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.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Genes Day Friday - Heritage Lost, Heritage Found

It's been a long time since my last Genes Day update, but I've got a lot to show for it. First up, new test results! A Joseph cousin of mine agreed to test, as long as I would help interpret the results and assist with finding and connecting with new relatives. Talk about an offer I can't refuse! One of the first things I checked out was his Y-DNA results, as I was eager to find out what haplogroup my Joseph male ancestors belonged to. It turns out, my Joseph line belongs to haplogroup N1C1*, or M178 (the terminal SNP). I conferred with members of the DNA Newbie mailing list I'm on, as well as checking ISOGG's website, and it appears that, for now at least, there are no SNPs downstream from M178, so that's as detailed as I can get at this time. National Geographic's Geno 2.0 test might shed some more light, but for now, I know enough to make me happy.

According to 23andMe, this haplogroup is most highly concentrated in Siberians, Finns, Estonians, and the Saami people of Scandinavia. Obviously, this could just be the LONG range ancestry of my Joseph line, but I can't help but wonder if it holds any meaning for my research in a genealogical time frame. I've traced my Joseph line back to Christian Joseph, born about 1815 in Poland. Were his ancestors Russian or Scandinavian? Once I find someone willing to transcribe and translate Polish records for me, I'll get back on the research for that line and see what I can find.

Also, I heard back from one of my mom's closest matches, and we were able to determine our common ancestors! It turns out we're double cousins, as her great-grandparents, Henry Hammer and Mary McDonald, were siblings of my mom's great-grandparents, Thomas Hammer and Katherine McDonald. This is exciting because I'm starting to work on chromosome mapping, mapping out which ancestor or ancestral couple each part of DNA comes from. I've started this on the tests taken by my three grandparents, my mom, and a couple of the cousins who've tested for me. It's tricky, and not a little complicated, but I'm really interested in this - this is one of the big things I'd hoped to be able to do when I started doing genetic genealogy. Maybe I'll do two separate versions, one with the names of the ancestors, and one with locations of where those ancestors lived. We'll see.

That's some heritage found. Now for what I lost. I've written previously (here here, and here) about my difficulty in figuring out why my grandma's DNA test showed no Native American DNA. I now have the answer, and it's not at all what I was expecting.

To help figure out why my grandma was showing no Native American DNA, I tested a child of one of her siblings. The results came back - this relative also had no Native American DNA, but also showed only half as much DNA in common with my grandma as they should for their predicted relationship. There had been a longstanding story that this sibling of my grandma's had a different father than my grandma did, and the DNA test results confirmed that. Unfortunately, neither my grandma nor her relative showed any Native DNA. I started to wonder whether the "Indian" ancestor was really Indian after all. Her name was Lisette Rainier, a French name, and part of me wondered if she weren't simply considered and treated Indian, while not actually being of Indian descent.

To test this theory, I tested two of my grandma's paternal cousins, both descendants of Tom Harris and his wife Lisette. They came back sharing just the right amount of common DNA, confirming their relationship to each other. They also showed Indian DNA, each having the correct percentages of Indian DNA for having a full-blooded Indian ancestor at the same generation as Lisette. But the real surprise - they had no DNA in common with my grandma or her sibling's child. None. I thought about this for a while, trying to figure out how these two relatives, whose descent from Tom and Lisette I had documented carefully, who shared the right amount of DNA with each other, and both had Indian DNA, could both come up as unrelated to both my grandma and her sibling's child. Then it hit me - neither my grandma nor her sibling were children of my great-grandma's husband. I later confirmed this when I was contacted by another Tom and Lisette Harris descendant who had tested at 23andMe. He matched his two cousins for just the right amount of DNA and also had the right percentage of Indian DNA, and still had no DNA in common with my grandma or her sibling's child.

This was very unexpected, to say the least. I never imagined finding anything like this, not in a million years. I had my grandma take this DNA test originally to help find out more about our Indian ancestry. I felt like I'd stolen something from my grandmother; she'd always taken such pride in her Indian heritage, had worked for years to find all she could about Lisette, and now I had to tell her that we aren't actually Lisette's descendants. Not only that, but now we knew that the man who helped raise her was not her biological father. She took the news very admirably, and agreed to help me in trying to find out who her biological father was.

I don't have any negative feelings towards my great-grandma about this, and neither do my mom and grandma from what they've told me. I know my great-grandma loved her family, loved her kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids as much as she could. Whatever happened, that much stood out about her above all else. No information I found on who the biological fathers of her children were can or will ever change that.

Stay tuned for part 2, where I document how I found the identity of my grandma's biological father.