Finding Bob’s* birth mother and father was such a privilege. I learned a lot, and felt like I was on a rollercoaster. Because we were successful, I thought I would reemphasize the biggest lessons and tips that I gathered along the way.
First – Please go into the DNA world with your eyes wide open. There will be surprises. Possibly, surprises that are upsetting. Like, it turns out your favorite Grandpa isn’t your Grandpa after all – at least not biologically. Or, you have a half-sibling you never knew about. Or, one whole brach of your tree is completely wrong, genetically speaking.
For me, the surprises were not unwelcome. That is not always the case. So please, if you choose to DNA test, or ask someone else to DNA test, be open to surprises. (People have been having babies outside of marriage for like, ever. It bears repeating: There will be surprises.)
Luckily for us, Bob had already tested with FamilyTree DNA and 23 and Me – three total tests. Additionally, my uncle had Y-DNA tested with FTDNA and autosomal tested with Ancestry. Having multiple tests in multiple places was really the key to finding Bob’s parents so quickly.
Most people can’t afford to test with every company. As the person working with Bob’s matches, I can tell you that each one of those 5 tests played a crucial role in the process. If even one of them hadn’t existed, we wouldn’t have gotten our answer. Well, at least not so quickly and easily.
So what do you do if you are an adoptee and can’t afford multiple tests? Learn about autosomal transfers so you get the most bang for your buck.
I know this one is easier said than done in many cases. For adoptees, they have a whole bunch of matches that they can’t differentiate. They have nothing to work with. There are plenty of cool science-y things you can do. If that speaks to your soul, and you have the time – by all means, learn the cool science-y DNA tricks that barely register in my pianist/dreamer/reader/artistic brain. If that is not you, pull up a chair and let me give you a few of my sneaky detective tricks.
Study your closest matches – up to third cousin. Look to see if they have a tree. If you are looking at matches in Ancestry, please note that just because there is not a tree attached to someone’s DNA results, does not mean they don’t have a tree. Here is an example from my matches:
This is a match I have been working with over the last few weeks to help solve some long standing mysteries. She has not linked a tree to her DNA results. But if you look at the very bottom left, I have the option to “Select a tree to preview” with a drop-down arrow. After clicking the arrow I see the tree she does have. If she had more than one tree, they would all be listed here.
Her tree is quite small, because she had a dead-end she was trying to solve. I have been able to help her, and she has been able to help me. Win-win!
Okay, let’s get back to the point here. Compare the trees of your matches and look for the closest common ancestors. Everyone will fall into two camps – maternal and paternal matches. If you can group them based on common ancestors you will be in better shape. Try to connect your matches. There are connections – find them. Pay attention to names, but be careful, they could be maiden or married surnames. Pay attention to dates and places. You are looking for patterns.
Use the tools in the DNA service you are using to look at matches you share with your matches. This tool can help you separate your matches into two groups.
Look for a match who is really into genealogy, they love to help! Even if they are a little bit more distantly related, a 3rd cousin say, they probably know a lot about their tree and can help you narrow things down.
In my case, it was easy. I already knew which of Bob’s matches belong to my side of his tree. I was just looking for common ancestors of the remaining matches. All of these matches were from his birth mother’s side. Each of them added a clue or two that helped me identify Bob’s 2nd great grandparents as the common ancestors of his closest matches. From there I had to switch to descendancy research.
What is descendancy research? I’m glad you asked. I happen to have an info graphic handy that answers that very question.
I know that is super tiny and not the least bit reader friendly. Just click on the image and it will take you to the original post.
Completing descendancy research on the common ancestors of your matches, will help you build a tree filled with your family members. You may not know how you are related, but you do know that you are related. Building that tree will lead you to living family members who may be able to help.
Remember – you can switch any trees in Ancestry and FT DNA to descendancy view. This will help. Don’t overlook those living people who are marked private. They still show gender. I actually looked at Lucy in someone’s descendancy view, I just couldn’t see any data other than her gender. She and her siblings gave me a pattern to look for – a family with a certain number of sons and daughters. That key obituary for her brother, backed up the pattern I had already discovered.
By the way, there is a delightful bit of serendipity I left out of my previous posts. Lucy’s brother who died? He has the exact same first name as Bob, spelled the same way. I know there is only one way to spell Bob, but there are several ways to spell Bob’s actual name. Bob’s given name was chosen by his adoptive mother, who did not know that Lucy’s brother had that name. I hope that was a tender and helpful thing for Lucy in her journey. <3
Once you have built the descendancy tree of your common ancestors, start adding living family members by searching for obituaries. Recent obituaries can often be found by simply googling someone. Learn how to do targeted google searches to help with this. My favorite tricks are putting quotation marks around a name, like this, “Ronald Skeen Peterson”. If I search google with that phrase, I’ve just said to google, please bring me things about a person with this EXACT name. Be careful though, not everything uses a full name. So I should also try, “Ronald S Peterson”, “Ronald Peterson”, and “R S Peterson”.
