Susan Snelgrove
Susan Snelgrove

Your Roots Are Showing Blog

How I Helped an Adopted Friend find his Birth Parents with DNA

I have written several “how to” Blog Posts to help you be successful at building a wonderful family tree.  I’ll do many more in the future, but for my next Post, I wanted to write something just for ME. I have helped several people who are adopted find their birth parents using their DNA test, with amazing results.

This particular story is about a friend named Norm, and his personal search for his birth parents at 75 years of age.  I wanted to tell you his story, because it really does drive home why I love genealogy so much.  The problem to be solved, the detective work, the happy ending!  If you listen to Norm’s tale, you may see the possibilities for your own amazing family stories too.

This is a long one, so grab yourself a coffee or a glass of wine, snuggle in a cozy blanket and settle on the couch.  Hopefully there is light rain pattering on your window, because that would set the right mood for this nostalgic story of discovery!  Oh, and don’t forget a box of Kleenex too.  If you’re a romantic like me, you just might need it.

Let me first introduce you to our heroine Chrissy….  She is my partner Frank’s first cousin.  They were born just hours apart in the same hospital.  So let’s just say they are very close!  Chrissy’s husband is Norm, the hero of this story. 

Norm’s Childhood, May 1942

Norm was born in Paisley, Scotland in May 1942, during WWII.  He knew from an early age that he was adopted.  His parents were middle aged when they brought Norm home to live with them, at 18 months old.  Until then, he didn’t know where he lived, but perhaps it was in an orphanage.  Norm’s parents were well off, so he had a comfortable life and he got a good education and an apprenticeship.

This was all turned on its head when Norm was 20.  His parents died within 5 days of each other, first his mother, and then his father.  Because of the shocking speed, there was no Will for either, and Scottish law at the time precluded adopted children from inheriting.   His father’s siblings got everything!  Sadly, they were very cruel to Norm, and he found himself suddenly without a home and with little money. 

Norm moved to Glasgow to work, but in the 1960’s this was a very tough and dangerous place, especially for someone on their own.  Being a plucky Scot, and having nothing or no one to hold him, Norm emigrated to Canada. There he had a long successful career and raised a family.  A real success story!

Norm was never interested in his biological parents.  As he said to me once, “My mother didn’t care about me, why should I care about her?”  He had a hard childhood I think, and he just wanted to forget it.

Gonna Take a Sentimental Journey, Gonna Set my Heart at Ease ….

But Norm’s wife Chrissy had other ideas!  The genealogy bug had bitten her, and she had been enthralled with building her own family tree.  She and I would talk about our fun hobby, and one day I told her all about DNA testing and what it could do for her.

So, Chrissy ordered kits for her and Norm from Ancestry.  Norm was somewhat reluctant, but being a loving husband, he wanted to make Chrissy happy.  He took the test.

5 weeks later, the results were in!  Norm would have made a great candidate for one of those TV commercials you see, when people get a shock about their heritage….

The DNA Ethnicity Reveal

The man with the thickest Scottish accent I have ever heard was more Irish than Scottish, and half Polish!  That sure came out of left field, and Norm was certainly intrigued.  You wouldn’t think there would be many Polish people in Paisley, Scotland in 1942, would you? The Ancestry DNA map even pointed to a very specific area of Poland.

Chrissy was investigating the Scottish side of Norm’s DNA matches by writing to them on Ancestry.  Unfortunately, she came up empty.  That’s not surprising, because it’s possible that even close family members wouldn’t know of a baby born out of wedlock.  These matches were 2nd and 3rd cousins, so fairly far back in Norm’s ancestry.  It was proving very difficult to make a connection.

Chrissy and I would talk on the phone, and I’d coach her on how to make sense of the DNA matches.  I suggested to her to upload Norm’s DNA file to the free website called Gedmatch.  People from all DNA testing companies can save their information there, so this would open her up to more matches.  I myself had my own DNA stored there, and had good results with it.  Maybe we’d get lucky, and maybe a closer relative to Norm had tested and uploaded their DNA there.

After Chrissy uploaded the file, she called me to help her make sense of it all.  I’ll always remember this day, because it’s the day when everything changed.

Every Good Story Needs a Twist

With Chrissy on the phone, I logged into the Gedmatch site, while Chrissy did the same.  With the phone tucked against my shoulder, I was scrolling down the list of matches, and explaining to Chrissy what the different columns and data in the search results meant. She must have been scrolling down faster than me, because all of a sudden she said, “Oh!  I see a Snelgrove”!  I said, “What??  No way!!”  As I hurriedly scrolled down, I found Norm’s match.  I said, “Chrissy, that’s MY DNA”!

So you see dear reader, Norm and I were cousins!  I almost dropped the phone.

