The Dark Side of DNA

Happy Dia Los Muertos (Day of the Dead).  This year, for Halloween, one of my family members created two glow in the dark pumpkins and a skull and dressed a skeleton to look like Disney’s Coco’s grandpa, Hector.  Sneaky way to get little ones to learn about genealogy relationships!  It was quite lifelike, or should I write, really dead looking?  Two little girls burst into tears which was not my intention and I felt awful but the mom’s said they loved the movie.  I had to show the girls that it wasn’t real.  One little boy was so enamored he said he had questions for Hector and could he come inside.  I told him Hector wasn’t talking tonight and would want the boy to enjoy his candy collecting.  Ahh, children and genealogy, what an interesting mix.  Their reaction is just like adults – some run when you start asking about family history and others want all the details.  

Two weeks ago I wrote about DNA now being available from hair follicles.  Right after reading that article, I found another story that I suspect relates to it though the articles purpose is to bring up a controversial side of DNA and genealogy.  The Messy Consequences of the Golden State Killer Case by Sarah Zhang published in The Atlantic 1 October 2019 will give you a better understanding of why GedMatch and Family Tree Genealogy recently changed their policies. 

As technology evolves, past policies must be rethought.  I’ve blogged in the past about clients and colleagues mentioning that their returned DNA results were just plain wrong.  We all understand that DNA is a Pandora’s box of family secrets but it never crossed my mind that medical procedures acquired as an adult could skew the results.  When I read A Woman Found Her AncestryDNA Test Revealed a Medical Secret also written by Sarah Zhang and published in The Atlantic on 13 September 2019, I was shocked by the findings.  I’m not going to give you a spoiler alert – you must read this article if you have DNA results that seem skewed.  Who would have thought this?!  Clearly not the specialists who first heard their patient’s stories.

Both articles are thought provoking whether you are a donor or are making the decision of sharing your DNA results.

The last DNA related article I’d like to share is a topic I’ve also blogged about in the past.  Accepting the foibles of your family history can be difficult.  Although the author, Ken Bradford, used DNA to build his tree, the old fashion research methods also provide the same results – acquiring the knowledge of the past sins of our forefathers.  Look What the DNA Brought In published in Notre Dame Magazine Autumn 2019 can be helpful if your wrestling with the dark side of your family findings.

All of this is quite spooky, don’t you think?  Happy Day of the Dead

The Changing Norms of Genealogy – Dealing With DNA

Twice a year, my local genealogy society holds a free Meet a Genealogist Day at a regional library.  The well attended event allows the general public with little knowledge of genealogy to meet with a professional to kick start their research.  Over the years that I’ve participated, the trend has been more and more questions about DNA. 

The genealogy society does provide free classes on a variety of topics during the year but unfortunately, most are held during the day which working people can’t attend.  I think that’s one of the reasons the Meet a Genealogist Day is so widely attended as it’s held on a Saturday. 

I just received an email with the new date and a new format.  The event will be held in two rooms – one for general research (which I call old school methods) and the other for those interested only in DNA research. 

I’m not sure where I’ll be placed as I’m fine with either group but I am looking forward to the “data” that shows the interest level of the two groups.  One part of me says that it’s all the same – that you need to use both historical record research and DNA results.  The other part of me, from my participating in past events, understands why there is a new division.  People are getting DNA results and not understanding what they mean or how to move forward with their findings. 

I’m not criticizing the companies who are providing the results.  Most have done an amazing job with giving lots of helpful information on their sites.  Even so, it is overwhelming to many and unfortunately, sometimes the results are disappointing. 

We all know real life is not T.V., however, I wish I had a dollar for every time someone came to me saying they thought they’d find a family connection with an entire tree done once they had their DNA results back.  Then there’s the smaller number of people who insist that the DNA lab messed up their results and that they aren’t the ethnicity that was stated.  A few have insisted that the results were just plain wrong when the results show they aren’t related to a known relative.  I know of one local genealogist who insists that happened.  Interestingly, the individual did not get retested.  Personally, if this happened to me I would contact the company AND I would test with another company to compare results.  Mistakes happen but I’ve never ever heard that the mistake was made by the lab. 

So, the underlying issue is having difficulty accepting the DNA results. Like with all of life’s disappointments, that healing takes time.

Lineage Societies – What gives?!

I am trying hard not to make this a rant so I’ll let you know up front that I’m very frustrated with many of the lineage societies’ directions and interpretations of what they consider acceptable.

In the past year, I’ve completed a number of society applications for clients and myself.  It seems each time there is something a society had a problem with that I couldn’t see was an issue.  In the past month alone, I’ve had to have lengthy discussions with their genealogist over several sticking points.

