Ancestor Hunting: DNA

Who Am I? Where Did I Come From?

July 26, 2022

My page from Ancestry which displays my heritage groups. The two additional groups not shown are Sweden/Denmark and Scotland. When all the Scandahoovian pieces are added together, they represent the majority of my DNA

Between the internet and advances in DNA testing, tracking your ancestors has become infinitely easier. With these technologies, however, are risks. And sometimes people don’t want to hear what the facts reveal.

Of the two it is DNA testing which has unlocked more closets full of skeletons. But first a bit about the technology.

For anyone who knows me, they understand that while I love learning about the general science behind things, my eyes pretty much roll back in my head when the specifics are touted. In reading about DNA on the Infallible Wikipedia, my eyes were doing some pretty serious rolling back. As a writer I try to distill things down to their most basic as a service to all others who don’t want the Deoxyribonucleic acid, double stranded helix of polynucleotide chains explanation.

Deoxyribonucleic acid, double stranded helix of polynucleotide chains

Thankfully, there was a second Infallible Wikipedia article helpfully titled Introduction to Genetics. Here’s more of a layman’s explanation:

“Genes are made from a long molecule called DNA, which is copied and inherited across generations. DNA is made of simple units that line up in a particular order within this large molecule. The order of these units carries genetic information, similar to how the order of letters on a page carries information. The language used by DNA is called the genetic code, which lets organisms read the information in the genes. This information is the instructions for constructing and operating a living organism.

The information within a particular gene is not always exactly the same between one organism and another, so different copies of a gene do not always give exactly the same instructions. Each unique form of a single gene is called an allele. As an example, one allele for the gene for hair color could instruct the body to produce much pigment, producing black hair, while a different allele of the same gene might give garbled instructions that fail to produce any pigment, giving white hair. Mutations are random changes in genes and can create new alleles. Mutations can also produce new traits, such as when mutations to an allele for black hair produce a new allele for white hair. This appearance of new traits is important in evolution.”

Okay, okay, even THAT required we go wandering out in the weeds a bit. I recall first learning about genetics and found the concept of one’s chances of having blue or brown eyes fascinating. In my nuclear family there wasn’t a brown eye to be found; we ALL had blue eyes – well, except for my sister who ended up with green eyes which are kinda like blue eyes on steroids. It was only when I was older did I come to understand that some 8 percent of the world population has blue eyes and only 2 percent have green eyes! And, those who have either blue or green eyes are most likely to be able to trace their roots to northwestern Europe.

A helpful chart which sums up WHY there were no brown eyes from my parents all blue ones. My sister is truly rare!

Which brings us round to what is known as Genetic Genealogy. The Infallible Wikipedia describes it as:

“…the use of genealogical DNA tests, i.e., DNA profiling and DNA testing, in combination with traditional genealogical methods, to infer genetic relationships between individuals. This application of genetics came to be used by family historians in the 21st century, as DNA tests became affordable. The tests have been promoted by amateur groups, such as surname study groups or regional genealogical groups, as well as research projects such as the Genographic Project.

As of 2019, about 30 million people had been tested. As the field developed, the aims of practitioners broadened, with many seeking knowledge of their ancestry beyond the recent centuries, for which traditional pedigrees can be constructed.”

I am a big fan of DNA testing in the search of ancestors and have more than a few good stories about this pursuit. One of the early tests involved my Dad to have him test for what’s known as “y-DNA” or, more commonly, to trace the male line only. For years I had been frustrated with the DeVore family line as, apparently, my great-great Grandfather Hartley had been dropped into Wisconsin in 1848 from outer space.

A 23andMe kit

Thanks to my dad’s test, however, I connected with a close genetic ‘cousin’ who shared the name and lived in Georgia! In fact all of the folks who closely matched him have that common trait: a last name of DeVore. So far so good.

Then, in early 2019, I took the test, and was very interested to see where that would lead. And my sister took it and, thankfully, we were still sisters. And then the Hubby took a test and, thankfully, our cousin-ness stayed firmly at multiple generations. In fact our genetics are so far removed, the DNA matching doesn’t go back that far.

Then in summer 2019 I purchased kits for our kids. And then we waited. Finally the first results came back for our son. Our daughter got hers the next day… and then the hubby and I checked our Ancestry accounts which helpfully tells you ‘who’ you are related to and how and I blasted out the message to the three of them something along the lines of “Good News! Your father is, er, your father.”

Which brought us, as parents, all sorts of amusement since we were both 100 percent certain that would be the result.

But it also highlights one of the issues with DNA testing. Sometimes people discover things they’d rather not know. On my sister’s husbands side of the family a ‘cousin’ popped up who no one had ever heard of or met. The wife of the ‘cousin’ contacted my niece and told her they had decided the testing must be flawed. Considering the fact that both Ancestry AND 23andMe connected him not only to my niece but also one of my niece’s first cousin and, eventually, her Dad when he took the test… well, it would seem that the mystery cousin’s heritage is not what he was raised to believe about his family.

My niece and I discussed it several times and she and I concluded that it was best to drop the whole thing as the possibility of an unhappy ending was great.

Recently I had a similar mystery reveal itself in my family. There is intrigue as to why one of the DNA ‘matches’ I have seems to suggest a further apart relationship than what we’ve always believed. It’s not something I plan to pursue unless the person involved also happens to notice.

From my perspective as a historian and genealogist, however, the facts are the facts. And I always want to learn the whole story in all its messy human details. It’s in my DNA.

So many links: (This is the link to the paternal line DNA test my father took and shows all the other DeVore’s who are closely related)

And a reward for all of you who read to the very end… this trailer from a 1964 Elvis movie: Kissin’ Cousins. Until a few minutes ago I never knew this movie existed. Not sure my life has been enhanced because of this new knowledge!

One thought on “Ancestor Hunting: DNA

  1. Pingback: Peak DeVore | Barbara DeVore

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