Solving Mysteries Using Your DNA Results

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This is the second article of a 3-part series focusing on your DNA results:

  1. Disappointed with Your DNA Ethnicity Estimates?
  2. Solving Mysteries Using Your DNA Results
  3. How to – Delicately – Approach a New-Found Relative

In my last post, I wrote about taking a huge grain of salt regarding ethnicity results you may have received from a DNA testing company. Here, I’ll describe how I solved a century-old mystery using the real power found within your DNA.

Along with your ethnicity estimate, you’ll get a list of genetic matches: people who share some of your DNA, indicating a shared ancestor from whom you both received the same bits of DNA. The information and numbers here are much more reliable than those offered in your ethnicity results.

So how is knowing who you’re related to helpful?

Your DNA matches are incredibly useful for solving mysteries and breaking down “brick walls” in your family tree. Let’s say your grandmother was an “illegitimate” child whose father was unknown. If your DNA results match you with a new-found half 2nd cousin, this person could be another great-grandchild of that unknown father. And they might know his name.

The trick is figuring out where a new match fits into your tree. Sometimes, it’s easy and your match will have attached a full family tree (thank you to those people!) Other times, there are no family trees, and no recognizable surnames or locations.

I’ll use my Mum again as a real-life example about how DNA matches can solve mysteries (thanks, Mum!) My Mum is pretty much as French Canadian as you can get, with family lines extending back hundreds of years in Québec. Although an only child herself, she has a few dozen first cousins, so we expect to see a lot of close matches in her DNA results. But one close match popped up last year, who proved very different from the rest. Here’s how I identified her connection to my mother.

1. New Relative Match!

A user named ichantalbrown matched me at AncestryDNA (for privacy reasons, I’ve fictionalized all of the names in this example). Luckily, both of my parents have tested their DNA, so it was relatively simple to determine that she was a maternal relation: ichantalbrown was a shared match between my Mum and I but she didn’t share any DNA with my father.

ichantalbrown shared 464 cM of DNA with me (cM stands for centimorgans and can be thought of as a unit used to measure DNA: the higher the number, the more closely you’re related). AncestryDNA had listed her as my 2nd cousin, but keep in mind that AncestryDNA’s labeling can be misleading: a match may be some sort of cousin, but they may also be an aunt, uncle, great-grandparent or great-grandchild…

2. What Are the Possible Relationships?

I checked my Mum’s account and sure enough, ichantalbrown shared even more DNA with her: 800 cM to be exact, a 1st cousin according to AncestryDNA.

But as we now know, Ancestry relationship labels could use some work, so I turned to the Shared cM Project, spearheaded by genetic genealogist Blaine Bettinger, which tells you more specifically the types of relationships you might have with someone based on the amount of DNA you share.

According to his chart, ichantalbrown could be any one of the following with respect to my Mum:

  • 1st cousin
  • half-aunt (assuming she was female)
  • half-niece
  • great-grandmother
  • great-grandchild
  • great-aunt
  • great-niece

Those are a lot of options, but we can immediately rule a few out: we know ichantalbrown is not my mother’s great-grandchild and probably not her great-grandmother since my mother was born in the 1940s and all of her great-grandparents would have passed away before the time the test was taken.

Now, my Mum comes from French Canadian farming roots and although she herself was an only child, she was an anomaly as most farming families back then had loads of kids. Meaning that my Mum has dozens of cousins and I initially figured ichantalbrown must just be another one of them.

The thing was, when I asked my Mum about the username, she didn’t recognize it. So who was this person?

3. Check ichantalbrown’s Tree

At this point, we could have messaged ichantalbrown and asked how she fit into our tree (how to kindly and delicately contact matches will be covered in Part 3 of this series). But it’s often best to learn as much as you can before contacting someone, if only to make sure you’re on the right track.

Luckily for us, ichantalbrown had posted a family tree. Unluckily for us, it had only one visible name: let’s call him Jake. ichantalbrown had posted Jake’s birth date and location and his surname matched my Mum’s grandmother’s maiden name, so it looked as though this might be an easy relationship to solve.