I could certainly understand if the problem was lack of a record for proof of relationship.  I could also understand if it was because the person could not have been in two places at the same time; in other words, analysis of existing records couldn’t determine which John Smith was the John Smith who would be a qualifying ancestor.  If the application directions were completely disregarded, I could also understand a rejection.  I cannot understand the following:

  •  Applying for membership that says “send proof of [military] service”  and when more than one proof is sent, such as the enrollment application, pension application, 1890 veteran’s census, newspaper clippings, and family letters to two different organizations for two different U.S. wars and being told in one situation that the sources were “a little thin” and in the other, that a record that was housed at the National Personnel Records center were necessary.  So, they never heard about the 1973 fire that destroyed the records they wanted?  Makes you think twice of the level of genealogical understanding of the organization.  How can a pension application, enlistment paperwork and veteran’s census be considered “a little thin?
  • Applying for a designated individual and then being told that the ancestor doesn’t qualify because he was a nobleman and not royalty.  Had to initially laugh at that one because one of the sources for this disputed ancestor was titled, “The Interim King.”  I was able to obtain qualification based on the nobleman’s wife’s father but for the life of me, I don’t understand the difference between a nobleman serving as king and someone who inherited it from his father.  The individual who inherited the title came from a line that at one point had the first ruler.  What made that person royal?  I just don’t understand.  The organization has yet to explain it to me.
  • Being told the application was being rejected because the year for sources was omitted.  When I asked the application number that purportedly occurred I didn’t get a response.  I always keep a copy and I couldn’t find anywhere where I missed a date.  A week later I received an email that no further information was required.  I understand people make mistakes but own up to it.
  • Being told that your application was accepted and two weeks later receiving an email stating that your application wasn’t accepted.  Huh?  In that situation, the membership chair had obtained a list from the genealogist and assumed that names placed on the list had all been verified but evidently that wasn’t the case; the list was for everyone who had submitted an application.  I understand errors happen but you’d think that the board would all be on the same page.

I’m not knocking lineage societies.  I think they serve a tremendous purpose.  Not only is there fraternity and hopefully, camaraderie, the ideals and promotion of the area of history they represent is important.  They are also a wonderful place to save genealogical information and honor our ancestors.  That said, I really wish they would get their act together.

Growing Your Genealogy with Living Family Member Interaction

Zen needed

Sometimes, you just have to practice self control when you’re around your family.  (‘m referring to the living ones and not the death ones who left no documents or photos behind.)  I bet, as the family historian, you’ve encountered some of the following situations:

  • They just make one excuse after another for not going into (Fill in the blank – attic, basement, closet, storage facility, garage) to retrieve the (Fill in the blank – birth certificate, Bible, photo)  that you desperately need yet…
  • You receive a frantic call at an inopportune time wanting to know if your family is related to a celebrity
  • Your family expects you to help them for FREE join a lineage society
  • Even though you’ve shared all the discoveries you’ve found and ignored the glassy eyed bored looks you’ve gotten in return, they want some arcane piece of info on some distant ancestor because someone at work or some show on TV made them think about that story you told, only you have no knowledge of what they’re talking about because they’ve jumbled different people and events together in their minds
  • You’ve bought the DNA kit, helped them follow the simple instructions, mailed it back for them and monitor it and they don’t believe the results (even though your DNA and theirs is a close match)

Those are my top 5 pet peeves and over the past holiday season, each of them raised their ugly heads.  Two of the above became the most problematic.  

The first situation was the result of Ancestry’s recent upgrade of their DNA results.  With the old results, one family member showed more Swedish than anyone else in the family.  As a genealogist, my take on it is “So what” as we all know that the percentages are fluid since they’re based on the pool tested.  As the pool grows, so the results change.  I have explained this in the past but I guess somehow I’m not doing a good job.  In my family’s case, the updated stats shifted the percent slightly making the former number 1 in second place and the the former second place in first.  No big deal, right?  Evidently it was.  Instead of just asking for my take on the change, the newly placed number 1 decided that the results were questionable and so purchased a test from a competitor.  Of course, the competitor’s pool was different and the results varied but in this individual’s head, those results were more valid (because they hadn’t been updated yet).  Since the percents of test two were even less than the first test results, the individual became upset at all the ‘misleading info and the waste of money.”

It was time to take a deep breath.  I ignored the waste of money part since I had paid for the first test and the individual had gotten a deep discount on the second test.  I brought up my own results from several companies and showed how the results vary and again explained why.  I don’t think it got through any better than the previous times I’ve explained but it did end the conversation on a positive note.  

