Friday, March 3, 2017

What’s in Your Genes?

By Jeff Burns

For Christmas, my wife and I unknowingly chose the same gift for each other as a stocking stuffer:  a DNA analysis kit from  We’re both into history and family history in particular, and we thought it would be fun and informative to see what our backgrounds were.  Plus, they were on sale for the holidays!

When you order a kit, you get a small box containing a vial and directions. All you do is spit into the vial, seal it, and put the box back in the mail.  The disclaimer says to allow six to eight weeks for processing, depending on volume.  We figured it would take a while because of the Christmas rush.  Even though ours were mailed on the same day, my wife’s analysis was completed in about 5 weeks, and mine took over nine weeks.

My wife wasn’t expecting any big surprises.  Her parents had done their tests a few months before, and they pretty much confirmed known family history.  She knew that her paternal great-grandparents were Jewish and had immigrated to the US from the Poland-Ukraine-Russia region around the turn of the 20th century and that her maternal line was most likely of British and/or Irish descent.

I thought my results were pretty predictable too.  I’ve dabbled in genealogy for years, and I’ve been fortunate to have cousins who have done extensive work.  On the Burns side, I figured Scottish descent was pretty much a lock. We have more research on my maternal family line, Mosley.  I can trace my direct ancestors back to their arrival as indentured servants in mid-18th century Virginia. Published work takes the history back to English and Flemish wool merchants in the 1400s.

There has always been a little mystery, however, and it turns out my wife’s family had the same mystery. Is there Native American ancestry?  There had been rumors of distant Cherokee relations in my wife’s family, on both sides. Among my Mosley relatives, there has always been talk about Native American blood.  Many of us have dark complexions that tan and hold tans easily and dark hair.

It’s actually a mystery common to many southern families, black and white.  If you ask any group of southerners if they are part Indian, the majority would raise their hands. Statistically and historically speaking, it’s highly unlikely that they are correct. According to most studies, the number of Americans with Indian ancestry is very small.   There was little opportunity for most white and black ancestors to have had intimate relationships, and even when possible, social prejudices would have made it extremely rare. 

Why do so many southerners believe they have Indian blood? Part of the answer is romanticism, the ideal of the “noble savage” that has persisted since first European-Native contact; for southerners, Indian blood provides a real connection to the land and history of the South. For other families, it is thought that such claims were concocted to divert suspicions of Jewish or African ancestry, suspicions that may have negatively impacted individuals. And, of course, southern Indians like the Cherokee and the Creek were among the most likely Indians to interact with southern settlers.  They traded and intermarried with whites for centuries.  They also worked hard to assimilate into southern culture, quickly adopting English customs, including owning African slaves.

So what did my analysis reveal? I’m very western European, 88% British and Irish, and zero Native American.

It was all very interesting, but there’s always a little disappointment when a mystery is solved. That just means I have to find the time to go deeper in my research and uncover new mysteries.