Jul 052017

Discovering my Ethnicity via autosomal DNA testing

Taking myself and my sister as a pseudo case-study, I thought it might be interesting to compare the ethnicity estimates obtained through autosomal DNA testing at three different companies.  Note: This is not a detailed comparison of all the DNA-companies and all the features they offer.  Rather, I’ll only compare the origin or ethnicity profiles of three DNA tests.

Ancestry.com’s autosomal DNA Ethnicity Estimate

When I first received (back in 2014, I think) my Ancestry.com results, I had a mixed reaction: “Hmmm….” and “Oh wow, now I can celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.”

My ethnicity estimate from Ancestry.com

The “Hmmm…” came because I’ve been tracing my roots for a while (not including the 20 years my aunt spent before I started) and I’ve yet to find an Irish ancestor.  In fact, those ancestors I’ve traced back over the pond, all come from England and Scotland.  My major brick wall is John Wilkinson (born 1803 in Virginia, married to Nancy). The good folks at the Irish Genealogical Society have told me that he’s not likely to have been an Irishman.

Regardless, John and Nancy Wilkinson wouldn’t account for much of that 37% of Irishness. As my 3x great-grandparents, either one of them would only account for 3.3% of my DNA makeup.[1]

Over the last couple of years, Ancestry.com and genetic genealogy bloggers have started publishing answers to my mysterious Irish DNA conundrum. In We are all Irish according to Ancestry.com, Laurence A. Moran suggests that it’s perhaps more meaningful to think of Ancestry’s “Irish” ethnicity as “Celtic.” Ancestry.com’s AncestryDNA – The Irish Connection explains that “Irish” component of their ethnicity estimates simply means that the user shares genetic ancestry with individuals in their Irish reference panel, who possess “deep roots in Ireland going back several generations.”

In other words, an estimate is just that. An informed projection based on comparing DNA with other modern-day people. As Judy G. Russell explains in Those percentages, revisited, “Nobody is out there running around, digging up 500- or 1,000-year-old bones, extracting DNA for us to compare our own DNA to.”

Ancestry.com also points out that the map for Ireland ethnicity overlaps other close-by locations, such as Scotland. That’s a legitimate point. Irish genealogy specialists are quick to point out, that depending where you cross, Scotland and Ireland are only separated by 20 to 50 miles of water.

Ancestry.com’s DNA Result Enhancements

For a while, that was all the information Ancestry.com had for me.  But, to give full credit where credit is due, they keep improving the data their test results provide.  At the end of March 2017, they rolled out Genetic Communities which give greater insight into their ethnicity estimates.

Ancestry.com's ethnicity estimates of by way of genetic communitiesBecause I’m still in the process of understanding them myself, delving deeply in to them are beyond the scope of this post. That said, it is striking how much more information these genetic communities give than their standard pie-chart. I’m sure I’ll spend many happy hours delving into these communities, as well as my DNA-circles.  These are groups of DNA cousins that have identified common ancestors.  (You do need to upload a family tree for this to work.) Curiously, all seven of my DNA-circles stem from my mother’s side of the family.

Family Tree Autosomal DNA “Origins”

I decided to do a little more testing and cousin baiting through Family Tree DNA. Driven more by spontaneity than scientific method, I decided to gift this test kit to my sister, who, in theory, shares 50% of my DNA.  I thought using her spittle might widen the cousin-catching net.

It has. Because each company has their own database of potential matches, her DNA test has yielded different DNA-cousins than Ancestry.com’s matches.

Ethnicity Estimates or Origins per Family Tree DNA

While their “Origins Profile” of 93% British Isles is vague enough not to be confusing, it is, um, well, vague.  (I should note that their “ancient origins” profile, something else beyond the scope of this post, is pretty cool.)

Living Autosomal DNA Ethnicity Estimates

Several fellow genealogists encouraged me to try testing at Living-DNA, a lesser-known (at least in my neck of the woods) company which promises greater origin detail for those of us with European ancestry. Read more about the company Roberta Estes’ LivingDNA Product Review.

Opening my results, I wasn’t a bit surprised to see 92.8% European. (However, the 6+% of Asian DNA did surprise me.)

Living DNA European Ethnicity Estimates Overview

Living DNA European Ethnicity Estimate Overview

No big revelations, until I kept clicking on the little plus sign. Pay dirt. Living DNA lived up to their promise of a more detailed ethnicity estimate.

