Blown away with DNA

Stepping out of the routine

You never know, when you start down the path of genetic genealogy and DNA testing, what to expect.

But one thing came clear to me this past week: it’s the very fact that you never know what to expect that makes the journey so worthwhile.

Like many folks who’ve gotten relatives to agree to be DNA-tested, I’m the one who handles the results on a number of tests, these days mostly the Family Finder autosomal DNA tests at Family Tree DNA. Those are the tests that work across genders, that help you identify cousins — often distant cousins — with pretty good reliability.1

The tests are a little frustrating, since you usually don’t share a surname with people that you match. Though the test is really good at telling you you’re related to a match, it’s not so good at predicting just how closely you’re related2 — and that means a lot of chasing possible common-ancestor rabbits that disappear down into genealogical black holes.

By now, I have a system down to a routine. When I check in at Family Tree DNA and see that any of my relatives has a new match, I methodically go through the results page for each person, download a spreadsheet-compatible file of the new matches, and add them to a master list where I can sort them and see which matches might be worth pursuing soonest.

Folks who match more than one member of my family get priority, and folks who match more than one of us at the predicted level of fourth cousin or closer get the highest priority within that priority group. So it was a matter of routine last week, after new results became available between the 19th and 21st of July, to do that match-up and send out my “New results from the Family Finder DNA test show…” introductory emails.

You never know what to expect when you send out those emails. You could get lucky. Sometimes, a recipient responds quickly and with information that can help narrow the search for a common ancestor down to one line or at least to one geographic area and one time frame. You could end up with a total loss. Sometimes, nobody responds, and you’re left to wonder if your emails ended up getting lost in the ether somewhere.

And then again you could get a gut-wrencher. Something that ends up turning your whole attitude about genetic genealogy and why you’re doing what you’re doing upside down.

So it was without any preconceived notions of what might happen when, this past week, I logged in, saw that there were new results, grabbed the new matches and sorted them into my overall list. And up popped Patricia Colleen Dukeman all over my results. She’s a projected third cousin to my uncle David, a projected fourth cousin to me, a projected third cousin to David’s and my cousin Dick on our Cottrell side, and even a projected third cousin to another cousin on our Robertson side.

The next step, of course, is to take a look at Family Tree DNA’s chromosome browser tool to see if there are any obvious patterns. As I explained back in January in “A relative match… or maybe not,”3 autosomal DNA can be tricky: the results can start out looking like there’s an obvious multi-person family link but the link can easily fall apart when you look more closely.

It quickly became apparent that the match to the cousin on the Robertson side was a solo match — likely on that cousin’s paternal line that we don’t share. But the match on our Cottrell side looks like a strong one. Some pretty big chunks that we all share on Chromosome 6. So I shot off my usual email explaining what I thought the results might show and ending with my usual “Hope to hear from you soon” sign-off.

Nothing could have prepared me for the emotional wallop of the response. Only about 10 hours after I sent that message, my computer pinged to let me know an email had arrived. It was from this match, who’s called Trish.

“Thank you for sending me the information,” she began. “I am just beginning this journey. I am adopted.”

Now this isn’t the first email I’ve gotten from a Family Finder match who is an adoptee. But this one was different. Oh so different. It isn’t just the fact that Trish is the closest match I’ve had who is an adoptee that got me. And it isn’t even the odd coincidence that we were born in the same city.

No, what got to me — what blew me away — was the two sentences that followed her introduction of herself in her email.

“You are the first person other than my children that I have ever communicated with that I am related to in some way,” she wrote. “You have no idea how much that means to me.”

She’s right. I don’t have any idea. I can’t.

I grew up in a thoroughly dysfunctional but intact home. I knew who my parents were and their parents and their parents. I grew up knowing my maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and roughly kazillion cousins. I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like not to know the most basic facts about my own heritage. Not to be able to self-identify as a first generation American of a German-born father. Not to know that I was the child of a Texas-born mother, with Texas-born grandparents and great grandparents.

Trish has been battling for years to find the truth about her own roots. When I asked her for permission to share her email here and offered to leave out her last name, she said that wasn’t necessary; she was used to being publicly known as an adoptee from her legal battle to open Colorado’s adoption records.4

We’re working hard to see if my results, and David’s, and Dick’s, can help Trish lighten up some of the murk that clouds her family history. We may not succeed, but we’re sure going to try. In the meantime, she’s gained, oh, about a kazillion cousins, even if at the third and fourth cousin level, we’ve gained Trish and her kids, and I personally have gained a much much deeper appreciation for the family rock on which my ancestors have allowed me to stand than I have ever had before.

And if I never, ever, get one more thing out of all the DNA testing I’ve done and that I’ve paid for than I gained this past week, I will still count every penny as having been well spent.

Because you never know, when you start down the path of genetic genealogy and DNA testing, what to expect.


