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DNA’s Deep Roots


By Linda Greenberg

DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid is a self-replicating material present in nearly all living organisms. It is the main constituent of chromosomes, the carrier of all genetic information. As such it carries the fundamental and distinctive characteristics or qualities of each one of us and is regarded as unchangeable.

DNA connects us to our ancestors and is the genetic heritage for future generations. As such, it is a wonderful tool for genealogists and family historians because it can answer questions of relationship that never could have been answered before.

For example, a friend of mine of African descent told me that from family stories she had concluded that her family’s origins were in east Africa. Still, wanting to know “for sure,” she had her DNA tested and was surprised to learn that her African origins were in west Africa. Knowing this, she understood why it had been so difficult to find confirmation of her east African ancestors and refocused her genealogical research.

A personal example happened this month. I was contacted by a member of Ancestry. She had had her DNA tested. In her email she told me we were related through my paternal grandmother. I was thrilled because I had spent some time and money trying to learn more about my Nonna Judy, my paternal grandmother. She also confirmed the fact that Nonna Judy’s original surname was Doutot not Dontot. This was of great interest because my family knew Nonna Judy as Juliette Dontot and my sister’s middle name is Dontot. Our common ancestor was Nonna Judy’s grandmother, an Adelle Vigneau from a small town in Nova Scotia. The Vigneaus had, as had my Nonna Judy, entered America from Nova Scotia through Boston. The Vigneau relatives stayed in the Boston area, my grandmother went south to New York City. This relative called me “Cuz” and was glad to share family information.

Another friend was applying to the DAR, or the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. DAR is a patriotic society based on lineage or having an ancestor who in some way participated in the American Revolution. It was important for her to prove that she was related to a particular revolutionary war patriot but she could not find all the documents to substantiate her claim. One option was a DNA test. In this case, she knew a collateral relative who had documents to prove that he was related to the same American patriot. My friend had his and her DNA tested to see if they matched. If they matched she would have support that she was related to the American patriot. You can imagine her impatience as she waited to receive the test’s results and how delighted she was to learn that the tests showed a match –she and her relative were related — and with her other data she was therefore related to the American Revolutionary war patriot.

I have subscribed to Ancestry — — for many years. (Ancestry provides millions of family trees and census data*.) When DNA testing became available, I had my DNA identified. As an Ancestry subscriber I receive emails every month listing DNA matches – some highly likely, some less so. Usually the names sent by Ancestry, even of highly likely matches according to my DNA, are unknown to me. Since I enjoy learning about my extended family, I usually send an email to a person with a strong match to see whether they are still active in Ancestry and want to learn more about their extended family.

Occasionally, I call the person. Not too long ago, Ancestry sent the name of a man whose last name was related to my maternal grandfather and who had a branch living in the Boston area. I was very interested in following up this lead. Ancestry said there was a very strong likelihood that we were related (according to both of our DNA). Using Google I located a man with his name in a Boston suburb and called him. He spoke briefly with me and said that he no longer kept up with Ancestry but his daughter did and I should call her. He gave me his daughter’s name and telephone number. I called. No answer. I called later, but no answer. I called several times and left a message explaining why I was calling but it became obvious that neither he nor she was interested in further communication. It is disappointing but some people are not interested in sharing their family with others.

*Ancestry sponsors a web site,, and costs less than $100 a year for its basic service of access to its enormous data base. There are other organizations that provide similar services. Ancestry is the best known.

Linda Greenberg resides in Alexandria and is an enthusiastic genealogist.

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