This week, I discovered that I have a second cousin named Kermit who lives in New Mexico – a retired crane operator and complete stranger who shares some of my Norwegian-Irish DNA.
It all started with a container of my spit.
For $99, I paid ancestry.com to analyze a cup of saliva for clues about my lineage – a decision inspired by the National Genealogical Society’s whopper of a conference that starts Wednesday in downtown Raleigh. For my money, I found Kermit, with whom I’ve swapped a few emails, and also learned to no real surprise that my genetic fibers are heavily sprinkled around the fishing villages of southern Norway and the hardscrabble farms of colonial Pennsylvania.
But in the spirit of family excavation sweeping Raleigh next week, I shelled out a few extra bucks and dug deeper. Here’s who I found:
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▪ Robert Bell Sr., my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather who sailed from Ireland, settled in West Virginia and took a gash in the leg from a tomahawk during an American Indian “ambuscade.” He went on, my ancestors gloat with what I guess is historical accuracy, to fight with George Washington in the French and Indian War.
▪ Stephen French, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, an indentured servant from England who landed on these shores in 1630, became a town officer in Nantasket in colonial Massachusetts and – according to a glowing family history – begat a Massachusetts Minuteman.
▪ William R. Shaffer, a shoemaker in 1880s Pennsylvania; Almond Bristol, a laborer in 1840s Connecticut who never went to school; Susannah Hetrick, whose name is spelled a dozen ways.
“You’ve been bit!” joked Victoria Young, president of the N.C. Genealogical Society and local host conference chair. “Join the ‘genie’ community even if peripherally. I know you will enjoy it.”
Readers of this column know that I tend to rummage through history more than the average Joe, but by any yardstick this conference is a big deal. Roughly 2,000 people have signed up for the four-day genealogy-nerd wingding, which offers more than 100 sessions, many of them focused on gleaning information from DNA. But here are a few courses that stand out for me:
▪ Running Away to Join the Circus: Tracing Our Performing Ancestors.
▪ Coffin Maker, Undertaker and Funeral Director: the other death record source.
▪ What’s in German Parish Microfilms?
The majority of people who, like me, send their spit off in the mail want to know the details of their ethnic background. This is shaky territory. For one thing, even though ancestry.com qualifies as the largest consumer genetics testing company, its database consists of only 3 million people – slightly larger than the population of Chicago.
Blaine Bettinger, who writes “The Genetic Genealogist” blog, tells me that the analysis is accurate down to continents – not countries. So expect results that show a percentage of ethnicity from western Europe or Africa. Don’t expect to find out you’re part Cherokee.
“Your ethnic prediction is just cocktail chatter,” Young said.
The broad swaths of personal history fail to grab me as much the particular characters, and ancestry.com is loaded with grainy photos of frowning and bearded great-uncles, gravestones inscribed with Civil War regiments and histories penned by relatives trying to get into the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Being that it’s self-reported, I take it all as semi-gospel. Spellings, birthdays and death dates can all vary wildly for the same ancestor. So who knows if Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Robert really dragged himself across West Virginia with a tomahawk sticking out of his calf?
But I’m a fan of any service that connects our disparate lives, that can trace a middle-aged scribbler in 21st-century North Carolina to a luckless peasant on a leaky boat from England. It’s not likely I’ll ever meet Kermit and swap stories about the faces in our black-and-white photographs. But I’m glad to know we’re kin, making do with the same peas and carrots in our hereditary soup.
If you go
The National Genealogical Society’s Family History Conference runs May 10-13 at the Raleigh Convention Center. Online registration has closed, but attendees may register in person at the convention center starting Tuesday at noon. Registration for non-members costs $275 for all four days and $120 for one day. See more at www.ngsgenealogy.org.