DNA testing enables family root tracing
HARLINGEN — They move through the pages like hands through the centuries.
Names appear as if resurrecting the dead, stories that have faded from memory waiting for revelation.
The genealogists who discover these stories spend many hours of meticulous research through all sorts of archives. U.S. Census, FamilySearch, Catholic Archives, and Ancestry.com are just a few of the many resources people use nowadays to explore their heritage.
“It’s one of America’s favorite pastimes,” said Susan Francis, president of the Tip ’O Texas Genealogical Society.
“Probably one of the reasons people have gotten so interested is that it’s so much easier,” she said. “It used to be people had to trace old records by going to the courthouses and trekking through cemeteries.”
With more online resources, people don’t have to travel far and wide to reconnect with the past. They can do it at their computer at home or a local library.
Francis herself is a Daughter of the American Revolution. She discovered this after her daughter had a seventh grade assignment to create a family history project.
“I didn’t know much about my ancestry, but I thought I had better start finding out if my daughter was going to do this family history project,” she said. “I had to find out on both sides of the family.”
She organized some family photos, but she soon had to create a family tree to keep up with them all.
“I drew the family tree to see the connection and then I saw holes where I couldn’t figure out who was next and then I started looking,” she said. “It’s like detective work.”
That’s how Mary Torres, a member of the Hispanic Genealogical Society, described it.
“I think one it’s the thrill of discovery,” she said. “The other I think is the research abilities that you didn’t know you had. You become more of a detective in searching. You begin to think differently.”
It seems this sort of genealogical sleuthing empowers individuals with a certain analytical capacity in order to find the truth in their genes.
“Well, maybe the name was spelled differently or they didn’t live in that area,” Torres said as an example. “Or maybe they were married two or three times.”
Torres pointed out that Hispanics are able to trace their ancestry much more smoothly than some other groups. Why? Because the Mexican and Spanish governments have always kept meticulous records of births, deaths, marriages and baptisms, as has the Catholic Church.
“I researched records from Mexico and people who made it back across to Spain,” she said. “They have that set of records. But they also did some duplicates or triplicates and sent them back to Spain so there are some records there.”
Torres, like Francis, pointed out that when she began genealogy in the early 2000s, there was little available on the Internet.
“Now, my favorite websites are Ancestry.com and the FamilySearch,” she said. “I’ve been to the Catholic archives in Austin, and I’ve been to the archives at the UTRGV in Brownsville and Edinburg.”
DNA: Finding links to the past
She also had her DNA tested at Ancestry.com with some surprising results, especially considering the service has upgraded its database since she first took the test in 2014.
“Mine changed from 21 percent Native American, now I’m 23 percent,” she said. “I was heavily into Italy, Greece and Spain and now I’m 32 percent French.”
She pointed out that countries change their boundaries or at some point become part of another country. Therefore, a genetic linkage can sometimes be hard to determine.
“I’m no longer Irish or Scandinavian,” she said sadly. “I kind of enjoyed being Irish for awhile. When they change it again in three years, who knows? They call it an estimate of ethnicities.”
Francis said DNA is a relatively new arrival to a very old activity.
“Proving your ancestry has been going on since the Old Testament,” she said. “DNA helps, and yes there are people who have already done their trees. They’ve done their DNA so that you can plug in your DNA to one of the sites like Ancestry.com and find out that you match with somebody else who is registered.”
Getting in touch with relatives can help add leaves and branches to one’s family tree, Francis said.
“With Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org there are people that have already done trees,” she said. “Chances are if you know who your great grandparents are and you can plug them into one of those search engines you’ll find somebody that’s done some of your tree already for you.”
Those embarking on this quest should prepare themselves for some surprises.
“Both of my parents died young so I really didn’t get their story,” Torres said. “Looking at my parents’ marriage information, it stated that my father had been married before. I had never heard that and I still haven’t been able to find out who he might have been married to before he married my mother.”
Her DNA results showed a connection to Puerto Rico, which she also knew nothing about. She’s still trying to track that down, enjoying the mysteries of lineage and history. Perhaps she’ll find more surprises on www.pares.mcu.es, the Spanish archives.
So many connections, stories between the lines, and the missing pieces in family trees heighten this never-ending voyage into the past.
Now, more than ever, modern humanity can travel through its own history going back centuries.