#15: I Took Ancestry’s DNA Test. Here’s What I Discovered.

Episode Transcript

(This is an auto-generated transcript. There may be errors.)

Like many people, Americans, especially I have been chasing down my ancestral roots for several years. I’ve already recorded one episode on this topic. Number five from Ireland to America, if you haven’t already listened to it, but this episode is a little bit different. It’s about taking that one step further.

Ancestry.com the most famous and most well-funded genealogical research, right. At least available to the public. Is a treasure trove of information that millions of people, myself included have used to do initial research on your family tree, creating a family tree oftentimes is an exercise in frustration and seems like a pointless endeavor.

Sorting through paper records from a variety of sources, such as court documents, marriage records, baptismal certificates, birth certificates, and more can really be boring and sometimes inexact and even misleading. As I mentioned in my previous episode about ancestry, there is so much bad information out there when it comes to researching your own family tree.

This is never more apparent than when you sign up for an account on ancestry.com. If you find a living family member who has also done some genealogical research, you’ll notice very quickly that if you compare your family tree with their family tree, there will be different records.

Even though you both might claim the same people as part of your family tree. A lot of times there are many discrepancies on birth dates, death dates, middle names, where people were married when they were married. And other little things that aren’t that annoying at first, but really start to add up over time where you’ll eventually kind of throw up your hands in the air and say, don’t know.

And neither does anyone else. Ah, what’s true. What’s not true. Is this person named Johnny the same Johnny as this person over here? If so, why do all the records match except for the marriage record? So it looks like this Johnny is married to a woman named Jane and this Johnny is married to a woman named Joanne.

And yet none of us have a record of that. Johnny being married twice. What is going on here? The simple answer to this is hiring a professional genealogist and spending lots of money. Like I did putting together a comprehensive research project wherein we didn’t add a single family member to the family tree until we had already verified that data with other reliable sources.

This can make the process painstakingly, slow and tedious, but it also gives you the confidence that when you look at your family tree, whoever’s in there, you’re as sure as you can be that they belong there. But the problem is the further up that tree you go, this system starts to break down because records get bad or become non-existent.

I imagine that it’s kind of like archeology, where if you ask an archeologist. On this soil that I’m standing on right here. What civilization lived here 50 years ago? Well, that would almost seem like a silly question to ask because the civilization that lived there 50 years ago is probably the same one that lives here now.

But then the further you dig, if you start to ask, okay, well, what about a hundred years ago? What about 200 years ago? How about 500 years ago? A thousand years, the further back in time, you go, the harder it’s going to be with accuracy and certainty to paint a picture of who were the people who lived here.

And what did that look like? How did they live? What did they do? What were their names? Eventually at some point you’re basically making an educated guess. The same thing happens when you start digging through your family records. Obviously I know who I am and I know who my dad is, and I know who my grandpa is.

But once you start going past that, I don’t really know who my great-grandpa was, cause I never met him. And what about his dad and his dad? Once you start getting into the great, great, great. And the great, great, great greats. It all becomes fuzzy and unreliable. So tracking down any purported family member that was born and lived perhaps 100 or even 200 years ago, it’s going to be really hard to track that down based on records.

So what do you do about that? Well, here’s an idea about it. 2019, I hired a professional genealogist called Tom Duncan. with a company called the attic genealogy research. He’s the one who helped me do all the original foundational discovery work. And fact-finding for my trip to Pennsylvania, where I went to see if I could find the final resting places of my Irish ancestors.

And while we were successful in achieving one major goal, we did locate the burial place of my first generation immigrant ancestors. I couldn’t claim victory for the big picture, which was figuring out where they came from. I wanted more details than just nations. I want to find out where specifically did my family live before coming to America.

What city, state County, province, kingdom, whatever they had back then, what was it called then? What is it called now? And can I go visit. This whole process was kind of frustrating because it kind of seemed like the people who came here from other countries, we might as well say they came from outer space.

They had no lives previous to coming here. No records exist, and nobody knows where they came from. They just dropped here one day. And then Wella they’re Americans. Now you too family oral tradition. I had heard that the Irish Catholic part of my dad’s side of the family. Came, obviously from Ireland and ended up in the coal mining region of Pennsylvania places like Allentown, Mount Carmel, Northumberland County, et cetera.

