DNA analysis supplements family lore, and written records can contain undiscovered details.

Think of genealogy as a personal experiment in time travel. Though you can’t visit the past, you can experience it through the lives of your ancestors.

And you never know what you might find, even with someone familiar, Irene Monley, president of the Delaware Genealogical Society said.

“It’s hard to describe what it’s like to discover something really new about an ancestor in your family tree,” she said. “Your reaction can range from intense excitement to pride to sorrow, depending on what you unearth.”

Every family has angels and devils, Monley said.

“No matter what, though, you’re sure to gain a deeper appreciation for who your ancestors were and, in turn, who you are.”

Genetic testing is one part

One of the most recent steps on the road to discovering one’s past has been through DNA testing. All human beings carry sets of chromosomes, of which deoxyribonucleic acid is a major component. DNA carries genetic information from one individual to another.

Companies, such as 23andMe, Ancestry DNA, Family Tree DNA and others can analyze a small genetic sample, usually a vial of saliva or a cheek swab.  

Different tests can identify a person’s male lineage and others can give information on the female line.

Sent off to a laboratory, an individual’s DNA is extracted from the sample and the results compared to the company’s database of other submitted records. This can provide information that may predate many written records.

People living in the same area tend to share the same genetic information, so a DNA sample can help identify areas where members of an individual’s family once lived. That means an individual can be statistically, but not definitively, related to those people.

The only way to determine if one person is absolutely related to another is for both to submit their DNA for testing. Ancestry.com, for one, will flag DNA matches to other members.

“DNA has become an invaluable tool for making family connections, though it should be considered just like any other tool like a vital record, in the genealogist’s toolbox,” said Delaware Genealogical Society vice president Joe Harland.

Companies such as Ancestry DNA are investing a lot of time and money in developing genetic genealogy in an effort to help their customers make connections with others who share the same genetic information, he said.

But there can be a drawback: DNA doesn’t lie, Harland said, and the results of this kind of testing sometimes can turn up unpleasant realities, secrets some families would have preferred remained that way, particularly when it comes to adoptions or paternity.

“This is not unique to DNA,” Harland said. “Paper genealogy has turned up unexpected family truths also. It’s just easier to convince oneself a paper record is in error.”

Is our privacy protected?

DNA genealogy also raises privacy issues. A June 10 online piece in ScienceNews raised the question of whether it can be used to solve crimes in a story about how a publicly accessible website, GEDMatch, allowed police in Utah to search its database, a quest that identified a suspect in a brutal assault case.

In April 2018, police in California identified a suspect in a series of murders, rapes and assaults dating to the 1970s. Unknown to him, the man’s relatives had submitted genetic samples while trying to trace their family history. The article said police compared 40-year-old crime scene samples to information in the database and arrested Joseph James DeAngelo for crimes attributed to the suspect nicknamed the Golden State Killer.

This has raised legal and ethical questions, said Elizabeth Joh, a University of California, Davis, professor of criminal law and procedure, constitutional law and policing.

Law enforcement use of genetic information is basically unregulated and operates with few limitations, she said. There are few rules on what crimes can be investigated. Similarly, there is little guidance on what can be done if mistakes are made or if the information is misused, she said.

To protect the data and associated individuals, legislatures and law enforcement officials should take the step of setting up guidelines for police agencies, Joh said.

“If the police are to be given unlimited access to the genetic information of your entire family tree, they should have it at the end of a public debate, not by default,” she said.

First steps in the First State

Although genealogy enthusiasts have been tracking family information for years, the explosion of information online has led to a renewal of interest that rivals the initial resurgence in research following the 1977 miniseries, “Roots.” In the 1970s, researchers did not have the advantage of the internet, which has made millions of records from across the world accessible.

At the Delaware Public Archives there is free access to online genealogy sources, including Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.com. But budding researchers should not strictly rely on the internet to do their work, Tom Summers, Outreach Services manager, said.

“When you complete your research online, there’s also more to find,” Summers said. Almost everybody at some point in their lives leaves behind public records in the way of wills, tax assessments, marriage certificates, birth and death certificates, school records and even listings in phone books, Summers said.

“Don’t think you’ve found it all. You’ll need to make the trip to the Delaware Public Archives to go through all the resources we have. There’s only a very small amount of genealogy material online, what we have online is the tip of the iceberg.”

There are large amounts of privately donated records of interest to the genealogist, including family histories, church records, Bible records and newspapers. Some are handwritten, original records, that date to Delaware’s earliest colonial days.

The Archives also has United States census records, from the first enumeration in 1790 to the most recently released, the 1940 count. Because census files are not made public until 72 years have passed, the 1950 materials will be released in 2022.

The most recent addition to the Archives’ trove are records from the state’s Chancery Courts. These involve property and land disputes, Summers said.

“They can give you the relationships between a lot of people because they needed this information for the process to go forward,” he said. “If it involves family members, you have to include the relationships in the legal documents themselves.”

Research in Delaware can be easier since the state is divided into counties, with counties subdivided into areas called hundreds. Knowing which hundred an individual lived in can drastically narrow a search, Summers said.

Start at the beginning

Before submitting to the sometimes-expensive DNA testing, with a family tree it’s usually best to start at the beginning: asking questions, starting with the familiar and working backward. The obvious place to start is with immediate family members, focusing on those who can provide personal stories and photographs and documentation. Old treasures, hidden for years in dusty corners will be brought out, shined up and given new life.

Attending a family reunion, where others bring their own pictures, memories and oral histories is a valuable way to verify everyone’s information.

Old family group photos rarely include notes on who is in the photo, but a lot of names can be filled in when different people look at the pictures.

As soon as personal computers became common, narrowly-focused genealogy groups began to spring up.

GHOTES, for example, shares information on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and nearby areas. Early settlers did not let boundary lines bother them too much, and families spread across Delaware, Maryland and Virginia east of the Chesapeake. If you have ancestors from farther down Delmarva, find Genealogy and History of the Eastern Shore at https://www.facebook.com/groups/ghotes.

Beginning researchers might want to look to the Delaware Genealogical Society for help, Monley said.

“The DGS, like most genealogical societies, exists to help genealogists,” she said. The group offers regular programs to learn and improve research skills. These are free and open to the public. Special programs are available at a modest cost, she said.

Membership offers a chance to research data and records not available from other sources, Monley added.