Blog Image December 9, 2023

I was recently interviewed by a college history student.  She was doing research about genealogists.  I thought I'd share the interview with you.  You can listen to the audio or read the transcript below.  We discussed various genealogy and DNA related topics, how I got involved with this line of work, and some cases I've worked on.

Genealogy Interview

Danielle - When did you first become interested in Genealogy? Mark - About four years ago.  It was totally by accident.  I really didn't have any interest in genealogy at all.  My wife bought an Ancestry kit and I ended up discovering some crazy secrets about my own family.  I didn't do DNA myself, I just used the documents.  There's all kinds of documents you can look up on that site.  I ended up discovering my grandfather had a secret family in the mid-west, which was pretty crazy.  The story ended up on TV actually.  After that, I got into learning about all the DNA stuff.  I thought it was really fascinating.

Danielle - How did you get involved with helping other people? Mark - After looking at my wife's DNA match list, I realized I was pretty good at figuring out a lot of family secrets.  We found people in her family who had no idea who their family was.  There were several adopted people, and I was able to figure out all kinds of things.  So, I decided to go looking at adoption message boards.  There's a lot of people out there looking for help finding a birth parent.  I just decided to give it a shot and...  The first case I was involved with, actually ended up being one of the easiest ones I've ever solved.  I even wrote about it on one of my blog pages.  It was really easy, so, I just kept going it, and people were just thrilled.  I even had people calling me on the phone, crying, because they were so excited that I found their birth parents.  It was pretty neat.  There are a lot of cases though that are really difficult and take some serious research to solve.  One person paid a lot of money to a genealogist and they couldn't solve what the person was looking for, and I was able to do it.  The stuff I'm doing...  I'm not working in a lab doing genetic testing or anything like that.  It's not like the forensic stuff you see on TV.  It's more about understanding centimorgan numbers and relationships.  There's a certain logic to figuring it all out.

Danielle - What is a centimorgan number? Mark - It's a measurement of the amount of similar DNA two people will share.

Danielle - ... and you use that number to determine who people are related to? Mark - Well, it's pretty complex sometimes, but basically, your DNA match list shows you people who have DNA in common with you.  The amount of DNA is shown by a number, and the closer the relationship the higher the number.  It's not as easy as it sounds though.  There's a whole lot of factors involved in figuring it out.  You might not even know who the people are on your list.  There might not be even a person's name listed.  They might not have a family tree.  So, you sometimes have to do a lot of research to even figure out who the person is.  I'm working with a guy right now who has a half-sister DNA match, but all we have is her name.  There's no other information.  She doesn't list her age or anything, and she doesn't reply to any messages.  So, it's possible she's not even alive anymore.  Some people have had their DNA on these sites for over ten years or more.  My website goes into detail about DNA related stuff if you really want to get into it.

Danielle - So you mostly find birth parents? Mark - yeah, mostly birth parents, but other things too.  I found a missing person, you can end up finding secret half-siblings you didn't know about.  You never know what you're gonna find.  DNA can really reveal a lot of secrets.  There was one case that was really interesting.  This family...  All the children in the family were taken away from the parents and put in an orphanage.  They all ended up getting back together eventually, except for the youngest child, was adopted.  They were searching for him for years.  The story was in a newspaper, and they were never able to find him.  So, one of the kids in the family did a DNA test and asked if I could use that to find him.  I did, because it turned out that, he didn't do a DNA test, but he had a child who did.  What made it even harder was, that child was also put up for adoption.  So, to make a long story short, he was found, but it took a lot of work to do it.

Danielle - What was the hardest case you've ever worked on? Mark - Well, there's been some cases that are so hard I can't solve them.  It's not that they're hard, it's just that sometimes there aren't enough DNA matches to do it.  There was one case that I enjoyed, that was about a New York City foundling.  Some girl was left on a doorstep in New York City, and the family had no information about who the parents were.  So, this woman, who's now passed away, her daughter did a DNA test to see if I could find out who her mother's parents were, and I was able to do it.

