penetrating the past


Genealogy becomes a mania, an obsessive struggle to penetrate the past and snatch meaning from an infinity of names. At some point the search becomes futile – there is nothing left to find, no meaning to be dredged out of old receipts, newspaper articles, letters, accounts of events that seemed so important fifty or seventy years ago. All that remains is the insane urge to keep looking, insane because the searcher has no idea what he seeks. What will it be? A photograph? A will? A fragment of a letter? The only way to find out is to look at everything, because it is often when the searcher has gone far beyond the border of futility that he finds the object he never knew he was looking for.
~ Henry Wiencek
(The Hairstons: An American Family in Black & White)

Recently Tim & I had our DNA tested for fun, to see how well our genetic material lined up with our known family histories.

The biggest surprise for me was finding out that I have absolutely no Native American ancestry! There was a story handed down that one of my mother’s ancestors married a Wampanoag Indian. So now I know why we were never able to find such an ancestor and will let go of that research goal. Another curiosity is that 13% of my ancestors came from the region of Italy and Greece. I had no idea!

Barbara’s DNA ancestry

38% Great Britain (my mother’s New England ancestry)
34% Europe East (my father’s Ukrainian ancestry)
13% Italy/Greece
4% Scandinavia (my Norwegian 3rd-great-grandfather)
4% Europe West
2% Iberian Peninsula
5% Traces of Asia Central, Caucasus, Finland/Northwest Russia, European Jewish & Ireland

Because Tim’s maternal grandfather was the son of Austrian Jewish immigrants we had assumed that would be about 25% of his ancestry. But he’s only 2% European Jewish! And he also has a few Scandinavian ancestors. The only ancestry Tim has that I don’t have is a trace of Asia South. And the ancestry I have that Tim does not have is 34% Europe East and traces of Asia Central and Finland/Northwest Russia.

Tim’s DNA ancestry

65% Great Britain (Tim’s New England/Nova Scotia ancestry)
20% Ireland (three of Tim’s Irish 3rd-great-grandparents)
4% Europe West
3% Scandinavia
2% Italy/Greece
2% European Jewish
2% Iberian Peninsula
2% Traces of Asia South and Caucasus

We are finding all this utterly fascinating! I’ve also been watching Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on PBS. It can be seen online for anyone who is interested. It’s amazing what researching the paper trail left behind by ancestors, combined with DNA testing, can reveal.

13 thoughts on “penetrating the past”

  1. This is so exciting, Barbara! I’ve often toyed with the idea of having my DNA tested, as all I would expect to find, from what I know of, is about 90% Great Britain and 10% Ireland ~ wouldn’t it be fun to find out the real truth?! (as you and Tim have). I can related completely to Henry Wiencek’s quote also; I too dig and delve, read, research, question, ponder, wonder, then dig and read some more. I too have found objects that I never knew I was looking for.

  2. Love that quote. My cousin, Gordon in England, is much better at delving into our mutual roots than I am as he does it year-’round. Me ? I get re-interested in Genealogy when winter starts rolling in and the garden is lying dormant.

    How far back have you traced your roots ?

    You two should definitely come here when you have a sense of Tim’s ancestors burial places. I just love looking around cemeteries.

    Any particular area of Nova Scotia that his family hails from ? There may well be some genealogy F.B. pages in N.S. that could help him out.

    1. I have traced my roots back to the Mayflower (1620) on my mother’s side but only to my great-grandparents on my father’s side in Ukraine. An estimated fourth cousin (through my father) contacted me on Ancestry in May. He’s a genetic match. Comparing our known family trees we found both our great-grandmothers were born in Bohemia (now Czech Republic) but mine moved to Ukraine to work in the salt mines and his stayed in Bohemia. Can’t find the ancestor in common yet but the DNA testing has presented some exciting possibilities!

      A trip to Nova Scotia is definitely on our agenda, especially now that I’ve got Norway out of my system, well, maybe, I think I do want to go back there someday. Tim’s paternal ancestors were American Loyalists who moved to Guysborough after fighting in the Revolutionary War. They were granted land there by King George for their loyal service. So many ancestors, so little time!!!

      1. I’m subscribed to the comments on this post, Barbara, and saw this recent reply you made about having traced your roots back to the Mayflower. Same here! And on my mother’s side! My mother’s great aunt had the family bible with the family tree, and a distant cousin went through and put it all together in a list fashion (pages and pages long) and we were all given a copy. I took my copy with me when we visited Plymouth, Massachusetts years ago, and went to the Mayflower Society to verify it. Turns it it’s all correct.

        So now I’m wondering if we might be related. 🙂

        1. Quite possibly we are related, Robin! I’ve seen estimates of the number of living Mayflower descendants of at least one passenger between 20 and 35 million people worldwide. Which passengers are your ancestors?

          Mine are John Alden, Isaac & Mary (Norris) Allerton, John & Eleanor Billington, William & Mary Brewster, Stephen Hopkins (from his first wife, Mary, who died in England), John & Elizabeth (Tilley) Howland, John & Joan (Hurst) Tilley, and Richard & Elizabeth (Walker) Warren. My grandfather was told he was descended from William & Susanna White but sadly, I was not able to prove or disprove that for him before he died. My maternal grandparents’ ancestors all lived around Plymouth county and Cape Cod – lots of cousin marriages. 🙂

          Do let me know if you think we share any ancestors!

          1. Mine start with John Alden, too, and then, I think, we diverge. I’ll have to see if I can find the papers my mother sent me. They are probably still in a box somewhere (there is still much left unpacked because we haven’t yet finished all the renovations).

          2. I know how it is having so many unpacked boxes – we still have unopened boxes given to us when our grandparents’ houses were sold in 2008 and 2009! So much has happened since then but I am finally starting to go through them…

  3. I love the quote. Its so true. We keep searching and hoping for just that one thing…
    So interesting that the results of your DNA testing wasn’t what you expected.

  4. Fascinating! My son (31) and his wife did this too; I was surprised – I didn’t think the ‘younger ones’ cared. The main thing we learn, I believe, is how we are ALL connected and bonded forever.

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