We’re WHAT, Now?

As I’ve said here before, I did my first ancestral DNA test last year.

The results have been posted up on the company’s Web site – via my own member page – for over 9 months. Based on the speculative nature of the tests, I have over 400 genetic relatives.

But going through the list of “matches”, my fellow members belong to all sorts of haplogroups – a number of them aren’t even close to mine. Some of them were able to do the male lineage – or Y-DNA – tests, so their genetic pictures are a bit more complete than mine.

One would like to hope to stumble across someone who could realistically be a family member. But when the closest “relative” shares less than 0.5 percent on one segment of a teeny, tiny shred of DNA, it’s hard not to be skeptical.

Well, for some people.

Twelve days ago, I got an email from someone on the Web site, asking to share ancestral genetic information. She was American, didn’t have a photo, and didn’t have any ancestral surnames that seemed to match mine. I couldn’t even see which haplogroup she belonged to.

I did think about not accepting the invitation. But I thought, what the hell. Maybe there’s more information on her profile that I can’t see without accepting the invitation.

So I accepted.

The next day, I received a message. It began:

“I am very happy to know that I am sharing this life with a new found cousin …



I read it a second time, along with the rest of the message, which instructed me to contact the woman’s brother – it seems that he was the one who managed the account on the Web site, and that I could get in touch with him for more information.

I sent a friendly, but somewhat neutral email in response, and promptly emailed the brother. I explained that his sister emailed me, that I was still fairly new to genealogy and DNA tests (which is true, in that I’m no expert in this at all, other than paying money to take them), that my family lineage was Jamaican, and that I was curious to see how I was related to his family.

At the very least, I figured that perhaps he’d take a look at my profile on the ancestral DNA account and see that we weren’t really all that related.

He wrote back a lengthy response. He talked about his own foray into genealogy and genetic testing (he’s a novice like me). And I suppose, given how I had written my original email, he’d assumed that I was starting from scratch — he then explained how hard it is to search for African-American ancestors because of records, that one had to be patient, etc. And then he asked me for ancestors’ names and dates to start the search.

Admittedly, I read the email and let out a deep sigh.

I don’t begrudge the guy or his sister for trying to connect the dots in their family tree – it’s exactly what I’ve tried to do, what many others are doing as I write this. And what he said about finding records for ancestors lost to time is true, and it’s no easy task.

But I read this email and thought, there is no way on this Earth that there are any links between his family and mine – UNLESS, there is some unnamed, unidentified ancestor who was either taken from Jamaica to the U.S., or vice-versa. The links would have to be extremely distant.

Just to be sure, I went back to the DNA testing Web site to see if this woman and I were in fact from the same haplogroup.

How do I explain this? We come from the same tree limb, but we sit on two completely different branches. Or maybe, we’re from different twigs sprouted from different branches of the same limb. Something like that. Either way, it doesn’t completely add up for me, so my skepticism is deep.

As of last week, the woman’s brother said he’d start looking into ye olde family research at the beginning of April.

This is either going to confirm what I already knew. Or this is going to get  … messy.

My Interesting Spit, and A Grinding Halt

As previously mentioned, a couple of months ago I purchased a DNA ancestry test online – which arrived with blistering speed at my front door – and submitted it, to see what my spit would tell me about my genetic background.

While I was away in Connecticut, I got an email notifying me of some initial results.

By the time I returned home, the testing was complete.

And what did my saliva reveal?

Well, according to the overall speculative results, I’m 87.2 per cent Sub-Saharan African, 11.6 per cent European (mainly English/Irish – I think “Scottish” – with “Broadly European” elements), 0.5 per cent Middle Eastern/North African (actually “North African”), 0.4 per cent East Asian/North American Indian (which, to me, possibly means the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean or Central America), and 0.3 per cent unassigned (“undecipherable”, in my mind).

Of that 87.2 per cent of Sub-Saharan African ancestry, 83.6 per cent of that is of West African descent.

This part isn’t all that surprising; if one’s family is from the Caribbean or are of African-American descent, chances are, this will turn up. I think what took me back was how high the percentage was. I suppose, knowing that so many people came together because of colonialism/slavery, and migration later on, I was actually expecting that percentage to be lower.

(I told my mom, and she actually doesn’t believe it, because of the stories she heard growing up.)

I’m also keeping in mind that, as I also mentioned back in June, this isn’t the final answer on my ancestry. The type of testing I did is called autosomal testing. So while these results give me a general picture of my genetic makeup, it won’t tell me which ancestries belong to which parent.

Also, “West African” is still extremely broad. It doesn’t tell me if I’m what’s now considered to be Nigerian or, say, Sierra Leonean. (And, frankly, I suspect it will be quite a long time before this particular company I used will be able to make the distinction, if ever.)

What I did find interesting is that my mitrochondrial DNA – that teeny, tiny, shred of DNA that’s carried through my mother’s side of the family tree, through her maternal line – can be found exclusively amongst people in present-day Ethiopia and Sudan, and seems to have arrived there about 15,000 years ago.

