You’ve likely seen the television ad.
Kyle Merker tells how he spent his entire life believing that his family came to the United States from Germany. He joined a German dance group and wore lederhosen.
When he started researching his family tree, however, Merker said he didn’t come across anyone with a German name. And after taking an Ancestry.com DNA test, he found that more than half of his DNA was instead from Scotland and Ireland.
I’ve had a long interest in family history. In the 1990s, I spent hours and hours inside a family history center operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints looking at reels of microfilmed records. But until recently, I hadn’t done any online genealogy research, which has made compiling information much easier.
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Most of my family, I believed, also came from Germany, although we never wore lederhosen or collected kitschy ceramic beer steins with metal lids. My grandmother and her sisters got together every summer, however, to make what seemed like tons of pungent sauerkraut. Which, to this day, I can’t stand.
In November, I ordered a $99 kit, spit in a vial and had my DNA analyzed by AncestryDNA, a division of the Lehi, Utah, genealogy company Ancestry, which has more than 2.2 million online subscribers. Two other companies, 23andMe and Family Tree DNA, offer similar tests.
It took only 16 days to get my results back, although Ancestry said to expect a wait of six to eight weeks.
The analysis found only a small percentage of my DNA, about 10 percent, came from Western Europe: Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands and Czech Republic.
Fifty-eight percent came from Great Britain and Ireland. Previously, I found only one line of my family that had come from Dublin. Instead of looking around, I guess I should have done some family research when I visited Ireland four years ago.
The rest of my ethnic background seems fairly diverse: Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Italy/Greece, the Iberian Peninsula, European Jewish and North Africa.
Ancestry employs an autosomal DNA test, which matches your DNA with genetic cousins. It also compares your DNA with samples provided by volunteers from around the world whose genealogy suggests they are native to a particular region. That’s how they’re able to determine where your family came from.
The Ancestry test looks at both the maternal and paternal sides of a family. Other companies offer tests that look at a man’s direct paternal lineage (Y DNA test) or one that can be taken by men or women but looks only at a person’s maternal lineage (mitochondrial DNA test).
There are also tests that focus on genetic indicators for potential health risks. One from 23andMe looks at 41 indicators that can tell whether you carry a mutation for certain conditions that could be passed down to your children.
My test results revealed DNA connections with 358 other people that Ancestry said were fourth cousins or closer, based upon a comparison with those people’s test results. Both my mom and dad were only children, so I don’t have any aunts or uncles or cousins.
One was a third cousin. We share the same great-great grandfather, Francis Archambeau, a French-Canadian from Quebec who later homesteaded outside Roseburg, Ore.
Another was also a third cousin, linked to my great-great-great grandfather, John M. Glenn, who came from Tennessee and homesteaded in the Hidden Springs area north of Boise. Glenn’s son, John T. Glenn, served in the Idaho Legislature in 1894 and 1895, and his grandson, Sherman Glenn, served as Boise County assessor and as postmaster in Ola, now in Gem County.
Ancestry and the other services allow you to make your DNA results public, or you can keep them private with viewing limited to those you designate. Some people who allow their results to be viewed employ a user name. Others, me included, attach the results to our real names.
You can make indirect contact with others linked by DNA analysis through the website. The person on the other end can choose to reply or ignore your message.
Ancestry also operates a paid website where members can load family trees and search for clues on ancestors where they’ve reached a dead end. Those clues can be family trees from other members or direct access to census, birth, marriage, death and military records, among others. It saves going through microfilm to find those records, as I did in the past.
Family lore said there was a “Soule” side to the family, which we believed might have involved a branch of my dad’s family that came from France. The Soules are there, alright, but it’s a completely different family on my mom’s side.
Eliza Soule was the grandmother of Carrie May Higgins, who married Charles Blessinger and lived in Ola. She descended from six generations of Soules. Eliza Soule’s fourth great-grandfather was George Soule, who came to America from England on the Mayflower.
As with the DNA information, Ancestry.com members can choose whether to make their family trees available to anyone going online or to shield that information. Ancestry also keeps private the identities of anyone still living. A family tree that includes living relatives will show a marker for each of them but won’t provide a name or other information.
I’m glad I underwent the DNA test. For some, it could prove shocking if the results revealed unknown siblings from a different parent.
After I was born, there was a family joke that my folks may have brought home the wrong baby from the hospital. At least I always took it as a joke. The DNA test, through links to other Sowell and Blessinger relatives, proved conclusively that genetically I’m a member of those families.
And the test reassured me that I don’t have to go out anytime soon to buy a pair of lederhosen or sauerkraut.