Finding Truth in Family History Through DNA

31 December 2018

Dad, Mum, my brother and me ca 1974

Since 1977 I have been tracing my family history through the more traditional methods. Buying certificates, using archives and libraries and perhaps most importantly talking to the ‘oldies’ and learning what they knew about our family. By 2015 I thought I knew it all – I’d uncovered lots of family skeletons, discovered their crimes, their secrets and all the hardships along the way. I didn’t think there were any surprises left.

Then along came Ancestry DNA in 2015 with the chance of learning more about my ancestors and the opportunity to discover and connect with new, more distant cousins. Back then I couldn’t see what more I could learn about my own family, but I did think that DNA could become an important genealogy resource for some people. In fact, over the last three years it has changed the face of genealogy and now everyone is doing it.

But back to my story in 2015. My results arrived, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. So I sat on the results, asked some discreet questions and then stewed on the results some more. Finally, I went and saw my mother and told her I had taken a DNA test. The look on her face said it all and I realised that for the nearly 40 years I had been researching my family history, my family had lied to me.

Dad, Granny and “Granddad”

Yes, I was my parents’ daughter, but my father was not the biological son of my grandfather. Granddad (the only one I ever knew) was of Norwegian descent and there should have been some Scandinavian DNA in my results and there wasn’t (had he been English or Irish I wouldn’t have suspected anything so quickly or not until I tried to sort out all those unexplained matches). In 2018 I finally asked Dad’s ‘cousin’ to do an Ancestry DNA test which he willingly did, and we didn’t match. So it was all true, Granddad was not Dad’s biological father.

It turned out everyone knew but me and even after my grandmother and my father died back in 1996 and 1997, my mother still didn’t think I would want to know. Yet 25% of my family tree was incorrect and there might have been other relatives out there who could have told me more about that 25%.

Another 20 years later I suspect there are few, if any, people living who can give me first hand knowledge about my unknown grandfather and his family. By DNA testing my mother, I have eliminated 50 % of my matches as they are on Mum’s side of the family. The other 50% are Dad’s and there are some strong matches that could lead to the discovery of my GG grandparents at least if not closer to Dad’s unknown father and grandfather.

Since 2015 I have watched others discover hidden secrets after doing DNA tests which now come with more obvious warnings. There are lots of blog posts, articles and webinars that warn about finding out things you may not want to know.

I’m often asked do I wish I had never done the Ancestry DNA test? Yes I was shocked and felt that I had lost part of my identity. I was no longer who I thought I was. But the answer is no, I’m glad that I undertook one of those early Ancestry DNA tests. I would much rather know the truth about my ancestors and to know where all my DNA comes from. Luckily my mother was still alive and able to tell me the whole story, just not the name of the mystery man in my grandmother’s life prior to her marriage to Granddad.

If anything, I’m still cranky with my grandmother for not leaving me a little letter of explanation or some clue when she knew how interested I was in the family history. No doubt if she is looking down on me now, she is still hoping I won’t learn the full truth. But there are so many Ancestry DNA matches that can only be on Dad’s father’s side it must only be a matter of time before the pieces fit together. The technology is improving all the time and more and more people are testing and sharing information. Facebook groups have been established just to help people like me find biological relatives. Other DNA tools are being developed to make matching easier.

March 2019 marks my 42nd anniversary of researching my family history. I am still passionate about learning all I can about my ancestors and DNA will be part of my research methodology. I used to think digitised newspapers was the absolute best research tool, but DNA matching has the edge now. Just beware, there could be family skeletons out there, just waiting to be found.

My thanks to Ancestry for the complimentary DNA testing kit in 2015 that started me on the path to finding my paternal biological grandfather. It has been an interesting three years and I move into 2019 with my passion for family history renewed. Will 2019 be the year I find out who I really am?

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  1. Wow – what a surprize to deal with. Fingers crossed 2019 is your year to find the answer

  2. Hi Shauna,

    While you say with respect to DNA testing, ‘There are lots of blog posts, articles and webinars that warn about finding out things you may not want to know,’ there was always a risk in finding out something you would rather not know, even with mere paper records. There is no doubt about it, family historians are risk-takers! We go boldly into the unknown, and hope we don’t get knocked for a six. DNA testing hasn’t thus far caused me any heart-ache, but it has cracked open some really intractable conundrums like a googy-egg. I’m pleased I did it, and look forward to solving other conundrums.

  3. Wow, considering your long time researching, what a huge shame your grandmum didn’t give you some clues. I feel for you as you go forward in your search and am sure that with your skill-set you’ll be able to figure out the missing puzzle piece sooner rather than later.

  4. Thanks Isabel my fingers are crossed too.

  5. Hi Lenore yes paper records can also reveal skeletons. I remember being shocked when I found the ancestors in gaols and asylums. We are definitely risk takers.

  6. Thanks Bobbie. Yes a clue or two would have been nice but isn’t that what we want from most of our ancestors?

  7. Shauna, Good luck in your research. Families can certainly be a puzzle particularly when they assume that you may not be interested in a subject that you have been researching for years.

  8. Thanks for sharing this story Shauna and detailing your journey over the past three years – quite an emotional roller coaster for you. Happy hunting in 2019 – with the number of people testing you will soon find your Great-Grandparents and may even identify your biological grandfather.

  9. Hi Shauna, I hope you get some good clues to follow up in 2019. One of the best talks I have attended is your one about the family moving around Australia leading to the DNA discovery at the end. As hard as these discoveries can be at the time thanks for sharing your knowledge as we learn so much from your real life reasearch. Happy New Year, Fran

  10. Great post Shauna full of hope and healing words.
    I am glad that my DNA was part of your ‘discovery’ journey.
    Looking forward to hearing the outcome of the mystery grandfather search.
    As I have mentioned before…you remain a Gunderson. Family is more than DNA and the Gunderson Family Tree would never have evolved and revealed so many rich stories without your passion.
    Kind regards,

  11. Thanks David for your support.

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