Needle In A Haystack: How I Solved A 73 Year Old Family Mystery Using Genetic Genealogy

Needle In A Haystack: How I Solved A 73 Year Old Family Mystery Using Genetic Genealogy

I wrote this article primarily for myself.  It’s rather an epic tale, but it tells the story of how I set out to find my dad’s unknown father using a 73-year old rumour, the internet, a small serving of common sense and more than a little providence.  I trust that you’ll feel a sense of the drama and excitement that unfolded over the course of 18 months.

It turns out that the echoes of our stories live on in our genes long after we’re gone.


The Needle and the Haystack

My father, John Blake, was born in April 1943 in the south of England, during the Second World War.  He was the first child of Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Blake.  Unfortunately he was illegitimate, and his grandmother forced his mother (as was sadly not uncommon in those days) to give him up at a few months old.  Consequently, my father was raised in an orphanage, where he lived until he was 16 years old.  He doesn’t talk about it, but it must have been an awful experience.

After leaving the orphanage, dad moved to Australia, primarily to stop himself from trying to find his mother, who he was convinced would not want to know him.  Whilst he was in Australia his mother died of breast cancer, aged 42.

For the last 73 years, all we’ve known about dad’s father (my paternal grandfather) is that he was ‘probably a Canadian soldier posted in the south of England‘ during World War 2.  To be honest, that statement never contained enough to work with, and so our family always lived with the sad reality that we’d never know our ‘true’ surname from the paternal line.



In April 2015 I started to get interested in genealogy and the history of my family.  I’m a sentimental soul, and have long wanted to understand more about where I come from.  There’s something special (to a sentimentalist at least) about one’s paternal line, as this is typically where your family surname comes from.  I’ve always lived with the knowledge that my surname doesn’t match that of my paternal grandfather and the line of ancestors that proceeded him.  I wanted to be able to reconnect myself to that unknown history.

Also, I saw this project as a gift to my father.  I imagine that being raised in an orphanage robbed him of some of his identity and history, and I wanted to be able to give a piece of that back to him.

With all that said, I made a bold claim to my dad.  “I’m going to find out who your father is“.  I don’t think he believed me.


Getting Started

After speaking with several family members and gathering most of the currently available information, I decided to get serious and set up an account with  Over the course of several months I had great fun and made good progress in understanding many branches of my family.  On both maternal and paternal sides I found previously unknown great and great-great grandparents, as well as a number of branches that could be traced back significantly further.

During this time, I made a couple of really interesting discoveries:

  1. My dad wasn’t born “John Blake”.  Dad’s birth certificate gives his name as “John Attwood”.  For some reason this was legally changed to “John Blake” by his grandfather Hedley Blake in February 1948, when he was 4 years old.  The reasons for this were not clear.
  2. My grandmother, Betty Blake, was married when she gave birth to my dad.  My research showed that my grandmother, Betty Blake, was already married to a man named Peter Attwood when my dad was conceived and born.  Peter had a military career and later died during the war in Palestine in 1947.

Given these facts, was it possible that Peter Attwood was my grandfather?  Would that explain why my dad had the surname Attwood on his birth certificate?

It was possible, but it didn’t explain everything.  It didn’t explain why my great-grandfather, Hedley Blake, changed dad’s surname to Blake at the age of 4.  And it didn’t explain the longstanding family rumour that dad’s father was a Canadian serviceman.  Peter Attwood might have been in the military, but he wasn’t Canadian.

Despite the obvious steps forward, the great mystery remained… who is my father’s father, and how could I prove anything with certainty?


Genetic Genealogy

As I read more about genealogy, I became familiar with a growing group of genealogists who refer to themselves as genetic genealogists.

Genetic genealogy is the use of DNA testing in combination with traditional genealogical and historical records. Genetic genealogy involves the use of genealogical DNA testing together with documentary evidence to infer the relationship between individuals.

Many genetic genealogists have developed significant expertise in understanding how DNA is passed from generation to generation.  Fascinated by this emerging science, I started doing my own research, learning more about autosomal, mitochondrial and Y-DNA, and the ways in which it is passed from generation to generation.

