I'm an adoptee. At 60 years old, I discovered my birth families.


Most Recent Common Ancestors are the key to finding family, when you have nothing except a handful of DNA matches to go on. Fortunately, I had one (which I’ve mentioned beforenot too long ago). I mentioned that, in the beginning I thought for a long time that Catherine Wright was my 3rd Great Grandmother. But she wasn’t. She was my 3rd Great Aunt. That meant I had the correct family, but the wrong relationship. One of Catherine’s siblings was the Great (etc) Grandparent I was looking for.

So why is this important???

The methodology for adoptees using DNA to find family utilises a number of different tools. One of them, is building mirror trees (where you copy or “mirror” an existing tree for the person who is your MRCA) or speculative trees (where you begin to build a tree based on the supposed relationship between you and your MRCA).  These are, more or less, the same thing. You begin…or, at least, I did…by taking your top, closest DNA matches and matching the family trees to each other, looking for the same names in each of the trees you are looking at. In the beginning, it’s all speculative because you don’t actually know if these folk are in your tree or not and what your actual relationship to them is.  It’s an assumption; an educated guess based on the DNA being absolutely correct and the matches’ trees being more or less accurate.  In my case, I found Catherine in two separate trees: married to the same men, having the same children, who were also married to the same spouses, having the same children. Ancestry’s databases, being very large and very comprehensive, were very helpful at this point. I was able to verify, to the best of my limited ability that this person was the same person in both trees. Again, it’s speculative; you have to take a bit of a risk here and just go for it. Where the trees diverged from each other, was further down the tree…closer to our time…and in who Catherine was connected to and how she was connected (Grandmother or Aunt or Cousin). At one point, with about 500 people in this speculative tree, I found a huge mistake. So I deleted it. All of it. And started over from the beginning. Such is the nature of this sort of research.

The key to all of this is working down or forward in time until you get to where you would naturally fall in your own tree. Since Catherine had had two Husbands, it was pretty simple to separate the two trees between Husband A, and their progeny, and Husband 2 and their progeny. That’s when I started doing the other thing suggested for DNA genealogists:  connecting one’s DNA to someone (anyone, really, but one must be thoughtful about this…) in the tree. I played with this for months, connecting my DNA to everybody and their brother, literally!, male or female, dead or alive, until I finally got a huge breakthrough:

Johanna Wright.

I actually have three women with this name in my tree. One is a 1st cousin 3x removed; one is a 2nd great-aunt and they were born within five years of each other. They also were both born in Ballingarry, Ireland, emigrated to Pennsylvania, and died there. In the same town.

But the third Johanna Wright later proved to be my paternal Grandmother.  She was born in the same town where the other two Johannas had died.

I don’t believe in coincidences.

When I attached my DNA to her, I got green shaky leaf hints all over the place.

After six months of research, I had found my Father’s family; I still didn’t have a name.  Now it was time to fill in the blanks. Which, this being genealogy, turned out to be harder than I thought it would be.

Why do the Irish name everyone by the same. damn. names?

The Winter of My Discontent

I had found and began to converse online with several cousins. There was Bridget in Ireland, Eddie in Scotland, Joanna in Australia, Maureen and Coleen in Chicago, Eileen in Maryland, Doris in Pennsylvania, Don in Utah, Bill in Florida. Keeping everyone straight and sorted was becoming a full-time job. But I was learning, quickly, that these folk were family, regardless of how remote they may have been, and they had valuable information that helped me connect my familial dots. It helped, as well, that with a Daughter in China, I was used to navigating world time zones that included the International Date Line (back…to the future!).

It didn’t take long for Eddie-from-Scotland to start sending me documents, newspaper clippings, and photos of McManuses (my Mother’s Father’s family). He lived in Glasgow, almost around the corner from where my Grandfather John had lived, and was willing and able to fetch anything I needed for the family tree. He had some interesting stories, indeed! and wasn’t shy about sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Joanna and her Mum are related to me through my maternal family as well. Their family connected through my Great-Grandfather’s Scottish wife, Charlotte. Through them, I discovered my “royal connections” and the castle in our family; the one we now joke about getting back. Yes! We have a castle! Joanna lives in Australia by way of New Zealand. We’ve become far-flung from our beginnings in Ireland just 200 years ago.

