Cat Flag asks: Who am I?

I’m sure you have seen the ads on TV or on YouTube that play all the time for services that test your DNA to tell you about where your ancestors came from. Well, this year I got one of those DNA test kits for Christmas! Specifically, I got an AncestryDNA test kit, which promises to tell me what percentage of my heritage came from which part of the world. So, I decided to share my experience with all of you Cat Flaggers.

This blog post will be broken into three parts. The first part I wrote before I got the test results; in it, I will recount what I knew, or thought I knew, about my ancestry. The second part describes the test and my experience with it. Lastly, I will go over my test results with all of you.

Before the test: My family history as I understood it

My father’s family has been in the United States for a very long time. Years ago, my grandfather had made a family tree tracing his heritage back to a Capt. Howell Griffith who fought in the American Revolutionary War. I have also been told that his father, my great-grandfather, is a very, very distant relative of the Swedish royal family. He married my great-grandmother, whose maiden name was Toothacher, but we don’t know very much about the Toothacher family.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was part Choctaw, and said her lineage can be traced to Suzanne Graham-Stewart, a Choctaw woman who married a Scottish-American and was present at the signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. She also believes that other ancestors of hers were Scots-Irish.

My mother’s side came to America more recently. Her father’s family came from Wisconsin, an area that was heavily settled by Germans in the 19th century. Meanwhile, my grandmother’s father came through Ellis Island. His surname was Balde, but my family is convinced this was a misspelling or mistranslation of his actual family name that some poor immigration officer couldn’t write. We believe that he was Russian, but at the time the Russian Empire ruled over many, many different countries that are now independent, so it’s possible he was from one of these countries under Russian rule.

My grandmother’s grandfather was John Simbach, whose family name comes from the German town of Simbach am Inn. For years, we thought he was originally from this town, but recently we learned he was actually born in another part of Germany. Regardless, he he had twelve children – six from his first wife, and six from his Jewish nanny, who became his second wife. My grandmother is descended from one of the second set of six.

The Test

So, the test came in a small box, no bigger than a paperback novel. In the box were an instruction sheet, a plastic container with a test tube and cap, a small plastic bag, and a small self-addressed prepaid postal box.

First, you have to register for an account at ancestry.com. After all, this service is provided by Ancestry.com LLC, and they need to be able to tell whose DNA sample is whose. Registration only takes a few minutes. The most important part is telling the website what the 15-digit code on your test tube is. This way, the system will be able to track your test results. While registering, you can also opt-in to having your DNA be used not only to trace your own ancestry, but also to help in a scientific experiment to model human migration across time.

Then, once you have registered, you pull out the test tube. You are supposed to spit into the tube until the saliva reaches a fill line. This is more difficult than you might think. It took me about a half-dozen spits to fill that tube, with my mouth getting drier each time. Once you reach that level, you put on a cap filled with a blue liquid that is supposed to stabilize the DNA sample. You shake the tube for a few seconds to mix the two fluids together.

Then, you put the tube in the bag, and put the bag in the box to ship back to the lab.

It’s all quite simple and easy. The whole process takes no more than 10 minutes. Then, you just wait for the test results.

The Test Results!

It took about six weeks for me to get my test results. I have to say, I am a bit surprised! Considering how diverse my known family history is, and how much of my background was a mystery, I expected to be much more of a mutt. Instead, it turns out that I’m 85% British. Well, blimey, that’s bloody brilliant, gov’nor.

It’s pretty safe to say that the Eastern European part of my genetics can be traced to the Balde family, and the Western European (which includes German) and Jewish lines can be traced to the Simbach family. I’m also not surprised by the Scandinavian genes, thanks to my great-grandfather. However, I was quite surprised by the small percentages that came from the Iberian peninsula and the Caucasus. I mean, who in my family tree was Spanish or Portuguese? As for the Caucasus region, that includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia (the country, not the state), and I was never aware of any ancestors of mine from that region.

For context, my parents, my brother, and some of my other relatives also took the AncestryDNA test. My father turned out to be mostly British, like me, but my mother was surprised to learn that she had some British and Scandinavian ancestry as well. She expected to be mostly German and Russian, as those were the parts of her background that she was aware of. She was also the source of the Iberian peninsula and Caucasus genes. As for my brother, his results more closely matched my mom’s.

That’s an important point about these DNA tests. Your results are NOT an exact percentage-match to your family tree. You aren’t exactly 25% what each of your grandparents’ ancestries were. Genetics are a complicated mix of dominant and recessive genes that are mixed semi-randomly from each parent. My genetic profile more closely matches that of my father, while my brother’s more closely matches our mother. Similarly, one of my relatives DID find Native American genes in her AncestryDNA profile, but I did not. I guess those genes just weren’t passed down through my branch of the family tree.

This does beg an important question, however. How, exactly, do these genetic tests work? How do they figure out which genes are associated with which geographic regions of the world? Well, these tests look at your autosomal chromosomes – the parts of your DNA that are not responsible for determining whether you are male or female – and comparing them to other, known samples in an existing database of test results. In other words, if lots of people who take the test from a particular region have a particular genetic trait, that trait is probably associated with that region. That is part of the advantage of AncestryDNA; it has more than 6 million people in its database to compare against your specific DNA. More data means a higher likelihood of accuracy.

Still, I have to say, I did not expect the results I got, and I am now even more curious about my family history. Since getting the results back, I have learned a few more details about my family history. My Balde ancestors did, indeed, arrive in the United States from Russia… aboard the RMS Lusitania, one of the most famous ships in history! I’m sure even more interesting factoids about my family history are just waiting to be uncovered.

Cheerio!

This was NOT a sponsored promotion. Cat Flag received no compensation whatsoever from Ancestry.com LLC in the making of this blog post.

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