I’m not just an “American mutt” after all.

I’ll start off this post with a general update because I have some great news: I got a job! ¬†ūüôā ¬†It’s still within the not-for-profit sector, but this time I’ll be working in advocacy which is fantastic! ¬†My last¬†real job was also in the NFP sector, but I was only ever allowed to do light and fluffy stuff. ¬†This is quite a departure from that. ¬†I have A LOT to learn and some big challenges ahead of me, but I am feeling quite confident and excited about the future. ¬†It feels good to be in a positive headspace again.

Okay. ¬†Now that that’s all sorted, it’s time to get to the content I actually wanted to discuss. ¬†I mentioned in a previous post that I have started researching my genealogy. ¬†I would like to get more specific about the things I’ve learned.

Growing up, I always thought of myself as your typical “American mutt” – a veritable smorgasbord of genetics. ¬†I figured that I probably had a lot of French in there due to my surname, and my great-grandmother on my dad’s side of the family claimed that her mother had been full-blooded Chippewa. ¬†You wouldn’t know the latter from looking at my skin tone. ¬†My skin doesn’t know the meaning of the word tan. ¬†I just think about the sun and get a burn. ¬†I figured this was probably due to my taking more after my mother’s family than my dad’s, who I knew had some Swedish in it. ¬†That information alone was enough to confirm that I just had a whole lot of random in my genetics.

As it turns out, my cultural heritage is a lot more interesting than I had anticipated. ¬†Late last year, I decided to take a chance and do one of those ancestry DNA tests. ¬†The first thing I discovered: I am one of the whitest people ever. ¬†ūüėČ ¬†Seriously though – my genetics indicate virtually 100% European blood primarily from Western Europe (France, Germany, etc.), Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) and Great Britain. ¬†There are also small percentages of Irish, Mediterranean and Iberian, and trace percentages of South Asian (India, Pakistan, etc.), Finnish, Native American and Middle Eastern which were all further confirmed when I entered my DNA test into GEDmatch and ran it through further admixture tests.

Ancestry

This experience kicked off a large genealogy research project that is still ongoing.  The surprising results thus far:

There is no Native American blood to speak of. ¬†If my great-grandmother’s claims of being 50% Chippewa were correct, then I would have more than a trace amount in my DNA – more like 5-10%. ¬†My subsequent genealogy research ended up disproving this claim. ¬†Her mother wasn’t Native American at all – she was German! ¬†This is apparently a common misconception with American families of European descent. ¬†I don’t know if claiming this connection is a way for modern-day Americans¬†to distance themselves from¬†the abuse our European ancestors heaped on Native Americans so long ago or if it’s simply a way for people to feel more connected with their country, but most Americans you encounter will claim to have some percentage of Native American DNA when a good majority of them (myself included, it seems) don’t. ¬†Research indicates that it is more likely that my trace percentage of Native American DNA originated in the early hunter-gatherer populations of Russia who ultimately settled in the Americas after crossing the Bering Strait thousands of years ago.

Where the hell did I get Mediterranean, Iberian, South Asian and Middle Eastern DNA?! ¬†All of that must go back a really long time because I haven’t been able to identify any of that lineage so far.

I’m actually not that French after all. ¬†I have been able to confirm only one branch of my entire family tree that is truly of French origin, which is my surname’s paternal line. ¬†It’s not until my third-great-grandfather of that surname when both parties in each couple are fully French. ¬†There might be a bit more French through my great-grandfather’s line¬†(my dad’s maternal grandfather) but because he was adopted we can’t know for sure. ¬†According to GEDmatch, I’m really only about 17% French. ¬†That blew my mind!

There are a number of Confederate soldiers and loads of slave owners on my maternal grandmother’s side of the family. ¬†As a white person that is VERY strongly outspoken for equality, this is a tough pill to swallow. ¬†My grandmother hails from Texas, so I¬†definitely suspected this outcome to a certain extent. ¬†But I have to say: Reading records of wills where the person in question bequeaths slaves – actual living, breathing PEOPLE – unto their children with words like “irrevocably” and “forever” attached to them puts a sour taste in my mouth. ¬†And it appears that it may not stop with simply owning slaves. ¬†Going several generations back through my father’s side of the family, it looks like one of my ancestors may have been involved in the transportation of slaves from Africa to the Americas. ¬†It’s a very strange feeling to be proud¬†that your ancestors were some of the USA’s first colonists but also really ashamed that they were involved so heavily in a deplorable trade.

