23andMe’s Tools Help Solve Ancestry Mystery

Richard Hill as a child with his adoptive parents, Harold and Thelma Hill.

Richard Hill spent his career working in the sciences and in marketing, but hearing about his decades-long search for family you get the sense he would have made a great detective.

While shoe leather helped him unravel much of the mystery of his birth, it wasn’t until the availability of personal genetic testing, including testing through 23andMe, that Richard completed the picture of his biological family.

“My search had lurched ahead and stalled repeatedly over 31 years,” he says in a book he wrote about his quest Finding Family: My Search for Roots and Secrets in My DNA.

The gap in Richard’s history became apparent when he was 18. That’s when his doctor looked through his medical file and let slip that Richard had been adopted. He was stunned.

“My heart skipped a beat,” Richard said in his book.

‘“Excuse me?” I asked. I must have misheard him. Or maybe he had me confused with someone else. I’m Richard Hill, son of Harold and Thelma Hill. Surely, he must have someone else’s file in his hands.’

Find Him

Thus begins Richard’s saga, which is part memoir, part detective story. It details his search for family, and how after decades of using paper records and tracking down whoever knew any tidbit of information that could help, Richard finally turned to DNA testing from 23andMe and other services. These tests helped him identify first his late biological father’s surname and later confirmed his exact place in his large biological family.

His search wasn’t fueled by a sense of abandonment. Richard knew his parents loved him, and he in turn loved them. Whenever someone asks him about finding his “real” parents, Richard corrects them, saying his real parents were the couple who adopted him. But the search and the answers he found on the way helped him fill in missing pieces of his history.

“I have a great appreciation of my adoptive parents and how they raised me,” he said. “And this certainly has made me think about the whole nature versus nurture thing and what I got from my biological parents versus what I got from my adoptive parents. But it’s also made me feel more complete.”

Or as he says in the book, “many of us (adoptees) will never know peace until we know all the pieces.”

Richard said that although he learned about being adopted at 18, his career and family all got in the way of seeking out more information about his birth parents. Digging into his adoption didn’t start in earnest until he was in his 30s after his father was bedridden by a stroke. He’d visit his dad often during that time and he would sit at his father’s bedside and talk. At one point, as if freeing a burden that had weighed on him all those years, his father said, ‘Well I guess you know you were adopted?”

His father went on to reveal the first bits of information Richard had ever heard about his biological mother. She was “a cute little Irish girl” and her name was “Jackie.” He added one more fascinating piece: that she had had another son. So Richard learned that somewhere out there he had a brother. His father suggested that Richard should find him.

Ancestry Tools You Can Use

Not everyone’s family story is cloaked in mystery like Richard Hill’s. Most of us just want to learn a little more about our history and gain insight into the generations from which we descended.

23andMe’s Ancestry tools can help you explore what your genetics says about your ancestry. Some of the insights can only be had through genetics. When used with other information — whether it’s your family’s oral traditions, names of ancestors in a family Bible, or other paper records — your 23andMe results can become even more powerful.

“Bingo”

When Richard started looking, he almost immediately faced daunting obstacles and dead ends. For instance, although he found the identity of his biological mother, he quickly learned that she’d died a little over a year after his birth. With a lot of work and luck, he was able to connect with her son, his half-brother. The two met for the first time in 1981.

But finding Richard’s biological father seemed impossible: He had no name — the one on his original birth certificate was the name of his birth mother’s ex-husband. In addition, his mother never told anyone who fathered her second child. The pregnancy itself was a secret and she had left town for the delivery. Still, none of that stopped Richard from searching. He did this by painstakingly piecing together his mother’s life at the time of his conception in 1945, and then contacting people who knew her or worked with her at the time and were still alive.

It took years. At one point he thought he’d found his birth father only to learn, after a paternity test, that he was wrong. That didn’t stop him either.

Finally, with the advent of early genetic tests that traced Y-DNA, the paternal line, Richard matched a distant cousin whose surname might also be that of his father. That provided a vital clue. He went back to some of the records he’d accumulated in his search. His mother had worked at a bar called Dann’s Tavern. Looking at old records he noticed that the name of the bar’s owner matched the surname he’d dug up.

“Bingo,” Richard thought.

Correcting a Mistake

Although the bar was long gone, and its owner dead and buried, Richard was able to find a niece of the man. He learned the owner was one of five brothers, and all of them were now deceased. So Richard started contacting sons of each man, asking if they would agree to a DNA test to determine if they were siblings. But unlike 23andMe’s test that now reads more than a million points in your genome, the only test available then looked at just 15 genetic markers to estimate family relationships. That test led him to identify the wrong man as his father and the wrong children as his siblings. It took a few more years, and a test by 23andMe and a test by FTDNA, to figure out that he’d made the mistake.

The two tools he used to correct the mistake were 23andMe’s Relative Finder and FTDNA’s Family Finder. The first test was on a man he thought was a cousin, but after getting the results back from 23andMe, it was clear that this man was actually his half brother.

“DNA testing helped me and it can help others,” Richard said.

His years of searching and his use of DNA testing has also made him a go-to source for others turning to genetic testing for more answers about their ancestry. He set up a website, www.dna-testing-adviser.com, to help people make sense of the different tools out there.  And even with the ups and downs of his family search, he doesn’t regret a thing.

“I did not have to give up anybody in my adopted family. It’s not an either-or thing. You’re just adding on. You can’t have too much family.”


