Family history researchers know that they are always sifting through a mix of facts and, perhaps, fiction when they dig into the family archives. Commercial DNA testing can provide some shortcuts to the facts, but it can also reveal new riddles. This week we look into the cases of two women who discovered a lot more than expected when they tested their DNA. It’s something everyone who submits their DNA should be prepared for.
Doreen Isherwood, a blond, blue-eyed English woman, said she came from “a long line of Lancashire cotton weavers,” so that’s what she expected to find when she submitted her DNA to the commercial DNA testing company Oxford Ancestors in 2007. "I was expecting the results to say I belonged to one of the common European tribes,” Isherwood later told the BBC, referring to three groups of early Europeans distinguished by their DNA signatures: early farmers who arrived in Europe around 40,000 years ago, hunter gatherers who showed up 13,000 years later, and an influx of “horsemen,” also known as the Yamnaya about 2,000 years after that. Instead, Isherwood was told the tribe at least one of her ancestors belonged to was of North American origin. Doreen Isherwood of Putney, England, was a descendant of an indigenous North American.
Doreen Isherwood thought it was a mistake. It wasn’t.
"It's very unusual,” Bryan Sykes agreed. The late Dr. Sykes, a Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford University, founder of Oxford Ancestors, and the author of The Seven Daughters of Eve (2001), analysed the results. “Most of the people we test belong to one of the European maternal clans,” he explained.
According to Oxford Ancestors’ analysis, Isherwood’s American ancestor probably visited Britain sometime in the 17th or 18th centuries. Historical records reveal stories of Native Americans visiting Britain during this time, sometimes as political emissaries from the New World, other times as enslaved people, and sometimes as exoticized guests, such as Pocahontas, of the Powhatan Indian tribe, who was celebrated in London in 1616 and died in Gravesend, England in 1617.
Isherwood was “thrilled to bits” to discover her new heritage. But she was also somewhat shocked. "It rocked me completely,” she said. “It made me think: who am I?"
Who am I? This perhaps unanswerable question is the motivating force behind many commercial DNA tests. Unless the DNA is being tested for a crime, most people expect to find some kind of validation of what their grandparents already told them. So what happens when they don’t?
When Detroit-based storyteller Laura Khalil saw the results of her DNA test in 2013, at first they appeared to validate the family story she already knew. Her mother was Lebanese and her father was Egyptian; the high percentage of DNA associated with European populations was, she assumed, evidence of the French colonial presence in Lebanon. Khalil filed the results away.
Five years went by.
Khalil received a message in 2018 from a stranger who told her they shared a “significant” percentage of their DNA. Khalil, an only child, was shocked. In the 1980s her parents sought the help of a fertility expert, Dr. Donald Taylor, and with the assistance of a sperm donor, they had Laura. But apparently the donor was quite popular, and soon Khalil discovered that the woman contacting her was one of nine half-siblings they shared, all with the same donor father.
Khalil’s search for her half-siblings led her to discover an unusual story of love, family, and DNA. Apart from Khalil’s parents, most of her siblings’ parents were lesbians. In the 1980s it was not always possible for a woman to receive fertility treatments unless she was married. This meant most lesbians could not get help with their fertility, because of the ban on gay marriage. But there was no actual law against the practice, and Dr. Donald Taylor felt it was not his place to judge which women were eligible to have children or not. If “somebody was single and wanted to obtain a pregnancy by artificial insemination, I felt that there should be no reason to deny her privilege of being pregnant,” Taylor told Khalil when she tracked him down. He could not, however, reveal the name of the original donor.
Dr. Donald Taylor became a hero to the lesbian communities of Detroit and Ann Arbor, where word of his services began to spread in the 1980s; they called them Taylor Babies. Quite a few of these new mothers were already friends and they raised their Taylor babies as playmates, not siblings. But even then, some of the children felt a special connection to each other. One sibling, Liz, said that ”even as a little kid I remember just begging my mom to take me over to Katie’s house.” Liz and Katie were such close “friends” that Liz was a bridesmaid in Katie’s wedding, before they ever knew they were half-sisters.So far ten Taylor Babies have come forward and found each other.
