For people who are adopted, family history can feel like a mystery. Many adoptees have no access to information about one or both of their biological parents, and there are people with unknown paternity whose relatives are unable to give them information about their biological father. Foundlings tend to know nothing about either parent or the circumstances of their birth.
If you have unknown parentage, it might feel like your biological family history is inaccessible to you. You may not know where to begin, particularly if you don’t even know your biological parents’ names. But DNA testing may provide some of the answers you’ve been searching for.
Think Like a Genetic Genealogist
As a genetic genealogist, I specialize in identifying ancestors for people with no access to information about one or both parents. You may be able to do it too. In previous blog posts, we’ve shared some of the most moving stories of adoptees who have connected with their birth family.
The following steps will help you learn more about your ancestors, whether you have unknown paternity, unknown maternity, or both.
Let’s assume you know nothing about either biological parent (your process may be different depending on your situation or location).
As I am a UK-based researcher, this example will refer to UK records, but the principles of the process are the same no matter where your ancestors are from.
Many people are not interested in identifying their biological parents but would like to know more about their other ancestors. If this sounds like you, stop after step 5. If you would like to know more about your biological parents, keep reading to the end:
Taking an AncestryDNA® test is the most crucial step! There is one source of invaluable data passed to us by our biological parents at the moment of conception: our DNA.
No matter how little you know about your biological family at the outset of your research project, you will be able to learn something from your DNA results. Your AncestryDNA® results include a breakdown of the global and ethnic groups whose DNA yours most closely resembles yours, and crucially, you are also matched with every person in the database with whom you share a meaningful amount of DNA. These are your genetic relatives.
The AncestryDNA ethnicity estimate will give you an idea of where you should focus your research.
Pay attention to the continents rather than the countries, as there is a resemblance in the DNA of people in countries with a history of intermigration. Your ethnicity estimate may pick up on this, and show some Scandinavian heritage along with your English, or Senegalese along with your Malian. However, if the estimate says you have heritage in Europe, Asia, Africa, etc., you can be fairly sure that your ancestors have heritage in these regions. For example, the test-taker in the image below can be certain that they are 76% Northern/Northwestern European, 6% Jewish, and 16% Iberian and North African. The nuances of that may deviate from the estimate.
DNA Communities can show you geographical or cultural groups you are connected to through your DNA matches. These communities often have a shared historical experience, like traveling to or from the same region around the same time. This does not necessarily mean you have ethic origins in these regions, but it may be a location to which a branch of your family migrated at some point in history.
The example below shows a test-taker with DNA Communities in Essex, England; Cuba, Canary Islands, & Uruguay; and two communities in the United States. This person has ancestors from Essex and the Canary Islands, but they do not have ancestors from the United States; rather, an ancestor’s cousin migrated to the United States in the late nineteenth century, and consequently they now have DNA matches living in Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri.
You can also view your Ethnicity Inheritance in a table that shows the percentages you inherited from each of your biological parents. It doesn’t tell you which parent is your mother and which is your father, but you may be able to deduce that if you have information about one of your biological parents. If not, don’t worry—you may be able to identify Parent 1 and Parent 2 once you know more about your DNA matches, as these are also assigned to Parent 1 and Parent 2.
If you are unfamiliar with your extended biological family, your DNA match list might seem overwhelming.
The key to this process is to start with what you know and work from there. You know you are connected to the people on this list. You just need to figure out how you are connected. Our SideView™ technology allows Ancestry to sort your matches into one of four categories: ‘Parent 1,’ ‘Parent 2,’ ‘Both sides,’ or ‘Unassigned.’ This will help you determine which of your matches are from one parent and which are from the other.
Click on the name of your closest match, and then go to your “Shared Matches” tab. The list of Shared Matches includes everyone in the database who shares DNA with both you and this match. This means that you should all belong to the same family group, and this is the principle you will use to identify your first set of ancestors. You can sort any matches who share DNA with each other into family groups using Ancestry color-coding tool.
Ideally, each of your groups of matches should belong to one distinct branch of your family.
Now, it is time to use this information to identify your biological ancestors. This is where it gets really exciting.
Starting with Group 1, identify any matches with online trees. (The third column on your match list shows whether your matches have trees.) Hit “Ctrl” on your keyboard and click on the names of the matches with trees. This should open a new tab for each match. Then open their trees and search each one for any shared ancestors.
Let’s run through a hypothetical scenario to demonstrate how this might work. If two of your matches in Group 1 are descended from a couple named Frederick Harris and Annie Baker, and another match in Group 1 is descended from Frederick Harris’s parents, you can infer that you are either descended from Frederick and Annie, or from an ancestor of Frederick.
If you find another match in the group who descends from Annie’s parents, this confirms that you are descended from Frederick and Annie. The logic behind this conclusion is that you are only likely to share DNA with descendants of Frederick and Annie’s ancestors if you have inherited DNA from a child of this couple. Ergo, you must be descended from this couple.
