Finding Your Biological Roots Stories from a genealogy detective:
uncovering family secrets, reclaiming the truth and uniting families

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Gina's Journey - Part 5: Using Triangulation

DNA Triangulation
Let’s backup a bit here and explain the process of Triangulation. The short explanation for triangulation is comparing the results of three DNA matches who are not closely related to find a shared segment on the same chromosome with the length of 7 centimorgans or greater. A length of less than 7 cMs might be a false match and therefore should be discounted.

An overlapping match on the same segment with greater than 7 centimorgans indicates all three DNA cousins share a common ancestor. The best way to view this three-way comparison is by using a chromosome browser (available through 23andMe, MyHeritage and GEDmatch). If the matches you are using for triangulation as well as your own results have attached, well-researched family trees, you can compare the three trees and hopefully find the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) shared between the three DNA cousins.

If you are utilizing the tools at DNA Painter for analysis, “paint” this specific chromosome segment onto your DNA map and assign it to the MRCA shared by you and your two matches.

Let’s simplify this in terms relating to Gina – by finding a shared, overlapping piece of DNA between myself, Gina and another cousin, I had found an ancestor who could be Gina’s birth father’s 2nd great-grandmother! This was still a wide span of four generations, but I was inching closer!

Glancing once again at my chromosome browser displaying shared centimorgans for two DNA cousins in a colorful spread of purple and orange bars, it was apparent I had more in common with both Gina and Debra than just that one great-grandparent! But our section of shared cMs on chromosome 20, although small, was confirmation that I was on the right track!

DNA Triangulation

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Gina's Journey - Part 4: A Clue in the Chromosome Browser Comparison

DNA double helix
It was all too apparent, Gina and I had numerous crossovers between our ancestral lines and they all originated in the same endogamous community. There was one other tool at 23andMe that might offer an answer – the chromosome browser.

I navigated to “Advanced DNA Comparison” found under “Family and Friends” in the main menu and plugged in Gina’s name and the match that shared the same surname of our possible third great-grandmother, then clicked “Compare”.

If all three matches were descendants of the same ancestor, at least one segment of overlapping DNA should show up in the chromosome browser. At the top of the page it stated I shared 82 cMs with Gina and a bit more with our other cousin match at 104 cMs. Let’s call this cousin Debra. The results were neatly illustrated with bars for each of our twenty-two chromosomes plus X, being the 23rd chromosome. Gina’s shared DNA with me was color-coded in purple and Debra’s in orange. I shared DNA on five segments with Gina and on seven segments with Debra. But the three of us shared just 13.45 cMs together - all on one segment.

I had hoped for a bit more DNA shared between the three of us, but this amount did fall within the range of 4th, 5th or 6th cousins, and of course there were many in-between variations such as 5th cousin, once removed and so on (see DNA Painter – SharedcM Project for a full range of relationships based on shared cMs). This was an exciting discovery and a good triangulation match, pointing to a specific family line I had already documented in my genealogy research. Without directly accessing Gina’s DNA results or sorting through her matches, I had found a major clue to her paternal line using triangulation.

DNA double helix

Friday, March 12, 2021

Gina's Journey - Part 3: A Genetic Clue at 23andMe

Genealogy Research
When presented with an NPE mystery, especially one tied to my personal DNA, it tends to gnaw at my brain! My internal Sherlock Holms kicks in and I just can’t let it go. As Gina was an adoptee, I surmised she had probably tested with several DNA companies in order to cast a wide search net. Maybe I could track her down in another data base and gather more genetic info about our cousin match.

A day after our last message exchange, I logged into 23andMe and scanned down the list of DNA matches. My hunch was correct – Gina’s name was half way down the first page. According to 23andMe we shared 1.09% of our DNA – probably in the range of third or fourth cousins.  I clicked on Gina’s profile and scrolled down the page to view our comparison. I then clicked “Find Relatives in Common”.

Immediately I recognized a surname in our list of shared matches, that of a third great-grandmother through my paternal grandmother’s ancestry. Aha! That is exactly the direction I had guessed when viewing Gina’s shared matches on AncestryDNA. There was a good possibility that Gina and I shared at least one ancestor from this particular surname lineage. If the match was accurate and we shared a third great-grandmother, our relationship would be 4th cousins. Although it was a fairly distant match, I could build a tree forward from the 3rd great-grandmother and see if it led to a potential candidate as birth father.

To be honest, I wasn’t relishing the task as it would mean compiling a family tree containing five generations and many possible males who could be Gina’s father. Although this was an option, I decided to wait for Gina’s response before tackling a major tree reconstruction. If I could study her DNA results in more detail, I was sure I could narrow the search to the past three generations of her paternal ancestry.

