When Holle found me, I thought her search would be quick and easy. She was looking for her birth father. Her birth mother had already taken a DNA test and Holle also had a very close DNA cousin match who did not match her birth mother. I thought we would wrap her search up in a few weeks. Instead, Holle’s search ended up being the most difficult search I have ever worked on. (Read part 1 of Holle’s Reunion Story for her side of this amazing search.)
I am going to walk through the steps of her search to illustrate how DNA can solve even some of the toughest mysteries.
Holle’s shared 569 cm with her closest non-maternal match. As you can see from the ISOGG prediction charts, that means her match was likely one of the following relationships to Holle: First cousins once removed, half- first cousins, great-great-grandparent/great-great-grandchild, great-great-aunt/uncle, half great-aunt/uncle. We also were able to acertain that this match was on the paternal line of the match, due to which DNA relatives they had in common. We set about testing the descendants of the father’s siblings and half-siblings. Holle was a close match, but not close enough to be the child of any of those brothers or half-brothers.
Then we tested the only child of the brother who seemed like the most likely candidate (Likely Candidate). We were very surprised when that test came back unrelated to any of the other relatives on Holle’s paternal side. This news was so unexpected, we decided to test this person’s mother too, just in case they had been switched at birth. While this was pretty unlikely, I wanted to be 100% certain we knew what had happened (genetically speaking) before I broke news that their parentage was not what they thought. When the person we tested matched their mother but not their father’s family members, I knew this meant either Likely Candidate was not biologically related to the person we tested or their father was not biologically related to any of his siblings or half-siblings. In genetic genealogy, we call this a NPE (non-paternity event) or my preference MAP (misattributed parentage). I used NPE in the photos, so we are going to stick with that for this post though, ok?
Even though we had a lot of evidence that Likely Candidate had a high probibility of being Holle’s birth father’s father (Holle’s paternal grandfather), we couldn’t confirm it by testing his daughter and he had no other known children to test. This led me to conclude that Holle’s birth father was likely an NPE himself. We didn’t know if he knew who is father was and we knew it was unlikely he shared his father’s surname, so we decided to try to find him using his mother’s ancestral lines. These would be the lines of Holle’s paternal grandmother, who we called “Grandma Pat.”
Grandma Pat was her own tricky DNA mess. She had some DNA ties to descendants of a religious community known as the Brethren. The Brethren were a religious community that intermarried a lot AND had a lot of children. We would regularly find families with 12 or more children whose children would also have 12 children and so on and so on. Those family trees were tangled knots of intermarriage. We call this kind of repeated intermixed DNA endogamy. The Brethren endogamy is not nearly as complicated as some groups, like Ashkenazi Jews, but it still made it nearly impossible to find our link between the Brethren ancestors we had identified using X and autosomal matches and Holle. We had a database of over 30,000 Brethren who were related to Holle’s ancestors on paper. Talk about a needle in a haystack!
Because Grandma Pat’s mother’s line (which we suspected was because of X patterns of inheritence, though it could have been her father’s mother’s line) was so complicated, we shifted to trying to identify Grandma Pat’s father’s line. We were eventually successful in identifying Grandma Pat’s grandparents, but wouldn’t you know it? None of their children’s children fit what we knew and suspected about Grandma Pat. After checking and rechecking, eventually I concluded that this was the correct family but Grandma Pat was also likely an NPE. We knew she was likely the daughter of one of several sons in that family.
If you are following along here at home, so far we are at three NPEs.
We kept plugging away, trying to find an angle where we could find Holle’s birth father. Eventually, Holle got another close DNA match of 855 cm. At that match level, the options for relatioships were: first cousins, great-grandparent/great-grandchild, great-uncle or aunt/great-nephew or niece, half-uncle or aunt/half-nephew or niece. We crossed our fingers and reached out to this match. Fortunately she shared her parents’ information with us so we could try to locate Holle’s connection. Unfortunately, her parents did not match any of the people we expected to see, based on all the research we had completed thus far.
Based on her age and the matches she and Holle had in common, we concluded she must be Holle’s half-niece. This meant the man she knew to be her father was not biologically related to her. Her unknown father was likely Holle’s half-brother on Holle’s birth father’s side.
Just a quick aside, telling someone that their ancestry and/or parentage is not what they have always believed it to be is never easy. In Holle’s search, we had to break this news to several different people. Sharing this kind of information has to be done with both concrete facts (solid DNA evidence) and sensitivity. People who learn surprising information about themselves can understandably have a hard time believing that information when it is coming from a stranger and/or if it is based on DNA evidence that they do not understand. We were fortunate that each of Holle’s relatives continued to be open to contact with us and were as helpful as possible, despite having some very shocking information to process themselves.
Because Holle’s half-niece’s mother was unable to help us identify her father, we turned again to DNA.
We knew we would not be able to find him using his father’s ancestral lines (because these are also Holle’s birth father’s lines), so I worked on identifying which of Holle’s Niece’s DNA matches were on her biological father’s mother’s line (the niece’s paternal grandmother — I know, this is very confusing!) This line was not related to Holle at all, but would be her half-brother’s mother’s lines. We were hoping that mother would know who her son’s father was.
If you are getting lost, the line we need on this diagram is the Birth Father’s Son’s MOTHER (who has a Green Circle and is title Unknown Niece’s GRA).
Finally, finally, we had a huge stroke of luck. Holle’s half-brother’s mother’s ancestry was incredibly easy to work with. We also quickly discovered she was from the same rural area as many of Holle’s DNA relatives and the ancestors we had already identified. With just a little bit of elbow grease, we figured out who Holle’s half-brother’s mother was. With that information we were able to determine the identity of Holle’s birth father (Woohoo!! After 2.5 years!), as well as Holle’s half-brother.
We reached out to contact Holle’s half-brother’s mother. In short order, Holle’s half-brother agreed to take a DNA test. Just as we expected, he was a half-sibling level DNA match for Holle, sharing 1959 cm of DNA. His DNA test also confirmed he was the parent of Holle’s half-niece.
Once we had identified Holle’s birth father (and several other half-siblings), we were able to confirm that he knew his paperwork father was not his biological father. We found documentation that Grandma Pat also did not have any documentated father either. We were able to share the information about those unknown lines with the birth father’s relatives.
I hope you were able to follow this very complicated story. It really does show the miracle of DNA. Holle’s search solved not only her own parentage, but also revealed the answers to three other’s unknown parentage: her half-neice, her birth father and her paternal grandmother’s fathers were all identified using Holle and her relatives DNA!