I was also familiar with the story that the German side of our family were Mennonites, who came originally from Switzerland and ended up in places like Hanover, Hatfield, Lancaster, also in Pennsylvania. I’d been told that my mom’s dad’s family came from Germany and my mom’s mom’s family came from Scotland.

But again, that’s it, no information about States or provinces or Dutchies or kingdoms or cities. Why was it so impossible to get this kind of information? It turns out this is actually a very common challenge for Americans whose ancestors came to this continent from Europe.

Once we know they made it to America. We can easily find information such as who they married, where they lived. What property they purchased, where they went to school, where they were born, where they died, where they’re buried, how many kids, they had lots of data from census records, birth records, death records, health departments.

It’s all available here in the USA for the most part. But when you try to go further back, you hit a brick wall. Part of this reason is because a lot of times when European immigrants in particular came to America on steam ships, as the records keepers were filling out their shipping manifests, which listed the name of everybody on the ship, they only ever asked what country the immigrant was from.

For whatever reason, they didn’t feel it was relevant to say from Italy. Okay. Where in Italy? No for the most part records and places like Ellis Island and other various steamship records typically just say Italy, Germany, France, Russia, that’s it? Yeah. You might think as I did, aha. I have a solution. Where did the boat leave from?

Just trace the boat back from New York city or wherever else. They landed to its point of origin and figure it out that way clever, but it doesn’t work. Because a lot of times, many people poorer immigrants especially would have made a long Trek from, let’s say a small poorer village out in the middle of nowhere to try to get to the big metropolitan port city that actually had a ship big enough to go to the USA.

So for example, we’re suspecting that some of my Irish family members came to America originally from County Donegal, or perhaps slightly lower in Sligo. But it could very well be that the nearest place they could hitch a ride on a ship. Big enough to go from Ireland to America was cork. So if you only use shipping records and had no additional information, you might assume that your family came from cork or somewhere near there, but you could be completely wrong because cork is nearly 400 kilometers South of Donegal.

You would be way, way off. My biggest goal in this geological research project had always been to find out exactly where in Europe it was that the people who have my family name. Came from before they got to American shores. I wanted to know which neighborhoods, which streets did they walk down?

Which churches did they attend? Which rivers did they swim or fish in? If I figure that out, I can go visit those places. A lot of those places are very old, but they haven’t changed much. So you can walk down the streets of a European city. That’s 200, 300, even 500 years old and get a basic idea of wow.

This is where my family came from. And this is kind of what it looked like back then. Of course, this is not always true, but there’s certainly a higher likelihood of that happening over there than there would be in say America where we think anything that’s a hundred years old or older is absolutely ancient.

So as I built out my family tree, Just like Tom, the genealogist had suspected when we used ancestry.com and some other genealogical tools, we were completely befuddled and didn’t get a single answer to any of those questions, to the exact point of origin. Enter ancestry DNA, DNA testing has obviously become something that we are familiar with.

And we talk about as normal folks in regular American society, which is actually really weird because the technology that it takes is unbelievably complex and expensive and totally groundbreaking, really brand new. Taking your own DNA to get sequenced is a really big step. It’s a big leap of faith, and it requires a lot of trust in large companies because you are potentially you’re reversibly putting your digital body print, not just a fingerprint, but a body print online.

In some computer in a warehouse somewhere that you have no control over. There are lots of people who think it’s a privacy disaster and there will be all kinds of unintended consequences and data breaches. And maybe hackers will try and steal that data who knows. Actually a lot of those concerns I think are very well founded, but.

If you want answers to questions, sometimes you might find yourself stuck in a quandary where you have to ask yourself, well, there’s a door in front of me. I can’t move forward until I opened that door. There might be nothing behind it, but I’ll never know if I don’t open it. That’s kind of what ancestry DNA represents to a lot of people.

It’s also like encountering a door that you might not want to open because if you open it, you might find something you don’t like, and you can never unsee what you see in there. There may be scary secrets. There may be skeletons in your family’s closet. You might discover things that you wish you had never known.

