Right Person, Right Place, Right Time: Documenting the Unknown in your DNA Test Results
Resources to help you in documenting the unknown in your DNA test results.
Each DNA testing company warns that DNA testing can reveal surprises and previously unknown information about your family. In fact, customers of these databases make unexpected discoveries every day. These discoveries can be distressing and traumatic but might also be exciting and compelling. As you navigate the emotions and reactions of this experience, we recommend reviewing this list of resources to help. In other situations, the unknown in a person’s family history could be the impetus for a DNA test. You might have tested because there was an unknown in your family history.
Some unknowns deal with immediate family circumstances. Maybe you find that you have a large ethnicity estimate from a region you weren’t expecting. Perhaps you find that you and a close family member only share half the DNA you were expecting to share—or don’t share any DNA at all. Alternatively, your DNA test might show you as a close relative to a complete stranger. Other discoveries might be in relation to more distant ancestors. A Y-DNA test might not include anyone carrying your own surname. A particular branch of your family tree may not be represented in your autosomal DNA test results, or a group of genetic cousins descended from the same family might appear as relatives to you with no immediately verifiable connection. If you tested in order to address an unknown, perhaps you were adopted and wish to learn more about your heritage. Maybe you never met your biological father, or perhaps a more distant ancestor was an orphan with unknown origins.
In all of these cases, in order to resolve unexpected findings and address unknown relationships in your family history, you must move beyond the initial DNA test results. Genetic genealogy requires consideration of all available evidence. Although your DNA test results may alert you to a potential family history mystery, to prove the exact nature of the situation you should consider at least some additional genealogical evidence and context. Additional investigation might also reveal that what initially appeared to be a surprise discovery was not altogether unexpected after all. Regardless, interpretation of your DNA test results in the context of your family history is only possible through consideration of both genetic and document evidence.
At Legacy Tree Genealogists, we assist clients with unexpected discoveries every day. Most often, the focus of our research centers around identifying the right people in the right place at the right time to explain a genetic relationship and the context of an individual’s conception. We rely on multiple forms of document evidence in order to interpret and discover the meaning of unexpected or unknown relationships. We review some of our favorite record types for exploring these relationships and how they can be used below.
Often unexpected test results might spur a memory of a conversation, a family story or a filed away document which might cast light onto a genetic test result. Particularly for cases of recent misattributed parentage, family context may hold vital clues for future research. Close family members may have recollections from the time period of the conception. They might remember details of who a parent was dating, who the family’s neighbors, acquaintances and friends were or other important clues or anomalies. Conversations which previously seemed odd or mysterious might suddenly take on new meaning. Documents from the time period including letters, journals, and other papers might also give context to the activities and whereabouts of a parent at the time of conception. When exploring family information, genetic cousins should also be contacted and invited to collaborate with their family stories and information.
- Bob’s cousin uncovered an early 1900s photograph owned by their grandfather which provided valuable clues for proving that man’s multiple identities.
- After discovering that the man who raised him was not his biological father, Darien’s half-siblings confirmed that their parents had been separated at the time of his conception. Later analysis resulted in identification of candidates living hundreds of miles a way from the family’s residence, but in the same town as the Darien’s maternal grandmother where the family often visited.
- Jillian was surprised to find several unknown half-sibling genetic cousins, but found bills from a fertility and donor conception clinic upon reviewing her mother’s files.
- After Julia successfully identified her biological mother, she learned from new maternal family members that her mother had a relationship with a semi-professional athlete around the time of the conception. Though the athlete identified was not the biological father, another athlete from a competing team was.
- Terry’s sister remembered seeing a man who regularly visited their home in Malaysia. She did not think anything of it until her sister’s test results revealed a half-sister relationship.
- Jordan asked her mother regarding details of her biological father and contacted a likely paternal genetic cousin for more information. The match confirmed the identity of Jordan’s father and offered additional family stories.
