My hubs and I are really into genealogy. We are both fascinated with the process of preserving our lineages for future generations and also simply untangling some baffling mysteries that crop up in most people’s ancestry. The chances of you not being who you think you are are actually quite strong.
My great great grandfather, born in approximately 1822-25 is a good example. My family surname, my maiden name, is most decidedly Irish. My dad and the rest of our whole family is very proud of this name but honestly, that may not be our name at all. You see, my great great grandfather (we’ll call him Collin) was illegitimate as well as several of his brothers and a sister…and possibly all of his siblings. We know this because of newspaper articles of that time announcing when several of the children, including my ancestor, were placed with legal ‘guardians’ because their mother could not, or would not, care for them. The article specifically states that my ancestor, and two brothers, were the illegitimate children of (Mother’s Name). I placed the word ‘guardians’ in quotes because back at that time, when destitute children were placed with guardians, it was more or less indentured slavery…free labor for the guardians.
Anyway, this surname of our family…where did it come from? Collin’s mother used this name but after painstaking research, no marriage records can be found for her that establish that she married a man with that surname. So…was this name her maiden name and she gave it to her children who’d been born out of wedlock as well? Was she actually, at one time, married to man with our last name who fathered our ancestor and the marriage documents were lost or destroyed? She certainly never shows up on census records as living with anyone other than her children. And we essentially have no clue where this strange and mysterious grandmother of ours came from or who her family actually was.
My husband has very similar circumstances in his own family tree.
So, thinking that some of the mystery might be solved through DNA analysis, we both had this done. We had autosomal DNA kits shipped to us through Ancestry.com where we both maintain our trees. Just as an aside, Ancestry’s DNA analysis is somewhat of the ‘Walmart’ of DNA tests. However, it will get you started on your quests by, eventually, showing you genetic matches to others who’ve taken their tests and with whom you share an ancestor or ancestors. You can then contact these people through the site…if they ever check their Ancestry messages. It will also show you people to whom your DNA is connected that you may know nothing about. They call these ‘Unknown Ancestors’. I had my dad’s DNA done as well and he and both show large numbers of those previously ‘Unknown Ancestors’ with surnames that we are completely unfamiliar with.
So, if you plan to attempt to solve your own family mystery through Ancestry.com, please be advised that it’s not as simple as they make it sound. It’s actually a major, mind-blowing headache. If you try to trace one of these unknowns that show up, you essentially have to find this person in someone’s tree on Ancestry, painstakingly pore through all their descendants and their spouses, where they all lived for comparison to where members of your known family lived, etc, etc. It’s really a bullshit process and I’m not kidding. We both gave up on any attempt through DNA to solve our mysteries.
Also, if you’re excited to learn about your cultural heritage, Ancestry is just going to piss you off. It certainly did us. Their DNA analysis of your ancestral heritage or ethnic background is so vague and non-specific that it’s literally worthless. But there are ways to use your Ancestry DNA on another website to really dig into the tapestry of your ancestors’ origins. More about this below.
My husband is an engineer and he is sooooo into the documentation and organization of his tree and he’s actually writing biographies for many of his ancestors! Me? I’m a lazy-ass, short-attention-span, ADD kind of person so let’s just say my tree is not even remotely as perfectly documented and organized as his. The whole DNA thing fascinates me, though.
I was turned on to a website, http://www.gedmatch.com, which is truly amazing to me…and which my husband cares less than nothing about. If you go to the DNA tab on Ancestry and click on ‘settings’, you will find a link to download your raw DNA file. You can then go to GedMatch, upload your DNA, and within a day or two, you’ll have access to lots of very cool tools that will give you very specific and minute details about your heritage.
One feature I love is called ‘Phasing’. If one of your parents are deceased, you can upload your raw DNA file and your living parent’s DNA file and this tool will reconstruct your deceased parent’s DNA. This is based on what markers you actually received from your living parent and then what remains is used to reconstruct the deceased parent’s profile. My mother died many years ago and this feature instantly appealed to me.
Im going to do a Part 2 for this post about the heritage features at GedMatch, and because what they revealed blew my mind and changed the way I think about myself and humanity in general. In a good, good way.
You weirdos, you.