This is a true story, one of inspiration and hope, especially for adoptees or those seeking the identity of a parent.
I’ve been honored to be allowed to be a bystander, sometimes a coach, and often a cheerleader for my friend Mark…who…by the way, appears to be a distant cousin…although we don’t have the details figured out. You know how us southerners are…we’re kin to everyone…as Mark is discovering.
After returning from the amazing experience of meeting his birth family members for the first time, he shared the latest chapter in his journey with me…and I’ve asked him to share it with you. It’s beautiful and wonderful and let’s face it…finding family is the holy grail for us seekers.
Let me introduce you to guest author Mark and he’ll be telling you his story from this point on in his own words.
“Where do I come from?”
It’s a question everyone engaged in genealogy asks, but for those of us who are adoptees it has much more meaning.
I never asked my parents the question, although they had told me at a very early age that I was adopted. When I was young it was, “Oh, okay, what’s for lunch?”
They were already in their forties when they adopted me at birth right out of the hospital in Miami, and they never had another child. I was it, and kind of spoiled as a result. They were devoted to me and I to them, so while curious of my origins as I grew older, I never broached the subject for fear it might cause anguish or at least concern. I never wanted them to think I saw them as anything less than my real parents. For they were, always have been and always will be. I miss them very much.
Still, the question lingered. Who am I? Where did I come from?
I remember asking my aunt, actually my mother’s first cousin who lived in New York. She said I was Irish, probably because I resembled some of her Irish neighbors in Far Rockaway.
As a kid, I thought I was German since I kind of looked German and always wound up playing the German in soldier games and while terrible at French in school, excelled at German – little did I know.
I did know my ethnic heritage was not that of my parents – I didn’t look like them at all. As a child, my born-in-Russia grandmother would parade me down the boardwalk to meet her old friends. “Dat’s your grandzohn?” they would exclaim in obvious incredulity.
Heritage and Health
Later, as an adult after my parents had passed, I began reading about genetics and how some diseases are inherited to varying degrees. It made me again think of the question and wonder if I could obtain genetic information that would answer the basic heritage question and the health question without necessarily finding a birth family. I saw no need to meet or contact my birth mother and cause anguish there.
So when I heard about National Geographic’s Genographic Project, I ordered the test right away. This was 10 years ago – boy, how time flies!
I’m sure everyone has experienced the thrill of receiving their first DNA results – I sure did. It came in a nice little package with a Certificate of Y-chromosome DNA Testing, which I still have, showing my haplogroup, R1b, and twelve short tandem repeat results. I had no clue what it all meant, but included was a nice map of the world showing that I came from – (drum roll) – Europe. Duh, that didn’t take rocket science to figure out, but genetic genealogy, or rather population genetics was still in its infancy.
Bitten by the Bug
Of course I wanted more, to know what those numbers stood for and what else I could find out. I was bitten by the DNA test bug and haven’t stopped.
I uploaded the results to Family Tree DNA, the lab that processed the Genographic results, to obtain what they then called Recent Ethnic Origins. This showed my closest matches at 12 STRs by country. I had three exact matches!
I thought I had found the answer – I was Scottish! And two of the three were named MacGregor; I was a MacGregor! I started going to Scottish Festivals and Highland Games; bought the tartan tie and everything.
Then I found out that 12 STRs doesn’t really tell you anything, even exact matches – you need to test 25, 37, 67 and on and on. I upgraded my markers, contacted the MacGregor project administrator and received his reply, “Sorry, your STRs don’t match the MacGregor haplotype”
I was devastated, especially after spending money on MacGregor tchotchkes. I guess old man MacGregor has his own haplotype and to be a MacGregor you had to match his. So I tested at 25 and 37 and later at 67. No exact or even close matches at all – the MacGregors disappeared. I was left again without heritage.
I took more tests – Deep Clade and later Big Y for the Y-DNA and the full sequence for mtDNA. I now was R1b1b2a1b with a terminal SNP of L147.3, and H1ad on mtDNA, again simply European.
I shared a terminal Y-SNP with only one other gentleman. We were able to contact each other through the L176.2/SRY2627 project administrator and compare notes. Our STRs were not even close; he had estimated our MRCA at 500-1000 AD. He had traced his own paternal line to Northern Ireland and the Ulster Plantation, and probably back from there to the Borders area of England/Scotland. My Y-DNA could have come from anywhere in Western Europe.