In adoption cases, adoptees or other close family members may be entitled to their original birth-certificate, the adoption file, non-identifying information, family health history, or other adoption records. These should be obtained whenever possible. Even when the information obtained is intended to be non-identifying, the ages, family structure, causes of death, family origins, and occupations of family members mentioned can frequently narrow the pool of candidates. Some states and jurisdictions hold mutual consent registries for adoptees and biological parents.
- Lauren identified her biological father using information from her non-identifying information file. Her father was identified as a high school gym teacher and there was only one high school in the town where she was born.
- William was searching for information on his grandfather’s adoption and found that the adoptive parents published a newspaper court notice to the biological mother around the time of the adoption.
Birth, marriage, death, and divorce records can provide important clues regarding unexpected family relationships. They might lend evidence to cases of misattributed parentage based on conception, marriage, and birth dates. They might provide context for cases of infidelity. They are also helpful for proving genealogical relationships between genetic cousins as they often provide some of the most direct evidence for family relationships.
- James found that his grandfather was born nine months before the proposed parents’ marriage. Targeted testing of his grandfather’s presumed father’s family proved that he was not James’ grandfather’s father.
- Gene’s father was unknown. He found that his mother divorced her husband very near Gene’s date of conception. The divorce proceedings named his biological father.
- Maria found that the birth indexes for her state included two female children born on the same day in the same place. One entry was for her amended birth certificate and the other entry was for her original birth certificate which revealed the maiden surname of her biological mother.
Compiled Family Trees
When an autosomal DNA test subject matches a group of genetic cousins who, in turn, are documented relatives to each other, it is likely the test subject is descended or related to the common ancestors of those individuals as well. Family trees for genetic cousins can be analyzed for shared ancestors, surnames, and locations which act as clues to the source of shared DNA with a group of matches. When matches have small family trees, the information they do provide can sometimes be used to quickly extend match’s genealogies and search for connections between more distant generations. Once these connections and clues are identified, additional documents can be obtained to prove each generational linkage. Compiled family trees are also useful for identifying targeted testing candidates who might be interested in solving a family mystery.
- Donald discovered unexpectedly that his mother was adopted. A large number of close genetic cousins had attached family trees and all of them descended from a common set of great-grandparents. Their trees helped quickly identify Donald’s maternal grandmother.
- Katy found a compiled tree from another MyHeritage user which included her great-great-grandmother. She invited the owner of the tree to perform DNA testing and together they used their test results to solve the unknown parentage of their common ancestor.
Sometimes genetic cousins provide little information in conjunction with their DNA test results. They may not have a family tree themselves. They may not respond to requests for collaboration. Despite these shortcomings, it may still be possible to determine how they are related to a test subject or a group of matches by building a tree for them. Public records indexes found on many genealogy websites as well as people finder databases may help in extending their ancestry. Use every piece of available information including shared matches, usernames, email addresses, or reported residences to help identify living individuals. Once you have performed research on your family, you may need to perform additional DNA testing in order to prove the identity of a particular ancestor. Public record databases can also help you locate contact information for living individuals who might be invited to test.
- Even though Kelly had a close genetic cousin, that cousin had no family tree. By searching for that cousin’s username in public records databases, Kelly discovered that her match was a daughter of her first cousin.
- Daniel wanted to know the identity of his unknown grandfather and through his research narrowed it down to three candidates. He contacted a living descendant of each candidate and invited them to test. All three accepted the invitation and helped him solve the case.
Even if genetic cousins may not have attached family tree information, they may have a strong social media presence that provides clues regarding their extended family. You might find other genetic cousins among their social connections. Even if their friends may not be visible, look for relatives commenting on their public posts. Posts for birthdays, marriages, deaths, old photographs, and reminisces can provide important details regarding family history as well as family relationships.
- Brian’s non-identifying information from his adoption file noted his maternal grandmother was a native of Greece. Brian’s closest genetic cousin posted a birthday wish on the Facebook profile of a relative: “To the Greek princess, a wonderful birthday.” His relative was the client’s mother.
