Every morning, I’d check my DNA matches at all the testing companies. 23andMe was my favorite at the time (2014), so I started with them. Then, I was off to check Ancestry and Family Tree DNA. I continued to get DNA matches though none of them were particularly good. All fourth cousins and beyond: 25 centimorgans here; 10 centimorgans there. I worked these lousy matches, hard. I asked people to upload to Gedmatch; putting them in chromosome browsers when I could, and I made family trees for them at Ancestry. Still, I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. These matches were scattered all over America with no consistency in surname or location.
Until Drew (first name changed to protect his privacy) McBreairty DNA tested at 23andMe.
Drew and I share a whopping 64 centimorgans of DNA; one long, glorious stretch of it on Chromosome 16. Still a fourth cousin match, but no one else came close to sharing that much DNA with me. I was beyond thrilled. I reached out to Drew and he couldn’t have been more kind. Drew is about the same age as my eldest daughter; 23 years old at the time. His mother is a genealogist and had tested him. I didn’t see his mother’s name on my DNA match list so I knew that my DNA connection to Drew was on his father’s side. Drew said that both sides his family were from Allagash, Maine and had been for generations. I had never heard of Allagash, Maine.
Originally settled by Irish, Scottish, and French-Canadian families from New Brunswick, Canada in the early 1820’s, Allagash is today, a very small town (population 239 in 2010) in the northern most part of the state of Maine. Though nothing about my DNA match to Drew seemed to fit what my mother had told me, I knew that DNA was solid evidence of a family relationship. And I had seen that McBreairty surname before. I was just sure of it.
I went over to Ancestry. No DNA matches there with surname, “McBreairty.” I then went to Family Tree DNA and...bingo. I matched two McBreairtys there. Someone named Shelley Jo McBreairty, and what appeared to be either her father or her son as we shared the exact same segments of DNA on Chromosome 9. Family Tree DNA lets their users contact one another via personal email address so I emailed Shelley Jo. She responded back quickly and enthusiastically. Shelley Jo is also from Allagash, Maine and is a cousin of Drew. Shelley Jo is about my age, a genealogist as well, and had tested father and herself. I was now matching Drew, Shelley Jo, and Shelley Jo’s dad. We weren’t all matching on the same chromosomes but I thought it had to mean something significant.
I started building trees. And landed in a big bowl of pedigree collapse.
Pedigree collapse occurs when distinctly different families marry into each other multiple times. It’s an extremely common occurrence; everybody has it in their family tree if you go back far enough. Think of it this way: you have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, and so on. The number of your ancestors is increased by double at every generation. If you continue to do the math, eventually you’ll end up with more individual ancestors than there were people on the planet at the time; which doesn’t make sense. There wasn’t a billion people on the planet a thousand years ago thus, some of your ancestors are direct descendants from the same family. That’s pedigree collapse (Should your ancestors be from a region with a small, intermarrying population over a several hundred years or more, that’s called endogamy. French-Canadians, Ashkenazi Jewish people, and people with Colonial American ancestry are a few examples of endogamous populations).
I learned the original McBreairty in Allagash was a James McBreairty (b. 1826) from Donegal County, Ireland by way of New Brunswick, Canada. He was married twice and was the father of 16 children. His descendants intermarried within the small community of large families in the area. The problem I had was that while both Drew and Shelley Jo were both McBreairtys and had an in-common ancestor couple, they also had other in-common ancestor couples in their family trees. Their family trees intersected in a few different places with different ancestor couples. I could could be matching Drew and Shelley on their McBreairty lines or I could be matching them on their shared, Walker, Mullins, or Kelly lines. We weren’t matching one another on the same chromosomes so I couldn’t assume any specific surname or family was mine at this point.
Over the course of three years, I continued to get McBreairty/Walker/Mullins matches from Allagash. All at fourth cousin range. Teresa and I built dozens and dozens of family trees searching for a male with a DNA Allagash connection that could be in Lewiston, Maine at the right time to be my biological father. And we got familiar with the people of Allagash through reading their Facebook pages. They’re a hardy, eclectic sort, these Allagash folks; hard working, good people. Quick witted and funny, too. I grew to like them immensely. I didn’t know how I was related to them, but I genuinely enjoyed reading their public Facebook posts, even if I felt a little creepy doing so from afar. Shelley Jo McBreairty, who had moved away from Allagash but has kept a close connection to everyone there, became a sort of an emissary to Allagash on my behalf.
“Tell me who you’d like me to DNA test,” she cheerfully offered. “I’m happy to help you!”
But I worried. What if my biological father was married at the time of my conception? I didn’t want to hurt anyone or cause them problems. I felt that I needed to tread very, very carefully with this. I expressed my concerns to Shelley Jo. “Don’t worry about it. You won’t be a problem for anyone. Whoever it is, they’ll happily claim you!” she assured me. “We take care of our own. I’m just sorry that you’re not my sister.”
I can’t explain how it felt not to know anything about my father and to have someone from his side of my family willing to claim me as their own; to wish that I was their sister. Wow! Wonderful doesn’t begin to describe it.
However tenuous, at last, I felt like I belonged.
Perpetually curious. I love history, genealogy, old movies, good books, all sorts of music, and adventures involving travel. In my spare time, I help admin a genetic genealogy Facebook page for CeCe Moore ("DNA Detectives") and coach people how to connect with their biological family using DNA.