When I started out on my family tree research, I didn’t get a whole lot of response from my family. Some people are more interested in learning about long-gone ancestors than others. When they heard that I was going to do a DNA test, however, I got a few phone calls that started off something like this:
“Well, you are probably going to find this out anyway, but…”
“I don’t know if you already know this, but…”
“Just in case, you should probably know that…”
Secrets! It turns out, all families have them, and mine was no exception.
One “secret” that I learned about was that two close family members were only “half” related to me (biologically speaking, of course… I still love them just as much as I did before I knew this information). One of these family members knew who her biological father was, and had been in contact with the other half of her bio family.
The Background – Bonnie’s Story – Looking for Biological Father
The other family member, who we will call “Bonnie”, knew almost nothing about who her father was. Apparently, many, many years ago, Bonnie’s mom, Jennie*, and her husband, George*, split up temporarily. Jennie moved in with a charming new boyfriend, Nicholas*. Jennie soon became pregnant, and briefly considered making a new life with Nicholas.
The problem was that Jennie and George already had four kids together! And Nicholas, as sweet and charming as I’m sure that he was, insisted that if Jennie wanted to be with him, she was going to have to leave the other four kids behind – with George. He wanted to get married and raise their baby together.
It’s easy to judge Jennie for what she did, or didn’t do, in this situation. But there is a lot you don’t know yet. For example, the reason that George and Jennie split up temporarily in the first place. George had a bad drinking problem, and Jennie might have been suspicious that he was abusive to some of their children.
And that might be why she decided that she couldn’t leave the five children with George and run off with Nicholas to start her new family. So instead, she went back to George and he promised to raise her baby, Bonnie, as his own. George did just that, and to his credit, Bonnie went through almost her entire childhood not knowing that he was not her biological father. He did, indeed, for all his faults, raise her as his own.
Bonnie eventually learned that George was not her biological father when she was about 15 years old. A well-meaning friend of Jennie’s from church decided that Bonnie should know the truth.
Nicholas faded into history, and the only person who remembers anything about him is an older family member who has taken it upon herself to encourage Bonnie to look into finding her biological father’s family.
The First Step – find out what you already know
Bonnie had always been curious about her biological father, but she felt loyal to George and felt that it might be a betrayal to him if she were to search for him while he was alive. So now that both George and Jennie have both passed away, Bonnie feels the liberty to search and learn about Nicholas, and his family tree.
The first step that we took to help Bonnie find her father was to talk to the older family member that actually remembered meeting Nicholas, and see what other details she might remember.
- His first name and general pronunciation of his last name.
- Where he lived (the city)
- His ethnicity: Irish
- That “Bonnie” was a name that he wanted to give the baby.
- The back story about how he wanted Jennie to leave George and the kids.
- The Nicholas was a few years younger than Jennie.
To clarify, Bonnie didn’t know any of this information until she started asking. I suppose that the whole family respected George’s role in Bonnie’s life, and no one really talked about it until Bonnie started asking questions recently.
The Second Step – Take an Ancestry DNA Test
The first thing that we had Bonnie do was send off for an AncestryDNA genetic testing kit. (If you want to do one, you can click HERE. It’s an affiliate link that will take you right to their site to get started).
The test came in a small box, and it was very simple to do. She just spit in a little tube, sealed it, and placed it in a postage-paid envelope in the mailbox. Super easy!
While we waited for her results to come back….
The Third Step – Build a test Family Tree on Ancestry (if you can)
Since we knew a first name and the basic gist of a last name, a city, and an ethnicity, I felt that we had enough information to try to start researching Nicholas. I was able to find a man named Nicholas who was from the same city in New Jersey, and had the same not-too-common last name as our Nicholas. I found tons of census records with information about him.
Note: I found all of these records on Ancestry using my account which has a subscription to records like census, birth, and marriage records.
There was one other person that I found born in the same decade, with the same name, but he was a couple years older than Nicholas and was from Massachusetts (and never lived in New Jersey, as far as I could tell). The Nicholas from New Jersey was born two years after Jennie. Bingo! I felt confident that I had found the right Nicholas.
