What are the Different Ways DNA Can Help Identify People?

In the last few decades, DNA technology has opened up several new methods for identifying humans (whether adoptees, people of unknown or uncertain parentage, human remains, or tissue or fluid samples left behind by suspected criminals). These methods have proven increasingly useful for both family tree building and the investigation of crimes. The following contains a succinct overview of the different techniques. Based on your own research needs, you may find one or more of these methods useful:

(Photographer: George Prentzas, public domain)

How Low-cM DNA Matches Can Help You Solve Genealogical Brick Walls

Many researchers using DNA to try to find their own biological parentage, or a friend or client’s biological parentage, only pay attention to the DNA matches with whom they share the most genetic similarity. In cases where the top of your list of AncestryDNA or 23andMe matches contains first- or second-degree relatives, this can indeed suffice to solve the mystery. However, many researchers find, upon receiving DNA match results, that a series of second, third, and fourth cousins populate the top of their match list. The researcher then sets about trying to discover the common ancestors of these mid-level relatives. Once the researcher has discovered the ancestor candidates, they then tediously map out all of the potential ancestor’s descendants and strive to figure out which branch of the family the friend, client, or they themselves might descend from.

Some genetic genealogy methods, like the now-well-known and incredibly helpful Leeds Method, encourage you to ignore matches with less than 90 cMs (centimorgans). However, after using the Leeds Method to identify candidates for possible common ancestors, you should not stop there. You should pay close attention to matches with 74 cMs or less, and also to matches with 29 cMs or less.


How to Identify Your Child’s Biological Father Without a Paternity Test

(Source: Mediamodifier, public domain)

We have all caught at least one episode of The Maury Povich Show, in which the host reveals the paternity of a child with either a “You are the father” or a “You are not the father.” Perhaps you have also wondered about the identity of your child’s biological father, either because of multiple relationships around the time of conception, or even because the child was conceived by an unknown perpetrator in an act of violence.

One thing that such a Maury moment requires, however: the willing participation of the suspected father. What if the suspected father has passed away, disappeared, or refuses to take a paternity test? Hiring a lawyer to pursue a paternity suit in court could become very expensive. If the suspected father has gone missing or died, then even a paternity suit cannot help.

How Professional Genealogists Use DNA to Find Adoptees’ Biological Parents

An orphanage in 1895 New Orleans (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When the process of adoption became more formalized in the United States in the 20th century, a system of open vs. closed adoption arose. In open adoptions, adopted children either grew up knowing of their adoption and knowing the identity of their biological parents, or retained the option to acquire the information regarding their biological parentage later in life, if they so wished. In closed adoptions, the identity of the biological parents remained a secret that, often, only the biological parents themselves could break. Adoptees who wanted to know the identities of their biological parents after a closed adoption had few options in those days, and those options were at the mercy of the laws in the state in which the adoption had taken place.

The Life of a Genealogy Translator – Guest Post by Katherine Schober

Katherine is a German-English translator who works with old German handwriting in letters, marriage and baptismal certificates, church registers and more. Check out her website at sktranslations.com for more information.

As a German genealogy translator, I can honestly say I love what I do. One day could be spent in 1868, deciphering the words of a young lady in Germany writing to her older sister in America. I am taken back in time as the girl describes the new railroads being built throughout the land, which cities the new trains service, and how much a journey from here to there costs. Another day might be spent in the 1920s, in a German community in Russia, where the author of the letter nervously describes how people are forced to sell clothes on the black market. He writes to his relatives that vendors walk around with layers and layers of clothing for sale on their very bodies, so that they will be able to run away and still keep their goods if the Russian soldiers suddenly appear in the market area. Yet another day could be devoted to World War II, as a family in Dresden desperately begs their relatives in America to send food, shoes, clothing, whatever they can spare, to help them survive the hardship of the war.