Maureen and Coleen are related through my maternal Grandmother, as is Bridget…who has been my biggest help and my greatest cheerleader. The Cassidys emigrated to Chicago less than 100 years ago. Maureen and Coleen have also sent documents, stories, and pictures from the American Cassidys whilst Bridget, being a professional archeologist/genealogist, has been invaluable in her help, her research, and her diligence. She has given me not just family stories, documents, and pictures, but advice and connection. Bridget and I are related through my Grandmother, Ellen Cassidy McManus.  So is Don who has graciously shared his pictures with me as well as family anecdotes.

But it is Eileen, Doris, and Bill that are the connections I have with my Father’s side. My initial conversations with Eileen and Doris were difficult and rather frustrating, at best, since there seemed to be an assumption that I must have grown-up within “The Family” and knew more than I did and I understood better than I was able at the time. Then, suddenly, Eileen completely hosed the tree with which I matched on Ancestry; removing names, realigning family connections, and completely reworking pert ne’er everything. I thought I had this figured out, when, suddenly, I didn’t.

I could have cried. When I asked her about it, she casually told me I was actually connected to another tree she had in her profile. But my DNA didn’t connect to that tree (still doesn’t).  So I’m, like, seriously??? really??? How does THIS work???

Doris’ Family has a website, which I found quite by accident.  When I contacted their webmaster/historian, I was referred back to Doris…whose tree has some iffy names, redundant profiles, and repeated connections…like male Y is married to female A, twice, and she’s the same exact person with the same exact children. :sigh:  Not very accurate, at all. But it’s all I had, at the time, so I worked slowly and diligently, checking and double-checking everything, trying to make sense of the typically Irish families who seem intent on naming everyone by the same names.

Eventually, I discovered the Irish naming conventions. That helped. When searching through a sea of Catherines, Jameses, Johns, and Michaels, it was good to find the one family that had generational Charlottes, Duncans, and Grahams.

Meanwhile, I’m still trying to decide if and when and how I contact my siblings. One day, I got the funny feeling that something was amiss. That there may be an issue with my younger brother, John.

But you can’t research current, living people.

What had been fairly smooth, fairly simple research…regardless of all the hours I was putting in…seemed to suddenly grind to a halt.

Now what?!? I found myself frustrated. Tired. Depressed. Becoming sick of the search and tired of the researching. I needed a break. I needed a vacation. I needed a Spa Day or some Shopping Therapy…

I needed a clue.

Stalking Facebook

As Summer gave way to Autumn, and the research continued, unabated, I finally gave in and searched on Facebook for some of the names I had found. This was not an easy decision for me. I value privacy and, even though the stated purpose, the intent of Facebook is to connect, well, everyone…literally!…I felt as if I was playing the Peeping Tom. Of course, in my more pragmatic moments, I reckoned that anyone who didn’t want any unwanted visitors could change their Facebook parameters to reflect that. I had my profile set up to do just that as far as I was able given the constantly changing Facebook “security” updates. But at the end of the day, my curiosity got the better of me and, following the constant admonition from my DNA Yahoo groups to “search on Facebook”, I did just that.

And there they were. My family.

I readily found my half-sister and my half-brothers. Now the issue became, how to go beyond Facebook stalking to actual conversation; real connection. I composed dozens of messages, trying to ease into the whole, “Hi! I’m your adopted-out Sister!” and never could get it down. I deleted every  one of them, my heart-pounding and my palms sweating.