On Ancestry’s website, once you start adding names to your family tree, you will get “record hints”, which show up as a little leaf by your family member’s name on your tree. I immediately checked and realized that one of the hints was a very well-researched family tree, which was built by one of Nicholas’ cousins.
This was great, and I was able to determine with relative confidence that this was indeed the family of Nicholas. I found the names of Nicholas’ parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. And one of the interesting little tidbits is that Nicholas’ grandmother’s name was Bonnie. Since I knew that Nicholas wanted to choose Bonnie’s name, could it be that he wanted to name Bonnie after his grandmother?
When I built this tree, I wasn’t 100% sure that I had the right family, but there is a good reason to go ahead and build this “test tree”. AncestryDNA encourages you to attach your DNA results to a family tree in order to really take advantage of all of the functionality of the site. The website has a very powerful software that can compare your family tree to that of your DNA matches to see if you have any common ancestors – and it displays this as “shared ancestor hints”.
My goal was to build this test tree, and then test it by seeing if Ancestry gave Bonnie any “shared ancestor hints” once her results came back.
What would happen if it didn’t give any shared ancestor hints, or if it was obvious that I had found the wrong family for Nicholas? That’s a topic for a completely different post, which I’ll link to once it’s written.
In the back of my mind, I left open the possibility that either I had found the wrong Nicholas. Or – since we have to have an open mind – Nicholas wasn’t Bonnie’s father.
So don’t forget to attach your results to your family tree or your test family tree.
Only DNA (and time) will tell!
The Fourth Step – Check Your DNA Results
So, this is the moment that I waiting patiently (not really) for. Was the family tree that I built correct? Had I found the right father? Was someone else the father? The suspense was almost unbearable for me, and Bonnie probably felt the same way, too.
Early on a Friday morning, I got the e-mail back from Ancestry that the DNA results were finally ready:
Let me just tell you that within five minutes of logging into the Ancestry DNA account associated with this test kit, I was able to determine that I was 100% correct in the test family tree that I had built!
Success! We had found out for sure – using DNA as the proof – who Bonnie’s biological father was. It was Nicholas! Fantastic.
The first things that I noticed when I logged in were the shared ancestor hints:
When I clicked through to see this shared hints, I saw that Bonnie had a first cousin match DNA match that shared the exact set of grandparents that I had put in the family tree that I built for her. I also scrolled through some of the other DNA matches that were not from Jennie’s side and saw lots of the same surnames from the tree.
The other neat thing that I noticed was the genetic community that Ancestry DNA placed my relative in (if you click on the genetic community link from the main screen, it will take you to another screen that tells you more details):
There is no Irish from Bonnie’s mother’s side of the family… so even if we had not found that close first cousin match who had matching grandparents, we still would have learned that all that we thought was true: Bonnie’s dad was Irish, just like the older family member remembered.
How Does This Story End?
This story has the best possible ending. Bonnie immediately reached out to her first cousin match. The first cousin was so excited to hear from her because it turns out that everyone in the whole family had always known about her. It is a close-knit family, and all of the aunts, uncles, and cousins always knew that Bonnie was out there somewhere, but they just didn’t know how to go about looking for her.
Bonnie now gets to travel and meet her father’s entire extended family. She has seen photographs of her father, her grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. It’s a sweet, sweet ending for a long life of looking for where she came from. I couldn’t be happier for her!
* Names have been changed in this story to protect privacy
How do you know if you have a close family member on your DNA match list?
Check out this chart to see if you have any matches that fall into these categories:
How can this story help you find your biological family?
I can’t guarantee that your search will be as easy, or have such an amazing conclusion as Bonnie’s, but doing a DNA test and learning how to understand your results will absolutely bring you much closer to knowing your truth.
If you have any questions, or if you are searching and would like me to take a look at your results, please e-mail me or post a message in the comments.
Thanks for stopping by!