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

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Story of Bernadette - Part 13: Let's Try FamilyTreeDNA

researching genetic genealogy online
By 2019 a number of NPEs had made contact asking for help and guidance. They reached out to me through various channels and I was happy to offer assistance as a search angel. Some of their cases were quickly solved through close family matches appearing in their DNA results. For others, I uncovered promising clues to their birth lineage. But concrete answers were still beyond our grasp, requiring further detective work on my part.

In comparison, Bernadette’s research was slow and dragging, yielding no useful information. I wasn’t giving up, but I must admit my enthusiasm was waning and I wondered if we would ever find conclusive DNA evidence for her birth parents.

With her health quickly failing, Bernadette was now in hospice. It had been many months since our last communication, although I was still in contact with her son.  Sadly in the autumn of 2019, Bernadette passed away at the age of 95. She had lived a long life, marked with many questions and suspicions about her birth family.

At this point, I could have stopped my investigation. But I felt Bernadette’s children and grandchildren disserved to know their maternal heritage along with possible medical history associated with their maternal grandparents. I pressed on, believing DNA would eventually yield answers to Bernadette’s family mystery.

The next tool in my genetic genealogy cache was FamilyTreeDNA. One of the oldest DNA testing companies, FamilyTreeDNA allows the upload of raw DNA files to their database. After your results are logged in and appear on your profile page, you then pay a small fee to unlock the rest of the company’s tools and perks. Since the fee is less than paying for another test kit, it’s worth the money to gain full access to their database along with other benefits.

Truthfully, I had little hope of finding a close DNA match here. FamilyTreeDNA’s database is small in comparison to other major testing companies, but it was worth a try. With Bernadette’s results included in a third database, we had exposure to a whole new group of potential DNA matches.

I uploaded Bernadette’s raw file and paid the fee to unlock her results. As I had suspected, there were no close matches, although the results were better than at GEDmatch. Her closest match was 168 cMs – a third cousin who I had already identified related to her paternal grandfather’s line. In total, Bernadette had 287 DNA matches at FamilyTreeDNA. Compare this amount with AncestryDNA’s database containing 3,069 shared DNA matches, with a few new matches being added every day.

One interesting plus included in FamilyTreeDNA results is X-match testing on the 23rd chromosome. AncestryDNA does not test for X-matches.

The X-match found on our 23rd chromosome is related to a person’s gender. Females inherit a pair of X chromosomes: one from their mother and one from their father. Males inherit an X chromosome from their mother and a Y chromosome from their father. This means there is the possibility of identifying the maternal lineage of a male DNA match through the X chromosome as he would certainly inherit this through his mother. However the male cousin’s mother would be inheriting two X-chromosomes one from each parental line, making it much more complicated to identify a specific lineage past this level.

Where an X-match can be most beneficial for an NPE is in the identification of a male sibling or half-sibling. If an unknown male sibling appears in FamilyTreeDNA results based on the amount of shared DNA, they will share an X-match if they have the same birth mother (or birth mother and birth father in the case of a full sibling) as the tester. If the match results for an unknown male sibling does not contain an X-match but still has the required amount of shared DNA to be classified as a half-sibling, then the tester and the male match share a birth father but not a birth mother.

Female DNA matches containing an X-match really aren’t helpful as the X-match appearing in results could have been identified with either a paternal or maternal line, opening too many lineages to trace. This was the case with the X-matches that turned up in Bernadette’s results – the matches were all female with the exception of one distant male DNA cousin.

Well it was worth a shot to look into this lone male cousin, although I knew he was too distant for the X-match to make a difference. He was not connected to a tree at FamilyTreeDNA. On a hunch I thought his results might also be at AncestryDNA. Although Ancestry does not show X-matches, perhaps this distant cousin could provide other clues. I switched over to AncestryDNA, logged into Bernadette’s results and did a search for the surname of her male X-match.

Success! There he was! And he had an extensive Ancestry family tree attached to his results along with a “common ancestor” match shared on Bernadette’s tree. From this information, I easily identified him as a third cousin, twice removed and a descendent of Bernadette’s paternal grandfather’s line.

