You might have noticed that there has been an increased interest in the area of genealogy in recent years. The desire to discover your family roots has become all-consuming for some, and an explosion of television shows and books are now being produced on the subject. People are flocking to series like Finding Your Roots and Genealogy Roadshow. They are also making pilgrimages to places like our own Midwest Genealogy Center to find out more about their ancestors.
In order to begin this search, however, one must have some information to start with. An old photograph, a family letter, or even just a story with a name associated with it can put you on track for some amazing discoveries. But what happens if you have no information whatsoever? How do you find your own roots when your entire history has been locked away behind a sealed record? This is a dilemma that many adoptees like me face. Fortunately, we have a new tool at our disposal—genetic genealogy.
With the advances in DNA technology, nearly anyone can now submit a DNA sample to one of various sites to find out where their ancestors originated from, and usually for a very small fee. Ancestry.com, 23andMe, and FamilyTreeDNA are just a few of these places. There are several reasons people are doing this. Some are hoping to find relatives by being matched up with other people who have taken the test. After all, you never know who might turn out to be your second cousin, twice removed.
But while there are many people interested in finding relatives they have never met, for most, the thrill is discovering if the old stories about their ancestry are true. Did all your relatives really come from Sweden? Do you have any Native American ancestry (a lot of people have been told that they do and are surprised to learn that it was just a family legend)? genetic genealogy, while not flawless, can help answer these questions. And, for the first time, many adoptees can finally get a sense of where they came from before the papers were signed.
I was adopted at the age of four weeks, and my records were sealed. Aside from a little bit of generic info on my biological parents—like my biological mother’s weight in 1974 (why this was important enough to put in my birth record, I’ll never know)—I had nothing that gave me a clue as to where my ancestors came from. Of course, I assumed that I was probably of European descent given my appearance, but that was it. I often would look in the mirror when I was a kid and try to see if I could recognize some sort of trait associated with one part of Europe. But, alas, I could never do more than guess. Until now.
I decided to take a DNA test from Ancestry.com. I was surprised at how quickly it took. In less than a month from when I ordered my kit, I had my results. And for someone who until about a month ago occasionally felt like she had sprouted from some random cabbage patch at the age of four weeks, finally having some sort of history was more emotional than I would have thought—probably more so than the average non-adoptee customer, I might imagine. Knowing that I actually came from somewhere has, in a way, made me feel a little more complete. If someone asks where my ancestors come from I can now tell them, even if I still don’t know their actual names. So what were my results?
Well, going in I was really hoping that I had relatives that came from either Italy or Germany. My mother was both of these. Her maiden name was German and my great-grandparents came from the northern part of Italy in the late 1800s. I was raised in a predominately Italian-American household and would have been thrilled to share that same genetic background with my late mother. Nope.
I have also been asked on more than one occasion by strangers if I was Jewish. This included a couple of men from Israel who asked me once on a plane if I was from their country. While I had no reason to think that I was, other than these comments, I couldn’t help but be curious to know if I had some Jewish ancestry. Was there something in my genetic background that these people were seeing in me? Nope.
Ultimately, it turned out that this adoptee—who has been obsessed with everything from the British Isles since she began watching Doctor Who at the age of six—is nearly 75 percent British/Irish. When I read the results, I jokingly wondered if my DNA had always been aching for the homeland. I also have some Scandinavian, which is common in people from the British Isles because of the Viking invasions, and a little bit of Eastern European.
The only part of my results that did surprise me was my lack of anything from Western Europe. And that is what is great about genetic genealogy—the surprises. A lot of people think that they know where they came from based on the records that they have. But things are often more complicated, and there can be many things that are not in any record or family story. And for someone who has no record or family story, genetic genealogy has finally given me a history. I can now say with assurance that my ancestors came from the British Isles, and on March 17, I will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day wearing my Irish ancestry proudly.
If you are looking for more information about genetic genealogy, as well as some of the more thorny issues associated with it, you can try these books and sites:
- Genetic Genealogy Basics by Angie Bush
- Genetic Genealogy and DNA Testing by Edward Eugene Steele
- DNA and Family History by Chris Pomery
- Basic Genetic Genealogy by Thomas H. Shawker