Thursday, March 7, 2019

Who am I? DNA and genealogy - Guest Author Edition

Who am I? DNA and Genealogy

By SUE CRITES SZOSTAK Director, Poplar Bluff Municipal Library

As a Christmas gift to one another, Joe and I sent our DNA samples to Ancestry. Why did we? We wanted to know where we fit into the American story. Who were our immigrant ancestors? Where did they come from? Who came to America with our families? Joe is a third generation descendant of Polish immigrants and does not know some of his family who emigrated from Poland in the late 1800s and early 1900s except more immediate family members such as his aunts, uncles and first cousins. He wanted to know more. 

My story is the other end of the spectrum. Family history made up the bedtime stories my grandmothers told me as a child. They told me their families came from England and Germany. I learned of Civil War stories and westward movement to Missouri from Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Illinois, and Tennessee. Most of this family history has been well documented and shared from generation to generation. While birth and death records are well documented, there has been an oral history, as well. These oral histories have had multiple variations passed down through the family and for the most part, the basic facts hold to be true. 

With Joe, there were no surprises. His ancestors were from Eastern Europe. One of Joe’s aunt’s DNA was 97 percent Polish. Joe shows to be Polish, Western Russian, and Slovak. I am sure that his mother’s ancestry made for the other percentages. I found I was Irish, Scottish and the British Isles with the remainder being Northwestern Europe (Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, etc.). Again, no surprise based upon the family stories. This begins our travel into the world of genealogy. Family history is more than stories. 

The knowledge of your ancestry takes on life and meaning when you understand more about your family. I am asked, “Are you kin to…?” (For those of you who don’t know the good Elizabethan word, kin — it means related.) The answer to that question is not always a definitive yes or no. So… begin the yawns and let me tell you how we are related. Never is the answer simple. Once you get beyond the aunts and uncles and first cousins, you need a diagram to explain the relationship. For example, I have gotten to know a young lady who upon knowing my maiden name asked if I was her relative. After asking her a couple of questions, I could tell her, “Yes.” Yes, we are kin and yes it is complicated. Both of her great-grandparents were first cousins to my father. The great-grandmother was my dad’s first cousin on my dad’s maternal side and the great-grandfather was my dad’s first cousin on his father’s side. I knew both of her great-grandparents from family gatherings during the ’50s through ’70s. I knew her great-great-grandparents as well. It was difficult to explain without a drawing. This brings me to family trees. 

Family lines branch like a tree. The tree looks more like the mighty oak than any other tree. The branches are long and complex with many smaller branches and an intertwining of the branches. How do we sort this out and show the interrelationships? As always, this brings me back to the library. 

Begin with who you know in your family. Fill in your tree’s branches with yourself, siblings, parents, grandparents and as many people as you think you know and as far back as you can go. Ask your parents and grandparents. Now you have names you are ready to visit us at the library. Using your library card or guest pass you can use databases, Ancestry. com (library use only) and Heritage Quest in the library (and at home with your library card number). From the library’s web site, https:// access death records, Department of Vital Statistics, school yearbooks, city directories, etc. Let’s not forget all of the genealogy and local and state history books in the library. In addition, with your free library card, you can borrow many genealogy resources from the State of Missouri and all over the United States. 

Documentation of facts is important. Sometimes names are spelled differently, dates need to be verified and years of residence lead clues to your family heritage. History plays a big part in understanding why your clues may not jive with what you think you know. Why are there different spellings of my family name? Perhaps the census taker was spelling a name phonetically or as people moved from one section of the country to another, the spelling evolved. Why did a family member move from Virginia to Tennessee? Were there economic opportunities that changed due to politics? Did families move to a new beginning or seek to get away from civil strife? A good example of this is the northern migration of southerners in search of jobs. What were the geopolitical conditions? My husband’s family offers an example of this. His grandparents’ marriage certificate states that they were Austrian. They weren’t. We know they were Polish. It happens that the part of Poland where they were born was a part of the Austro Hungarian Empire which existed prior to World War I. Their citizenship is Austrian. If you don’t know, ask your librarian to help you find out what and why. 

Genealogy is a journey. It is a journey to the past and it is a trip to the knowledge of your family. Start your search with yourself, visit your library, and enjoy getting to know your family.

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