Sunday, 27 November 2016

Genealogy--30,000+ Ancestors in One Family Tree, Twelve Trees, What's Next?

After five exciting years of  working on the genealogy of my family, a period of time small in comparison to the work of so many researchers, I had found myself thrilled with discovering more than 30,000 ancestors with connections to the Jamestowne Colony, the Mayflower, the American Revolution and Continental Congress, the Civil War,  presidents, royalty, thieves and police-- yet wondering what might be next?  What else would spark the passion and interest I'd found in discovering ancestors?  Then I took a dna test on Ancestry, and my brother took one on FTDNA (Family Tree DNA), one cousin did both, and then he got four other cousins to participate and test!  I got two other cousins from different branches to test also!  Oh my gracious, a whole new world of genealogical research opened for us!   Only this time, our research was backed up by proof, not just from documents like censuses and marriage records, but from DNA!  

A lot of you know exactly what I have experienced because you have been doing it also!  I know, because in the last year or two , since testing my DNA, I have met something like  200 cousins I never knew I had!  Can you believe it, two hundred people I am actually related to that I never knew before!  I have even discovered that I am related to about half of the people on my street, people who were strangers to me ten years ago, now I know that we share ancestors some as long ago as the 1600’s and 1700’s!  How incredible is that to be talking with someone who is descended from your 9th great  grandparents also!  Can you imagine our ninth great grandchildren meeting and finding out that they are also kin to each other?  Amazing!

Facebook has become an extended family to me.  I have joined groups of people with ancestors in certain areas where mine came from, like the mountains of southwest Virginia.  I’ve joined groups of common surnames, and groups of historical societies, all are full of cousins!  My sense of roots, and my sense of “family” has exploded!  

So what would be next?  What would be as exciting and challenging? Suddenly, there it was--adoption--who am I really?  Who were my birth parents?  What is my true background? Those are the types of questions many adoptees ask, even when happy with their adopted families.  One day this new emphasis in my research was born--it just happened-- one person contacted me and said their dna matched mine, indicating we were fourth cousins.  They then told me that they had been adopted, and had not a single biological surname that they knew!  They found my match, looked at my tree and all the people, and wondered if I might help. “Yes!  Yes, of course! But I am a beginner at DNA myself. The will and passion is there, but not the knowledge.  You might be better off with someone more experienced, but I’ll be glad to help if I can.”  Remember, this person was related to me by DNA, we were already cousins--family!  Here was an adventure like none I’d experienced, a whole new way to be of help, to serve, and to use my genealogical skills as well.  

I started a crash course in at least beginning DNA research, and met some experienced people in the field of adoption.  I knew I was an amateur.  But my heart was all in--into the search and trying to help!  I became immersed in blog posts and journals and personal stories.  
And I worked with my new cousin who was the most highly motivated to find her family!  As it turns out, I felt called to help this person.  And surely enough, very soon a second person reached out with a similar situation, then  another,and before long, two years had passed,and I had helped eight people find their birth parents.  Can you believe it?  From knowing nothing, to knowing their roots!  We found the birth mother of one woman, alive and anxious to reunite just before Mother’s Day last year!  It still warms my heart to think I helped  even a little with that reunion.  

I thought some of you might like to know where to begin to look for birth parents--at least, where and how we began.  In this first case, we were fourth cousins, the first person a lady and I. Fourth cousins share a third great grandparent! Of course, we each have 32 third great grandparents, but that is one of thirty two, when an adoptee had been looking out at the world and thinking that they’d never find their biological family in all those millions! The adoptee had to be willing to share a lot with me, starting with their DNA so that I could have free access to it. Ancestry makes it easy to share DNA.  Then I created a tree for us to connect to their DNA. This would be a research tree, meant for us to use for experiments as we searched for family.(Some call this a mirror tree.)  Therefore, we kept it private on ancestry, because we didn’t want to mislead others when we said this person was a parent, when that might not even be true. We planned to take the tree public when relationships were proved.

If we were lucky, the adoptee had closer cousins with their DNA than me.  Remember, a first cousin is the child of an Aunt or Uncle, the sibling of their mother or father!  First cousins share grandparents. A second cousin shares great grandparents, a third cousin shares 2nd great grandparents, and a 4th cousin as we said, shares 3rd great grandparents.  So, if we had some possible matches, we might make her tree start with her and two “private” or “unknown” parents, even grandparents or great grandparents.  But as soon as we could ,we would put in possible names, right or wrong.  

Taking your DNA raw data to sites like Gedmatch also helps.  Not only do you get matches there, but there are many applications which help you understand just how many generations there might be to your common ancestor with your match.  Also, you get centimorgans there.

