DNA & Mirror Trees to the Rescue: Finding a Birth Father

DNA & Mirror Trees to the Rescue: Finding a Birth Father

Latest Update:

TH just received DNA confirmation of her birth father!  He has a picture of a Vietnamese woman who might be TH’s birth mom.  TH has been in touch her brothers and one of their daughters, who is her niece and who looks very much like her!

TH’s friend, who helped take care of TH in the orphanage, started a fundraiser to bring TH and her son to the U.S. to meet her newfound family.  If you’d like to donate from the US, you can use PayPal.

DNA and Mirror Trees were key to finding the birth father of my client (TH).  If you’d like to learn more about Mirror Trees, I’m teaching a DNA Boot Camp this Saturday that covers Mirror Trees!  To sign up, follow this link!


TH knew the following about her birth.

  1. TH’s BF was Vietnam Veteran of African American descent.
  2. Her birth mother was Vietnamese.
  3. She was born around 1973.
  4. She was part of Operation Babylift, which was a mass evacuation of children out of South Vietnam to other countries.
  5. She was in an orphanage, along with her brother.
  6. An English couple adopted TH (but not her brother).

DNA Testing

TH searched for her birth father for six years, with my help for the last two.   TH submitted her DNA to Ancestry, 23andMe, and FamilyTreeDNA four to five years ago.  She was on Gedmatch also.  A cousin from Minnesota provided tremendous help, along with cousins in the Carolinas.  The cousins were found through DNA testing.  However, they didn’t know how they’re related to TH—just that they’re family.

TH’s DNA matches included a few 2nd and 3rd cousin matches.  However, most of their family trees were severely limited due to slavery’s impact on records.  For example, slaves were not enumerated by name until after the Civil War, which ended in 1865.  Slavery’s lingering effects also impacted census records into the mid-1900s.  New surnames were often adopted, which usually cannot be traced to before the Civil War.  In addition, census records for African Americans completely missed some African Americans well into the mid-1900s.  Census records also contain incomplete or incorrect information.  This history makes family tree building for African Americans very difficult.

TH’s K Matches

TH had several DNA matches that matched each other (Shared Matches on Ancestry; In-Common-With on FamilyTreeDNA).  Some of them had K ancestors (that is, ancestors from a family with a surname starting with a K).  A close match had ancestors from Baldwin County, Alabama, but he had no Ks in his tree.  Another match had K ancestors from this Alabama county.  However, other K ancestors were from the Carolinas.  There seemed to be connections holding this group together.  However, it wasn’t possible to sew the pieces together.

K Mirror Tree

A Mirror Tree was built that included each of the matches and their ancestors.  But, it was impossible to connect the branches in the Mirror Tree, with one exception.  That was that two matches shared the same K grandfather from the Carolinas.  Yet, these matches were more distant.  Thus, they were connected to TH further back in their tree.  In addition, these Carolina Ks could not be connected to the Alabama Ks.  Therefore, things were at a standstill.

Then, a close match (OK) appeared on TH’s Ancestry list.  They shared about 450 cM of DNA.  This meant that OK could be TH’s

  1. 1st cousin, once removed (1C1R),
  2. ½-1st cousin (1/2-1C), or
  3. ½-great uncle.

OK and TH were about the same age.  Thus, the last option seemed unlikely.  This left 1C1R and ½-1C, which would be related as follows:

  1. 1C1R = one person’s grandparents are the other person’s great grandparents or
  2. ½-1C = they share one grandparent (but not the other).

OK reached out to TH to ask about her family, which, of course, she knew very little, other than her birth father was an African American Vietnam Vet.  OK said that he had an uncle who was a drill sergeant in Vietnam.   His other uncles weren’t in Vietnam.  Also, his Vietnam Vet uncle was his dad’s ½-brother.  If this uncle was TH’s birth father, then OK was TH’s ½-1C!!!

OK’s line (OK, OK’s dad, and OK’s grandfather) was added to the K Mirror Tree. OK’s grandfather’s parents were added: JK and AS.  This was a breakthrough!  Some of TH’s K matches had JK and AS (or JK and A (no last name)) in their trees!  This allowed sewing together three matches—OK, RS, QI—along with TH herself  in the K Mirror Tree!

The two other matches—RS and QI—were TH’s 2nd cousins, once removed.  They share the following amounts of DNA:

  1. RS and TH share 77 cM of DNA and
  2. QI and TH share 154 cM of DNA.

2nd cousins, once removed usually share between 30 and 215 cM of DNA, with an average of 112 cM of DNA.  Thus, the DNA information was consistent with the K Mirror Tree!  It appeared that TH’s BF had been identified!


