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DNA helps connect past with present

If you ever get a chance and love doing family research, then I’d suggest getting a DNA test.

DNA tests, of course, don’t have all the answers, but they help those doing research in two ways: putting them in contact with people who may be able to fill in missing information in the family tree and letting you know if you’re going down a dead end.

What do I mean by “dead end?” Well, that’s essentially going down a route where you’ll find nothing, usually because of bad information. Like, on my dad’s side of the family, there were always stories of my father’s maternal grandmother being of Iroquoian descent. After I had a DNA test, I discovered that’s probably not the case as I was shown to be 100-percent European.

But, when one door closes, others open.

Finding the facts

I took the Family Tree DNA autosomal test, which is used more by people in Europe as compared to the Ancestry and 23andMe DNA tests.

Autosomal DNA tests compare the 22 non-gender chromosomes that you inherit from both your parents.

There are two other DNA tests, which cover your gender chromosomes.

One of those tests traces back the Y-chromosome, which is passed from father to son. The other traces the X-chromosome, which is passed from mother to daughter or mother to son. Women can do the autosomal and X tests. Men can do all three.

Making connections

It was through the FTDNA test that I was put in contact with my third cousin in Trelleborg, Sweden. She was not only a reconnection to my mother’s grandfather’s branch in the family tree, but she also became a friend. It was through her, an archivist for the Swedish government, that I was able to see the family tree on that branch going back to the 1500s.

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I also learned that my mother’s paternal grandmother was from Ireland. She emigrated during the years of the potato famine. Eventually, she turned up on the U.S. census, along with her future husband, as a household servant in the 1870s. I suspect it was because of their immigrant status as well as Catholicism, which was a major social hindrance back then.

I was also put in contact with another third cousin, this time on my father’s side.

Now, we had always known that on the paternal line, grandfather-father-son, that my great-great-grandfather, also named Joseph Price, was a Confederate soldier who came from Missouri and joined the Arkansas 1st and then 3rd regiments during the 1800s.

Interestingly, I learned my great-great-grandfather on my dad’s mother’s side was also a soldier in the Civil War, but he enlisted in Indiana. The third cousin who was able to tell me about him said that he was from Kentucky. He was very anti-slavery, to the point where he left neutral Kentucky to enlist in Indiana in order to fight the South, which had seceded over slavery.

Of course, there can be some mysteries opened up.

New paths to explore

According to my DNA test, about one-eighth of my DNA is from Eastern Europe, which I learned is passed from my great-grandfather George Hall, who emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the first half of the 1800s. Through him, DNA showed I had several distant relatives in Belarus, Poland, Czech Republic and even Norway. I have not been able to make a connection to them through a common ancestor though. There are also no Slavic names anywhere in my family tree, which may lead to a dead end, or someone who can connect the dots will eventually take a test themselves.

Hopefully, it’s is a road I will be able to explore further.

Why it matters

So, what’s the point of learning all that?

Well, if you’re looking for the actual utility of knowing a family history, not much. Chances are, if you’ve filled out your family tree to your content, then the $99 (on average) you pay for the autosomal test isn’t going to show you much you don’t know, unless you’re a third- or fourth-generation American who is seeking to make a contact with relatives in the old countries.

But, for many people, family history is important. It’s a way to tie generations together, especially the living one with one long dead, made of people who died a century or more before they were born.

Knowing or learning the stories and passing those stories on helps not only make connections with generations stay strong, but it also keeps those people from the past alive in a sense, as we can look back and say that’s who they were and this decision by them is why I’m here.

But let me segue into something else in here before I go.

Nonwhite DNA lacking

If you’re a minority, pretty much anyone who isn’t white, then I’d ask instead of suggest to you to go have these DNA tests done. Right now, the database is overwhelmingly stocked with people of European descent. European DNA has been separated down to a point where we can separate people from the Finnic-speaking countries from the Scandinavians right next to them.

But, for other groups, they still largely inhabit single big bubbles like “East Asian,” “West African” and “Southern Native American.” There is much more diversity than that out there and more people testing themselves will help show it.

Also, it could help make there be more stories to be told, and possibly ties that bind, sometimes in the least expected places.

It’s not the DNA origin that’s important after all. It’s finding the people whose lives eventually led to yours and learning as much of their story as you can. It is those stories, not pictures and not inventions, that are important. A picture is just a face and an invention is just an object. A story, on the other hand, embodies who a person is and why they matter.

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Written by

Weirdo who writes futurist-tinged columns about technology and science’s impact on society by night. Unfortunately, 2020 compels me to do politics too.

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