Ying and yang.
I love genetic genealogy, but there is a risk, or allure, depending on your perspective, of unexpected discoveries. I’m definitely an “allure” person, not a risk avoider, but not everyone feels the same way.
Everyone who takes a DNA test for genetic genealogy may encounter two situations:
- Discovering a close family member that you didn’t know existed previously
- Discovering that you are not related to close family members
Of course, neither may happen, but either or both could.
It’s a double-edged sword. Plain and simple, do not test if you’re not OK with these possibilities. But please, read on about why you might just want to take that plunge.
In some cases, discovering the unknown is exactly WHY people are testing – to see if indeed they are related to a particular person in a specific way. Or, conversely, searching for close family including siblings, parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents.
Some people just want to embark on a grand adventure and see where it takes them – to learn more about “who I am.” It may well turn out to be the adventure of a lifetime.
My Brother Who Wasn’t My Brother
I’ve been living this, personally, for 14 years now. The Reader’s Digest version is that I finally found my half-brother in 2004 after decades of looking, only to discover not long before his death in 2012 that he wasn’t my biological half-brother after all.
By that time, we had bonded as family, so the DNA didn’t really matter in terms of our relationship.
This past week, I discovered a close match to David’s autosomal DNA. I then checked his Y DNA matches and discovered that indeed, the surname of his two closest Y DNA matches was Priest, the same surname as his autosomal match at either a half-sibling or first cousin level.
This means that in 2004, I was elated to find David and then shortly before his death, horribly saddened to discover the genetic truth. Then, this week, ecstatic to find his family who had known about his existance, but didn’t have enough information to find him.
To say this has been an incredible emotional roller-coaster is an understatement. If you’ve been following along through my recent “discovery” articles this week, thank you for your tolerance of my emotion and tear-filled authoring. I intentionally wrote in the time and space where I was at that moment. I wanted to share the authentic journey for anyone else who might find themselves on the same genetic rollercoaster. It’s a ride like no other.
If you haven’t been following along, you can read the three articles, in order, below:
Autosomal DNA tests for genetic genealogy provide unquestionable answers about close relationships. No person at the second cousin level, or closer, who actually is related, has been shown to NOT match. In other words, you can count on matching your 2nd cousins or closer. ALWAYS.
Mostly all half-second cousins (half-2C) and second-cousins-once-removed (2C1R) will match as well. A non-match is EXTREMELY rare. Blaine Bettinger wrote about a case here and the extremely high burden of proof necessary to verify that indeed, the people being compared are actual 2C1R or half-2C and simply didn’t inherit any of the same DNA.
About 10% of third cousins won’t match. At that level, a non-match doesn’t specifically tell you anything except that maybe you aren’t lucky. The message for nonmatching second cousins and closer is much different.
Second cousins share great-grandparents.
Therefore, when you test someone who is supposed to be a 2nd cousin, or closer, and you aren’t an autosomal DNA match, the message is that you’re not really related in the way you thought you were. Said with no sugar-coating, you’re not biologically related and you do not share great-grandparents.
That’s a really, really, tough pill to swallow.
And that’s exactly what happened to me and my half-brother.
He wasn’t my half-sibling, and there was no question.
Older paternity tests that test only a few CODIS markers (and are still sold today by some DNA testing companies) had come back as inconclusive.
We didn’t know what to think. A few years later, the first autosomal tests for genetic genealogy were introduced, testing about 700,000 locations, and those results were conclusive and removed all doubt. David and I were not biologically related.
Y DNA testing in 2004 at Family Tree DNA had already told us that David’s Y DNA line was not Estes. However, without the autosomal tests, we didn’t know if the misattributed paternity (also called NPEs, non-paternal events) was in Dave’s generation, or in the two generations upstream, meaning the man we believed to be our common father, or his father.
One thing was clear. There was a break in the line someplace between Lazarus Estes and David.
The chart above, borrowed from one of my presentations, shows:
- Green proven Estes Y line
- Yellow undetermined Estes line
- Purple does not match green Estes line or tan David Estes
- Tan does not match green Estes line or purple Anonymous tester
The green Estes line had been proven through John R. Estes, John Y Estes and Lazarus Estes by the test of Buster Estes combined with the known Estes DNA Y signature (known as a haplotype) as identified by many descendants of Abraham Estes in the Estes Surname Project at Family Tree DNA.
Without additional testers from William George Estes’s line, we couldn’t tell where the disconnect happened. A second descendant of William George Estes tested, shown in purple, and that person didn’t match the Estes Y DNA haplotype either. But, that person also didn’t match David. What a tangled web!
You can imagine my level of frustation.