DNA Evidence to Connect to Your Veteran Ancestors

Memorial Day is upon us. It’s a day to honor those who served in the military.  Maybe you’re a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), or another lineage society. Or maybe you would like to join one of these organizations.

As genealogists, you might have papers, photographs, and military records to document your ancestors’ military service.   And you might have records, such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, and the like, to establish your connection to your veteran ancestor.

Have you ever wondered whether DNA evidence can be used to show your connection to your veteran ancestors? This article provides answers to that question, using the DAR and SAR as examples.

DNA and Daughters of the American Revolution

On January 2, 2014, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) announced it would begin accepting Y-DNA as evidence of lineage submitted with DAR membership applications. Now the DAR allows DNA evidence in support of both new membership applications and supplemental applications for the DAR. DNA evidence can be used in combination with other types of evidence, but not alone.

Y-DNA as Evidence

What Y-DNA evidence can be used? DAR staff genealogists will only consider Y-DNA 37 marker test results. (DAR Citation)   Companies like FamilyTreeDNA.com (FTDNA) offer a Y-DNA 37 marker tests. The number 37 refers to how many markers are tested. This is the lowest number that FTDNA tests.

Initially, this acceptance of Y-DNA might seem counterintuitive: on the one hand, the DAR is a women-only lineage society; on the other hand, Y-DNA is DNA passed exclusively from men to their sons. Thus, a Y-DNA test is used to study a man’s patrilineal line (that is, the direct father’s line).

So why use Y-DNA? The DAR’s reasoning on this is provided in its Policy Statement and Background: Using DNA Evidence for DAR Applications. Here it is.

The current accuracy of the 37 marker Y-DNA test does not allow for positively identifying descent from a specific ancestor, but does provide a high degree of certainty (95%) that two living men share a common ancestor at more than 150 years but less than 200 years, if they match at all 37 marker locations.

The DAR provides DNA Test Requirements.  These requirements include the following: submission of Y-DNA test results and other specified information from at least two individuals.

  • The first person is a male relative of the applicant who shares with the applicant (or the applicant’s mother) an unbroken paternal line to the Revolutionary War ancestor. Page 1 of the Requirements has a diagram showing possible male relatives that can be used.
  • The second person must be a close male relative of a member who has a previously verified new or supplemental application through an unbroken male line to a different son of the same patriot. ( at p. 2) Page 2 of the Requirements has a diagram showing possible male relatives that can be used for the second person.

There must be a 37 of 37 marker match between the first and second persons. The DAR states that this DNA matching is evidence that the applicant and the person with the previously verified application both descend from the same patriot. Further details of the requirements are available on page 3 of the Requirements.

Keep in mind that the DAR accepts this DNA evidence in conjunction with paper evidence.

DNA and Sons of the American Revolution

Like the DAR, the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) allows DNA evidence in support of an application. The SAR’s Application Preparation Manual states that “DNA evidence can only be used as part of a proof argument that includes additional conventional proof of the lineage.”

Unlike the DAR, the SAR allows for more types of DNA to be used, including autosomal DNA. All people regardless of gender have autosomal DNA. This type of DNA is inherited from both parents.

Conclusion on Using DNA Evidence to Support Applications

Way back in 2013, when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) was about to announce its acceptance of DNA evidence, Legal Genealogist, Judy Russell said it was a good start. However, it was very limited and should be expanded.  Agreed! Allowing DNA evidence to prove lineage should be expanded.

Why is DNA evidence less acceptable than paper evidence? We’ve all seen paper records that are incorrect, inconsistent, and incomplete. For example, there are many examples of “misattributed parentage events,” which is sometimes called “non-paternity events.” DNA evidence can be used in these situations.

DNA evidence is used to find birth families of adoptees and others with unknown parents.   When a birth family is discovered that includes veteran ancestors, that person should be allowed to use DNA evidence as part of their lineage proof.

Genealogy leaders are embracing DNA evidence to answer genealogical questions. It’s particularly useful when other proof has been destroyed, such as in courthouse fires, or it is lacking.  For example, Thomas W. Jones, PhD, wrote about using DNA evidence to solve a mystery in his family. (Thomas W. Jones, “Too Few Sources to Solve a Family Mystery? Some Greenfields in Central and Western New York.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 103 (June 2015): 85-103).

DNA evidence is also useful when other proof is absent, such as during slavery.  Morna Lahnice Hollister described how Y-DNA provided evidence on an emancipated family’s surname.  “Morna Lahnice Hollister, Goggins and Goggans of South Carolina: DNA Helps Document the Basis of an Emancipated Family’s Surname,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 102 (September 2014): 165-76).