In the last few years, genetic genealogy has become much more accessible, following the advent of a number of large-scale, relatively low cost genetic testing services.  It has been possible for many years of course, but beyond the reach of most people due to the cost.  Today, through services such as 23andme, FamilyTreeDNA and, DNA testing is not only affordable (i.e. typically costs in the range of $100-200 for a basic test), but now offers the promise of databases of millions of people who have been tested, greatly increasing the chances of finding matches.



I decided to dip my toe in the water of genetic testing, and ordered a kit from 23andme.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t exactly know what I was doing at the time, but the potential to find relatives through my DNA seemed like a pretty cool idea, and I thought I’d give it a go.

Using the DNA testing kit is really straightforward.  A package is posted to you which contains everything required.  You just need to spit into a test tube repeatedly until it’s about half full, then seal the tube, place in the tube in a container and mail it back to 23andme.  It takes about 4-6 weeks to get your results.

And to be frank, the results weren’t all that exciting.  A bunch of potential 3rd, 4th and 5th cousins, with whom I shared up to 0.6% of my DNA.  Nothing groundbreaking.  I did, however, make contact with Rich Capen, a distant relative (and we’re still not quite sure how we’re related) who already had a fair amount of expertise in genetic genealogy.  I’m really grateful to Rich for teaching me the basics of genetic genealogy and answering my many questions.

Despite the results not telling me too much of interest, I was quite amused by the discovery that I have a higher than average percentage of neanderthal DNA:

A result that my wife claims she has known all along!

The raw data from the test, which you can download and use in other ways, looks like this:

A little bit disappointed with the results, I started to dig deeper into what the 23andme test was actually looking at.  I won’t bore you with all of it, but here are some of the key things that I found about the 23andme test.  Warning – science ahead!

  • It is an “autosomal” DNA test – Autosomal DNA is a term used in genetic genealogy to describe DNA which is inherited from the autosomal chromosomes (i.e. chromosomes 1 to 22).  This doesn’t include the sex chromosomes (i.e the 23rd pair of chromosomes, which is either X-X or X-Y).  The 23andme test only samples autosomal DNA.
  • It tests for SNPs, not genes – A single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP, pronounced snip) is a DNA sequence variation occurring when a single nucleotide adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), or guanine (G]) … differs between members of a species…  For example, two sequenced DNA fragments from different individuals, AAGCCTA to AAGCTTA, contain a difference in a single nucleotide.  This genetic location is known as an SNP.  The 23andme test looks at just these differences (i.e. SNPs, not whole genes).
  • SNPs can be found both within and outside genes – Some sections of DNA are responsible for the creation of particular proteins.  These sections are known as genes.  Somewhat surprisingly (to me at least), genes are not always contiguous (i.e. there can be sections of DNA that don’t code for genes in between them).  These non-gene sections are sometimes known as “junk DNA” (although I suspect that is far from the truth) or intergenic regions.  SNPs can be found both within genes and intergenic regions.
  • It tests approximately 550,000 SNPs – The current version of the 23andme test (known as the v4 chip) looks at approximately 550,000 SNPs.  This represents the majority of currently known variations in DNA from one human to another, which is somewhere around 0.1% of our genome.  Full genome tests are available, but still fairly expensive.  Given that 99.9% of DNA is shared between humans, a full genome test doesn’t currently seem to have any real additional value over and above an SNP test for genetic genealogists.
  • Test results are not “phased” – “Phasing is the task or process of assigning alleles (the As, Cs, Ts and Gs) to the paternal and maternal chromosomes … Phasing can help to determine whether matches are on the paternal side or the maternal side, on both sides or on neither side.”  Tests results can be phased later, but it requires either the mother or father to be DNA tested in order to complete this process.

I decided that it would be really useful if I could “phase” my results, as this would allow me to understand whether relatives were connected to me via my mother’s or father’s side of the family.  Consequently, I ordered 23andme kits for my parents, who managed to follow the instructions without too much assistance.

