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Can ethnicity help with unknown parentage?

Recently ethnicity was a major factor in figuring out the family of the mystery father of an Australian women of mixed heritage: Chinese, Italian, and English/Irish. We still need some help, so any Australian readers please read to the end.

Elana’s ethnicty on Ancestry after the update, before she had lots more Italian

This case is unusual because for those of us with primarily European ancestry, the ethnicity predictions from the various DNA test companies are not accurate enough to be a significant aid with figuring out unknown parentage situations. For one thing, our ancestors moved around more than you might expect, and for another, the science is just not exact enough yet.

Too often I get a panicked email or comment from someone who is worried that Daddy is not their dad, or perhaps grandad is not, because their ethnicity predictions show no German or French or Bulgarian which he was and where is that Norwegian from? To which I respond, check your matches, if you have matches to cousins from his family, all is well, it’s just the inaccuracy of ethnicity predictions. North Europeans and South Europeans are fairly distinct from each other, but countries as we know them today did not exist in the far past.

Comparing ethnicities for Elana (left) and her mother (right) at Ancestry

In Elana’s case, having East Asian and Southern European in addition to the usual Australian British mix, actually gave us some different and potentially useful data to work with. Her mother seemed entirely English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish, a frequent blend for an Australian. She remembers that Elana’s father said he was part Maori and that his name was Bob. There is no Maori in her results shown above (it usually looks Polynesian), so likely he was just trying to make himself seem exotic and interesting.

Elana’s best matches at ancestry were almost all maternal (yes this is a squashed image)

Since Elana’s mother tested also, we could see that Elana had no close matches that were not listed as “Mother’s side” on Ancestry which made the search very difficult. Her paternal matches consisted of only one 3rd cousin, an American of Italian ancestry, and lots of 4th cousins, quite a few with trees, and most of the closer ones were of Italian descent, in spite of only 7% Italian listed in her Ancestry ethnicity.

One possibility for so few paternal matches was related parents. We checked that by uploading to GEDmatch.com (click here for my post on related parents) and that was not the case. The other more likely explanation was very few of her father’s relatives had tested. For example, Elana had only one very distant Asian match in spite of her father clearly having half that heritage.

Since we could see both Elana’s ethnicity and her mother’s it was easy to tell that Elana’s unknown father was half Chinese/Korean with an Italian (great) grandparent. These were her initial percentages before the recent update at Ancestry:

65% England/Scotland/Wales (so her father will have about 15%)
16% Korea and Northern China
12% China
7% Italy

I asked Elana to also test at 23andme and to upload her Ancestry results to MyHeritage and Family Tree DNA as well. Still no luck finding close paternal matches.

 

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DNA2Tree: Build Trees from DNA Matches

Since I do not have an iPad, iPhone or any other Apple device, I could not evaluate this product. It sounds like a real game changer for adoptee searches! Like the DNAgedcom.com client, it finds common ancestors and can make cluster charts. However it goes a step further and shows you the common ancestors for each cluster and can build those ancestor’s trees for you! Here is a guest post from a beta tester. – Kitty

DNA2Tree: New Adoptee Search Software by Jason Schneir

There are approximately 120,000 adoptions each year. When these adoptees become adults a substantial percentage want to find out more about their biological parents. Unfortunately, state privacy laws often stand in the way of identifying and learning about their biological relatives.

DNA testing has proved a boon to adoptees wishing to find their biological family. In the best case an adoptee is tested and the adoptee’s biological family is also tested. For those lucky individuals, finding their biological relative is just a matter of looking at their match list and seeing a close match. No skill is needed.

For the majority of adoptees, close biological family is not DNA tested. Fortunately, there are DNA search techniques that can find biological parents from other tested relatives. Unfortunately, this methodology takes considerable skill and practice. For that reason, many adoptees find a geeky friend, search angel, or paid genetic genealogist to help them.

In December 2018, my wife Beth and I joined SearchAngels.org and watched every video we could find on using DNA search techniques to find an adoptee’s parents. We were excited to have the opportunity to help adoptees, but were very nervous about whether we could be successful. To our great joy, we solved over ten adoptee search angel cases in our first four months. Beth worked with me on most of my cases – especially the successful ones! A key element contributing to our success was a new IOS app, DNA2Tree, which runs on an Apple iPhone.

Screeen Shot from SearchAngels.org – the Adoptee Searches page on the Services menu

We chose our first case carefully in the hope it would be easy. There was a first cousin match and the mother was already found – we just needed to find the father. Almost immediately our simple case fell apart and the complexities began to mount.

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Not always a happy ending

Most of the unknown parentage cases I have worked on have had very happy endings and I have enjoyed reporting on them here and in my presentations. Sadly it is not always like that.

My observations from the many cases I have been involved with is that the fathers who never knew are frequently delighted; while the mothers who gave up the child often want to pretend it never happened.

There are at least two cases in my files where the overly young parents, gave up their child, later got married, and were happy to have that child back in their lives. However I have another case where although they later got married, they subsequently divorced and are not acknowledging their son.