How wrong I was. Apparently, Jake was born in Massachusetts in 1887, which didn’t jive with the birth locations for any of my mother’s great-grandparents, grandparents or their children.

So I dug deeper to find out more about Jake and though I researched thoroughly, I was unable to find any record for him prior to 1916. It was as though he just magically appeared out of thin air that year. Warning bells started to ring. As of 1916, he was living with a woman in Detroit (who had her own dramatic story, which is worth another blog post). He later settled down with a different woman with whom he had several children. Records showed that one of those children later married and her married name became Chantal Brown. Puzzle pieces were starting to fit together…

So ichantalbrown appeared to be Jake’s daughter, but I still couldn’t connect Jake to my mother’s family. And Jake further confused things by listing completely different names for his parents on various records during his lifetime.

4. Coming up with a Theory

As mentioned earlier, Chantal’s relationship to my mother, based on the amount of DNA they shared, most likely fell into one of these categories:

  • 1st cousin
  • half-aunt
  • half-niece (unlikely since my mother had no known siblings, but not impossible)
  • great-niece (unlikely for the same reason above)
  • great-aunt (unlikely due to age, but not impossible)

Jake’s magical appearance in 1916 and his conflicting parental information cast a large shadow over him, causing me to question not just his parents’ names, but his own name.

Now, in the back of my mind, while researching Jake, I was thinking about my mum’s maternal grandfather, who had always been a giant question mark. Let’s call him Bob. Bob abandoned my great-grandmother in Massachusetts, where he worked temporarily, around the time she gave birth to their 6th child in 1913. She was penniless, had no source of income, didn’t speak English, and was suddenly on her own with six kids under the age of seven years old. Her father helped her to move back to Québec where she somehow managed to survive by taking in washing and sewing. It was a tragic time (two of her children died within within 5 years of Bob’s disappearance) and Bob was rarely, if ever, spoken of.

My great-grandmother with Bob and their children

Interestingly, Bob was born in the same year as Jake, and although Bob was born in Québec, he spent several years working in Massachusetts, the supposed birthplace of Jake.

So. Could Bob and Jake be one and the same man? If they were, it meant that my mother’s grandfather Bob was Chantal’s father Jake, making Chantal my mother’s half-aunt.

5. Trying to Disprove the Theory

The odds were looking good for my theory. There were no records for Bob following his disappearance in 1913 and Jake’s records only began in 1916. The birth year for Jake and Bob was the same on various records. And the amount of DNA shared between my mother and Chantal supported the theory. But there was no direct evidence that said “I, Bob, officially change my name to Jake”.

So I tried to disprove the theory. If I couldn’t disprove it, this would further support the theory. I followed up on every single record for Jake and all of the names listed on each of them. There were no records anywhere for any of the parental names Jake had listed on various records, implying he likely fabricated the names. In genealogy-speak, we call this negative evidence. I also created side-by-side timelines for Bob and Jake based on all the evidence and ended up with a beautiful chart that could easily be merged into one identity.

After I’d exhausted all of the research possibilities, I was left with an abundance of indirect and negative evidence, which in addition to the DNA evidence, said that Jake = Bob. An important further step would be to locate direct male descendants of both Jake and Bob and have them test their Y-DNA to see if they share a common ancestor. However, this couldn’t be done without first contacting ichantalbrown.

5. Contacting Chantal

With the paper trail and DNA evidence in hand, I messaged ichantalbrown, understanding that she might have no idea that her father was likely born with a different name and that he’d abandoned a wife and six young children. Her reaction, and thoughts on how to contact new-found relatives, especially when you have potentially damaging news to share, is the subject of my next post.

Find Out More

The process I used above is similar to what Blaine Bettinger describes in this highly informative video: Building Quick & Dirty Trees to Identify Genetic Matches and Crista Cowan and Angie Bush’s equally fantastic video: AncestryDNA and Mirror Trees. And don’t miss Rachel King’s 10 Tips for working with your AncestryDNA matches.

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