Saturday, March 14, 2015

How I Found Him

I discovered a lot of new things from my 23andMe DNA test results.  First, I learned that my ancestry is 99.9% European, which flies in the face of all the Cherokee blood my mother claimed we had.  She used to tell me my great-great-grandmother was "full-blooded Cherokee," but when I asked her one day where she'd learned this, she said she'd assumed she had to be -- my great-grandmother had tanned so easily that she must've been biracial.

Next I looked at my blood relations in 23andMe's "DNA Relatives" database.  Most of them were anonymous, so I could only see their maternal and (when they were male) paternal haplogroups, as well as a prediction of how closely we were related.  I got lucky though.  My closest relative was estimated to be a second cousin or first cousin once removed, and his profile was public.  He listed his full name, a handful of family surnames, and a few locations where his family members had lived.  None of the family surnames were familiar to me, though I only knew two from my mother's family, so I thought there was a good chance he was a cousin from my father's side.  I sent him a generic message through 23andMe proposing we try to figure out how we're related.  I had already received several messages of this kind from other cousins as soon as my profile went live, and I'd replied with the limited information I had, but none had been close relatives. 

Then I browsed graduating class photos from the medical school my biological father had most likely attended -- the one where I'd been born.  Someone had taken pictures of them and uploaded them to a website dedicated to finding anonymous sperm donor parents.  I had heard of other donor offspring browsing photos like these until they saw a face that resembled their own, but looking at the sea of white male faces, I couldn't help but think we all looked kind of similar.  I typed the graduate names into a spreadsheet so that I could reference it again as needed, including all the graduating classes that might have been in school at the time of my conception, plus a couple extra for good measure.  Two overlapped with the surnames in my second cousin's 23andMe profile:  Johnson and Von Trapp*.  Only one had a corresponding photo.

I looked up my second cousin on Facebook, but his name was a common one like Chris Johnson*, so there were quite a few profiles that matched it.  I narrowed down the profiles based on where they lived, weeding out the ones who lived in places he hadn't listed on his 23andMe profile.  Then I browsed the remaining few for Facebook friends with surnames from his 23andMe profile.  Only one Chris Johnson remained -- that was my cousin.

Using the information I'd learned from Facebook, such as his age and the names of a couple extended family members, I looked him up on, which showed me his parents' and siblings' names.  I started drawing his family tree.  If he was my second cousin, our closest common ancestors would be a set of great-grandparents.  If I built up his family tree back to great-grandparents and then fleshed it out to contain all their offspring and all their offspring's offspring, my biological father would have to be on it somewhere.  I used to determine family members and for obituaries, which are sometimes blissfully detailed in their lists of survivors.  Assuming the family surnames he listed on his 23andMe profile were likely to be the closest ones, such as his mother's and grandmothers' maiden names, I found grandparent names and filled them in.  I found great-grandparent names and filled them in.  I started finding offspring and filling them in, focusing the most intently on the Johnson and Von Trapp branches.

I ran into a brick wall on the Johnson side due to lack of detailed obituaries, so I tried making a family tree for the medical student with the same last name, James Johnson.  His ancestry was easy to find online, and lack of overlap with Chris Johnson's quickly told me that he wasn't my father.  That left one more medical student, the unpictured one, Joseph Von Trapp*.  His wife and children and contact information were easy enough to find, but I had trouble finding who his parents were or where he came from.  He had no Facebook or LinkedIn profiles -- compared to most people I know, he was practically living "off the grid."  Finally I found an absurdly detailed obituary that listed him as a survivor.  It was his mother's obituary, it was old, and it gave all his siblings' names and his long-deceased father's name, as well as how his parents had met and how his father had died.

I had done all my work to this point without paying for an subscription, but it finally became worth it to give them $19.99 of my money.  There was a census record that reportedly showed that Joseph Von Trapp's father and Chris Johnson's grandfather were brothers, and I wanted to see a scan of the hard copy so I could be sure of what it said.  I paid.  The scan proved it.  Chris Johnson and Joseph Von Trapp were first cousins once removed.  Chris was my second cousin, as 23andMe had predicted, and Joseph Von Trapp was my biological father by process of elimination.  None of his brothers had been in the same school or town at that time, and no one else in the family had gone to medical school, so I felt 95% sure I was right.  Now I wanted to find pictures of him.

*These are not their real names.  I made up these names.


  1. It is great that more donor conceived people are finding out who their biological fathers are through genetic genealogy. That is a fantastic piece of detective work you were able to do. It serves as inspiration for the rest of us DC people who are still searching. Thanks for blogging your experience.