A 1960s diary

There are also a few cases where the father claims to not even have known the mother of the child. That does not necessarily stop him from being delighted to have a new daughter or son.

Some fathers are not so welcoming. The first case I ever helped out on was a DNA cousin, early in the days of testing, so I did not know she could be more distant than the reported 4th cousin. Regardless, I was happy to help. She lives in the next town over and came to my house to meet me. I did not realize what an emotional moment it would be for her, meeting her first ever biological relative. Subsequently her birth state opened their records, so she found her late mother’s family. With the extra information from her mother’s diary and her Ancestry test, I was able to find her birth dad, my distant relative. However he said in an email response to her, “Sorry, but I have no recall of a [her mother’s name].” Since the story was one of being taken advantage of when drunk at a party, my cousin chose not to pursue this.

Another genetic cousin who turned up early in my DNA explorations was also more distant than I realized, a double sixth cousin. Eventually I suggested he test at Ancestry where he found a paternal half sister born days apart from him. I found their Dad, my distant cousin, and called him, but he wanted no part of DNA testing. His reason was that he was protecting his known daughter who was going through a tough time and besides he was always “good,” never stepped out. Luckily a few months later that very same daughter did an Ancestry DNA test and is thrilled to have a half sister (she had no sisters) and another brother.

The case that broke my heart was a recent one involving two war babies.

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Eliminating the DNA Matches from One Side

UPDATE 26-Oct-2018: Click here for this tool  –  Extract Desired Lines

Unless you get lucky with a first cousin or closer match, searching for an unknown parent or grandparent involves building lots of trees for your DNA relatives and looking for common ancestors among them. Then you build down from those ancestors looking for someone in the right place at the right time. It is best to have two pairs of common ancestors because then you are looking for where their descendants meet in a marriage.

Sample ancestor list from GWorks – linked to slide in my GWorks presentation – using-dna-for-adoption-searches

It is wonderful to have automation to compare trees for you. The GWorks tool suite from DNAgedcom.com does just that and, no surprise, I have written many blog posts about how to use those tools. They can collect all your Ancestry matches and then all the ancestors in their DNA connected trees and give you a list of the most frequently seen ancestors. You can also upload GEDcoms collected elsewhere or created by your own research to use in the comparison.

There are many times I would like to automatically exclude half the ancestors collected from Ancestry. For example when I am helping a person who knows only one parent but has a half sibling or the known parent tested. Specifically when they look at the results from a GWorks run, how do they eliminate the matches from the other side?

View Trees with an example for deleting

One way is to go to the “View Trees” on the GWorks menu at DNAgedcom and delete all the trees from the known side by clicking the red X to the far right of each tree. Then rerun the “Match GEDcom files” in the Manage Tree Files function. This could take forever in a half sibling case.

However, it is very useful to delete trees when one person has tested multiple family members and they are all in the same tree. In that case I keep the tree for the person who is further up the line. Very conveniently you can click on the tree name to go to that match at Ancestry, as long as you are logged in there, so you can easily figure out which one to keep. But again, this is too lengthy a process for a half sibling case.

DNAgedcom client home window

I have long used the Match-O-Matic (M-O-M) feature in the DNAgedcom client (DGC) to get the lists of matches for just one side (the m_ file) in a spreadsheet for use to keep track of my research. However M-O-M does not work for the tree files (aka the a_ file – actually it has a list of ancestors and which trees they are from).

Sometimes it is good to be a programmer. I have put together a new tool that you can use with a list of matches, for example the match file from M-O-M, to create a new tree file with only those trees that are for the matches in the match file. Then you can upload that match file and the new tree file to DNAgedcom for use in GWorks.

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An Endogamous Success Story

It is difficult to solve adoption cases in endogamous communities because everyone will share the same 4th and 5th grandparents, often multiple times, so the methodology for finding a birth parent from 3rd and 4th cousin matches just does not work. You have to wait for a few second cousin or closer matches.

Tessa was looking for her unknown biological father. Her mother had given her a name, Rudy Padilla, and said he was perhaps Mexican. I ran a GWorks for her which I showed in my lecture about unknown parentage at the SCGS Jamboree. This is the full story.

The Compare Trees at DNAgedcom from GWorks for Tessa

I had never seen ancestors who were in 30-40 trees before! How can that be? Perhaps endogamy? Then I looked at the names and recognized many of the surnames. These are the Spanish soldiers who were among the earliest European settlers of New Mexico.

New Mexico in 1824 from Wikipedia, click image for the article (see *map credits)

These soldiers who came to the Southwest in the 1600s and 1700s mostly had to take Pueblo women as brides or not get married. A few brought wives with them from Mexico of presumed Spanish descent. For many years these Spanish “first families” of New Mexico hid the native part of their roots. Now many are proud of this heritage. Click here for an article about that which mentions the New Mexican woman in those Ancestry ads who discovered her Native American roots with DNA. By the way, Tessa shows 17% Native American at Ancestry.

I told Tessa that success finding her dad could take a very long time since she would need to wait for close matches, but to please upload to MyHeritage and Family Tree DNA to look for more relatives. She had tested at both 23andMe and Ancestry DNA.
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