At this point, just based on Y DNA information, before autosomal testing, it was certainly possible that David and I were indeed half siblings, but that our father wasn’t the son of William George Estes, or that William George Estes wasn’t the son of Lazarus Estes. There was clearly a break in the line, someplace.
Fortunately, autosomal DNA testing, when introduced, provided the answer which was that David is not my half sibling. I say fortunately, because it ended the years of painful speculation and not knowing. It certainly wasn’t the answer we wanted, but it allowed movement forward.
Additional autosomal testing of other family members, both close and distant, subsequently confirmed that William George, my grandfather, and William Sterling Estes, my father, were indeed descended from the green Estes line. For example, if I were not descended from John R. Estes or John Y. Estes, I wouldn’t match other people who are descended from those ancestors. Other cousins descended from William George Estes’s children, other than the child represented by the yellow box, also match me and the Estes line.
That mystery was solved, but it only ushered in the next one. Who was David’s father? That puzzle would take another 6 years to solve.
The Flip Side
First and foremost, the DNA evidence didn’t change the way I felt about my brother. He will always be my brother.
What’s that old adage about doors? For every door that closes, another one opens. Every new beginning is the end of an earlier beginning.
DNA results provide new beginnings. For people who don’t know the identify of one or both of their parents, DNA testing is often their only hope. For people like David who discover that the parent, grandparent or great-grandparent isn’t who they thought, DNA provides the puzzle pieces in a box with no picture on the lid. Yep, assembly required.
Some puzzles are easier to assemble than others😊
Because second cousin and closer DNA testing is so reliable, and because millions of people have now tested for genealogy, the chances in the US of finding a second cousin or closer match is pretty good. If not now, soon. More people test everyday.
We found both a first and second cousin match for David. Those matches, combined with Y DNA results that provided us with a paternal surname identified the correct paternal family line – Priest.
It took all of about 4 hours of sleuthing to put the pieces together. Two whirlwind days later, I was meeting with David’s amazing biological family.
Sadly, David couldn’t join us in person, but I know he was with us just the same.
This reunion was an incredible joy and love filled experience. I fully realize that not everyone’s ending will be as happy as ours is, even without Dave’s presence. However, sometimes just solving the puzzle, even without the icing-on-the-cake reunion is satisfaction enough. That’s all I initially wanted, but I hit the jackpot as proxy for David.
Meeting David’s family and being able to help them come to know him as I did ended years of mystery for both families, connecting the dots that could never have been connected any other way.
My experience isn’t unique either. I have a cousin who thought she was an only child. Imagine her shock to discover that her father was not who she thought. Through DNA matching and putting puzzle pieces together, she uncovered the identity of her biological father along with several half-sisters who have welcomed her with open arms.
However, your mileage may vary.
If you are seeking the truth, by all means, DNA test for genealogy. If you aren’t comfortable with the facts that could potentially be exposed, don’t test. It’s that simple.
One of the best things about DNA testing for genetic genealogy is the people I’ve met, the new cousins I’ve found, and the mysteries I’ve solved. I have absolutely no regrets. I welcome new experiences and this has been a journey like no other.
Without rain, there are no rainbows!
Recently, there seem to be a lot of new companies popping up. When testing for genetic genealogy, you need a well-established company that provides matching and other tools. There are only 4 companies that provide these types of tools, plus one after-market service provider, GedMatch. GedMatch doesn’t do testing, but you can upload results from testing companies to GedMatch for matching and to utilize their tools, many of which are free.
The testing companies, in my order of preference are:
- Family Tree DNA – European testers, archives DNA for future testing, additional tests available, many tools including chromosome browser, surnames in common and phased matching, accepts compatible transfers
- MyHeritage – European testers, tools include chromosome browser, common surnames and SmartMatching which shows common ancestors in trees with your DNA matches, accepts compatible transfers, subscription required for trees larger than 250 people
- Ancestry – Very large data base, some European testers, Shared Ancestor Hints which are common ancestors in trees of DNA matches, common surnames, but no chromosome browser, does not accept transfers, Ancestry subscription required for full functionality
- 23andMe – Chromosome browser, common surnames, no trees, does not accept transfers
Each company has its strengths and weaknesses and most serious genetic genealogists use all 4 plus GedMatch.
Adoptees and people seeking unknown parentage should test at or transfer to all four companies so that you can fish in all of the ponds. This article explains which companies accept transfers and when you would be better served to simply test at each vendor.
Happy ancestor hunting!
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Thank you so much.
DNA Purchases and Free Transfers
- Family Tree DNA
- MyHeritage DNA only
- MyHeritage DNA plus Health
- MyHeritage FREE DNA file upload
- 23andMe Ancestry
- 23andMe Ancestry Plus Health
- Legacy Tree Genealogists for genealogy research