New and Innovative Ways to Help Find Unknown Ancestors

Several years ago I began to study the possibility of doing DNA testing with the ultimate goal of seeing if it could possibly help me to find my birth family.  I took a couple of courses on DNA at the local university and started reading everything I could get my hands on about DNA.

I contacted my good friend, Cece Moore, Your Genetic Genealogist, who I had been corresponding with for years on our genealogical connections. Cece has become the guru of DNA information and analysis combining it with her love of genealogy. And basically this combination is beginning to become the new innovative method of identifying unknown ancestors, whether you are adopted or not.

Before I get into the DNA angle, let me list some suggestions for adoptees. 

1. Put together a file with all the information you have on your birth and adoption, including copies of any birth or adoption documents that you may have and keep some kind of journal to record any progress.

2. Have you or are you working with anyone else to help them find your families? Occasionally we find that some adoptees have contacted other search angels who already have done some work. This prevents duplication of efforts.

3. Do you have non-identifying information provided by an agency?  If not, it is one of the first things you should try and get, if available. If you are unsure as to how to do that, we can help.

4. Are you registered with any state adoption registries? Have you posted your search to any online adoption registries or databases?

6. Depending on which state you were born and/or adopted in, you may already be eligible for original birth certificates or other information. Nineteen states do have some records open, either complete or partial. See list of states here: List of states with partial or full open records

We also recommend you join the yahoo group DNAadoption at Yahoo groups, an extremely active group with experts in all areas of DNA and adoptee searching.

What DNA tests should you do?

For males usually anything less than Y-DNA37 is essentially useless in identifying a surname. Males should have done at least Y-DNA37 unless they only have a few matches at a lower level.  If you already have done Y-DNA12 or Y-DNA25 and you have a number of matches, you should upgrade to at least Y-DNA37. Males should also do their autosomal DNA ("atDNA") (Family Finder at FTDNA; Relative Finder at 23andMe).

Females should have their atDNA done (Family Finder or Relative Finder).

For both males and females, we have found that Mitochondrial DNA is not real helpful because it's usually much too far back (1,000s of years). For adoptees, it will be rare to find a match to your biological family in recent generations using only mtDNA.  If you wish to have your mtDNA done you should have the Full mitochondrial sequence ("FMS") done.

If you have known living biological ancestors (such as you know your mother, but not your father) additional DNA tests should be done on those biological family members to help in possible phasing of your data (analyzing and recognizing the segments that are maternal vs. paternal) and possibly see other matches based on the randomness of DNA.

Once your test results are posted, you should download your raw data and upload to GEDmatch ( Fishing in two ponds is better than one. Additional information and instructions to upload to Gedmatch can be found at

GEDmatch is a FREE, non-profit, “do-it-yourself” genomics website that allows DNA testers to upload raw data from FTDNA and other companies to compare with a large database of data that has been voluntarily uploaded by other testers.

My Tests

I had my DNA first tested at Family Tree DNA and also at 23andMe.  Both companies are recognized with state of the art testing, each has their pros and cons as I have discovered, but their analyses are well respected within the DNA community. I also more recently tested with AncestryDNA but that's another story for another blog post.  Nothing wrong there, they are just not geared to those of us who are interested in more detailed information regarding our results.  It can be helpful for some but since most adoptees have no idea of their ancestry, and have no family tree to link their results to, it may not be as helpful, unless you know at least some in your biological family and can post a tree to link your results.

For a female my only options were autosomal DNA ("atDNA") and/or mitochondrial DNA ("mtDNA").  At the time I was not well enough versed in which tests would give me the most bang for my buck, I opted to take the Family Finder (atDNA) plus mtDNA.  The 23andMe test automatically includes both, and Y-DNA for males. These tests are not cheap and spending $300 is not unusual. Sometimes FTDNA and 23andMe run sales which can save you at least 20% if not more.

The day finally came when my results were posted.  The dream of every adoptee is to have a 2nd cousin or better match on atDNA tests.  A 2nd cousin match would mean that you shared the same great grandparents.  As we only have a total of 8 great grandparents, this narrows down the field considerably of possible descendants who could be your birth parents.  The further back we go the more descendants to wade through. But I was beginning to realize that it was not impossible.....difficult and tedious? Yes, but the thought entered my mind.....why hasn't this been explored further? My years of work in genealogy was the perfect match for attempting something like this.  The skills I had learned could certainly be put to use in solving this mystery.

Next Step

I joined a few adoptee mailing lists. Eventually I found the awesome and extremely active DNAadoption at YahooGroups which had been recently started. Early on, not many of us were extremely well versed in DNA analysis but we all knew that this avenue of possibly solving the mysteries of our heritage was a new road we all wished to be traveling. Today there are close to 500 members of this group.  We have people who are experts in Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, Y-DNA, German adoptions, search angels who comb records, and many others.  I contacted Cece and told her about it and said, "We could really use your help here."  She joined and has been one of our biggest assets and cheerleaders. We are all learning more and more and we all agreed that there definitely was a "method to our madness."

I also joined DNA-Newbie at YahooGroups moderated by Cece. Although not specifically geared towards adoptees, this list is a "must read" for anybody attempting DNA analysis. Another active mailing list is which may address more complex matters regarding DNA but it is well worth putting on your reading list.  A great place to learn.

Each day I learn something new from the people on these lists. The subject matter on DNA is excruciatingly complex.  Many times I have to read an article 6 times for it to sink it. But the more I read, I realized that this intricate technology could be the latest innovation in finding my Foleys. The world of DNA is changing as we speak. Just in the last few months new discoveries and new methods are changing how scientists understand this once little known phenomenon.

Methods and tools are now being developed that will help adoptees in their searches. I met Rob Warthen on the AdoptionDNA list.  His expertise in programming and development along with his inspiration to help find his wife's birth family has led him to pioneer the development of tools and programs that has eased the process of retrieving DNA data and make it easier to manipulate. His website is being developed to add these tools in a web based format. We all hope that 2013 will show a new growth of the use of these tools and programs with the ultimate goal of finding adoptees' place in their biological families.

What's Next

Cece Moore, Rob Warthen and I recently spoke at the 8th International Conference on Genetic Genealogy in Houston explaining the methodology.  It was well received and those of us involved are continuing to try and make it easier for adoptees to understand and use the tools. There is a light shining brightly at the end of that unknown tunnel and the methodologies have already been proven.  I expect that in the next year or two as new developments occur in the field of DNA we will begin to see a flood of questions answered for many adoptees.


The theory is simple - Find your DNA matches; Find others who match people on your list of matches by comparing chromosomal segments and overlaps; Find the ancestors of those matches; how they connect and work ancestral trees both linearly and laterally with the ultimate goal of finding your place in that family.

The execution is hard work, complex and tedious - but it can be done.  It has been done!

Suggested Reading

Richard Hill, one of my co-administrators at the Global Adoptee Genealogical Project at FTDNA, tells the story of his decades-long search for biological family and the innovative use of genetic genealogy DNA tests to identify his birth father. I highly recommend this well written book for anybody searching for their unknown ancestors.

Karin Corbeil/Carol Lee Foley
Daughter of Edward & Helen Rasmussen Baum and Robert & Barbara Foley Shumsky