These are complex questions and people have been debating them for years as the technology of collecting and sequencing your own DNA has become cheaper and more available over time. There are good points to be made on both sides of the argument. I myself was quite conflicted about it. And when Tom first suggested to me that I try DNA testing to see if we could get some of the answers I was looking for, I was initially very reluctant and decided, no, I’m not going to do that.

But after spending two years working on carefully crafting a family tree with our impeccable record keeping and verification and still hitting a dead end. I decided what the heck? Why not? Let’s try it. Let’s see if it will help me fill in the missing gaps in this puzzle. Actually rather than explaining myself exactly the ins and outs of why DNA testing can be both a blessing and a curse.

Here’s a sound clip from an interview I had with Tom at the metropolitan state university of Denver library back in March, 2019, he’s an expert and he can describe the ins and outs better than I can.

Tom Duncan:

My name is Tom Duncan. I’m the owner of the Attic Genealogy Research company. DNA is opening up a lot of records and information for people at avenues that, that they haven’t been able to find in the past

DNA testing is a great resource. If you know how to use the properly and it’s up to a genealogist to make sure that their clients are understand the risks, because there are risks these days, especially with DNA testing. When you look back into the past, because you may discover the father wasn’t really your father or a sibling, isn’t really a sibling, or you didn’t come from the place that you’ve always believed that you’ve come from.

So I think everybody involved both on the client and the genealogist side have to have an open mind and. Have to have a real awareness that some of the information that’s found may not fit into what you always believed or what you want to believe. It’s definitely an ethical dilemma for anybody that wants to take a test.

You’d have to decide if the, the companies that are doing the testing are trustworthy and you have to realize that companies go bankrupt. Databases fall into other hands. And an agreement here may not be an agreement that’s honored by someone else down the road, but in my mind, that’s worth the risk because the reward is, can be so great.

I just wrote an article this week about somebody who a test on ancestry had no clue where in Ireland that their family was from, but because they matched DNA with a. As small group of people that were only from a very specific geographic area of Ireland, they were able to identify where their Irish ancestry came from.

So I think it’s worthwhile and there’s, there’s many different levels of DNA testing. Ancestries is the most basic ancestry, three me, national geographic, and a few of the others. My heritage there is what’s called autosomal DNA, which is. Again, the most basic best for identifying cousins and more distant relationships.

Ancestry product is greatest. So first one I would recommend if you tie it to a tree on ancestry, it has many tools that you can use to match your DNA back to specific geographic areas. And it used to be pretty broad and they’ve. There’s enough people in the database now, and they perfected the science behind it.

I think it might help you identify a specific area in Ireland where your family’s from.

Ron Stauffer: Have you done it?

Tom Duncan:

I have, I’ve done it as the most advanced testing that can be done right now. I knew a lot of it going in, but it, on my father’s side, it allowed me to pinpoint in Ireland, in Scotland where his family originated, which I never would have been able to do otherwise.

In the end, I decided the pros outweighed the cons and I wanted answers.

So I took the plunge and I ordered the ancestry DNA test. Here is what I learned. The first thing to know about the ancestry DNA test is that it’s kind of expensive. It’s about a hundred dollars per person, unless you do it the way I did. And wait until there’s a special deal. Like two for one On that note, if you’ve ever signed up for just the basic ancestry.com membership that you pay for a monthly, they will harass you incessantly with upgrade offers in the app on the website and in your email inbox.

After I originally signed up for my paid ancestry.com family tree membership, I received no fewer than 80 quote unquote special offers to join ancestry DNA. For limited time. So after ignoring the obnoxious barrage of spam emails, I finally decided on December 2nd of 2019 to order an ancestry DNA kit for me and my wife, it was a two for one deal for Christmas.

And I ended up paying $112 and 90 cents for two ancestry DNA kits. We eagerly awaited the arrival of the tiny little cardboard boxes with test tubes inside that we were going to spit in and mail back to them. I ordered the kits on December 2nd, they shipped on December 4th. I got them a couple of weeks later before new year’s and we activated the kits on new year’s day, January 1st.

Now, when I say activating the kit, what I mean is opening the box, scanning the barcode on the side of the test tube, to link it to your ancestry account online, then adding a massive quantity of saliva into the tube. Pouring a few drops of stabilizing chemical inside, screwing the cap, shaking it and mailing it back then we waited.

