Elmer Nesteby Family Christmas Card cropped for Facebook

Real-life DNA Testing, 2017

As I kick off 2017, I am working on (and waiting on) quite a number of DNA projects. Here’s a rundown. I hope these provide some ideas about different ways you might be able to use DNA to answer your own genealogical questions.

  • A client and I are waiting on the AncestryDNA test results of her brother as we search for information about their biological grandparents. Their now-deceased father was left at an orphanage as a newborn. While the ethnicity breakdown is somewhat useful, what we’re really looking for are relatively close cousins on their paternal side.
  • My dad and I are awaiting his AncestryDNA results, which he sent in before Christmas. I have spent years building out my family tree. It was a difficult “loss” when I found out my dad was not my biological father and that his ancestors were not also my ancestors, at least not genetically. (I’ve written elsewhere about how I have embraced having three full branches on my family tree.) So I’m excited to see the results for a family that, as it turned out, my own DNA couldn’t tell me anything about. My dad’s family tree is pretty interesting. The top half—his father’s ancestors—were all of Czech origin, but their surnames suggest a mix of Slavic, German (Bernklau, Fitzthum), and even Italian (Filipi) ancestry. The bottom half—his mother’s ancestors—were a muddled mix of people who traced their roots back through the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic. Before the branches converged in Illinois and Nebraska, they were English settlers in New Jersey, German and Scots-Irish settlers in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Swedes from the New Sweden colony, Quakers around Philadelphia, and a mix of English, Scottish, Welsh, and French Huguenot settlers in colonial Maryland.
  • Sometime in the next couple weeks, I will be sitting down with my 91-year-old maternal grandmother to talk about her family history. I am hoping I can convince her to take a DNA test. (I won’t force her if she’s uncomfortable with the idea.) It’s always good to test the oldest people in your family if you can.  My grandmother’s ancestry is fully Irish. Her fore-bearers came from all corners of the island: Mayo, Kerry, Laois, Wicklow, and Derry, plus a couple lines whose specific origin in Ireland I am still researching. I am hoping the cousin matches will help me prove a couple relationships here in the U.S. and back in Ireland.
  • Last week I met with my wife’s uncle. While we were researching my wife’s maternal family a couple years ago, we discovered that her great-grandfather Edward Van Loy had been born out-of-wedlock in the city of Leiden in the Netherlands. The document recording the marriage of Edward’s mother Theresia Gedaan to Alphonsus Van Loy includes a section in which Alphonsus agreed to recognize Edward and his sister Seraphina (who had also been born before the marriage) as his own children.  My wife’s uncle agreed to take a Y-chromosome test to see if we can identify a probable surname for Edward’s biological father (or, less likely, confirm that Alphonsus Van Loy was in fact the father). We ordered the 111-marker test from FamilyTreeDNAthe most detailed one—to give us the clearest picture right from the start.
  • Angelique Gobin Gervais was born around 1830 in the Red River Settlement and lived to be about 95 years old. At her death in 1925, people believed she was even older, about 105 or 106. This photograph of her was originally posted on Ancestry.com by another decedent. We must always be wary of judging race by appearance alone, but Angelique’s facial appearance at least suggested the possibility of Native American ancestry.

    Documentary evidence leads to the conclusion that one of my ancestors was a Native American woman who lived near the Red River of the North around 1800. She was possibly a member of either the Ojibwe or Assiboine tribe. I’m too many generations removed from her for Native American DNA to appear in my ethnicity chart. Her genes simply did not survive eight generations of random genetic recombination. I descend from the woman’s mixed-blood daughter Louise Godon and granddaughter Angelique Gobin. Unfortunately, the next person in the line between us is a man. In hopes of proving the Native American connection, I have reached out to a couple cousins who descend from Angelique or Louise through entirely female lines. I am encouraging them to take a mitochondrial DNA test. If everything is as expected, their mitochondrial DNA should come from one of the distinctive Native American haplogroups.