I have an ancestor who was caught up in the witchcraft obsession of 17th century New England. ¬†My ancestor, Isabella Towle lived in New Hampshire at the time and was accused of witchcraft by a woman named Rachel Fuller. ¬†Rachel herself had just been accused of witchcraft. ¬†Since those accused of witchcraft at the time were told that their punishment would be lenient if they exposed other witches, Rachel said, “Okay! ¬†Then check out Goody Towle over there. ¬†She’s definitely a witch!” ¬†Gee…thanks, Rach! ¬†Rachel accused others as well, but only her and Isabella ended up being charged. ¬†They ended up spending close to a year in the local jail before being acquitted of all charges. ¬†This would have been a considerable hardship for Isabella, who was in her forties and had several young children at the time. ¬†All of this nonsense occurred¬†several years before the¬†Salem witch trials. ¬†I have no doubt in my mind that had Isabella been accused during or after the Salem incidents, she would have hanged. ¬†Mind blown.

There is a whole lot of German in my lineage. ¬†It comes from multiple branches of my family tree which, ironically, mostly originate in¬†the same area of Germany (Hesse). ¬†The most surprising and interesting German connection to me is the “Russian German” side of my family. ¬†I heard a mention or two of this ancestry growing up but never any detail. ¬†It wasn’t until I commenced my genealogy research project and started reading my late grandfather’s memoirs that I discovered just how significant it was. ¬†In the mid-1700s, Catherine the Great published a manifesto that welcomed Germans to settle in various parts of the Russian empire. ¬†The German empire was vastly over-crowded and faced a number of hardships at the time. ¬†Catherine wanted to develop the eastern areas of her empire, so she lured German settlers to the area with promises of land and religious freedom. ¬†My ancestors were some of the first to settle in and establish the town of Norka (now called Hekpacovo) located in the Volga River region of Russia. ¬†Things went well for them for a couple of generations until Catherine’s grandson rose to power and started taking away their freedoms. ¬†My great-great-grandparents ended up fleeing Norka in the dead of night with their young children in tow and eventually made their way to the United States in 1900. ¬†My maternal grandfather’s mother was born on that journey. ¬†They ended up settling in Portland, Oregon which is where most of my family still lives. ¬†If you’re interested in learning more about this unique culture and their lives once they settled in Portland, there is a great website for Volga Germans in Portland that is definitely worth reading.

There’s also a whole lot of Scandinavian in my family tree. ¬†As mentioned above, I knew that my mother’s side of the family had Swedish in it but I didn’t really know the extent of it. ¬†That much has been proven: My maternal grandfather’s father was of Swedish descent. ¬†In the late 1800s, much of Sweden was facing famine and times were tough all around. ¬†My great-grandparents on that side both made the brave decision to immigrate to the USA to seek a better life. ¬†It probably wasn’t a hard decision for my great-grandfather, who was born out of wedlock to a hotel maid and whose father was a notorious abuser, but my great-grandmother left a very large family to follow a man she wasn’t yet married to halfway across the world. ¬†I don’t have any record of her having kept in touch with her family after immigrating to the USA, so I am actively trying to find descendants of her siblings to see if they have anymore information about that lineage. ¬†From what I’ve been able to piece together myself, both of those lines originate in the southern Swedish county of Sk√•ne from parishes in and surrounding Lund. ¬†I’ve been able to trace back as far as about 1700 thus far, but it’s been really difficult. ¬†Hopefully I can track down a distant cousin or two on that side who will be able to verify or disprove my findings. ¬†Anyway, I’ve mentioned my mother’s Swedish heritage but I also discovered that there is a significant Norwegian heritage on my father’s side! ¬†My great-great-grandmother on his paternal side was from a parish just south of Lillehammer. ¬†Thanks to some invaluable assistance from a distant cousin I recently met, I have managed to trace that lineage back to the early 1700s as well. ¬†Unfortunately that’s as far back as I’ll be able to go unless I manage to find distant relatives in Norway.

Admixture aside, this project has helped me discover so many amazing stories about my ancestors.  In a way, I feel like I understand more about my outlook on life and the way I was brought up because I feel like I know some of the people that have made my life possible.  That is such a precious gift.

As mentioned above, my genealogy project is very much a work in progress. ¬†I’m sure that I will get more specific with names, dates, locations and stories as time progresses. ¬†In the meantime, I am going to spend the rest of my day off doing more research.

