Follow the DNA, Not the Stories

This case was one of the first ones I used genetic genealogy to help solve.

Sharon was born in the 1940s in California, and was placed for adoption at birth. Sharon’s adoption was closed, but because her (adoptive) parents had connected with her birthmother through a family friend, they had a bit more information than if it had been an adoption through an agency. Sharon’s mother told her that her birthmother’s name was Margaret Spell – like you would put a spell on someone. She knew her birthmother had a boyfriend, a military man, who was not Sharon’s birthfather, and that was one reason they were choosing adoption for her. Sharon was told she had an older full sibling, a brother, who was being raised by a grandmother in another state. Both Sharon and her birth brother were the children of Margaret and her former husband, whose last name was Sullivan.  Later she learned that Margaret and her new boyfriend, the military man, had gotten married and had three more children, including a son who was killed in the Vietnam War. Sharon’s mom was told that Margaret died soon after her son was killed.   Hearing all of this, it seemed rather likely that we would be able to solve the mystery without DNA – but, there’s often a twist, and this case was no different.

Sharon and her family contacted me excitedly, because after a year of waiting for some good matches on to come up, someone matched Sharon with a cM of 663 (a great match!)… and had the last name of Sullivan – the name she was given for her birth father! Although they had reached out to this match, named Stacy Sullivan, they did not get a reply, and were feeling anxious and a bit confused.

I first took a look at just the information they had given me, which was Stacy Sullivan’s user profile on Ancestry. I found a very small, but public, Family Tree that Stacy had made. In it she listed her mother, who had passed away… and that was about it. There was a paternal grandmother listed, with just a first name, Ruth, and a death location on the East Coast. I got to work building a tree for Stacy Sullivan’s mother, Ann.  Now, in hindsight, the best way to have started this would have been to get viewing or collaboration access to Sharon’s DNA results first, and ignored any of the oral history she had about her birth family and just let the DNA speak for itself. But, it was a newer case for me so I had to learn as I went along.

As I built the tree for Stacy Sullivan, I was looking for any marriages between her mother Ann and a Sullivan to tell me who Stacy’s father could be. Bingo! I found one right away, and started researching him. His name was Richard Sullivan, and he had died a number of years earlier. What happened next was a gift from above, because his obituary was written with more biographical information than I had ever seen before. In it, the author of the obituary mentioned his biological parents were Mary Spellman and William Sullivan. My heart stopped when I read “Mary Spellman” – as that was pretty darn close, though not a perfect match, to “Margaret Spell” the name Sharon had been given. Then the obituary went on to say he had been raised by his grandparents on the East Coast – another match with the information Sharon had been given about her older birth brother. There were no other mentions of his children or other siblings, just a list of step-children from his second (deceased) wife, and a nice note about his time with his current partner (who it seemed obvious had written the obituary).

I was beginning to believe that Richard Sullivan was Sharon’s biological brother, and Stacy Sullivan, his daughter who matched Sharon at 663 cM, was Sharon’s niece. But when I went back to look at the cMs – they didn’t add up. At 663 cM, there are a lot of relationship possibilities between Sharon & Stacy, but full niece was not one of them.  I kept working on the family tree, and built one for Stacy’s grandfather, William Sullivan, who on paper seemed like he should be Sharon’s biological father. I followed his line backwards and forward. Found other children, other wives, that I kept note of in case we wanted to reach out to his descendants for additional DNA testing. 

Eventually, I realized I’d need to look at Sharon’s DNA matches fully.

I was given full access, and I got to work, first educating myself about how Ancestry matches worked, and how to best organize them. At this time, there was only the option to star a match, not color code, so I starred everyone who matched with Stacy Sullivan.

As I went through Sharon’s highest matches that were not shared with Stacy, I began adding to a family tree those matches who either had their own family trees started or had easily identifiable names. A pattern began to emerge, and it became obvious that Sharon’s birthfather was not named Sullivan…
After a number of hours, days perhaps, I had found that a Mary Margaret Spellman, who often went by her middle name only, had married a man named Joseph Steger. He was in the military, and they had been living together in California, in the same area Sharon was born. After they were married, they had three children, two boys and a girl. The eldest son was killed in Vietnam in an ambush. Mary Margaret died a few months after that.

Sharon had matches to the Steger family, many close matches in the first to second cousin range. They all had a common ancestral couple, which led to Joseph Steger. But Joseph was the military boyfriend… not the known birthfather, William Sullivan! They were choosing adoption in part because he wasn’t the birthfather… but humans make errors, and DNA doesn’t lie. Joseph was Sharon’s birthfather. Joseph & Mary Margaret’s children were Sharon’s full siblings.
A second look at Stacy Sullivan’s cM and shared matches and it all fell into place: she was Sharon’s half-niece, her father, Richard, was Sharon’s half brother.  


After finding that she had two living full biological siblings, Sharon reached out them in multiple ways, but did not get a response. She hopes one day they will acknowledge her in some way, but in the meantime, she has connected with a full first cousin, who has now also DNA tested on Ancestry, and has been able to provide Sharon with what she wanted more than anything: photos of her birth parents and her paternal grandparents and their families.

I found contact information for Sharon’s half-brother Richard’s last partner, the one who had written the obituary for him. She was enthusiastic about talking with Sharon and her family. She was able to share stories about Richard’s personality, his childhood and his adult life.

I also found a connection to Sharon’s brother who had died in Vietnam, a gentleman who had served with him. He had been there the day her brother was killed and had often posted on websites that he was looking for family members to tell his stories to. Sharon’s family was able to meet with him and listen to his account and get a deeper understanding of her brother’s short life.
In all, this was an amazing introduction to the power of DNA, and right away taught me to be on my toes regarding what should be and what actually is.