I walked away from trying. I wrestled with the overwhelming desire to make myself known to them, and a competing overwhelming fear of rejection; of opening the proverbial can of worms. I had promised to not do this; to not bother anyone. I was so concerned with hurting them, I had put myself into the untenable position of hurting myself. I swung between elation that this was real, this was true, and deep sadness that we would never find each other. Whilst I had lived my life “knowing” I had people out there, somewhere, with whom I had this visceral connection, I also recognised that they probably knew absolutely nothing about me and would be shaken at the prospect…and might, possibly, take that information and those attendant emotions out on me. Not all “reunions” go well. In fact, many don’t.

What to do, what to do?

So I buried myself into looking for my birthFather as Autumn deepened into Winter. By this time, I had three trees going: my maternal tree, and two paternal trees as I tried to make sense of the DNA matches I had (not to mention my adopted family’s tree!), when Ancestry pulled a mickey and changed their algorithms.

Suddenly, a bunch of my matches disappeared; and I really didn’t have that many.  Now what?!? I had previously loaded my raw DNA file to Family Tree DNA (FTDNA), but hadn’t gotten anywhere with them. My closest match, at that time, was 4 generations out. I was also on Gedmatch with similar non-results. Ancestry was and still, today, remains my best option. So I decided to send out bolder and more pertinent messages to the folk whose trees I was most often seeing in my pursuit of family members. But I had learned to NOT use the “a-word”. “Adoption” seemed to scare people off. Understandable, I suppose…although we were talking about a 60-year old “scandal”.

I started hearing back from other, more remote family members. I started to make some connections, although not quite as close as I had hoped. I was getting some family stories and folk were sharing dates and histories and…pictures!!!

Six months had passed since I had received my results. I learnt the outlines. Now, I was learning the details.

Still, I couldn’t help but stalk Facebook and read about my family there, even as I continued to fear what “friending” them could mean…

Crossing the Pond

Once I had my birth certificate, it didn’t take long to discover that the vast majority of my family were fairly new to the United States. Whilst my Husband was doing his genealogy (it’s contagious…be warned!), and discovering his forebears were here as early settlers, my family was much more recent. My Grandfather, John McManus, had emigrated in the 1920s. My Grandmother, Ellen, had been brought over with her family as a pre-teen in 1912. So it was inevitable that I started looking for databases “over there”.

I first found RootsIreland. But my Irish family had pretty much left Ireland during The Great Hunger (Irish Potato Famine) during the 1840s and 50s, when something like 25% of the Irish population was decimated either by emigration or starvation. Since they were from what is now known as Northern Ireland, and were Catholics (mostly…but that’s another story), it wasn’t that hard to work backward from John and Ellen, and find some of these folk. So I was able to get names, and some dates; but it was finding family documents that really interested me.

Enter ScotlandsPeople. Yes, this is a pay-as-you-go site, unlike other sites with free information. But they have fantastic records online of birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates which offered a LOT of info: parents’ names, including maiden surnames; addresses; cause of death; time of birth; where married (Roman Catholic or Church of Scotland)…this was a motherlode of information and I eagerly researched everything I found.

At the same time I was tracing my maternal side, my paternal side was proving more difficult. It seemed that this family had been here longer, which made the initial inquiries pretty easy. But when I got to the immigration records, sometime in the early-to-mid 1800s, the records weren’t as detailed. Names were harder to correlate, and it wasn’t long before I realised that Ireland’s records weren’t as easy as Scotland’s. Now I was reading crabbed writing, in Latin, as I looked through ancient Parish Records to find anything…any glimmer of a name, a date, a relative…to trace these folk. I had a third cousin and a fourth cousin to work with here on the DNA side. That meant I was looking for a common Great-Great Grandparent as well as a Great-Great-Great Grandparent. No small task.

But I found one.  Catherine Wright, with the two Husbands. For months I traced her and her life until, one day, I was given another fourth cousin who shared my DNA and had not just Catherine in her tree, but all her brothers and sisters. More names!

And after hours and hours; months of building trees, I discovered Catherine wasn’t my 3rd GreatGrandmother.  She was my 3rd Great Aunt.

Catherine had six siblings that I could discover. One of these was my 3rd Great Grandfather. But which one?

