To future or current DNA test-takers: it might not be what you think

back to Family Stories, Spring 2020

by Lindsay Sasson

I have always heard “groundbreaking” stories about people receiving their DNA test results and discovering adoptions or relations to famous people.  Truth be told, I thought that this might happen to me.  Instead, though, my results appeared to be quite ‘ordinary.’  If you recently received your DNA results and are thinking, Why haven’t I figured out how I’m related to Charlemagne yet? or Why haven’t I uncovered any unique stores about my ancestors yet? then I urge you to not give up.  Take it from me: there is always more to be found.  

Here are my top 3 tips for making the most out of your not-so-groundbreaking DNA results:

  1. Dive deeper into your ethnicity estimates.

None of my close living relatives have ever taken a DNA test before. (In fact, my closest DNA match was one of my paternal great aunts). This being said, I had no idea what my ethnicity was going to be. I knew from family stories that I had German ethnicity on my mother’s side, but everything else was a mere guess. So, when I received my ethnicity estimates from Ancestry DNA, I was quite surprised to learn that I was only 17% German.  My primary ethnicities, in fact, are English (44%) and Irish (21%). 

Discovering where my ethnicity has originated from took a great deal of traditional and genetic genealogical research. I found it most helpful to use Ancestry to compare family trees among suggested DNA matches to find out where (or if) we share a common ancestor. The most helpful documents that I utilized were census records, as they contain essential information such as locations and household members including children and spouses.  If all information matched up across several platforms, I would add the relative to my tree. The ThruLines tool is also especially helpful for predicting how you are related to someone. Although all of this can be an extremely time-consuming process, I want to assure you that it is completely worth it in the end. I have made abundant progress on each of my family lines, going back as far as my eleventh great-grandparents on one particular line stemming from my maternal grandmother. I have now determined that my English ethnicity primarily comes from my maternal grandmother’s line, and my Irish ethnicity mainly comes from my paternal grandfather’s side.  My German ethnicity, as expected, comes from my maternal grandfather’s line, but I also discovered that it exists on my paternal grandmother’s line, as well.  So, whether or not you are surprised by your ethnicity estimates, there might be a hidden discovery regarding where these specific ethnicities originate. 

  • Don’t have a famous relative? Neither do I, and that’s okay. Reach out to your relatives for stories more interesting than family fame. 

If one of the most interesting facts about your family tree is that you have multiple great-grandfathers who passed away in a tractor accident, then you’re not alone. I have uncovered over 400 relatives in my family tree, and the majority of them became farmers once they arrived in America. This might seem pretty ordinary, but again, there is more to it. My best recommendation for discovering what makes your family story unique is to reach out to your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles… you get the point. Chances are, they will have lots of stories that they’ll be happy to share with you. Just this morning, I called my maternal grandmother to see if she had any stories about my ancestors on her line. Sure enough, this “quick chat” turned into a three hour phone call. One of her favorite stories is that her great-grandmother, Gulielma “Elma” Butler (my third great-grandmother), had skin cancer that was cured by a Native American. My grandmother had heard this story numerous times from her father, so she gave me every single detail. Elma had developed a certain growth on her face that was diagnosed as cancer. There was a Native American man who traveled near Elma’s farm each fall. He noticed her cancer and eventually developed a certain recipe to cure it, using certain natural ingredients such as sassafras leaves. When applying it on her face, Elma’s cancer disappeared within three months. My grandmother previously possessed the document with the recipe but, unfortunately, it was bestowed upon her brother and was lost after his death. The only detail that my grandmother could recall with certainty was the sassafras leaves. 

By reaching out to my family members, I have learned more than I ever thought possible. In addition to the story from my grandmother, I also reached out to both a maternal aunt as well as a paternal aunt.  These two aunts are both from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  For context, one of my maternal uncles, Tim Gehner, went on a mission trip to Tegucigalpa, where he met his future wife, Fidelina (whom I call Tía Fidé).  About a decade later, one of my paternal uncles, Kevin Sasson, also went on a mission trip to Tegucigalpa, where he met his future wife, Jenny (“Tía Jenny”). What a coincidence, right?  (Long story short, this is why seven out of eleven of my first cousins are Honduran).  Anyway, reaching out to my two Honduran aunts was extremely eye-opening for me.  I was able to learn about their experience moving from Tegucigalpa to Cincinnati, where they experienced a culture shock that I cannot even imagine.  Although this did not reveal anything about my particular ethnicity, it was definitely fascinating to learn about their ethnicity and the mixing their Honduran culture with the culture of my family.

My 1C1R Steven Sasson, inventor of the digital camera

I learned more from reaching out to my paternal grandfather, Gerald “Jerry” Sasson, who is extremely organized and keeps nearly every document in his extensive file cabinet.  He was able to tell me all about my great grandfather (his father), James Sasson, who earned several awards both as a soldier and as a cook in World War II. He also told me about his cousin, Steven Sasson (my first cousin once removed), who invented the digital camera, and his father-in-law, Cyril Wedding, (my great-grandfather), who wrote the jingle for Rueble’s Rye Bread, which was previously famous here in Cincinnati.

The point here is this: AncestryDNA can provide you with a LOT of valuable information, but the content of stories told firsthand from relatives is unmatchable.  No matter what you find on AncestryDNA, reach out to your family members, as well.  They’d love it, and you might just be surprised about what you uncover.  Plus, you might be able to find records on Ancestry that support your family members’ stories that seem too outlandish to be true.

  • Look into the history!

One of my favorite parts of this family story project was diving into the history surrounding my ancestors and their journeys to the United States.  AncestryDNA has a great tool that allows you to do this.  Specifically, you can click on each of your ethnicity estimates in your DNA Story. Then, select “Read Full History” to learn about certain historical events that took place in in each region of your ethnicity. Sometimes, you can view which of your ancestors were alive when those events took place. For example, I was able to discover that several of my relatives moved from Germany to the United States at the time that the German Triangle was being settled (between 1825-1850). The German Triangle was composed of St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati, as industrialization was more rapid in these regions than in Germany.  Most of my German rela

my 5GG Francis Brühmüeller

tives moved to Cincinnati, where my family lives today. I was also able to learn about why several of my relatives Anglicized their names to sound less German. This was due to hostility towards German immigrants during World War I.  During this time, for example, my fifth-great grandfather, Francis Brühmüeller, changed his surname to Bremiller. 

Overall, although it may not seem like it at first glance, every family story is truly unique and fascinating.  Just be sure to take advantage of every resource/tool provided to you, and remember that there is always more to be discovered. If you dig deeper into the origin of your ethnicity estimates, reach out to your family members, and explore the history surrounding your family, I guarantee your family tree will start growing quickly before you know it. Plus, you’ll uncover some pretty cool fun facts that will totally earn you some bragging rights.