We were fourth cousins to be exact, and somewhere in the distant past, Norm and I had a common ancestor.  I’ll admit I was pretty emotional at this point.  I realized that at 75 years of age, Norm had for the very first time in his life discovered a person he was actually related to.  And it was ME!

This was also the moment I truly came to understand that the people in this world are so much more connected than they realize.

Norm was pretty amazed to learn this fact.  From that day on we called each other “cousin”.  And with this discovery, I knew that I was “all in” trying to help Norm discover his birth parents.  Chrissy and I made a pretty determined team.

Some Good Old Fashioned Genealogy Detective Work

I went to visit them to chat about our findings. Norm was still fairly disinterested in our mission to find his parents.  His attitude was basically “why bother”?  We were undeterred.  I asked Chrissy what information Norm might have about his adoption.  They did have a legal letter that gave Norm’s birth name:  Johnston Conway B**** (I will keep his last name private).  I said Chrissy!  Did you know you can order his birth certificate on-line?

We ran in to sit at her computer, and I looked up the Scottish government website.  We did the search for that name, and there it was!  Johnston Conway B****, with his exact birthdate.  There was a birth certificate, and maybe it would say his birth parents’ names! 

While Chrissy and I were concentrating on the computer, I sensed Norm hovering in the doorway.  He had come into the room when he heard us all a-twitter.  Next thing I knew, he was peering over our shoulders at the computer screen. Maybe Norm wasn’t quite as disinterested as he was letting on!

The Hunt for Norm’s Birth Mother

Fast forward to the day the birth certificate arrived!  There it was, in black and white, Norm’s real mother’s name!  Margaret B***, “birth father” left blank.  She was listed as Catholic. Her address was in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute.  She must have traveled to Paisley from Rothesay to have the baby.  Finally, Margaret’s occupation was listed as Cinema Operator.

For a good genealogy detective, this is all you need to be off to the races!

The Village of Rothesay, Isle of Bute, September 1941

A quick internet search about Rothesay answered Mystery #1.  During World War II, it was the location of a Polish Officer’s Camp, most specifically spanning the period when Norm would have been conceived and born.  Some officers even were billeted in local residents’ homes.  Hmmmm.

Rothesay was a small place, on an Island, and was known as a tourist getaway.  It reminded me of the Scottish version of Coney Island or Atlantic City.  In my research I found that it had many Dance Halls and Cinemas and boardwalks, where people would go for entertainment.  Margaret was a “Cinema Operator”.  Maybe she ran the Theatre, as most working age men were gone away to war.  Or maybe “operator” simply meant that she is the one who ran the projector….. 

In my mind’s eye, I can see Margaret standing alone in the darkened projection room, with the light from the movie flickering on her face….  She’s watching the movie reel that I have going on in my head…. 

Of course my “movie” is in black and white.  It’s September 1941.  Handsome Polish Officer meets beautiful Scottish lass.  She works at the local theatre.  Or maybe she frequents the Palladium with her girlfriends, to flirt and dance with the exotic strangers in military uniforms.  I can hear Glenn Miller playing “Sentimental Journey” softly in the background. Can you?  They meet, and fall in love.  A good Catholic girl, and yet she cannot resist.  It is WWII, everyone is in danger, who knows what tomorrow brings?  One thing leads to another, and she becomes pregnant.  She is Catholic, and he is a Foreigner.  She cannot tell her parents, and it is a tiny seaside village full of gossips.   Her love is shipped off one day to fight in North Africa.  Perhaps he doesn’t even know of her plight. She boards the ferry all by herself to go to Paisley…..  She comes home several months later with a broken heart.

And you know what?  As it turns out, my “movie” isn’t very far from the truth, as you will see.

The Genealogy Detectives Dig In

Our first task was to find Margaret.  Using genealogy record sets, and other things I found on line (town directories and a great local tourism site for Rothesay), I narrowed Margaret’s identity to three possible women.  From there I traced them all, and two of them were eliminated.

The one Margaret that remained got married at age 31, long after the war.  Perhaps she was waiting for her love?  Perhaps she had a broken heart from giving up her baby?

Once I had my sole candidate, I built Margaret’s tree.  I found her husband, and the fact that she had children by him.  Norm had half-siblings!   I found out who they married, so I knew all their names as well.

Meanwhile, Chrissy was doing her very best Facebook creeping.  For all of you who think people can’t find you on-line, WRONG!  It’s amazing how many people don’t realize their posts and photos are open for people to see.  And with the names I gave her, Chrissy found relations, and one young man looked just like one of Norm’s sons.  We sensed we were on the right track.

It Pays to Take a “Side Trip”….

Once I had all these names, I searched voters’ lists for addresses, as well as obituaries, and I found her!  Margaret had died in 2011, so sadly we were too late for Norm.  But, having built Margaret’s tree sideways, and not just up, I knew her siblings’ names. (See my Post “The Foundation of Great Genealogy Research” where I teach you the benefits of doing that!)