Detailed British Isles Ethnicity Estimate per Living DNA

Detailed British Isles Ethnicity Estimates per Living DNA

Though I’ve yet to compare the places my known ancestors lived with these results. However, glancing over them and remembering the Ancestral places I had on my 2016 UK visit bucket list, I see a lot of correlation.

However, the comparison raises questions as well. While Ancestry puts my Scandinavian DNA at 24%, LivingDNA reports 6%. Hmmm.

The Take-Aways

  1. The better you understand the technology and protocols each testing company uses, the more meaningful your results will be.
  2. Like everything else in family history, you’ll want multiple sources. And, one source will often lead you to the next. For instance, it wasn’t until I knew that approximately 90% of my DNA origins were from the Europe that I realized that testing at Living DNA was a logical next step.
  3. Depending on your purposes and what you already know about your ancestry, one test might be preferable for you.  In other words, don’t choose which test you take based on price alone. (I found Roberta Estes’ Which DNA Test is Best helpful. Nanalyze’s AncestryDNA vs 23andMe vs FamilyTreeDNA vs Living DNA is also interesting and entertaining.)
  4. Uploading your family tree will greatly increase your odds of finding DNA cousins, and with Ancestry.com, the more information you upload, the better your chances of identifying DNA-circles.
  5. DNA testing lets the genie out of the bottle in a multitude of ways. It can be a lot like Lay’s potato chips. The more you learn about genetic genealogy, the more you’ll understand from these tests.  You can’t learn just one fact. Genetic genealogy is a fascinating field that will draw you in. You’ll definitely want to look into other tools like GedMatch.com.
  6. I’m not 37% Irish.

[1] Degrees of Relations and the Number of Genes Share, http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com~laetoli/degree.html


Jun 302017

Most of us believe that family stories matter, but we’re hard put to explain why. Here’s what I came up with.Why Family Stories Matter

Family is more than the DNA in our cells, more than our biological relatedness. Family is a story in itself—a tale of where we came from. It includes what roads we traveled, what obstacles we faced, and who kept us safe and sane along the way. Family is built on our common experiences, both those that transpired over centuries and those that took place during a singular hot, miserable fourteen-hour trip in the back of a unairconditioned station wagon. It’s the recipes we’ve learned, elbow to elbow as Stacy Troilo likes to say. The bumps, bruises, heartache, healing, and loving that we shared. Sometimes it’s even the what-might-have-been.

Knowing (and Understanding) Family Stories Matter

In his 2013 The Family Stories that Bind Us New York Times article, Bruce Feiler reported an astounding finding. Investigating how to raise happy children, he concluded, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Research shows that children who know their family stories tended to have more resilience.

When you think about how the brain digests stories differently than it processes facts, it makes sense that family stories matter to a child’s development. Stories connect us to characters. That’s doubly powerful when the “characters” are family members. Though thinking of a little train saying, “I think I can, I think I can” is great, knowing Uncle Joe overcame incredible odds is more inspiring.

My maternal grandmother came from a background that could have easily produced a resentful, bitter person. That would have been a normal and sane response to poverty and abandonment. Knowing that and having known the depth of her generous, loving and positive personality through her stories, make the word inspiring seem like faint praise.

Her past—her story—shores me up when I feel slighted. I realize that I too can rise above ugliness and not let it change me. Not to mention that the slights I face don’t even compare to what she faced.  Perspective is a good thing.

I also think of my dear friend John. His grandparents raised him. He had little contact with his mother and never met his father. For him, “family history” is place of rootlessness. I’m not saying he’s not resilient. He is. However, I do think it’s come at a higher price for him.

I also think of hearing LeVar Burton speak at RootsTech last February. He stressed that everyone needs to know where they came from to make their own story complete.

The Telling of Family Stories Matters

A storyteller and an audience comprise a dialogue, a conversation. Family storytelling goes far beyond an entertaining rendition of past events, because our telling, like our stories, has a rich subtext.

Family storytellers aren’t motivated by a need to sit on center stage and enjoy the limelight. They have a need to connect. A desire to comfort and commiserate and celebrate when they’re not physically present.  The nurturing you tacitly express by storytelling is part of your story. Your listeners or readers get that. That’s part of a bond.

