My Small Family Tree Became a Towering Redwood With Ancestry DNA

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For many families, knowing your relatives is a priority. In other families, knowing your aunts, uncles, cousins, even ancestors isn’t as important. My immediate family falls into the second category. My parents didn’t make an effort to maintain relations with their families or keep records regarding their grandparents. After meeting my wife’s family, and exploring her vast family history records with her, I’ve been yearning to know more about my family. Where are they from? Am I of German lineage or French? Do I have Hispanic or Native heritage, as has been broadly speculated by my parents? I had to find out.

So I took action. First, I reached out with the magic of Facebook to contact the family members I could find. Like I said, I’m not close to many of them, so this took a little work. With over 1,000,000,000 people on Facebook, tracking down relatives I’ve not seen in decades wasn’t the easiest thing.

Second, I submitted an Ancestry DNA test. My wife had some success with hers, and I thought it couldn’t be a bad place to start. Besides, I needed somewhere to document my tree and store records, so Ancestry was already high on my to-do list. The kit was easy. I spit in a tube for a couple of minutes and shipped it off.

While I was waiting for the DNA test results to come in, I kept scouring the internet and the brains of my cousins, both close and distant. Finally, I was able to get in touch with a cousin who had seven generations of lineage recorded. Getting all that organized was a pain, I tell ya what. So I started simple. I created a tree on This is about what it looked like:

Image: Rory Bristol
Image: Rory Bristol

Not much to go on, eh? Jenny and I took the notes I had, and what we were able to learn from my cousins, and we started filling things in. My maternal grandmother’s family had gathered 20 years ago and made a family reunion cookbook, which had the full story of how they were all related written inside. Armed with that, and the notes from a cousin, we filled in seven generations.

Then, my DNA results came back. I was a little baffled by the results:

Image: Rory Bristol
Image: Rory Bristol

That’s not what I expected at all! 100% of my identified genetic markers come from somewhere in western Europe, with over 50% of them being Great Britain. That’s pretty unusual, because people move around. My family, for all we can tell, all comes from a pretty small region of the world, genetically. But why is that odd? Because I don’t know who my maternal grandfather is (which is a big deal!), and, from all the records at my disposal, we found that my ancestors have come from all over the world. But their genes didn’t. They all trace back to this region. Weird!

The surprises from Ancestry DNA didn’t stop there, though. Ancestry DNA compared my DNA to thousands of other samples, and sent me a list of hints. By comparing our samples, Ancestry suggested people I might be related to, and how distantly we might be related. Generally, I expected to find maybe a second cousin or two. Boy was I surprised to see my first two matches!

Image: Rory Bristol
Image: Rory Bristol

Above, you can see that Ancestry DNA matched me up with a possible 1st cousin, and a possible 2nd cousin. At first I rolled my eyes at Ancestry’s optimism. When Jenny did her’s, her closest relative was a 3rd cousin. No way my scattered family would have such clear records on Ancestry, right? Turns out, they are father and son, being my 1st-cousin-once-removed and my 2nd-cousin! The odds of that being accurate, or so I thought, were astronomical. Still doubtful, I reached out. If nothing else, they shared a last name of someone else in my tree. Why not?

Then I waited. It took a while for them to respond, but when they did I thought I was going to faint. Paul and Joe really were relatives, and they had a bunch of information I’d never dreamed of knowing, much less documenting. Thanks to Ancestry DNA, not only did I find pretty close relations, I learned that they had found a great uncle of ours who had been put up for adoption when my grandmother was a little girl. What up!

Image: Rory Bristol
Image: Rory Bristol

Then the connections began to multiply rapidly. Above, you can see my now-expanded tree. Normally, there would be names in all of those spaces, but I’ve blanked them for privacy, as many of the records aren’t yet public. The little black arrows on the right indicate further records that I’ve already confirmed and added to my tree. They are minimized to save confusion. The little green leaves, though, they are pay-dirt.

The leaves indicate “tips” from Ancestry on how to expand your tree. Click on one, and it will send you down a rabbit hole that is delightfully packed with interesting bits of history, and (if you look hard enough) bits of history about your family. By exploring records, I learned that my many branches have come to America from Canada, Ireland, England, and Wales, through Michigan, Massachusetts, and New York.

I’m currently talking to cousins I’d never heard of, whose parents and grandparent’s I’d never known. I’m still learning more every week about where my family came from and who they were. It’s humbling to be able to look back at them, dead for anywhere from 5-115 years, and feel connected to family. I’ve followed back nine generations, now, and I’ve only just started.

A cousin asked me if the $99 cost for the test is worth it? My answer was an un-hesitating “yes!” I would never have found so much without it. Totally made my new year, with a value I cannot count in money.

The best part of the DNA test is that Ancestry is still collecting data. When they update their algorithms, they run the tests again, and you get updates without paying for a new test. Bonus? The more people that do it, the better everyone’s results get. The more people in one family do it, the more accurate your results get, because you have more information that your individual DNA didn’t have before. I cannot wait for my brothers to do it. I know that they will help me discover even more about our family, which doesn’t feel so small any more.

Disclaimer: Ancestry DNA provided a unit for review purposes.

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