If identifying birth parents is the long sought for pot of gold for adoptees, then DNA matches are the rainbow that leads them there. The problem is those DNA matches don’t follow the beauty and simplicity of Roy G. Biv. They are a tangled up list of names with varying bits of data. Some lucky adoptees look at their match list and see the words they have longed for – “Parent/Child”. But for many, that phrase is absent and it takes a master puzzle solver to tame that tangle into the beautifully dazzling rainbow path the adoptee hopes will bring them the answers to calm a lifetime of questions.
Some adoptees seek the story of their birth with desperation. Others do not. But no matter how the adoptee gets to the answer, desperately, calmly, aggressively, timidly, there is something magical that happens when you introduce an adoptee to their birth parent – even if only on paper. Those words are the pot of gold. “Your mother is…” “Your father is…” Something happens in that moment. Something I cannot adequately describe because I am not an adoptee. But as the person saying the words, I get just a taste of the emotion as I watch another human being learn for the first time the names of the people who brought them life. Bringing the DNA matches together to form the rainbow path that leads to birth parents is an amazing experience that will never get old for me.
It Started With a Question
I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Don’t worry, this isn’t a religious post, I’m just adding some context for the question.) On Sundays, we attend church for two hours. But that is brand new as of 2019. Just a few weeks ago, we attended church for three hours. When church was still a three-hour block for me, the middle hour was Sunday School. There were usually two Sunday School classes to choose from but you could also go to the small Family History room with about four computers and ask for some help. Or, if you preferred, you could bring your laptop and sit in the foyer adjacent to the Family History room and work quietly with friends. I often sat on those couches last year helping a few specific friends.
In the Spring of last year, a friend of mine – we’ll call him Bill* (Why Bill? Well, he’s a scientist and it makes me think of Bill Nye and hopefully, that will help me to not accidentally call him by his actual name.) – started joining us in the foyer with his laptop. He just quietly worked and I didn’t think much of it. After a few weeks of this, one Sunday School hour came to an end and found us all packing up our laptops when Bill asked a question I wasn’t expecting.
“Amberly, I have a question for you. So, I’m working on a genetic tree…”
He didn’t even get to the question before this popped out of my mouth, “Genetic tree? Were you adopted?”
I had no idea.
We were out of time that day so I suggested that he come by the Family History Center and see me on a Thursday night sometime. He did. That very Thursday.
We were busy that night. I was already helping another patron or two when he arrived. I had him get logged in while I tried to get the other patrons focused on tasks so I could break away and help him.
He is a scientist so I knew he would understand process well. I gave him a few pointers, explained a bit about using Ancestry.com, suggested he start analyzing his matches, create a tree, etc. He was a quick study so I knew he would be okay. But before he left, I said, “If you like, you can invite me to your DNA results and if I have a minute I can give them a look.”
I was busy.
But it wasn’t long before I needed a distraction from stress and worry.
My husband has been an insurance agent for almost 15 years now. Ten years ago, he moved from one company to another. One of the big guys. Then this past Spring, he decided to resign and move to a brokerage. It was a good choice, but it meant starting completely over from 0. Do you know what happens when you start from 0? No income for a bit. STRESS.
So, here I was, needing a distraction to keep my sanity and suddenly I thought of Bill. Finding his birth parents seemed like the perfect distraction, so I dug into Bill’s DNA and got to work.
Starting From a Blank Slate
Bill was not the first adoptee I had helped, but he was the first adoptee I had helped who did not know anything about his tree or matches. Every other person I had helped knew one branch of their story and I was just helping them to sort out the other branch. Bill’s tree was a completely blank slate. A challenge for sure. And a challenge at the perfect moment for me.
I started like I always do. I focused on his matches from the top through his 3rd cousin matches. I tackled the list top to bottom. I plugged each match into a spreadsheet and typed out data about each match. There is nothing magical about my spreadsheet, it just causes me to look at a piece of data, read it, and then retype it which for me causes it to stick, or at least become very familiar. The most important columns of my spreadsheet for my process are the shared matches column, the surnames column, and the theories column.
In Bill’s case, I got through the second cousin matches, entered one third cousin match and then stopped. A few things were becoming quite clear and I knew I needed to analyze these matches differently.
At this point, It would be helpful to interrupt our story and catch you up on a few facts.
Bill had one close family match. A woman. Her name was very common. She had no tree, no data aside from her name. Bill had messaged her and gotten no response.
Bill had NO 1st cousin matches. He had nine 2nd cousin matches and eleven 3rd cousin matches.
Twenty matches in the range that are easiest to work with.
Miraculously, seven of the nine 2nd cousin matches had trees. SEVEN!
Organizing the Matches
After entering the first of Bill’s 3rd cousins into my spreadsheet, I reread everything I had entered previously. There was one match that really stood out. I filled the box with that username blue. I wanted to differentiate it from the others because it seemed quite clear that only that one match represented one of his parents and all of the other matches seemed to be connected and represent his other parent.
Because it seemed like all of the matches, save one, were part of one branch of Bill’s tree, I decided I needed to bring them together differently than I had before. It was time to figure out how to use the Ancestry Tree feature in a new way.