The second situation was a family member who asked me to write down the birth and death dates for two ancestors.  When I did, I was informed that I was wrong.  I had to bite my tongue to not respond, “If you know the information why are you asking me?”  Instead, after a pause, I asked if the individual wanted a copy of the birth and death certificates.  The response was no.  I then asked why the information was being questioned.  The answer was it didn’t seem like it had been that long ago when the individuals died.  Sure, as we age, time seems to go much quicker.  In this situation, I owned the problem as I jumped to the conclusion that the asker doubted my research when that wasn’t the case at all.  

Family can be a help in our genealogy quest – not just with gaining names and dates of ancestors but in showing us character areas where we need to grow.  

What’s a Genealogist? Hint: It’s not a Gynecologist

Recently on a beautiful spring (in Florida – the robins just returned so hang in there northerners) afternoon, family members invited me to go to lunch at a local cafe in our downtown area.  Because this was a spur of the moment invitation, I hadn’t changed from my casual Saturday morning attire.  I was wearing my recent Christmas gift from my sister-in-law pictured above and a pair of jeans.

When our waitress, Melissa, who has given me permission to identify her and share this story, handed us the menus, I found her staring at my t-shirt.  She immediately asked, “Are you a gynecologist?”  My family burst out laughing.  “No,” I replied, “I’m a genealogist.”  Obviously, the way I was seated at the table Melissa could not clearly read my t-shirt.

Melissa asked what a genealogist did and I explained that I was like a family historian.  A family member added that I help people find their past.  I added, “For people who are adopted and want to know about their birth parents, I’d work with their DNA.  For everyone, I would search for old records and photos to help them prove a family story.”  Melissa shook her head yes, she understood.

As we dined, Melissa returned to check on us several times; each time she had another genealogical question. 

The word genealogy is derived from Greek meaning the study of generations.  It surprises me that in a study done in December 2018 in the U.S., 34% of the respondents could not name their grandparents.  I’m never bothered by people asking how to get information to help them discover their past so I wasn’t bothered by Melissa’s questions.  Research shows that genealogy is one of the largest hobbies and I’m happy to add more people who are interested.   

Interesting News on Life Span


I read 2 articles this week (Thanks to the NEGHS Newsletter) that at first look appeared to be unrelated but as I processed the information, realized that they were indeed related. The first, Life span has little to do with genes, analysis of large ancestry database shows by Sharon Begley clearly surprised me. Not having a medical background, I assumed, wrongly it appears, that genes were a much stronger indicator to longevity. The article is also interesting in that the data analyzed most likely included my people and yours, if you are an Ancestry.com member. I have no problem with my tree info being shared for research purposes but if you do, and you didn’t take the time to read the disclaimers when you were signing up, you need to be aware that your information is being used by third parties.
The second article, ‘She was like a second mother’: the German woman who saved our Jewish family history by Simon Finch drove home to me how fortunate my family has been in leaving areas of unrest in the nick of time. Those that bravely fought for freedom, from Jacob Wilson Parrot,the First Congressional Medal of Honor awardee from the Civil War and my first cousin three times removed, to two Purple Heart recipients (WW I and II), George Bryant and George Willard Harbaugh, my husband’s grandfather and uncle, all made it home safely.
Family mortality has always interested me. Aside from the occasional accident, such as my great grandfather Frank Landfair falling off a train platform, to my Great Uncle Francis Earl Landfair, being struck my lightening while standing outside talking with friends, I attempted to deduce longevity by averaging the prior three generations of family members, taking into account gender, and adding two years for men and three for women to account for medical advancements. This seemed to work for both my maternal and paternal sides. I guess my data set was too small to make an inference.
I’d be interested to hear if you’ve looked at your ancestor’s longevity and drawn any conclusions. Let me know if you have!

The U.S. – A Nation of Immigrants


Although my family lore claimed I had Native American blood, DNA has proven that the legend was not true. I seldom (well, have never) written about current political issues as that is not the point of my blog. That changes today.

If you reside in the United States, you have an ancestor who once emigrated here. You’re probably also a mutt like me – that great melting pot permitting people to marry due to love and not by ethnicity alone has created a wonderful mix of blended cultures, customs and genetics.

I’m blessed that my family has been here awhile. My most recent immigrants were my maternal grandparents, John and Mary Kos[s] who naturalized in the 1940’s. My grandmother visited the Old Country nearly 50 years after she had emigrated here with her parents and was so thankful they had made the difficult journey in her childhood, she promptly kissed the soil when she arrived back in the states. My grandfather had no desire to return, even for a short visit.

