this cousin listed are the surnames of his Grandparents, one of those Grandparents is the Grandchild of one of my Great-Great-Grandparents.

To edit a chart I posted in an earlier post, to indicate how this suspected 3rd cousin might help me figure out who my father is:

Spoiler alert:  One of those four surnames that anonymous cousin had listed is actually my father's last name, but it would take some work to get from here to there!

The key to solving the mystery from this point is to see this cousin's family tree.  When you test your DNA, you may find that you have a close match with a public family tree that you can view, or a private tree that they're happy to let you see.  You may find that your closest matches have no trees, or never respond to your attempts to contact them.

In my case, there was no tree, just four surnames, and matches who never responded to my messages.

I spent a great deal of time to no avail searching family trees at Ancestry in hopes of finding a tree listing all four of those names.

It was June 2014 when I spit in my first test tube, and March 2015 when a dear friend found an obituary that listed three of the four surnames that this anonymous cousin had listed.  The obituary was posted at Find-a-Grave.
  • Make yourself a mental note here:  Find-a-Grave is a wonderful resource!
I emailed the person who posted that Find-a-Grave memorial.  It turned out the memorial was for my 3rd cousin's Grandmother, and the person who posted the memorial was able to put me in touch with my anonymous third cousin's father.  She also shared some information she had about the family tree.

Using this information, I was able to begin building my cousin's family tree.

Basic concepts to keep in mind here:
  • You and your first cousin share a set of Grandparents and share DNA that you both inherited from that set of Grandparents.  Unless you're double-first-cousins (when siblings marry siblings), you do not share the DNA you both inherited from your other Grandparents.
  • If your mother and your cousin's mother are sisters - then other cousins you have on your father's side are not related to cousins your cousin has on his father's side.
  • If you build your first cousin's family tree, you'll see that you are only related to the relatives on one side of that tree.
  • Likewise for 2nd cousins, only instead of half of the tree (as with 1st cousins) you'll see you are only related to the relatives on one-fourth of the 2nd cousin's tree.
  • With a 3rd cousin, you are only related to the relatives on one-eighth of the tree - or all of the descendants of the Great-great-grandparents you share with that cousin.
So - in building my 3rd cousin's family tree, my first goal is to find his Great-Great-Grandparents, my second goal is to figure out which of his Great-Great-Grandparents are my Great-Great-Grandparents.

We each have eight sets of Great-Great-Grandparents.  I was able to rule out four sets of my cousin's Great-Great-Grandparents because my cousin's father had also tested his DNA and was willing to compare results with me (on 23andMe).  Because my cousin's father and I share no DNA, I concluded that I must be related to this cousin on his mother's side of the tree.

My friend, Kristen, and I spent many hours over the next four to five months working on this family tree.  We had hoped to be able to be able to identify which branch I belonged on by finding other DNA matches who are also related on the given branch.  Unfortunately (likely because I have so few close matches) we were unable to identify a branch as mine.

We also built the tree down, using old newspaper archives (mostly obituaries, birth announcements, etc.) to include the descendants of my cousin's Great-Great-Grandparents.  Because it was my father we were searching for, we focused on "cousins" that would be around the age my father might be, and built each of their trees.  Keeping in mind the points I made above - that I'll be related to my cousins on only one side of their tree, but I'll be related to my father on both sides of his tree.

At this point it had been about a year since spitting in my first test tube and in that year, I had spent nearly all of my spare time glued to this computer trying to solve this mystery.  It all seemed beyond my reach.  Unless other close cousins tested sometime soon, I wouldn't be able to figure this out.

That's when I decided to purchase some extra DNA tests from Ancestry.  They were running a sale, plus I had a free shipping coupon, so it seemed worth it to add extra tests to my cart.  I wasn't sure who I would send those tests to yet, but was thinking in terms of, "build it and they will come."  I have detailed the specifics of that portion of my search in another post as it got quite complicated and seemed to deserve a post of it's own.  Please see my post at:

I feel blessed in that, while I embarked on this process, I found some wonderful 2nd cousins who were very supportive and helpful.  Of course, it's not all happy endings, but I'll talk more about that later.

It's been a very long and complicated story.  I started wondering about my roots when I first learned I was adopted in elementary school, and began actively searching while still a teenager.  Now, at forty seven years old, I have a family tree for the first time.  This, that seemed impossible for most of my life, came with many hours of research, determination, support from my family, and help from family and friends.

I've been thinking about how I would present my story and decided this blog may be the best approach.  Some of it will be simple story telling while other parts will be more technical tutorial type posts.  I hope that in sharing my story and in sharing what I learned about genetic genealogy in my search that I will be able to help others in their searches.

Well then - I have a lot to write!  I hope I'm able to do an acceptable job of presenting all of this!

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