Although this match was further confirmation of Bernadette’s paternal lineage, it offered no new information concerning his X-match. As I traced his tree through his mother’s line to the possible inheritance of the X chromosome, we again ran smack into the problem of endogamy! Going back just a few generations on the maternal side of this male cousin’s tree, I found surnames associated with all four of Bernadette’s supposed grandparent lines!

OK – so no close matches found at FamilyTreeDNA to positively identify birth parents. But evidence was growing that Bernadette’s birth father was most likely the man who had raised her.

Time to move on to the next DNA tool.

researching genetic genealogy online

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Story of Bernadette - Part 12: Uploading to Other DNA Databases: GEDmatch

DNA helix strands
Time was running out for Bernadette. She was now in hospice and no longer communicating with me. My next viable option in searching for her true birth parents was to upload her raw DNA file from AncestryDNA to other databases in the hopes of finding a closer match.

I contacted Bernadette’s son and received permission to download her raw file. Having access to her DNA file would provide more options in our search. Since a tester owns their own DNA results, testing companies make it easy for kit owners and managers to access and download DNA data to a ZIP file. This file can then be uploaded to other databases. In order to do genetic research for Bernadette, I had been assigned the role of manager for her kit, allowing me the ability to download her raw file.

Many NPEs are unaware that by testing with just one company, their matches are limited to only that particular company’s database. Unlike a decade ago, today there are many choices for autosomal DNA testing – and therefore many databases where a match can be found. If an NPE is serious about locating their birth family, they should make sure their results are in as many databases as possible, hence casting a wide net for DNA matches.  One way to do this is to download a raw file from your initial DNA test and upload it to other databases without having to retest.

But not all DNA testing companies allow you to upload a raw file from a different company to their database. Some will only accept testers who have purchased and completed a kit through their own company. Nevertheless, there are several options that welcome raw file uploads.

My first and most obvious choice was GEDmatch, an online service created to help others compare DNA results. Founded in 2010 long before the home DNA test craze took hold, GEDmatch is not a testing company. It is an online universal database where anyone can voluntarily submit DNA results from any testing company with the hope of finding genetic matches. Not as large as the AncestryDNA database, GEDmatch was originally used as the best way for NPEs and birth parents to find each other no matter where they were located or with whom they had tested.

It was a simple process to upload Bernadette’s raw file to GEDmatch. And in a short period of time, I was able to view her DNA matches. I kept my fingers crossed and hoped for a close connection.

Scanning the long list of DNA cousins I recognized a number of surnames associated with Bernadette’s paternal and maternal lines. This was not helpful as we know most of these surnames came from an endogamous community and they overlapped all four of Bernadette’s grandparent lines. 

Disappointingly, Bernadette’s closest match in the GEDmatch database shared only 43 cMs between three segments. This was a very distant cousin relationship, somewhere between a 4th and an 8th cousin - too distant to be of help. It was obvious there were no new clues to be had at GEDmatch to help with our DNA search.

Undaunted, I moved on to our next option.

DNA double helix

Photo Credit: Dmitry Sunagatov

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Story of Bernadette - Part 11: DNA Solves a Mysterious Baptismal Record

Researching Family Genealogy
To prove the birth father stated on Bernadette’s baptismal certificate was incorrect, I needed to disprove that Bernadette was related to the prominent businessman shown on her record. Let’s call him “Frank” (not his actual name).

As a side note: another interesting case had recently come my way involving the same “Frank”. How bizarre that this particular man seems to be connected with at least two questionable births within the same community. The story of how Frank plays a role in another NPE case will be told in a future blog post!

Returning to Bernadette’s DNA results, I decided to check if there was any connection with Frank’s descendants. Since I personally had a genetic connection to Frank (deceased many years ago); I knew the identity of his children and grandchildren; and I was aware that some descendants had tested with AncestryDNA, I used the search filter within Bernadette’s test results to locate the two descendants closest in age to Bernadette. If Frank had actually been her birth father, the two descendants should appear as Bernadette’s half-siblings.

