Unexpected Discoveries Through DNA Testing

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:

Close Family

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.

Click to enlarge any graphic.

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.

Be Prepared

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.

Additionally, both Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage accept compatible transfers from other testing companies, making it easier for your DNA to be fishing on your behalf more widely.

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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28 thoughts on “Unexpected Discoveries Through DNA Testing

  1. Thanks Roberta for your story, in my case it is who is your grandpa.?

    My male McIntosh cousin recently tested the 37 marker test at FTDNA. He only matched a father and son to the McIntosh’s in nearby states that we know they came from . This goes to our 3rd great grandfather, 1813-1875, who is buried ten miles from us. Instead my cousin matched 47 Duncan’s that can prove their lineage at FTDNA and they match on all 37 markers. Now we are testing another descendant from another son of our 3rd great grandfather to see what these results will be. Yes, we really were surprised. But anyone who does DNA testing must want the truth unless they do it for a lark. I hope we can get a answer on this..

  2. Roberta, I enjoyed this article you wrote. Another point, perhaps, is that you are likely to stumble across something which may affect someone else much more than it will affect you personally.
    That is where the “rub” comes in, in my opinion. I think that when one is digging up roots, even (especially?) your own, that you need to always consider the ethics of the situation in the amount of pain you could cause someone else. That is the hard part to decide.
    Good Hunting,

    • It is. I had that issue with my brother as well. He was fully aware of the possibilities when he tested, but he was terminally ill when the answer arrived and I decided it would just cause him too much pain with no benefit. I never told him.

  3. I just recently discovered my mother’s father was not biological. My mother’s mother (my grandmother) had an affair! So now the big question: Do I tell family members or stay quiet? For now, I’m staying quiet. Furthermore, I figured out who her father was (now deceased) and have found family/cousins that are half siblings to my mother. I’m just staying quiet…

    • I was in the same situation with my wife’s family about a year ago.

      Since it is her family I let her decide. She decided to keep it under our hats until the parties involved have passed away. Telling the living siblings about it now would likely be devastating; finding out they are half siblings instead of full and each has a different bio dad that is not who either of them knew as dad. Other siblings had the dad they knew.

      All bio dads and mom have all passed many years ago, so know one is missing out on meeting their “real” dad.

      We have found that my wife has an enormous amount of 2nd – 4th cousins she never knew of due to this DNA connection. They have all been very open to helping us fill out our tree for this secret family. We have struggled with whether to attach this branch where it belongs on the tree or leave it as free floating branch that we know how to find.

  4. Thanks for another valuable article. I had a very different result. A previously unknown 1st cousin, or possibly 1/2 brother, tested on Ancestry and won’t respond to my emails. Based on amounts of shared DNA, more likely a cousin. I admit my uncle was not father-of-the-year material but we are a pretty nice, interesting family. The cousin’s son tested with MyHeritage and posted a partial tree, so I can at least see his chromosomes and figure out who the cousin is. Neither has responded to my friendly emails. I’d love to get to know them, but it is certainly their right not to want to know this maybe unexpected family.

    I also have a friend who discovered her previously unknown grandfather – she said she only wished her mother had been alive to learn about it. And a friend who figured out he wasn’t his father’s son…

    Genetic genealogy has proven to be an interesting journey indeed.

  5. My great grandfather had 3 sisters.
    I was a match to the great granddaughter of his oldest sister but not the great granddaughter of his youngest sister.
    My 1st cousin Gregg, was a match to the youngest sister but not the oldest.
    Since Gregg and I only share less than 25% of our DNA, does that seem plausible?

  6. I have a strange situation in light of your article. My first cousin’s daughter and I tested at Ancestry during the past year. I tested first. She showed up as a second to third cousin match to me. I did not show up on her match list at all. She did not have a large number of matches, and none closer than fourth cousin. Although I suspect that her father is really my half-first cousin, for reasons I won’t go into, she should be a half-first cousin once removed at the very least, so well within the 100% matchable range. Although I think this confirms the suspected non-parental event (suspected by me only), it doesn’t explain why she showed up as a match to me, but I didn’t show up as a match to her. When I checked for common matches, there were none. Any thoughts?

  7. The emotional roller coaster indeed! I cannot even begin to fathom what it’s like if it is your own family, as I was privy to two cases last spring that were making me feel like I was part of a reality TV program. The first one was a foreign born young women who decided to get tested to find out whether she had inherited the terrible genes that had ended her mother’s life too soon. The good news was she could not have inherited those genes because her parents were not her biological parents. It turned out we are remotely related so I was able to find one of her a second cousin who led her to her biological father, all in the span of two weeks! She has since found her biological mother as well, with a new family tree proudly displayed on Gedmatch. I don’t know how the family reunion went, but as I had warned her, those who kept the secret for decades may not be elated at having it revealed. Her adoptive father was probably very upset.

    The other one was someone with whom I corresponded on DNA analysis methods. In his case it was a grandparent of unknown origin. He sent me the data to get a second opinion and to share the secret with someone, because he did not have anybody to talk to who was not involved emotionally. The story again is worthy of the best novels. But these are real life cases, often with elderly parents to whom we want to spare grief.

  8. I have a copy of my grandmothers birth certificate She was born in 1895. It says delayed so was not done after birth. Her father lists her as his daughter and her birth date. While working on the family tree I noticed that her parents wedding date was 5 weeks after her birth the year she was born; I thought it was just an error and the year was written wrong. I dna tested at ancestry and there was a new 2nd cousin. His daughter who I matched as a 4th cousin was the one who figured out what might have happened. She tentatively asked me if it was possible my grandmother was born out of wedlock? What!! I thought and then she explained that my great grandmother and her great grandfather lived in the same small community where my grandmother was born.

