DNA Helps Solve The Unsolvable

Genealogy has been my passion for more than 50 years, largely because I love solving mysteries and revealing the unknown.  Consumer DNA Testing has been instrumental in helping me to overcome brick walls in my genealogical research, such as undocumented name changes in an ancestral line, which would otherwise have been unsolvable.

DNA testing has also revealed other groups of new-found relatives, whose biological ancestry falls into the unsolvable category –

  • Adoptees who have no knowledge of their birth parents
  • People with one unknown parent, usually the father
  • People with an accepted parent who is not the biological parent, again usually the father

These cases present a far greater challenge to identify their biological ancestry, and over the past few years I have helped many people in these situations to identify their true biological ancestry.  It usually begins with a new DNA match being identified for one of the DNA kits that I manage.  I investigate and determine which ancestral line they likely connect on, and open a dialogue suggesting that we may share ancestry on that line.  The response is then “I am adopted and have no knowledge of my ancestry”, “I was illegitimate and know nothing about my paternal side”, “that cannot be true as I have researched my ancestry extensively and that surname does not appear”, or something similar.

In the first two scenarios, the people are usually happy for any help in identifying their biological ancestry, but in the third scenario, they need convincing that what I am telling them is correct, and even when presented with the evidence, they may choose to not believe it.

Sheryl (not her real name) was the first relative with mis-assigned parentage that I identified.  After review of the evidence, she telephoned the man who she believed was her father and he confessed that he was not her biological father and was actually paid to marry her mother.  This was of course a shock for Sheryl, but she has accepted it and has made contact with relatives that she did not know she had.

In a more recent case, the DNA evidence suggested that Trudy’s (not her real name) maternal grandfather was not her mother’s biological father.  Instead, it suggested that her biological grandfather was one of three brothers, with the most likely candidate (based on location and time) being a Roman Catholic Priest.  I was hesitant to reveal this to Trudy and asked if she was sure that she wanted to know who her biological grandfather may be.  When I told her my findings, she was not ready to accept the DNA evidence and has chosen not to share the information with her siblings.

Betty’s (not her real name) case was challenging as she initially had no close DNA matches but hundreds of matches around the second cousin level.  The breakthrough came when a first cousin tested.  Betty has now met the father she never knew.  Her case taught me a lot about endogamy within the Maori population of New Zealand, which has helped me identify other situations of pedigree collapse and endogamy.

Every situation is different, every person’s objective from DNA testing is different and every person’s reaction to learning their biological ancestry is different.  I am happy to be able to help them.

I look forward to the challenges offered by a new wave of DNA testers, as those who received DNA test kits for Christmas, or took advantage of the holiday season sale pricing to purchase a kit, return their DNA samples and are added to the growing databases of the DNA testing companies.

One thought on “DNA Helps Solve The Unsolvable

  1. Ken Henry says:

    A very interesting article Jim! You are right, genealogy is full of mysteries and an intently interesting field of study. Without DNA testing there would be so many more roadblocks that we would not be able to solve.
    I have two current mysteries I am working on trying to solve.
    The first mystery is my maternal great-grandfather who, as the family story goes, was said to have been adopted by his Mother’s sister and her husband (James and Jane Savage) and named James Savage in the Belfast area of Ireland in 1866. It was thought his birth name was Tierney from Carrickfergus. I haven’t found the right clue(s)/information yet and hope to solve this soon.
    The second mystery I am working on is discovering the linkage(s) between my adopted sister and myself. DNA testing reveals that we are 5th – 8th cousins on my paternal side and we both have Irish ancestry. Without DNA testing we would likely not have discovered this. It is a neat feeling, that through DNA testing, I am actually related to my sister whom I grew up with. I hope to solve this eventually, although this may take a bit longer to solve working through the various layers.
    So often I sit down at the computer for only an hour to find that 5 hours have passed by!

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