Danielle - Have you ever discovered someone you helped was related to a famous person in history? Mark - I never found anyone that was that related to a president or anything like that, but there were some people that were related to famous celebrities or other interesting families.  One person was related to the talk show host, Maury Povich.  A lady I helped was adopted by the family that invented Klondike Ice Cream Bars.  On my home page I mention a person that was related to a beauty queen and the singer Boz Scaggs.  Another person found out their grand uncle was a famous country singer who had some hit songs in the 1950s.  You never know what you're gonna find.

Danielle - Do you come across a lot of people related to Native Americans? Mark - That's a good question.  I often hear people say that their families are related to Native Americans, but it usually ends up not being true, or at least I can't find any proof of it.  There's been a few who have ethnicity charts that do say they have Native American DNA, but a lot of times, I think there's a lot of made up stories out there.

Danielle - What about African Americans and slavery research? Mark - That can be a really difficult subject.  Information about slavery isn't always easy to find, but it is some out there.  The Ancestry website has a lot of census records that include information about slave ownership.  I've done some research for people who've had family members who were slaves and others who've had family members who've owned slaves.

Danielle - How far back in history can you go with genealogy websites? Mark - Well, the DNA match list can only take you back so far.  As the relatives get more and more distant, the DNA levels get weaker with each generation.  You usually don't find relatives much further back than 5th cousins on your match list.  If you're talking about making family trees and finding documents, Ancestry has a huge database.  Some families can be traced back several centuries.  A lot of it depends on how well your family is documented and where they are from.  I personally can find information from my family as far back as the 1500s.  If I looked really hard, I might even be able to go back further than that.

Danielle - On the 23 and Me commercial, a guy says he thought he was German but discovered he was really Scottish.  Do you see things like that happen a lot? Mark - Oh yeah, all the time.  It usually happens because something is wrong in a person's family tree.  Keep in mind, these sites give you an "estimate." of your ethnicity.  It's not always exactly right.  They'll give you a pretty good estimate though.

Danielle - Is it safe to put your DNA online? Mark - that's another good question.  Yeah, I think it's totally safe.  People get freaked out about doing it sometimes.  They think it will somehow be an invasion of privacy.  I suppose if you've committed a serious crime or something, you probably wouldn't want to put your DNA online.  Keep in mind, when you "put your DNA online," what's being seen by other people is, who you share DNA with, that's all.  A lot of information can be figured out even if you don't put your DNA online.  Here's an example...  Let's say a guy had a secret kid and didn't want anyone to know, so he made sure to never to put his DNA on one of these genealogy sites.  Well, what if his brother or sister put their DNA on the site?  They would show up as an aunt or uncle to that kid.  So, the kid is still gonna find out who his father is, whether the father did DNA or not.

Danielle - Do the people actually end up meeting their birth parents you've found? Mark - Sometimes.  Most of the people I've helped are pretty old and their parents have already died.  There's been many people who've met their parents for the first time after I found them.  One lady found out her father lived like ten miles away from her, and she told me she sees him regularly and they have a good relationship.  There's been other times where the birth parent won't admit to being the person's parent though.  That happens too.

Danielle - How many birth parents have you found? Mark - (Laugh) TONS!  I've totally lost track.  It's got to be in the hundreds.  What usually ends up happening is, I'll be helping someone, and I'll notice on their match list there's someone else who's looking for a birth parent, or I'll see someone who's tree doesn't look right and I'll end up finding out one of their family members isn't correct.

Danielle - What do you mean by "isn't correct?" Mark - You'd be amazed how many times I've found someone's father or grandfather wasn't who they thought they were.  I'm not even kidding.  I'll be helping someone looking for information on a great-grandparent or something like that and I'll figure out their entire family is wrong.  It sounds crazy, but It's happened dozens of times.  Secret half-siblings are a big thing too.  I'm always finding out people's parents had other kids no one even knew about.

Danielle - So, if someone wanted to find their birth parent on Ancestry, could anyone do it? Mark - In some cases, yeah.  It totally depends on how good your matches are.  I mention in one of my blog posts There's a woman who did a DNA test and both of her birth parents also did a DNA test on Ancestry.  So, there was nothing to find.  They were right there.  That's a total fluke though.  Other than that, I don't think I've ever helped a single person who's even had even one birth parent show up on their list.  It usually has to be figured out based on other matches.  Unless you're prepared to spend a whole lot of time learning about DNA and relationships, I highly recommend having someone with experience help you.

