It all started with a letter I found among my mother’s papers after she died in 1971. She had been born in 1918 in New York City. The letter, dated July 30,1948, was typed on letterhead stationery from “The Spence-Chapin Adoption Service.” I knew my mom had been adopted. In fact, her 2 brothers and sister were not biological siblings but were also adopted. They all grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. However, it was news to me that my mom had corresponded with the adoption agency, and that she had requested her birth certificate. I think, if the request had been granted, my mom would have received an amended birth certificate listing her adopted parents, not her birth parents.
The request had been denied. The explanation: “The reason for the difficulty seems to be that your mother [birth mother] had a different name put on the birth certificate than is on the order of adoption and we were unable to prove that the name Helen Grant which is on the order of adoption is the same person as Helen Moore, the name in which your birth is registered.”
I held onto the letter with the idea that sometime I might be able to complete this goal for my mom, but raising a family of six children myself, I let many years pass by before I took the goal seriously. When I did, I found that the Spence-Chapin Adoption Service was still in business in New York City, and I contacted them to request non-identifying information. I was told they would have to search for the file, and it took about 9 months, but finally an administrator phoned. They had found the file. Although I was only entitled to non-identifying information, the information they gave me coupled with the information I already had from the 1948 letter gave me some hope.
I made some assumptions, which could have been incorrect. I assumed that the surname “Grant” was probably my mom’s birth mother’s maiden name, and that the surname “Moore” was probably the surname of my mom’s unknown birth father. There was some evidence to support this theory. For example, the agency spokesperson told me that my mom’s birth grandmother was with her daughter when the adoption papers were signed. It seemed likely that they would have used the family name. On the other hand, the birth grandmother may not have been present in the hospital when the birth certificate information was given.
The non-identifying information given to me by the adoption agency included these facts: My mom’s birth mother was 18 at the time of the birth. She was unmarried, not yet self-supporting, living with her family in the southeastern U.S., and unable to be a parent at this time. Knowing only that the birth family lived in the southeastern U.S. was not very helpful, so I asked if the agency representative could tell me the state. She told me “Mississippi.”
Meanwhile, my son was waiting for the birth of his first child and knew she was a girl. They were considering some family names, so I asked the agency spokesperson if I could know the birth mom’s first name, and I was told, “Marion.”
I had been referred to an adoption “angel,” who had also been adopted out of New York City. She had some knowledge of the process and a great desire to help me. She had access to the index of birth registrations in New York City during the time my mom was born there. She discovered that there is a birth registration for an un-named female baby Moore, born on my mom’s birthday (November 20, 1918) in New York City. The index did not include any other information, but I was thrilled. This could be the birth record referred to in the 1948 letter. It could be the record that the adoption agency had been unable to find because they had been told that the birth was registered under the name of Helen Moore. My adoption angel and I tried every way we could to obtain the long version of the birth certificate. We were unsuccessful.
New York City is notoriously unwilling to share vital records with anyone who isn’t the person involved or the person’s parents. There was a small chance that I could get the record if my last name were “Moore” or if I could provide notarized copies of documents showing my relationship to “Moore.” I concluded that, without a lawyer and a $5,000 fee, there was no hope in New York City.
I communicated with the Wisconsin government agency which provides assistance to adoptees looking for birth parents. The case worker was able to locate the record of the court adoption proceedings, and she even sent me a copy, but the name of the birth mother and any identifying information had been expunged. Apparently my mom’s adopted father, who was an attorney, had insisted that the records were sealed. Again, the only way to get more information involved a lawyer and lawyer’s fees.
I turned to the U.S. census records of Mississippi. Knowing that the birth mother was 18 at my mom’s birth was helpful, but there were still considerations. Since my mom’s birthday was late in the year (Nov. 20,1918), her mom’s birth date could have been in 1900 if she had a Jan. through Nov. 20th birthday. Or if her birth date were Nov. 20th through Dec. 31st, she would have been born in1899. Of course, census records show ages as of the enumeration date, and often the ages are incorrect depending on how knowledgeable the informant was. I was interested in the 1910 census, which had an enumeration date of 15 Apr 1910.
Searching for information on U.S. censuses has become easy, using ancestry.com and
FamilySearch.org. It took some diligence, but I finally found a “Marion Grant,” living in Meridian, Lauderdale County, Mississippi. In April,1910 she was 9 years old, and I now knew her parents’ names.
This opened flood gates of possibilities. I was unable to find a birth record on FamilySearch.org, but when I searched the public member trees on ancestry.com, I found a couple of trees that listed “my” Marion. These gave me the fact that Marion was married about 10 years after my mom’s birth. Thus I discovered Marion’s married name. These trees listed interesting facts about the Grant family. I discovered that my mom’s possible birth grandmother (Marion’s mother), Frances Pitts Grant was an accomplished composer and pianist. I investigated this fact further and discovered that there are a number of her compositions in the Special Collections of Tulane University. This was especially interesting to me because my mother was an excellent pianist from a very young age. It strengthened the hope that I had found the right person.
I waited impatiently for the release of the 1940 U.S. Census. I hoped fervently that Marion’s listing would occupy line 14 or 29 of the 1940 census because these people were required to answer supplementary questions. These questions included “Number of children ever born.” I needn’t have wasted any time worrying about whether Marion would be truthful or not because she didn’t have to answer the supplemental questions. The census did reveal that a son “Dave” had joined the family.
I turned to newspaperarchive.com and discovered an obituary for Marion. She had died of a heart attack in Tuscan, Arizona in 1954. I used the death date to search and find a death certificate in Arizona records online. The death certificate provided me with her birth date: November 9th, 1900. Reading Marion’s obituary gave me more information about her son, but I was hesitant to contact him without more definitive evidence.
I had been reading success stories about adoptees finding birth parents with DNA testing. I looked at the Family Tree DNA website, and I noticed that there is a Pitts Family project. Marion Grant’s mother was Frances Pitts Grant. I sent in my sample, and I hoped to uncover a connection that would give credibility to my theory. When the results came in the connection was not clear. A connection wasn’t ruled out, nor was it confirmed. For one thing, my mtDNA haplogroup was U5a1h, which is so rare that there were no others in the FTDNA database of more than 168,000 mtDNA records.
Nancy and David, the Pitts DNA Project administrators, encouraged me to contact my mom’s possible half-brother. If he agreed to testing, and if he were my half-uncle, then the connection would be very apparent. He would be the only person on FTDNA to share my rare haplogroup. Nevertheless, I was hesitant because I didn’t have strong proof, and I didn’t want to cause him emotional trauma. Nancy and David explained that my half-uncle’s mtDNA came from his mother Marion. My mtDNA came from my mother, who got her mtDNA from Marion. The two should be identical or nearly identical. However, my half-uncle’s children would not have Marion’s mtDNA. They would have gotten their mtDNA from their own mother.
With support from my family, I took a deep breath and wrote a letter to the person I hoped was my half-uncle. It turned out that he knew nothing about the idea that his mom had a baby prior to himself, but he was a very nice person. He agreed to give the DNA test a try, and ordered the mtdna Full Genetic Sequence.
I think he was very surprised when the DNA proved our relationship, but he says he is thrilled to include my family in his, and my family is thrilled too. Finally, I have another person with the U5a1h haplogroup, and I also have a newly discovered half-uncle. The Family Finder test confirmed the relationship at: 1st Cousin, Half Siblings, Grandparent/Grandchild, Aunt/Uncle, Niece/Nephew. It is a wonderful feeling.
Signed: Tish S.
Thank you Tish for sharing this and thank you David, co-admin of the Pitts DNA Project, for notifying me of this wonderful story!