And that’s how I found Margaret’s much younger sister Matilda.  In the furthest reaches of the internet I found a birthday greeting for “Aunt Tillie” from three years before. She would be elderly; was she possibly still alive?  Knowing her married name, I looked her up on several Voters’ Lists, and found she was always at the same address.  I then searched for her in the on-line Scottish phone book, and found an entry under her deceased husband’s name at that address.  Could this phone number be hers?

I thought it was a bit of a long shot, but I texted it to Chrissy anyway.  And then an amazing thing happened.  Unbeknownst to me, Chrissy had a friend Fiona who was on vacation in Scotland at that very moment.  Chrissy sent the phone number to her!  And this gutsy woman pulled over to the side of the road and immediately called “Tillie”!   I would never have had the nerve.

…. and How We Almost Killed an Old Woman

And this is when it all came together!  I had indeed found the right phone number, and 83 year old Aunt Tillie picked up the phone. Fiona carefully explained why she was calling.  She told Tillie about Norm, and that we thought he was Margaret’s son.  After a long pause, Tillie said in her thick Scottish brogue, “I knew something was up. She didn’t go to Paisley to help a friend….” And after they spoke for a while, Tillie reflected, “Our mum would never have let her keep him”.

Poor Tillie said she needed a wee bit of a dram to settle her nerves, but she took the phone number Fiona gave.  Shortly afterward Tillie’s son called, sensibly wanting to make sure this wasn’t some scam artist trying to rip off his poor elderly mother.

After she recovered from the shock, Aunt Tillie was actually thrilled to learn about her sister’s son.  She was only upset that she hadn’t learned about him sooner!  She totally embraced Norm.  In very short order she told Margaret’s children about their half-brother.  That’s when the photos arrived!

Margaret’s Identity is Revealed

I admit I cried when Chrissy sent me the photo of Margaret.  I could only imagine how Norm must have felt, seeing the face of his mother for the very first time in his life, at 75 years of age.  And my imaginary movie was spot on.  Margaret was indeed quite beautiful and glamorous!  I wish I could share her photo with you dear readers, but I am mindful of the privacy of Norm’s siblings.  But trust me, she was a “stunner”.

Over the ensuing days and weeks the two families got to know each other.  Needless to say it was a bit of a shock for them to learn of Margaret’s secret.  Tillie was able to confirm that Margaret did have a Polish “boyfriend” during the war and he did get shipped away.  Tillie was much younger than Margaret, and as a young girl at the time she didn’t have many details she could remember.

All of this happened very quickly, within a few weeks of getting the birth certificate.  Norm went from being an orphan, to having an aunt, half siblings and cousins.  He was sent pictures of his mother, grandparents, great grandparents and other relatives.  Norm and his siblings exchanged several letters, getting to know each other.

Needless to say, with all this new information, Chrissy and I built Norm a great Scottish family tree, going back many generations. And we found the many Irish ancestors that his mother was descended from too.

As reluctant as he seemed to start this journey, Norm embraced finally knowing who he was. I remember sitting at their kitchen table afterward, and he said to me, “I suppose my mother maybe loved me but couldn’t keep me…they were Catholic”…  “I suppose my mother this, I suppose my mother that….”  I thought back to the time he said “why would I care about my mother, she didn’t care about me”.  To hear him speak with wonder about “my mother” warmed my heart.

The Second Hunt Begins…. The Search for the “Polish Officer”

So, Chrissy, her friend Fiona and I found Norm’s mother!  But that is only half the battle, isn’t it?  Who was Norm’s Polish father?   All we knew was that he was in the military.

Step 1 was analyzing Norm’s DNA “cousin matches”.  And although I didn’t know at the time what my strategy was called, I started doing “genetic genealogy”.

Painstakingly and rather stubbornly, I started entering Norm’s closest Polish DNA matches into a new family tree.  I built each person’s family lines back as far as I could go. I was hoping to find some common family names and people that connected them all.  And I did!  After many weeks of dogged determination, I started to see the same 4 Polish surnames cropping up, and from the same places in the U.S.  These people traced back to the same general region in Poland, specifically to a town called Bratkowka. To this day, “Norm’s Polish Family Tree” resides on Ancestry. It has 978 people in it, with 1,693 records and 177 photos attached! I think we can agree I’m thorough!

I also combed the internet and found some amazing log books in the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum archives in London, England for the Polish Officers’ camp on Bute. I read the logs for the years 1941-1943 page by page.  They were written in Polish!   Thank you, Google Translate.   I started looking for the 4 surnames I was certain it had to be.  I did find three references to one of the surnames, S* (I’ll keep this name private).  The journals did also mention local Scottish people (like some teaching English to the soldiers). Alas, there was no reference to Margaret or her family name.