Repeat this process with your other groups. If you have matches without online trees, consider contacting them to ask for information about their ancestors. With any luck, by the time you are done, you will have identified several couples who may be your biological ancestors. At this point, you might want to rename your color-coded groups according to the affiliated surname; for example, Group 1 might become “Harris Group.”
When you look at your DNA match list, you will see a number underneath the predicted relationship.
This is the quantity of centiMorgans (cM) you share with your DNA match. The centiMorgan is the unit we use to measure shared DNA. Using this figure, we can estimate your most likely familial relationship to your DNA match. It is a good idea to focus on matches with whom you share 90 cM or more, as the relationship is likely to be close enough that you have a reasonable chance of identifying your common ancestors.
If you click on the number of centiMorgans, a table pops up with all the possible relationships you may share with your match. Use this to estimate the likely generation in which your ancestors are placed in the tree of your match.
Returning to our hypothetical scenario, let’s say that your match is a great-grandchild of Frederick Harris and Annie Baker, and they are also about the same age as you. If one of the most likely relationships in the table is “2nd cousin,” you are also likely to be a great-grandchild of Frederick and Annie. We can therefore infer that your unknown parent is one of Frederick and Annie’s grandchildren.
If you have DNA matches who are descended from a specific couple, and you have matches descended from the ancestors of that couple, and your estimated relationships to your matches line up with your other findings, you can confidently add these ancestors to your online tree. Using Frederick and Annie as an example, you can put placeholders in your tree for your unknown parent and grandparent and then add your newly discovered great-grandparents.
If you would rather not learn about your biological parents, you can focus instead on researching your new ancestors in censuses, civil and parish records, and more. Use your matches to discover as many ancestors as you can and fill out your tree as much as possible. This is the start of your family history journey!
If you would like to try identifying your biological parents, read on.
Once you have identified some sets of potential ancestors, you can trace their descendants using historical records until you come to the generation in which you are likely to find your biological parents.
If we are tracing down from Frederick and Annie, we will need to learn their children’s names. Frederick and Annie lived in the United Kingdom, so we will use UK records in this example.
Ancestry has comprehensive civil record indexes for England and Wales dating back to 1837, as well as extensive collections of parish records (baptisms, marriages, and burials), so there is a lot to work with. A search for Frederick and Annie’s marriage record reveals a parish record dated 5 March 1916 in the collection London, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1938.
Now that we have a marriage date, we want to identify all their children. In England and Wales, the best source for this is thecivil registration birth index. Carry out a search of the index for any children born in the area to a Harris-Baker couple. In our example, this search reveals seven children:
- Frederick Jr.
One of these seven children is your grandparent, but we need to narrow this list down, so we search the civil death index to discover whether any died young, and we find that Rosetta and Jessie both died in infancy. Our remaining five candidates for your grandparent are as follows:
- Frederick Jr.
- Winifred married Daniel Smith
- Alice married Richard Jones
- Annie married William Davis
- Frederick Jr. married Margaret Reynolds
- Robert married Jane White
At this point, we want to revisit our groups of matches to see whether any of our groups might be connected with the families of one of these spouses. We discover that the matches in Group 3 are descended from a couple named James Reynolds and Maria Casebow. These two are about the right age to be Margaret’s parents, so we obtain Margaret’s birth certificate and find that she is the daughter of James Reynolds and Maria Casebow. Since you have DNA matches descended from the parents of Frederick Jr. and Margaret Reynolds, we can confirm that Frederick and Margaret are your grandparents.
One of Frederick and Margaret’s children is therefore your unknown parent. We’re homing in. Use the birth index to identify their children, following the same steps we took to find your grandparent candidates.
If your newly discovered grandparents only had one child, you will know that child is your biological father or mother.
If your grandparents had several children, you may need to contact living relatives in order to identify your biological parent. If the parent you’re searching for is your biological mother, someone in the immediate family may be able to tell you whether you have identified her correctly. If you are searching for your biological father, there is a chance he and his family are unaware that you were conceived. In this case, you will need your paternity candidates (the sons of your grandparents) to take DNA tests, and these will reveal which candidates are your uncles and which is your biological father. You will expect your biological parent to share about 3,485 cM, and your aunts and uncles to share between 1,201 and 2,282 cM with you.
If you decide to make contact with your biological family, there is a chance they will respond negatively, or they may not respond at all. This is no reflection on you or your right to information. You deserve to know your history, your ancestors, and your identity, and the actions of your biological relatives don’t change that fact, but unfortunately, we can’t control how other people react to unexpected information.
If these instructions sound overwhelming, or if the task of researching your biological ancestors feels like too much of an undertaking, don’t worry.
Contact our team of experts at AncestryProGenealogists® who specialize in using DNA to identify biological parents for people with unknown parentage.
1 From here onwards, these are not real examples.