Lessons learned on this search:
- The things adoptees have believed all their lives about their birth parents can be slightly inaccurate, and they can be totally fabricated. Use the non-identifying information if you have it for clues, but take it with a big grain of salt.
- LDS Social Services does not make it easy for adult adoptees to get post-adoption information or non-identifying information which could include things such as age of birth parents at time of birth, parent’s height, hair color, other children if any, occupations, hobbies, etc.
- Always test the oldest members in your family first.
- Even if contact with a birth parent is not chosen for a really good reason, you can find out about many fine-upstanding generations of ancestors of that parent back in the tree that the adoptee or searcher can take pride in.
- Sometimes you have to wait for a new match to “break the case.”
Once I had finished finding my brother’s birth mom’s parents and their families, I started teaching what I’d learned about searching with DNA as it relates to genealogy so more people could learn what to do with their DNA results and how to interpret them. I taught at Family Discovery days, in small family history Sunday School classes and for genealogy clubs.
After one Sunday School class, a woman named Tomie I didn’t know very well came up and said, “I was adopted.” I responded casually, “Oh really? I didn’t know that. Are you thinking of taking a DNA test?” “I already have tested Ancestry and 23andMe,” she said. I asked if she would like me to help her interpret her results, and build a family tree from scratch to try to identify birth parents. Actually, I probably didn’t sound as casual as I would have liked, and I didn’t give her much choice, but just said, “I’m going to help you!”
I had caught the DNA bug. I loved solving sometimes complicated mysteries and helping long-lost family reconnect if they wished to do so. I enjoyed combing through the DNA numbers, puzzling over the possible relationships based on the numbers, scouring match’s trees (for those who have online trees) and building out sourced trees with ancestors and living people. The trees are private as I build them.
Tomie’s son, Tyson, wanted to be involved in the search, so each step I took I filled him in. He was my sounding board for possibilities in his mom’s matches, and he had tested, too, so I could compare his numbers to many of the same matches.
Tyson said his mom’s top match was a predicted aunt (Ancestry’s prediction of relationship at the time). They did not know if she was a maternal aunt or a paternal aunt. The probable aunt had both sisters and brothers. She had not responded to a message they sent. Her match to Tomie was 1,797 centiMorgans (cM), which is in range to be either a half sibling, full aunt (or uncle, niece or nephew), or grandparent. Her age compared to Tomie’s age made aunt most likely. Half-sibling could have been possible on her dad’s side, although her dad was almost 59 when Tomie was born, and not known to be in Utah, where Tomie was born.
Her user name was not her full name or maiden name, but included her married name, so we could determine which aunt she was (the one who had that married name).
She did not have a tree attached to her DNA, so it said “No tree” on her DNA page. However, she had a small, public tree on her Ancestry profile page. From that tree, I could see that she had many ancestors from Switzerland, and some from Germany who seemed to settle in one part of Illinois. This indicated that Tomie probably had those same ancestors from Switzerland and Germany. To me, things like that are thrilling to find out, because having that much Swiss ancestry, for example, is not really common for an American. Tomie’s ethnicity estimate also showed indications of Western European ancestry, with a 29% estimate for having ancestors from that part of the world.
I had permission from Tomie to reach out to anyone connected in some way. I had noticed that there was someone in Utah who contributed a lot of information on this family on FamilySearch.org, which is like a One World tree where anyone can contribute information. This person had left her phone number on FamilySearch, so I thought she was a safe bet to contact, that she would be open to learning about Tomie’s adoption and answering questions about their family tree.
I determined that she was a niece to the woman who tested, so she was a possible first cousin to Tomie. I got a voice mail for her, and I left a message saying I was helping my friend with her family history. I included my first hypothesis for how Tomie was connected to her family. This first hypothesis was based on the two main things Tomie had always been told about her adoption: 1) Her birth parents were “older,” not the typical teenagers who might place a baby for adoption. 2) Her birth mother was an accomplished pianist.
This was my first search outside my own family, and I was still learning the best ways to contact, and recommended things to say on contact. If I contacted this person today, I would be very brief and general, and not leave any details in a voice mail. I didn’t hear back from this person for over three weeks. By that time, I already knew exactly where Tomie fit in that side of the family tree.
While I could build out several generations on several lines, the highest match to Tomie on the other side of the family (not the side with the probable aunt match) was at 302 cM. This was to a J.R., a kit managed by someone else. There was a tree, limited mostly to his father’s side of the family. Of course, that was not the side of his family I needed to build out. His mother was a Hansen by birth, and his Ancestry online tree stopped with her, and did not list her parents or siblings.
