Genealogy for the Common Man

Back when I was in the fourth grade, my teacher tasked the class with drafting our family trees.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was probably one of the most valuable lessons I was ever given, and the one whose results I cherish the most to this very day.

I was fortunate in that at that time, all of my grandparents and two of my great-grandparents were still alive, one each from both the maternal and paternal sides of my lineage.  Consequently, I was able to construct a tree that extended back to my mother’s great-great grandmother on her maternal side and my father’s great grandparents on his maternal side.  To a fourth grader, individuals born over a century prior in the mid-1800s were very ancient indeed.

After the assignment was complete, I moved on to the rest of my academic requirements.  My mom, ever the pack rat, however, stored the tree away safely.  I came across it many years later while going through her safebox on a separate quest.  Tucked in with legal papers and birth certificates, there it was, neatly folded, and immaculately preserved. Staring at that drawing many years later, I realized there were a few branches that were fairly incomplete, my maternal grandfather’s, for instance.

It occurred to me that my work on that tree was not yet complete.

My grandfather was a quiet, Southern gentleman with an easy smile who always resisted being bombarded with questions about the past.  This, I suspect, stemmed in part from the fact that many memories held by black Americans who lived in that segregated part of the country under Jim Crow laws were, as they say, nothing to write home about. Of equal likelihood, though, is that special aspect of my grandfather’s charm: for him, being difficult was one of the simple pleasures in life.

I was caught off-guard when one day, upon being asked for at least the dozenth time over the prior 20 years who his parents were, Granddad actually opened up and started answering my questions.  Until then, my inquiries had merely been part of the game we played: I would ask, he would demur.  I recall hurriedly scrambling for pen and paper, realizing I had, however briefly, finally cracked the proverbial nut.

From that conversation, I learned Granddad’s parents’ names, as well as those of his paternal grandparents.  He also came clean and supplied the names and birth orders of all his siblings.  I regret to this day that through my lack of preparation for that talk, I failed to ask other key questions such as what life was like, how he and his siblings passed the time, how the family unit interacted, how he had met my grandmother and the ever vital whether my mother was truly the perfect angel she always claimed to be.

Now faced with the task of redrawing my tree, adding both depth and breadth, I realized that a better solution was in order than the classic grand Oak drafted on 8-1/2 x 11″ construction paper (Granddad had a lot of siblings).

Having pursued technology as a career, the obvious choice was to purchase a software application that would allow me to store my tree in electronic format and add onto it at will without having to redraw and reformat it each time as I gained more entries.  I went with what was then an early version of Family Tree Maker and a membership to Ancestry.com.

Much to my chagrin, however, my software didn’t actually integrate with the site in any sort of meaningful way.  The software did effectively capture my tree and I could use it to make regular entries and updates.

Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st Century and oh, how far we’ve come.  Later revisions of the Family Tree Maker software integrate fully with Ancestry.com.  The website, for its own part, now offers indexed record searches and access to an ever-increasing collection of historical records and documents.  It even steered me towards records of my both my father’s and brother’s military service, as well as the WWII draft record of a great-uncle.  It also searches on its own for you behind the scenes and adds record hints when it finds something it believes you should investigate.

Thanks to these capabilities, my tree now extends well back into the 17th century.  Were I to invest time in researching additional findings, it could reach back even further.

Consider the latest phase in Family tree research or as it now commonly known, Genealogy: widespread access to DNA testing and identification of population groups with which our ancestors can be associated.  DNA can be used to look back over hundreds or thousands of years to identify markers or mutations that when so employed, serves to indicate where our predecessors lived in the past and what their migration path out of Africa where our species originated might have been and over what course of time.

Genealogical testing companies generally offer one or more of three types of tests, Mitochondrial, Y-chromosome and autosomal.  Mitochondrial DNA provides information on the maternal line, i.e. one’s mother’s, mother’s…mother and so on.  It is passed from mother to child, both male and female, but is only passed from a mother to her child.

Y-Chromosome DNA tests can only be taken by males.  Such tests follow the paternal line, i.e. a son’s father’s, father’s…father, etc.  Y-chromosome DNA can, for example, be used to trace the family surname back through time.

Autosomal testing looks at the 22 non-gender pairs of chromosomes found in the nucleus of each cell.  Those chromosomes contain information passed down through time from all off our ancestors and therefore, essentially contains a complete record of our genetic history.  Autosomal testing can be used to provide information on ethnic makeup, i.e. what percentage of one’s DNA can be traced to what geographic regions at identifiable periods in time.  Based on sequences and mutations, autosomal DNA can also be used to identify relationships between individuals with various degrees of separation.

In addition to record searches, the Ancestry.com site attempts to match its AncestryDNA results, i.e. its autosomal test, with other site users to identify possible relationships.  While still in its Beta stage, this feature has the potential to connect researchers with other relatives whom they might not otherwise have come to know.

My genetic ethnicity results were of no surprise to me in terms of their composition, but the proportions themselves were mildly unexpected.  When looking at such results, it matters that one understands that ethnicity results are neither about race (a social construct not a scientific one) nor about nationality (geographic boundaries are physical not political).

While perusing the web, I often come across comments in which people essentially state, “My dad was half Irish and half Scottish while my mother was full British and the site says I’m 12% Scandinavian instead of 50% English and 25% each Scottish and Irish.”  Such comments are 1) based on the misconceptions that ethnicity obeys geo-political rules, 2) ignore population migration, and 3) falsely assume that any person is 100% anything.  Although we have been conditioned to think in such terms, it is self-defeating to take DNA tests for genealogical purposes and then reject them when they don’t conform  to such invalid conceptions.

Next up for me then is to pour through the matches that Ancestry found through my dna results and see if any represent or can supply information on family tree branches on which I am currently blocked or on individuals about whom my details are not yet complete; or as evidence might suggest, branches or leaves about which I have no prior knowledge.

Oh, the wonders of modern technology.

About PiperGirl

Animal lover, tree hugger, pilot, photographer, outdoorsman, sailor, bookworm, musician, scientist, philosopher, theologian, Renaissance woman.
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