A Question of Identity

on Tuesday, 20 January 2015. Posted in Archives

At the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre we help people with their family history research on a daily basis but last night I met a lady – let’s call her Mary - who has more challenges to her research than anyone I think I have ever met. I won’t go into too many details because I want to respect her privacy, but Mary is one of the small number of people who is a ‘foundling’. That is to say, she doesn’t know anything about her parents or possible siblings, because she was found as a baby, lying in the open, many years ago, and taken to hospital. The only thing she has from her birth family is the pink dress she was found wearing. After a few months in hospital she was very happily adopted and is close to her adoptive family – but there still remains a nagging question. ‘I don’t need a new family – I just want to know who I am’, she told me. I think that need to know who we are, and get a sense of our roots, is what underpins a lot of the research here at the History Centre.


So, how can you find out who you are without any family knowledge at all? Normally we suggest people start with what they know – the memories and knowledge of their existing family, large or small, and any documents they hold, before moving onto the records held in county record offices and central government repositories. Obviously for Mary that isn’t possible. So she has had to take a different route – DNA testing. Through this she has managed to track down some distant relatives and hopes to find more. The more people are tested, the more DNA there will be to compare against, so Mary hopes that more and more people will be tested and that one day, she may be able to track down some closer relatives, and get some answers to her fundamental question of ‘Who am I?’.

DNA testing is not only helpful for someone like Mary who has no knowledge of their immediate family – it can also be useful for people wanting to go further back in their family history, to see what part of the world their family comes from, for example.

I can’t personally recommend any particular DNA testing company but I would say you need to be aware of a few things before you start. Firstly that if you’re a woman you can only trace your maternal line as you don’t have a ‘Y’ chromosome. Men have both ‘X’ and ‘Y’ so they can trace both the maternal and paternal lines. Secondly that there will be costs involved – prices vary so it is sensible to ‘shop around’ and find a reputable, but affordable, company.

More information about what DNA testing involves and how it can help family historians is published at: http://www.thegenealogist.com/featuredarticles/2012/the-records-within-our-genes-40/

I really hope that one day Mary, and others like her, can find the answers they are looking for. If you are adopted and looking for your birth family more information is available at: http://www.adoptionsearchreunion.org.uk/default.htm


Claire Skinner, Principal Archivist


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