  1. ISOGG Wiki (, “Autosomal DNA,” rev. 8 Feb 2012.
  2. See Judy G. Russell, “Autosomal DNA testing,” National Genealogical Society Magazine, October-December 2011, 38-43.
  3. Judy G. Russell, “A relative match… or maybe not,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 22 Jan 2012 ( : accessed 28 Jul 2012).
  4. See Karen Auge, “Colorado court pulls the curtain back on adoption records,” Denver Post, online edition, posted 22 Dec 2009 ( : accessed 28 Jul 2012).
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36 Responses to Blown away with DNA

  1. Nan Harvey says:

    Here’s hoping your match enables Trish to find even more family. That’s an awesome story!

  2. Kathy Reed says:

    I have an adopted sister-in-law who made incredible discoveries a couple of years ago after the adoption agency opened her records. Luckily, in her case, it has been a very positive experience. I enjoyed reading this post and wish Trish all the best.

  3. Judy,

    Your story shows the healing power of genealogy. I think that healing underlies why many of us do genealogy. It provides us with a bigger family, more links, and a sense of what conditions produced us.

    I started genealogy using a Family History blank book from the bookstore. My mother wasn’t too keen about her only son marrying, so I felt that I could unit him and his fiancee in a book as a way to support them. I continued doing family history because I found it healed me to find that wider family.

    Yours, Barbara

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I can only hope that the wider family we represent is enough to help carry Trish until she makes the breakthrough she wants, Barbara. But that wider family most surely is what carries ME along on this journey.

  4. Emily Garber says:

    Wonderful post. It’s one thing to do research that is satisfying to ourselves and our known families. It’s quite another thing when our research helps others in unexpected but significant ways.

  5. You and Trish have taken the first steps in what may be an incredible journey. Best of luck in untangling this new web of family unknowns.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks, Barbara! We’re going to need all the help we can get along this way, but I hope it’s going to be a fun trip.

  6. CeCe Moore says:

    This is such a great post. I receive emails from so many adoptees who are just beginning their journey into discovering their roots through DNA testing. They really do need our help. I hope those of us with full, well documented trees extend a helping hand to our matches and that those genealogists who say, “Why should I take a DNA test, I already know my ancestry?” might consider your story a good reason to do so. Those of us who understand the importance and value the journey of learning about our ancestors should be their biggest allies. I have now assisted several adoptees in successful reunions with their immediate biological families through DNA testing and I can tell you – not much is more rewarding than that! Thank you so much for drawing attention to this important and poignant subject.
    CeCe Moore
    Co-director of the Global Adoptee Genealogy Project (launching this fall through the Mixed Roots Foundation)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks, CeCe. I’ll be looking forward to more info about the Global Adoptee Genealogy Project — what a great thing to do!! And may well have some questions for you as Trish and I push the envelope of my knowledge of the DNA testing.

    • Gaye Tannenbaum says:

      This is wonderful!

      When I first did mtDNA testing back in 2006, I had the overwhelming feeling that since my matches had ancestors, I must have ancestors too!

      It turns out this is universal among adoptees. We didn’t just fall out of the sky or pop up in some cabbage patch. We really are part of humanity.

      Thank you so much for telling this story.

      Found mother 2009
      Still looking for father – but I’ve identified some 3rd great grandparents!

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        The humanity of adoptees is clear, Gaye. The lack of it in some of the rest of us is what needs curing every so often. I appreciate being forced to reexamine my own experience this way.

  7. Debi Austen says:

    What a great story. I hope so much you are able to help Trish put the puzzle together!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You and me both, Deb. Even if I can just help a little, it’ll be payback for the lesson I learned here.

  8. Lynne Carothers says:

    Wow! This is a great story, Judy. You are in a very unique position to help bring family to this woman. She is lucky to have found you and you are lucky to have found her. I wish the entire extended family success.

  9. Thanks for the great story! I’m most appreciate as I am not
    only an adult adoptee, but was a foundling as well. For those
    who don’t know, it’s a child of unknown parentage. Been searching
    my entire adult life with no results, so took the Family Finder
    test last November. Have contacted a few but no results so far.
    I, too, am blown away when I see that I have 75 pages, so far, of
    DNA “cousins” with from 2nd-3rd to 5th cousin matches. Similarly,
    my children have been my only known family, since, so far, I’ve been
    my only own ancestor It has had a profound effect on my life, making
    me feel cut off, separate, different and lonely all my life, not knowing
    of family of origin. Thanks so much. Jennie

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Jennie, I can’t imagine your situation and hope you find some answers some day. With 75 pages of results, of course, you likely come from what’s called an endogamous population (one where there were often cousin marriages, usually because of legal restrictions on marriage and religious reasons) and very likely Ashkenazi Jewish. That creates it own set of problems — lots of matches, yes, but most of them not as close as they might appear to be.

