By and large, the reason why most people take a DNA test at Ancestry is to learn their ethnicity estimates. Knowing where your people came from is a pretty standard curiosity for all human beings; genealogists are just people that feel that curiosity to a greater degree. I had no reason to suspect anything was amiss looking at my original ethnicity estimates prior to testing my dad, Fred. My first estimate from Ancestry was: 60% Western European and 30% Great Britain with a few minor bits of European, “this and that,” thrown in at small measures. My dad, Fred, is French-Canadian/Colonial American and my mom is Colonial American/English/Irish. My ethnicity estimate made sense. There was no reason to question the accuracy.
What a lot of people don’t know is that those ethnicity estimates periodically get fine-tuned and updated as the population geneticists that work at these DNA testing companies acquire greater knowledge. While some genetic genealogists will say that the ethnicity estimates have questionable accuracy beyond a continental level, I, for the most part, have to disagree with them. That may have been true a few years ago, but I don’t believe that’s a fair statement today. Spitting in a tube won’t give you the address of your great-grandparents house in 1880, but should lead you to the neighborhood.
For example, if your grandmother is the product of Danish ancestry, you should expect to see that area of the world accurately represented in your ethnicity estimate with more clarity than the generic term, “European.” Areas such as the United Kingdom can be a bit more tricky as historically, anyone with a boat and a spear tended to invade them, but as a rule of thumb, your ethnicity estimate should be “in the neighborhood of” what a well documented paper trail would lead you to believe. If your ethnicity estimate can’t be explained by a history book and a map, you should probably take a look at your family tree for a discrepancy.
I know this now, of course, five years in and having had my ethnicity estimates tweaked a few times at several different testing companies. I didn’t know this when one day I logged into Ancestry and suddenly learned I was an Irish person: at the tune of 50%. (71.4% if you ask the folks at 23andMe). My mother’s genealogy alone couldn’t explain that much Irish going on. I knew it had to come from my biological dad.
At 23andMe, with one parent tested (my mother) with me, I could separate out her DNA contribution to me from that which my biological father contributed. My mother contributed some of British/Irish; a good portion of French/German; a smattering of Scandinavian and some DNA that’s just non-specific, “Northwest European,” along with some less than 1% Sub-Saharan African and, “Broadly East Asian/Native American.” My biological father contributed “50% British/Irish.” That’s it. Not a shred of anything else.
The thing is, I don’t look particularly Irish, at least in terms of the stereotype: pale white skin, freckles, and red hair. If you had to guess what ethnicity I am, Irish likely wouldn’t make the list. I have olive skin, light green eyes, and when I don’t color it, dark brown hair. “You look Spanish,” a friend once offered. “Do you have any African ancestry?” a co-worker asked me. “I’m so glad you’re the one helping me,” a customer of mine said, “I couldn’t stop staring at you while I waited for help. You look just like my favorite cousin.” He was Persian.
The thing is, I just happen to have a face with a tendency to look like someone other people know: a cousin, a college roommate, a best friend, an aunt, etc,. Normally, I ignore what I think people look like in terms of an ethnicity guess. I look at paper trails and DNA ethnicity estimates. I leave the guessing games to other people. Except with Dianne.
Dianne (name changed to protect her privacy) was my first, best paternal DNA match. And when I say “best” I mean still at the 4th cousin level; we just happened to share three separate segments of DNA over on 23andMe. I wasn’t sharing three segments of DNA with any other of my paternal matches. All the rest of them were single segment matches and poor ones at that. I reached out to Dianne through 23andMe’s messaging application. I explained my misattributed paternity situation and Dianne was interested in helping me. As luck would have it, she lived a hour or so away. She agreed to meet for dinner.
“I think these estimates are kind of off,” Dianne offered while we munched on tortilla chips, waiting for our dinner to arrive. “I’m 100% French-Canadian.”
It isn’t unusual for people to think they’re 100% something and discover that they aren’t. In fact, that’s what typically happens. I noticed her fair skin, and blonde hair and said, “Are you sure about that? You look really Scottish to me.” Her facial features bore a striking resemblance to the mother of my childhood friends, the Ybanez sisters. Their mother, Theresa, had been born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland. Dianne looked like she could be their long lost cousin, not mine. Every time Dianne opened her mouth, I expected her to speak with the same Scottish brogue Theresa Ybanez had.
“No, I’m sure,” Dianne said. “Both sides are French-Canadian.”
“Have you DNA tested your parents?” I asked. I knew my dad, Fred had an Irish line in his French-Canadian ancestry. In colonial New Brunswick, Canada, like colonial America, people mixed it up with other immigrants from elsewhere on a regular basis. I knew there were a whole lot of people with Irish and Scottish ancestry living in New Brunswick alongside the French. Looking at Dianne, I was just certain that she had to have a branch of Irish or Scottish ancestors somewhere in her tree and that it had to be on that branch where we DNA matched.
“No, I haven’t tested them but I’d like to help you,” she offered. “I’ll test them both and see which one of my parents you match. That’ll help narrow down your search.”
This was an amazingly kind and generous offer. Dianne had a workable tree. Sure, it was populated with French-Canadians on both sides but I was only looking for one distant branch. She, like everyone else, has 32 great-great-great grandparents. I only needed one of them to point me in the right direction. And with all these French-Canadians in the mix, it should be easy to identify them. Knowing which of her parents I DNA matched would be a tremendous help.
Eight weeks later, Dianne’s DNA tests came back.
“Neither of my parents are a DNA match to you,” Dianne texted to me. “My father doesn’t DNA match me either. I guess we’re both looking for our biological fathers now.”
Ugh. I felt beyond horrible. She had only tested her parents to help me and this was the reward for her kindness: misattributed paternity. I wanted to crawl under a rock.
It wasn’t lost on us that we could only point to each other as the only paternal cousin that we actually knew. For years we called each other our, “Mystery Cousin.” Like me, Dianne had no intention of telling her elderly father that he wasn’t her dad. She adored her dad and didn’t want to hurt him, either. We were in this miserable place together. Alone. Because no one else was matching the three segments of DNA we shared.
Perpetually curious. I love history, genealogy, old movies, good books, all sorts of music, and adventures involving travel. In my spare time, I help admin a genetic genealogy Facebook page for CeCe Moore ("DNA Detectives") and coach people how to connect with their biological family using DNA.