I took the Family Finder test and again it showed European, western European with the largest percentage Orcadian
What the heck was Orcadian? Of course I had to look it up – people from the Orkneys. Well, we’re getting closer but how could they be that precise? It’s a tiny group of islands with a small population? Come to find out that FTDNA used data from the Human Genome Diversity Project that had as its only sample from the British Isles a handful of DNA tests from the Orkneys. Not much precision there! My DNA was simply closer to people from the Orkneys than say Upper Sandusky.
I also received, as one does with Family Finder, a list of cousin matches. Now we’re getting somewhere, as I have to date 102 pages of matches, 7 pages at the 2nd to 4th cousin range. I thought I might find a pattern, like a group of those closest with the same surname, say MacGregor (out of spite).
But no, the names didn’t follow any pattern; my closest match had a German name but those following were not German. A few were even French-sounding; the horror!
My closest match emailed me to inquire about my pedigree. As I had done previously with a MacGregor match who had contacted me from Australia of all places, my response was that as an adoptee I had no information on my birth family, and unless they were aware of a female family member placing her newborn for adoption in Miami in 1952, I would not be of any help, sorry.
I also tested with 23andMe and found their most recent Ancestry Origins test to be the most informative. I was still 99.3% European, but the breakdown had more detail and the sampling was of better quality. It even showed I had 1/2 of 1% Native American; now that’s interesting!
23andMe’s DNA Relatives lists 922 pages of cousin matches, many, including my four closest, without names or contact information, except the ability to send an introduction. Again of course there was no pattern.
The fifth closest match, a 3rd to 5th cousin, contacted me with the usual question. We exchanged emails but she couldn’t figure out how we related. My four closest matches never responded to an introduction.
But now at least I had some genetic health information. (This was before the FDA took that off market.) It was fascinating, how I had a .045 increased risk of this and .128 reduced risk of that. Nothing truly frightening, thank heavens.
Non-Identifying Information for Adoptees
Around this time, I became aware that the State of Florida made available “non-identifying information” for adoptees. This was perfect! I wasn’t looking to identify my birth mother, but to determine my heritage and any hereditary health issues. So I requested what they could provide, knowing that adoption records are otherwise sealed and unavailable except in medical emergencies.
A few weeks later I received a 2-page letter from the Florida Adoption Reunion Registry. This was in December 2010. It provided exactly what I was looking for, and much more. It said that my birth mother was born in the summer of 1920 in a Southern state, so she’d be over 90 at that time, if alive.
It described her features and that she worked as a waitress. It stated that she had come to Miami to live with her mother when she discovered her pregnancy, and that her mother was 52 at the time of my birth; so that her mother was born around 1900.
She reported that both her mother and father were Protestant and of Irish descent, that her father had died in 1929 and at the time was separated from her mother.
She also reported that she had two brothers, one with children and had had a sister who passed away. She said that her mother remarried and was separated from her second husband, and that her father, my birth grandfather, had been a farmer of English and Irish descent.
This was what I was looking for and more closely matched with my DNA results. I concluded she was describing a Scots-Irish heritage when she mentioned both Protestant and Irish together.
She also described my putative birth father, which came as much more of a surprise, if accurate. He was allegedly French Canadian! So much for the German in me. She said she had known him for only a short time, never intended on marrying him and never told him of her pregnancy. Most importantly, she said she did not know of any serious or communicable (sic) diseases in her family. I took that to mean hereditary diseases.
This was wonderful information, but it somehow left me wanting to know more. I’m sure as genealogists you all know the feeling.
What Southern state?
What was the background of her father’s parents?
Was there anything more on the birth father’s family?
I was resigned to the fact that this would remain a puzzle. After all, I was just seeking heritage, or was there more to my own feelings? I knew I wouldn’t try to contact my birth mother no matter how much information I had. The last thing I wanted was to give some 90-year old woman a heart attack. But that all remained academic anyway; there was not sufficient information to search for any birth family.
Last year I tested with Ancestry.com to compare what they would show on ethnic heritage with the two other companies.
It did not compare favorably; the percentages for different parts of Europe were way different from the others. It had 13% for Iberia while 23andMe had 2%, and 7% for Scandinavia while 23andMe had 1%. Maybe they realized that the Orkneys were settled by Vikings.
But what took me to the next level of answering “the question” was their Member Matches. At the top of the list was a 2nd cousin match, administered by the next closest match, also a 2nd cousin, her daughter Jeanene. And she had 955 people on her public family tree!
I couldn’t not look – the curiosity was overwhelming.