Of course, we already know from our previous sorting of Bernadette’s DNA results, there were no close family matches. Any half-siblings appearing in Bernadette’s results would have immediately sent up a red flag and indicated a specific birth parent lineage.

None of Frank’s descendants were a close match to Bernadette. But were they cousin matches? The results of my search showed one descendant barely matched Bernadette with only 18 cMs, indicating a very distant cousin relationship. And the other descendant didn’t register at all as a DNA cousin, meaning that whatever DNA he may have shared with Bernadette was too low to show up as a match. (The minimum threshold for AncestryDNA is 8 cMs. Any match sharing less than 8 cMs could be a false or erroneous match and therefore it is eliminated from their results.)

The conclusion of these distant matches proved without a doubt that Bernadette was only very distantly related to Frank and he could not have been her birth father.

But while I had disproven Frank’s identity as Bernadette’s father, I still had no definitive proof that the man who raised her was her true birth father.

Without a close family match to use for comparison and both of her assumed parents deceased and unable to be tested, the results pointing toward Bernadette’s paternal side was still inconclusive and too distant. After much pondering, I decided there were two possible scenarios:

  •         Bernadette’s father was her true birth father
  •          Or a younger paternal uncle and brother to her father who lived nearby could have fathered a child (Bernadette) with a woman from their endogamous community. The illegitimate child was then given to his brother’s family to raise as their own. (This often occurred in families where an out-of-wedlock child was "adopted" by another family member and raised as part of their family.)

If the second scenario was true and Bernadette’s birth father was her uncle, she would still match the same cousins related through her paternal grandparent lines.

At this point in our search, we had made progress by:

  1.      eliminating Frank as the birth father
  2.       proving Bernadette’s baptismal record was incorrect
  3.       identifying both of her paternal grandparent lines as being correct
  4.       and zeroing in on two possible birth father scenarios.

Without any close, direct descendant matches to Bernadette’s paternal lines in her results, we had gone as far as we could with AncestryDNA.

Another disappointing discovery after sorting Bernadette’s closest ten Ancestry matches was apparently there were no direct descendants related of her maternal grandparent lines! Since the rest of her matches are at least 4th cousin or further in relationship, this obviously posed a problem in proving the identity of her birth mother.

It was time to try another tactic!

Researching Family Genealogy

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Story of Bernadette - Part 10: Using Ancestry ThruLines to Identify Paternal Lineage

AncestryDNA ThruLines Graphic
When it comes to genetic genealogy as with family genealogy, the best place to begin is always with what you know to be true. Since I had researched and compiled a three to four generation tree for Bernadette based on the parents who had raised her, this was my obvious starting point – the objective being to either prove or disprove their known identity.

I quickly put together a grandparent lineage chart using the surnames from Bernadette’s tree. And, of course, immediately a problem emerged. A number of surnames overlapped two or more columns on my chart! Since both of Bernadette’s assumed parents came from a historically endogamous community located in an alpine valley, it was obvious that all four of her assumed grandparent lines had intermarried for centuries and were interrelated. This is not unusual for an endogamous society, but it does pose a nightmare for a genetic genealogist attempting to sort out DNA results!

I scanned the first twenty to thirty matches and was relieved to see a few surnames that matched Bernadette’s paternal side, with several that coincided with her maternal lines. But remember, these were for the most part, all distant cousin matches sharing a small percentage of DNA. And it was apparent from the mutual surnames that Bernadette’s closest cousin matches also shared her endogamous heritage.

This was both a blessing and a curse! A blessing because Bernadette’s DNA matches were proving that one or both of her parents were from the same community, therefore narrowing our scope of possible birth candidates to her specific ethnic and societal group.  But also a curse because now we are attempting to sift through cousin matches most likely related to both Bernadette’s paternal and maternal ancestry with little distinction between grandparent lines.