The results of my parents’ tests confirmed that they are indeed my parents.  I’d secretly been holding out hope that I was adopted, but oh well. 😉

Having connected to my parents profiles on 23andme and confirmed their mother and father relationship with me, 23andme was then able to phase my DNA (i.e. show me which DNA strand was from each of them).  This allowed me to determine, for each of my matches under 23andme’s ‘DNA relatives’ feature, which were related to me through my mother, and which were through my father.

For example, if I share a strand of DNA with an as yet unknown relative, that DNA must have been passed down from an ancestor that we both have in common.  In which case, either my mother or father will have that same DNA strand, as it had to be passed down to me via one of them.  By working out which it is, I can then work out whether I am related to the as yet unknown relative through my mother or father.  This significantly narrows down the number of places I need to look in my family tree for common ancestors.

Learning all this new information was really helpful, but it didn’t really seem to be getting me anywhere.  The investigation seemed to have stalled.


A New Approach

After some further research and reflection, I realised that my initial approach to finding my paternal grandfather had been speculative at best.  I was using the wrong tools to solve the problem.  For my particular mystery, I needed to change approach (at least initially) and start to look at Y-DNA, rather than autosomal DNA.

As you probably remember from school, women have two X chromosomes, and men have an X and a Y chromosome.  Men pass an exact copy of their Y chromosome down to their sons (although there can be mutations from generation to generation).

Putting these things together I made a few key realisations:

  • My Y-DNA should be exactly the same (subject to any mutations) as my unknown paternal grandfather.
  • Y-DNA tests are available at affordable prices from a number of testing services such as FamilyTreeDNA.
  • By taking a Y-DNA test, I would be able to see if I closely matched against anybody else who had been tested.  If I did, they would likely be part of the same paternal line, i.e. be a son, grandson, great-grandson, etc. of my unknown paternal grandfather.
  • If I did find a match, a Y-DNA test wouldn’t tell me exactly how we were related, just that we were part of the same paternal line.

Excitedly, I sent off for the FamilyTreeDNA Y-DNA test.  There are a few different versions.  Again, the test doesn’t sequence the whole Y-chromosome, but tests a number of markers within it.  The more expensive versions test more markers, allowing a greater level of detail (and hence certainty) about likely closeness of relationship with people that you match with.  I chose the 111 marker version of the test, the most expensive one at around $300.  In hindsight, I probably could have managed with the 37 or 67 marker version, but I was keen to get as much data as I could.

This time, the test arrived and I had to use something like a cotton bud to take a swab from the inside of my cheek.  I packaged the test up, posted it off and began what was to be a long wait.



Having ordered the kit in late May 2015, received it and sent it off in June, I didn’t get confirmation of receipt until July.  My results weren’t available until the middle of September 2015.

Despite the frustration at having to wait for so long, it turned out to be worth it.  The following picture shows the results I saw when I logged in to see my matches for the first time:

Eight of the top nine matches all had the same surname.  Two had a “genetic distance of zero”, meaning that all of the 37 markers tested were exactly the same as my Y-DNA.  As shown in the diagram below, this meant that the likelihood of us having a common ancestor within 4 generations was 83.49%, and within 8 generations was 97.28%.

But that wasn’t all.  The prevalence of the Parr surname in this list gave a very strong indication (although not 100% proof) that Parr was probably the paternal line that my dad and I come from.  In all likelihood, our surname should be Parr!

This was my first major breakthrough, and a really exciting moment.  Not only did I have a sense of our probable paternal surname, but if I was right about this then it would narrow down the pool of potential candidates for my grandfather significantly.



Following this breakthrough, my next step was to reach out to the email contacts listed alongside the various Parrs on the FamilyTreeDNA match report.  Whilst some have never replied, I had one response which would open up an avenue of discussion that would eventually lead me to solve the mystery of my grandfather’s identity.

I sent an email to the address next to “Craig Parr”, one of the matches with a genetic distance of zero.  I had a response in late September 2015 from Lorne, a Canadian in his eighties, living in rural Ontario, who was managing the account for Craig.  Quite why Lorne had persuaded Craig to get tested I’m still not sure, but it turned out that Craig is Lorne’s nephew.  Lorne’s wife, Jeanette, was born into the Parr family, and is a similar age to my father.

Over the course of a month or so, Lorne and I shared a number of emails, in which he was very friendly and shared much information about the Parr family history.  Likewise, I shared with him that I was trying to solve the mystery of my paternal grandfather’s identity, and that Craig Parr and I appeared to be in the same paternal line.  And this is where we return to the previous autosomal DNA testing that I had done for myself and my parents.

The best way to prove how closely related my dad and I were to these recently discovered Parr’s would be to compare our autosomal DNA.  The greater the percentage of DNA that is shared between two people, the closer the relationship.  We knew that there was a common paternal ancestor, but it could have been anything from 2 to 20 generations ago.  That meant Jeanette and my dad could be anything from 1st cousins through to 5th or 6th cousins and beyond.

Very kindly, Jeanette (Lorne’s wife) agreed to take an autosomal DNA test.  It was a long 3 months whilst we waited for the results.

When I finally got the email from Lorne, notifying me that the DNA test results had come through, I was filled with anticipation and excitement.  It was time to compare my dad’s DNA with Jeanette’s, and see how much autosomal DNA they shared.

The following table, which is one of the most useful summaries I’ve seen, shows the amount of shared autosomal DNA that you would expect for specific relationships:

It is worth noting that “The genetic genealogy testing companies 23andMe, AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA use centiMorgans (cMs) to denote the size of matching DNA segments in autosomal DNA tests. Segments which share a large number of centiMorgans in common are more likely to be of significance and to indicate a common ancestor within a genealogical timeframe.



So it was time to compare my dad’s DNA with Jeanette’s.  But there was a problem.  Jeanette’s test was with FamilyTreeDNA and my dad’s was with 23andme.  And these services don’t talk to one another or interoperate.

Enter the power of the internet and the greatest tool in the toolbox for any genetic genealogist – GEDmatch.  Although it doesn’t have a flashy UI, GEDmatch allows you to upload DNA from different testing services and run comparisons.  It’s a wonderful thing.

I had previously discovered this service and uploaded my dad’s 23andme autosomal DNA data, and was expecting to use it for the comparison with Jeanette.  Kindly Lorne allowed me to download the raw data from Jeanette’s autosomal DNA test in FamilyTreeDNA, in order that I could upload it to GEDmatch.

I ran the comparison.  This is what I found:

There’s a fair bit of technical stuff going on here, but let me cut to the chase.  This picture is showing the first 3 (of 23) chromosomes and the DNA shared (or not) between Jeanette and my dad.  The blue sections are segments of DNA that they share.

Overall, as shown in the summary below, there are 26 matching segments with a total genetic distance of almost 900 centiMorgans shared.

If you look back at the sharing chart above, this gives us an indication of the type of relationship that we’re talking about between Jeanette and my dad.  Can you work it out?

They’re 1st cousins!

MRCA stands for Most Recent Common Ancestor.  This shows that Jeanette and my dad share a common grandparent.

This result was amazing.  Absolutely mind-blowing.  Within 9 months of starting out to find the identity of my paternal grandfather, I’d found (and genetically proved the relationship with) one of dad’s cousins on his father’s side!


Getting Close

I excitedly shared the findings with Lorne, and he kindly and patiently began the process of sharing what he knew about the Parr family tree.  It quickly became apparent that there were some obvious and exciting consequences of our recent discovery:

  • Through the combination of the Y-DNA test showing my paternal lineage connection to Craig Parr, and the autosomal DNA comparison showing that Jeanette and my dad are cousins, this established without doubt that we knew who dad’s paternal grandfather (my great-grandfather) was.  A man by the name of Wilbur Baldwin Parr, born in Ontario in 1869 and who died in 1945.
  • Dad’s father had to be one of three men.  It couldn’t be Jeanette’s father (otherwise she would have shared a greater amount of DNA with dad), so it had to be one of her three uncles.

We were getting close!

Lorne and I began to dig into the military records of Jeanette’s three uncles, C (born 1901), W (born 1915) and JMP (born 1918).  Although all three served in the Canadian military, it turned out that only JMP appeared to have served in the United Kingdom (as part of the Royal Canadian Air Force) during World War 2.  Perhaps we had our man.  It was looking very likely that JMP was my paternal grandfather.  But how could I prove it?  Sadly he had died in 1990.  Did that mean the end of the road for my investigation?

JMP and his wife B had two children, J and A, who as far as we could tell were still alive, and a third child Ja who died as a baby.  In order to prove that JMP was my dad’s father we’d need to find J or A, explain the situation to them and hope that they’d be willing to take a DNA test.  It seemed like a long shot…



Lorne had known J and A when they were younger, but it had been 20-30 years since he’d been in contact with either of them.  Again, he kindly assisted in trying to find contact details for them both.  It would be another long wait…

Although we had the breakthrough of finding dad’s cousin in January 2016, it wasn’t until mid-August 2016 that I sent my first email to J.  Lorne had already exchanged a few emails with her and given her some understanding of the situation.  We weren’t entirely clear from her responses whether she’d be interested in talking further.

Nevertheless, I now had her email address and proceeded to write some kind of introduction.  I don’t know how many of you have written a letter to the effect of “hi, nice to meet you, I think you might be my dad’s half-sister and my aunt“, but it’s not easy.  I wanted to be friendly and respectful, to lay out the evidence for my claims in summary form, and to be really sensitive to the fact that this might significantly impact her view of her parents, who had both passed away a number of years ago.  At the same time, I felt like I only had one shot at getting my points across clearly.  That email took quite a while to write.

Her response was immediate, positive and gracious.  One of her opening paragraphs read:

The news does not upset me.  Nobody can be held accountable for others actions and I can certainly appreciate that your father would like some sort of closure.  He may even be curious about his half sister; I certainly am wondering about him. Growing up in an orphanage sounds pretty awful.  I suppose they were different times but I never do understand how children get to pay the price.  I am glad he has survived it but that didn’t justify it.

I knew straight away that we would get on.

J also agreed to undertake an autosomal DNA test, and was very prompt in sending her test off.  During the six week wait for results we shared stories of our families, as well as a number of photos.  I think even if the results had come back negative, I still would have adopted her as my aunt!

On the 30th September 2016, we received the results of J’s autosomal DNA test.  Again, they were with FamilyTreeDNA, and I needed to use GEDmatch in order to compare her DNA with dad’s.  I did so with much excitement.  The results are shown below:

Chromosome after chromosome showed big chunks of beautiful blue.  In fact, only chromosome 5 didn’t have any shared DNA.

In total:

33 shared DNA segments with a total of 1,788 centiMorgans genetic distance (approximately 24% of their DNA).  A Most Recent Common Ancestor of 1.5.  This could only mean one thing.  J is my dad’s half-sister.

Put together with our other evidence, i.e. that Craig Parr and I closely shared Y-DNA and that Jeanette is dad’s cousin, this means that without a doubt, JMP is my dad’s father!  I had done it!



My paternal grandfather JMP was born in Pembroke, Ontario in Canada in 1918.

He was from Irish ancestors, who settled in Canada in the early 1800’s.  As a young man he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was posted to the south of England during the Second World War.  He returned to Canada where he married B and had three children, of whom J is the oldest.  He died in 1990.

I’m sad that I never met him, but I rest assured that the technology to solve this mystery (i.e. the internet, genetic testing, etc.) was largely unavailable and unaffordable during his lifetime.


Breaking the News

Having solved the mystery, I now had the small matter of breaking the news to my dad, J, Lorne and many others.

Obviously I’d kept dad informed as I went along, but the last stage – making contact with J and confirming her identity, as well as his father’s, I kept from him until we knew for certain.  When I  finally told him the news that we had found his father, dad’s reaction was more muted than I expected.  He’s never been as sentimental or outwardly emotional as I have, so I guess that shouldn’t have been a great surprise.

In the three months that have elapsed since I told him, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a few of dad’s friends.  It turns out, of course, that the discovery had a great impact on him, and just showed it in his own way.  Several people have told me that he seemed unusually excited as he relayed the story to them.

Given the conversations that had gone prior to the confirmation via DNA testing, J wasn’t greatly surprised by the news.  She did, however, seem to welcome the news, for which I was grateful.  It can’t be easy learning something significant about a parent after they have passed away, and the way in which J was so accepting of her new relatives made things so much easier for me.

Sadly, I haven’t heard back from Lorne since sending him the confirmation of the relationship with J.  We’re praying that he’s going okay.


Meeting Up

As a result of the recent discovery, we’re planning a trip to Canada in the not too distant future.  The last part of this project is for dad and I to meet J, Lorne, Craig and others, and to explore the town of Deep River, Ontario, with which the Parr’s have an association.  For me, taking dad to Canada will bring a closure that I’m just realising how much I needed.  Perhaps I’ll write more once we’ve been.  I’m hoping it’s soon.


Piecing Together the Story of the Past

Through genetics we can know much of our ancestry, but we can never fully reconstruct the stories of the past.  It is often possible to know what, but rare to truly know why.

I’ve thought long and hard about what might have transpired to result in my dad’s birth, and the more I think about it, the more I feel that I can build a picture of what happened.  Dad was probably conceived in late July 1942.  Dad’s mother, Betty, had a husband who was away at war.  Dad’s father JMP was posted as part of the Canadian military in the south of England (along with an estimated 330,000 Canadian soldiers who passed through Aldershot, Hampshire, for training during the war).

As I researched the history of Canadian servicemen in England in World War 2, and key events around my dad’s conception, I was reminded of the Dieppe Raid.  If you’re not familiar with it, here’s the wikipedia summary:

The Dieppe Raid, also known as the Battle of Dieppe, Operation Rutter during planning stages, and by its final official code-name Operation Jubilee, was an Allied attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe during the Second World War. The raid took place on the northern coast of France on 19 August 1942. The assault began at 5:00 a.m., and by 10:50 a.m. the Allied commanders were forced to call a retreat. Over 6,000 infantrymen, predominantly Canadian, were supported by The Calgary Regiment of the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade and a strong force of Royal Navy and smaller Royal Air Force landing contingents. It involved 5,000 Canadians, 1,000 British troops, and 50 United States Army Rangers.

Objectives included seizing and holding a major port for a short period, both to prove that it was possible and to gather intelligence. Upon retreat, the Allies also wanted to destroy coastal defences, port structures and all strategic buildings. The raid had the added objectives of boosting morale and demonstrating the firm commitment of the United Kingdom to open a western front in Europe.

Virtually none of these objectives were met. Allied fire support was grossly inadequate and the raiding force was largely trapped on the beach by obstacles and German fire. Less than 10 hours after the first landings, the last Allied troops had all been either killed, evacuated, or left behind to be captured by the Germans. Instead of a demonstration of resolve, the bloody fiasco showed the world that the Allies could not hope to invade France for a long time. Some intelligence successes were achieved, including electronic intelligence.

Of the 6,086 men who made it ashore, 3,367 (almost 60%) were either killed, wounded or captured.[4] The Royal Air Force failed to lure the Luftwaffe into open battle, and lost 106 aircraft (at least 32 to flak or accidents), compared to 48 lost by the Luftwaffe.[5] The Royal Navy lost 33 landing craft and one destroyer. The events at Dieppe influenced preparations for the North African (Operation Torch) and Normandy landings (Operation Overlord).

Despite the military failure of the Dieppe Raid, it taught the allies many important lessons which were vital to the success of the later D-Day landings.  Without this sacrifice, we may not have won the war.

But do you see where I’m heading with this?  Dad was probably conceived in late July 1942, in the shadow of a major military operation.  The soldiers involved would have known that something major was happening, but probably not the details of what it would be.  In all likelihood they were mentally preparing for the possibility of their own deaths.  Goodness knows what that would have been like.

In that context, I think it’s important not to rush to moral judgement regarding what happened.  I suspect that whatever happened between Betty and JMP was a one off.  I think it’s unlikely that he ever knew that he’d become a father.

And he wasn’t alone in that regard.  An estimated 22,000 children were born to Canadian servicemen posted in the UK during the Second World War.


Final Thoughts

I did it!  To be honest I surprised myself that I found my grandfather’s identity quite as quickly as I did.  I had expected it to take 5+ years.  I know that many others have been searching for much longer than that for answers to their own family mysteries.

