DNA, Family History

Finding Father – Circumstantial vs DNA Evidence

Quote with photo of walkway through water
As an adoptee, there have been times when my passion for genealogy and family history have been frustrating. Yes, I have wonderful families on my adopted side and on my husband’s side to research, but there was always this whole section of my tree just sitting blank. Finally in about 1995 I received a clue about my birth family when Catholic Social Service told me my birth mother had passed away. While horrible news, it ended up being the only reason I was able to eventually discover my birth mom’s name and family and make contact with them nine years later. Meeting my maternal birth family was a wonderful experience, and just about every day I still thank the Lord that I found them.

But of course that is only half of the story – even though I had found my birth mother’s family, I could find no information about my birth father. So I tried to figure out a way I could find out who he was. I kept wondering, if a young woman got pregnant, who might know who the father was? Then I thought, surely she had a best friend, and if so, that best friend had to have an idea of who my birth father could be. All I had to do was figure out who her best friend was at the time I was conceived.

The Circumstantial Evidence

This took me on a journey which was only possible through the help of the alumni club of my birth mother’s high school. They were able to figure out the name of the person who my birth mom hung out with all the time – I’ll call her Sue which is obviously not her real name. Fortunately I was able to get in touch with Sue and was able to make arrangements to meet her in Cleveland to discuss the identity of my birth father.

One of the challenges of sharing memories is it’s much harder to remember things the longer time goes on. By the time Sue and I met, over 40 years had passed since she was hanging out with my birth mom. Also, Sue had some medical issues which impacted her memory even more. The good news was Sue remembered a lot about her friendship with my birth mom. We spent most of the day talking about what they used to do, and we drove to areas where they lived, went to school, and just hung out. By the end of the afternoon, Sue had started remembering even more and eventually she remembered who my birth mom had been seeing at the time of my birth. For the sake of this article, I’ll call him Joe which is not his real name.

So once Sue remembered Joe’s name, she wanted to call him and introduce us. I probably would have preferred to do that myself, but Sue helped me so much, and she was so excited about it all, I let her go ahead and call. I’m not sure what Joe thought, but he sounded a little shocked after he said hello and heard Sue say something like, “Hi Joe, It’s Sue. I just wanted to let you know _______ is dead, and I have your daughter on the phone.” I talked to him then to briefly let him know my main purpose in making contact was for family history and knowledge. But he made it clear right away he wanted no contact. The key thing for me later in this conversation was he never said, “you have the wrong guy” or “I’m not your father.”

So I left that day a little sad to not have met Joe and his family, but still relieved to at least know my paternal line and be able to begin filling in my tree. I began by reaching out to Joe’s relatives. His parents had passed away, but he had a sister who I was able to contact. She shared a lot of their  family history with me. A key point in our conversation was she acknowledged I was his daughter. In fact, she at one point said, “Joe was always worried one of you would find him” indicating there was another child put up for adoption. She also mentioned her mother had approached my birth mom after I was born to find out about me.

Joe and his wife also had two adult children. One would not speak to me, and the other did so only once. But she said something that always stuck with me – how do you know you have the right person? She was right to question it – how did I know? This is why I kept going over all the conversations in which no one who knew about my birth ever denied or questioned Joe was the right guy.

The DNA Evidence

So for years I researched Joe’s line – at least one blog post on this site is related to that research. But the comment from Joe’s daughter kept bothering me. So a few years back, I put the research on his line on hold, and as soon as I could, I got a DNA test through Ancestry.com. Initially my matches only included a few third cousins, several fourth cousins, and many distant relations. Over time, I was able to figure out some of them were related to my maternal line. So when I finally got a first cousin match, by using Ancestry’s shared matches tool, I knew this first cousin had to be on my paternal side. I was able to contact that person’s family and found out the mother of my match, who was born a few years before me, was also adopted. Could she be the other child Joe’s sister mentioned who was also put up for adoption?

One of the clues about this match which made me wonder more about Joe being our birth father was that he would have been a little young at the time of this other woman’s birth. He was about 17 or 18 when I was born, and this other woman was a couple years older than me. It was still possible though so I didn’t rule it out.

Over the next year or so, I ended up with six second cousin matches. So at this point, my matches looked like the screen shot below. I replaced the names with non-identifying labels with P for a paternal match and M for maternal.

DNA Matches
DNA Matches

One of them contacted me confirming a link on my maternal side. That person also had contacted or knew two other matches and confirmed we were all related on my maternal side. From this, I knew definitely that the ones shown as 2C-M-A, 2C-M-B, and 2C-M-C were related to me through my birth mother. This left the other three second cousins which I now knew were related through my paternal side. I could not find them on Joe’s tree, but I had not really done a lot of research on those who were living in his tree so still couldn’t rule Joe out as a birth father.

During this time, I also found a few people on Gedmatch who were related to me through DNA and had a connection to Joe’s paternal line a few generations back. I figured the odds of having them related to me other than through Joe were pretty slim. So these DNA connections, along with the circumstantial evidence above, convinced me to work again on his tree, but this time focusing on descendants.

As I worked through both Joe’s tree and checked DNA matches on Ancestry and Gedcom, I noticed I had no connections on Joe’s maternal line. He has one maternal line which includes a very active group of researchers who have also been DNA tested. Because I continually was not matching to any of these, I started to again question if I had the right guy.

Finally late last year, I decided I really needed to try to figure out how those other three second cousins might link to me. So I started tracing back their lines. I knew from Ancestry shared matches tool that 2C-P-A and 2C-P-B were related through DNA, and building their trees resulted in showing their connection. The father of 2C-P-A was the grandfather of 2C-P-B. The shared matches tool also showed there was no connection between these two matches and 2C-P-C. So it seemed there was a good chance these three matches might allow me to find both my birth father’s maternal and paternal lines.

In tracing back the ancestry of 2C-P-C, I discovered that person’s grandfather had a sister, Irene Tvorik, who married the 2C-P-B’s uncle, Roger Nicolai. This couple only had one child, William J. Nicolai who unfortunately passed away in 1975. By placing this person in as my birth father, all the relationships between 2C-P-A, 2C-P-B, and 2C-P-C and myself fit.

After making this discovery, I built a new family tree for William J. Nicolai. For now I can only go back a few generations due to non-availability of online records and an adoption on the Nicolai line. But it has been enough to be able to confirm that many of my other DNA matches are linked to this tree through both Roger’s and Irene’s ancestors.

It took me at least 35 years to solve this puzzle using every type of evidence I could find – I finally found my birth mother and my birth father. My experience and work with DNA has proven to me what a key piece of evidence it is in building a solid tree. Today I can continue on researching my paternal line with no question that I have the right guy.

If you want a look at how I traced back the lines from my second cousin matches to determine the name of my birth father, check out the short video below:




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