News stories about adoptees finding their birth families through DNA have become pretty common. Reunion tales often show heartwarming photos or interviews of the families after they’ve found each other. While a few cases are simple and straightforward, the process of connecting with unknown family is rarely as easy as these stories may suggest.
A good example of a seemingly easy case that’s actually been quite time-consuming involves my uncle’s wife –my aunt Judy. Judy agreed to share her story, hoping it might lead to the identification of her father. As I’ll explain in a bit, this mystery isn’t only about a set of unknown parents, but one of those parents has an unknown father. This adds an extra layer of difficulty to the puzzle.
She almost knew her mother’s name.
After her adoptive parents passed away, Judy tested with AncestryDNA. In May 2017, she received her results and in June, she sent messages to her two closest matches.
Judy shared pertinent information in these messages, including her birth date and the name Catholic Charities had listed on her adoption paperwork — Elizabeth Bellanick. I later found, as is quite common with information provided by adoption agencies, the mother’s name was slightly misspelled. But more on that in a bit…
RC, as we later learned, is a maternal-side match, and the other is a paternal-side match. Both were predicted by Ancestry’s algorithm to be Judy’s 2nd cousins. When Judy asked for my assistance in solving her case, it was October 2017 and neither of these matches had responded.
It’s very common to send a message to a match and never hear back. Often, a message goes to someone’s spam folder. Sometimes, the person receiving the message simply doesn’t wish to communicate. Other times, a reply will appear out of the blue many months later. It’s difficult to tell why, but for many adoptees hoping to find answers, close matches aren’t always responsive.
Some adoptees find a half-sibling right away.
Sure, there are plenty of adoptees who DNA test and are presented with the full name of a close relative. The adoptee messages the newfound family member, and as if by magic, these biological relatives have found each other. Sometimes, the family member even recalls the events surrounding the adoption, offering answers, and closure to the adoptee who’s been searching for so long.
This scenario is ideal, but not as common as some might think. To get a better idea of the “average” adoptee’s search for birth parents, visit DNA Detectives on Facebook. This group has over 100,000 members, most of them looking for biological family. They share their stories online and hope a search angel will notice and offer to assist them.
Of course, when my aunt asked for my help, I agreed. I help people find their long-lost relatives, so I always make time to assist when the adoptee is part of my own family. Over the next six weeks, I spent most of my free time searching for the elusive Elizabeth Bellanick.
Many of Judy’s predicted cousins used initials or pseudonyms and very few had family trees linked to their account, adding an extra step to process. I had to figure out who these people were before I could search for common ancestors between them.
You may be wondering, “why bother doing all this work when you could just wait for a match to respond?” And that’s a fair question. It all depends on the age of the person(s) we’re trying to find and the reasons the adoptee is searching. Elizabeth would be about 87 years old now. When looking for someone in their 80s, who we hope to find still living, there is no time to wait.
Not everyone wants to see how the sausage is made.
When an adoptee seeks assistance from me, I ask if they “want to know how the sausage is made.” Solving a family mystery can be a messy project. It often involves some unsavory discoveries and combining bits of stuff (information from numerous family trees) before all the pieces of data fit together and create a perfect sausage — I mean, to create a biologically accurate family tree.
Some people, like Dawn from Lawrence’s story, want to hear every tiny detail and assist with the research. That’s great.
Others, like Judy, may be busy and don’t have a lot of the time to be fully immersed in the minutia of the process. That’s fine, too.
And some adoptees are a bit emotionally overwhelmed by it all, and that’s what I’m here for. I collect and summarize the data I find. There are skeletons in every family’s closet. It’s not necessary to drag them all out into the open (unless that’s what someone really wants).
And yes, sausage is a pretty terrible analogy, but having an accurate biological family tree is one of my goals when assisting an adoptee. It helps a great deal when reaching out to people if you already know the names of the great-grandparents you both share.
Adoptees need Whitepages.com
I am in no way affiliate with or compensated by whitepages.com, so I say this with no bias. If you are searching for people who are or may still be alive, you need to use this service. I maintain a yearly membership (often on sale for $100), and whitepages.com is one of my most-used resources.
Also, I use Google, newspapers.com, and many other sources to investigate the living. I use newspapers.com so often, I contacted them to become an affiliate and promote their service.
Judy’s matches, as with many people’s matches, did not share much information on their profiles. This is what I saw when I first logged in to view them. I have edited the image below to hide personal information and remove DNA matches who appeared in 2018, to give a better idea of what info we had to start with.
Notice how few of the matches have family trees and the person with the huge family tree is a 4th cousin. Never underestimate a 4th cousin who’s a meticulous researcher and genealogist. GF’s tree was very useful, but I still had to go back to the 1800s to figure out where the connection was.
The people Judy contacted back in June 2017 are the first and third names on the list. PC, the top match shares 247 centiMorgans (cMs) of identical DNA with Judy. That’s about 3.5% For an explanation of centiMorgans, see this post.
The International Society of Genetic Genealogy has a chart to explain the correlation between cMs and family relationships. The full article and image can be viewed here. Basically, you have 50% of the DNA of each of your parents, so if a parent tested, you’d expect to share about 3400 cM (this number varies by testing company)
Below is a cropped version of the ISOGG chart. If Judy had a close relative, such as a half-sibling or aunt who had tested, they would show about 1700 cM in common (25%). Judy and PC share very close to the amount expected for 2nd cousins (and various other combinations).