I plugged away at this for many months.  When I couldn’t go any further, all we could hope for was a closer relative getting their DNA test done.   At least I was able to tell Norm the probable surnames for his father’s family, and where he likely came from.  Norm was really interested in figuring out who his Polish father was, especially because he was a real military history buff himself.  Even though he still didn’t know his father’s name, I think Norm was proud of his military background.

Our Hero Departs

And this is where the story takes a sad turn.  I didn’t know it at the time, but unfortunately Norm was sick with a terminal illness.  Within less than a year of our discoveries, my friend (and dear cousin) Norm passed away at age 75.

At his funeral, his sister-in-law stood up to speak for him.  In his Eulogy she mentioned his search for his birth parents, and she read to us the long letter that Norm had written to his half siblings when he was introducing himself.  It was perfect, because he wrote to them about his life history, and we the mourners could hear Norm’s own words about what it was like to be adopted and to finally find his family.  That was an extremely emotional moment for me, to hear how happy Norm was to find out who he was.  I was so proud that I had played a part in it.

Sadly, Norm didn’t live long enough to find out who his Polish birth father was.  But in another twist of fate, we finally did fill in the very last piece of the puzzle.

The Final Plot Twist

When we first started out, Chrissy had given me access to Norm’s DNA matches on line.  I was still determined to solve the mystery, so I would go into his matches from time to time to check.  One day I logged on, and there was a new match….  A very strong one!  Ancestry predicted this gentleman R* S* would be a first cousin. And his surname was one of the 4 names I had identified from my genetic genealogy work.

With Chrissy’s permission I wrote to him, explaining who Norm was and his story about Rothesay, Isle of Bute and the War. 

He wrote back to me within the hour, saying that his grandfather Franciszek (Frank) had been a Polish Officer in WWII, and had indeed been stationed for a time in Scotland!  This was in fact the name I had found three times in the Polish Officer camp records…. And, he was also born in the town Bratkowka.  I’ll say I felt pretty pleased with myself!  My genetic genealogy work had been spot on!  And so was Ancestry’s! Bratkowka is only 11 kilometers from Krosno, planted firmly within the green area on Norm’s DNA map as predicted. You nailed it, Ancestry!

R’s father was Frank’s son, and even though his dad had been born in Poland, he had emigrated to the U.S. after the war.  This would make R* S* Norm’s (half) nephew, and his father was Norm’s older (half) brother!  Norm had another sibling.

R*S* was very receptive to this big surprise, and wanted to share the news with his father, Norm’s brother.  That weekend was Father’s Day, and he and the family were getting together.  He would tell his father then.

Once they had the conversation, although a shocking surprise, R’s dad was very good about it.  Immediately they sent several photos of Frank, Norm’s father.  I could certainly see why Margaret was swept off her feet (in my black & white movie reel).  He was so handsome!  I had read in the history of Bute how the local men were jealous of the Polish officers, because they all tended to be very well educated, accomplished in the arts and very sophisticated.  Franciszek was all that! 

Here comes the final twist in this story…  Frank was married!  I wonder if Margaret knew this or not, and whether Frank was in love with her or just having a “good time”.  It seems that Margaret was in love with him.  It would have been so nice to be able to fill in a bit more about their relationship, but alas some stories can’t be told.  But I will hold onto my ideals of a whirlwind wartime romance.  I bet it is close to the truth.

Chrissy and I had several nice exchanges with R*S* and his family to learn more about Frank.  They confirmed that the other three surnames I had figured out were exactly right.  My number one candidate surname turned out to be Frank’s mother’s name.  Good job, Geni Junkie!

The Postscript to our Birth Parents Search Story

It was bittersweet to finally figure this all out a year and a half after Norm passed away.  But as Chrissy said to me with a soft smile, “he already knows”.  I think she’s right.

So that is the end of Norm’s story.  Chrissy and I figured out who his birth parents were, and this sentimental journey has now been passed down to his children and eventually his grandchildren. 

I’m still working on it, but someday I will figure out who my common ancestor is with Norm.  Through the free on-line tool called the “DNA Painter”, I have narrowed it down to my Irish grandfather’s family.  That would explain the “South Down” reference in Ancestry’s Ethnicity Estimate. That is County Down, in Northern Ireland. It could be my Hanna ancestors from Kilkeel. If so, that would mean that like me, Norm is descended from King James I of Scotland.  I think he would like that.

So I have come to the end of Norm’s tale.  It does make for a lovely family story, doesn’t it?  You don’t have to be an adoptee to search for amazing stories about your own ancestors.  And that’s what makes genealogy so much fun!  I hope by reading this story, you are inspired to dig deeper.

Your Geni Junkie friend,


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