Feelings, wo-o-o Feelings…

So.  I now had some proof that my birthMother is Charlotte McManus, from New York. My previous research had given me some family members, mentioned within Charlotte’s Buffalo, NY obituary back in 2002.

I kept at it on Ancestry, building trees, and looking for family connections. Charlotte’s Mom, my Grandmother(!), was Ellen Cassidy. Her Mom, my Great-Grandmother, was Catherine Maguire. Census records, immigration records, and marriage and birth records…all online…indicated that Catherine had emigrated from Glasgow, Scotland to Chicago with her Husband and children, back in 1912. Ellen had been born in Glasgow, emigrated with her family in 1912, and was married, in Chicago, in 1920.

Chicago. My birthplace and my home. A thought occurred to me:  when Charlotte fell pregnant, she must have gone to stay with her Grandma in Chicago. It made sense, especially in the 1950s, for a young, unmarried, pregnant woman to “visit family” as a means to hide her pregnancy, and release the child for adoption. Catherine’s personal story, which I was also discovering, made this more than possible.

This is where another DNA match became important. “leenie08”, also from the Chicago area, was also related to Catherine Maguire. Whilst Catherine was my Great-Grandmother, she was “leenie08″‘s Great-Aunt.  She and I share 2ndGreat-Grandparents…who had emigrated from Ireland to Scotland sometime before the 1870s.

Dots were beginning to connect.

And I was, suddenly, feeling very vulnerable, very overwhelmed by the information I was gathering, and the way it was beginning to fit together. The sort of family research I do is a lot like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces had to be found by means of a scavenger hunt. It was exhausting, especially reading the 100+ years old, online, digitalised photos of hand-written records from Ireland, England, and Scotland.

I felt quite lost in it all. I was emotionally raw; achey and tired from being hunched over my computer for hours and days on end.

But I was also focused and determined. I may not have looked for this journey, but here I was…and I was going to finish it, dammit. I joined a couple of Yahoo Groups dedicated to aiding newbies to genetic genealogy as well as helping adoptees use this “new” science to find their families. By now, I knew I had a half-sister and two half-brothers. I had nieces and nephews. They were all still in the same place Charlotte had lived for all but 6 months or so of her life.  They were right there…and I didn’t know what to do, or how to do it.

The more sceptical, perhaps cynical, and infinitely less involved folk in my life cautioned me:  they (my newly-discovered family) will think you are looking for something from them (inheritance?), they said to me; after all, “I” (these less emotionally-invested folk) knew they would feel that way. This rather stunned me, because it never occurred to me that folk might think like that. I know I wouldn’t. I’m adopted, right? All my life, I have thought about “what if…”. So, in a way, I was conditioned, pre-disposed, to accept possible claims of long-lost relatives, even as risky as that might be (which I recognised as being a valid concern).

I accepted their caution, even though I had problems with this train of thought. I continued to work carefully, around the edges, whilst still driving towards finding my birthFather.

I keenly felt this now named and not-so-faceless (I was beginning to find pictures of folk online) loss of family. I wanted to learn as much as I could about this new-to-me family. We were a part of each other. Whilst I now knew who they were and where they lived, I was outside…apart…wrestling with fears of rejection, massive change in my identity and how I though about myself, grief, depression, and incredible delight.

Mia Famiglia. Now what?

…And the Envelope, Please.

And there it was. The envelope I’d been waiting for with the return address of “Springfield, Illinois”.

My Mom.

Charlotte McManus from New York. She was 20 years old.

Father’s name “legally omitted”. Well, okay…I was working those DNA matches and it was just a matter of time and diligence before I cracked that one.  R i g h t???

The OBC looked exactly like my childhood birth certificate except it wasn’t a photo-stat copy, white on black. The doctors and the address of the hospital were all the same. Birthdate, time, weight, length…all the same. But the stunning difference was two-fold: the Mother’s name wasn’t Marjorie Luner and my name wasn’t Laura.

