Cottrel: DNA test results a golden ticket for family history

Pam Cottrel
Pam Cottrel

We have all seen those advertisements on television. Spit here, scrape there and send the samples in to have your DNA analyzed.

But what really happens? What can you really learn?

There are a variety of tests available and each company has its merits. The company you choose will probably be determined by what you want to learn.

It may sound unfair but only men can have their yDNA studied, which will follow their male line from their father through his father through his father and so forth. Simply put, fathers pass the yDNA only to their sons, which makes them boys. This can follow family name, but not always.

People changed last names more often in past human history than they do now in this computer age. They changed spellings because they couldn’t spell or they wanted to seem more English to blend in. There were adoptions, rapes, plagues, invasions and affairs. Children were orphaned, abandoned, kidnapped and rescued. There were indentures, slavery and people running away from their past. This was life then and our history. Don’t be upset if you cannot follow a name very far. Just assume it was for a good purpose and move on.

In the yDNA test you can opt to have a 12, 25, 37, 64, or 111 marker test. Yep, each tiny yDNA has that many unique parts. Since 12 wasn’t as specific as most people need, we opted to order the 37 marker test, which I recommend. We knew we could always upgrade if we wanted to later on.

If women want to follow their father’s yDNA, they will need to ask their brother, father, uncle or cousin with the same grandpa to take the test for them.

Men or women can have the mitochondrial DNA test which follows the line of their mother’s mother’s mother, etc. This changes family name every generation and is very difficult to follow, but you will learn regional origin for your motherly line.

One company will tell you if you are a carrier of genetic variances or of other health related issues. This group also claims to be able to predict things like lactose intolerance or baldness.

Most companies offer a general DNA study that gives an overall view. It is technically called autosomal DNA. This test determines your ancestors’ origins by percentage. Some of the tests divide this up by countries. Others are more general. If you want to know your Irish or Scots percentage see how these areas are reported by a company. Sometimes it just comes out as “British Isles.” You also need to remember that the borders of today are most likely not the borders of 300 years ago.

Research which test company is best for your needs. There are some great comparison sites online. Just do an online search or ask at the library for some articles on the subject.

My husband was the perfect test subject for the yDNA test. His father to son line had been in Ohio since 1836, and was solidly documented. We knew nothing of his paternal line before that.

We sent in his DNA sample with the name of the oldest man on his father’s male line, Gershom Cottrell, and waited.

First thing we learned is that the processing never goes as fast as you wish it would. In fact that “month” or “six weeks” or “two month” wait does not begin until they receive it and log the sample into their laboratory.

We have a good friend, a retired pathologist, who says the clinical crime shows on television drive him crazy. He blames these shows for misleading the public to believe that DNA can be analyzed instantaneously. Trust me, it takes awhile. Be patient. And if the lab is busy, it might take even longer.

Meanwhile, all the companies have either information-filled websites or literature you can request. Do yourself a favor. Read the basic stuff. Read the commonly asked questions. Look at the examples. Get familiar with the terms while you wait.

Then finally one day we got a message that the results were in and logged into the website.

Wow. We were amazed at how many relatives there were and, as predicted, how few had the same last name. There was obviously a lot of life going on in the family history way back then.

Since the company we chose included contact information for emails we planned on reaching out to the Cottrels on the list. However before we could, we got an email from New Jersey. It was Cousin Bob.

Turns out the Cottrells in New Jersey have an extra “L” at the end of their names and a very nice complicated tree with one dead end written in pencil. “Gershom moved to Ohio 1836.” For them my husband was the missing link.

Bob mailed us a copy of the tree. It covered our dining room table. We looked at the spot where we fit in and followed it up to Newport, Rhode Island, where my hubby’s ancestor Nicholas Cottrell was one of the original settlers not long after the Pilgrims arrived.

Of course we had to take a trip to visit with our New Jersey cousins, Bob and Pat, and they showed us where the Cottrells had lived since 1700. Funny thing was they had the same canister set on their kitchen counter as we did. What were the odds of that? We hope to visit the family historical sites in Newport someday.

Now this is the dream come true for genetic genealogists, but it is the rare acorn. My husband’s yDNA test results were like finding the golden ticket in a Willy Wonka bar. Most people just get the chocolate.

When the results get in you don’t get a carefully designed scrap book like in some of those family history television programs. The test results are just the beginning of the process. Sometimes it sheds light, sometimes you connect with other researchers, and sometimes it is just downright frustrating like my Dad’s yDNA study, which I will tell you about later.

Next week, I’ll let you know how some of our western Clark County neighbors have done with this new form of family research. Cannot wait to write more on this subject.

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