Genetic Genealogy with DNA Testing

Savvy Researching with DNA


After you've checked every record you can think of and still can't find the clue that helps you break through the "brick wall" in your family tree, what do you do?


Once the only answer was to keep checking back to find out if new records had become available in the geographical target area, to review your previous notes and documents copies to see if there was a significant detail you'd missed, or to broaden your search to other individuals in the same line to see if you'd have more success there. When you'd done all that and still failed to come up with information on that elusive ancestor, your only choice was to research another line and hope a new avenue of information would open up in a few months or years.


Now, genetic genealogy -- DNA testing -- can help shed light on some of those mysteries that confound you. It can confirm or disprove your hypothesis that you have a family link with someone, as well as suggesting the geographic origins of your deep ancestry. It's not going to solve every research problem, however.


Curious What Genetic Genealogy Has to Offer?
DNA and Genealogy by Colleen Fitzpatrick and Andrew Yeiser. Rice Books Press (2005). This is a great handbook for someone using available DNA tools in conjunction with genealogy research. It's particularly useful of finding single surname projects. The book is well-written, easy to understand, and explains the complex science gently and with humor.

Amazon reviewer Robert McQuillan gave it 5 stars and said  DNA & Genealogy by Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick & Andrew Yeiser is a delightful change from the mystifying technical jargon that stops most of us from understanding this fascinating subject. If you want to get your DNA tested and then understand the results: This is the read. It will even help you with the 'next steps."

Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project  by Spencer Wells (2007)  National Geographic Press. Scientist and National Geographic explorer Spencer Wells explains that tiny genetic changes occur over generations and add up to a fascinating story. He uses real-life examples, as well as diagrams and illustrations, to explain how each person's  DNA contributes a piece to the jigsaw puzzle of human history. The book explores the landmark study that's collecting DNA samples and examining hundreds of thousands of genetic profiles from people all around the world.

The Scots: A Genetic Journey by Alastair Moffat and James F. Wilson. Birlinn, Ltd (2011). Moffat and Wilson explore the history printed on our genes and uncovers the details of where Scots are from and draws a DNA map of Scotland. I included this book because it was genetic genealogy that proved definitively that -- via my father -- I'm descended from Alexander Arnett, a Scot who came to America in the 1720's as an indentured servant, making barrels for a plantation in Maryland.

Amazon reviewers differ in their assessments of this book. Some say its a valuable resource for those of Scottish heritage; others say the book is already outdated in terms of its scientific component. So you might want to find a library copy before deciding whether to buy. If your library system doesn't own this, it's likely able to place a request for an interlibrary loan for you. May take a while, but you'll get to decide how valuable it is without parting with personal funds.

Saxons, Vikings and Celts by Bryan Sykes. W.W. Norton & Co. (2007). Sykes is a professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford in England. In this book, the author's goal was to describe how the genetic background of modern-day English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people differ genetically and how those differences might emanate from the various ethnic groups that populated the British Isles, including the Celts, Picts, Romans, Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Vikings, Danes, and Norman/French. The book contains some history mixed with genetics.

Sykes is also the author of The Seven Daughters of Eve (W.W. Norton & Co. 2002), It focuses on the lineages of modern-day women of European heritage, tracing mtDNA (the DNA contributed by the woman's mother, maternal grandmother, her mother, and so on, back to the seven "Daughters of Eve."  I own this book, have had my mtDNA analyzed -- hoping to find distantly related "cousins" -- and am a descendant of the woman Sykes calls Ursula. The only distant cousin I've found was an archeological find named Cheddar Man. His DNA proved he descended from Ursula as well.
How do you participate in Genetic Genealogy?
If you're an Ancestry subscriber, you can purchase a DNA testing kit for $99. No blood draws -- just follow the instructions and collect a saliva sample. Simple and easy!  The new AncestryDNA test uses some of the latest autosomal testing technology to find family across ALL lines in your family tree. So one test covers both your maternal and paternal sides and is equally effective for men and women. It generally takes about 6 to 8 weeks to obtain results. You'll find out your unique genetic ethnicity and might even find matches with unknown cousins.

You can also try FamilyTreeDNA.com or some of the other companies offering similar testing. Prices vary, as does client satisfaction, so do your homework before making a commitment to one or the other. I did an early DNA test through the Family History Center and Sorenson Genomics (which required a blood draw and submission of 4 generations of family tree entries, complete with dates and places of birth and death for each one), but the promise of connection with matches never materialized.
My Own Experience with DNA Testing
I got interested in DNA testing and its implications in genealogy research in the "olden days." I knew my fourth great-grandfather on my father's side was a man named Jacob Arnett, who appeared in what became East Tennessee in 1783. I'd exhaustively investigated every man in colonial America whose name was anything close to that and was pretty sure that my Jacob was from a family that settled in Virginia. That family had a Jacob that disappeared from Loudoun County, Virginia records about the time of the Revolutionary War. As luck would have it, I was exchanging information with several Arnett researchers, including Wayne Charles Arnett, a Phoenix area attorney who is descended from that Loudoun County family. (Curiously, I'm an attorney as well. Maybe we have a gene for lawyering.)  One of the things I shared with Wayne was a wedding photo of my Arnett grandparents. He was astonished by the resemblance between my grandfather and his great-grandfather.. So -- long story short -- Wayne took a Y-DNA test and so did my brother. And guess what! Tough the common ancestor was 7 generations back, Wayne and Norm were a 100% match. Bingo! My hypothesis was confirmed.

Since then, I've roped my youngest son and one of my mother's male cousins into taking y-DNA tests so that info would be available. Neither my son nor the cousin have particularly close matches -- the common ancestor would be back thousands of years. I've got several close matches, but haven't explored connections. I've taken the mt-DNA test, which looks at the contribution I got from my mother's mother's mother back through time. As mentioned above, via my matriarchal inheritance, I'm a descendent of one of the seven daughters of Eve -- the one named Ursula.