Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree

Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree

by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, Ann Turner


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Written by two of the country's top genealogists, this is the first book to explain how new and groundbreaking genetic testing can help you research your ancestry

According to American Demographics, 113 million Americans have begun to trace their roots, making genealogy the second most popular hobby in the country (after gardening). Enthusiasts clamor for new information from dozens of subscription-based websites, email newsletters, and magazines devoted to the subject. For these eager roots-seekers looking to take their searches to the next level, DNA testing is the answer.

After a brief introduction to genealogy and genetics fundamentals, the authors explain the types of available testing, what kind of information the tests can provide, how to interpret the results, and how the tests work (it doesn't involve digging up your dead relatives). It's in expensive, easy to do, and the results are accurate: It's as simple as swabbing the inside of your cheek and popping a sample in the mail.

Family lore has it that a branch of our family emigrated to Argentina and now I've found some people there with our name. Can testing tell us whether we're from the same family?

My mother was adopted and doesn't know her ethnicity. Are there any tests available to help her learn about her heritage? I just discovered someone else with my highly unusual surname. How can we find out if we have a common ancestor? These are just a few of the types of genealogical scenarios readers can pursue. The authors reveal exactly what is possible-and what is not possible-with genetic testing. They include case studies of both famous historial mysteries and examples of ordinary folks whose exploration of genetic genealogy has enabled them to trace their roots.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594860065
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 10/28/2004
Edition description: REV
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 775,864
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Megan Smolenyak has been an avid genealogist for more than three decades and is an expert at family history research. The lead researcher for the PBS Ancestors series, she is a contributing editor for Heritage Quest and the author of Honoring Our Ancestors, In Search of Our Ancestors, and They Came to America. She currently resides in Williamsburg, VA.

Ann Turner was hooked on genealogy when she learned that her parents' ancestors had arrived in the United States on the same ship yet went their separate ways until her parents met 300 years later. She works at home, writing computer software and composing messages for the popular Genealogy-DNA mailing list. She currently resides in Menlo Park, California.

Read an Excerpt

Part 1

The Fundamentals


If You're New to Genealogy

Just by picking up this book, you've revealed that you're curious about your roots. And if you're curious about your roots, you're in good company! Millions of people are digging into the past, and the good news is that it's easier today than ever before. In fact, we tend to tell so-called newbies that they were smart to wait! One of us has been researching her family for 33 years and has learned more in the past 8 years than in the first quarter of a century.

This is largely because of the impressive and ever-growing collection of online and other resources. In fact, we recently conducted an experiment involving 33 popular genealogical resources. When we inspected the list, we discovered that 11 of them were not available a decade ago (such as,, and the 1930 U.S. census released in 2002) and 22 of them existed, but were less accessible (such as resources now searchable at, the Social Security Death Index, which conveniently lists most Americans who have died since 1962, and every name indexes for the 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1930 U.S. census). Just 10 years ago, the notion of being able to search fully indexed and digitized records at home in your pj's was a wild fantasy. But it's reality now, and like good 21st-century citizens, we already take this previously unimaginable ability for granted!

If you're new to the game of family history research, we invite you to spend a little time with us as we cover the basics. You may be anxious to jump right into DNA testing, but a bit of genealogical effort invested upfront will ensure that you won't find yourself staring at a report with a bunch of numbers and scratching your head. Your venture into genetealogy will be much more fruitful if you learn some ABCs. Even if you're an old pro, you may wish to consider giving this chapter a skim to acquaint yourself with some genealogical nuances as they pertain to DNA testing.

Thousands of books and millions of Web sites are devoted to family history, so we won't go into great depth (although you'll be able to find more resources in Appendix A). Rather, we'll share enough to help you avoid the most common pitfalls that even seasoned roots-seekers occasionally fall prey to. Developing a few good habits early can save you days, weeks, and even months of frustration, so we'll start with some useful guidelines.


We know. You want to get a running start. You want to jump on the Internet or dash out to the nearest library or archive to find everything you can on your family. So don't hate us for telling you that you need to start at home.