As I studied my 23andMe shared cousin matches with Gina, it became murky with endogamous surnames! Not only did we share a great-grandparent related to one of my paternal grandmother’s line, we shared surnames related to all four of my 2nd great-grandparents through the same grandmother! Yikes! And our DNA waters became even muddier as I spotted at least three other cousins who I knew were related to my paternal grandfather’s ancestry! Oh for goodness sake, endogamy was once again to blame for a genealogy mess.

Genealogy Research

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Gina's Journey - Part 2: In Search of Paternal Lineage

Old photo
I felt Gina was heading in the wrong direction and falling down a DNA rabbit hole. Maybe I could find her correct ancestral path. Since I did not have access to Gina’s AncestryDNA results and could only examine our shared matches for information, I had only one option: to explain the information I was able to derive from our limited comparison, and then ask for access to her results. I explained that by granting access, it would allow a thorough DNA investigation with the possibility of locating her paternal birth family.

Gina responded by sharing part of her story with me. She was in her late 70’s and had always known her adoption status. Since Gina’s maternal tree was attached to her AncestryDNA results, she obviously had found half of her NPE mystery by identifying her birth mother (now deceased) and several surnames connected to that lineage. Having been born and adopted in Illinois, and knowing her birth mother was a native of Illinois, Gina assumed her birth father must also be from the same state. OK – this information was something to go on, but I really needed to examine her DNA results for close matches as well as to sort her paternal and maternal cousins.

I wrote back with a brief history of my paternal family, although I could only offer a general idea of which great-grandparent line we had in common. And since it appeared both of us were from the same endogamous community, there was a high probability we shared more than one ancestral line. I gave Gina my personal email and offered to be a search angel for her, but I could only proceed if allowed access to her DNA results. I also encouraged her to share more of her story so I could understand just how much genealogical research had already been completed.

I patiently waited for a response – a response that took months in coming!

In search of her paternal lineage

Friday, March 5, 2021

Gina's Journey - Part 1: Adoptee Matches Deceased Relative

Ancestry DNA results
As with a number of adoptees who have contacted me during the past four years, Gina (not her real name) connected through AncestryDNA. She had a close cousin match with another kit that I manage for a relative who is deceased. Her first message to me was a standard inquiry, void of any personal information or reason for reaching out to a particular DNA match. I suspected she was sending the message out to all of her close matches with the hope that someone would return an answer. But as she was attempting to inadvertently contact a deceased relative and I was the administrator for this person’s DNA, I was apprehensive about sharing information and my private family tree with an unknown DNA match.

Before I responded to Gina’s message, I quickly did a scan of my own DNA results. Yes, she was there, but as a distant cousin relationship to me, sharing a much smaller quantity of centimorgans than with our deceased cousin. Applying Ancestry’s shared cousins filter, I immediately recognized Gina was related through my paternal (and endogamous) family line because all of our shared matches were color coded blue representing my father’s DNA lineage. Examining the long list of shared cousins, many of whom I recognized, it wasn’t hard to pinpoint our common ancestral line. But I didn’t have enough detailed DNA information to zero-in on our closest common ancestor.

My response to Gina was this: “I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are or what you are looking for. I only share my private tree with cousins or people I am familiar with, and those who tell me the ancestors they are searching for.”

Although this was somewhat of a brusque reply, it did the trick! Gina answered back, telling me she was adopted and looking for her birth father’s identity. She had a list of suspected surnames possibly related to her paternal line and she believed they were all from Illinois. Well this was a surprise as none of the surnames she mentioned were on my tree, with the exception of one – and that was on my maternal side. From our shared cousin matches, I was certain our common ancestor would be found in my paternal family. This ruled out the one recognizable surname in her list which belonged to one of my maternal 2nd great-grandmothers.

 And there was another problem – all of my family, both maternal and paternal originated in Pennsylvania. Although there was a distant branch of my paternal tree in Illinois, Gina did not share any of these Illinois cousins with me or our deceased cousin. I was baffled!

Ancestry DNA results

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Story of Bernadette - Part 15: My Last Hope for a Close DNA Match

puzzle pieces of family genetics
Six months passed with no new clues or close DNA matches for Bernadette. I was busy with three other cases during this time, managing to find two birth fathers, a half-sibling and a wayward grandfather. But Bernadette remained a mystery.