What I am most struck by, however, is the normality of these letters. Take away the politics of the time, or the different technology, and what we are left with are pure human emotions. A mother expressing her desire to see her son more often, a daughter inquiring about her father’s health, a friend worrying what another friend might think of her…these same sentiments could be expressed in e-mails or text messages today. The humanity of the authors allow me to immerse myself in their past, learning their stories, so different and yet so similar to ours, to share with their descendents throughout the ages.

Episode #8: “Happy Dankegiving” | The German-American Genealogist Podcast

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Published 24 November 2014

Did you know that the “First Thanksgiving” was not actually the first Thanksgiving? Or that some of the Native Americans who greeted the Pilgrims already spoke English? Or that the Thanksgiving feast of 1621 was actually a three day celebration, and that turkey was probably not on the menu? Join us as we explore the truth about Thanksgiving, and familiarize ourselves with the German version of Thanksgiving, Erntedankfest, and its own unique customs. Our special guest is historian and genealogist Joan Shurtliff, who has studied the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving celebration and will take us beyond the traditional story.


    • Joan Shurtliff – Joan Shurtliff is an accomplished genealogist and history writer. She is a member of the South Dakota Genealogy Society, where she received the Outstanding Member Award for 2011. Joan writes for the South Dakota Genealogy Society’s quarterly journal, and has in the past served as the editor of that publication. Joan writes fascinating articles on a variety of different historical topics for RecordClick.com.

Episode #7: “It’s Alive!” | The German-American Genealogist Podcast

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Published 17 November 2014

Put away that Ouija Board. You may not need to summon the dead to get your genealogical quandaries solved. You might find the answers you seek by locating and connecting with your living relatives. There are many reasons for wanting to find living relatives–whether it’s to locate an heir to an estate, to create a descendancy chart, to get memories or photographs of a shared ancestor, or to host a family reunion. In this episode, we’ll tell you the best way to find them. We’ll also talk to genealogist and podcaster Lisa Louise Cooke about her secrets to hunting down living cousins, how to deal with uncooperative relatives, and how to get your extended family interested in their roots.


Episode #6: “Family History Interview Strategies” | The German-American Genealogist Podcast

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Published 10 November 2014

Your loved ones aren’t going to be around forever. Have you ever wanted to sit down and ask your dad about his experience in the war, or interview your grandma to get her life story, but haven’t been sure how to conduct the interview and how to ask the right questions? This episode of The German-American Genealogist Podcast offers pro tips on family history interviewing from Josiah Schmidt’s new book, 2000 Questions for Grandparents: Unlocking Your Family’s Hidden History.

Episode #5: “Birthplace Hunting Made Easy” | The German-American Genealogist Podcast

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Published 3 November 2014

Have you ever pulled your hair out trying to find the birth place of your immigrant ancestor? Well, save your hair line, because this whole episode is devoted to that very topic. In this episode, we talk about how an examination of the first household your immigrant ancestor inhabited in America can give clues to their origins, how you can trace chain-migration, how you can find an elusive passenger arrival record, how to tell if your ancestor was a stowaway, how to use the NARA’s “Germans to America” database, how to use local county history books, how marriage affected where a German couple lived, and how to use the modern-day German telephone book to help you find your immigrant ancestor’s hometown.

German Genealogy Tip #33: “Rufname”, A Person’s Preferred Name, Was Often Underlined

On one of my previous posts, a commenter named “Franz” mentioned a very helpful tip: Germans often had several given names. Many times, German individuals’ “first names” were very common: Johann or Hans or Anna or Martha. In order to differentiate themselves, they would go by one of their less common middle names: Balthasar, Karl, Carolina, Gertrud, etc. When they were mentioned in documents with their full name, their preferred name that they were called by–their “Rufname” (“Ruf” means “called”)–would sometimes be underlined.

Thus, if you see a name like “Johann Heinrich Rimbach” in a document, that means that the person preferred to answer to the name “Heinrich” (rather than “Johann”). Or, if you see a name like “Anna Martha Elisabeth Christine von Verschuer” in a document, that means that the person preferred to answer to the name “Elisabeth”.