DNA kits keeping genealogy in forefront

Reporter finds his ethnic makeup
Reporter Bill Buell looks at his "ethnic makeup percentage" page, indicating his DNA history, provided by Family Tree DNA.
Reporter Bill Buell looks at his "ethnic makeup percentage" page, indicating his DNA history, provided by Family Tree DNA.

“Pride of ancestry never possessed my soul.”

It’s an early 20th century line uttered by a wealthy politician looking to gain favor with the working class. I always liked it, and felt as though it summed up the way I felt about my ethnicity. Yet, I was curious. and while I often feigned my disinterest – and some of the time it was genuine — I never seriously engaged in researching my family tree. Until now.

Like many Americans across the country and peoples throughout the world, digging into the past is becoming something of a hobby for me. Perhaps I’m not as passionate as some, but with the internet putting just about everything at your fingertips, and the recent popularity of DNA kits providing a detailed breakdown of your ethnic makeup, information about the past has never been so easily accessed.

When earlier this year I had the opportunity to provide Family Tree DNA with some saliva free of charge (saving me around $90), I jumped at the chance. I waited for the kit in the mail – a small package with a couple of cotton swabs and some clear tubes – did what I had to do and then sent them off in the mail. Typically it takes about five or six weeks to get the information back to you, and I have to admit I was quite anxious to see what I’m made of.

According to family lore – much of it provided by my older brother – we were mostly German on my mother’s side and Welsh, German and Dutch on my father’s side. As it turned out the oral history was pretty accurate. When I opened the email from Family Tree DNA that day, I clicked on the link and discovered that I was 95 percent European and 4 percent West Middle Eastern. The European part of me (by the way, I am a blue-eyed blond) was also broken down into 80 percent West and Central Europe and 15 percent British Isles.

While the results of the DNA kit were interesting but pretty much confirmed what I had already suspected, other people can have a much more dramatic experience.

Albany’s Sharon Smith, who was adopted at birth, spent years trying to find her natural birth mother but never succeeded. However, a few months after sending in her DNA kit to Ancestry.com, Smith got an email with a huge surprise. When she opened it up and clicked on “matches,” she found a new woman’s name with a “relationship range” of “mother-sister.”

“I was shocked, I never saw it coming and never thought it was going to happen, but when I opened the email they had found my biological mother,” said Smith. “I was very lucky because she just happened to do a DNA kit herself, and we were so closely matched it had to be my mother. I never thought I was going to find her in a million years. I was very lucky.”

Smith contacted the woman, who confirmed that she was indeed Smith’s birth mother. The two have become close, and last week, Smith had a very special Mother’s Day.

“Previous Mother’s Days were always about my mom,” said Smith, referring to the woman who adopted her. “This year was a very different situation. I am very happy to have a relationship with my birth mom, and I am very thankful she chose the woman she did to be my mom. So, with that being said, I am very blessed that I have had two amazing women who loved me so much to bring me into this world and to raise me to be the woman I am today. So this Mother’s Day, I celebrated two special moms. Not many people can say that.”

Schenectady’s Don Ackerman, a retired social studies teacher in the Niskayuna school district, was also adopted but had little interest in looking for a birth mother. He just wanted to know where he came from.

“I had assumed that I was German, Dutch and English, but when I got my results back the bulk of me, 44 percent, was Irish,” said Ackerman, who grew up in Syracuse. “My wife also did it and she was upset because she was also mainly Irish. She always thought she was Dutch. It was fun and interesting to do it, and I discovered I was 12 percent Scandinavian and 10 percent Iberian Peninsula. I also had 1 percent Pacific Islander. But I was an adopted kid, an only child, and I had a wonderful life so it wasn’t about finding my mother.”

Nancy Curran, a former newspaper columnist and critic for the Gazette and the now-defunct Union Star, has worked in the genealogy field for nearly 30 years now, researching her own past and helping others look into their family tree. The television mini-series, “Roots,” raised interest in family genealogy according to Curran, and then the internet and now DNA kits have made the idea of looking into one’s past even more compelling.

“I think interest has been steadily growing since the movie, ‘Roots,’ which came out around the Bicentennial,” said Curran. “People were wondering, ‘does my family have anything to do with this wonderful experiment we call America.’ And then it was the advent of the internet. You used to have to drive to a major library, find some microfilm with an index that would tell  you what other microfilm you should be reading. Now you’re just click away. Increasingly, more and more documents are being digitized. Almost everything is at your fingertips.”

Curran has also used the DNA kit – she is 72 percent Scandinavian – but she likes to remind people that the results sometimes don’t provide that much information.

“I think my takeaway from the DNA kits is that it is more likely to be confirmation of information you already have,” she said. “If you’re looking for a relative it’s not always going to be dependable. So much of it depends upon whether anybody whose DNA would be helpful to you has actually taken a test. However, sometimes you do get lucky.”

Major players

Family Tree DNA, Ancestry.com and 23andMe are among the major companies involved in DNA testing these days. It was Bennett Greenspan who founded Family Tree DNA nearly 20 years ago in Houston, Texas.

“I conceived the idea in 1999 and I took my first commercial order in 2000,” said Greenspan, who had owned a photographic supply company in the Houston area. “I saw the digitization of an industry I was in, and every time I sold a digital camera I was cannibalizing my own business. I had to do something else and the DNA technology was very interesting to me. People were immediately very enthusiastic about the idea and things just took off.”

Business hasn’t let up.

“Last year was our best ever,” said Greenspan, whose parent company, Gene by Gene, does the laboratory work for many of the other companies selling DNA kits. “My guess is that it will continue to grow. The technology is so easy. I can remember when the first cell phone came out and I said, ‘I’ll never have one of those.’ Two years later I had one and now everybody has one. Soon, everyone will know their DNA and people will actually know for sure if they’re 20 percent Native American, 30 percent Irish or Jewish, or whatever.”

At the Schenectady County Historical Society, librarian/archivist Mike Maloney gets many visitors to the Grems-Doolittle Library looking to fill in their family tree, and many of them have also gone the DNA kit route.

“I think the popularity of genealogy is still increasing due to DNA kits because it adds an extra level of excitement for genealogists as you can pinpoint what part of the world your ancestors came from,” said Maloney. “TV shows like ‘Finding Your Roots’ add the celebrity aspect to genealogy, and our genealogy-focused programs at the historical society always draw a good crowd.”

As popular as the kits are, if you’re delving into your family history and looking past your ethnicity, the best place to be is in a library with access to a computer, in particular a library with a collection like that of the Schenectady County Historical Society.

“Increased access to records through the internet allow people to do a lot of research from home,” said Maloney. “But here we also have wills, yearbooks, naturalization records, church baptisms and other primary sources. You can usually find a few researchers looking to break through genealogy brick walls at our library.”

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