I will provide some short updates as results come in.

Elmer Nesteby Family Christmas Card cropped for Facebook

Book Review: The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine T. Bettinger

Blaine Bettinger is well known among genealogists as the author of the popular blog The Genetic Genealogist. His blog posts offer advice about testing, provide a one-stop destination for important updates about the major testing companies, and sometimes feature examples of how DNA testing has been put to use to solve real genealogical puzzles. Now, in partnership with Family Tree Books, Bettinger has gathered all of his knowledge in one place.

s7981_new01The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy is as good a book as one could imagine for this market. Sure, some of its content will be out-of-date by next year, but it succeeds in every aspect Bettinger and the publisher could control. Everyone from beginners to professional genealogists will find value in it.

DNA testing is no longer new, but it remains the frontier of genealogy. In the early chapters, Bettinger summarizes the history of commercial DNA testing and introduces the different kinds of DNA (and DNA tests) that can be used to answer genealogical questions. Beginners will learn a lot from his simple explanations of Y-chromosome DNA, mitochondrial DNA, and autosomal DNA and how they can best be put to use. Later chapters, suited for more advanced genealogists, explore third-party tools that can help squeeze even more information out of each test as well as sophisticated ways of combining DNA results with traditional genealogical techniques to solve complex problems. Every chapter contains examples that illustrate the techniques Bettinger discusses.

I found most useful Bettinger’s clear understanding of the ethical questions raised by genetic genealogy. Chapter 3 focuses exclusively on ethical issues, but Bettinger does an excellent job weaving ethics into every chapter. What privacy can you expect from the companies handling your DNA? What should you expect from a professional genealogist with whom you have shared your raw DNA data? (What exactly is that data?) If you’re using other people’s DNA results to identify your own recent ancestor, does that mean someone could use your DNA to identify their ancestors? Bettinger walks readers through all of these and more.

I am a professional genealogist. Some of the my clients were adopted, orphaned, conceived in adultery, or otherwise don’t know their immediate genetic ancestry. Many of the ancestors we’re searching for are still alive. Sometimes genetic testing uncovers secrets some family members would rather have kept hidden. Bettinger does a superb job explaining the official Genetic Genealogy Standards, which address many of these issues, but he is also clear about their limitations. Each case in unique and people who choose to use DNA must understand the potential outcomes and ethical issues before they begin their search.

In a later chapter devoted solely to adoption and similar circumstances, Bettinger summarizes his position: “Although I personally believe that every individual has a fundamental and inalienable right to their genetic heritage, I understand that it does not translate into a fundamental and inalienable right to a relationship with that genetic heritage.” It’s a position I agree with entirely. Identifying your birth parents doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get to have a warm relationship with them. They may reject you entirely, which raises the question of whether you might regret searching at all. Even when genetic genealogy is used to answer questions farther back in time, you might uncover secrets your ancestors took to the grave. Will that affect how you view them and how you feel about your search? That’s up to you.

Overall, the book is an excellent guide. Key terms, techniques, and ethical considerations all get appropriate space. The writing is straightforward and concise. Graphics and charts are all easy to read and properly labeled in the text. And the whole book is colorful and interesting to look at. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about genetic genealogy.

Elmer Nesteby Family Christmas Card cropped for Facebook

An Extra Branch on the Ol’ Family Tree

Welcome to the GeneaLOGIC blog. Here you’ll find posts about genetic genealogy, stories from my own family and some of my clients (with their permission, of course), insights about lesser-known archives and documents, ideas for your own research, and more.

Tree with three branches
Having three branches on your family tree can feel a little crowded. How does that third branch fit with the other two?

For my first post, I thought I would write about what it’s been like to be a genealogist with three branches on my family tree. If you’ve read the About page on this site, you know that two years ago my parents told me they had used a sperm donor to conceive me. In this post, I’m not going to write about my personal response to the news so much as my “genealogical” reaction. They’re related but distinct in my mind. Had I lost an entire branch of my family tree? Had I gained a branch? After years of researching both my mom’s and dad’s families, where did my family tree stand now that my true biological origins had been revealed?