Danielle - You have some interesting stories on your website.  What is the most interesting thing you've found? Mark - Oh, there's been some good ones.  Some things I don't talk about because the families want to keep things private, so I respect their privacy.  There have been several crime related stories I've been involved with.  I've found out people out there that had a birth parent who was a murderer.  Not kidding, it's true.  There's been a few of them.  At least three murderers I can remember.  There's some scary stuff.  Those stories interesting, they're not exactly fun to find out about though.  I recently wrote about two stories that involved finding a birth parent with a single DNA match.  I was really amazed by those stories because it took a whole lot of luck and everything had to work out just perfectly.  I never expected those cases to be solved.  I can't say for sure what was the most interesting.  I'll tell you about one that I never wrote about...  This guy I was helping, his name was Nick, he didn't know who his birth father was, but he had a photo of his birth father.  His mother gave it to him, but she wouldn't tell him who he was.  He said she had mental problems and claimed she didn't remember, or maybe she just didn't want him to know.  Using his DNA match list, I couldn't say for sure who his birth father was.  The matches were pretty weak.  I did have an idea of who he could be though, and I searched for anything I could find about that guy.  I ended up finding an old newspaper article that mentioned a homeless shelter that was helping people around Christmas.  They interviewed some of the homeless people and they put their pictures in the paper.  There was a photo of the same guy that Nick had in his photo.  There was no question about it, it was the exact same guy, and he had the name of the guy I suspected.  So, there was no doubt.  So, his father was a homeless drifter really.  I couldn't believe it, what are the odds that, that guy would end up with his photo in the paper looking exactly like the guy in Nick's photo.  That was crazy.

Danielle - You talk a lot about DNA matches. Is it possible for someone to not have any DNA matches? Mark - Yes, it's possible, but rare.  The odds that you would not have a single distant relative who's done a DNA test is pretty slim.  I have seen people with only a few matches though.  The reason for that is, usually because they're from another country.  I've helped someone who's grandfather was from China, and he had no other family members come here before him.  So, there's really no one in China is going Ancestry DNA, so there just weren't any matches.

Danielle - What's the most DNA matches you've seen? Mark - A lot of people have over fifty thousand DNA matches, and that's not that rare at all.  Most people will have at least several thousand.

Danielle - I've heard about police solving crimes with genealogy sites.  Have you ever done anything like that? Mark - Well, sort of.  I actually found a court transcript about a woman who accused a guy of being the father of her child.  It was way back in 1940.  That child, has his DNA online and happened to be a DNA match to someone I was helping.  I was able to figure out that the woman who accused the guy, was actually lying. He definitely is not the father.  It was pretty cool to be able to be able to figure out something like that after all these years.

Danielle - What advice would you give people who've done a DNA test? Mark - The most important thing that anyone should do if they've done a DNA test is... DON'T IGNORE ANY BIG DNA MATCHES ON YOUR LIST!  I see this happen all the time.  I can't believe the number of match lists I've seen where people have unknown family members and they never bothered to investigate who they were.  I always tell people, "figure out every person on your match list who has more than 400 centimorgans."  Those are going to be people you should know, if you know your family.  Actually, if you know your family, you should probably be able to figure out the relationship of people with even less DNA in common than that.  I don't think people understand, all the people on the match list really are related to you.  If you see someone who made a family tree and they have no names in common, you should question it!  Something's not right.  You're also gonna see weak match on your list.  Those could be distant cousins that are no big deal.  If you see anyone with a really big match like seven hundred or eight hundred centimorgans that's gonna be a really big deal.  So, if you can't figure things out, feel free to ask me.  that's what I do.

Oh, one more thing before we finish up.  Let me give some advice to people who are thinking about doing a DNA test, but haven't done it yet.  One thing to keep in mind if you decide to do it, be open to the possibility that strange things can be revealed.  Even if it's not in your immediate family, chances are you'll find something unexpected somewhere in your family history.  If you're one of those people looking for a birth parent, or another family member, I highly recommend doing DNA, it's the best way to go.  Give it a shot.  Thank you.

My next post is a list of missing people I have yet to find.

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