  10. Anita Walker Field says:

    Kudos to you for this marvelous post. I am a senior citizen and an adoptee. I did not know one single soul on the planet to whom I was related. Just 4 months after testing with FFDNA, I was “found” by a 4th cousin. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened his email post and discovered that I actually had a real, live biological relative. This cousin has welcomed me into the clan with open arms. I have to pinch myself from time to time to make sure it’s really true – that I actually have a family tree. My original birth certificate is a hodge podge of truths, half-truths and lies. Therefore, I could never be certain of the veracity of any of the data. Genetic geneaology confirmed for me that my birth mother’s surname, as it appears on my birth certificate, is the truth. This gem alone is worth everything in the world to me.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Oh good for you and your 4th cousin! I’m so glad you’re getting some of your answers through genetic genealogy!

  11. L. McMillan says:

    Judy, I have been a faithful reader and awed by the faithfulness with which you blog and the wide range of fascinating topics you cover. But this post was the first that made me cry. Geneology has given me such a sense of where I came from and a sense of identity. And like you, I know or know of, all my immediate family members and a few beyond. However, I am also the mother of two young girls adopted from China, and I am heart sick that they may very well never have this peace of knowing anything about their parentage or ancestors. I keep my fingers crossed that the DNA databases around the world will continue to expand so that some day they have the chance to connect with blood relatives who can give them some ideas of where their many gifts and talents come from and share family history that adds to their sense of self.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      We can only cross our fingers and hope that DNA becomes a universal language of family, across the miles, across the generations. I hope your daughters get some answers some day, but I’d be willing to bet that they wouldn’t trade the love and care they’re receiving even for those answers.

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  13. Amy D Craft says:

    Judy and Trish!

    Thank you so much for this story. Tears are streaming down my cheeks as I realize Trish’s letter reflects my life to this point. You cannot know the agony of not being “privy” to your birthright! To know for instance, why you tower over everyone at 5’10″, or whether your children will be diabetic or develop cancer. My best friend Helen, recently shared this “new” genealogical DNA search with me. So, even if you don’t have “volunteers” specifically looking, you may match relatives anyway? Do I understand correctly?

    I tried some time ago, petitioning the court, etc. I finally have my birth name! that I pried out of an “aunt” but otherwise, nothing beyond that. Very disheartening.

    Good Luck Trish! It sounds like you are ON YOUR WAY HOME!!!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You do understand correctly, Amy: there may be relatives out there who have done this testing and if so you will show as a match. It isn’t easy to connect to them specifically — just where the common ancestor is can be a very difficult question and often is never answered. But it’s one more thing to try, for sure. Good luck to you in your search!

      • Trish Dukeman says:

        Hello Amy After years of searching and finding mis information, I finally have something concrete to go on. The closest match I have is 2 to 4 th cousin so far, but that is more than I have had before. Looking at Judy’s web page and family history with my kids we discover page after page after page of common family traits. It is a wonderful feeling. I’m very lucy to have found a special special cousin that provided us with a link to our roots.

  14. Lisa Mohler says:

    This made me cry. Im a 41 year old Texas born adoptee, I can relate to Trish. I have very little information on my birth parents and my records are sealed here in Texas, even with the non-identifying information I was given I’ve had no luck with finding family. My daughter, who is also very interested in finding my family bought me a test kit for her birthday last month. We’re still awaiting results and very anxious/excited to start this journey. Even if I don’t find my birth parents I’d still be happy in knowing that I’m actually related to someone other than my children and grand children. I wish you luck in finding the answers you seek and hope that you (Trish) have a very happy reunion in the near future.

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  16. Clydene Williams Cannon says:

    I too am helping an adoptee, Vicky Lee Duckett born December 29, 1956 in AZ, and have recently had her send in her mt-DNA Sample. We have the adoption papers. She is now Sarah Anita Fairchilds.

    We are very excited and waiting anxiously for her results. I know how you feel.

    Every one on this earth deserves to know from whence they came and it’s a shame there are so many sealed adoptions in this country.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I wish you both the very best of luck in getting all the information you can get, Clydene. I’m still in awe of my cousin Trish and so hopeful she too can find her answers.

  17. Paul Smith says:

    Judy, here’s a good future article title for you: DNA Dumpster Diving: Should it be legal? or maybe Is it legal? Would love to hear your thoughts on it if you decide to write about it.

    Saw the Eastman blog about the Mocavo blog about the article.



    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I will address this down the road, Paul, but the bottom line always is: get permission. It’s simple genealogical ethics, no matter what the law does or doesn’t allow.

  18. donna lynn (williams) gattuso says:


    I wish you all the best in your search, though, as I’m sure Judy has told you about the kajilions of cousins you may soon claim, there is the caveat of ‘be careful what you wish for’ to consider (WINK). Until proven otherwise, I’m more than happy to wish you a ‘welcome to the family’ !! :-)

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