Finding English Birth Roots: A DNA Testing Story

Sunny Morton

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This great DNA story on finding English birth roots connects all the dots between genetic and traditional genealogy strategies. Here’s how she’s doing it.

Meet Elaine from Sussex, England.

“I have been doing family history/genealogy for about 30 years, so I know my way around the paper trails,” says Elaine. But genetic genealogy is fairly new to her. “I was struggling a bit with all the new concepts, especially with trying to find adoptive biological family. I bought Diahan Southard’s book online after I read about her, and when I saw she was going to run a new DNA course I jumped at the chance to learn from her direct.”

An adoptee’s birth roots

Elaine from Sussex.jpeg

Elaine is driven by a DNA mystery pertaining to late brother-in-law. “Charles [name changed] and his 2 younger brothers were put up for adoption when he was age 7 and his brothers aged 4 and 3,” she says. “After he was married to my sister and had children of his own, he searched for many years trying to find his two brothers. He did succeed in finding the younger brother.” This brother had been close by all along. The phone box where Charles used to stop regularly to phone his wife on the way home from work in the city—long before cell phones—was right by this brother’s home.

He wasn’t so fortunate as to find his other brother still alive. “The middle brother had died aged 25 of leukemia but left a 4-month-old son,” Elaine says.

Explore our resource page for adoption and DNA testing.

Explore our resource page for adoption and DNA testing.

Last year she managed to find the son, now grown. (We’ll call him Mark.) Not knowing whether Mark was aware that his father was adopted, she was careful when she contacted him. “He did know his father had been adopted, but knew almost nothing about his biological ancestors.”

Mark “immediately ordered an AncestryDNA kit* and went out to buy a family history computer programme so that I could send him a GEDCOM file,” Elaine recalls. “He met his cousins for the first time last year. We are all amazed at the family likeness between them.”

Tracing the biological family tree

Mark’s interest in his family tree inspired Elaine to try to help reconstruct it. “As Charles knew his real name, I was able to research his maternal side [and] I was able to get back to 1699.”

But she hit a roadblock on the father’s side. “When Charles was searching for his brothers, the orphanage took years before they would release any papers at all. It was only by doing a lot of digging that we found that his mother had given a lot of false information to the orphanage, and when the boys were adopted, the authorities made notations on the two younger boys biological birth certificates to that effect.”

“Even after many years of searching, we still have not found Charles’ biological birth certificate, so this is where the DNA story comes into play,” continues Elaine. Before he passed away, Charles tested with 23andMe and so did his daughter. One of his sons tested with AncestryDNA and another with MyHeritage. “The reason I had various members of the family tested with different DNA companies was to widen the possibility of finding shared matches,” she explains.

Working with DNA matches

“I read in Diahan’s book about using the colour dots on Ancestry and went through all of my nephew’s matches,” Elaine says. “As I had my sister’s DNA there too, I was able to easily eliminate his mother’s matches. In the end I was left with about 20 unknowns. I did almost the same thing with MyHeritage’s AutoClusters and sorted about 350 matches into 22 clusters in order to try and narrow down the paternal matches.”

A huge breakthrough in understanding the matches came during the DNA Skills 5-week workshop Elaine is just finishing. “I learnt more about Shared Matches and was introduced to DNAPainter WATO tool [What Are the Odds]. Through the DNA, I have learned with Diahan that Charles was the HALF brother of the two younger boys, but they are FULL blood brothers [to each other], so at least we only have to look for two fathers and not three! This was proved using the Shared cM Project and WATO on the DNAPainter site, which I had looked at in the past but had absolutely no idea how to use! Now I do. Without the DNA and lack of biological birth certificates [or correct fathers’ names on them], this had not previously been possible.”

Mark with one of Charles’ sons: newfound half-cousins! Photos used with permission; names have been changed for privacy. “My niece commented on the different in heights between Mark and her brother. There are no exceptionally tall people in the fami…

Mark with one of Charles’ sons: newfound half-cousins! Photos used with permission; names have been changed for privacy. “My niece commented on the different in heights between Mark and her brother. There are no exceptionally tall people in the family and she wondered if this maybe is a genetic trait from Mark’s paternal grandfather, whom we have now proved is not the same as his cousin’s.”

Charles, now deceased. An adoptee who was searching for his siblings.

Charles, now deceased. An adoptee who was searching for his siblings.

Confirming the biological father

“Within the first 4 weeks of Diahan’s course, I found a pretty conclusive DNA connection to a biological father,” Elaine reports. She built a hypothesized family tree based on her research thus far and had Diahan review it during the one-on-one personal coaching session that comes with the class.

“According to Diahan, I am right on track with my suppositions. Of course there is a lot of genealogical research to do before proving conclusively, but without doing this pilot course, there is no way I would have got this far—we have been looking for years.”

What’s next? “We have now arranged a Y-DNA test for the third brother who is still alive and I am getting one for my nephew as well,” she says. “I have also contacted the new high cM matches and some other shared matches as well to try and pinpoint more of the family and see if they know anything about Charles’ birth and build a story.” On the paper trail side, she will search for a birth certificate for Charles under the theorized father’s surname.

“I think the most important things I have learnt so far on this course are finding the generation of connection, also how to use DNAPainter, how to set up a [biological] family tree on Ancestry and bring information into it from other public trees, and to keep a log of what and who I am searching,” reflects Elaine. “Basically, understanding how to use DNA to support genealogical research.”

Thank you, Elaine, for sharing your DNA story! And good luck in your continuing quest to reconstruct Charles’ (and Mark’s) family tree.

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  1. Susan Luce

    Great job, Elaine! You’ve set the bar high for the rest of us!!


  2. Jeannie Cameron

    Certainly adds to the never ending story – hope we get there in the end. I only wish Dad got to meet his nephew before he died – that constantly haunts me that we just didn’t manage it in time. Well done Elaine.

  3. Malcolm

    Wonderful work Elaine. So very grateful that you connected the dots and brought our family together.

  4. Chris

    Wow, what an interesting story you’ve uncovered. I didn’t know you could learn so much from over-the-counter DNA testing as and mapping software. Brilliant detective work.

  5. Kristine Ludwinski

    What an inspiring story, Elaine! I am so impressed by your obvious love and care for your brother-in-law that began this quest initially, and for your diligence and hard work in continuing the search. Great work — look how you are helping your family uncover the truth, which I think is so important.


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