So what did Laura Khalil learn about herself? She began her search as the only child of an Egyptian father. She now knows she has eight half-sisters and one half-brother and that her biological father was probably of European descent, not Egyptian. Like Doreen Isherwood, Khalil’s newfound family relationships have enriched her life and her sense of identity. “I’ll probably never know who our donor is,” Khalil says, “but I’m fine with it. I already have a dad that has always treated me exactly like his own daughter. We all define family in different ways.”
So many family historians wish they could have tested their deceased grandparents, great-grandparents or other family members while they were still living and often wonder if there is a way to obtain their DNA for use in genealogical pursuits. In short, the answer is yes, but in actuality, it depends. Technology exists which allows for DNA samples to be extracted from myriad items that may have been left to us by our antecedents. This includes items such as envelopes, postage stamps, hairbrushes, toothbrushes, hats, unwashed clothing, jewelry, dentures, eyeglasses, pipes, shoes, and other similar items.
Though the item belonged to an ancestor, it may not be possible to extract the DNA or the DNA might not even belong to your ancestor. In the case of an envelope or stamp, it is possible that the postal employee, a friend or associate may have affixed the stamp, or a wet sponge was utilized instead. Lapsing of time, as well as how an item has been stored or handled can also play a large role in degrading the DNA. Liberal, unprotected handling of an artifact after being relinquished by the original owner can also have a major impact on usability.
There are a few companies who currently offer some form of DNA extraction from ancestral artifacts, including To The Letter DNA and Keepsake DNA. The extraction and sequencing process is more complex than that of traditional autosomal DNA testing through companies such as Ancestry, FamilyTree DNA, 23andMe and MyHeritage, which can cause the artifact DNA extraction to come with a more expensive price tag. However, the process is continually evolving and as technology advances, the financial investment could decrease in the coming years.
Keep in mind that with current technology and processes, the artifact might be damaged or destroyed during the extraction process, so one should weigh the pros and cons to determine if retaining the special heirloom to pass down through generations holds the most value or if the potential reward of identifying the elusive ancestors is worth the risk.
If you decide to hold on to that potential DNA goldmine until the advancements make it a more viable option, then you should take steps for preserving the DNA and deter further degradation of the sample. Avoid plastics and store in a cool, dry location, protected from light sources. To avoid further contamination, minimize contact and if you must handle wear cotton or nitrile gloves. Place flat items, such as envelopes and stamps, in acid-free bags or boxes.
At this time, extraction DNA testing should be reserved for brickwall situations where other means have been exhausted. However, planning for future advancements in the process definitely is worth the extra efforts of preservation.
For now, expand your genetic genealogy knowledge and learn how to best utilize DNA testing results. You may just be surprised at what you are able to accomplish with readily available technologies and find that you no longer have a need for the more advanced DNA extractions.
Learn more about genetic genealogy in the articles Two Lies and the Truth and DNA in Genealogy: How does this help me?
Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/ : accessed 27 May 2021), “When a DNA Test Shatters Your Identity.”
Libby Copeland, The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/: accessed 27 May 2021), “Who Was She? A DNA Test Only Opened New Mysteries.”
Paul Rincon, BBC News (http://news.bbc.co.uk/ : accessed 27 May 2021), “Native American DNA found in UK.”
WDET (https://wdet.org/ : accessed 27 May 2021), “Listeners Share DNA Surprise Stories: Family Secrets, Unknown Heritage And More.”
Genetics (https://www.genetics.org/: accessed 27 May 2021), “Ancient Admixture in Human History.”
Ann Gibbons, Science (https://www.sciencemag.org/ : accessed 27 May 2021), “[There’s No Such Things as a ‘Pure’ European - or Anyone Else.”
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wikiFile:Sioux Indians in native dress on tour with Circus Sarrasani in Dresden, Germany - NARA - 285597.jpg : 27 May 2021), digital image of original print, “File:Sioux Indians in native dress on tour with Circus Sarrasani in Dresden, Germany - NARA - 285597.jpg;” image uploaded by bot - US National Archives (NARA).
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cover US 1856 New York.jpg : 27 May 2021), digital image of original object, “File:Cover US 1856 New York.jpg;” image uploaded by user Stan Shebs.