Saturday, August 24, 2013

Genes Day Friday - Heritage Lost, Heritage Found part 2

Once I realized that James Harris was not my biological great-grandfather, I wanted to know if I could find out who my biological great-grandfather was. At this point, all I had to go on were my grandma's results at, and her matches at

I tried contacting some of my grandma's closest matches at 23andMe, but I didn't have a lot of success there. Most of her matches didn't respond to my information sharing requests, and the ones that did were too distant of relatives to help me answer the question I wanted answered; I had no hope of identifying a connection to an estimated 4th cousin if I had no names for half of my grandma's family tree. So I turned instead of GedMatch. I am now VERY glad I did.

Back then, Gedmatch allowed you to upload gedcom files, so you could display a family tree of the test taker's ancestors (this feature has been disabled for some time, and as of August 2013 is still not restored). As with 23andMe, I started emailing her closest matches, but I also went through their pedigrees if they had them, and searched for any surnames that looked familiar. Before long, I found one - a match that had a grandmother surnamed Vadnais. This immediately caught my attention. If you've read my blog, you know about my Vadnais connection - James Harris' sister Charlotte married William Vadnais, son of Richard and Eleanor (Bessette) Vadnais. Was this match related to my Vadnais relatives? Could grandma's bio-dad be a relative of the same Vadnais family?

I emailed the match, and he shared his family tree on Ancestry. After some digging, I discovered he was indeed related to William Vadnais. The connection was pretty distant, 3rd cousin twice removed from my grandma's Vadnais cousin of her same generation, but it was there. Of course, I had to admit to myself that grandma could have been related to anyone on his tree. Fortunately, he'd also tested his mother (who had the Vadnais connection), and grandma matched his mom as well. So at least I knew which side of his tree we matched on.

At this point, I decided I needed to broaden my pool of potential matches. I wanted to see if FamilyTreeDNA had clients more responsive to emails from other genealogists, and I wanted to see if their bio-geographic analysis (BGA) tools matched what 23andMe said about grandma's ethnic ancestry. So I transferred her results to FTDNA.

Two things stood out right away - one, that they also declared her of 100% European descent, with no Indian or African heritage. Two, she had a LOT of matches with declared French-Canadian ancestry. That was a huge surprise. It also gave another indication that my grandma's bio-dad was a Vadnais relative, or at least a French-Canadian. Once again, I set about contacting matches and trying to determine common ancestors. During this process, I found a match that had a documented connection to Eleanor Bessette. To me, this was a huge deal - not only did my grandma have a Vadnais descendant match, she now had a Bessette descendant match. In my research on my Vadnais family, I found two Vadnaises that married Bessettes - Richard Vadnais, and his brother, Polydore Vadnais, who married Rosanna Bessette, Eleanor's sister. Polydore had two daughters, no sons, so his line was obviously not mine. But Richard did have a son - William. Could William Vadnais be my grandma's bio-dad?

Rosanna Bessette and Polydore Vadnais,
Courtesy of Marlene Rimmer

To find out, I asked a cousin of mine, a descendant of William Vadnais, to take a DNA test, and gratefully, she consented. The weeks seemed to crawl by, but when the results came in, they were conclusive. She matched my grandma for just the right amount of DNA for their suspected relationship. After working on the problem for over a year, it took a little while for it to sink in that I had finally found my grandma's biological father, William Vadnais.

It has now been a few weeks since that discovery, and I find I am still trying to sort out my feelings on it. I know that William Vadnais is my great-grandfather, but I don't feel connected to him the same way I do to my other ancestors. My wife says it's because I don't have a lifetime of associating him with my family the way I do with Augusta Joseph, Katherine Hammer, or my other great-grandparents, and I think she's right. On the other hand, my connection to the Harris family has changed as well. I've been working on researching them since the start of my genealogy career. When I had to write a genealogy research paper in college, I chose the Harrises. I've written about them a couple times here on the blog. For a short time, after I realized I was not biologically related to the Harrises, I almost wanted to just clip the Harrises off my family tree. But I realized that they are still family. Jim Harris put his name on my grandma's birth certificate, he raised her as his daughter. He wasn't a perfect father, but who is? Whether they were close or distant, biological or adopted, he's still family. I think I'm still adjusting, trying to figure out how to have two different families occupy the same branch on my family tree. But I'm getting there.

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