Greg's Family History

The wonders of DNA

Things have changed a lot over the years that I have been researching my family history. When I first started, material was viewed in archive offices: dusty documents, microfilm, fiche, and lots of little printed indexes of censuses. Then along came the internet - making it possible to access an increasing volume of material from the comfort of one's own home. Just as it began to seem that every document ever was on-line and that there was never likely to be any more information, along came DNA.

Methods of DNA 'fingerprinting' were developed in the mid 1980s and have been widely used in the investigation of crime ever since, but it wasn't until the early 21st century that consumer tests which could be used for genealogical research began to be developed. Databases of DNA have grown up over the succeeding years and have now reached the size where they can provide information not just on racial origins but also on family connections.

After more than twenty years researching my family the fresh leads were running out; so, after considering the privacy implications, I finally decided to go ahead and see what fresh discoveries DNA might bring. The test involves spitting in a plastic test-tube and then waiting for a couple of months for the lab to do its work. While waiting for the results I took the opportunity to tidy up my family tree.

What was the result? Well, my closest match was to a known cousin - the daughter of my mum's sister - then came three known second cousins on my father's side - so I really am who I thought I was! I don't think it would have upset me to find out that I had been secretly adopted or that I was not my dad's genetic offspring, but I was relieved to prove that I had been researching the right tree for all these years!

What about the other fifteen thousand matches that I received? After going through those where a common ancestor is fairly obvious I was a little surprised to find that I have proven genetic links to all my ancestors back to my 2nd great-grandparents - what remarkable marital fidelity! In many lines the links go back to my 5th great-grandparents; where they don't it is as likely that it is due to gaps in my tree (or those of my matches) as to any excursion to the wrong side of the blanket.

All these links will need to be checked, but at first sight they seem to be plausible connections. There is always the possibility that the connection is correct but that it is the wrong genetic one. For example, I appear to be connected to three different lines in one of my match's tree. Which one is the genetic one? Maybe all three are!

Looking at the many matches where I can't identify a common ancestor is interesting too. I appear to be linked to several families in the USA who claim to be descended from the Pilgrim Fathers in every branch. I suspect that this is more to do with their need for famous forebears than with any connection to the Mayflower on my side.

Several of my matches are people of colour. I hope that they are evidence of the tolerant, inclusive nature of my genes and not of the colonial brutality of my ancestors.

So, has DNA added anything to my research? Well, it has given me more confidence in the accuracy of my previous research and has proved a few 'doubtful' connections. Maybe in time it will enable me to fill in some of the more recent descendants of my ancestors. There certainly seem to be plenty of them - and in every corner of the English-speaking world too.