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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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