When you think of technology solutions, the words DNA, ancestry, or cousin are likely not in your forethought. But they should be. The inner workings of your genetic disposition can be mapped, studied, and compared. In some cases, it can even solve skeletons in your family history closet. In this article, I’ll show how research, determination, and use of modern technology helped me solve a DNA mystery.
For my first DNA mystery, we needed to look no further than my own father. While in his fifties, he found out he was adopted. He had acquired some legal documents after his father passed that had listed an “adopted son”. His father and mother were both gone already and he only had an uncle left who could verified he was adopted. This pushed us down a path of in-depth research. We opened up old boxes of my grandma’s things and scoured any documents, notes, and birthday cards that were aging with time. We grabbed old Bibles collecting dust in cabinets and flipped through pages looking for scrawled notes and dates. Our first break started there. We found a simple, moldy envelope containing social worker notes.
Information is key when it comes to research. Names and dates can be some of the most important information in the world.
My first step was to turn to genealogy sites and blast the information I did have. I crowdsourced my research with other like-minded folks. My second lucky break was in finding my research partner, a man who later turned out to be my 5th cousin, but at the time was simply my sounding board online. He had already researched the particular surname I was focusing on along with an ever-growing family tree. Turned out he ran and maintained his own genealogy site and let people ask him questions to help solve their own family gaps. Though even with his expert research, we were still stumped on where my person of interest fit in. My father’s biological mother stayed a mystery. Months passed.
Next, we turned to census records. You can start your census records search with just a name. If you can pinpoint location(s), it gets easier. Census records however, have a 72-year restriction on access. For good reason, too. With growing identity theft and security risks, you don’t want YOUR census data to be made public. For family history though, these records can open your eyes to the past. They give you a glimpse into other family members, ages, locations, years of immigration, marriage status, occupations, and sometimes even the value of their worth. If you have family deeply rooted in America, you’ll likely be able to trace native ancestry with these documents as well. You can get your hands on census records in a number of ways. One of the simplest is with an Ancestry.com account.
Once I explored census records, I reexamined the path I took. I could not solve this problem with the simplest solution. I had to get creative. I started with known associates and locations I’d now found from census records and, once again, turned to the internet. This time, I fell deep into obituaries.
Not all obituaries are created equal. Some contain simple death announcements, but others… others can contain list of family members preceded in death and those who survived—by name. Those can be the solemn saviors to your research. Like I said, names and dates are important, but they can also throw a wrench at you. In my case, a very important obituary crossed my path that listed this person as the son of my father’s biological grandmother. My father had a blood uncle. This obituary also stated surviving members of the family, but nowhere was my father’s biological mother named. Curious. There was the wrench. We now know that both of his uncle’s parents had passed away from his obituary and I knew there were more obituaries to be found.
Unfortunately, these were much older obituaries and not likely found as easily in internet records. This is where crowdsourcing research and networking became important. I fell in with a contact located very close to where my father’s biological grandmother had lived. She physically went down to the local public library and retrieved physical copies of obituaries. She proceeded to scan and email them to me.
Suddenly, there she was in all her glory! We finally uncovered my father’s biological mother’s name in a document. Only (insert another wrench here) she had a completely different last name than we had been researching. Was she married? Was her assumed father not the surname we were looking for? Had she been married multiple times? Why so many different last name associations?
We then turned to a people search site, armed with a plethora of surnames and began our new search. We found a woman listed with the same first and middle name, but with yet another last name. But it caught the attention of our search, so we proceeded to follow it down the rabbit hole. We turned back to Ancestry.com with the new last name and BOOM!—my world exploded. There before me were two listings of children born to a mother with the original surname we were searching and the newly found last name. We searched for a phone number via Whitepages and called.
I had found my father’s biological mother. She was alive and living in the same state as us.
It took more than a year, but without modern day technology, I don’t think I would have ever been able to solve this family mystery. And perhaps even more importantly, were the people who were willing to help us. The folks who had easier access to information, the people who had extensive research skills, and those who were members of sites that could share information with me. Those are the people I thank every time I think of the closure— and beginnings of a new chapter—I was able to bring to my father.
*List of helpful resources for genealogy research: