sifting through Grandma’s Sexy Data, war children worldwide can reclaim ethnic heritage when rare records are digitally archived

Authors note: This article is long, my apologies. But I think if you can make it through the first couple of paragraphs, you’ll understand its value… 

Take your time with it, and ponder about the ramifications of the loss of collections like this. Share it with your tech friends, converse about it. There’s much to digest.

On the counter of the printing office of a pacific northwest genealogical society sits a collection of metal drawers on loan from a local chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars. Inside are thousands of brittle and delicate 8×5 cards, many created more than 70 years ago, containing the administrative information of long since deceased members.

70 year old membership cards, Veterans of Foreign Wars

70 year old membership cards, Veterans of Foreign Wars


From the VFW website

The VFW traces its roots back to 1899 when veterans of the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902) founded local organizations to secure rights and benefits for their service: Many arrived home wounded or sick. There was no medical care or veterans’ pension for them, and they were left to care for themselves.

In their misery, some of these veterans banded together and formed organizations with what would become known as the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. After chapters were formed in Ohio, Colorado and Pennsylvania, the movement quickly gained momentum. By 1915, membership grew to 5,000; by 1936, membership was almost 200,000.

The society has been granted permission to scan, index, and share this information with its membership, but there’s a problem. Their volunteers are not particularly technologically savvy, and finding individuals to lead digital archive initiatives is difficult. Grants for such projects can be found, but society members skilled enough to scan, create databases, manage a website, and deal with the ongoing maintenance of such a collection aren’t available.

The cards are delicate, often with obituaries attached and news clippings.

The cards are delicate, often with obituaries attached and news clippings.


Why should anyone care about these and other records in the care of genealogical societies? The reason may shock you.

While the genealogical society will claim no specific value for the data, leaving that determination up to the persons researching, in a round about way, information on or attached to the cards is invaluable to individuals who have been disconnected from or are seeking knowledge about their family’s military service, or in fact, even knowledge about their own origins.

Tens of thousands of adoptees and persons of unknown birth family worldwide have turned to DNA testing meant for genealogical purpose to help them understand better their ethnicity and genetic heritage. A portion of them are the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of U.S. military personnel. Conceived and left with their mothers overseas, the majority end up in orphanages, and then are adopted back out to international homes. They are known as war children.

From an Economist article published in May of 2015, “Pity the Children”

After the end of the Korean war in 1953, biracial children who were the product of fleeting wartime unions between foreign servicemen and South Korean women in the 1950s were abandoned to drift in South Korea’s ravaged cities. The waifs—“dust of the streets” as they were called—were shunned by a Confucian society that prized bloodlines and could not countenance raising another’s child. Thousands of foreign homes began to take them in—probably the largest exodus of infants from a single country into adoption.

For about the cost of an AppleTV (or about $100), they can DNA test through companies like Ancestry, Family Tree DNA, and 23andMe, and then receive access to a database of cousin matches — individuals with whom they share an ancestor.

If a significant number of relatives have also tested, it is possible to determine the identity of that ancestor by cross referencing family trees.

When 2 or more of the trees match up, it’s likely that the location is also an ancestor of the adoptee.

“X” marks the spot.

It’s also possible to single out specific DNA segments on chromosomes shared between cousins and to assign them to an ancestor when pedigree is well known. This segment can be passed to several descendants off-shooting from that ancestor and travel far and wide as those branches migrate around the U.S. and the world. If cousins share a DNA segment more than 10cM (centimorgans) long, it’s extremely likely that they share an ancestor within 7 generations. About how long ago was that? 100 to 150 years. Cousins sharing longer segments are likely to be descended from more recent ancestors.

In this way, adoptees and abandoned children are able to learn about their ethnic and family heritage. What they choose to do with that knowledge is a matter of personal choice and also may be regulated by local laws. To explore the issue is matter of prerogative, but for some the impetus can be as serious as familial genetic disease which should be traced and understood for a better quality of life.

While the process of proving an ancestor can sometimes be laborious, there are FB groups, some with as many 20 thousand members, who have rafted together in solidarity around a unifying belief.

Abbreviated from articles 7 and 8 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC),

Children have a right to a nationality (to belong to a country). Children also have the right to know and, as far as possible, to be cared for by their parents. Children have a right to an identity – an official record of who they are. Governments should respect children’s rights to a name, nationality, and family ties.

Many interpret this to mean that all persons, independent of circumstances of conception, have the right of knowledge of origin — who their parents were, their medical history, and to have a knowledge of their genetic and social heritage.

At this time, the adoption community in the U.S. is widely oppressed and refused access to information by closed-adoption laws and obtuse avenues for inquiry. Even simple medical history is impossible for many to acquire. The only way through is to find birth family by DNA testing meant for genealogical purposes, and to learn about that family through public and rare archive collections held by genealogical societies and state and national archives.

Once a person has identified an ancestor within about 5 generations (2nd great grand parents), they can begin to research relatives in a contemporary time period. In some cases, they can even be reunited with birth family — the process is collaborative, and may end in rejection. However, for a lucky few, a good reunion is possible and reciprocally favorable.

“Army Veteran Reunites With His Twin Children for the First Time in Over 40 Years”, ABC News special interest story (video)

It’s not just possible, it’s not even just likely or probable, there absolutely *are* clues and truthful facts concerning the the identities of the birth family of adoptees and war children in those cabinets. Access to that information is endangered every day that collections like it linger in boxes and on shelves as it deteriorates further with each passing year. Also, genealogical societies are closing their doors and losing their repositories in record numbers as membership declines.

What can be done for it?

An amazing amount. With mentoring and a commitment to transparency, technical professionals and hobbyists can put those skills to great charitable use by helping genealogical societies and family history libraries bring their physical archives ONLINE.

How to help.

Do you have experience with CMS, databases, graphic design, scanning and photography, online community organizing, information security, cloud and subscription based services administration and support citizen science and social justice? I want to hear from you.

Contact, Lisa Chan for more information about volunteer opportunities, or to share ideas.

– The opinions and interests expressed in the article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the opinions of any organization she may belong to or consult with.

Ancestry’s Shared Matches Tool

Ever since Ancestry released it’s Shared Matches feature, I have fallen down several rabbit holes.

I’ve been consumed with exploring both paternal and maternal leads.

Previously, I had been using Gedmatch and contacting cousins for possible triangulation projects. It was slow going, response rate was pretty good, but so many didn’t have Gedcoms attached to their kit profiles and getting an invite to trees was laborious.

Prior to the ICW release, the reputation for testing through Ancestry for genetic genealogy has been poor — criticisms about a lack of a chromosome browser for analyzing matches, etc.
However, because FTDNA allows for a $39 import to their database, it’s most cost effective for those interested in fishing in bigger ponds to test at Ancestry first, upload to FTDNA (to save $50) and be in two databases at once… with the goal being to connect to FTDNA because there is a reputation that users are more genetic genealogy friendly.
Interestingly, my experience to date has differed from the common belief that Ancestry is practically useless for those serious about genetic genealogy. Because the emphasis is on trees at Ancestry, I’m able to more quickly determine Common Ancestors with my matches there than at FTDNA and 23andMe.
And even though the Mirror Tree technique has been terribly throttled by caching issues and bugs at Ancestry, I am still building speculative trees and have been able to keep working on several triangulation projects there.

Another bonus, Ancestry seems to be much faster than the other two companies at processing kits. I tested in July at FTDNA, and didn’t get my results for nearly 3 months. Being impatient, I tested at Ancestry and things were processed in less than 6 weeks. So, I was able to start working with matches at Ancestry much faster. Sure, I gave up a $50 discount at FTDNA by testing there first. However, the matches at Ancestry were invaluable in busting through the paternal black hole in my tree. Utilizing Mirror Trees, I was able to discover paternal matches and then close family within weeks. Of course, every case is different and results will vary for others.

Even without detailed segment analysis through Ancestry, I’ve been able to identify important migration patterns for my surnames of interest simply by using the location search feature in conjunction with surnames queried against matches.

Analyzing paper trail clues and trees not connected to DNA kits, I knew that it was possible that certain branches existed in neighboring states to my primary branch of interest. Within our branch of the Rhodes surname, we long suspected that we came out of Maryland in the late 1700s and spread across the US through Tennessee, Kentucky, and North and South Carolina. For example,  by searching “Rhodes” “Kentucky”, I am able to see distant cousin matches in those areas, and by closely examining their trees, we can make informed guesses as to our shared ancestors above our regional patriarchs.

 In this way, I was able to identify prominent families and origins in Maryland — thereby, adding a bit more evidence to support that long held suspicion. I am also utilizing Ancestry to find cousins from these neighboring branches, and soliciting them to upload to Gedmatch. These queries to persons with kits at Ancestry are better informed and response to upload to Gedmatch has been good.

There’s still much more to be researched, and segment analysis is going to be a big part of that. However, with Ancestry’s ICW clues, we now know that our future-forward Maryland research is not in vain and a worthwhile continued focus.

More writing, less digging

I need to cool my jets. Recent projects have been so interesting and consuming, that I haven’t taken the time to slow down and write them up.

Documents and photos are piling up. Some cursory analysis has been done, but just enough to catapult me into the next challenge. I think writing can wait, more discoveries! Discoveries to be made!

Might be time to slow down and embrace the famous admonition: It’s the journey not the destination. Who said that anyway? (focus, focus!)

I know there are drives for directed blogging prompts and some people really like them, but do I really need them? Don’t think so. I have enough material to last me several lifetimes.

So what have I been working on?


In spring of this year, I felt a desire to communicate more with Seattle Genealogical Society members, but felt it hard to get down to the library. So, I have volunteered to moderate the SGS Networking Facebook Group. After a slow start, we now have about 20 members and growing everyday.


In November of 2014, my grandmother passed forward my second great grandmother’s genealogical notes. What a treasure! Therein, I discovered a 7-decade old brickwall that at least a dozen people have been working on. We wish to know the origins of the patriarch Alexander Rhodes (1790-1840) of the Rhodes in Illinois. So, I decided to aim my genetic genealogy skills at the problem, and now we have a thriving project well on its way to connect the Rhodes to the long suspected Rhodes and Standiford families of Anne Arundel, Maryland. Illinois Rhodes from Maryland.


Along with that mystery came the knowledge that we also do not know much about the Dodson families of Fayette County, Illinois. It’s Anna Dodson’s search for her husband’s family patriarch (Alexander Rhodes) that brought to light that we also do not know who her father’s parents are. James Knox Polk Dodson (1850-1905), who were your parents? Speak up! I’m now in contact several Dodson families outside of Illinois that look promising. We’re comparing our chromosome segments looking for commonalities, and I hope to be able to close this cold case within a year.


And finally, the holy grail. I discovered a year ago that I am the NPE (non paternity event) in my generation after a DNA test to contribute to a health study revealed some anomalous (but not entirely surprising) results. The journey to get to the heart of the how, why, when, where and who… intense, exhausting, at times troublesome. It’s been so challenging to get my head wrapped around, and such a sensitive issue, that I find it difficult to write about publicly. However, I still feel a desire to do so. My nature is to want to be both transparent, and yet kind and fair concerning the privacy and feelings of the living still connected with the issue. The decision to share about it always comes down to wrestling with some core issues of ethics… am I entitled? To discover, to talk, to question, to continue to seek? Whose feelings are more important… mine? Or the extended family who may feel some shame, discomforts, or insecurities about my drive to know the truth? And what about the others like me? The people I know who can benefit from what I’ve learned, how I’ve struggled, and what I’ve discovered about the nature of acknowledging that I do have a right to know the truth. They matter, they are deserving as well. I’ve learned that there are protected places that we can gather to have these conversations… so I have been taking my questions and contemplations there.

If you are a person considering trying to discover birth parents, or the nature of an NPE in your family tree, I highly recommend visiting DNA Adoption for how-to articles and support in your quest.

Great. This is a good start, and an opportunity to start fresh.