Fact Checking

Parents spend a good portion of their parenting time ferreting out the real story from their children. One time when Henry was in Kindergarten he was playing outside with another little boy. I was in and out of the house watching him and checking on other things. Hours later I noticed that his bike had been spray-painted black. When confronted, he claimed he had no idea how such a thing could have happened. Unfortunately, I jumped to conclusions and blamed the other kid (you have to give me credit, at six Henry was such a good boy and had such an angelic face with his blue blue eyes and blonde blonde hair). But as I was on the phone with my husband telling him about the issue I looked over at Henry and I saw it- that guilty look and my stomach sank, recalling the things I had said to the other boy’s mom. “I’ll have to call you back,” I told my husband. 

As genealogists, we spend our time trying to ferret out the real story from our ancestors, or at least from the records they left behind, because they’re not sitting in front of us with guilty looks on their faces. We are constantly checking family stories against, say, the information on a census record, then comparing it to the family will, then making sure it all agrees with what’s in the military records. And even if we have total agreement, which isn’t always, more information often comes along, like in the form of DNA testing, and we may find even more apparent discrepancies.  

I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a reporter, Cameron McWhirter, who talks about finding just that kind of discrepancy between his family lore and his DNA. He even goes so far as to say, “I am descended, at least partially, from liars.” And he makes the point that “many immigrants reinvented themselves when they arrived here (the United States),” which could be a nice way of saying they had a chance to INVENT a new legacy, not just reinvent it. His assessments are certainly interesting, and worth reviewing, to help us see how DNA testing can affect the way we look at family stories and traditional research results. 

McWhirter may be the classic modern genealogist, never having set foot inside a courthouse or scanned through microfiche, relying instead entirely, he reports, on internet research.  Now before you roll your eyes, just stop for a minute and appreciate how exciting this is. Here is a man who never gave his family history a second thought, yet because of the death of his parents started to tinker around a bit, and then due to the large volume of information online “was quickly pulled into the obsessive world of modern genealogical research.” I say, score one for the genealogy world! 

What he found was that while his dad was proudly and solidly a self-proclaimed Scot, the records and DNA revealed his heritage was actually from Ireland and eastern Europe. McWhirter says that his “father hated Notre Dame, but judging by my results he could have been one-quarter to one-half Irish. He spoke dismissively of people from Eastern Europe, but part of his genetic code likely came from that region.” 

McWhirter’s evaluation of his genetic report includes only his ethnicity results, which as you can hear, were meaningful to him in the way they flew in the face of his father’s prejudices and assertions of his own identity. But the ethnicity results fall short of the point of testing for most genealogists. He might even more powerfully transform his sense of family identity if he took a look at his match list and saw an actual living cousin, for example, a third cousin perhaps who was also descended from his German great-grandmother, who maybe never mentioned that she was also Jewish. 

Connecting with other cousins who also have paper trails to our ancestors serves to provide further confidence that we have put all of the pieces together and honored the right ancestor with a spot on our pedigree chart. It’s like we multiply our own research efforts by finding more people like us—literally—who are descended from the same people and interested in finding them. As long as they’re as diligent in their research as we are, of course. 

At a recent conference I met a 5th cousin. Even with a connection that distant it was exciting, and it made we want to look again at our connecting ancestors and pause for just a minute to marvel how my DNA verified my paper trail back to them, and that part of them was around, in me, and in my new cousin. To me, THAT’s a bigger picture I want to see—when the paper trail comes together with the DNA trail and turns into real live cousins, even if they turn out to be a little different than the stories and sense of identity that were handed to us when we were young. 

Originally posted on October 2016 on genealogygems.com.

Diahan SouthardComment