What Makes You…You?

For the past sixteen years, I’ve engaged in family genealogy as a hobby. It’s taken many painstaking hours of research, trips to various graveyards and phone calls to cousins, and using tools such as Ancestry, the database of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and My Heritage to assist. I’ve created chart after chart, recorded sources, printed pictures of family heraldry, and compiled data into a variety of programs- both online and offline- such as Ancestry and Heredis. I imagine I’ve poured thousands of hours of my life into unraveling the mystery. What mystery?

  1. Where did my people come from? Why did they leave? How did subsequent generations arrive here?
  2. Who were they? What mattered to them? What habits and cultural quirks did I inherit from them?
  3. Who am I? How does the past influence who I am now and where I may be heading?

All families hand down stories about where they came from. But like the grapevine effect, many of these stories turn out to be embellished or not true. We want to find the truth about our origins, our heritage, and decide how this information fits into our personal identity.

My mother had compiled pictures, stories, and oral histories of our family into beautiful keepsake scrapbooks. We shared our results regularly, which in turn helped each of us on our quest to preserve our family heritage for future generations. After thousands of hours of work over the years, I’d developed an accurate extended family tree of over 5,000 members spanning nearly a thousand years. Together, we felt we’d compiled a solid body of work to be treasured for all time.

This past year, we decided to put that to the test. I did a DNA test through Ancestry.com, which can be purchased here. There are several sites currently where you can order DNA test kits for the purpose of determining heritage. Ancestry has sales around the holidays that make it affordable for most budgets. It’s become a popular source for that reason. Also, they’ve launched new features to aid in genealogical research. One feature is the DNA Circle. This feature joins together people who share DNA and have common genealogical ancestors. It compares the lineages from the tree and shows a confidence ranking based on your DNA matches. This feature placed me in 47 DNA circles, most of them with strong confidence.

Another feature is the Genetic Communities. For example, the 2 communities I have a strong possibility of links to are “Early Settlers of Eastern Kentucky and Northeast Tennessee” and “Settlers of the Potomac River Valley and Central Kentucky”. This feature is one of my favorites. The summary from each time period matched what I knew of my family history and it was wonderful to see it brought together with maps and summaries.

Here are screenshots from this latest feature:









[Note: If you’re only interested in the genetic results, you’re not interested in finding relatives or expanding your tree, and price is not as much of a factor, I’d recommend going with 23 and Me instead. In my opinion, their genetic test results are the best and most in-depth at the present time. You can find the regular DNA test kit here, and the one that includes health information  here.]

We were a little surprised by the results. Our tree showed Native American heritage but there was nothing in the DNA to support that. The remainder of the heritage matched our compiled data. My heritage came back as 100% European, with the breakdown 70% British Isles, 20% Irish, 5% French-German, and 5% Scandinavian. Did that make our data wrong? Should we remove an entire branch from the tree?

After reading various articles about DNA genealogical results, I decided to leave the branch in place. The further back the heritage, the less likely it is to show up in the DNA test results. As the heritage was eight generations removed, it may still be accurate but not show up in the DNA results. Additionally, DNA results are compared to that company’s database of individuals from various parts of the globe in order to determine percentages. What’s missing (or lacking) from the database won’t show up in your results. This is also why you’ll get slightly different results from different sites- they’re using different databases for comparison.

I count myself fortunate that there weren’t more unpleasant surprises. Regularly, I come across horror stories about people who have taken a DNA test only to learn their father wasn’t their father, or that they were adopted and nobody told them. One story recently led to the discovery that a baby was switched at birth.. If you do decide to explore DNA testing, make sure you’re aware of and prepared to deal with the associated risks.

All this leads to a larger question. Should this information change our concept of who we are? What makes us who we are? Is it our DNA, or is it the family that raised us, nurtured us, and taught us about the world?







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