This is a very personal story. I share my experience with DNA research as someone else may benefit from my initial oversight, and how I ultimately realized what my DNA was actually telling me about my father and paternal grandparents.
I’ve always known that my ancestry was 63% English, 25% Greek, and 12% American (ultimately going back to England). That’s been my identity. Three of my grandparents were immigrants, and the father of my fourth grandparent was an immigrant. I’ve been proud of my immigrant grandparents who had the courage to leave their loved ones, knowing they would never see them again.
So when I received my DNA results from Ancestry several years ago, I expected my ethnicity estimate would generally reflect my genealogical pedigree. But it did not. Of course, my ethnicity estimate differs depending on which company’s results I look at (my DNA resides at AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, FamilyTree DNA, and Living DNA). Roughly, the results range from 30-44% German/Eastern Europe, 23-45% British, and 11-38% Greek between the different companies. Hmmm, exactly where did all of that German/Eastern Europe ethnicity come from?
I knew that ethnicity estimates are often not what we would expect due to three reasons: (1) the reference populations used to determine ethnicity are rather small, (2) we do not share DNA with all of our distant ancestors, and (3) our ethnicity is based on ancestors who lived about 1,000 years ago. Since Normans from France and Saxons from Germany invaded England 1,500 to 1,000 years ago, I assumed my German ethnicity results meant many of my English ancestors were descendants of the invaders. Although my ethnicity results bothered me (like a sliver in a finger), they did not cause me substantial concern.
As for my DNA matches, I immediately began DNA research on one particular maternal line that had captured my interest. I was so involved with that maternal line for years, that I totally neglected my paternal side. When I finally turned to my father’s side to resolve a specific issue, I was shocked at what I discovered—my paternal biological grandfather was not my genealogical grandfather! DNA results verified the grandfather I knew was indeed the biological father of my three uncles and two aunts, he just wasn’t my father’s biological father. How had I missed that not-so-subtle fact? Further reflection led to four main reasons why I had missed this non-paternal event in my family tree.
- Tradition. My grandfather had always been my grandfather, the same grandfather shared by my paternal cousins. No one ever questioned his relationship to us. Because I had never questioned who my grandparents were, I didn’t think to look at my DNA for any surprises. I should have known better. My grandfather was a jealous man, and he had often accused his wife of having affairs with other men. He even suspected his second son was not his biological child, and said so frequently. But my grandmother always denied his accusations and no proof had ever surfaced to the contrary. Until now. I was shocked. It wasn’t my grandfather’s second son who was the result of my grandmother’s affair, it was the third son—my father.
- Ethnicity. My pedigree chart showed one grandparent born in Greece, two grandparents born in England, and the fourth grandparent born in America, with her father born in England. So when I reviewed my ethnicity estimates, I was disappointed to see how far “off” my results were, but I also recognized the issues with ethnicity estimates that makes them so variable. I could explain away the Germanic Europe results by believing many of my English ancestors descended from invaders. It sounded reasonable to me. However, since my initial results arrived several years ago, each subsequent revision of my ethnicity estimate took me even further away from my English roots. My ethnicity results were becoming more frustrating and unexplainable. Yet I did not see what I should have seen.
- Immigration. My paternal grandfather was a rather recent immigrant, arriving in the United States in the early 1900s. Much of AncestryDNA’s database consists of test takers from the United States; not many people who currently live in the British Isles have tested with AncestryDNA. I assumed this was one reason why I was not finding the matches I had hoped to find for my grandfather.
- Shared DNA. Three of my father’s nieces have tested with AncestryDNA. Each of those nieces is the daughter of a different sibling of my father. When I compared the amount of DNA my brother and I share with my three paternal first cousins, I noticed that the amount of shared cM was not as high as would be expected for first cousins. But this didn’t bother me tremendously as I assumed my brother and I shared a little less of our grandmother’s DNA, and more of our grandfather’s DNA, than did my cousins.
I could explain away all the little issues listed above, until the day I spotted a new DNA match who I will call MW (for mystery woman). MW and I share 265 cM placing us in a 2nd-3rd cousin relationship. MW and I share almost the same amount of DNA that I share with my paternal first cousins (who were designated by AncestryDNA as being my 1st-2nd cousins or my 2nd cousins). Who was this stranger with whom I shared so much DNA? She had a common name, no tree, and no profile information. All I knew about her was her name and that she had to be related to me on my paternal side. When I ran the shared matches tool on MW, the only close relation MW and I shared was my brother. Not one of my paternal first cousins were shared matches. Uh oh! This was very odd, and I considered various scenarios on how this could happen. Then it hit me—my father was the illegitimate son of my grandmother and some other man. That was the only scenario that made sense as it explained why MW was so closely related to my brother and I, but she didn’t share any DNA with our paternal cousins. Now recognizing that my first cousins are actually my half first cousins, the amount of shared DNA between my brother and I and our “first cousins” made sense as the numbers perfectly aligned to half first cousins.
Then I checked MW’s ethnicity and found she was 75% Germanic Europe. Suddenly my 38% Germanic Europe and my brother’s 39% Germanic Europe results made sense. My biological paternal grandfather was not English, he was German! I quickly checked the ethnicity of each of my paternal “first cousins” and found they either had no Germanic Europe ethnicity or an extremely low percentage. My brother and I stood alone.
I traced the ancestry of several of my shared matches with MW and discovered three things: (1) the matches all had a high Germanic Europe ethnicity estimate, (2) they matched no one else in my match list except for my brother, and (3) they all shared a common ancestral couple—German immigrants who arrived in America in the mid-1800s. This immigrant couple had a son who was the same generation as my grandmother, and that son lived in the same town as my grandmother the year she became pregnant with my father. In fact, that son lived next door to my grandmother’s parents for at least 20 years!
The day I made this discovery, I not only lost who I believed was my biological grandfather, I also lost 25% of my English ancestry. I was quite surprised how this affected me. I had only met my paternal grandfather once at age five; he died within a year of that meeting. So it’s not that I had a strong emotional connection to him. But over the years, I’ve conducted extensive research on my grandfather’s ancestry. To discover these people are not my biological family is disturbing, although they remain the biological ancestors of my (now) half first cousins. The emotions I feel are not so much about my grandfather, as they are about my identity. I’m not actually 63% English, 25% Greek, and 12% American as I had thought; in general, I’m 25% German/East European, 25% Greek, and 50% English (if I count my American line as English).
My identity struggle is taking time to resolve. On paper, my paternal grandfather is still my grandfather, and his ancestors are still my ancestors. But biologically, I have a brand new line to explore, get to know, and come to appreciate.
Have you ever done any DNA research? Let us know in a comment below!