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Armchair Genealogy

By Melinda Cohenour

This has been a month of exhilaration and frustration. Early in the month my daughter received her latest DNA matches.

My first husband, the father of both my children, was adopted. He never knew his origins. In the past two years, through DNA miracles, we have been able to identify his birth father.

Through that identification, we have connected the dots for a number of his biological father's relatives. My daughter and her nephew, my son's first born, both tested through Ancestry.

Our search then became directed toward the identification of the biological mother. My ex-husband is now deceased, and he never knew anything other than the fact his earliest memories belied the story his adoptive mother continued to repeat. She absolutely refused to acknowledge she had never given birth to a child but had adopted him and his younger sister.

Imagine our excitement when a new close DNA match came up for my daughter and this DNA match had even offered a prospective biological Mother's identity!

I immediately began attempting to document the line from the woman whose name appeared on Cousin Saylor's tree. We are going to call her Mystery Mom.

My plan of action was to complete a shadow tree inserting Mystery Mom as my ex-husband's bio mother. I then searched for DNA matches to Mystery Mom's maiden name. It was then necesary to review those matches for one with an attached tree or that showed a common ancestor.

I'm a novice to some extent with DNA research although I have attempted to read and absorb as much information as possible. There are a number of applications, a few websites, and tools or methods described on the internet for cross referencing the information that accompanies the DNA match. For instance, Ancestry provides a suggested relationship based upon the number of centiMorgans and the projected lengths of the combined matching segments.

Unfortunately, the possible relationships are directly inverse to the number of matching centiMorgans. In other words, the higher the number of cMs, the fewer possible relationships exist. The fewer cMs, the more distant the relationship and an almost bewildering plethora of potential kinships. For instance, if Ancestry suggests the match to be a fourth cousin, there are about 25 possible relationships to choose from. Such as fourth cousin, third cousin, third cousin once removed, fourth cousin twice removed, so forth.

In order to identify the actual relationship, it is necessary therefore to build the shadow tree up from or down to the new DNA match. This entails extensive research, relying only upon verifiable documentation to link from one generation to the next. The more children for each profile and that process, the greater amount of time and luck is required for a completely successful effort.

Identification of other DNA matches with the same surname, might lead to a compact and verifiable tree, where the branches match up to the persons identified as Shared Matches and meet the requirements for the projected relationship. In other words, Joe Blow with 197 cMs over 12 segments, would neatly dovetail on the tree as the son or daughter of a half sibling whose DNA also fits the parameters for that relationship.

In the real world, however, not every generation can be clearly verified. It has been my experience this past month that too many of the names are very common. Just think of Joe Smith, times 25 individuals born at approximately the same time in the same locale even. Every single Joe Smith would need to have his life documented with birth records, marriage records, wives with unique maiden names that help to identify the children of that union clearly. And then, ideally, to be able to locate Census records or an obituary that provides biographical information and names of survivors, that will tie to the next generation.

Going back to Cousin Saylor's tree, I prepared a slot for Mystery Mom. I was able to use her name, the geographical location, and the birth date to identify her parents. As I filled in her vital information, I also sought to flesh out her parents, her marriages, and her known children. My reasoning was that a documented birth within her marriage, could preclude the possibility of her having also given birth to my ex husband at that time. My ex, Johnny, did have a birth certificate provided by his adoptive mother with a birth date of 15 February 1939. She readily acknowledged she had signed for him to go into the Air Force early. Unfortunately, the birth certificate must have been one typically provided in an adoption, where the date of birth and parental slots are those that match the adoption facts, but fail to name the biological parentage.

As it turns out, our prospective bio mom was in the correct geographical area at the correct age in the time frame that would permit her to conceive and deliver my ex-husband. It was also interesting to note that her husband worked for the railroad, thus conveniently out of the hometown for long stretches of time but still returning home often enough to cloud the paternal issue of any child born to her. Further, they divorced only a few years after my husband's birth, suggesting their marriage was rocky, leading one to suspect she might have been seeking a relationship outside her marriage.

Having built the shadow tree assuming Mystery Mom as the mother-in-law I never got to meet, it was now necessary to begin exploring the DNA matches that either used Mystery Mom's maiden name or that were Shared Matches for that surname. Each of these bonafide relatives would need to have their part in the tree extended to ancestors, peers, and descendants in order to test the possible relationships that met both requirements: the proper number of cMs for the relationship and a documented connection to the ancestral lineage.

I wish I could tell my readers I have proven Mystery Mom to be my ex-husband's biological mother; however, the process is ongoing. In the meantime, I can report the methodology of building the tree to encompass other DNA matches and their core families has permitted us to verify a number of those relationships to my daughter.

Stay tuned!

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