A story of getting in trouble for playing hooky from school, for example, tells your reader (or listener) that you didn’t start off perfect. That you’ve been in someone’s ill favor. Perhaps most importantly, you’re explaining that when it happens to them, it’s not going to be the end of the world.

Family Stories: Meant for Sharing

Paul Tritschler articulates it elegantly.

“We don’t become any less by sharing. Stories are part of the fabric of who we are, but only in sharing our life experiences do we develop a sense of self. … Stories cultivate the frequently forgotten yet uniquely human traits that are crucial in building solidarity.”

When I was expecting my second, I tried to stave off any growing feelings of resentment that might be stirring in my eldest son’s belly against the child growing in mine. My go-to exercise was what I called the “love candle.” The love candle was a glass dish filled with wax and three wicks.

Love candle illustrates sharing family stories After lighting the first wick, I’d turn of the lights and explain how lighting the other two wicks (him and his sibling-to-be) didn’t diminish the first flame. As three, they burned brighter. I hoped he’d get how our growing family would only brighten the light of love in our house.

At two, he may not have fully digested my metaphor. He could count to three and thought three people were enough of a family.

You, on the other hand, have realized that the love candle metaphor works for our family stories. Sharing them not only increases the illumination for the hearer. It spreads the connections, ones that can continue to burn even after our own flame is extinguished.

Jun 162017

In her ongoing Remember the Descendants blog party, Elizabeth O’Neal asks family historians how they plan to preserve genealogical research for future generations.

Remember the Descendants empty page

Don’t leave a blank page. Remember the descendants in your family tree by preserving genealogical information

The question is well-put for all memoirists and family storytellers. We’re creating a legacy. Even if you don’t know much about your family’s genealogy, preserving what you do know is important.

Preserving Roots, Not Just Branches

Knowing where you came from matters. We hear stories, again and again, about how knowing one’s roots has made a difference. LeVar Burton had a particularly poignant one. I have a couple of my own, which you’ll find peppered throughout this blog.

The Global Family Reunion party I hosted two years ago also brought this home. Though few of the attendees were hard core (or even light core, for that matter) family historians, most showed up with a precious stack of papers, notebook, or chart that Aunt So-and-so had put together years ago. My friend Judy had a single sheet of paper with what her father, then 93, could remember about family names and places.

These unremarkable-looking treasures were heirlooms which connected them to their roots.

Including Family History in Your Legacy of Stories

There are a multitude of ways to preserve that you know about your family’s genealogy. Below are just a few ideas.


You can look at the tutorials on this site or create your own design. Almost every craft store has family tree or family history pages and layouts. When you need inspiration, Stacy Julian’s “a very fruitful tree” site is packed full of great ideas that merge scrapbooking and storytelling. I’ve also pinned quite a few layouts on my Scrapbooking Pinterest board.

Family Bible or Holy Book

Writing names and birth and death dates was a tradition born of necessity before the advent of hospital births and birth certificates. Wouldn’t continuing to honor this tradition make a wonderful gift? Whether it’s a new Bible you purchase for a young person or using your best penmanship (or even a calligraphy pen) to preserve information in your aunt’s dog-eared tome, loved ones will appreciate it.

Remember the Descendants by Writing a Family History Book

You don’t have to have a file cabinet full of genealogical information to start thinking about compiling a family history book. This allows you to combine the stories with the facts. (Hmm. I feel a blog series coming on.)

Digitizing Old Films so the Whole Family Can Enjoy Them

box of memories in the closetDisclosure: I represent Legacy Republic (affiliate link), a company that does just that. It’s not simply a matter of preserving old VHS tapes that are degrading to put them back in the same closet in another, albeit longer-lasting, format. You can remember the descendants by making your past accessible to them and sharing it with them. Those old photo albums and 8mm films can work as story prompts.


Journaling isn’t what it used to be when I wrote in my diary in high school. Or at least, it’s not necessarily that.  Though it can be the portal through which you dump your deepest and most embarrassing thoughts, journals also make a great way to preserve memories, stories, and love for the next generation.  Pinterest, of course, makes a great source of inspiration.  But keep in mind, it doesn’t have to look like Martha Stewart’s staff put it together for it to connect.  My grandmother’s journal was barely legible (I’m not endorsing that, mind you), but we love it immensely.

Need more Ideas?

