DNA and Family Trees

A couple of years ago, I was asked by ancestry.com to participate in their pilot program taking DNA samples and comparing the scientific analysis of the results with my own family-tree research. Just this month, I received word that they had updated their analysis of my ethnic background, based on further testing (and additional subjects). The new information is more thorough, but is likely to be more confusing as well. I am a big fan of genealogy and ancestry.com is my go-to site for research, and I really like the added science of DNA analysis. That said, I think we have to recognize that the results of these studies are preliminary and subject to change. If more people are encouraged to submit samples for genetic analysis, the process will get better. Meanwhile, we should be cautious about accepting these limited, partial findings since they may change in a short time.

The results of a few years ago were:

Percentage of Ethnicity Location

61.00%

British Isles (England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales)

34.00%

Central Europe (France, Germany, Scandinavia)

5.00%

Uncertain

These findings were not surprising to me at the time, because of my own research into the family history, which showed that we descended from people of England, Scotland, and Ireland, with some connections to France and Germany, as well as Scandinavia. I have even traced a couple of lines back to the Vikings, and I have over 16,000 family members in my tree. Our family is the stereotype of a WASP–white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant–not totally, but there it is. That 61% reinforced the family view of our ancestry.

The new results, though, were astounding:

Percentage of Ethnicity Location

41.00%

Western Europe (France, Germany)

24.00%

Great Britain (England and Scotland)

22.00%

Ireland

8.00%

Scandinavian

4.00%

Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal)
<1% Finland
<1% Eastern Europe

I’m sharing this to give readers an idea of how quickly the details of ethnicity can change when more subjects add their DNA to the pool. We knew that we had quite a bit of Irish in our background but the earlier study had lumped it in with English and Scots heritage. The most surprising finding for me is that 5% Uncertain which is now 4% Iberian (Spanish). I knew we had a smidgeon of Finnish blood but have not found any Spanish or Eastern European connections until now. We have family lore about ancestors in one of my paternal grandmother’s line who may have been Native American (Shawnee), but that begins to look untrue now, given recent results. I’m a bit disappointed if indeed we have no Indian ancestry; it would have been nice to see a bit of color among our pale, pale British faces.

I guess that disappointment must join a long list of such problems. Exploring family history is fascinating for me because it is very much like delving into a deep, dark mystery. It is a great intellectual exercise, but it also makes history itself come alive, when I can place blood relatives in the midst of historic events like the Civil War. In discovering more than the bald facts of birth, death, and so on, my excitement builds as I see a story unfold about some of the ancestors, as if they are speaking to me from long ago. It is exciting and interesting, but also maddening. For example, when I discover that this man was the first to trade with the Indians and owned much of eastern Virginia and Maryland, I try to imagine what that must have looked like, felt like. Then I am angered by the reality that his land, traded legally with the Native Americans, was then stolen from him by his own government.

The men and women who came before us suffered so much more than we moderns can think of, to make America a better place, to make our lives better than theirs. It is thrilling and it makes me proud to be their descendant, but it also makes me sad for those who were cheated, killed, pushed beyond the breaking point, yet kept struggling in spite of it all. I am eager to see even more details once I can convince my brother to take the DNA test. Only male descendants have genetic material passed down father to son, since only males have that Y-chromosome. So, we need that analysis, too, which could take our genetic history back hundreds or even thousands of years.

©2015 Linda L Labin, PhD

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12 thoughts on “DNA and Family Trees

  1. Very interesting. I have been considering having this done, and you just nudged me over the edge. My father’s brother traced our American family all the way back to Edinburgh, where we were bow-makers; hence, the surname, Bowman. Uncle Norman was convinced their heritage was pure Scottish, coming from a teensy dot-sized town in the remote hills of Arkansas, named Bowman. The families there represented 3 or 4 clans: Bowman, which is part of the Farquharson Clan,; Hagg, my maternal grandmother’s side; and a couple others. It will be an experience to see if I truly am near 75% UK. with British and Slavic on my mother’s side. I’m a firm believer there is always a little extra genealogy hidden in the woodshed.lol

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    • Yes, indeed, Ms Bowman! The early findings for my DNA reinforced our belief about British & Scots-Irish ancestry and jibed with the family tree I’ve been building. The more detailed analysis is a surprise. More rabbit holes!

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      • You and I are probably related “on the wrong side of the blanket” as my British maternal grandmother used to say. When I was much, much younger, it was remarked to me numerous times that my facial structure resembled Lady Diana. My grandmother said, “Well, she should…they’re cousins on the wrong side of the blanket.” But weren’t all Brits with the promiscuous royalty? So amusing…

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    • Ha! Ha! Your comment about ‘the wrong side of the blanket’ is spot on. Just as they discovered that Richard III was not his father’s son, I’m sure the new DNA studies will jolt quite a few who thought they knew their ancestors! One of my lines traces directly back to Anne Boleyn–not the one who lost her head, but her aunt! Exciting!

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      • Wow! Very exciting…the whole Boleyn family was hungry to control the crown by any means…including using the charms of both of their daughters to further their influence with Henry VIII. I am a student of history and it winds itself into my poetry and novels. So who was the father of Queen Anne’s last stillborn, extremely physically damaged child? A few different stories have surfaced in history and fiction. I am anxious to see what the DNA of the Aunt believes. I hope you realize I can be very tongue in cheek at times. But then again, there is sometimes more inklings of truth in fiction, than the cleansed records of scribes. Political cover-ups did not begin in our lifetimes.

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      • I must be a romantic, for I believe that Henry was the father of the ‘monster’ born following Katherine’s funeral. They blamed witchcraft and incest for malformed babes. I think Anne was innocent.

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  2. Exciting!! I am going to do this for my mom. It is even harder for African Americans but I am going to try it. I have turned into the geneologist in my family. I have doing it off and on for years now but I am most excited about DNA testing.

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