This personal project over the last 18 months has been a fascinating and emotional journey, which has caused me to reflect upon the way in which we draw large parts of our identity from our family and its history.  As a sentimentalist, it’s good to finally have some answers to the questions of my ancestral identity.  As a Christian, it’s great to know my true identity is in Jesus.

Finally, for those of you trying to solve similar mysteries – don’t give up hope.  With the relatively low cost of consumer genetic testing (and the number of people being tested), the ubiquity of the internet and the availability of tools to manage genetics and ancestry, solving problems like this becomes easier each year.


Thank You

As you might imagine, I have quite a few people to thank for their help in solving this mystery.  For encouraging me to keep going, for sharing information and for sharing a sense of wonder about the world.  Thank you:

  • Lucy – For your patience in letting me put in so many hours into this project, and for your love.
  • Rich Capen – For teaching me the basics of genetic genealogy, point me in the right directions and answering my many questions.
  • Trish Parr – For your enthusiasm for genealogy and passion for the Canadian Parr family.
  • Deborah Malafronte – For your enthusiasm for all matters Parr, and for giving me hope that I could solve the mystery.
  • Lorne – For being the key to unlocking the mystery.  For following up on things that you didn’t need to do for me, despite our suspected connection being only a hypothesis.
  • J – For being so gracious and open minded, despite the late and rather sudden additional of a half-brother, niece and nephew.
  • Mum and Catherine – For your unrelenting love and encouragement.
  • Dad – For being my dad.  For knowing that our true identity is found in Christ, not in our earthly fathers.  This project is my gift to you.


23 thoughts on “Needle In A Haystack: How I Solved A 73 Year Old Family Mystery Using Genetic Genealogy

  1. Mate a moving and engaging tail of detective work, technology and genetics. Thank you for sharing. Steve H

  2. Just followed a DNA link to this story. Since I’m also a “Sentimental Soul” & a genealogy nut I think you are a first rate “DNA Detective”. Great story,

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. My mother is 75 years old and my grandmother passed away and never gave my mother correct information about who her father was. I basically did the same thing you did and found my mother’s father. He too perished in WWII but she now knows his name, her correct surname and has a ton of new cousins. Life is good.

  4. An amazing story Tim and beautifully told. I look forward to hearing the final chapter and the closure with your Dad.

  5. Wonderful story! We are thrilled for you, thanks so much for sharing Tim. Looking forward to hearing the final chapter too.

  6. I have had a similiar experience. It was so exciting to hear your story. What an amazing gift to your father. I did my self discovery project so I could ground my young daughters in their heritage and give them a greater sense of who they are, some ethnocentricity, and myself a sense of belonging. So much makes sense once you reach back in time…

  7. Incredible journey that you have been on. I too did the ancestry DNA, but only connected to a third cousin, beyond what I already knew of my mother’s line. My father died when I was 16, leaving no information and no connections except heresay. So I have hit many brick walls hunting since 1971. Your story still gives me hope that I may be successful some day.

  8. What a wonderful result Tim. I am so pleased for you and especially your dad. Knowing who we are is something we take for granted. I hope that you will soon be able to make that visit to Canada.

  9. What a fantastic story !! It’s a great inspiration to those of using DNA testing to tryu to break through those brick walls .

    Perhaps you might consider socialising on one or more of the geneology forums, ? Im sure there are lots of people who would enjoy it if you shared it with them

    Through autosomal DNA testing and cross referencing with shared matches between 4th & 5th cousins Ive very recently managed to discover the identity of my real Great Grandmother who gave up my GM for adoption. I dont think my GM ever was told her mum wasnt her real mum.

  10. Similar situation with my grandfather – I and brother in our 70s. Brother just sent off sample for Y testing. Hoping to find something out to work with. Wonderful and inspiring story. Bev

  11. Thank you for sharing your journey, we are just starting our search as my mum is also a Canadian war baby born 1941 probably under similar circumstances. Have done AncestryDNA which has already confirmed a Canadian connection and our journey begins so it was helpful to come across your story with a positive outcome. Lynn

  12. Great story Tim!! I am on a similar mission for my wife. Her Grandfather was “illegitimate” and nobody knows who his biological father was, or it was all hushed up!! The trouble is it was in 1866, Newfoundland, so an uphill battle for sure, a few names have popped up in Ancestry, I am getting close I think!!

