Discovering an exact match on Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation's newly released online mtDNA-ancestry database helps amateur genealogist learn her likely overseas region of origin and surnames, a result unthinkable only a few years ago.
Imagine searching for 13 years using traditional genealogical techniques to learn four generations of your maternal grandmothers' names and where they lived. For Cynthia Wilson, an administrative assistant living in Seattle, this meant spending her vacations in Virginia and North Carolina courthouses and libraries poring over old deeds, probate records and birth registries.
"I wanted to find out and verify who my grandmothers on my maternal side were," she said. "I don't mind the hard work of research and I even like to read difficult documents, like old court records," she said. "But I don't like brick walls."
The ability to hurdle family history research barriers with DNA testing has revolutionized the hobby of genealogy, solving many problems where traditional methods dead-end, such as missing or inaccurate paper records. Until recently, Y-chromosome testing was used most often. But Y-chromosome testing is limited to researching paternal ancestry. And because women do not have the Y-chromosome, they must have a close male relative tested for them.
For Wilson who was curious about her maternal line, the solution was testing her mtDNA, a service now offered by many consumer-based laboratories using a mailer and a simple cheek-swab. mtDNA is a powerful tool for tracing maternal ancestry for both men and women because it is inherited by children exclusively from their mothers. Entering her genetic profile into the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation's (SMGF) online database, which is the world's largest correlated genetic-genealogy catalog, Wilson learned where her ancestry intersected with others who have submitted their genetic profiles and pedigree charts.
For more than a decade, Wilson's persistent genealogy research efforts and clever detective work had allowed her to follow back into history the line of women she came from all the way to her fourth great-grandmother in colonial America of 1775. The task was painstakingly difficult because of the incomplete records kept of her African-American ancestors who were brought into the American South, sold as slaves and accounted for as property, if at all.
Imagine then, how Wilson felt when she found an exact genetic match in the SMGF database that points to her family origins being in Mali, Africa and includes several surnames to trace as well. "I was very surprised to find one perfect genetic match and 10 near-perfect matches on the Sorenson mtDNA-genealogy database," Wilson said. "I really wasn't expecting that. Could it be that I have 'jumped the pond'?" "Jumping the pond" refers to the fact that nearly all Americans are descended from an initial immigrant from a country across the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean—and locating that ancestor is a major genealogy breakthrough.
"This is a dramatic example of the possibilities the Sorenson mtDNA-genealogy database holds for those who are researching the maternal side of their family history," said Scott Woodward, executive director of SMGF. "It allowed Cynthia Wilson to reach beyond the end of her paper research all the way to Africa. This is the type of discovery that makes maternal ancestry research an extremely rewarding experience for families, and it was impossible only a few years ago."
Wilson's traditional genealogy research had already taught her important things about the line of women from which she is descended. "I learned that life for my grandmothers was a real struggle, but they were strong," she said. And Wilson is optimistic about following her personal thread of history further and learning more. "I am very encouraged by what I've found on the SMGF database and already I've begun preliminary research about Mali and its people."