  • Linda Heinz

    Hi. I am posting this in the hope that maybe somebody has the information that I am looking for. My name is Linda Mireles Heinz and I have been doing genealogy research on my family for about 40 years. I am at a roadblock with a few of my relatives.

    My maternal great-grandmother was Anna Maria Hernandez Gonzales. Her parents were Cristobal Gonzales and Maria del Refugio Hernandez. Cristobal and Maria Del Refugio were both born in Mexico and that is all the information I have.

    My maternal grandfather, Pedro Gonzales Flores, was married to Manuel Hernandez. I was told that she was born in Castroville, Texas and died in Sonora, Texas. Pedro and Manuela had five sons: Donaciano, Pedro Jr, Pantaleon, Timoteo and Lous. If you have more information on Manuela, I would really like to hear from you.

    My grandfather, Pedro Flores was also married to Antonia Medina Charles. Antonia’s parents were Jose Antonio Charles and Alejandra Medina. I have the obituary from Alejandra and it states that her parents were Toribio Supea and Lazar Supea. I have not been able to find this name anywhere so I am assuming that it is misspelled.

    The death certificate of Jose Antonio Charles states that his parents were Alfonso Charles and Maria Antonia Charles. This is the only information I have on the parents of Antonio Charles. Jose Antonio and Alejandra Medina lived in Uvalde, Texas.

    All of these people lived in Uvalde, Texas and Menard, Texas. Some later moved to Muleshoe, Texas.

    I am hoping that I will make contact with someone who has some information on my long-lost relatives.
    Cristobal Gonzales, Maria del Refugio Hernandez, Manuela Hernandez, Jose Antonio Charles, Alejandra Medina, Toribio Supea, Lazara Supea, Alfonso Charles and Maria Antonia Charels.

    Thank you very much.
    Linda Mireles Heinz

    • lisa mansell

      hello i read your comment about your family, and that you where looking for any info,,,i don’t know if this will help, but there is a family with the last name charles in mason,tx.can’t remember the fathers name, but i went to school with a girl named debbie charles, and the are mex-american..and there are also Hernandez,Gonzales, also in mason,,,mason is like 35/40 miles from menard,tx….

  • robert f. goldsboro

    Please advise how or the source to obtain the Saliva Kit for DNA testing. Would like to trace tribal or family roots (African Heritage)l Please indicate specific Source of ordering and sending plus amount to pay in advance or when submitting. Thankyou R.F.Goldsboro

    • ScottH

      Go to our website store. But I would like to point out that while the information will be able to tell you about your broad regions in Africa your ancestors likely came, it cannot tell you of your ancestors tribal origins.

  • Sam Stimson

    I was born in Asheville NC on the 26th of October 1942. NC is one of the States that seals birth records when the child is adopted. I was adopted as a baby and taken to Winston-Salem NC where I grew up. Searching for my Biological parents has hit a brick wall. I am pretty sure they are no longer alive, but I would like to find out who I am. My adoptive parents raised me well, but I would still like to know the hidden part. I have just sent in my DNA kit and am waiting for the results. I was just wondering if anyone here has ever dealt with the State of North Carolina and could offer directions?

    Thanks, Sam

    • WJ Smith

      Hi Sam,

      I’m in a similar predicament but in Florida, where it takes an Act of Congress and a court order to unseal adoption records. Florida does have something official that allows people a voluntary way to allow contact between natural family members. It’s called the Florida Adoption Reunion Registry. While that particular registry won’t help you, maybe North Carolina offers something similar.

      If they do, here is one hint: On the Florida application, you choose who you want to obtain your basic contact information. I chose natural parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings – I wrote in everything but the kitchen sink. My parents might be deceased and my grandparents almost certainly would be, but there are a whole lot of other potential biological relatives who could be out there wondering what ever happened to So-and-So’s child who was put up for adoption.

      I had no expectation of a flood of responses and I was not distressed that I got no response at all, so far. In Florida, it stays in their system forever and you just have to keep it updated with your current contact info. If North Carolina doesn’t have their version of FARR, maybe you can use FARR as a model to introduce to North Carolinians as a way of voluntarily and legally bypassing their adoption laws. Hope this helps.

      This is the FARR website: http://adoptflorida.com/Reunion-Registry.htm

      • Sam Stimson

        Thanks for the information WJ. I have several friends I grew up with, back in Winston-Salem, maybe one of them can help me find out. Until then I will just wait for the results of the DNA test.

  • Mandy V. Robinson

    My name is Mandy Robinson (nee Bendt) and I am trying to obtain information about my great-grandfather Nels Bendt. I know he was born in Denmark anywhere from 1875-1881, but I can’t find information about his life before he moved to Wyoming in 1911. Any help would be greatly appreciated. :-)

    • B Spradley

      1930; Census Place: Laramie, Albany Counrty, Wyoming
      Name Age
      Henrietta Bremmerman 28
      Patricia Bremmerman 8
      Floyd Bremmerman 6
      Nels Bendt 51
      Clara Bendt 44
      William Bendt 6
      Kenneth Greenbeck 26

      The census record above provides information that Henrietta Bremmerman was a widow and was the niece of Nels Bendt. Her brother Kenneth Greenbeck lived in the household also. Therefore, Henrietta’s maiden name was Greenbeck, and that means that a sister of Nels married a Greenbeck. Maybe this info will help you search. This information is on Ancestry.com. There’s also a WWI draft registration card record that says Nels was a baker.

      • Mandy V. Robinson

        Thank you, B. Spradley. I had found the draft card and I knew he was a baker, because my grandfather, William, (Nels’ son) told me so. I will look into that Greenbeck story. :-)

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