Ronald Peterson is a super common name, so I can make my search even more targeted by adding additional facts. Use operators like OR, AND, NOT, etc. So if I wanted to find an obituary for my Grandpa I could try something like this: “Ronald Skeen Peterson” AND “1997” AND (death OR funeral OR obituary). I’ve just told google to only bring me results that include the exact name Ronald Skeen Peterson, and the year 1997, and one of these three words: death, funeral, or obituary.
These google tricks can help you find LOTS of goodies. Of course, remember to use variants. In fact, if I want to get reeeeeaaaaally fancy I would do this: “Ronald (Skeen OR S OR ?) Peterson” AND “1997” AND (death OR funeral OR obituary).
If you can’t find obituaries using google, consider trying GenealogyBank or another newspaper website. Many libraries or Family History Centers have subscriptions to such websites that you can utilize in their facility for free.
Once you find an obituary, update your tree with all of the people mentioned. Even if you only know their first name. Get everyone linked together and make good notes so you remember which obit added which people.
Now if you are thinking to yourself you just did that when you found some obits, you are correct. But what I mean here is you need to learn how to find contact information for living people. This is where we get into creepy stalker territory. This is where my particular skill set goes into the danger zone – that area where some people may use the skills for good, like me, or for not so good. So I will be a bit on the vague side here. If you know me and need personal pointers, and I know you will be using your powers for good, shoot me an email. If not, well – shape up creepy stalker! 😉
I will just point you to my three main websites for finding living people: Facebook, the White Pages, and Family Tree Now.
If you don’t have luck finding people on Facebook, spend a little more time learning how to search it effectively. Use a name but also add a city or state. And so on…
The White Pages are good for people who still have a landline. However, they are constantly tweaking their website hoping to make money off of you, so there is less info here now than there used to be.
Family Tree Now is a hackers dream come true. I urge you to go there and get you and all of you family members off of their website by “opting out”. However, you can track down those living people you found in the obits on this website because hardly anyone has opted out yet. This website is free, but scary! It definitely could be used for evil.
I know I said I was only going to mention three websites, but I should also mention that High School yearbooks helped me identify Lucy. You can find many at Classmates.com. But, you can often find them in local libraries online. I found them in both places and found Lucy in them.
I know it doesn’t always feel this way, but people are good. There are always helpers in every family. If your first, second, third interactions are discouraging – keep trying! Don’t you quit. You will find someone one day who will be happy to help.
Look for the helpers, there are always helpers.
Here are a few last tips:
Contact your matches. Remember that people like reciprocal relationships. They love messages that say things like, “Hey cousin, I see that we are a DNA match, I have some family photos I would be happy to share.” Now. An adoptee can’t say things like that. So come up with something that invites that same type of reciprocity. Be creative! Maybe you are willing to help fund other family members DNA testing or something like that.
If your matches don’t respond, try again. Be nice. VERY nice, low-key, low-pressure. Keep your messages short and open. Try to deal with only one question or issue at a time. Think like you would if you were texting someone who you know is really busy. Once you get a feel for the other person’s interest level and time, adjust your message length and content accordingly.
Learn about DNA. I barely know anything about DNA research, all the crazy cool, ultra-smart and nerdy charting and phasing and segmenting and so on, but it would have been the next step if my genealogy skills weren’t so robust. Find ways to learn, watch Legacy Family Tree webinars, find Facebook groups for adoptees and DNA research, read one of Blaine Bettinger’s books, attend classes at your local Family History Center/Archive/Library, attend a genealogy conference and go to DNA classes etc.
A few closing thoughts:
I began my journey with a very clear goal – find matches that would help me learn more about my great grandfather John Costello. I did not set out expecting to find a first cousin who was adopted at birth. That wasn’t anywhere on my radar at all. And yet, that is what I found.
The journey we took together was overwhelming, emotional, exhilarating, surprising, and of course had a few hiccups.
I will forever be grateful and humbled that I was able to help Bob find his birth parents. That is a distinct honor and privilege that will hold a special place in my heart all of my days. I hope to do it again one day. Although… hopefully not for the same uncle. 😉
I imagine that John Costello is smiling down on all of us, a bit like a puppet master who somehow managed to keep his pre-marriage life a secret so that I would go looking at our DNA and find his long lost great grandson.
Well played Grandpa John, well played.
Isn’t genealogy cool?! Isn’t DNA cool?! But the combo – WOW, that is a powerhouse combo!
Thank you for sharing this journey with me. A lot of you have been reading along. In fact, a lot more than normally click on over to my little corner of the genealogy blogosphere. Thank you for sharing your own stories both here and through email, text, and FB messages. I am inspired by how many of you have a personal connection to Bob because of your own experiences or the experiences of your loved ones. You are awesome!
*Names, dates, and places in this series of posts have been changed or omitted for privacy purposes. Previous posts in this series found here – Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.