All black-and-white photos in this post are women who are direct ancestors of Tomie on her maternal side
The highest match that J.R. and Tomie shared was Elaine, a 205 cM match to Tomie. I found a phone number for this match and I called her. Elaine was happy to talk about family history, and she told me about Tomie’s J.R. match. J.R. is John Robertson Rampton, Jr. 1922-2015, who had been a senior member of his family at the Rampton family reunions. He passed away just a few weeks after he took his DNA test at age 93! His DNA test and match to Tomie was crucial, so I am so grateful that Elaine and Carol (a Rampton family reunion organizer) offered him a DNA test in time. After I built out his mom’s lines in Tomie’s research tree, I could tell that J.R.’s most recent common ancestors to Tomie were probably James Jensen Hansen, of Denmark, and his last wife, Christina Rasmusson Peterson of Sweden, as several of Tomie’s other DNA matches in different families led to the same couple.
Elaine emailed me a mini-biography of their common ancestor Christina Rasmusson Peterson, whose family had joined the LDS church in Sweden and immigrated to America. Tomie and her children are LDS. All of a sudden, they knew the names of some of their pioneer ancestors and could read accounts of their immigration, life in the old country, and forging a living in the American west.
The most touching part of this particular biography was to find that Christina was a pianist and organist, just like Tomie, so they had that connection. Christina was asked by her husband if she wanted a new second floor to their home or an organ, and she chose the organ! In the evenings she would play hymns and the songs she had learned in English. All her children were very musical.
Elaine said on October 24, 2016, about two weeks into the search, “You need to talk to Candace, she has more genealogy information on this family than I do.” She had been to Candace’s house in Utah, and could tell me where it was, but she did not have contact information handy. Using public records, I found a valid number for Candace. It happened to be her cell phone. I called and she said, “I’m here with my mother, who is very sharp. Let me put you on speaker phone.”
I shared Tomie’s adoption story with them briefly, where she was born and when she was born, and included the two things Tomie had been told about her adoption: 1) “Older” birth parents 2) Birth mother accomplished pianist.
They were very warm and welcoming. They didn’t know yet how Tomie fit on the family tree, but wherever she fit, she was invited to be part of the family. Candace said they would give it some thought, and talk to a few other members of the family about their memories of this time period. No one in their immediate family had taken a DNA test, but Candace said her daughter was a biologist and was very interested in DNA and learning how to help adoptees and others with unknown parentage.
In the meantime, while building Tomie’s tree on Ancestry, I saw that many photos of this family had been contributed by someone whose first and last name I knew. Barbara had lived in my church congregation in Arizona at one point. I didn’t know her well, but I knew her well enough to call and tell her about this quest. I found out from Tomie that the two of them did not know each other, although their husbands had crossed paths. I called Barbara and found out she had not taken a DNA test. I shared the basics of where we were in the search. She said that the only person in her family that she knew of who had placed a baby for adoption was young at the time, she thought 14, a cousin who had a baby boy. Since Tomie was female, and Barbara’s cousin was a young teen, this narrative didn’t fit what Tomie had been told about her origins.
Barbara told me one more thing that I wrote down in my notes: Her cousin who placed a baby for adoption had conceived this child because she had been raped by two men as she walked home alone at night from a church youth activity in Salt Lake City in 1958. This was shocking to hear that this happened to anyone, let alone a young girl. I made a note to look for news articles about this crime, or possibly court records that would have more information. I put it on the back burner, because the gender of the baby in this story was not the same as Tomie’s gender.
No new, high matches for Tomie came in on any of the databases until about one week before Halloween 2016. Then Paul Nelson popped up. I am including his last name because without it, the reason this “broke the case” won’t make much sense. His match to Tomie was 320 cM, so about the same number as J.R.’s match to Tomie.
I called Paul, who lived in the same small town in Utah where my dad had grown up. Paul only had 20 people in his Ancestry tree online, just his direct lines, but when I asked about Hansen connections, he said his dad’s brother Quentin was married to Beryl, who I knew was Candace’s mother’s sister, and Barbara’s father’s sister. They were the only three children in that family. This information had me on high alert. How could Tomie be so closely related to both the Hansen family and to Paul’s Nelson family, unless she was a descendant of both families, in the not too distant past? This particular couple (Quentin and Beryl) didn’t seem a shoo-in at first as Tomie’s birth grandparents, because their oldest child was 15 at the time Tomie was born. I had not abandoned the narrative Tomie had been told about her birth parents being older.
So I searched for another answer. Was there another Nelson-Hansen connection in this family somewhere, a marriage or any other liaison that resulted in a birth? Was there a missing child, another adoption perhaps? I could not find any indication of those things, but they can be hard to find.
I spent time making sure I had all of Beryl’s and Quentin’s children accounted for in Tomie’s research tree. Did Quentin and Beryl have a child older than the oldest one I knew of, the one who was 15 at the time Tomie was born? It is sometimes harder to locate records on living people and make sure you’re not missing someone who is not close to the others, or maybe not on social media, or with an online presence.