The whole process was really simple, but it was strangely nerve wracking for me. I was so nervous about the results. Would I regret it? Did I make a mistake? Should I not have done this? There was no going back

on January 15th. Exactly. Two weeks after I took the test, I got an email telling me that they received my test tube and it was in the queue. I got another email, nine days later saying that they had begun processing my DNA sample.

Strangely, I got an email on February 1st, say my results were in exactly one month later, but my wife’s results weren’t there. We’re still working on it. Fortunately, hers didn’t take too much longer. About two more days on February 3rd. I just thought this was weird because we literally took the same test at the same time and mailed it in on the same day.

But whatever. I was almost shaking. When I looked at the email that told me I was finally going to unlock the secrets of my family’s past. I was going to have my DNA, my digital fingerprint, the story of me. My genes and chromosomes would be sequenced on million dollar computers run by world class scientists doing incredibly complex math and science-y things to help me figure out exactly who I am.

And hopefully the countries, States, cities, and even neighborhoods where my family members came from in Europe. I was finally going to get the answers that I had been seeking all my life. But especially for the past two years after we both got emails saying our results were in, we made a little ceremony out of it.

We went to Popeye’s chicken for lunch. We sat down, pulled out our phones and both clicked on the links that said view my results. I made a little fake drum roll. As I looked at my newly downloaded ancestry DNA app, I had to install in order to activate the kit in the first place. And I found out that.

My family came from Ireland and Germany and Scotland.

What an incredible letdown I had taken all this time and effort only to find out everything that I already knew. It was kind of cool because it shows you a world map with countries and borders.

And in theory, it will show you little pinpoints to help you. Hyperlocalized communities of people who have DNA that’s similar than yours. The thinking goes if a whole bunch of people in this city in Europe have DNA that matches yours, you’re probably related. That’s probably where your family came from.

But in this case, looking at my quote unquote DNA story, it showed me a map with a whole bunch of really big circles, no pinpoints at all. It even lumped various groups together like England, Wales and Northwestern Europe. That’s about as unhelpful as anything I could imagine. It might as well just say white guy.

Here was my initial breakdown in what they call the ethnicity estimate 43% England Wales and Northwestern Europe, which as I’ve mentioned is so ridiculously ambiguous and broad. It’s almost totally unhelpful, 34% Ireland and Scotland also way too broad and not helpful. 11% Germanic Europe. Well, that’s extremely broad.

And I knew for a fact it was more than 11%. So they got that one way off. 6% Norway, 4% Sweden, 2% Baltics. This was kind of interesting, sort of, but none of this had anything to do with why I took the ancestry DNA test in the first place. All it did was somewhat confirmed the suspicions I had or the things that I’d already been told, but it also muddied those suspicions by lumping groups together.

That don’t make sense. Like really what’s the deal with England Wales and Northwestern Europe. That’s kind of like saying Texas, Oklahoma and Canada. The only thing that was slightly helpful was that there was a quote unquote community. Called Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana settlers, which was pinpointed to the origin of Switzerland.

Once again, not anywhere specifically in Switzerland, just Switzerland. But as I said, I already knew that. Come on!

Where was Sligo? Where was County Donna gone? Where were those little tiny communities that gave me something of substance? I wanted to find my long lost cousins on the other side of the pond. These results were totally unhelpful for that. The initial results. I got changed over time because the ethnicity estimate the ancestry DNA gives you is updated.

Occasionally as more people take more DNA tests has the pool of DNA grows. The data gets better and more granular. So it was slightly more helpful. Well, when I got an email in August, 2020 saying that my DNA story had been updated with new data and I had a new ethnicity estimate. My new ethnicity breakdown was 30% Ireland.

Thankfully not Ireland and Scotland. 26% Germanic Europe. Okay. Still pretty broad, but 26 sounds a lot more accurate than 11%. 23% Scotland. Thank you. This is much more helpful. 13% England and North Western Europe. 6% whales. 2% Sweden. Okay. These results were more helpful by isolating Ireland in and of itself.

It removed some of the confusion and created a distinction between Ireland and Scotland, which is helpful to me because as far as I understand, the Irish side of my family comes from my dad’s mom’s side and the Scottish side comes from my mom’s mom’s side. And obviously those two sides are not related.

