There is a meditation from Thich Nhat Hanh that begins with staring into your hand, being with all of the ancestors who came before you. It’s very powerful, though mine was limited. Being raised by a single father, I knew my paternal grandparents, and their parents all died when I was very young. I met my biological mother’s family also when I was very young, then she left us and they cut us off. My grandma (my dad’s mom) said her mother was Creek, and that her father was Irish – no, Scottish. And there was tale that the man who came over with the last name my grandpa gave us, was from Germany.
I never really thought much more about those people, and it never crossed my mind when they came to America. Then I watched Finding Your Roots on PBS, with Henry Louis Gates. Fascinating! I got an itch to find out what my true ethnicity was and thought I might learn traditional recipes or a language over the pandemic. I didn’t care about the family tree, just who I am.
After researching which company doesn’t clone or sell your DNA, I went with the test that had the biggest database, that they used on the PBS show. After several anticipatory weeks, my results came back. Scottish, English, Irish, Welsh, a tad of Swedish, and North African? Wow. I’m pale Caucasian with blue eyes, and dark hair, and had no clue this was in my DNA, but this was exciting! Who did it come from? And how many generations back?
This piece of information led me to starting a tree. The website has records from all over the world (for an extra price). There are censuses, birth, death, and marriage records which contain a lot of clues, immigration records, draft cards, photos added from distant cousins, and it matches you with people you share DNA with. I’ve found relatives with disabilities, 15+ kids were normal back then, some people were convicts shipped over here, some royalty, some murderers or murdered, there’s a whole world before each one of us. And by the way, you have loads of grandparents. Your mom and dad’s parents are four, their parents are eight, their parents make 16, and they multiply with each generation.
This obsessive, time consuming puzzle has taught me a lot about my biological mother’s family, as well as my dad’s. Patterns of abandonment, alcoholism, loads of farmers, and doctors, attorneys, and Cherokee chiefs. Oh, and a violin maker! There was an entire town in Alabama created and named after part of my family, that I never knew about. It’s now known as Boaz. Someone even sent me a book about Sparksville.
My grandmother was right about where our side came from. I’m 46% Scottish. Her father was Scottish. Her mother’s side is still murky, but my grandmother was what we called ‘dark complected’. Back then, there was a lot of passing going on, as the white Europeans would not treat you nicely, if you were of any other race. A lot of the records don’t tell race, but draft cards can give hints. Some of the things you find are shocking to read about. We’ve heard them, but when you see actual records, it’s devastating.
She was right about my grandpa. A few generations before him, a man murdered a count (yes) in Germany, then fled to America and altered the spelling of his last name. I grew up in the southeast, and it seems that the majority of my ancestors, after arriving in the northern states, migrated down to Alabama and Georgia where they stayed for generations – which might explain the grudge my family have held after I decided to move to the West coast.
Not only the intricate details and stories of all of these people who contributed to each cell in your body, there is a goldmine of wisdom to be learned here, about race and ethnicity. We all know or have been told that everyone originated from Africa or Asia, centuries ago. Then, where ever those ancestors migrated to, if they migrated, skin tones and ethnicities changed, dependent on whom they reproduced with. Of side note, the tests only go back 7-8 generations, but you can continue the research further, if you choose. I have found up to nine generations for some lines.
Back to evolving skin tones and race. The website also provides DNA matches with other living people who took the test, in list form or you can look at a map view to see where the bulk of your current living relatives are. Many users have put up photos and filled out their profiles, while some keep it private. If you scroll through the matches with photos, you will find a variety of ethnicities and skin tones, seeing first hand how we evolve. Again, me, checking the White box on forms, blue-eyed, pale skinned, match with dark skinned African Americans, Vietnamese, Latina, people across the world, and a whole lot of relatives I didn’t know I had.
Which brought me to think, for example the Vietnamese male who is a 4th-6th cousin. If we were in a photo together, you’d think we’re just friends. How did this start? Were some of my great-great ancestors originally all Vietnamese and someone reproduced with a light-skinned European, and those descendants continued to reproduce with other light Euros, OR was my Vietnamese cousin’s ancestors light Euro descent and the opposite happened? Even without building a family tree, if everyone could see how we are all connected via DNA, not race, this could help alleviate or put a big dent into racism. Just looking at pictures of the people who share your DNA is eye opening.
On my quest, I decided to take a competing company’s test, just to see if the results were the same. There wasn’t a drastic difference, though it said I’m more English than Scottish, which was opposite before. The North African was a smidge more than my first test, but I’ve yet to discover which grandparents it came from. Seeing how I have a over 6000 ancestors in my tree on the first site, I deleted my info from the second one. I didn’t need to dive into another tree.
Another great part of this journey is that I’ve found a first cousin and several second cousins I didn’t know I had. I message back and forth with my mother’s relatives and being abandoned by her, this gives me peace that she did come from good people. I’ve looked at both sides of my family in a new light. Reading the newspaper clippings of murders, struggles, death of children, successes and victories, that all of these people went through to eventually make me, is pretty grounding. I feel a connection to each of their last names now – last names I’d never heard or thought twice about before. My height, my hair color, my hereditary bunions, it all developed from those 6000+ people.