DNA Turns Out To Be Missing Puzzle Piece In Family History

With the release of the 1940 census this week many armchair genealogists are rubbing their hands with glee. This census is the first to be released entirely online. But a census is only one element you can use to find your family's story.

Office Manager Steve Woodall would consider himself an amateur genealogist.  He’s been researching his family’s history for over 40 years and managed to get to the early 18 century ... before he hit a road block.

"We found that the genealogy had a hard stop at one of my ancestors that was born in 1818."

He had been led to believe that his third great-grandfather was an Irishman who married a Scottish woman. But there were no Woodall’s in Ireland. That’s when Woodall turned from census information to DNA.

"We got the DNA test that says that it appears that we’re Native Americans and we’re like what? We’re what?"

Woodall is fair-haired with freckles, not exactly what you would consider as Native American looking. Yet this snippet of information opened the door to hopefully getting past that 1818 stopping point.

"Nowadays basically what I’m looking for is to see if we end up with a match, because there’s no way to track the surname because I don’t know what my oldest ancestor’s Indian name was."

That match will most likely come from the same place where Woodall found out he was descended from Indians, it’s a Houston based company. Bennett Greenspan is Family Tree DNA’s founder.

"We have a Y-DNA test for men only and that looks at a man’s father’s, father’s, father’s direct male line. We can do the same thing with female inherited mitochondria, which everyone receives from their mother."

So if you have two children, a boy and a girl, they can trace their family history, but there’s a snag and it’s a bit complicated. The boy can trace both his mother’s and father’s history because he has his dad’s y-chromosome and his mother’s mitochondria. The girl however only has her mother’s mitochondria, so she can only trace her mother’s line. This is where DNA information can be lost. 

"A man who has a daughter, who had a son, who had a daughter for example, in those cases going back to about five generations, we would then recommend the Autosomal DNA test, which kind of bridges that gap."

DNA testing’s popularity continues to grow, however the price hasn’t changed much since early 2000. What has changed is Greenspan says is the amount of information you can now get from a simple cheek swab.

"DNA testing works very well as another piece of evidence when a genealogist is trying to fill in the gaps that our ancestors, in some cases, worked very, very hard to make sure that we would not be able to find."

And Woodall hopes other Woodall DNA shows up to fill in the gaps that will lead him to that all important Native American name and with that, the missing piece of his family history. For more information go to https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/index.html

Bio photo of Edel Howlin

Edel Howlin

Producer, Houston Matters

Edel is a producer on Houston Matters and reporter for PBS’s Newshour Weekend...