Besides, my birth mother had in all likelihood passed away by now and there was no perceived danger in contacting 2nd cousins. So I reviewed her family tree and found a possible candidate for birth grandmother, one Beulah Wooten, born in 1900, whose brother Levon was Jeanene’s grandfather. She and her mother would indeed be 2nd cousins if that were the connection. So I signed up for membership with Ancestry and began my own research.
Connecting the Dots to Beulah
I also decided to contact Jeanene.
She was happy to share what information she had on Beulah, including a recently found death certificate from 1957, listed as Beulah Wooten Ellis who had passed away at her home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Intriguingly, the informant was listed as Mrs. Elizabeth Smith. The death certificate included her birth date of December 31, 1900. It showed she was buried at Browns Gap Cemetery in Trenton, Georgia, just across the state line from Chattanooga.
I found the cemetery listed on Ancestry’s Find-a-Grave and found a gravestone showing both Beulah B. Langston with dates of birth and death matching that of the death certificate, and Eugene G. Langston, with a death date of March 16, 1928; very close to what the letter from the State had indicated.
I began to match up the facts reported in the non-identifying information provided by the State point-by-point with what I discovered in my research. It appeared Beulah married three times, the first to Eugene Langston who indeed turned out to be my birth grandfather, then to a Walter E. Jones with whom she had the two sons my birth mother reported as brothers, and finally to Alvis Ellis.
Beulah was listed with Alvis Ellis in the 1940 Census residing in Miami, Florida. Here was the connection to Miami.
Also buried at Browns Gap Cemetery was her daughter Junice Katherine Langston who was born in 1922 and died in 1937, matching my birth mother’s predeceased sister. While I could not find any birth certificates, one of those types of records Ancestry has so little of, I did find Beulah listed in the 1930 Census living in Chattanooga with her second husband Walter E. Jones, their two sons, and two daughters from her first marriage, Junice and Elizabeth Langston, age 10, and thus born around 1920. Was she the informant on the death certificate, born in 1920? This was the only reference I could find in my Beulah search to who I thought could possibly be my birth mother.
Suggestive, but not proof.
The Thrill of the Chase
Finding this information online was a thrill, and as you all know, one thing leads to another, requiring ever more research. I can easily see how genealogy can become an obsession. I see people on Ancestry who devote many hours a week over many years to it.
My hats off to those of you who have devoted decades before the internet driving from courthouse to courthouse, cemetery to cemetery, obtaining the information for your family trees.
I understand now, as I too have been bitten by the genealogy bug. That makes two bugs I’ve succumbed to.
I also see how some people make mistakes in their family trees, accepting others’ trees at face value without checking for themselves the sources for the information. My background as a retired attorney and former administrative judge leads me to require substantial evidence to support a fact and not simply accept what others have alleged. Which leads me back to Beulah and her daughter Elizabeth.
There was a private family tree on Ancestry that had an Elizabeth Langston listed. I contacted the person with the tree and mentioned the 1930 Census for the Jones household, asking if the Elizabeth Langston listed there was one and the same person. She replied that yes, it was, and was her husband’s grandmother, now deceased.
She stated, “Elizabeth had 3 children, two while married to Gilbert Conner, divorced (died 1955) Evelyn Conner Scott, Glenn Conner, (deceased) and Yvonne Smith while married to Almon Smith divorced (died1967). Married to William Lucas, lived and died in Portland Oregon, she passed away on Nov. 26, 2004. Hope this helps.”
It certainly did. The name Smith matched the informant on Beulah’s death certificate. I tried to contact her again, explaining who I was, but this time there was no response. I imagined my inquiry had caused quite a stir, or possibly she just ignored it fearing the stir it might cause, or perhaps thought I was misrepresenting myself and had other motives.
In any event, one Census report and one unconfirmed private family tree is not enough in my opinion to establish the fact of who my birth mother was. If true, then at least I knew she had passed away and the fear of her learning of the son she given up at birth 62 years before was gone. I still had to confirm her connection to Beulah, so my next step was to obtain a copy of the death certificate from Oregon.
Is Elizabeth Beulah’s Daughter?
You can imagine how anxious and excited I was opening the envelope containing Elizabeth’s death certificate.
That soon turned to joy.
There she was, born July 4, 1920, in Trenton, Georgia; occupation waitress; mother Beulah Langston. I had finished connecting the dots and matching up every fact from the non-identifying information the State of Florida provided with my research.