Again, I wasn’t blown away with the results and it was kind of frustrating, but it was really good to see that there were no skeletons in my closet, at least that I could uncover through this. I didn’t find out that my dad wasn’t really my dad or that I had an adopted sister or that my family was actually Russian.

So no harm, no foul, but it was not a breakthrough. The fascinating thing is if you’re disappointed with those results, you can technically hire what they call a quote unquote, ancestry, pro genealogist. This is some sort of genealogy professional that’s associated with them and they will help you take your DNA story to the next level.

It’s very expensive though. The pricing starts at $2,700. I still haven’t figured out exactly what to do with all this information, but it’ll come in handy over time. I’m sure. They do have an interesting aspect of the app where you can answer quizzes about yourself and traits that you may or may not have.

You can use that to then compare aspects of your personality or body type or habits, what they call traits with other people who have similar DNA based on your genetics. Like the DNA story, which shows results on the accompanying map. These traits are constantly changing and being updated and more of them are being added on a regular basis.

But the weird thing is that a lot of the responses I gave to the quizzes don’t match up with what they expected. For example, I hate cilantro. I think it’s disgusting. I don’t like it ever on any food. Apparently there is a genetic trait called cilantro aversion that ancestry DNA tracks.

So this was great. I could tell all the people who harass me about you. Don’t like cilantro. Why not? I now have an answer for them because it’s in my genes. I’m genetically predisposed to hate cilantro. But when I took the quiz for the genetic trait called cilantro aversion, the app told me, Ron, your DNA tells us you probably liked the taste of cilantro.

No. Oh, that’s so weird that they’re telling me that my genetics make them think. I like cilantro. I hate cilantro. Some of the other traits they actually got. Right. For example, Eichler Ron, from your DNA, it looks like you probably have dark eyes. Yes. I definitely have dark eyes. They got that one. Correct.

But others like male hair loss said. Your DNA suggests you or your close male relatives have a high chance of hair loss. Well, I don’t know whether this is good news or bad news, but I still have almost all my hair, although I definitely do have some bald close male relatives. There are lots of other irrelevant and totally bizarre things in the traits section where it will say people with DNA, like yours tend to have typical vitamin C levels or people with DNA, like yours can sometimes have typical omega-3 levels.

I have no idea what that means or how it affects me at all. And also some of them are kind of weird and even gross. One of them asks what kind of your wax type you have who knew that there are different types of ear wax and that this could be determined by your genetics. Yuck. It goes on and discusses other things like your finger length, whether you do or don’t have freckles your hair, color, hair type, Iris patterns, skin, pigmentation, sun, sneezing, sweetness, sensitivity, whether you’re likely to have a uni brow or not.

I stopped answering those little questions and their stupid app keeps pinging me every few weeks with a little red boop notice telling me, Hey, you still have quizzes to take, but I ignore it because I don’t care what type of earwax I have or what my vitamin D level is. Now. As far as the aspect of, I have now added my DNA into a pool with a whole bunch of other people who have also done the same.

This could be really cool in the future. Now I was, we kidding when I mentioned wanting to find my long lost Irish relatives that I didn’t even know exist, but there is some truth to that the system’s designed to where if you opt into it, it will share your profile with other people who have genetic code that matches.

So what does that mean? In theory? This sounds kind of cool. Personally, it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment because I was excited when it said, Hey, we have a close family match for you. Click here to view. I clicked through and I saw uncle Dave, someone I’ve known my entire life. I love uncle Dave.

He’s a great uncle and a cool guy, but I don’t need ancestry to tell me that they think I might be related to him. I know I’m related to him. It also gave me a long list of lots of second cousins, third cousins, and fourth cousins. Most of them don’t have any profile pictures and they have names I don’t recognize at all.

Or they only give initials like M.M. Or J.O or even silly names like Gidgie58, by the way, if you’re listening to this and your username is Gidgie58, would you please change your username to your real name? So I can find out if you and I are actually related one weird aspect of the honed. DNA matching thing is that you don’t technically have to opt into it.

So it could very well be there are a bunch of people who might be related to me already in the system, but because they haven’t chosen to make their profiles public, I’ll never know. So that’s kind of an interesting way to defeat the system. I knew, yes. It’s a total invasion of my privacy to put my real name, the place that I live and a picture of myself up on ancestry.com.