Surfing the Internet is so easy—and on the surface—so gratifying, but it's apt to be a time-waster if you haven't done your groundwork. If you have a common name, you'll find yourself overwhelmed with the millions of sites that might shelter tidbits about your family. And even if your name is somewhat unusual, you'll probably be startled by how many hits you get when you type it in. A search on the borderline freakish name of Smolenyak will serve up almost 1,500 listings to wade through, so heaven help you if your name is Van Aalst (20,000+), Smithson (175,000+), Pennington (1 million+), or Nichols (2.4 million+)! Maybe there aren't a lot of people with your name in your town, but there are a lot on the planet, and researching or contacting them all is an inefficient method of learning about the ones in your family tree.

And while conducting on-site research in records repositories should definitely be on your genealogical to-do list, it's best to look first for the treasures that may be lurking in your closets, drawers, basements, and attics—and especially the minds of your older relatives. Many a genealogist has been chagrined to finally discover an elusive maiden name, birth date, or village of origin after a year of research, only to find this same information in a suitcase of old papers tucked into the corner of their own cellar. And there's nothing quite as deflating as calling your great-aunt Mildred to announce your latest discovery only to have her reply, "I could have told you that."

To give you a feel of what you're looking for when you play detective in your own home (or maybe your parents', if they'll let you), here are a few items that are the equivalent of genealogical gold:

Birth, marriage, and death certificates

Newspaper clippings including obituaries and wedding and anniversary announcements

Naturalization and citizenship papers, including passports and visas

Religious records (baptismal, Bar Mitzvah)

Family bible

Letters and addressed envelopes

Diaries and journals

Photo albums

Any other documents pertaining to your ancestors (military, school, occupational, business, land, legal)

Heirlooms such as engraved items, samplers, and quilts

And if there's anyone in the family your age or older (and by family, we mean even that second cousin who lives in Denver whom you haven't seen since your sister's wedding back in 1984), pick up the phone! Not next week or next month—today! Talk with them immediately, if only to arrange a time to meet or call to learn more. Do not allow yourself to become one of the millions who bemoan the fact that they didn't ask questions when their parents/grandparents/aunts/uncles/cousins were still alive. If you were to eavesdrop at a genealogical conference or research venue, you'd be amazed how many times you'd hear comments starting with "If only I had . . ."

Draw up an initial list of questions you'd like answered, and be sure to ask about anyone else they think you should contact. Virtually every family has an avid genealogist, and you can be sure that older family members will know who that person is because they will have already spoken with him. Canvassing the relatives like this will turn up countless details that may not have trickled down your direct line. Your mother may not know that her grandmother had the maiden name of Doran, but there's a reasonable chance that one of her cousins does.


Yes, we've just asked you to contact your assorted kinfolk and pummel them with questions, but that doesn't mean you have to accept everything they say as fact. We know this in everyday life, but for some reason, we seem to forget this when it comes to our family history. Because we obtain much of this information from relatives—and everyone knows that Great-aunt Tillie never lies—our family lore takes on the veneer of absolute truth. Many of us will accept oral tradition over the documented paper trail.

How many of us, for instance, have a family legend about our names being changed at Ellis Island? Great-grandpa couldn't speak English and had a difficult time communicating, so the inspectors listed him with the same name as the fellow in line before him. Or the immigration officials couldn't pronounce the surname, so they lopped off the last syllable or two. The reality is that the manifests were created overseas, and the officials here—assisted by translators who spoke all the languages of the immigrants—did their best to confirm the details. If a name was changed, it was almost always because the immigrant wanted it changed, and it usually happened after he walked the halls of Ellis Island. But try telling that to someone who heard the tale from Grandma.

No matter how sincere the intentions of the storyteller, chances are that a little distortion has crept in over the years. Through a combination of misunderstanding, forgetfulness, embellishment, and deliberate twisting, family lore morphs over the generations. Inevitably, there's a kernel of truth—and sometimes 95 percent will be accurate—but routinely accepting all family folklore as fact will usually throw off your research. Blinded by the tale, we get locked into a paradigm that prevents us from discovering the reality.

And don't think it's necessarily accurate just because it's in black and white. Documents contain errors too—plenty of them. For example, one of our grandfather's birth certificates listed Greece as the birthplace of his mother. After several years had been squandered trying to find the elusive Greek great-grandmother, it was discovered that she had emigrated from Poland. How could Greece and Poland be muddled? She was of the Greek Catholic faith, and her religion and nationality had been confused on the certificate.

This doesn't mean you should ignore the family stories and discount everything you find—or that you're excused from interviewing your relatives! But it does mean that you should examine every piece of information with a critical eye. Think of each family tale as a hypothesis you can prove or disprove through your research—maybe even through DNA testing.


