What do you do when DNA reveals surprises that change what you know about your family history? One of our genealogists shares what she learned through her own experience.
You’ve been researching your family tree for several years and have made some really good progress on several lines. Then one day a monkey wrench is thrown into the works: You do a DNA test and the results don’t turn out quite the way you expected, with a surprise ethnicity or with no matches to the surname you’ve had all your life.
On a whim, you decide to check for your family name in a court probate index and discover your father was adopted. Or maybe someone contacts you and lets you know that your grandfather had a different biological father than the one you were told, with documentation to back up the claim. Whatever the specifics, you now have information that one of your family lines is based on an adoption, whether formal or informal.
When DNA Reveals Surprises in Your Family Tree: What’s Next?
If you receive unexpected DNA results, here are some steps for consideration:
- Analyze the new information that sent you on this path. See how it fits into your family narrative, particularly if the birth/original family name is not known. Keep your mind open and don’t judge the past.
- Consider how you will list relationships on family trees. Most family tree software programs have a provision for indicating whether a parent is natural (i.e., biological) or adopted. This allows you to list both parents/sets of parents in one database. Software programs also allow you to choose a “preferred” parent for an individual. This is a personal choice, with no right or wrong answer. Whichever you choose will depend on your family’s specific circumstances and your feelings about the biological and adoptive sides.
- Document everything you find, of course! As with any research, it is imperative that you include detailed documentation and sources. This can be particularly true when documenting a connection or relationship that would otherwise be unknown to other family members–you want to have all the evidence in hand that supports your claim.
Previous family history research: to keep, or not to keep?
When a surprise relationship is revealed through DNA testing, one of the first questions you may ask yourself is, “Do I keep all the family history research I’ve previously done?” While the response is a very personal decision, it IS common for people with adoptions in their family trees to keep track of both families.
This happened to me when I proved through DNA testing that my paternal grandfather’s biological father was not the man his mother married. The research I had gathered on the Sellers line, back to 1615 in Baden (now in Germany), is for my (informally) adopted line. I’m keeping it all, not only because it represents many years of research but because Elmer Sellers was the only father my grandfather knew. From adding together many pieces of family information, I know for certain that neither my grandfather nor any of his siblings knew that Elmer was not my grandfather’s biological father. When the adopted family is important to your family, it does a great disservice to simply cut them out.
Researching biological vs. adopted family
You may choose to also research the newly discovered biological family. Depending on the situation, you may or may not have a name to start with. I’m still hunting for my Mr. X. I have a likely last name and two strong matches at 111 markers on the Y-DNA test for the paternal line, but I am still far from identifying my biological paternal line.
As we discussed in a previous blog post, Biological vs. Cultural Heritage, family is more than just blood. It’s also who raised you, who passed on values to you, whose traditions you learned. You may choose to include both sides, bio and adopted, in one tree or two separate trees, and make it clear which is which. Acknowledge them both, embrace them both. You have twice the family that most people do now.
I remember how I felt when I confirmed that Elmer was not my biological great-grandfather. Even though I had gathered significant evidence that supported my theory, it was still a shock to learn that I was not biologically a Sellers, the only name I’ve had my entire life. If this happens to you, take some time to process and adjust to your new reality. We’ve put together a list of resources that can help you as you digest this discovery. When you’re ready (and if you choose) dive in and start researching that new family line you just discovered.
Legacy Tree Genealogists has extensive experience assisting clients with learning about all facets of their heritage. If you’re seeking answers to a family mystery, we will do everything within our power to figure it out and to present you with the facts you need. Using a combination of genetic and traditional genealogy methodologies to identify biological family members is a particular specialty. Contact us today for a free consultation and to discuss options.