I dabbled with a new tool from Genetic Affairs, using Auto Cluster analysis to assemble matches into colored blocks according to shared DNA. A fascinating hi-tech method to quickly sort matches into groups, I found the Auto Cluster app much faster than using the manual LEEDS method. In order to access the Auto Cluster tool I first needed to register with Genetic Affairs then add my FamilyTreeDNA account and selected Bernadette’s profile.

The results soon arrived by email. I unzipped the file and watched as it magically pulled together tiny floating squares, each representing a cousin match from Bernadette’s raw file. Within a few seconds the screen resolved itself into an organized diagonal line of colorful blocks. I was left with 31 clusters and many floating gray squares on the outer fringes signifying DNA overlaps between two or more clusters. To put this into perspective, in a perfect situation you would have four major blocks of matches signifying a person’s four grandparent lines and then a smattering of smaller clusters. Of course you should never expect “perfect” in genetic genealogy. Therefore an average Auto Cluster usually contains 5 to 10 groupings - but 31 clusters! Obviously endogamy was again skewing the results and playing havoc with this new automatic sorting tool.

Auto Cluster was certainly a valuable and powerful genetic technology, but I needed more in-depth understanding before I could confidently utilize this tool in NPE research.

Bernadette’s case again returned to a state of inactivity, with the hope that something eventually would turn up and point me in the right direction.

By November of 2020, a year after Bernadette’s passing, inspiration struck in the form of an email from MyHeritage. Although I use MyHeritage only occasionally and was not a paying member of the site, I had taken advantage of their offer back in 2016 to upload my raw DNA file for free. Since they were new in the DNA testing market, MyHeritage was attempting to quickly build their database by accepting raw files tested with other companies. At the time, I thought “Great! Another DNA database where I can park my results and possibly connect with more cousins.”

On this particular morning, I received an email from MyHeritage with several distant cousin matches along with the country where they lived. I always found it interesting when a cousin from another country other than the United States appeared in my results. Usually I click through to view the match and attached comparison.

But today lightening struck - I had completely forgotten about MyHeritage for Bernadette’s research! How could I have overlooked this obvious database! I wasted no time, adding her raw DNA file that very afternoon.

Within twenty-four hours I received an email - Bernadette’s results were available and would I like to pay their $29 fee to unlock the account. I could barely contain myself. The MyHeritage database may very well be my last hope for a close match. Entering my credit card information, I clicked to charge the fee. Bernadette’s results appeared on my monitor.

I sat back in my chair with a gasp. With past cases, I have been happily surprised when a close match pops up and solves a birth mystery. But I wasn’t prepared for Bernadette’s results.

There it was! A close match sharing 25% of Bernadette’s DNA! This was the answer to her birth parents’ identity – and it was not what I expected.

The first name on the list I immediately recognized from the projected family tree I had built for Bernadette. It was the daughter of her older brother – Bernadette’s niece. Sharing 1,778 cMs of DNA, it was a 100% match! With this much shared DNA from the descendent of a sibling, there was only one conclusion – Bernadette shared the same birth parents as her older brother. Since her brother was born in Northern Italy not long after his parents’ marriage and he had immigrated to the United States as a young child with his mother, the brother’s birth parents were without a doubt, the same two people who had raised him. Therefore, there was no other conclusion: Bernadette’s true birth parents were indeed the parents who had raised her!

What a strange NPE case this had turned out to be! Bernadette believed for much of her adult life that she had different birth parents. And from conversations with her son, I understood this birth mystery belief was passed on to her spouse, children and grandchildren! So much so that Bernadette’s ex-husband had actually confronted a descendant of the supposed birth father, Frank, and demanded he acknowledge her as his half-sibling! Of course without any proof, this did not happen and the descendent dismissed the ex-spouse’s accusations as delusional.

But in the end, Bernadette was exactly who she was, the product of the two people who raised her as their middle child – there was nothing to uncover as there was no hidden birth secret!

It had been two years since Bernadette’s autosomal DNA was added to the AncestryDNA database. For two years I had tried to unlock a family mystery that was nothing more than a ghost! Although happy to conclude this case with an answer based on irrefutable DNA evidence, now I had to tell Bernadette’s children none of the lore surrounding their mother’s birth was real.

Although anticlimactic in its resolve, I felt Bernadette’s situation was a true learning experience of never expecting a pre-conceived outcome to a genetic genealogy case. Even though I suspected the DNA results were leading me in the direction of her real parents, Bernadette herself was convinced of something entirely different.

