My mother took over the mantle of family historian back in the early 1970s, and so began pulling together an updated genealogy of her mother’s family. That family had been the subject of a book written back in the 1920s, but hadn’t been updated since.
So, she started writing to relatives near and far, collecting information that she eventually self-published in time for our annual family reunion during the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976.
Her work got me interested in the subject, and since it was about that time I started writing a weekly column on local history, I decided to look into my dad’s family history, and my mom volunteered to help a bit with that.
And since then, the topic of family history has expanded in our household to both my mother’s parents’ families and both my dad’s parents, as well as my wife’s related families.
Several years ago, my niece bought a National Geographic Genographic Project DNA test kit for me for Christmas, which I dutifully sent off, because I figured it would open a few more historical doors—which it did.
When the results came back, they showed that my roots are deep indeed, stretching back to some of the earliest folks who were folks some 150,000 years ago on my mom’s side and then to a group of people who lived in the Rift Valley of Africa somewhere around 79,000 years ago on my dad’s side of the ledger. It would be truly interesting if one or two of those sets of early remains the Leakey family discovered in the Rift might belong to one of my ancestors.
So anyway, about 50,000 years ago, the Ice Age then gripping the planet turned Africa’s arid plains into grasslands, at which time my dad’s ancestors followed the game they relied on for sustenance north through the Arabian Peninsula before turning farther east into Eurasia and then circling west. Eventually, they reached Lombardy in northern Italy, where my dad’s earliest recorded ancestors lived before they moved to Switzerland in the 1300s.
According to the National Geographic folks, my mom’s line begins with Mitochondrial Eve, the beginning of the matrilineal line for all modern humans. The family spent some tens of thousands of years moving around central Africa. My mom’s ancestors split off Eve’s line and then split again about 80,000 years ago. And those were the folks who moved out of Africa, spurred on by the same conditions that prompted my dad’s ancestors to leave. That group split yet again, with one wave heading east to settle Australia and Polynesia, and the other moving ever farther north into the Near East—and those were my mom’s ancestors. About 50,000 years ago my mom’s ancestors moved north across the Caucasus Mountains and into the lands around the Black Sea. And that’s where, apparently, we acquired the part of our family that is related to the Ashkenazi Jewish people.
Finding out that my mom was genetically related to one half of the great Jewish ancestral heritage (the others are the Sephardim of Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East) came as no real surprise. My cousin’s granddaughter (related to me through my mother’s line) had then recently died of Tay Sachs disease, which requires a genetic Jewish component from both the mother and the father’s side.
There are, however, no Jews in my family genealogy. That probably means those Ashkenazi ancestors survived the pogroms and other brutal anti-Semitic assaults common in Eastern Europe until relatively modern times by renouncing their heritage and being baptized as Christians.
So anyway, that got my family to Europe. My mom’s family pretty much came from Germany. My maternal grandmother’s family immigrated to Pennsylvania from the German Palatinate in 1750, becoming Pennsylvania Deutsch. My maternal grandfather’s family were relatively late arrivals, coming over from East Prussia in 1885. Thus Pennsylvania Deutsch joined with Deutsch to create…my mom.
My paternal grandfather’s family came over from Switzerland in 1867, first setting in Erie, Pennsylvania where he worked as a—and I know this seems a bit hackneyed—Swiss watchmaker. Really. The family then moved to Kansas, for reasons not entirely clear. Although there was a French settlement there at Le Loupe. My paternal grandmother’s family apparently came from Ireland, but when and what those ancestors’ names were I haven’t been able to determine. That’s because their name was Mitchell and they settled in New York City where the name is a dime a dozen. I know they came before the Civil War, because my Great-grandfather Mitchell served in an Ohio 100-day regiment during the war.
During the last several years, both my wife and I became fascinated with TV shows based around genealogy. In particular, we have greatly enjoyed historian Henry Louis Gates’ programs on PBS. For Christmas a couple years ago, I got my wife one of Ancestry.com’s DNA tests, which she sent in for analysis. This past winter, I did the same, and so we now have a pretty good handle on our ancestry after Europe’s earliest history.
During one of Dr. Gates’ “Finding Your Roots” episodes, he analyzed the family history of some movie star or another, and determined the guy was “one of the whitest people” he’d ever met. The star’s DNA proved he had virtually pure white, European DNA. And both my wife and I found about the same results.
My wife, it turns out, is descended from ancestors from Great Britain. In fact, the percentage of British ancestry in her DNA is greater than that of the average resident of Great Britain. Her DNA is 79 percent from Great Britain; the average resident of Great Britain only has 60 percent British DNA.
My DNA on the other hand, showed I’m 63 percent Western European, a higher percentage than the average modern Western European, who has just 48 percent Western European DNA.
So no American Indians in our background, not much other than the barest traces of people who aren’t white, including that tiny bit of Ashkenazi from my distant cousins in Eastern Europe. Which is maybe why I’m so fond of kosher corned beef and bagels. Or maybe not.
Whatever, searching for our roots has provided some grounding, some satisfaction for both my wife as we’ve been able to go beyond family tradition and stories to find out where our ancestors really came from. It’s perhaps not all that exciting, but then again we’re not very exciting people. And apparently we come from a long, long line of non-exciting people.