Luckily Bernadette’s first few matches, although distant, were connected to family trees. Some even showed a “common ancestor” connection based on shared ancestors noted on Bernadette’s tree and their tree. Since I had linked Bernadette’s tree to Ancestry’s ThruLines tool, it only took a few minutes to identify the common relative of her closest matches along with their relationship to Bernadette.

Of Bernadette’s top ten matches, four were direct descendants of her assumed paternal grandmother’s line, three were related to her assumed paternal grandfather’s lineage, and three were related through both of her assumed paternal grandparents. Since Bernadette’s closest match (sharing 155 cM) was connected to an extensive tree, it was easy to determine their genealogy relationship as second cousin, once removed with Bernadette being the elder of the two. 

DNA was certainly pointing us in the direction of Bernadette’s birth father being the man who had raised her, which would disprove her questionable baptismal record.

AncestryDNA ThruLines Graphic

Monday, January 4, 2021

The Story of Bernadette - Part 9: Using the Shared Matches Tool

Graphic of DNA double helix
Now let’s use the “Shared Matches” function in Ancestry to identify other cousin matches related to an exact grandparent line. Click on a known match that has been assigned to a color coded group. Next click on the link “Shared Matches” found at the top of the page. This will bring up a list of cousins you have in common with this match and with whom you share a portion of DNA. If you’re not using AncestryDNA, you can still make use of a shared match function, as all testing companies offer this option. Matter of fact, I consider this filtering tool to be the most important component of any DNA testing result!

If the match is a close family member or a first cousin, you may share hundreds of matches through various family lines. This initial sort will allow you to designate matches as either maternal or paternal – but it may not offer enough information yet to sort into a specific grandparent line. This is only possible if you can identify a specific surname or a known family relationship that can with certainty be associated with a particular grandparent lineage.

But what happens when you either don’t know or aren’t sure of either paternal or maternal lineage? This was Bernadette’s predicament – all of her grandparent lines were in question.

DNA double helix graphic

Friday, January 1, 2021

The Story of Bernadette - Part 8: Color Coding DNA Results

Color coding DNA results

For the time being, let’s put aside the NPE problem of identifying unknown maternal or paternal matches in DNA results and assume we are sure of the lineage for our closest cousins. Now that you have tentatively assigned your top 30 matches to either your mother or your father’s side, it’s time to break it down further by creating color coded groups for each grandparent line. If you are lucky enough to identify a specific surname within the matches that belongs to a known grandparent line, make a color group for that grandparent and add it to the existing Pink or Blue code already checked for that listing.

For example: My known maternal second cousins will be assigned to the Pink group, but they will also be assigned to another color group, let’s say either “Light Pink” representing my maternal grandmother’s line or “Purple” representing my maternal grandfather’s line. Remember full 2nd cousins share a set of great-grandparents with you and usually will only be related to one of your grandparent lines. So your maternal second cousins will now be part of a Pink color group and either a Light Pink group if they are related through your maternal grandmother’s line or a Purple group if they are related through your maternal grandfather’s line.

Your maternal first cousins share both of your maternal grandparents with you. Therefore they will be assigned to three color groups: the Pink group, Light Pink Group and Purple Group.

Full siblings and their descendants will be related to all four grandparent lines, as well as the Pink and Blue groups. Half-siblings and their descendants will share one set of grandparents, therefore they will be categorized into three color groups on either the maternal or paternal side.

This may sound complicated, but once you designate the color groups for each of your four grandparents plus Pink and Blue for maternal or paternal, the task of color coding each cousin match becomes easier.

You might be asking why we even bother to use Pink and Blue groups if eventually we are going to subdivide each match into one or more of the four grandparent lines anyway. A very good question! Here’s why: the general maternal (Pink) and paternal (Blue) color code groupings help when I come across a match that belongs to one parent’s side but can’t be positively designated into a specific grandparent line. And sometimes you will have overlaps and a cousin match may need to be categorized into both Pink and Blue groups. This often happens when you have intermarriage between families, with cousins marrying cousins.

Color coding DNA results