Criticism — From the June 2014 issue

America’s Ancestry Craze

Making sense of our family-tree obsession

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In the past, researching my family would have entailed visiting government offices, digging around in musty archives, and corresponding by post with strangers hundreds or thousands of miles away; as it was, I started with an account on Ancestry.com. There I created my own tree, which tied in to other people’s trees, and began the long, still-unfinished work of trying to verify their research while adding my own, mostly with the help of other electronic databases. Back when I joined, in 2007, the site had a highly dubious (and now discontinued) Find Famous Relatives feature, which suggested I could be related — incredibly remotely — to William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Audrey Hepburn, Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, and the Mayflower passenger Edward Tilley. From the start I saw how manipulative this tool was, and how unreliable. It hooked me anyway.

So many of the best American family histories — Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello (2008), William Keepers Maxwell’s Ancestors (1971), Joan Didion’s Where I Was From (2003), Joe Mozingo’s The Fiddler on Pantico Run (2012) — rely on research, on census data, deeds, wills, diaries, and other such documents, and on stories passed through the generations. No matter how canny the researcher, though, or how long-standing the pedigree, stories can be wrong and documentation false.

The Genealogy of the Virgin Mary, by Gerard David © Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City

The Genealogy of the Virgin Mary, by Gerard David © Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City

For about a hundred dollars, it is now possible to spit into a tube, drop it in the mail, and within a couple of months gain access to a list of likely relatives. If you have any colonial American ancestors, the first thing you realize, taking a DNA test for genealogical purposes, is that potential sixth cousins are a whole lot easier to come by than you ever imagined. Even fifth cousins — people with whom you share a fourth great-grandparent — aren’t a particular scarcity. On 23andMe, the largest autosomal-DNA-testing site, I have more than 1,400 predicted relatives. On Ancestry.com, I have more than 10,000 possible matches. Apart from my mother, my two closest matches on 23andMe share 1.26 percent and 1.23 percent of my genome. They haven’t responded to my requests to share information — many people don’t — but in both cases we might be second or third cousins.

With the rise of these tests, secret forefathers can be uncovered and prestigious lineages invalidated in an instant. A new world has opened up, for adoptees, African Americans, the descendants of Holocaust survivors, and anyone else cut off from her origins.

For now, unless they get very lucky, people seeking to unravel their ancestry can spend a very long time, often years, closely examining DNA matches, identifying multiple third and fourth cousins whose genomic segments overlap not just with the seeker’s but with one another’s, emailing those people, enlisting help from their relatives, and in some cases working with professional genetics researchers.

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