My least favorite part of DNA-based parentage searches is reaching out to matches. The stakes are high, and the outcome is uncertain. Do they have information that could help? Are they welcoming? Will they even reply?
The best I can do is try to make contact in a way that entices without scaring them off. I use the same general approach no matter how close the match is, but obviously, the closer the match, the higher the stakes.
After doing this kind of search for a while, I came to realize that the immediate goal when contacting matches is not to get information. Yes, intel is essential, but the top priority is to make allies.
Allies not only share what they know. They can be research partners, call family members on your behalf, and ask key people to do DNA tests to solve the parentage mystery. And allies can become friends.
That’s why, before you ever contact a match, you should find out as much as you can about the connection. That might seem impossible for someone who doesn’t know who their parents are, but it’s not.
The trick is to compare the trees of shared matches. For example, if you match Tandy and Willie in the 2nd cousin range, if they are shared matches to one another, and if they have the same great grandparents in their two trees, you can start with the assumption that their great grandparents are also your great grandparents.
You still don’t know where you fit into the tree, but now you have a hook, a way to draw the match into an exchange.
Once I have a hook, here’s how I reach out:
You are a DNA match in the 2nd cousin range to Camille Lewis. I am helping Camille with her family tree. Camille is also descended from Jacob Wolf (1887–1964) and Hetty Wetmeyer (1888–1966) from from Brockton, Massachusetts. Would you be willing to exchange information to figure out the connection?
theDNAgeek (at) gmail (dot) com
(If you’re sending this message on your own behalf, write in first person.)
Notice that I include ancestral names, dates, and locations to pique their curiosity, I sign my real name, and that I give them alternate ways to contact me. I also keep it simple. No need to overwhelm them with gory details about centimorgans and segments at this point.
I also do not mention that Camille was adopted. I never lie to matches, I just save some truths for later. If we start an exchange, it’ll come up naturally. By that point, they’re usually receptive.
I will send the same message to Willie. In fact, for efficiency’s sake, I cut-and-paste the text to all of the shared matches in that cousin range. The specifics can be tweaked for different cousin categories and different branches of the tree I’m puzzling out. If the match doesn’t have a tree at all, I’ll add a line asking if they’re familiar with those surnames or locations in their own family history.
Manage Your Expectations
Brace yourself: most matches won’t respond. Others will take weeks. Or months. Or more. I’ve received replies years after I solved a case!
That’s why you want to send out lots of messages and tailor what’s essentially a form letter rather than crafting a long, detailed introduction for each match. You’re striking balances, both in how much information you share up front and how much time you invest.
A Close Match
My strategy’s a little different for close matches, that is, people who may have had a personal relationship with the birth parent.
Here’s an example of messages I sent to Thomas, a close match of an adoptee named James. (Names and some facts have been changed for privacy.) I was certain they had the same mother: they were born 3 years apart, and they shared 1860 cM, a mtDNA haplogroup, and two segments on the X.
I built a tree for Thomas and was pretty sure that he was also adopted. I didn’t know whether he knew, though, so I had to tread carefully. I initially asked Thomas if he was interested in communicating, with no other details:
You are a close family match to James. I am helping James with his family tree. Would you be willing to exchange information via messages or perhaps even chat with me?
theDNAgeek (at) gmail (dot) com
He said yes, so I continued:
Hi Thomas, As you may have guessed, James was adopted. In fact, he was a foundling (abandoned), so there are no records of his parentage. Using his DNA results, I’ve traced his ancestry to a man named Willis Barnes (1851–1941) from Maryland. Willis Barnes must have been James’ great grandfather. You’re related to James on his birth mother’s side. I’m hoping you might be willing to help us confirm who she was.
I held some cards back. I didn’t say that I think they’re half brothers, and I backed the history up to great grandfather, even though I had a pretty good hypothesis about who their grandparents were and had even narrowed their mother to one of three sisters.
It turned out that Thomas did know he was adopted. He didn’t know who their birth mother was, but he had information on her that James didn’t have as a foundling, and that information helped with the case!
Don’t discount the power of snail mail. When key matches don’t reply to messages, consider transcribing your introductory text into a greeting card and mailing it the old fashioned way. (Online directories can help you find postal addresses.) Remember to include different ways for them to contact you back.
I hope these suggestions help other searchers make contact with their DNA matches.