Updated: Nov 8, 2019
It's no secret that probably my favorite aspect of genealogy is solving DNA mysteries using so-called genetic genealogy. I love a good puzzle and have helped scores of people make sense of their DNA results and find their relatives, particularly when endogamy is involved (effectively when people marry their cousins). I could write several posts on my personal findings and those of my clients (and I will likely in the future), but instead, I will share a recent discovery that added a new branch to our family tree.
As the current largest database, AncestryDNA tends to be my go-to for checking matches daily. Recently, my mother had a predicted 2nd cousin match whom I couldn't place in the family tree. However, because other family members have tested, I was able to use the "shared matches" feature, which showed me without a doubt that this match was connected to my maternal grandmother's side. This match, whom I will call Rob, only had his parents in his tree, so I went about trying to figure out which side it might be. Some of you might say that I should have reached out to him first, but First Rule of DNA Matches: Always screenshot and/or do a little research first because when you reach out, the match might go radio silent or block you completely.
Despite limited information, I was able to figure out that this match had no known Jewish connection, which in my family, is impossible because everyone is Jewish. Only possibility was that someone in Rob's tree was not who he thought it was, something genetic genealogists refer to as an NPE for non-parental event or non-paternity event. What I did know, however, based on my limited search was that Rob's father was originally from Maine (just like my mother's family), so I guessed that Rob's paternal grandfather was related to my family. But I needed more proof.
After collecting all information possible, I reached out to Rob, but didn't hear back. Luckily for me though, I didn't have to wait long before a match on MyHeritage popped up with the same last name as Rob (exactly why you should transfer your raw DNA to all sites possible). A perk of MyHeritage compared to AncestryDNA is that you can see the ethnicity estimates of your matches without asking them. I assumed that this new match, whom I will call Eric, was Rob's brother based on my initial research. He was 16% Ashkenazi Jewish. Although this is low for someone who is typically a quarter Ashkenazi, it isn't impossible, especially since in my experience, MyHeritage isn't the best for ethnicity; furthermore, both my mother and Eric shared significant Greek ancestry (doesn't make sense as far as we know), so I figured that could also be detracting from the amount of Ashkenazi for both of them. Even better, I saw that Rob's sister was managing Eric's account (also learned through initial detective work) and messaged her immediately.
To my delight, this sister, whom I will call Beverly, immediately responded and explained that her father, Larry, grew up in the foster care system in the same area of Maine where my maternal grandmother grew up and where much of her family lived.
Determined to solve this family mystery, I explained to Beverly that based on the amount of DNA my mother and Rob shared, my guess is that they were second cousins, and that her father was likely the son of one of four brothers, Sam, Morris, Max and David, who were uncles to my grandmother. To determine who it might be, I asked Beverly to share her brother's DNA results with me on AncestryDNA, so that I could see his matches and how much he shared with each member of the family who had tested.
Although I had expected we would need to reach out to several family members to test this theory, I was pleasantly surprised. At the top of Rob's list was a great-grandson of Max, which likely means that Max was Larry's father. Also fortunately, my mother is still in contact with a granddaughter of Max, so at my request, she reached out to her and requested a photo of Max to send to Beverly.
I was humbled and moved when Beverly responded how immensely thankful she was for solving this mystery. My mother, Max's granddaughter, and I have corresponded with Beverly, sharing information on her paternal grandfather and his family. We're excited to get to know her and her family. With the AncestryDNA sales (that everyone should take advantage of!), Max's granddaughter will soon test to confirm that she and Beverly are most likely half first cousins. Beverly's brother has also taken a Y-DNA test, which may help answer some questions about that side of the family.
Although I have resolved several DNA questions and mysteries, the rush never goes away. It's a great feeling, and I'm always searching for the next puzzle to solve.
Have your own questions about a DNA test? Which one to take? What to make of the ethnicity estimates? What do your matches mean? Contact me for a free consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let me solve your mysteries, too!