- Judy was frustrated trying to figure out how she was related to three non-responsive matches. A search in their respective Facebook profiles revealed that they were all first cousins to each other.
In addition to the enormous value that newspaper obituaries have for tracing descendants of an ancestor, finding living individuals, and proving relationships between collateral relatives, newspapers also can illuminate the context of the people, place, and time of a conception. Small towns often used social columns in newspapers as a chronicle of daily life and activities providing such important details as the attendees at a party, visits from out of town relatives, and local happenings.
- Research on the family of Charles, an adoptee, resulted in identification of several candidates from two families. A newspaper article from around the date of his conception showed that his biological mother was visiting from out of town and that his biological father was present at a party held in her honor.
- Growing up, Frederick’s father was very secretive about his origins and family. Genetic relationships to paternal relatives revealed that Fredrick’s father was related to a family in Illinois, but it was unclear how. A series of newspaper articles revealed that a member of that family disappeared without a trace in the 1930s and was never heard from again. Targeted testing confirmed that George’s father was the son who had disappeared.
Census records provide snapshots of families and communities at regular intervals and help show who was in the same place at the same time. U.S. Censuses after 1880 also state family relationships and can provide easily accessible direct evidence for generational linkages between proposed relatives. More recent censuses in urban areas frequently provided street addresses for the residences of families giving geographic context to an investigation. Even in rural areas, households were often enumerated based on their proximity to one another. Boarders, neighbors, and nearby families can sometimes be identified as the DNA contributors in unexpected relationship scenarios.
- Chad was surprised he did not share Y DNA with anyone with his same surname. Instead, he shared Y DNA with several individuals with the Bollinger surname. His great-great-grandfather was born in 1861 and an 1860 U.S. Census for his third great-grandparents showed that they were next door neighbors to Francis Bollinger.
- Doris’s great-grandmother was a showgirl with a stage name who died when Doris’s grandmother was still a very young girl. Genetic connections to a family in South Carolina and a 1900 U.S. Census record resulted in identification of a candidate. It also led to identification of living testing candidates to confirm the research hypothesis.
- Doug’s surname is Neal. His Y-DNA matches are all Prices. Doug’s fourth great-grandfather was from North Carolina and the state census for 1787 shows several Neal and Price households in the same community.
If an ancestor with unexpected or unknown parentage was born between census dates, or if you discover recent unknown ancestry after the time when most censuses are available, city directories offer an excellent supplement and substitute for exploring the residences, occupations, and geographic contexts of a conception event.
- Gina’s great-great-grandfather was born out of wedlock in Pittsburgh in the 1890s, but city directories show that his mother was residing within a quarter of a mile of a man who appeared in the family tree of several genetic cousins.
- Clyde’s mother was born out of wedlock in Georgia in the 1940s. Genetic relationships reveal connections to a family of five brothers, any one of whom could have been her father. Clyde’s maternal great-grandmother was living within a mile of four of the brothers and across the street from one of them.
- Frank was left in an abandoned Philadelphia apartment building at a few hours old. A member of a family who show strong genetic connections to Frank’s DNA was living in the apartment building next door.
Genetic genealogy is an immensely powerful tool which can help solve mysteries of unknown ancestors and unknown origins. On the other hand, DNA testing may result in the discovery of unanticipated, unexpected or unknown relationships. Regardless of whether genetic genealogy is used to address an unknown or is the means of uncovering one, DNA test results must be considered within the context of traditional document evidence in order to adequately identify the right people in the right place at the right time.
Are you struggling to make sense of an unexpected result in your DNA test? Do any of the scenarios above sound similar to your own situation? Are you seeking unknown ancestors in your family tree through genetic evidence? Legacy Tree Genealogists has experienced researchers who would love to help you consider both the genetic and documentary evidence for your case. Contact us today for a free quote!