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

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Story of Bernadette - Part 7: Making a Grandparent Surname Chart

Grandparent Surname Chart for DNA analysis
After working on several NPE cases as well as DNA cousin research, I have learned the best starting point when tackling DNA results for any person is to begin by identifying the four grandparent lines. This can be done in various ways. For me, the easiest and most efficient method is to build a chart using the specific surnames of each line (assuming you already know these surnames through research). I start by creating four columns with the headings of: Paternal Grandfather, Paternal Grandmother, Maternal Grandfather, and Maternal Grandmother. Under each column I fill in the surnames corresponding to each ancestral line, beginning with the surname of that specific grandparent. If you have already researched and created a family tree that connects to this person’s DNA results, you will most likely have several surnames for each column.

But what happens when you are working with an NPE and their grandparent surnames are unknown? With some of my adoptees, they were brought up by their birth mother (BM). Others have identified the name of their BM through birth or adoption records. For these NPEs, finding the birth father (BF) is the main objective. When I know the identity of the birth mother, it is usually easy to research her parents and family lines. This gives me the ability to fill in half of my chart with possible maternal surnames.

With this information in hand, you have a better chance of identifying the maternal cousin matches contained in an NPEs DNA results by using known surnames. When beginning the sorting process, I normally look at the closest 20 to 30 matches. Once you have positively identified a number of maternal cousins within the closest matches, color code them using Ancestry’s grouping system listed on the right side of each person’s listing.

If you are using a different testing company other than Ancestry and you don’t have the option of color coding, you can achieve the same results by using a spreadsheet and assigning your own color key to each entry. This technique of color coding is somewhat different from the popular Leeds Method created by Dana Leeds that uses color clustering to identify second, third and sometime fourth cousins. You can read more about The Leeds Method here: 

When color coding grandparent lines, I usually designate a “Pink” group for maternal and a “Blue” group for paternal. After color coding the known maternal matches contained in the first 30 closest matches as Pink, the remaining uncoded matches can often be attributed to the paternal side. But it’s generally best not to color code the remaining matches unless you have proof that at least one or more actually belong to the paternal side of your test subject’s ancestry, such as a known surname from their paternal grandparent line. If you are not an NPE and are sure of your cousin identities from both your maternal and paternal lines, go ahead and color code your closest cousin matches accordingly as either “Pink” or “Blue”.

Making a Grandparent Surname Chart

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Story of Bernadette: Part 6 - No Close DNA Matches

Using online DNA data bases to research NPE results

By October of 2018 I was working with two more adoptees on open cases. After scouring test results of NPEs, it became clear that each story unfolding through DNA was singular and intriguing. I looked forward to viewing Bernadette’s matches as her background was very different from the rest of my NPEs. She had no idea whether or not her parentage was accurate or if the questionable incidences from her past were true. All of my other adoptees knew for a fact they were searching for their birth families. But Bernadette was one big question mark!

Since Bernadette’s son, Jim, had taken care of all the details involving Bernadette’s test kit, I asked if I could be added as a manager on her account. This would allow me access to all of Bernadette’s DNA information (ethnicity, cousin matches, and family trees) and the ability to use DNA tools such as searching and filtering cousin matches, color coding and Ancestry’s ThruLines. Full access to an NPE’s results is essential in order to correctly sort, research, and analyze their genetic background.

As an account manager and with Jim’s consent, I also had the ability to download Bernadette’s raw data file. This gave me the option of uploading her DNA to other data bases in case I found no helpful matches at Ancestry, necessitating that we look further afield.

Well I can’t say that I was surprised at Bernadette’s results. As I suspected, there were no close family or first cousin results. Nor were there any second cousin results. This was going to be harder than I thought! Some of my other cases had been solved in a matter of days or even hours, as those results clearly pointed to a birth family. Not Bernadette’s results!

The closest cousin match shared only 155 centimorgans (cMs) of DNA across seven segments. In comparison a niece or nephew match would share an average of 1740 cMs across about 50 segments; a first cousin match would share an average of 866 cMs across a possible 30 to 40 segments. Bernadette’s closest cousin match was well below what I had hoped for.

This was disappointing as AncestryDNA placed the relationship of her closest match in the 3rd to 4th cousin range, meaning a common ancestor could be three to four generations in the past. Estimating any DNA relationship past first cousin can be tricky as the amount of shared DNA decreases with each cousin level and generation. It is especially difficult for distant cousins sharing a small percentage of DNA. Testing companies usually offer broad and fairly basic relationship estimations such as 4th to 6th cousin. However, you will find that the more distant the match, the more options you have for relationship levels. Few testing companies offer estimations such as 3rd cousin, twice removed or half-great aunt. They simply don’t go into depth explaining the possibilities, and most people accept the broad relationship estimation attached to their cousin matches as accurate.

