You want to learn as much as you can about your family: where they came from, what their stories were, and how their experiences shaped your own.
Part of this work may be helped through the science of DNA ancestry tests. And part of it is also social, relational, cultural — and sometimes, hard to trace. It may span countries and centuries.
Here are ways to trace the roots of where your ancestors came from.
DNA ancestry tests may help you learn more about yourself and your familial roots. People often use them to learn about their ethnic makeup and family history. But you should keep in mind that the results related to ethnicity and genealogy may not be perfect and rely upon each company’s database.
There are many reasons why you may want to get a DNA test. Some reasons include:
- To learn about your ancestry. DNA tests may be used to trace your lineage up to 10 generations back. The tests may also help you learn more about where your ancestors lived, though it may be at the level of a region, not a specific city. When DNA test results are accurate, you may even find out if you have any living or recently deceased relatives.
- To establish paternity. The most common use of DNA tests is to solve paternal disputes. Children inherit genes from their biological parents. With a DNA paternity test, a child’s DNA is compared to that of the alleged biological father. The paternity dispute would then be resolved if the alleged father’s genes showed a 99.9% match.
- Forensic science. Like fingerprints, a person’s DNA is unique. At crime scenes, investigators will collect DNA samples such as hair, skin, semen, and blood. Forensic scientists will then analyze this DNA to help solve crimes.
- Checking on risky variants. Through DNA testing, doctors can look for gene variants that may raise your risk of certain medical conditions or genetic disorders. If you and your doctor decide that this testing would be helpful, it may help determine treatment options if it turns out that you are at risk for a condition. Keep in mind that scientists haven’t found all the gene variants for every condition. And many conditions have additional risk factors besides genes.
DNA ancestry accuracy relies on the amount of data the test center has gathered. There is a wide range of DNA sequences. The more DNA sequences there are of people from your ethnic group and ancestral geographic range, the better the accuracy rate.
Many people come from a heterogeneous background, meaning that their family tree includes people from more than one racial/ethnic group. This may affect the accuracy of the test results. But if the testing companies have enough DNA data from your lineages, you may get more accurate results.
DNA tests may be inaccurate for reasons including:
- Each company has its own database, and results may not be definitive. Most DNA testing companies use common genetic variations found in their database as the basis for testing DNA accuracy. So you may get different results if you use different companies. Some of the ethnicities from Africa, East Asia, South America, and South Asia may be harder to trace because DNA testing companies have limited DNA data in their databases to refer to.
- DNA testing companies don’t look at all possible genetic variations. They focus on a relatively small amount of the millions of SNPs contained in your DNA.
- Y chromosome DNA tests only look at your paternal line, so the results may be limited.
Tracing your family history isn’t just about taking a DNA ancestry test. It often involves digging through research, interviewing relatives, and combing through online databases for clues. It’s not always simple, especially if records are missing or incomplete. But there can be moments that make the hunt especially rewarding.
Meeting lace makers who create intricate mundillo or bobbin lace in tiny Moca, Puerto Rico, is seared in Ellen Fernandez-Sacco’s mind. Having discovered that she had relatives who had made lace, she learned enough to make a small book mark. For Trisa Long Paschal, it was the joy of seeing her great-grandfather’s signature on census documents. And Mary Elliott screamed in the Library of Congress when she discovered letters between her great-great uncle and Booker T. Washington.
These are among the cherished memories of family historians.
The spark starts early for some. At 14, Paschal suddenly started to relish the memories shared by older relatives at family reunions. Armed with a notebook, she asked questions about everything, while deciphering nicknames like Bruh, Red, and Boot.
Over the last half-century, Paschal has collected bits and pieces of history on both sides of her family and inherited bags of photos. She and her brother Elmer built a large wooden board with a golden family tree that their maternal grandparents proudly hung at their home in Pine Mountain, GA.
Finding those stories can be challenging for many reasons. While some families can trace their roots to the 1500s in Europe, African Americans like Paschal often hit a wall at the 1870 census, the first to list their ancestors by name after the end of slavery.