As part of my DNA profile, but I figured you got to buy into the system either. You do, or you don’t. What’s the point of taking a DNA test only to tell that system, Hey, don’t tell me who my family members are. That’s weird. So I decided to go in whole-hog. And show the world who I am. There are some people I’ve found in the system that are close second cousins, and even a few third cousins where I’ve actually reached out and sent them messages and said, Hey, I recognize your last name.

We’re obviously related. Can you connect with me and help me figure out a couple answers to my questions, but for the most part. Those messages have gone pretty much unanswered. I don’t know whether it’s that they don’t log in frequently or they just don’t want to help or what, but that’s disappointing to find someone that, you know, you’re related to and say, Hey, we have these family members in common, let’s talk.

And for them to just ignore you, that’s weird. The only big surprise that I found in my ancestry DNA test was apparently I have an Italian cousin kind of, he lives in America. I think. And he’s a Greek and Italian descent, but we have a common ancestor, three or four generations up through my dad’s side of the family.

That’s kind of cool, but the biggest surprise of all was not in my test, but my wife’s test when we were reviewing my wife’s DNA story, it told us that she is actually Jewish, sort of. 1%. It says 1% European Jewish and shows a ginormous red circle on the map and closing almost all of Eastern Europe. I don’t know how helpful that information is, but that was a surprise to me.

And it was definitely a surprise to her.

Overall signing up for ancestry DNA was an interesting experiment. It didn’t give me almost anything that I would hoped it would, but that could change at any time as they keep updating and refining their data and new people join. Perhaps someday, I will finally get an email saying good news.

Patrick O’Neill from Donegal has identified you as a first cousin or something like that. And then maybe I’ll see the little pinprick I’ve been waiting for on the map in Ireland, where I can go to a pub or a coffee shop and visit the places and see the scenes that my great, great, great, great grandparents used to see who knows.

So far, I would say it was worth doing, but it didn’t tell me anything. I didn’t already know. If you want to do an ancestry DNA test for yourself. Here are a couple of pointers. Number one, create a free account on ancestry.com first and start to try to assemble a basic idea of your family tree. Just so you know what last names you’re going to be looking for.

And who married, whom and where they lived. Don’t set it in stone and don’t say, well, I found this information on ancestry and it’s telling me that my great, great grandpa married this woman named so-and-so, don’t assume that that’s correct, but map out a basic idea based on what you think, you know, already.

Number two, wait for the sale. Wait for the father’s day or St. Patrick’s day or mother’s day or new year’s day special. When ancestry will do something like 60% off or two for one, that way you don’t have to pay full price. Number three, temper your expectations. Probably. You’re just going to look at the various percentages on your ethnicity estimate and say, Hmm.

Yeah, that’s interesting. I always thought my family was from Finland or whatever. Number four, if there is any ambiguity or uncertainty in your immediate family tree tread carefully, it may be that you find out that your uncle so-and-so isn’t really your uncle or your sister, isn’t really your sister, or maybe you were adopted.

This is very real and you need to be prepared for that. In my case, I figured there was almost 0% chance any of that would happen, but I did prepare myself just in case I found something that I wasn’t going to be happy about. Number five, probably really the most important thing that I learned through this process is that to me, this was very interesting, very important, but it wasn’t to a lot of other people, if people in your family who don’t want to know the results of your DNA test, Don’t share it with them.

Number six, believe it or not. Genetics are a little bit weird in a way that most lay people like me don’t understand. One thing to keep in mind is your genetic results are going to be different than your siblings. Even if you came from the same mother and father, there’s only a certain percentage of genetic code that you share with your siblings.

That’s really weird. But what it basically means is if you take a DNA test yourself and your older brother takes a DNA test, the results might be different. You don’t have the exact same DNA, of course, because DNA is unique to the individual. Don’t be surprised if your brother or sister or mother or father had results that are different than yours.

That’s normal in conclusion. I’m glad I took the test. I don’t regret it so far. I haven’t seen any negative repercussions for the privacy issue. And hopefully someday that dataset will get tighter and tighter and I will start to fill out my family tree for myself and future generations to help us figure out who we are, where we come from and what makes us us.

Thanks for listening.

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