I knew better than that! For a precise relationship estimate, I always refer to: DNA Painter Shared cM Project, a free online tool created by noted genetic genealogist Blaine T. Bettinger. You can find the latest version here:

I entered Bernadette’s cM quantity shared with her closest match (155 cMs) and found the most likely relationships were:

  •         half 2nd cousin
  •         2nd cousin once removed
  •        half first cousin twice removed
  •        first cousin three times removed

Yikes! None of these relationships would be simple to trace as they all spanned several generations and could take me down the rabbit hole of numerous family lines.

OK – I had my work cut out for me. This was not going to be an easy task attempting to unravel the past and find the truth hiding behind Bernadette’s DNA results.

Researching DNA results for adoptees


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Story of Bernadette: Part 5 - Piecing Together a Life Story

DNA Puzzle
Over the next year Bernadette related bits and pieces of memories from her long life. She enjoyed writing extensive emails and often circled back to the mysteries that plagued her. 

Surprisingly I learned she had known one of my aunts and an uncle who lived not far from where she grew up, but could not remember specific details of her friendship with them. There were many memory gaps within her stories and I simply accepted whatever Bernadette wanted to share and how she wanted to share it.

Since we lived on different sides of the country, there was no opportunity to meet in person. But on one occasion I was able to have lunch with Bernadette’s son. He was traveling across country, sent me a text and we met-up at a local cafĂ© in my city. Being close in age, he and I found much common ground and became immediate friends. Jim (not his real name) and I continued our conversation via email, discussing his mother’s fragile health and the possibility of having a DNA test done. By this time I had been working with other NPE cases for the past two years and knew this was the only real option for finding answers about Bernadette’s parentage. I also felt it was important for Jim and his young son to learn about their heritage and maternal medical history. If Bernadette’s family line was in question, then her descendants could not be sure of their own ancestral roots or knowledge of inherited diseases and genetic issues. This lack of basic family history could have an impact on present and future generations.

One hurdle I was sure would present itself was the fact that Bernadette had outlived everyone in her immediate family! Both of her parents were long gone as were her two siblings. Therefore there was no one to test who could be a close family match. Bernadette did have nieces and nephews through her brother and sister, but the family had splintered many years ago and they were not close to Bernadette’s children. There was little chance of contacting them to take a DNA test.

My best option was to test Bernadette through a major company and hope for an existing close match in their data base. A first cousin match would be the next best thing, but I knew this would probably be a long shot since any cousin from Bernadette’s generation had most likely passed away.

I tried to impress on Jim the urgency of having his mother tested before it was too late. With her health deteriorating, fewer emails arrived from Bernadette. I knew she was struggling and time was slipping away. Finally in the autumn of 2018, Jim contacted me. Yes, he had purchased a DNA kit from and his mother had agreed to spit into the tube. I was anxious to dig into Bernadette’s results and see if I could find answers to her life-long questions. Could I fit together the DNA puzzle pieces of Bernadette's ancestry?

Finally the day came! Jim contacted me with the news - Bernadette’s Ancestry DNA results were posted!

The puzzle pieces of DNA

Friday, December 11, 2020

The Story of Bernadette: Part 4 - A Deathbed Confession

hands of the elderly
At times during our email conversations, Bernadette reflected that she never fit in or was accepted by her two siblings. Her older brother was born in Europe. At the age of two, he and his mother immigrated to the United States, joining his father who had arrived two years prior in 1921.

Bernadette was born in 1924, just nine months after her mother reunited with her husband in the coal mining region of central Pennsylvania. Three years later, Bernadette's younger sister was born.

Of course a birth nine months after reuniting with her husband is perfectly feasible and it would seem that the mother who raised Bernadette was certainly her mother. But another strange occurrence in 1989 again pushed Bernadette to question her ancestry.

By this time, Bernadette had two adult children, was divorced from her husband and lived near Philadelphia. Her sister and brother had moved to another state many years before, married and had families of their own. By the mid-1960's, their mother also relocated in order to live closer to her youngest daughter and son.

When Bernadette's mother became seriously ill in 1989, she traveled to her bedside. According to Bernadette's memory, her mother made a deathbed confession on the October day of her passing - stating that she was not Bernadette's real mother!

Obviously this was a disturbing admission, one that left an unforgettable impression on Bernadette. However, her mother offered no details or clues before she died to support this claim of misrepresented birth identity, leaving Bernadette confused and again questioning her own parentage.