Master Match Tree
I am no stranger to Ancestry Trees. I love them. I have so many that I can’t see the whole list when I click on the “Trees” tab. I have trees for me, for friends, for clients, for family members. Some of my trees are private, some are public, some are private and unsearchable – whatever suits the circumstance best. I have been regularly using an Ancestry Tree since 2006. I know the features and tools of Ancestry Trees very well. All of that experience was just what I needed to tackle Bill’s matches in one place – in a Master Match Tree.
I started this brand new – private and unsearchable – tree with Bill and his wife. I made Bill the home person. I added his wife because you need two people to start an Ancestry Tree from scratch. Once Bill and his wife were added, it was time to try out my new idea.
I added Bill’s first 2nd cousin match to his tree. Ancestry Trees aren’t designed to have separate branches in them but that is exactly what I needed. So I added that first match to Bill as a father. There are two important steps here. Step one – create the person based on their Ancestry DNA profile. Step two – separate them from Bill by editing their relationship and deleting Bill as their child.
When I entered the match into the tree, their name is entered as *username and their suffix is the cousin range Ancestry predicts. I then add a custom fact that lists the number of shared cMs and the number of shared segments.
Once the DNA match is created in the tree, you click on “Edit Relationships” and delete the relationship to the adoptee. You now have two very tiny, unconnected branches in the tree. Once Bill was disconnected from the DNA match, I added the rest of the tree just as the match has it showing on their DNA profile.
Now it’s time for some regular old genealogy work. I build the tree back, out and forward. It needs to go back a generation beyond the predicted MRCA (most recent common ancestor) range so we don’t miss our MRCA, sideways to pick up siblings, and forwards so we can connect our DNA matches.
The backward part comes pretty naturally to genealogists, the sideways and forwards part are also pretty natural up to a certain point. Once we hit living people, this can get a bit trickier. Our best tools are obituaries and living people finders. Once that first match is in the tree and I’ve built it out a bit, it’s time to move on to the next match on the list that has a tree.
Again, we create the DNA match in the tree by first adding them as a family member to anyone in the tree. Their name is *username and their suffix is the predicted cousin range from Ancestry. After the match has been created in the tree, we go to “Edit Relationships” and disconnect them from the family member we started from. We now have three separated branches in the tree.
It’s easy to navigate back to Bill by typing his name into the search box. It’s likewise very easy to find our DNA matches by simply typing an * into the search box. At this point, we have two DNA matches in the tree and both will show up on the list. We won’t ever lose the branches and we don’t have to remember anything beyond an *.
Just like with our first match, we add the tree info from match #2’s tree on Ancestry and then begin building it backward, sideways, and forward.
This is where the magic starts to happen. With each obituary, we add every single person listed in that obituary to the tree. We add them even if we only know part of their name. Then we do one VERY important thing. We add that obit to the gallery of every single person mentioned in the obit. We already did that when we built match #1’s tree forward, but now when we do it for match #2, if there is a similar name, when we add that obit to each person, as we type their name, Ancestry will show us a list of possibilities and we will see any similar names no matter which branch of the tree that name is found in.
As I added each of the seven DNA matches to Bill’s tree, I slowly started to connect his DNA matches through the obituaries I was adding. Pretty soon I had two very distinct, very large branches – plus the wee little branch with just Bill and his wife. Let’s name those branches the Green* line and the Swalwell* line.
At this point, I was about 5 hours in – not bad. It was 10:30 at night and I knew I needed to call it quits and head to bed, but my fingers had a mind of their own and I clicked on a few more things. Suddenly I was staring at evidence of a marriage between two people – one named Green and one named Swalwell. I made some quick notes on the paper in front of me – Albert Green* & Helen Swalwell* – Bill’s grandparents??? I stared at my note for a moment and then circled it a few times before reluctantly shutting the laptop and heading off to bed.
The next day was a Saturday. I had some things to do in the morning but Bill’s tree and matches were on my mind. In the early afternoon, I found some time to come back to the problem with fresh eyes. I looked at my note again and opened up Bill’s tree. I followed the lead and found a handful of records that did, in fact, bring the Green and Swalwell lines together.
Albert & Helen had a daughter.
A daughter who appeared to be about the right age to be Bill’s mother.
Let’s call her Grace*.
Could it be…?
I reviewed a few connections, dug into some living people finders and thought I was on to something for sure.
Time to test the theory.
I connected Bill to Grace as mother and child.
This was a test.
But HOW did it test my theory?
I typed an * in the search bar of the tree and looked at my beautiful list of DNA matches to Bill. A lovely list of people who were now ALL connected together, including being connected to Bill, through Grace.
Because Bill was the home person in the tree, and because I had added the predicted relationship range for each one of those DNA matches in the suffix, with each click I could quickly see if the tree relationship matched the predicted relationship range.
Match #1 – yes
Match #2 – yes
Match #3 – yes
And on, and on I went. Every single DNA match in Bill’s tree had a tree relationship that fit into the DNA predicted relationship range.
I had about a million butterflies waltzing through my stomach.
Did I just identify Bill’s birth mother?