Other obstacles, for people from a wide range of backgrounds, include language, mixed lineage, migration patterns, and politics.
“You have to always look for the workaround,” says Fernandez-Sacco, an independent scholar who specializes in studying Latino genealogy and enslavement.
Zayneldin Shourbaji of Howard County, MD, noticed differences in tracing his father’s side of the family (from Tennessee, Egypt, and Syria in the early 1900s) vs. his mom’s side (from the early 1800s in Illinois and Canada, all the way back to Scottish barons linked to William the Conqueror).
“It does get a little more frayed going back, just tracking between the different countries,” Shourbaji says. Finding official records in Egypt has been hard, beyond birth certificates and other personal papers or the occasional business document for family entrepreneurs.
Names can also be tricky. Multiple people might have the same name. They may have changed spellings and names. Census workers could have introduced errors. For instance, Paschal’s great-grandmother is listed as both Anner and Annie Johnson.
“If you have a really common surname, it presents certain challenges,” says Fernandez-Sacco. In Puerto Rico, “Fernandez is second, right after Gonzalez,” she says. Similarly, Pierre, Joseph, and Charles are common surnames in Haiti.
Some people who immigrated from China to the U.S. from 1882 to 1943 purchased documents for new identities as the “paper” sons and daughters of U.S. citizens because the Chinese Exclusion Acts, which drastically restricted immigration of Chinese people to the U.S., were in effect. Many people came through the U.S. immigration station on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay from 1910 to 1940. You can read about Angel Island’s immigration station – and how it differed from Ellis Island in New York. If your family came through Ellis Island, you can check its online database.
Family histories can get personal – very personal. Some relatives don’t want to discuss troublesome memories.
“I couldn’t get my grandfather to tell me anything,” Paschal says. “He would laugh at me and say, ‘Boo, you don’t even know what you’re asking.’”
When you encounter someone who’s reluctant to share what they know about your family’s history, ask someone else, suggests Elliott, whose love of history led her to become a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
Think outside the box when you run into any historical roadblock, Elliott and Fernandez-Sacco say. Delve into the history and culture of the period to add context to your ancestors’ lives and better understand why they made certain decisions.
They encourage researchers to visit historical societies, special holdings at research centers, the National Archives, museums, and places of worship. Also look at military records and documents from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (also called the Freedmen’s Bureau), which Congress established in 1865 and abolished in 1872.
You can also research people close to but not in your immediate family. This could include indirect relatives (such as aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives), neighbors, people with the same surnames, “play cousins” (kids you grew up with but aren’t related to), and families whose names keep popping up in conversations, such as the Culpeppers that Paschal heard about over and over again. Mary Elliott called every Elliott in Starkville, MS.
To encourage storytelling and accuracy, Linda Jones created Afrobituary Legacy Writing to teach people how to write their obituary and legacy letters.
“A lot of information in obituaries is wrong,” Jones says, because it’s often “based on guesswork when people are grieving” and feel pressure to get their loved one’s obit done in a short amount of time.
Family research and storytelling can be empowering. “It’s enjoyable to see where you come from and how far your lineage goes,” Shourbaji said.
Elliott worked with a woman who realized this after admitting that learning about her ancestors helped her shed the shame of their slavery. “My teeth almost fell out my mouth,” Elliott says. “Do you know how much it took for them to get you here?’”
As a descendant of business and community leaders who lost everything in the Tulsa Race Massacre, Elliott also encouraged residents of Africatown, AL, to cherish their history and resilience. She appeared with them in Descendant, a documentary on the Clotilda, a ship that was intentionally sunk after illegally transporting their ancestors from Africa. The descendants, who have also had to endure being surrounded by polluting industries, recently opened a museum to tell their story. “Clotilda: The Exhibition” is on view at the Africatown Heritage House.
Family stories can also save your life. Elliott discovered breast and ovarian cancer in her family tree. It turns out that she and several women in her family carry the BRCA gene.
“It is these histories of survival and resilience that have the power to heal and inspire self-care,” Fernandez-Sacco says. “Our ancestors matter.”