At the bottom of the paper, I noticed Charlotte’s signature. My birthMom’s handwriting…which was suddenly very real and very dear to me, because I had already found her obituary; she had died in 2002, the day after her 67th birthday.

From the time I received my DNA test results to the day I received my OBC, only about a month had passed. From everything I’d read, most folk looked and looked and looked for YEARS before getting anywhere close to where I’d gotten in just a few short weeks.


The emotional impact was huge. The stunning truth was what I had suspected for a very long time:  the legal name change that was part of my adoption proceedings was real; my name, given me by Charlotte, was Marie. But seeing the proof, up close and personal, was quite overwhelming. I thought I was very, very done with “processing” my personal adoption stuff.

But I wasn’t.  Not with this in my hot little hand; not by a long-shot.



Patience, NOW

As the days ticked by and I patiently (NOT!) waited for my original birth certificate (OBC), I spent a lot of time looking for and researching the names of the folk I had discovered. has a plethora of databases that were readily accessed with the plan we had. But I was missing some vital information that would have narrowed down the choices I was given; specifically, the man that could be my maternal Grandfather, John McManus.

Type “John McManus” with a possible birth year (thank you, 1940 census!), and you get 715,525 hits. Indeed. Three-quarters of a million hits. Obviously, if I were to find “my” John McManus, I needed more info than just that.

Again, thanks to the 1940 census, I had wife and child names. Type that into Ancestry’s search engine, and it narrows down the possibilities. But  not by very much. So began my search for my family. Digging, digging into every possible record. Birth, death, marriage, immigration; city directories…and that’s when I began to get somewhere. City Directories, specifically for Buffalo, New York. There were only five “John McManus” listings for most of the 1940s and 50s.

At the same time, I was looking for John’s wife, according to the census, “Ellen”. Was Ellen my maternal Grandmother? She was even more elusive than Charlotte!  And that’s when I discovered Ellen wasn’t so much “from” Buffalo, New York.

Ellen seemed to be from Chicago. I was born in Chicago.

I waited for the Great State of Illinois to mail me my OBC… and I felt like I was beginning to get somewhere; somewhere close.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

After doing as much research as I could given the information from “jimbuffalo”, I started looking at the other matches I had. These folk weren’t as close to me as Jim, but they’re still important matches.

So I looked through the family trees associated with two other cousins:  a third cousin, “P.H”, and two fourth cousin, “leenie08” and “harvanddoris”. Leenie’s tree had many of the same surnames that I was beginning to look for through Jim, so I assumed (correctly, it later turned out) she was from my Maternal family, the McManuses (McMani???).

But my other two matches, P.H. and Doris, matched each other. The surnames in these trees were all different and unfamiliar to me. Might they be from my unknown Paternal Family?!? I combed through these two trees and discovered a Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA), Catherine Wright (1834-1894). Catherine was from Tipperary, Ireland and had emigrated to the States in 1866, settling in Pennsylvania.

I started building out her family tree, using the information I had from Doris and P.H., as well as what I could find in Ancestry’s database. Turned out, Catherine had two husbands, Richard Britt and William Kennedy, both, also, from Ireland. Between them, Catherine had seven children, most of whom also had married and had children.  This tree was growing exponentially…and quickly. By the time the first week of researching Catherine came to a close, I had, what I thought at the time, a large-ish tree, but no real direction. DNA told me I was related to these folk that were related to Catherine…but how? which branch?

And how would I ever figure this out? That’s when I took a leap of faith and wrote an inquiry message, through Ancestry’s messaging system, to Doris and P.H, asking for more information on family members and their connections, than what I initially found.

Lo, and behold…I got an answer. But I was now more confused than ever because neither person could tell which branch I was from:  Britt or Kennedy.

That’s when I started to play around with attaching my DNA to random folk in these trees (which were also private and unsearchable, for obvious reasons). Attaching DNA is a simple procedure on Ancestry, and one of the methodologies recommended by DNAAdoption. Simply find someone you think you might be related to, and link your DNA to that person in that tree. You can find all of this under “Settings” on Ancestry’s DNA homepage. It doesn’t matter who that person is; male/female, living or not. It’s a great way to get hints and to see if and how you’re related to a particular branch on a particular tree. For me, it worked brilliantly, although it took some time to populate the “shaky green leaf” hints.