After I had exhausted all my resources searching for an older child, it was late Sunday night, on Halloween Eve. I send Tyson a private Facebook message, saying I was 99.9% confident in my latest hypothesis that Tomie’s birth mom was Michelle, who was 15 years old at the time of Tomie’s birth. All the DNA match numbers worked for relationships for Tomie in this spot in the family tree.
Some resources to search for living people:
- pipl.com (free if you don’t click the sponsored links)
- Quanki (works best if you know their location of current state, and possibly city)
- BeenVerified (subscription site – valuable to check criminal records, which I always do before contacting anyone)
- Spokeo (subscription site – sometimes has more current phone numbers than other sites. Often has month and year of birth)
- Facebook! It’s amazing the public information that people put out there. Check their About page, their friends list, their photo albums (for ancestor photos or family get together photos), and go through some timeline posts that are public.
One of my next steps would have been to contact Candace again, and ask about Michelle. The next morning, on Halloween, my cell phone rang. It was Candace, who said, “Tomie’s birth mom is my cousin, and she would like to talk to Tomie.” I asked, “Is it Michelle?” We had never discussed Candace’s cousins by name, other than she knew I had talked to Barbara on the other family line. Candace said, “Yes, it’s Michelle, but she will only talk to Tomie, and so I will give her Tomie’s number and she will call or text.” Both Candace and I were crying during this conversation, because the thought of them reconnecting was so precious to us.
Candace knew about her cousin Michelle being raped as a young teen that night. Because that happened to Michelle, Candace and the other cousins were never allowed to walk alone when they were growing up, especially at night. She told me that Michelle had been put under during Tomie’s birth, and later for whatever reason was told that her baby had been a boy. She had to wrap her head around the fact she had had a baby girl. New information like this can take time to process. Sometimes it takes a lot of time, so be patient with others.
Michelle is the cousin Barbara told me about who was brutally raped by two men, an 18-year-old and 20-year-old. I had never gotten the name of this cousin from Barbara. I was able to find a newspaper article about the crime and the charges that listed the men’s names only. The name of the 20 year old charged was a brother of the aunt on the other side of Tomie’s DNA matches, so now we know which of the two brothers in that family was Tomie’s biological father, and also which of the two men who were rapists was the biological father. Tomie wants no contact with his family, and I don’t blame her, but his ancestors are in the tree for her and her children, if they ever want to find out about their distant heritage on that side. There are some good people on that side, although it is disconcerting to know her biological father did such a terrible thing.
Michelle’s whole life changed as a result of this crime and resulting pregnancy. She had to testify at the trials. She missed most of her year at school, and when she came back, her friends abandoned her. She had a hard time conceiving children after that, and eventually through in-vitro, had one other child, a son, 14 years younger than Tomie.
Was Michelle an accomplished pianist, as Tomie had been told? No, but her mother, Beryl, was. In fact, Tomie’s adoptive parents were asked by Michelle’s parents through the adoption agency to make sure Tomie had piano lessons, and that in particular she learn Claire de Lune, a song she was able to play with uncommon talent this year for her grandmother Beryl, now 96.
Recommended reading: “Birthright: The Guide to Search and Reunion for Adoptees, Birthparents and Adoptive Parents” (and all associated with them) by Jean A.S. Strauss, 1994. This is not a DNA related book; it’s over 20 years old, but it gives a lot of examples, good and bad, of how actual reunions went. There are tips on how to navigate uncharted territory for building new relationships. It’s not always sunshine and puppy tails in reunion, so be prepared for ups and downs.
Here are the actual relationships for Tomie and the key DNA testers in this story:
- John Robertson Rampton: First cousin twice removed (1C2R) 302 cM of shared DNA. He also happens to be related to Tomie’s good friend, Allison, although I don’t think Tomie and Allison are related to each other. They have this common relative, though.
- Elaine: Second cousin once removed (2C1R) 205 cM of shared DNA.
- Paul Nelson: Second cousin (2C, they share a set of great-grandparents) 320 cM of shared DNA.
- Length of time in weeks for this case to identify birth mother and birth father: Three weeks (from start time until both parents were in their spots in the research tree)
- Estimated search hours, according to my husband: 200 hours (I don’t track my volunteer hours on purpose, but I am persistent in following one clue to the next, even if I don’t get enough sleep!)
Note: There are a couple of automated third party tools that can sometimes make tree/pedigree triangulation quicker than this method I tend to use of manually triangulating trees. But if you have a knack for doing it this way, I’ve heard it’s OK to stick with what is working!
Stay tuned for reunion dos and don’ts, tips on how to request non-identifying information/post-adoption report (especially from LDS Family Services), and highlights of Tomie’s meetings with new family members!