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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My Native Ancestry

I’m researching ALL my family lines.  Many people only research their maiden name, their paternal line.  But, genetically, you are related to all your ancestors, paternal and maternal, and their histories are your history.

I got started doing family history research in my mid-20s.  Up until that point, I had been interested but hadn’t felt the need to do any research.  I had believed what I was told, as a child about my mother’s family history.  As a young adult, in college, when it came up in conversation, I repeated what I’d been told.  At that point, I began to encounter challenges to what I’d been told and felt the need to defend those “facts”.

As a child, my maternal grandmother used to say to me, something to the effect, “You must have inherited all the Indian blood in the family”, whenever I did something differently than the majority of the family.  As I’m writing this, I’m realizing 2 things:  I don’t know if she said the same thing to other children in the family; and, she probably meant it in a derogatory way.  I, however, took it as something to be proud of and it became part of my identity and even now, while more insecure, still part of my identity.  I’ve always believed I had Native ancestry.

But, when I began being challenged about that ancestry, I realized that I certainly don’t look particularly Native (but that is, actually, irrelevant) and I knew nothing about that ancestry.  So, I began my research to find my Native ancestors.

When my grandmother repeated that statement about me, I had asked her about it.  She told me, as I remember, that my great great great grandfather had gone to the mountains (I remember it as the Rocky mountains but cousins  say just the mountains) and brought back a “squaw” as his wife.  I’m not going to go into the misuse of the word squaw here; it’s not a topic really relevant to the family history (but might be).  That’s really all she ever told me.

At the time, it didn’t think much about which great great great grandfather but she never told me any more specifics.  We each have 32 great great great grandparents.  If you’re looking at only your maternal family line, you can halve that to 16 ggg grandparents on your mother’s side.  If you’re looking only for grandmothers, you an halve that again to arrive at 8 potential ggg grandmothers that, in my case, might have been Native.  Back then, my grandmother being a Wormuth, I assumed it was my Wormuth great great great grandfather who was Peter Wormuth.

At some point in my years of research, I finally turned my attention to my father’s family. 

My paternal grandfather was the only child of his father and mother but his mother died young and my great grandfather remarried and there were half-sisters.  We learned that one of them was still living and visited her; Aunt Beatrice (my great aunt).  It was during that visit that we learned that there is Native ancestry on my father’s side and it’s more specific than on my mother’s side.  Aunt Beatrice gave us information that I later calculated through the family tree that one line of the family was Lenape and another Iroquois; still not very specific.  We also had a specific individual identified as Iroquois, the grandfather of Reuben Odell.  And, the Lenape line came from Reuben’s wife, Emily Ester Oliver, but nothing more specific than that.  A month after our visit and before we could plan another, Aunt Beatrice Dempsey died.  Her sisters had died some time before.

So my identity as having Native ancestry was reinforced.

Then came genealogical DNA. 

Genetic testing is still in its infancy, from what I can gather.  It’s certainly different than when I took genetics in college and information seems to change and become updated from time to time.

Someone once asked me why I didn’t have my DNA tested?  Well, it’s not cheap, but, eventually I did and had my father’s DNA tested as well.

Here’s the thing.  It’s not that simple and straight forward.

I had my mitochondrial DNA tested.  As I understand it, that test only picks up on the genes passed from mother to daughter along the maternal genetic line backwards; so only genes passed from female to female forward.  So, if I understand it correctly, in the case of my maternal Native ancestor, who was the wife of my great great great maternal grandfather, her Native ethnic tags would be passed to daughters who would pass them to daughters, who would pass them to daughters, etc. down the line.  But, my grandmother was a Wormuth, her mother was a Hulse, whose mother was a Hendrickson, whose mother…you can see, she was not in a direct genetic line to that Native ethnic tag.  In any case, my mitochondrial DNA indicates only European ethnic tags along the maternal line. 

That doesn’t mean that I don’t have Native ancestors, as I understand it; it just means that I’m not in a direct mitochondrial line from that supposed Native great great great grandmother.

The same kind of result was found in my father’s Y-chromosomal DNA test which only identifies ethnic tags passed from male to male.  In the case of my father, we assumed since it was a grandfather of a male ancestor that was identified as Iroquois (not a Native word and much too vague) that it would have come down to my father.  His test shows no Native DNA which, again, proves nothing since we haven’t identified a specific person as the ancestor.

But, it is possible that I have no Native ancestors.  It’s also still possible that I have.  There’s quite a bit of circumstantial evidence and several relatives both paternal and maternal who have the same stories.

It also hasn’t escaped my attention that, in any case, I wasn’t raised in a traditionally Native culture.  There are no artifacts that were passed down.  Most Native people that I know are quite proud of their culture and protective of it and it seems odd to me that, in both family lines, nobody brought any Native culture forward.

So, I’ve put that aspect of my research on a back burner, so to speak and focused on simply identifying my ancestors – all of them – as far back as I can.  It’s an enjoyable exploration.

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