The fatal flaw with discovering your ancestry

Genealogy absolutely fascinates me. ¬†I first started getting into discovering my own ancestry years ago, but quickly lost interest. ¬†It wasn’t until last year when I decided to get the DNA test offered through Ancestry.com that this passing interest became a full-blown hobby. ¬†Now that I have some research experience under my belt, I wanted to kick off what will undoubtedly be several posts about genealogy by sharing one particular challenge for novice genealogists that concerns me.

Several years ago, I started building my family tree on Ancestry.com. ¬†I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at the time and being a rather impatient person in some ways led to my first mistake: I tried to find a “quick” way to achieve my goal and built a huge family tree simply by using the function that allows you to review and save entries from other people’s family trees. ¬†I thought, “Hey – it’s on this many other people’s family trees, so it must be right!” ¬†This eventually led to a ridiculously sized family tree with ancestors dating back well into the BC’s.

Don’t get me wrong. ¬†I think Ancestry.com is a fabulous, user-friendly service that contains a wealth of information. ¬†I also do see the value in being able to look at other people’s family trees. ¬†In fact, this function recently allowed me to track down a distant cousin of mine – a connection that has yielded some really wonderful results. ¬†But, people should only be using this function to find POTENTIAL leads. ¬†This function should, by no means, be used to actually build your family tree.

Why do I say this? ¬†Let’s consider what we are able to do on Ancestry.com: We can build a family tree – that is obvious. ¬†How do we generally start this? ¬†By manually entering the name and details of ourselves or a relative. ¬†When you add a person to your tree, Ancestry.com doesn’t check to make sure that entry is correct or accurate. ¬†You could, quite literally, make up a completely false person and enter it as your ancestor’s father.

This is the fatal flaw and where the danger lies for other novice genealogists. ¬†If your family tree’s settings are listed as public (which most are initially set to), other people who may be researching your ancestor will come across your fake entry for their father. ¬†If they don’t know what they’re doing, they can then use this function to add this entry to their own family tree. ¬†Over time, more and more people will¬†do this and spread this false record as gospel.

This is exactly the situation I ran into my first time building a family tree. ¬†I finally got to a point where I was waaaaaaaaaaay back in time and the birth dates listed for parents were hundreds of years different from those of their alleged children before I cottoned onto the fact that this wasn’t going to be acccurate. ¬†Frustrated that I couldn’t pinpoint where things went wrong, I left it for several years. ¬†When I picked it up again last year, I went back and deleted the most recent ancestor in each branch that I couldn’t confirm with other sources and started again. ¬†(Unfortunately, this is flawed as well because it only deletes that link – not the ancestors listed before it as you would think. ¬†So those false entries still exist out there until you go in and manually delete every single one. ¬†Ugh!)

The moral of this story: When commencing any genealogical project, don’t take a lead at face value. ¬†If you want to use the function that searches other people’s family trees, go for it! ¬†As I mentioned before, it can be a useful tool. ¬†Just don’t use it to actually add anyone to your own family tree. ¬†Have a look at that person in other people’s family trees and see what sources THEY have used before¬†adding that person to their own family tree. ¬†If you don’t see any sources listed or can only see that they’ve used other people’s trees as the source, move on and start manually doing your own research. ¬†Here’s an example of what you DON’T want to see – an entry where the only source to account for its credibility is other Ancestry.com members’ family trees.

BadRecord

What are credible sources? ¬†I’m still learning myself, but here’s what I do know: For your closest ancestors, there should be some sort of official records available such as census forms and birth, marriage and death records. ¬†As you go farther back (particularly in Europe), many church records are quite accurate. ¬†Going back further still, you will undoubtedly run into the Millennium File and GenealogieOnline which track the lineage of European nobility and royalty. ¬†There’s a fair bit of debate as to the accuracy of the Millennium File due to who it was built for (the Church of Latter Day Saints) and why, but according to Dutch genealogist Yvette Hoitink GenealogieOnline may be a better starting resource if you make sure to check the references they provide on the site before taking it at face value. ¬†Also if you’re dealing with European nobility and royalty, chances are there are plenty of historical records that provide information on that person’s lineage and how accurate¬†(or improbable) it may be. ¬†As a rule of thumb, I generally stop tracking any lineage at royalty because there are countless historical records available developed by much more skilled historians than I.

Happy researching!