I had my proof – within a reasonable degree of certainty, as we say. There was still a deceased half-brother and two possibly living half-sisters out there, but my search for genetic heritage had led to finding my birth family, at least confirming Jeanene’s relationship as 2nd cousin through Beulah and her grandfather Levon.
There was simply no one else that matched up to Jeanene and her DNA.
More Than I Ever Expected
As I continued to research the Wooten and Langston lines, I discovered that the size of my new-found birth family was humongous. Beulah was one of 14 children, and some her siblings had equally large families.
The obituary for her father, Jim Frank Wooten, said he had 56 grandchildren! I had a lot of research to do if I were to find every 2nd cousin.
I still had those other close DNA matches to figure out. The closest match at FTDNA turned out to also be a Wooten whose grandmother was a sister to Jim Frank Wooten, my birth great grandfather.
The closest match who responded at 23andMe was related to the Langston line, through marriage to my birth great grandmother, a Williams.
I was thus able to triangulate, if you will, my closest matches at all three companies.
On occasion, I contacted other Ancestry members whose family trees showed promise but weren’t clear. One contact was to the wife of a nephew of an apparent 2nd cousin, one of 13 children of Matthew James Wooten, one of Beulah’s brothers. There was a different first name on her family tree than what I had found in my research. She responded and confirmed they were the same person, her husband’s aunt, and said she would contact her and provide my contact information.
One thing led to another, and I wound up talking with one of Matthew James Wooten’s sons. He, a sister and another cousin were vacationing in Florida, and we agreed to meet.
Of course I came prepared to argue my case before the Supreme Court with all the evidence I had accumulated up to that point. But they took one look at me and decided I was a Wooten after all. I gave them copies of my DNA reports in case others in the family had their doubts.
After all, how does someone pop up after 62 years claiming to be a son of someone who had three husbands and children by two of them?
They confirmed much of what I had found, such as knowing Elizabeth had spent time in Miami. We spent the entire day together talking about the family.
It was, as you can imagine, one of the most memorable, joyful days in my life; meeting family for the first time, one I never knew existed. They were warm and accepting, and I came away grateful I had started this search.
Decoration – A Southern Family Tradition
They told me about Decoration at the family cemetery, held each May in Trenton, Georgia. I knew I’d be attending no matter what.
Decoration is an apparently Southern tradition I had not known about, one I find very compelling. It moreover serves as a family reunion where everyone gets together for a big feast after cleaning and decorating family headstones. I was able to attend and spent the previous week exploring the area near Chattanooga with its Civil War battlefields.
Of course I wondered how I would be accepted. I needn’t have. In fact, I was kind of an honored guest and welcomed with open hearts and lots of food.
Lots of food, especially deviled eggs.
One cousin remarked that if I had shown up as some skinny little thing they would have had doubts, but seeing I was “full-bodied” I fit right in
Jeanene attended with her mother (above), as did many of the children of Matthew James Wooten from Virginia, some of whom I had not yet met. The Wooten cousin that was my closest match at FTDNA also attended from Alabama.
There were cousins galore, some 70-80 people at the community center in Trenton, including two first cousins, the daughters of one of Elizabeth’s half-brothers. We exchanged information and agreed to stay in touch.
I wish I could remember the names of all the cousins I met, but I thought it would be rude to carry around a notebook.
And the old family photos! There was one of my birth mother at an earlier Decoration and several older photos of my birth-grandmother before she passed in 1957. I took several photos of photos with my cellphone.
I now can place a face with a name and keep in contact with cousins I never knew I had.
One disappointment though; no one had had any communication for several years with my two possibly living half-sisters, or their families.
The circle was not yet complete, if it ever would be.
People say you can choose friends but not family. This is only partially true. Some of us have a choice when faced with the knowledge that a family exists out there that has no clue of our existence.
I wonder what it would be like to come to know the siblings I might still have.
The ambivalence is profound.
It’s like First Contact with an alien civilization, having found one a few light years from Earth; do we make contact not knowing what the response would be. But we as human beings have this insatiable need to explore the unknown and ask questions and take actions that may be very risky. It’s in our genes, if you will.
I have to ponder this for a while….
Hope Through Genetics
I’d like to thank Roberta for affording me this opportunity of sharing my quest to answer “the question.” I’ve followed her blog for some three years now and have found her own stories of family search truly inspiring, and appreciate her words of encouragement in my search.
We all seek to find out more of where we come from.
Adoptees and others who have lost contact with family now have hope through genetics to find the answer. We all look forward to the day when we can pinpoint where on Earth our ancestors came from. It might even be the Orkneys.