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DNA Testing: Caveats | Our Prairie Nest
DNA Testing: Caveats

Family Tree DNA first began offering direct-to-consumer genetic testing in 2000. After years of reading articles about the success people had with DNA testing for genealogy, I took my first test in 2006. Only a year later in 2007, 23andMe joined the party, and now everyone is doing it.

Yet, not everyone understands the risks of DNA testing. So many people test and are disappointed or, worse, upset by their results. There’s so much education out there, that while I am an enthusiastic advocate of genetic genealogy, I also ask people to take a common sense approach. What do I mean by this? I mean it’s a good idea to try to understand the science behind, as well as risks and rewards of, DNA testing for genealogy, before spitting into the tube.

As with scientific processes, there is an answer for each of your concerns. Here are some things to keep in mind:

You might not get the ethnicity you “want”

You’ve tested, gotten your results, and you’re upset because the results don’t show that you’re “British enough.” This can happen for a number of reasons and should not put you off genetic genealogy, as it is now considered an important tool for meeting the genealogical proof standard.

The different companies have different test groups and regions, so while one company might label you as Italian, another might label you as Greek. This happened to me and I’m not too concerned. I don’t see this as a problematic ethnic label and because they will probably refine this in time.

Also, your ancestors might not have been “as insert-ethnicity-here” as you expected. After all, do you know what ethnicity their parents or grandparents were? What about their great-grandparents? Your admixture might be more diverse or mixed up than you expect, and that’s okay!

Instead, let DNA ethnicity results be your guide in genealogical research (rather like online family trees), and not the be-all and end-all of who you are.

You might find unexpected relatives

I love that Judy Russell emphasizes this consistently in her blog posts and presentations.  I had the pleasure of seeing her speak at the Nebraska State Genealogical Society Conference this past April where she stated as emphatically as she does in her blog posts do not test if you are not prepared for the potential results.

Yes, you might find unknown siblings, first cousins, second cousins… even parents. You might realize a grandparent’s parents weren’t their parents after all. I’ve found a first cousin I didn’t know I had and I thought that was the only surprise I would get. A year later, I found out there are still close surprise relatives around every corner.

While my family and I welcome these relatives, other families may not. Or perhaps the tester now has to come to terms with their new “identity.” As enthusiastic as I am about DNA testing, I’ve learned to take an “I’m here for you when you’re ready” approach to those cousins who’ve received a genetic shock.

If you don’t think you can be open to people who suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of this kind of “what do you mean my father isn’t my father?!” news or handle it yourself, then this warning bears repeating: DO NOT TEST IF YOU ARE NOT PREPARED FOR THE POTENTIAL RESULTS.

I hope that won’t put people off from testing, because there is support out there and many people within the genealogy community feel it is their duty to be as supportive as possible to others in these cases.

You might be wasting your money

Let’s be honest: most people only take these tests as a lark to learn their ethnicity. Honestly, that just isn’t worth the $49 or $59 or $99. If you do take the test just for ethnicity reasons, please do consider at least adding a skeletal family tree to whatever testing service you use. Going as far back as great or great-great grandparents is super helpful and those of us utilizing DNA testing for genealogical reasons would greatly appreciate it! And don’t be surprised to hear from people trying to figure out how you’re related. If you’re not sure, it’s perfectly okay to answer that you’re not really into genealogy and sorry you can’t help them.

But it’d certainly rock if getting your DNA tested turned into a gateway to you becoming interested in genealogy. 😉

My Lifelong Research Project

In 2016 when I attended the Nebraska State Genealogical Society Conference, featured speaker Joshua Taylor made mention of those ancestors who become our lifelong research projects. Mine is my great-great grandmother, Emma Anna Murphy.

I wrote about Emma constantly in the previous iteration of my genealogy blog, known simply as “New England Genealogy,” but she bears readdressing here, since I’m starting fresh.

Like many mysterious ancestors, Emma has kept me up at night. I’ve even dreamed about her, despite not knowing what she looks like. Then I’ve woken up, hoping there would be answers waiting. Of course, there haven’t been…

My dear great-great grandmother passed away in 1945 after what seemed like a fairly normal, occasionally eventful, life.  If you consult any vital or census records pertaining to her, they’ll let you know she was born in Maine. Or Massachusetts. Or, perhaps, Nova Scotia. So there’s that.

She seemed to be feisty, considering the family story that she’d walk a mile and a half to give her son a piece of her mind. And then there’s the newspaper article about how she ended up in court on charges of assault in 1910.

Sometime during the 1890s, she ran a little “dining room” and “variety store” out of the home she and her husband, my great-great grandfather Erastus Bartlett Shaw, had in Middleborough, Plymouth County, Massachusetts. Prior to that, she married Erastus in Middleborough in 1888.

And prior to that? Nothing. We have nothing but odd clues to go on – various places of birth reported – her age (born maybe about 1861), and her previous married name (Reagan or any variation thereof), but not her first husband’s name.

In future posts, I’ll share more about the steps I’ve taken to work through this particular genealogical problem, as well as how access to a wider range of records and DNA has changed my approach to Emma.

Blake Family Picnic | Our Prairie Nest
How DNA Changed My Family History

With the availability of DNA testing, I’ve seen quite a shift in what I always thought I knew about my family.

It started in 1989. I saw a photo my grandmother had of her family and wanted to learn more about it. I found out that the little girl in the picture was my great-grandmother, Nina Gertrude Blake. Prior to that, I’d already been hooked on genealogy, but had no idea how to go about researching or figuring out who was who. My grandmother then showed me something even more precious – a crumbling leather wallet full of more photos, typed family histories, Civil War documents, and more.

Since then, I’ve been proud to be the keeper of these documents and photographs, and researched my family history almost exhaustively.

But I don’t think I was counting on any of it to change, even when I took my first DNA test in 2006. Or subsequent DNA tests.

It wasn’t until 2018 that I realized DNA testing had changed everything I knew about my family history. The first discovery was of a first cousin I didn’t realize existed. The second was the realization that my grandfather’s father wasn’t who we thought it was.

Judy Russell often reminds us that if we aren’t ready to face such potential news, then we shouldn’t test. And, like Judy, I haven’t met a DNA test I don’t like. I’ve had my DNA tested with Family Tree DNA, Ancestry DNA, and 23andMe. I’ve posted my results to GEDMatch and MyHeritage, and someday I will test with Living DNA to break down my significant British heritage.

For me, DNA is a powerful tool and one of many we can and should utilize in the pursuit of understanding family history. It’s made me rethink how I look at certain people in my family. Not in a negative way, but rather in an attempt to understand them, to put their lives in context. They are no longer here, so I can’t ask why they made the decisions they did. But maybe by studying time and place and circumstances, I can get a little closer to some insight about why they were the way they were.