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Jul 03, 2017

Beginning DNA for African American Genealogy

[Turner Martin II family portrait - Madison County, Florida] Publication Information 19--

by Shannon Christmas

You’ve talked to every relative you know. You’ve scoured every relevant website, courthouse, library, historical society, and archive imaginable. You’ve even hired professionals. But your one nagging genealogical mystery remains unsolved.

Perhaps the answer to your question isn’t indexed online or listed in any library’s card catalog. Perhaps the clue you’re seeking lives in your genes, encoded in the language of your DNA. Try DNA testing.

DNA testing enables genealogists to investigate, substantiate, and disprove family lore in ways we never thought possible. Countless success stories have demonstrated how genealogical DNA tests have helped repair the ruptures in African-American family narratives, resulting in transatlantic reunions, confirmation of oral history, and the restoration of family ties long broken by America’s domestic slave trade.

Despite genetic genealogy’s possibilities, many struggle with embracing this evolving technology. Some find themselves overwhelmed by the increasing number of products in this rapidly growing industry. Here are a few tips for navigating the genetic genealogy landscape.

Countless success stories have demonstrated how genealogical DNA tests have helped repair the ruptures in African-American family narratives, resulting in transatlantic reunions, confirmation of oral history, and the restoration of family ties long broken by America’s domestic slave trade.

Those researching their direct parental line – one’s father’s father’s father’s father’s line – should consider Y-chromosome DNA testing. Often accompanying a surname, the Y-chromosome passes from father to son each generation, making it a useful tool for males tracing ancient origins and the history of associated surnames. To get started, test with’s Y-DNA37 test ($95). The results will include a list of DNA matches, maps charting the migration of one’s Y-DNA ancestors, and Africa-specific reports for those customers who have African Y-DNA. Keep in mind that only men can take this test, as only men have Y-chromosomes. Also remember that approximately 1/3rd of African-American males have a European Y-chromosome.

Those researching their umbilical line – one’s mother’s mother’s mother’s line – should consider testing their mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down from mother to child each generation. Since mitochondrial DNA mutates very slowly, this type of DNA, like Y-DNA, is useful for tracing ancient origins, but significantly less useful than other types of DNA for most lineage research. The slower mutation rates of mitochondrial DNA mean that the most recent common ancestor shared by any two people who have identical mitochondrial DNA might have lived as far back as 1000+ years ago – well beyond the scope of most of our genealogical research.  That said, some genealogists have had breakthroughs with mitochondrial DNA. To get started, test with‘s full mitochondrial sequence test ($159) to receive a list of names and contact information for your mitochondrial DNA matches, maps illustrating the origin of your mitochondrial DNA, and Africa-specific reports for those whose mitochondrial DNA traces back to Africa. Both males and females have mitochondrial DNA and can take this test.

Autosomal DNA testing – AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder – is the newest and most widely discussed type of genealogical DNA testing. Autosomal DNA refers to DNA on Chromosomes 1-22 from a mix of ancestors across all of your family lines within the last five generations, making it perhaps the most powerful genetic tool for genealogical research. While ubiquitous advertising and various television programs emphasize the genetic ethnicity component of these types of tests, the DNA matches – genetic relatives with whom one shares DNA inherited from a recent common ancestor – are often the most useful feature for those seeking to expand their family trees. These matches may have the answers for which you have long searched. Many African-American autosomal DNA test customers have found links to African relatives, European and slaveholder ancestors, and previously unknown close relatives.

To get the most out of autosomal DNA, test with AncestryDNA and 23andMe ($99 each), transfer your raw DNA data to the popular third-party website GEDMatch (free, but donation recommended) and to Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder (free for the initial transfer, $19 for access to tools). You may also want to upload your raw DNA data to new but growing databases, such as MyHeritage DNA and DNA.Land, free of charge. This “fishing in all ponds” approach maximizes one’s chances of networking with the matches who can help you unearth your family story. Like mitochondrial DNA, autosomal DNA inhabits the cells of every human. Anyone can take an autosomal DNA test.

If the prospect of mastering genetic genealogy seems as daunting as it does exciting, know that a wealth of educational resources – blogs, books, videos, courses, and digital communities – awaits you. Read Blaine Bettinger’s The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy and Genetic Genealogy in Practice by Blaine Bettinger and Debbie Parker Wayne. Explore instructive genetic genealogy blogs such as The Genetic Genealogist, Your Genetic Genealogist, DNAeXplained, and Through The Trees Blog for advice on advancing your DNA agenda. Sign up for offline and online genetic genealogy courses. You may still feel overwhelmed or discouraged at times. Don’t be deterred. Persist until you prevail. Your family’s brick wall need not stand forever.

About Shannon S. Christmas

Named an “essential blog for genetic genealogy education” by the Board of Certification for GenealogistsThrough The Trees is a blog for genealogy enthusiasts seeking to locate and leverage new tools and emerging technologies to break through genealogical brick walls.

The blog’s author, Shannon Christmas, is an experienced genealogist specializing in genetic, colonial American, and African-American genealogy in Virginia and the Carolinas. He serves as a 23andMe Ancestry Ambassador, administrator of The Captain Thomas Graves of Jamestown Autosomal DNA Project, and as a co-administrator of The Hemings-Jefferson-Wayles-Eppes Autosomal DNA Project. Shannon has a special interest in harnessing the power of autosomal DNA to verify and extend pedigrees, assess the veracity of oral history, and reconstruct ancestral genomes.

Routinely invited to lecture at international genealogy conferences, Shannon was one of a select few genetic genealogists invited to participate in the American Society of Human Genetics’ Roundtable on Genetic Ancestry Inference. Shannon was tapped to investigate the genetic lineage of Governor Lawrence Douglas Wilder of Virginia and presented his findings at The 2015 Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society’s National Conference in Richmond, Virginia.

A trained urban planning and real estate consultant, Shannon has a Bachelor of Arts in Government from Harvard University and a Masters in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.