Troubleshooting: Common Issues That Arise in The Search For Birth Parents

Issues are bound to arise during the search for biological family. Many aren’t as insurmountable as they first appear. The following are the issues I see crop-up the most and how I handle them:

Endogamy: defines endogamy as “the custom of marrying only within the limits of a local community, clan, or tribe.”

Endogamy usually happens in communities with small, isolated populations. Some groups choose to marry in-group for cultural reasons like Ashkenazi Jews; some marry in-group because the population is small like the ‘founder effect’ seen in Colonial Americans; some marry in-group due to isolation like in island nations such as Puerto Rico and Newfoundland.

What does endogamy mean to genetic genealogy and the search for your biological parents? It means trust nothing. Of all the issues that crop up, endogamy is the one that makes me craziest. Really. Crazy. All the information is right there, it should be easy, but it isn’t. Endogamy is a tightly woven knot you need to untangle. Intermarriage leads to more of the same DNA being passed down generation-to-generation, which makes you appear to be more closely related to someone than you actually are.

If you come from an endogamous population, you must exercise extreme caution when using shared matches to separate family lines. The same surnames are likely to appear over and over again—even if you aren’t biologically related to that name at all, and it isn’t unusual to be related to a person on several different lines. My personal record for ways related that I’ve uncovered is 6.

The most important tool you can use when dealing with endogamy is a chromosome browser. Gedmatch, MyHeritage, FTDNA and 23andMe all offer this option. AncestryDNA does not. People have begged for a chromosome browser, but so far, our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. If you run into endogamy, you’ll want to move on over to the other DNA platforms to work it out.

Records that aren’t in your native language: As long as the records exist, you can find them, and you can translate them. Yes, it’s a tedious process, but the Google translate app has made it so much easier. Download the app, take a screenshot of the record you want translated, and let Google work its magic.

Recent Immigrants: Having ancestors that were recent immigrants can be a blessing and/or a curse. The blessing is you aren’t likely to get twisted up by endogamy. The family lines of recent immigrants are usually very easy to separate. The “curse” is in finding records. Using DNA to find your biological family is often only as useful as the records available to back it up, and with new immigrants, the records may not be easily accessible. If you don’t have close family matches, you need to be able to build trees and connect the different family lines. In situations where the records are scant, you may find that your only option is to move ‘sideways.’

When I direct you to move sideways, I mean build out your tree along the collateral lines. Dig into brothers and sister, nieces and nephews, and in-laws and their families. Search out obituaries, newspaper articles, and ransack personal directories like the WhitePages.

No Online Records or The Records Dead End: This one is a barrier you may not be able to overcome. Keep trying to move sideways. If that doesn’t work, you’re going to have to start ‘knocking on doors.’ Response rates on sites like Ancestry, 23andMe, and GedMatch are notoriously low, and I hate depending on them–but desperate times call for desperate measures. Don’t start sending random messages, though. Have a game plan. Know what you want to ask. Be polite. Send as many messages to as many people as you can stand to send.

After doing all that, you’re going to have to wait. You have to wait for responses; you have to wait for useful responses; you have to wait for more people to upload their DNA; you have to check back, and check back, and check back. I truly believe you wont have a brick wall on your hands forever, but it will take some waiting, maybe even a lot of waiting, but eventually you’ll demolish that brick wall.