My next step was to check every single tree relationship against the number of shared cMs in the Shared cM Tool on DNA Painter and see if the tree relationship was on the list of possibilities.
I checked match #1 – good.
Match #2 – good.
Match #3 – good.
And on, and on, it went.
Everything worked. Every. Single. Thing.
The butterflies were now beating all around like crazy – no more waltzing, this was full-on slam dancing.
I went back to the living people finders and found the children of the potential birth mother, Grace, on Facebook. Grace was not on Facebook. She had the tiniest online footprint I’ve ever come across. But her family, I could find them.
I double checked everything.
It all worked.
I couldn’t think of another step.
I couldn’t think of another hypothesis to test.
Grace was Bill’s birth mother.
A Phone Call
I handwrote some simple pedigree charts and drew arrows, added cMs and relevant relationships. I made one pedigree for the Greens and one for the Swalwells and made the path to each DNA match and how they connected to the family and ultimately to Bill.
Then it was time to make a call.
Bill answered. I asked if he was busy. He said he was just doing some yard work.
“I’m about 95% certain I found your mom. Do you want to come over?” burst from my mouth before I’d even thought about how to tell him.
He paused and then said he did, but he’d clean up a bit first.
I was nervous. I’m not sure why.
Maybe because I knew how momentous that conversation would be. It would forever mark time for Bill – the time before he knew who his birth mother was, and the time after he knew who his birth mother was. I was adding a permanent marker in the timeline of Bill’s life. There was no unringing that bell.
Bill arrived and I invited him into my office. I put my handwritten pedigrees in front of him and explained my process. I gave him a brief lesson on obituaries and living people finders. I showed him how each of his DNA matches connected to each other. I showed him Albert Green & Helen Swalwell and explained that their marriage was the one that brought the two lines together. I shared that they had a daughter named Grace who appeared to be his mother.
My scientist friend sat there looking at my notes. My low-key, even-keeled, never-seemed-to-be-the-excitable-kind, scientist friend’s eyes misted over as he uttered the most gentle, “Wow,” I’ve ever heard.
Next, I showed him his half-sisters on Facebook, all three of them.
One of those half-sisters happens to be that close family match with that very common name. But what’s special about her name is that she’s married, and the combination of her given name, married surname, Facebook profile, sisters, and other family members all line up with Bill being Grace’s son, and this woman’s half-brother.
We talked for a few minutes more and I explained that it appeared he only had one 2nd cousin match on Ancestry that was on his dad’s line. It wasn’t a lot to go on. We talked about some possible strategies. I gave him Grace’s current address and phone number. I told him that if he wanted more help later, I would be glad to help. I gave him access to the tree I had created. A tree filled with 218 biological family members. His teeny tiny branch of two had grown to a healthy tree of 218 in a mere six hours time. He was overcome to have a tree filled with biological family members for the first time in his life.
Following My Pattern
Monday morning, Bill called and told me that he thought he had identified his father. You see, he’d also tested with MyHeritage but hadn’t shared those results with me. I had built him such a good tree and explained enough about record searching and living people finding that he decided to try to follow my pattern. On MyHeritage, he had a 1st cousin match with a tree. That match was not a Green or a Swalwell. It didn’t take a lot of time for him to identify his possible father. He had built his own tree and wanted me to look at it to double check his work.
I was overjoyed to see his efforts. I checked everything. It wasn’t too hard. 1st cousins share a set of grandparents. This set of grandparents had a son who was in the right place at the right time to be Bill’s biological father. All of the numbers worked, the records supported his theory, the other DNA matches lined up, Bill had found his father on his own using some of the skills I taught him.
It wasn’t much later that I had a chat with Bill and he told me that he had talked to his adoptive mother. He told her what we had discovered. She verified our work by saying that his birth mother was indeed a Green. She shared a few other details she knew, that I can no longer recall, that verified Grace was, in fact, Bill’s mother.
Her details wouldn’t have been enough to find Grace without those DNA matches, but it sure felt good to hear them after the fact to confirm our good work.
Why This Method Matters to Me
As heartwarming and inspiring as Bill’s story is, I didn’t tell it to inspire you or warm your heart, although I hope it also did that. I told this story because I took everything I learned from helping Bill and applied it to my own brick wall – John Costello. I have oodles of DNA matches that I know are connected to him. I created my own Master Match Tree on Ancestry.com and have been adding my DNA matches and their trees just like I did for Bill.
It has been a magical process for me too.
I haven’t found my pot of gold yet, but I am definitely building my rainbow. I can’t wait to tell you about it!
I am working on a follow-up post that explains some of the nitty-gritty of building a Master Match Tree on Ancestry.com. Hopefully, it will be helpful for you as you consider how it may bring some clarity to your DNA matches.
I have lots of John Costello updates that I want to share, but I needed to first share a few discoveries that were made because of applying the wonder of the Master Match Tree. Bill’s DNA journey was what caused me to create this beautiful technique so that story had to come first. Now let the John Costello updates ROLL my friends!!
Happy Thursday, I hope it’s a wonderful day filled with genealogy discovery for you! xoxo
*All names have been changed for privacy purposes. This story is being shared with Bill’s permission.