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Kris Williams: Genealogy & Your DNA

Just recently I received my AncestryDNA kit results and I can honestly say I was pretty shocked by them. For the most part, on my father’s side, my family has been in this country since the Mayflower - or came on ships that followed soon after.  Others came down through Canada from Nova Scotia. Everything I knew about my Dad’s side of the family brought me back to England and Scotland. My mother’s side is a bit different since the majority of her family only goes back in the United States a few generations. Most of her family came over from Ireland in the 1800s, with the exception of her grandfather who came over from Italy with his family in 1909.

Knowing all of this I asked myself, “How much can the test really tell me?” Through all that I have found on my own, I figured my ethnicity would mainly originate on the British Isles with a small percentage of Italian. That was not the case.

What were my results?

According to my DNA, I am 53% Scandinavian, 37% Southern European, 8% British Isles and there was a small 2% that was marked “Uncertain.” I was confused.

Scandinavian? Where the hell did that come from? What I thought would be my largest ethnic percentage ended up ranking third?

The results made me question what else I could learn about my family through my results and AncestryDNA. To get a better understanding, I took a look at how the test worked.

AncestryDNA uses a new DNA technology called autosomal testing. The main differences between this new technology and previous tests used are that autosomal testing examines a much larger portion of your DNA and it covers both the maternal and paternal sides of your family. Previous tests only cover one or the other and a significantly smaller portion of your DNA. So, with the help of expert population geneticists and molecular biologists, autosomal testing gives us genealogy nuts a bigger and more complete picture of our family in one DNA test.

Not only was I surprised by how convenient and easy it was to take this test, I am now excited by the other features AncestryDNA offers to make further use of my results. With my results, I got a list of matches that show me other AncestryDNA users who I may be related to based on our DNA.

With a subscription to Ancestry.com, you are able to reach out to that match and work together to figure out your common link. To make the search easier, the site even provides you and your match with a list of shared surnames from your trees. I have already reached out to one of my matches and I’m excited to start working with him to learn more about my family! Another feature I love is their interactive map, which pinpoints places of birth for everyone you have entered on your tree. It is pretty fascinating when you can see where all of your known ancestors had to travel from for you to be here. It has also made me more curious to find out the reasons behind their moves.

Now that I have my results, and have gone through all the features and have a better understanding of how the test works, I’ve learned to look at the bigger picture. All this time I had viewed my ethnicity as based strictly off of the countries my family came to the United States from, without putting much thought into where their ancestors originated. Being marked 53% Scandinavian by my DNA, I realize that my family tree will eventually lead me back to Norway, Sweden or Denmark.

Taking the history of those locations into account, this possibly brings my family back to Viking times. Vikings were known as merchants, explorers and feared as violent pillagers by coastal towns. Being well-traveled explorers, their adventures took them to nearby England, Ireland and Scotland as well as several other far off lands to establish villages. Knowing this, I am now able to see how Scandinavian descent may have dominated my results.

I can honestly say I am very happy with my decision to try AncestryDNA and am excited to see where this new information takes me! Not only has it given me some insight to my family’s past it is giving me the ability to reach out to others who may share it. The best part is that over time, my list of matches will only continue to grow as more people take the test. Who knows, after taking the AncestryDNA test you could find yourself trading family notes with a long lost cousin and ghost hunter.

Contributed by Kris Williams, Genealogist & star of SyFy’s Ghost Hunters International 

Twitter: @KrisWilliams81

The Titanic: Last Port of Call

One of the best parts about my job is how often I come in contact with historic locations. Most of these places I never dreamed I’d be fortunate enough to see outside the pages of a history book. Twice, in the last five years, I have had the opportunity to work with artifacts and locations that were directly linked to the Titanic. My first experience with this infamous ship came when I was brought in to work with artifacts that were recovered from the wreck. These pieces, collected from the ocean floor, were believed to be haunted by those who died in the disaster. I will be the first to say that I nerded out a bit over the opportunity. My second encounter with the Titanic came when I was sent to a little seaport town called Cove for work.

In November of 2010, I had found myself in southern Ireland boarding a small fishing boat. We were headed out to work for the night on an island just off the coast of Cove. Once aboard, I noticed this old, rotting pier that jetted out into the water in front of a yellow, weather-beaten building. This building displayed a sign that read, “Titanic Bar Restaurant” and sat adjacent to our pier. After asking one of the locals with us, I learned that Cove, once known as Queenstown, was the last port of call for the Titanic.

On April 11, 1912, 123 passengers used that old, rotting pier to board the Titanic before it headed out for its ill-fated, maiden voyage. Three days later, just before midnight on April 14, the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Within a few hours, in the early morning of April 15, this enormous ship sank, taking with it 1,517 out of the 2,228 lives on board. Out of the 123 passengers who boarded in Cove, only 44 would survive.

A century later, the Titanic is still considered one of the greatest maritime disasters in history. We all know about the disaster and the number of people who died, but who were the men, women and children that made up those figures? With help from the new Titanic Collection on Ancestry.com, we are now able to get a better look at who these passengers and crewmembers were. Through this collection of scanned original passenger lists, crew records, fatality reports and coroner’s records the passengers become more then just a number. Becoming aware of the passengers personal details makes this event less about cold statistics. It makes us turn our attention to what made the Titanic such a historic tragedy; the large loss of life.

I will never forget the sadness I felt while looking at that timeworn pier in Cove. I could imagine the people waiting, excited to board the enormous luxury liner that was believed to be unsinkable. The whole town must have turned out; thrilled to welcome this massive history making ship to their seaport. I also found it difficult to shake the eerie feeling I got as we set out on our little boat. For some, on April 11, 1912, this same colorful seaport skyline would be the last town they’d set their feet and eyes on.

By Kris Williams
Twitter: @KrisWilliams81