Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Who Am I? How Do I Know?

Last fall I signed up to participate in's DNA project. I figured I would be in for a surprise or two. My family has not been very good at keeping a record of our history. As near as I can tell, I'm about as much a mongrel as a person can get (my kids, even more so). But the kind of surprises that showed up with the results I got last night really threw me for a loop.

64% Scandanavian (Norway, Sweden, Denmark)
15% Finnish/Volga/Ural (What looks to me to be a broad Russian Steppe area, following the extremely long Volga River)
14% Southern European (Spain, Portugal, Italy, Mediterranean)
7% Central European (France, Germany, Austria)

The surprise is the middle two. I knew of nothing in my family tree that could account for either of those. And at the same time, what happened to my 75% British heritage? No sign of it at all?

What I didn't understand is just what DNA tests could and couldn't do. For one thing, I'm female, which means I don't inherit the Y-DNA from my father. I do inherit mtDNA or mitochondrial DNA from my mother. If I want to know my patrilineal line, the best I could do would be to get one of my brothers to have the Y test run.

I didn't quite comprehend that the mtDNA doesn't mean lost genetic inheritance. It doesn't, in fact,have anything to do with all the non-sex-linked characteristics that have been passed down to me. It serves as a sort of genetic map that could be traced through my mother and her mother, and the entire matrilineal line back to one original woman who lived perhaps 200,000 years ago. Although my brothers received this same piece of DNA, they can't pass it on to their descendants. Likewise, since I do not have a Y chromosome, I didn't get a copy of the Y-DNA  at all, although I obviously did get lots of genetic material from my father.

So from each generation, only the mtDNA of one ancestor, through the females only, is passed down. Not father's mother. Only mother's mother. And this line shows essentially where the genetic mutations occurred over a very long period of time.

And as it happens, this maternal line is probably the least known of all my ancestry.
Nadele Mitchell (Jacobs); Nelda Norton (Mitchell); Pearl Hatton (Norton); Mary Matilda Stafford (Hatton); Nancy Garraway (Stafford); Elizabeth Moody (Garraway); Jane Grindstaff (Moody); possibly Mary Catherine Smith, or possibly Stonecypher (Grindstaff), born Rowan Co. N. Carolina, but nothing else on her parentage.

And there the trail ends, at 7 or 8 generations. I can see a path from the Carolinas to Georgia, which in that time did include Alabama and Mississippi. When territory opened up in Mississippi, and later Alabama, several branches of the family moved west. But there's nothing that shows me where this line of women originated before the Carolinas in the 18th century. Did Mary Catherine Smith's ancestry reach the Americas through the Spanish in Florida? Could they have been Viking descendants in Russia? And, most oddly for folk in the American South: Were they not English or Celtic/Anglo-Saxon at all?

A very strange and completely unexpected puzzle!


  1. So we kids can pretty much summarize our ancestry as primarily Nordic/Euro. You should read The Seven Daughters of Eve. It's about the mitochondrial matrimonial line. They had to update before the book was published, about ten years ago, so bet it has even more updates, now. You can learn who your "Eve" was.

  2. I've been tracing my family tree and I thought about trying the DNA project. There are parts of my family tree that I can trace, and parts that no one seems to know anything about. My maiden name was Brown. That part of the family, the Browns, are the hardest to trace. My grandfather moved around a lot before he settled down in Michigan. (He used to hop the trains.) I'm fortunate that there were a LOT of shutterbugs in our family. We have an amazing picture of my family, on my dad's maternal side. There are four generations in this pic. My great-grandmother, her father, her grandfather, and her great-grandfather. Of all the family "treasures," the pics are the most least they are to me. Good luck to you on your family research. :)

    1. It's fascinating to hunt down these mysteries, isn't it, Juli? When you have a very common name in your ancestry, the tracing ccan be really puzzling. I'm currently stuck on a link in the Stafford branch of our family. I believe I've traced them back to the Staffords who came from Ireland (but who were actually English) to Giles County VA, and Staffordsville. BUT try to untangle families who came together or to join other brothers or sisters, and who named their sons the same names over and over. So which Edward Stafford? Was he Edward Stafford's son? Or was he Ralph Stafford's son Edward? Or maybe John Stafford's Edward? William"s? Generation after generation, they were named Thomas, Edward, Ralph, John, William... I think the only way I can hope to untangle it all is to go there personally.

  3. Well, yes and no, Jeannie. The mitochondrial DNA line is a tricky thing to understand. Since we all get two different sets of DNA from our parents, not all of it gets passed down. Further, the mitochondrial DNA is only on one chromosome, but each parent passes only one of the two he/she has of each of 13 pairs. MtDNA doesn't affect the other 12 chromosomes at all. So it's actually likely that the other chromosomes could trace back through other ancestries that don't appear on the MtDNA at all. But we still have inherited it. Further, the maternal links only show maternal heritage, all the way back. So you will pass on the heritage from me. Your brother gets essentially the same heritage but wouldn't pass any of that chromosome to his children. Your daughter will be able to pass it on but not your sons because only women pass it on. It stops cold with every man.


This is a discussion blog. Spam of all kinds, including unrelated book promotion, is not welcome and will be diligently removed.

About Me

My photo
I write write write. Sometimes I travel. Then I write some more. And I have a great family who understand that I write write write.