Now that you've learned all these wonderful details (not to mention that story you had never heard about the time your grandmother got angry at her sister and cut off only one of her pigtails) don't let it escape! Most of us know that our memories aren't foolproof, but we sometimes give ourselves too much credit for remembering anecdotes and details. "This is such an outrageous tale," we think, "there's no way I could ever forget it." Oh, yes you can.

In the late 1980s, one of us was smart enough to sit her grandmother down for an audiotaped interview. Nana was 90 years old at the time, but in surprisingly good health. The focus of the interview was to get her to recount all the standard family stories she had told through the years—the time she literally ran into J. P. Morgan in New York City (and he had been charmed because she was such a pretty young thing), the relative who went across the Oregon Trail at the age of 18 and pregnant, the grandfather with wanderlust who used to sail back to Ireland without warning whenever the mood struck him, and so forth. Sadly, Nana passed away a mere 3 months later. And while the "if only I had . . ." self-torment had been narrowly avoided, it was amazing how much of the content of the tape had vanished from memory before listening to it again a few years later—in spite of the fact that these were the tales we had been raised on, the ones that were almost annoying in their repetition.

So even if you have a remarkable memory and are noted for your instant recall of names, dates, and figures, please record your findings. Fortunately, this is easy to do with just a few simple tools. All that's necessary is to familiarize yourself with a handful of basic genealogical forms that will help you systematically organize all the information you're uncovering. Better yet, if you're computer literate, invest a small sum in software (most are less than $100), or use an online family tree—building tool (some are free) to help you capture all the details. Using such software, you can enter the information once and automatically generate all the different reports you need. Most of these packages also include notes features, which allow you to record all those stories you've been told. Appendix A provides resources for forms and software.


While there are a variety of standard genealogical forms, two types of charts will be especially helpful in your quest to understand and learn about your genetic roots. (See Appendix A to learn more.) These are the pedigree or ancestral chart (a form showing the direct-line ancestors of a particular individual) and the descendancy chart or descendant tree (a chart in which a selected ancestor appears at the top, and all his descendants are situated in successive generations in rows below him).


Figure 1-1 shows a portion of the pedigree or ancestral chart for Petrus Smolenyak. Starting from the first box on the left, we find facts about his birth, death, and marriage. Shifting our attention to the middle section, we can discover details about his parents. Moving right once more, we find boxes with information about his grandparents. This is a typical ancestral chart, although we've abbreviated the one here to three generations to make it easy to view. We should also point out that pedigrees are sometimes presented in a vertical arrangement. (You can skip ahead to Figure 2-1 in Chapter 2 for a moment if you'd like to see an example.)

Pedigrees are helpful in genetic genealogy because they make it easier to understand and explain how particular DNA tests function in the world of family history. Some people mistakenly believe that taking a DNA test will magically reveal everything they've ever wanted to know about their roots, but the most popular tests, Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), only answer questions about a portion of your family tree.

While we'll be exploring all of this in great detail in the coming chapters, we'd like to quickly point out that Y-chromosome testing essentially maps the top line of your pedigree (as can be seen in the dotted arrow heading toward the upper right in Figure 1-1). In a genealogical sense, this is very convenient because it corresponds to the surname associated with this uppermost line. This also means, however, that taking a Y-chromosome test will only answer questions pertaining to this particular surname or paternal branch of your family tree.

Similarly, mtDNA testing maps the bottom line of the same chart (as can be seen in the dotted line pointed toward the lower right in the same illustration). Unfortunately, the surname represented is not consistent since women in most cultures have traditionally taken their husband's name upon marriage. In this illustration, for instance, we see a Smolenyak child with a Homza mother and a Vascura maternal grandmother—three surnames in three generations. So mtDNA testing does not provide the same built-in convenience of a DNA-surname match that Y-DNA testing does, but it can shed light on the maternal branch of your family tree.


The other type of chart that's especially useful for genetealogy is the descendancy chart or descendant tree, as seen in Figure 1-2. In this case, we are able to see descendants of the focus individual (often referred to as the ancestor of interest), Joannes Smolenyak, displayed generation by generation underneath him. While such charts are a staple in all genealogical research, they are used with great frequency for DNA purposes because of their value in illustrating the path of a given DNA line.

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