Many years passed, allowing the questionable baptismal issue and the troubling confession to take root in Bernadette's psyche. She was clearly searching for answers when she found me in 2016.

It had taken months via email for Bernadette to relay her entire story to me as she remembered it. Was her memory clear enough to recall accurate details? Or was this a clouded story based on hearsay and the daydreams of an elderly person? It was hard to tell fantasy from facts. Had Bernadette's mother been telling the truth about a family secret hidden for decades? Or was her mother's confession nothing more than the confused meanderings of an eighty-nine year old person close to death, unaware of what she was saying?

At the age of 92, Bernadette was searching for the truth. Were her father and mother actually her birth parents or was she an NPE?

It was a mystery with virtually nothing to provide a starting point for research. Plus it was my first NPE case - and proved to be my most difficult to date, taking four years to solve.

The Story of Bernadette - Part 4

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The Story of Bernadette: Part 3 - A Questionable Baptismal Record

old documents
Although Bernadette and I shared the same surname and this is how she originally located me, I found from building out her family tree that our closest common ancestor was four generations back through a great-grandmother from a completely different ancestral line than our last name. We were only distantly related as half-cousins through our common surname with our closest shared relative from this lineage living in the early 1700's.

The first clue I had that Bernadette was seeking help with questionable parentage was when she related the story of her marriage in 1954. She was thirty years old. When Bernadette and her perspective groom went to the local priest to locate her original baptismal certificate in order to marry in the Catholic Church, the priest questioned its authenticity. Apparently the record contained the name of Bernadette's mother, but her father was recorded as someone else - a prominent businessman of the area with the same surname as her father.

This caused quite a stir and the priest refused to marry the couple until Bernadette was re-baptized and the certificate re-issued to include the name of her birth father. No one seemed to know how this mistake had occurred! The baptismal record was corrected and the marriage ceremony took place without any further mishaps.

But the unknown circumstances of her baptismal registry planted a seed of doubt in Bernadette's mind.

The Story of Bernadette - Part 3

Friday, December 4, 2020

The Story of Bernadette: Part 2 - The Problem of Endogamy

The Story of Bernadette - Part 2
Regional  endogamy within the Alpine valley of Bernadette's ancestors resulted in generations of marriages between the same families, frequently with the nuptial couple having the relationship of third or fourth cousins. Sometimes siblings from one family married siblings from another family, such as two brothers marrying two sisters from a family their parents had chosen. The resulting offspring of the two couples are "double first cousins" to each other, creating somewhat of a nightmare for DNA analysis as double cousins are related through both their maternal and paternal lines. The shared DNA of double cousin can be skewed since they often have additional DNA in common, more than what is found in a typical cousin relationship. This situation is known as "pedigree collapse" and is common in endogamous societies where everyone is related to everyone else.

I would soon learn how the issue of endogamy played an important factor in my attempt to untangle Bernadette's DNA results. 

The Story of Bernadette - Part 2

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Story of Bernadette: Part 1 - My First NPE Case

elderly hands
My first NPE inquiry came in 2016 from an elderly 92 year old woman. We'll call her Bernadette (not her real name). Over the course of six months we communicated through email and Bernadette's strange story slowly unfolded.

She enjoyed sending me long emails detailing vignettes from her past. Although her memory was often clouded due to age, Bernadette had lucid days when she painted vivid pictures with her words and opinions.

Often confusing, her story evolved over the following year with bits and pieces unfolding through Bernadette's communications, describing events that brought into question her parentage.

As is often the case with NPEs who find me, Bernadette appeared to be distantly related through several family lines. After researching her genealogy and building a projected family tree based on public records, I learned that we had common ancestors through both of my paternal grandparents. This is not unusual since our roots go deep within an endogamous society located in the alpine region of northern Italy.

Endogamy refers to a closed or semi-closed group of people who often intermarry, with cousins marrying cousins. Although we would find this unusual by today's standards, it was quite common in many of our ancestral pasts. Reasons for endogamy may be based on religious beliefs (such as Ashkenazi Jews marrying only within their faith), societal hierarchy or geographic isolation. 

In the case of Bernadette's and my ancestry, it was because our family lines resided for centuries within a fertile valley bordered by mountains and deep ravines, creating a geographic and cultural isolation of the regional population. This endogamous isolation lasted through the early part of the 20th century. Sometimes our ancestors chose partners from neighboring valleys. But more often than not, marriages were arranged between families living in close proximity and within easy travel distances of each other.

The Story of Bernadette - Part 1