Below are just a few posts in which family history and storytelling intersect.

 Your Turn:

How do plan to preserve genealogical information for your descendants? Leave me a comment or join in Elizabeth’s Remember the Descendants Blog Party (open through June 2017).


Feb 212017

A keynote speaker at RootsTech’s first-ever African Heritage Day, LeVar Burton taught us about storytelling and reaching hearts and minds. By the end, he also had us all reaching for tissues.

LeVar Burton Taught Us about storytelling

During his keynote address at RootsTech, LeVar Burton taught us about storytelling. Photo courtesy of Edgar Gomez

This isn’t another report on my fabulous time at the RootsTech genealogy conference. It’s a testimony on how great storytelling can change perspectives. I just hope I can do it justice. Continue reading »

Feb 172017

Research isn’t what genealogy is all about. It’s about understanding your roots. Knowing where you came from is part of your story. What makes you uniquely you.

Understanding your roots graphic

Understanding your roots, however you feel about your ancestors’ decisions, matters to understanding your own story.

Sometimes, though, we don’t like the facts we find. (See Facing Ancestors’ Pasts & Not Liking What We See) We’re tempted to ignore them, make light of them, or re-frame them.  The problem is, none of that breeds understanding.

I recently attended a lecture on telling ancestors’ stories. I found myself stopped short when I heard the speaker say, “We must be proud of our roots.” Although he was trying to make the point that ancestors’ stories can invoke family pride, he lost me. My brain was screaming, “Oh, no, we don’t.” If I limited my ancestors’ stories to those I could be proud of, I’d leave a bunch of folks out. Continue reading »

Feb 022017
Divided households picture of torn photo of house

Does your family story include issues which divided households?

Throughout time, people have disagreed with the people they love. Issues of childrearing, money, faith, culture, religious practices and politics have, on occasion, divided households and hardened hearts. You might immediately think of the present political environment, but this isn’t the first time in history that issues have created emotional schisms among family members and friends

Sometimes, if the animosity has been put to rest, it’s best to leave the story alone like the proverbial sleeping dog. There’s nothing to be gained from revisiting and possibly re-igniting tensions. Continue reading »

Jul 292016
Fears our Ancestors faced in the Dance of Death

The “Dance of Death” stained glass windows in the Bern, Switzerland Munster give a graphic illustration of the fears our ancestors faced.

Understanding the fears our ancestors faced can help us understand their lives. That, in turn, can help us tell their stories. Although it’s hard to know from the meager records we unearth whether an ancestor was an introvert or adventurer, we can form some theories based on historical context. We can also get a better grasp on their everyday lives. Continue reading »

Feb 232016
Misrepresenting the past and preventing myths

How do keep those myths at bay? How do you avoid misrepresenting the past?

How do we avoid or minimize the risk of  misrepresenting the past as we tell our own and family stories? What exactly is our burden of due diligence when it comes to determining the accuracy of our narratives?

This isn’t my normal soap box about truth versus accuracy. Or at least not entirely. The truth of our experience often comes down to our unique memory of it. Our memory is our truth whether or not a sibling thinks it was a Pepsi and not a Coke. We’re not talking about that type of accuracy.

Can we avoid misrepresenting the past?

Continue reading »

Feb 042016

Stories of the heart - heart specialists We all knew that I think that stories of the heart are the future of family history, but I have some good company. Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch International emphasized that in his opening keynote for Rootstech.

Serious genealogists made up the majority of the 12,000 in-person audience. (Estimates including online audience range up to 125,000.) “To get and keep non-genealogists’ attention,” Rockwell explained, “you have to focus on the person, not records.” He also emphasized that stories need to be short and meaningful–stories of the heart. Continue reading »

Nov 232015
National Day of Listening Logo

The National Day of Listening encourages us to “Ask Great Questions. Share Great Stories.”

The day after Thanksgiving has its own traditions. Leftover day. Get out the Christmas Decorations Day (my house). The ironic Black Friday.

It’s also StoryCorps’ National Day of Listening. Unlike Black Friday, when we’re encouraged to eschew all our thankfulness and contentedness, the National Day of Listening nurtures the feelings of gratitude.

Suggestions for National Day of Listening

For StoryCorps, listening is only the first step of the National Day of Listening. They also encourage participants to record and upload interviews to share with family and friends and StoryCorps followers. Continue reading »