I might try and find another company that gives more specifics, if one exists (and they ship tests to Canada).

Meanwhile, the trail of bread crumbs that I’d hoped would help me continue to string together more information about my great-aunt Ellen seems to have vanished.

I’d sent an email request to Library and Archives Canada, just to see what they might come up with.

While waiting for a response, I also stumbled upon a contact for a local historian in Montreal, who managed to tell me a bit of information about the address I saw on Ellen’s passenger record, as well as find a tiny bit of information she found about the owner at the time of my great-aunt’s arrival, as well as who currently lives there. (From what I understand, it’s not in the state it once was.)

A genealogical consultant with Library and Archives Canada did eventually email me back a few weeks ago, but she merely pointed me in the direction of the passenger record I was already well aware of.

In my request, I’d also inquired whether the Canadian government kept track of letters it sent abroad.

(Backstory: According to my mother’s knowledge of Ellen, my great-aunt did keep in touch with one person from her family: her baby sister, whom everyone called Milda. When Ellen fell ill, the Canadian government apparently sent Milda a note, inviting her to Canada to take care of her. Milda made preparations to come to Canada, only to cancel the trip at the last minute. Which suggests that Ellen possibly died before Milda could reach her.)

The consultant replied that, while Library and Archives Canada does hold old government records, not all departments retained their old records, nor are they all indexed. She said there was no record of Ellen’s name in their database, and suggested that the letter could have been sent by a provincial or local office.

And the historian in Montreal reached to some other local historians with our shred of information, to see if they perhaps knew something about my great-aunt’s employer at the time of her arrival in Canada. But despite being intrigued about my inquiry, they all said it was too specific for them to be able to help.

On top of this, are two other roadblocks of sorts:

One: birth and death records — or, the civil registration of said records — are the responsibility of the provinces and territories. And, naturally, it helps if you have information about the person for whose records you’re searching.

Two: census returns are in the custody of Statistics Canada, and are closed for  — get this — 92 years. (The 1921 Census of Canada was just released in 2013, to give you an idea.) So, unless you’re looking for information about yourself, for pension or legal purposes … OR, you’ve gotten written permission from the person whose information you’re trying to obtain … good luck.

(Also? NINETY-TWO YEARS. What an arbitrary number.)

So, here I am, stumped.

And currently, my remaining lead lies with a 98-year-old woman living in a nursing home in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Who is she?

That would be Milda — Ellen’s youngest, surviving sibling. And my great-aunt, whom I’ve never met.

I have a cousin who lives relatively close to her, and my mom spoke to her weeks ago, asking if she could pay her a visit and ask her some questions, in hopes that she’ll say something, ANYTHING, that would be useful.

But I’m dependent on a cousin who — understandably so — has her own, very busy life to live. And the last time I heard from her was a couple of months ago. And I can’t really afford to fly down myself to ask. (Plus, peppering a relative — who doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall — with questions? I think it requires much more tact than that.)

If there are any interesting developments, I’ll let you know.

But in the meantime, a question for any expert or novice genealogists in their own right, who may stumble across my blog:

Can you recommend any valuable tools or resources that have helped you in your searches for long-lost relatives? I’d be interested in hearing them — especially ones that you might consider underrated or underused. Thanks!



My Personal History Project

So. I know it’s been a very long time since I’ve last posted.

If you’ve seen my last entry, then you know the reason why.

It’s been a bit of a tough, depressing time, to be honest.

But in addition to losing my father, I also moved into a new apartment. Which, apparently,  are two of the most stressful things that a person can go through.

There have also been job cuts at my workplace. Fortunately, I’m safe, for the moment. It merely means that I have at least one thing that’s resembles normalcy this year so far.

And now, we’re barrelling into summer. And with no major trips planned – only one short one, but more on that later – it seems like it’s going to be relatively sedate.

In some ways, that’s fine. But I’ve been bored.

And that boredom got me thinking: beyond what I do for a living, who am I, really? What am I?

I’m of Jamaican parentage. But if you know the island’s motto (“Out of many, one people”), then you know there’s a bit more to it than that. It’s been a question that’s taken up residence in a deep corner of my brain for at least the last couple of years now.

So, it was late on a Saturday night roughly a couple of weeks ago, that I decided I would start trying to find out.

I ordered a DNA ancestry test online from one of those companies in the States and mailed back a saliva sample, just to see what they’ll find.

Now, let’s be clear: I don’t in any way, shape or form think this test will magically tell me everything I need to know about my genetic makeup. It’s not necessarily going to tell me where specifically my lineage came from, or from what side of the family. Not unless I’m willing to shell out more money and start begging family members to pay money to swab their cheeks or spit into plastic vials.

But it would be nice to have some sort of clue.

I probably won’t find out for at least another couple of weeks. So in the meantime, I’ve taken up another mini-hobby …

One that’s led me in a direction I didn’t intend to go.