  13. Your article was both very well written and interesting.
    It made me tear up a couple of times, too.
    It was so sensitively discreet and respectful to all involved; leaving dignity in tact. That is to be commended.
    Bless you for being so kind to your family.
    -Liz in Texas

  14. Thank you so much for your story and the details of your search. My cousins and I know that we do not all have the same grandfather, as our grandmother fooled around, apparently, a lot. We are not sure how many different grandfathers we have, or which of us may have the same grandfather. We do know, based on what we’ve found so far, is that the grandfather who was my grandmother’s husband is probably not our blood grandfather. So much for all the family history we had accumulated!
    We’re hoping that your story and it’s contents will help us unravel the family mysteries. Thank you.

  15. Tim, I found your story accidentally while I was searching for articles about “understanding DNA”. Wow how interesting. Congratulations, I understand the time and effort by yourself. I have a similar story and I’d appreciate your opinion on my progress so far.
    I never met or knew the names of my father’s parents as he was an orphan. He died in 1969 (aged 60). He had foster parents and he took their name. At 14 he joined the navy and his foster parents died. Our earliest photos of him are during 1942 when he met my mother. He never talked about his family life. He only talked about his life in the Navy, so I have to presume that meant more to him than his past family life.
    During 1981 my mother obtained his original birth certificate, so now we had his mother’s name (but no father was mentioned).
    The story goes – in 1908 his mother had come from a country town to Sydney, she gave her baby up at birth and went back home to the country.
    During 2017 I did some ancestry work on his mother and found no mention of his birth in any of their family trees. She came from a very large pioneer family living in country NSW during the 1830s and many still live there today. I presumed I was on the right track so I created a Family Tree dating back to year 1500 in Ireland. Which I have hanging on my wall.
    At the time I never made any contact with her family members as I was cautious about sharing information.
    Early 2020 I did an Ancestry DNA test and then connected it to my Ancestry Family Tree. I only did the DNA test to prove that my ‘wall hanging family tree’ was correct, and it was spot on. I certainly wasn’t expecting any surprises form the DNA results.
    Since then I have had contact with his mother’s family, and her 94 year old niece sent me a photo of Dad’s mother. This niece is Dad’s 1st cousin. Dad’s mother died the year that I was born (1945). Myself, 2 sisters and our families are her only descendants. So, at 75 years old, I now know more about paternal Grandmother.
    My Ancestry DNA results also produced a surname that does not relate to any of my other relatives. So far, I have very close matches with eighty plus 3rd-4th cousins who are associated with this other surname. There are hundreds more which are difficult to pin point because of (marriage) name changes. My research is ongoing as there are over 52,000 matches to my DNA and I’ve only researched 500 so far!
    This other family also lived in the same country area as my paternal Grandmother (and still do today). My closest DNA matches to this surname go back to a family of nine children (6 males and 3 females all deceased).
    My DNA is especially close to brother No.3, then brother No.1 and brother No.2, so I have to presume that brother No.3 is Dad’s father. All three brothers were married and had children about the same age as my Dad. All these matching descendants are on the same generation level as my children and my grandchildren. I am convinced this family is my Dad’s father’s family, I just can’t accurately pin point which brother is my grandfather. I’d appreciate your opinion please – should I suspect that the closest DNA match is my Dad’s father, OR should I pursue more extensive DNA testing? So far most of the descendants I have contacted are female and only 2 males to date. I thought the male was important for more extensive testing. Thank you again for sharing your story, which was very informative – I hope you can understand my story.
    Regards Margaret, Melbourne Australia

  16. I have been looking for my Dads dad for over 20 years. Sadly my dad passed away last year but I’m not back looking and I’m going to try this…if I can work it out!
    So happy for you and your family!

  17. would love to trace who my twice great grandfather was
    I have a name biut how do I prove who he was? i have my FTDNA result and my mothers.

  18. Breath-taking creativity, intellectual curiosity and persistence Tim – I loved reading the full details of this story after having heard the summary from you.

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