Helping Adoptees find their Biological Family: a Case Study
At Legacy Tree Genealogists we are frequently contacted by adoptees who want to find biological family–parents, siblings, grandparents, etc., but for various reasons have little to no information about them. This is a perfect task for both DNA analysis and traditional research, and in this article Leah shares a recent example she worked on which illustrates the genetic analysis process involved in adoption research.
I started working with David (names have been changed) in late July. He had been placed for adoption a week after birth in early 1964 and had wanted to find his biological relatives his entire adult life. The only clue he had, however, was non-identifying information (nonID) from the State of Pennsylvania. From this he knew that his birth mother was 22 years old when he was born, divorced, and that she had an older child. She only said that David’s birth father was single.
David took AncestryDNA’s test and had some great matches: three each in the 2nd and 3rd cousin categories. Even better, half were from one Midwestern state, and the other half were from the South; they almost certainly represented his maternal and paternal sides. The three Midwestern matches were all descended from John and Amanda Brown, who looked to be David’s 2nd great-grandparents. Of their eight children, two had no kids of their own, and we could use David’s DNA cousins to eliminate five others. For example, Jerry is the grandson of Fred, one of the eight children of John and Amanda. Jerry and David shared too little DNA to be first cousins or first cousins once removed, so we could rule out Fred as David’s ancestor. Repeating similar logic with other DNA matches indicated that David’s great-grandmother was Samantha Mae Brown. None of her female descendants were within five years of David’s mother’s age, so we were pretty sure this was his paternal side.
The Southern matches were more of a mystery, because their connection wasn’t at all obvious. A 2nd cousin match, “BGB,” had only a tiny tree, but we were able to build it back about six generations on most lines. We then used a trick: we made David’s tree private and unsearchable (this is important!), then attached David’s DNA results to “BGB” as if they were the same person. Overnight, AncestryDNA’s computers searched the trees of David’s DNA relatives for common ancestors with “BGB.” This technique produced several “shared ancestor hints” that all came through one couple: John Bryan Galston and Martha Harris. We did the same thing with “DFP,” a 3rd cousin match, and found a connection to a different couple, George Roland and Margaret Owens.
Now we had two sets of 2nd great-grandparents from the same area of Georgia. If only we could tie them together! The Galston family had eight children and the Roland family had 10. The connection involved a second marriage for a Galston son and a third marriage for a Roland daughter. They both had children from prior marriages, but only one daughter together: Jessie Mae. She HAD to be David’s grandmother!
There was one problem: according to the obituary we found, Jessie Mae had never married or had children. She had to have had at least one daughter, and based on the ages for her and for David’s birth mother, she was only 14 at the time. We were afraid we had two generations of adoption on our hands. David reached out to another Galston descendant, who in turn put him in touch with his grandmother’s half-niece, Sophie. She opened the floodgates. We had the wDong obituary! Turns out there were two women born in the same area in the same year with almost the same name: ours was “Jesse Mae” (no ‘i’). Lesson learned: even if you think you’ve found the record you’re after, keep looking.
Sophie knew the names of Jesse Mae’s two children, Dana and Don. She said Dana had passed away without having children of her own, which agreed with both Dana’s and Jesse Mae’s obituaries. Even so, everything pointed to Dana as being David’s mother. The clincher was that, although Dana was originally from Georgia, she had been issued a Social Security number in 1964 in Philadelphia, when and where David was born. Bingo! Right place. Right time. Right DNA. Dana was David’s mother!
The day we found Dana’s brother, Don, on Facebook was his 20th wedding anniversary. He wouldn’t be online that night if he knew what was good for him, but that didn’t make the wait any easier. When David finally reached him by phone, the outpouring of love and welcome was incredible. Not a dry eye in the house. Don knew that Dana had placed two sons for adoption, and the family—Dana, Jesse Mae, Don—had never stopped wondering about them.
Don’s wife dug through moldy boxes to share pictures with David and to piece together Dana’s story. She’d misrepresented her age to marry her high school boyfriend, so the age on many of her documents, including the nonID, was incorrect. She was barely 18, escaping an abusive marriage, and already had a toddler when David was born. In the end, she placed both boys for adoption, believing that was in their best interests. Even so, Dana kept records for both sons in a box labeled “Damned Important Papers,” and she knew the adoptive name of her older boy. David has now connected with his brother as well.
David and his uncle are now family in every sense of the word. They talk regularly and spent their first Thanksgiving together last November. The story is still unfolding on David’s father’s side. We think we’ve identified him, but David isn’t ready to contact the family yet.
In summary, it took several months, a few wrong turns, and many hours to find Dana. Sometimes the quest to find biological family can be resolved in just a few hours, and sometimes the process is more involved. Sometimes traditional genealogy research can add significantly to the puzzle and sometimes the focus is almost solely genetic. But as with David, perseverance can pay off in huge and significant ways.
Are you an adoptee, or the child of one? Have you wondered about your biological roots but aren’t sure how to find them? Whether you’re interested in making connections or just knowing more about your own background, we can help you figure it out. Legacy Tree has expert genetic and traditional genealogists with years of experience tracing these seemingly unfindable families. Contact us today for a free consultation.