For many families, the story of how they got to where they are and what they have become consists of gathered tales from an uncle who served in World War II, a great-grandfather who somehow got from a village in the “old country” to Ellis Island, or some black sheep cousin last seen heading for the wilds of Canada.
The more determined familial historian may have scoured family attics and the courthouses of the land. They seek out tattered newspaper clippings often filled with factual errors, portrait photos or fuzzy snapshots of unidentified and long forgotten relatives, simply to seek yet another piece of the puzzle.
The most resolute may have made documenting family history a passion and went modern a decade ago, hitting the Internet or perhaps traveling to the ancestral homeland. In the end, the trail inevitably ran out within a few hundred years — if it had not been diverted by fire, flood or language barrier.
Even the best genealogists might be able to tell you they have found family lines dating back to the 15th century, but after that, the mists of time seem to shroud all. Paper records were not kept or have not survived.
There is little, if any, useful information in existence until the point that a society began to make use of surnames, a practice that did not come into use in some areas until the last 150 years.
Enter Bennett Greenspan, the founder and president of Family Tree DNA, a Houston-based company that may be able to tell you about where your family really came from and match you with others who have ancestors from the same area or made a similar migration — not last century, but as much as 800 years ago.
Using the modern techniques of genetics, Greenspan’s company, founded in 2000, needs nothing more than a swab taken from the inside of a cheek with a toothbrush-like device to sequence an individual’s DNA. The process involves matching it to others in the rapidly growing database of others seeking the same information. Currently, the database has about 250,000 unique samples.
“This is not a technology that will tell you who your great-grandmother is,” said Greenspan in an interview prior to his presentation to the Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State on Feb. 12 at the Stroum Jewish Community Center. “But it will identify the genetic lines that you have and will find others who are in your family as well. It will show if somewhere in the past two people share a common ancestor.”
Greenspan points out that a number of “bottleneck events,” such as the plague and pogroms, have limited the number of common ancestors for European Jewish families.
“There are over 800 million people of European descent living in around the world,” he said. “But the common ancestry is relatively small, making it likely that there are more matches than people know.”
When Greenspan says family, he refers not so much to a second cousin, but to others around the world that share the same genetic markers that point to a common ancestor — and who have submitted a sample to Family Tree DNA. That could be a distant cousin in another country, as was the case for Greenspan, or maybe something more distant and surprising, as it was for Nancy Adelson of Sammamish.
Adelson, an active genealogist, had traced her family back into the early 1700s in eastern Europe. She submitted a sample to the Family Tree DNA lab in August 2006 and about six weeks later, the results were in.
“They traced a genetic line that showed that my family had an Asian genetic line,” she said. “That explained the somewhat almond shaped eyes that we have in our family. We also found that some of the family had come from Finland, giving some of us blue eyes.”
People do find close relatively recent and close relatives. Yvonne Stewart of Bellevue matched up to a Kent man who is a distant cousin. She knew her family came from Germany, but the genetics showed that they had followed a migration that had begun in modern day Belarus, across Lithuania and Poland.
As a for-profit company, Family Tree DNA supplies instructions and the simple kits for gathering samples to people who pay a fee specified from a menu of services detailed on the company’s Web site, www.familytreedna.com .
To get a complete picture covering both maternal and paternal branches of a family might require having multiple members of a family submit samples.
Once the samples are processed, the results are matched against the database and contact is made by e-mail and regular mail, notifying participants of likely matches. Contact between the matches is made initially by e-mail and is completely optional.