    Since then my sister has tested and my son and daughter and several other members of this new 2nd cousin and we all match. Birth certificate in hand shows who my grandmothers father was or at least the man who helped raise her. I can only guess it was done to protect her or to protect her mother. I don’t believe my grandmother or her siblings ever knew based on things that were said later on about women who gave birth to children out of wedlock. There is more on that line but will not mention now as that is their story. A great niece of my grandmothers ‘father’ on her birth certificate tested and we do not match her. I have found matches from my grandmothers mother.

    Then there is the male cousin who Ydna tested and instead of matching McClellan matched Willis and it was a strong match. Hmmm. Yet I have multiple McClellan matches.

  9. I have a situation where the actual relationship shown by DNA is not what it was thought to be. The person only tested to find ethnicities, so will likely never figure it out. So far no one else has tested in the family whose relationship would reveal this anomaly. I figured it out not only through the amount of DNA but also the lack of matching with any persons related on a particular branch of the family. My matches in common with this person are all confined to one part of the family, when there should be numerous other matches that we both share. I haven’t said anything but don’t know what I am going to do if other family members test and realize they have a more distant relationship than the one they are expecting.

  10. Hi Roberta,
    following your last few posts, very interesting. I have a small match with Dave K on gedmatch along with my mom, 18.8 cMs total, 13 longest cM. Would this be your Dave, subject of your post?

      • I do, though I haven’t been able to research back into Germany yet. Some settled in German Flatts, NY around 1709 before making the trek south and westward. Stahrings, Starnes, from the Wonnsheim and Mannheim regions of Germany. Spengler/Spangler from Switzerland, then Germany in the late 1600’s, before coming to US, from the Heidleburg, Baden region. Janss (Yonts, Younce) from the Rheinland-Pfalz regions. Pfautz (Fouts), Werner, Varner, Sigler. Just to name a few.

        Thank you for your blog. I’m having such a difficult time trying to find my roots on one branch on my mother’s side. My grandmother was illegitimate, her mother had her with her brother-in-law. Holiday get togethers probably weren’t a happy time. Said brother-in-law was likelyalso illegitimate, or an NPE occurred, I’m not matching rumored surname. His mother was illegitimate. Three in a row. Begging found cousins to test, they don’t want to know. Sigh, I want to know, but this is one of those situations where they don’t, maybe they are afraid of what will turn up.

        I also have a small match (10 cMs) with Debbie F. on my dad’s side. Is she also of a German line?

  11. Through AncestryDNA research, I learned on Jan. 30, 2018, that my biological father was not my dad.

    I’ve been working on my paper tree for 20+ years. A few years ago I took 23andme’s test, mostly for the health reports. I had lots of DNA matches but only a few traceable and they were maternal. Last year I took the AncestryDNA test with the same results, but I had one close DNA match (my closest), a second cousin whom I had never heard of. We worked for months on our possibilities and an NPE was definitely in our solution. I was still no match to two of my paper tree paternal cousins. Then on Jan. 25, a first cousin appeared who matched the two of us. He was my missing link to something that I always felt was off. As it turns out, I knew my biological father. My mother worked for him for several years. My parents and he and his wife were close friends. Everyone involved has since passed. My mind was blown. Oh, the range of emotions and thoughts. I was lucky to have known my biological father and I always loved him and his wife. I have been in touch with his granddaughter, whom I knew from childhood (same age). She took the news well. I was the most shaken. I mourned the loss of my Livingston DNA, a group of pioneers who did amazing things. I cried for my dad. I hated my mom and I have forgiven my mom. Now I am rethinking every experience I had growing up.

    Genealogy has been my obsession for half my life. This revelation has tarnished my hobby. Would it ever be the same? So far, it is far from the same. I’ve lost some of the spark. I’m lucky that my paternal first cousin has lots of photos and knowledge of my bio-father’s family. He helped my bio-father write his autobiography and gave me a copy.

    This NPE being linked to me was unforeseeable. I insisted that the odd DNA matches stemmed from an older generation. Bottom line, I believe I was meant to be the family genealogist and find out the truth.

    • First and foremost, I am so very sorry for your pain. Second, I fully understand your grieving the loss of your genealogical line. For awhile I wasn’t sure my father was my father, and my thought was that I’d spent 30 years doing someone else’s genealogy. As for your mother, please consider the possibility that the situation may have been consensual and with the knowledge all concerned. I don’t know if you had siblings or not, but my mother told me years ago that often the private answer to being “barren” was to attempt to conceive with someone else. Often a brother of the husband or close friend.

      • Thank you for your wishes and for the interesting twist to think about. My mother was 41 and my bio-father was 57. My mother had a daughter from a previous marriage 21 years before she had me.

  12. Great story! However I am somewhat confused at how one can be certain that half-siblings or close cousins are not half siblings or close cousins when no match is found. I mean, each of us only inherits 50% from each parent, so how can we be sure that the lack of a match isn’t due to each of us inheriting the 50% that the other didn’t inherit? I have had recent cases with my own family. I had only tested my brother and grandmother. Then recently finally myself. I have close matches to cousins that my brother didn’t have simply because he didn’t inherit that part of my Dad’s DNA where our cousin match fell.

  13. Roberta:

    Soon after I read your article I received my AncestryDNA autosomal matches. There were two close matches of 2nd cousins for, as it turns out, my birth father’s family. The result is that I now know the true identity of my birth father. His name is Samuel Dozier Dalbey, Jr., a Paducah, Kentucky native who died in Louisville. .He was an attorney.He fits my birth Mom’s age, her location, my DNA and surname. The grandfather of My two DNA matches was a brother to Samuel’s father. The Dozier name is French Huguenot (d’Ozier).

    Thanks for your hep and encouragement!


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