I took a day to compose myself after the final discovery before calling Bernadette’s son with the news. He was as shocked as I had been, having believed his maternal grandparents were someone else. Naturally he questioned the match with his first cousin (Bernadette’s niece), but soon resigned himself to the truth after I explained how I arrived at my conclusion through science-based facts confirmed by DNA. He had expected something different as had I.

In the end, the good news was that Bernadette’s children could now be certain of their maternal ancestry and of their medical history through their maternal grandparent lines. On further reflection, I felt it was probably best the truth had been found after Bernadette’s death. She may not have accepted this outcome, or perhaps Bernadette simply wanted to believe in an alternative reality.

As a search angel, I can only analyze DNA results and put together facts in the hope of solving family mysteries. I’ll have to leave speculation about Bernadette’s birth and life to her descendants. 

puzzle pieces of family genetics

Monday, February 1, 2021

The Story of Bernadette - Part 14: Comparing Admixture Results

DNA graphic
At this point, I decided to backtrack and revisit Bernadette’s admixture at AncestryDNA. The term “admixture” is another way of saying ethnicity results based on comparing a person’s DNA to specific gene pools to determine their ethnic mixture.

Predicting ethnicity percentages is an evolving “science” and somewhat speculative. Current testing can be certain of continents (such as a person’s ancestry being 75% European and 25% African), but narrowing the percentages to specific regions is still an approximation and should be viewed as such. Results vary between testing companies due to different test populations used by each company; different parts of a genome being tested; and differences between test companies in designating ethnic regions. Taking all of this into account, a person will never see the exact same ethnicity percentages when comparing DNA test results between companies. Your comparisons should be similar, but the percentages and regional designations will always vary.

You will also see similar but differing ethnicity results between siblings even though they share the same birth parents. The ethnicity results for my two siblings are close when compared to mine, but slightly different in percentages and minor population designations.

Although I was certain after examining Bernadette’s closest DNA matches and her ethnicity results that both of her birth parents were from the same endogamous community located in Northern Italy, I thought it was worth comparing her results against another DNA cousin with the same ethnic background. I knew their results would not be exactly the same, but a close approximation in their ethnicity percentages would provide further evidence of her maternal and paternal lines originating in the same close-knit community.

I happened to manage the Ancestry results for one of Bernadette’s DNA matches (a probable paternal 3rd cousin). Since I knew for certain that his paternal and maternal sides both emigrated from the same tiny village where Bernadette’s supposed birth parents came from, he was the perfect ethnicity comparison.

I accessed the cousin’s Ancestry DNA page and clicked on the pie chart under “DNA Story”. I copied his Ethnicity Estimate and pasted it into a Word document. Next I did the same for Bernadette’s Ethnicity Estimate, pasting it in the same document below her cousin’s. The results were so similar in populations and percentages that I thought I was comparing the results of siblings instead of cousins!

Plus Ancestry includes “Additional Communities” below their ethnicity results for populations with a high concentration of similar DNA to the tester. There were three communities listed for Bernadette, all accurate for this particular endogamous ancestral group. I scanned down to her cousin’s “Additional Communities” – and yes, they were exactly the same as Bernadette’s!

I felt this ethnicity comparison was substantial evidence that both Bernadette’s father and mother were native to the same small community in Northern Italy shared by her closest DNA cousins.

Earlier I proposed the scenario that Bernadette could have been the product of a younger uncle having a relationship with another woman from their endogamous community and the baby being given to the uncle’s brother and his wife to raise. But now I was beginning to suspect the parents who raised Bernadette actually were her birth parents. For an NPE case, this was a strange turn of events!

Still, I needed positive proof of her parents’ identity and the only way to confirm their relationship with Bernadette was to find a close DNA match. This mystery may prove to be unsolvable as Bernadette and all of her immediate family members had passed away. The only test subjects left that could establish positive proof were a few descendants of Bernadette’s brother and sister.

From previous analyzes of Bernadette’s closest AncestryDNA matches, I was confident her birth father was from the same family as the descendants of her siblings. This meant a DNA test from a paternal niece or nephew would without a doubt show up in Bernadette’s results.

I had to hope a descendant would eventually test with one of the companies where Bernadette’s results were registered. If a niece or nephew did appear in Bernadette’s results, their relationship estimate would be either a full niece/nephew or a half niece/nephew, depending on whether they shared one or both grandparents (one or both of Bernadette's parents). And if Bernadette’s father had actually been her younger uncle, the DNA match would indicate a slightly more distant relationship such as first cousin, once removed.

I had much less confidence a descendant would match her birth mother as I had found no DNA matches in any of the data bases with a close association to Bernadette’s maternal lineage. It was time to be patient and wait.

DNA graphic