And what are these “shaky green leaf” hints that I waited for, to populate my tree and my DNA page? These hints from Ancestry offer more information, more names, and more possible connections based on my DNA, the other family members’ DNA, and the information…right, wrong, or indifferent…what was in other folks’ trees. These are more clues to follow as I continued to search for my origins.

So at the same time I was waiting for my OBC to tell me if Charlotte-from-Buffalo was my Mother, I started down the path of finding my birthFather.

Crashing Into That Iceberg

Yes, an obituary. By using Google and the two names “jimbuffalo” gave me, plus the ever elusive Charlotte McManus, I found an obit for Jim’s Dad. And what to my wondering eyes should appear? Jim’s Dad was married to a McManus. Ellen McManus.

So I googled Charlotte McManus, Buffalo, and…another obituary. This time, it was for a Charlotte McManus. Could this be the right one? is this THE Charlotte?

And, indeed, it was. Listed within the text of the obit was the name of her sister, Jim’s Mom, plus many of the same names from the other obituary.

I now started googling, in earnest, all the surnames that were within Charlotte’s obituary. Another obit, this time, for another of Charlotte’s family, another sister. Within that obituary were most of the same family names. I had discovered the same Charlotte; but was it the right Charlotte?  And in Buffalo???  How, then, if this is truly “my” Charlotte, did she get from Buffalo to Chicago back in 1955???

I had now gleaned enough information to start searching within Ancestry’s databases. I had names, death dates, and locations. That’s when I began to learn how best to use this plethora of information. So I started with Charlotte, using all I had so far. The United States census for 1940 popped up.

And there she was, along with her sisters, her brother, and her parents. In Buffalo. The same names. This had to be her…

So, using the 1940 census, I could guestimate at birth years. And, by the way, Charlotte’s parents were Irish by way of Scotland. Recent immigrants, in fact. Now I had even more reasons…as well as names…to research.  And this Charlotte was the right age to be my Mother.

I stopped to breathe, my heart pounding.

I called Catholic Charities, again, asking questions…lots of them. It wasn’t long before I discovered that the state of Illinois had opened their birth records, more or less. I was just old enough to get my original birth certificate. I still needed a court advocate and all the attendant court proceedings, for my “non-identifying” information…the info that Charlotte would have given to St Vincent’s about herself, her family, medical issues, and so on…with all the “identifying” details redacted.

Fill out the necessary paperwork, mail off a check. Thus began the longest two weeks of my life.

…and The Journey Begins

Genetic genealogy is a steep learning curve. Expect surprises, mysteries, and things that just don’t add up. After David and I got home from our California Trek:2015, I powered up the laptop and checked out these DNA matches Ancestry has given me.  Yep! Denise was correct, I had one very good, close match.  But who was this person and how were we related?

“jimbuffalo” had obviously been apprised of the match, because he sent me a message through Ancestry’s message center. In that brief first foray into all of this, he had given me some wondrous information:  about HIS family, father and grandfather. Great! A start! But how does this prove anything, really?

Google. Google is your friend. In the course of researching these names, I found a couple of websites devoted to helping budding genetic genealogists, who are also adoptees, learn what to do and how to do it. I realised, quickly, that I needed to slow down a bit, back up, and learn from someone, somewhere the very best, most successful way to find “missing” family.  DNAAdoption were the very people to help. They have a methodology for utilising DNA as well as basic DNA explanations, advice, and numerous links to send me off into this new journey. So in between reading, voraciously, everything I could find, and then blindly doing what turned out to be The Right Thing (for the most part…), I made an incredible discovery.

My birthMother wasn’t from anywhere that close to Chicago.  I learnt about her through Googling “jimbuffalo’s” family, and finding an obituary.


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