Because of my Great Grandparents dream for a better life, they left behind family, friends and belongings to start over. Learning a new language, back breaking work where ever they could find it and facing discrimination because of their ethnicity, religion and acceptance of diversity, my ancestors looked at the positive this country had to offer and steadfastly remained so that their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren could have a better life.

I understand why people from all over the world still attempt to come here. Think back to your family and I’m sure you’ll agree, your forefather’s efforts were worth it.

Due to the present government stance new arrivals have experienced not just a perilous crossing but a breakdown in family structure. I applaud MyHeritage.com for stepping up to help reunify children with their separated families. To my knowledge, no other company has come forward to assist. MyHeritage is providing up to 5,000 free DNA kits to insure that the correct child is returned to the right family. You can read more about their efforts here. Kudos, MyHeritage.com!

Deciphering Directions and Finding Places from the Past


Last week when I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico and had a dickens of a time locating the Oldest House that I blogged about on Tuesday. According to the map and online guides, the Oldest House was said to be NEXT TO the Church. All I saw next to the Church was a pizza restaurant.

The church was locked so I tried to follow the sign on the government building next door that said “Visitor Info.” The sign had an arrow directing visitors to enter on the east or south entrance. I walked down the street in the direction the sign had pointed. There was no entrance on the street side so I suppose it was the north or west side. I turned at the intersection and again saw no entrance. Okay, I was certain to find the way in when I reached the back. I walked the entire length of the back side and still found no entrance. Turning left, I finally located the door. So what the sign meant was that there was one entrance and it was on the south east side.

I asked the attendant for directions to the Oldest Home. She said, “It’s BETWEEN the church and the restaurant.” I mentioned that a street was between the restaurant and the church. She insisted the home was BETWEEN and told me to look again.

I walked back to the church and again saw the restaurant in front of me as the church sits back from the street. I turned right to walk down the street BETWEEN the restaurant and the church and lo and behold, there was the Oldest House.

If I was to describe where the house was located, I would say it was BEHIND the restaurant and ACROSS the street from the church. This reminds me how careful we must be when we’re reading old deeds.

My people are famous for recording deeds noting boundaries of big rocks and tree stumps. I now wonder how many noted BETWEEN when I would have considered it BEHIND or south and east as southeast?

DNA Has Changed My Habits…and not for the good, I’m afraid!


I just came to the realization that DNA has made me a lazy genealogist. Here’s why…

I have made public several trees that are quite large. The reason for their size is because I once did surname studies – I tried to link all of the Leiningers, Harbaughs, Duers, Kos[s]s, Landfairs and Kuhns in the U.S. from an identified gateway ancestor. I want contact from far flung relatives as I don’t know these folks personally and needing closer relatives input, I made the trees public.

Due to the many places I’ve placed the trees online, their size, and my weekly blog posts, I get over 500 comments weekly. Granted, many are spam, but quite a few are serious inquiries.

Before DNA, I would go to the tree mentioned, search for the name provided in the inquiry, review what citations I had and then respond.

Since DNA, I find myself instead responding with my own query – Have you had your DNA analyzed and if so, what provider did you use and what is your profile name?

Last evening, after sending the same question repeatedly, it hit me that this is a seriously lazy response to well meaning folks who’ve taken the time to contact me.

My intentions were never to be rude but I’m afraid that’s how it’s appearing. I’m not sure how I’d feel if I was the recipient and wasn’t into DNA. I queried colleagues in my local genealogical society and they think my response is acceptable but I’m not so sure. What do you think, readers?! Would you be offended if you emailed someone for more information and received a question in response?

Genealogy Mysteries – The Unclaimed Dead


Anyone who has spent even a short amount of time in genealogy encounters missing ancestor information. Although women are more often found in this category due to changing surnames when they wed or a lack of surviving documents due to limited citizenship rights, men, too, often simply disappear into thin air.

Lately, after seeing the Disney movie, Coco, and spending last month traipsing through the Central American jungles in search of Mayan remains, when I get back to my tree I’m more driven then ever to discover why and where my disappearing family went. That’s my current research focus – I’ve identify 10 individuals with missing death dates/places and I’m on the hunt to narrow down information.

Unfortunately, the missing continues even today. If you’re interested, a volunteer organization of which I’ve blogged about previously, Unclaimed People, assists coroners in reunited the recently deceased with extended family. The organization’s motto, Every Life is Worth Remembering, is powerful.

Recently, I came upon the following article, Trail of Ashes: A Local Man’s Work to Restore Identity to the Unclaimed Dead. It is a must read!

1. Photo by Lori Samuelson, a rural unnamed cemetery in Quintana Roo, Mexico, 15 March 2018.