These examples show that DNA evidence is an accepted and proven tool that should be embraced and expanded.

Ethnicity Estimates

Everyone always wonders what’s going on when they get their ethnicity estimate from Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA, or 23andMe. It hardly ever agrees with their paper trail. Take my paper trail, for instance. Here are the ethnicities of my eight great-grandparents—shown in a table and a pie chart.


Ethnicity estimate Pie Chart







Pretty straightforward, right? Well, here is my ethnicity estimate from Ancestry.

My Ethnicity


It’s a lot more diverse than my paper trail, and where is my majority German ancestry? There are several explanations for this.

First, when Ancestry’s definition of, for example, Great Britain, is reviewed, we see that it includes Germany, as is shown below to the right. So my unexpected high level of Great Britain might be because it actually is including some of my Germany ancestry.

Great Britain Map




Second, Ancestry’s ethnicity estimates are an estimate of where your ancestors lived 500-1000 years ago. Most paper trails don’t go back this far—almost always not every line on our trees. A lot of intermingling of peoples happened during this time. For example, during the Viking Age, which was around 1,000 years ago, Scandinavian Norsemen settled in Norse Greenland, Newfoundland, and present-day Faroe Islands, Iceland, Normandy, Scotland, England, Ukraine, Ireland, Russia, Germany, and Anatolia. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viking_Age) This might be an excellent explanation for my higher than expected Scandinavian percentage.

Third, Ancestry reports each region in percents. However, there are ranges associated with each percent. The range is provided by clicking on a specific ethnicity. For example, my 36% Great Britain is given the very broad range of 7% to 64%.

Great Britain Range

Fourth, if you consider that, on average, a generation takes 25 years, then Ancestry’s timeframe of 500-1000 years ago is from 20-40 generations ago. As is explained on the Types of DNA Page, autosomal DNA undergoes recombination when eggs and sperm are made. Recombination shuffles the DNA that each of our parents received from their parents. The shuffling results in mixtures of DNA from each grandparent. This shuffling of DNA means that you get different pieces of DNA that are used for ethnicity estimates.

Let’s focus on a single SNP, that is, a single point on your DNA. Let’s say it’s SNP #3,500, and this SNP is one of the places that’s tested for ethnicity. At each SNP location, everyone gets one SNP from their mom and one SNP from their dad. Thus, everyone has two SNPs at each location. Each SNP in this example has four possibilities: G, A, T, C.

Let’s say that at SNP #3,500, my brother and I inherited the following.

SNP #3,500
Brother Me
From Mom G Mat. Grandma


A Mat. Grandpa


From Dad T Pat. Grandpa


C Pat. Grandma


50% Norwegian 50% German
50% French 50% English

That is, my brother inherited the following.

  • G from our maternal grandma’s Norwegian DNA
  • T from our paternal grandpa’s French DNA.

In contrast, I inherited the following.

  • A from our maternal grandpa’s German DNA
  • C from our paternal grandma’s English DNA

If ethnicity were based only on SNP #3,500, our ethnicity estimate would be the


  • Brother: 50% Norwegian and 50% French
  • Me: 50% German and 50% English

Looking just at this one SNP, my brother and I have very different ethnicity estimates. Of course, ethnicity estimates use more than just one SNP.

This example only goes back 2 generations to our grandparents. Think about all of the shuffling that took place over the last 20-40 generations, and you start to see another reason that your ethnicity estimate is just that–an estimate.

Below and to the right are my and my brother’s ethnicity estimates from Ancestry.

Brother Ethnicity

My Ethnicity

Look at all of the differences. First, there’s a huge 5-fold difference in our Great Britain percentages: 7% (my brother) and 36% (me).

Our Eastern European percentages are also very different: 11% (my brother) and 3% (me—in my Trace Region category).

Our trace regions are also very different. My brother has 2% European Jewish, whereas I have none. Under West Asia, we both have 2%. However, his is 2% Caucasus, and I have 2% Middle East. I also have <1% Asian South, and he has none. This probably should be disregarded, as ethnicities under 1% usually are considered background noise.

This example shows why testing siblings gives a fuller picture of one’s ethnicity. Your sibling might have an ethnicity that didn’t show up for you—or more or less of it. One person’s results don’t give as much information as two or more siblings’ results.

This isn’t to say that one’s ethnicity estimate is useless or just for fun. In contrast, they can be very useful in sorting out some people’s matches. For example, sometimes a person’s mother has a different ethnicity than the father. If that person’s matches have that maternal or paternal ethnicity, then this helps with an initial sorting of the matches into (1) probably paternal and (2) probably maternal. It’s one clue in determining who matches are.