Although a 247 cM match is good, it’s not close enough to determine how PC and Judy are related, especially when we don’t even know PC’s age or real name. It turns out, the kit was set up by her son, and C is her married surname initial.
The C surname wasn’t very common, so I tried a Google search and checked Facebook for anyone in the Philadelphia, as well as searching for any public family trees hosted elsewhere. No luck.
My next step was newspapers.com, where I found an article from a local paper with PC’s wedding photo and a full write-up. Her husband is RC. It listed her close family members and gave me a place to start. From there, I went to whitepages.com and searched for PC by her married name and viewed all the other people who live at her address. She also has a son, RC.
This is the beginning of what some call a mirror-tree, or a family tree built from the trees of your genetic matches. If PC and Judy were 2nd cousins or thereabouts, they should at least have a common set of great-grandparents. Those common ancestors should also appear in the family trees of some of Judy’s other DNA matches.
Who Are The Common Ancestors?
Obituaries are an excellent source of information. Most obits from the past 10-15 years will be viewable at Legacy.com for no charge. Otherwise, you may find them via newspaper search or by checking local newspaper archives. Along with tools included with my Ancestry.com membership, as well as other sources, I was able to start building family trees for several of Judy’s matches.
Here is the maternal-side of PC’s tree (with living people hidden).
If you remember the name Judy was given for her mother, Elizabeth Bellanick, you’ll probably notice what caught my attention while creating this tree. As it turns out, Elizabeth’s mother’s surname was Bellanich, not Bellanick. I had discovered that PC was a DNA match to Judy’s mother.
Time to Visit Croatia
This was going well, except when I got to Antonio Bellanich Jr., I hit a dead-end with the American documents. Antonio immigrated from Mali Lošinj, Croatia, aka Lussinpiccolo, Italy, aka Küstenland, Austria, around 1890.
Mali Lošinj had been occupied by other countries for most of its history, making the records a bit difficult to locate, but I managed to find them and translated the the birth record for Antonio and his siblings, as well as his parents and their marriage record.
Beautiful place, isn’t it?
1877 may seem like a long way back, but in order to find the common ancestor for a 3rd cousin, you need to go back to 2nd great-grandparents. Antonio’s father, Antonio Sr, is PC’s 3rd great-grandfather and also the ancestor of several of Judy’s other matches.
Below is a copy of the Catholic church book, documenting Antonio’s birth on February 5, 1877.1
Antonio’s birth is the last one on the page. Below, is the area in red, cropped for easier viewing.
This particular set of records is in Italian, but other years were in Latin and some in German.
There were enough other distant (4th-5th cousins) on Judy’s match list to verify that indeed, Antonio Bellanich was one of her great-grandfathers. Similarly, thanks to the family tree of 4th cousin GF, I was able to link PC’s tree I had created to GF’s tree.
Notice Peter P. Nickel and Elizabeth Miller.
Here is PC’s tree again:
GF and PC are related via the Nickel/Miller line, not Bellanich, which is why GF didn’t appear to match some of the other maternal-side matches.
I then compared these trees to the rest I’d created and put the closest matches into an Excel spreadsheet, as a diagram. (You may need to click and open this in a new window to see the detail.)
Judy is in the purple box and the green-shaded boxes represent her DNA matches. The two matches with cM counts over 200 are in a darker green.
The only person who had responded at this point was GF, who I tracked down via email. He verified his family tree and I was able to connect the dots between the rest of Judy’s matches.
I’m not sure when or if her surname Bellanich was officially changed to Bellanick, but a 9-year-old girl named Mary Elizabeth Bellanick was living at St. Vincent’s Orphanage in 1940. According to the census, she had been a resident there since at least 1935.
Like I said, sometimes people don’t notice their messages, or they go to spam folders, or any number of things can happen to delay a connection. Once Judy talked to RC’s mother, PC, the Bellanich family started spreading the news and soon Judy was talking to her maternal relatives.
Since then, she’s met with them several times and even had a picnic at her home about an hour north of Philadelphia. I attended and was thrilled to see all the people I had up until then only seen as names on a virtual tree. The cousins, aunts, uncles, were such a nice bunch of people. It was a real treat to be a part of it.
In addition to being a swell bunch of folks, the Bellanich family was able to fill Judy in on some details I wouldn’t have been able to find. They told her about her full-brother who was also given up for adoption. Elizabeth has been estranged from her half-siblings for many years, but Judy was able to learn more about her from the rest of the family. She now has photos of her biological mother and learned her married name.
Judy tried to reach out to Elizabeth, but was unable to contact her without first contacting her other daughters (Elizabeth later married and had two daughters — Judy’s half-sisters). The sisters either do not believe Judy, or simply wish to prevent her from speaking to Elizabeth.
It’s a bittersweet story, but it isn’t over. There’s still a chance the half-sisters will have a change of heart. Elizabeth is 87 years old now. Judy hopes to one day meet Elizabeth and thank her for the wonderful life she had with her kind and supportive adoptive parents.
- FamilySearch, Croatia Catholic Church Records, Births (Rođeni) 1851-1877, https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G99X-RXK9