“The genetic genealogy testing companies 23andMe, AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA use centiMorgans to denote the size of matching DNA segments in autosomal DNA tests. Segments which share a large number of centiMorgans in common are more likely to be of significance and to indicate a common ancestor within a genealogical timeframe.
The centiMorgan was named in honor of geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan by his student Alfred Henry Sturtevant. Note that the parent unit of the centiMorgan, the Morgan, is rarely used today.”--Wikipedia,

Armed with the number of cM’s of your match, you can use a chart like the one below to also learn what level of cousin you are, first, second, third or so on, so that you might know what ancestor you share. I love this chart, first shared with me on facebook by a member of the ”DNA Detectives” Group.

As you work, you will find common surnames and grandparents and fill in possible names in the research tree. For example, one of your third great grandparents is a Miller,and your cousin adoptee thinks that might sound familiar. You put your 3rd great grandparent Miller in place in your research tree. Then you search all of your adoptee cousin's dna surname matches for Miller. If you find a line of Millers which is the same as your 3rd great grandparent Miller, then you have got his third great grandparents for sure! The second great grandparents are going to be one of their children,and should be matched by one of their third cousin matches. Soon you will have both second and third great grandparents and even great grandparents if there are second cousin matches!

You also need to keep checking Ancestry DNA for shared matches and or placement in a circle which will confirm that you have indeed found ancestors matching the adoptee’s dna.  Also, once you find a great grandparent possibility, it helps to find an obituary that might name children, who might even be living and won’t be identified elsewhere.  I find sites like and especially helpful in the search for obituaries.

I have been very impressed by the attitude of all of the adoptees with whom I have worked who are trying to find their birth families.  Most of them love their adoptive families and respect them. They are simply trying to find out about their true origin, and perhaps reconnect with biological relatives.  One 40 year old woman told me I was the very first biological relative she had ever spoken with!  Wow, that was incredible to consider.  But she and others say things like, “I don’t want to hurt anyone, or to interrupt their family. I am not angry, I do not need money, I just want information, and a relationship if they also want one.  I have been so impressed with the kindness of the cousin adoptees I’ve met, that I admire them greatly, and think that their families are missing an opportunity to know a very nice person.  This is important.  I am all for reuniting  biological relatives, but only if all are willing and able without harming the other.

Once you have some possible living people names, you can begin looking for them. If they have done DNA testing, write to them on Ancestry or wherever they did their testing, and hope they write back!  Otherwise,  you might find them on facebook, or on LinkedIn, or other social media sites, giving you a chance to send them a message privately  in hopes of contacting family. At this point, some decide to write letters to biological siblings or parents identified, some opt for a phone call.  There is no guarantee as to what will happen upon contact, and already I have seen varied outcomes you must be prepared for psychologically.  First, they may ignore you and refuse to even answer, acknowledge, or respond in any way.  That is their right of course, maybe motivated by fear, shame, or a million other reasons.  The adoptee must be ready to cope with outright rejection, or with no response.  There are also deceased parents, more often the case it seems than finding living ones.  Occasionally there is a half sibling, hard to predict how they might react. But you will get cousins, I can promise you that--there are enough people matching your DNA once you do it that you will have biological family members, maybe not immediate family, but as many as you might like extended!  Fun!

One note, if an adoptee writes to you, please at least respond. You can say you don’t know anything, you don’t want to meet-- anything is better than being ignored and left in  limbo.However, if you can bring yourself, ask what the person wants, and see if you can at least give information if not a relationship.

Another important step, if possible, the adoptee might offer to pay for a DNA test to be sure this is their true parent.  You do so much research, why not be absolutely sure--for you both.

Of my own experiences:

The best result so far--was with an adoptee raised in New York, adopted from Pennsylvania, is living in California.  After finding  distant grandparents, her living family was identified through obituaries, found on facebook, and soon phone calls ensued!  Mom lived in Oregon, and a Mother’s Day reunion went very well.

Other results were not so great-- we found one parent, and got in touch with half-sisters.  They said not to contact the parent who would be too ashamed and hurt!  They blocked all phone calls and kept this individual from knowing the truth of the birth parent’s reaction--acceptance or not.

Some adoptees are still looking--it can be a lengthy process.

One of the worst-- after identifying a probable birth father, deceased, the adoptee requested military records trying to get a picture. With the records, he learned of extensive criminal history including rape convictions, leading to the conclusion that, considering this new information  in conjunction with a story a family member had heard, that his deceased mother had probably been raped by his deceased father, and that he was the child of that rape. OMG, a nightmare for any of us.  He had been smart however, when he first learned he was not the child of the deceased parents he’d been raised by, he sought professional counseling to help him cope, and now he really needed all the support he could get.

This is the human experience-- agony and ecstasy, love and hate, joy and sadness.  Remember, joy can come in a million ways, don’t let the denial of ones who should love you ruin your life, reach out to the ones who will love and support you.  One of the joys of DNA testing and genealogical research, is finding family, especially cousins, friendly, loving, supportive cousins who are dying to meet you and know you. Enjoy the adventure!

Until we meet again, I am wishing you well,  Helen Y. Holshouser

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World Wide Genealogy Team