Not always what you think

Next weekend, Bill Griffeth and I will be speaking at the Brattleboro Literary Festival on DNA and genealogy, and the surprise results described in his book The Stranger in My Genes. For those who are not are familiar with the book, it all started when DNA results were compared between Bill, his brother, and their first cousin. In their case, Bill’s mother was able to provide additional details explaining the surprise results. (I won’t spoil them.) I have worked with many members with similar experiences, where, as a result of DNA testing and their research, they have learned either a parent or grandparent of record is not their genetic ancestor, resulting in a case of “misattributed parentage.”

In many cases, even after we come to a reasonable solution, the parties involved in the misattributed parentage are not living to explain the circumstances. In cases where only one ancestor of record was the genetic parent and the other parent of record was found to be a non-genetic parent, the usual conclusion is that these are cases of an extra-marital affair. A recent example reminded me that this might not always be the case.

Due to the nature of this example, all names and places have been changed. The chronology of events are roughly the same, with some additional changes therein.

Heather, Jonathan, Michael, and Saul Robbins

A few years ago Saul Robbins decided to take an autosomal DNA test from FamilyTreeDNA. He asked his two first cousins Jonathan and Michael Robbins to take tests as well. (The three men were the sons of three brothers, see chart below.) The results were surprising. Saul and Michael were identified as having a genetic similarity consistent with that of being first cousins. However Jonathan shared no DNA with either Saul or Michael!

The parents of Saul, Michael, and Jonathan had been dead for over a decade. They then asked Jonathan’s younger sister Heather to also take a DNA test. In another surprise, Heather was also not genetically related to Saul and Jonathan, and she and her brother Jonathan shared an amount DNA more consistent with that of being half-siblings rather than full siblings.

Heather and Jonathan’s parents married in 1955. Jonathan was born in 1959 and Heather was born in 1963. They were the only children of their parents. The Robbins children were born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut. Their conclusion, based on these results, was that their mother must have had two extramarital affairs with two different men resulting in their births, and that their father of record was not their genetic father. They talked to their mother’s younger brother, who said he never knew this about his sister, and he also provided a DNA test which confirmed that Jonathan and Heather were the children of his sister.

Willard Whittemore and his brother Stephen

Willard Whittemore, 81, had been working on his ancestors for decades. His long standing brick-wall was finding the parents of his paternal great-grandfather Myron Whittemore of Buffalo, New York, who was born in the early nineteenth century. He had taken a Y-DNA test with FamilyTreeDNA in hopes of matching other Whittemore families of the northeast. With no useful matches on that end, he also decided to upgrade his DNA to an autosomal DNA test in hopes of matches that could be related to his great-grandfather, since it was only a few generations away. While again, no useful matches were found on this end, he did get one relatively close genetic match to Heather Robbins. She was identified as his grandparent/grandchild, aunt-or-uncle/niece-or-nephew, or his half-sibling. Willard and Heather were not known to each other.

Now as Willard is 81 and Heather is 54, we could likely rule out Heather being his grandparent or aunt. Willard’s father died years before Heather was born, and Willard’s mother was 62 in 1963, so Heather could not be Willard’s half-sibling. Willard and Heather are 27 years apart in age, so in a case of very early parentage, it could be possible that he was Heather’s grandfather (if Willard had a child at 14, and that child had a child at 13). Willard basically said that was impossible! The only other kinship that seemed possible was that Heather was Willard’s niece. Willard only had one sibling, his older brother Stephen, now deceased. Stephen also lived in New Haven, Connecticut from 1961 to 1964, and Heather was born there in 1963!

Now as Willard is 81 and Heather is 54, we could likely rule out Heather being his grandparent or aunt.

Comparing the two stories, one reasonable explanation from the details above was that Heather Robbins was a biological daughter of Stephen Whittemore as a result of an extra-marital relationship with Heather’s mother. This would appear to make geographical and generational sense, as Stephen was in the same geographical area as Heather’s parents and was the same age. If this was a situation where all the parties involved were deceased, that might have been the conclusion Heather determined and accepted. However, Willard Whittemore had one useful bit of information to pass on to his biological niece about his brother Stephen: “Oh, when my brother was at medical school [at Yale from 1961 to 1964], he would donate sperm at the hospital.”

This explanation made perfect sense with the genetic results and greatly changed the assumptions Heather and her brother Jonathan had originally concluded. Was Jonathan also the biological child of a sperm donor? Was their father infertile? This is something they can’t really ask, since everyone is dead, but very well may be the case. However, the initial thoughts and emotions that Heather and Jonathan had about their parents when they first got their results were considerably challenged. Sometimes these cases of misattributed parentage are not what you might first think!

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

5 thoughts on “Not always what you think

  1. What a fascinating situation and excellent explanation. I don’t tend to think of sperm donation that far back, not for any particular reason except that it is a more often spoken of situation in today’s world than I can remember in the 1960s. How nice that those two siblings can now think of their father as a willing father, simply not biologically able to reproduce. A whole different matter than having an errant wife!

  2. We discovered an unknown uncle. Apparently grandpa had an extracurricular affair which led to a child. DNA tests like Bill’s exposed his cheatin’ heart. The new uncle is in his 70s so the participants are all long passed.

  3. Sorry I have to miss your Brattleboro Literary Festival appearance, I don’t know a whole lot about this topic. But, with respect to the Willard and Heather situation … I’ve never met anyone with a grandparent 27 years older than them, much less 27 years younger. Keep up the fantastic work, CCC!

    1. Hi Marc – Yes partly why that would be nearly impossible. I have read of only one case where someone became a grandfather at 27 (biologically). This was a prisoner the United Kingdom in 2014 who had a daughter at 14 who in turn had a child at age 13. There a few cases of younger grandmothers, but rare.

  4. A super fascinating story! One of the reasons genealogy is so fun, even when it involves total strangers, is solving the puzzle of human relationships (and often motivations/extenuating circumstances).

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