One of the reasons my parents hadn’t told me they earlier that they had used a donor was precisely because I had become such a genealogy hound. “How were we to know we would get the genealogy kid?” my dad asked with exasperation during that first, most difficult conversation about the subject. And I get it. My obsessive hobby put them in a tough spot. Not only did I love my dad and my grandparents, but I was also quite attached to many of his — our — distant ancestors. Telling me they had used a sperm donor would, in a way, sever me from all of those people. My parents feared that my reaction would be much worse than it was.

To be sure, I have had to face that I am not biologically related to my dad’s family. I still mourn the loss a little bit, and not just for my dad himself. I lost biological relationships to early settlers in the New Sweden colony and to a rogue-ish New England heretic named Jonathan Singletary who upon his exile reinvented himself as the New Jersey miller Jonathan Dunham. I lost ties to Methodist preachers like Reverend Burgess Nelson, Revolutionary War veteran and Appalachian circuit rider Rezin Simpson, and abolitionist Illinois minister Abel Dunham. I no longer share genes with Palatine refugees who were part of the very first large-scale German immigration to America in 1709-10 or with Czech villagers who fled political retribution after the failed 1848 uprisings in Europe.

And yet, these families are in many ways my cultural legacy. Though I grew up in liberal Yankee-German-Scandinavian Minnesota, my closest family relationships besides my parents were with my grandparents in Nebraska. They were inheritors of a rural, more conservative midlands culture with roots farther east in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. My grandma said “warsh” and “garsh.” She had no rhythm but still taught me how to polka. I attended a family reunion or two on my great-uncle’s big Nebraska farm (which he still operates). My grandfather was 100% Czech in ancestry. He took me to Czech Days in Wilber, Nebraska — self-proclaimed Czech capital of the U.S.A. He also took me flying over Nebraska’s endless cornfields in his Piper Colt. Together as a family, we drove a short distance to the Platte River in the early spring to watch the magical sandhill crane migration.

For all of these reasons, I still consider my dad’s family to be a full branch of my family tree. Even if I’m not biologically his son, I wouldn’t be here if he and my mom hadn’t decided to use a donor. My birth depended entirely on his (and my mom’s) desire to have me. There’s no sense in abandoning him or the impact his more distant family had on me as both a person and a genealogist.

All of that said, genealogist John was also excited by the news. Everybody has two main branches on their family tree. How many people get to have three?! I got to research an entirely new branch. (The hard part was figuring out where it fits in relation to the other two — but that’s the personal side of the story which I’ll leave for another time.)

At first glance, the donor’s ancestry wasn’t as exciting or diverse as my dad’s family. It’s almost entirely German Catholics who settled in central Minnesota during the late 19th century. I haven’t come across as many unexpected stories as I had found my dad’s side (suicides, accidents, stark moral decisions about slavery, etc.). One non-German line found its way into the tree, and it’s pretty neat. It goes back to New York Loyalists who chose to remain in the United States after the Revolution when some of their relatives moved to Canada. Further up that line are several families who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay colony during the 1640s to work in John Winthrop, Jr.’s iron works. They were among the earliest dedicated industrial workers in America (though calling it “industrial” a bit misleading, since their work looked nothing like the later factory system we’re used to). Even further back, my biological father descends from Alice Boleyn, aunt of the beheaded English Queen Anne Boleyn and one-time caretaker of both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.

In summary, I have three full branches of my family tree, and I am fond of each of them in a different way. Each leaf on each branch represents a fascinating individual story. Together, they tell a fairly comprehensive history of America north of the 39th parallel. Perhaps most importantly, without any single person on any of the three branches, I would not be here today. Every family tree is quirky. In my case, I needed a third branch.