Will DNA Testing Confirm Grandma’s Story?

I became fascinated with the field of genetics in high school biology class. Mr. Crawford was a task master for his honors bio kids, but I never learned so much nor enjoyed a teacher more. In the beginning we learned about Punnett Squares, then advanced into pedigree charts to show heredity in familial lines. Sounds fun, right? I continued to push myself in the sciences and attended Indiana University with the intention of getting an undergraduate degree in Sports Medicine and to become a high school biology teacher. Three weeks into my freshman year I switched to biology completely, with the thought that I would teach, and then later earn an advanced degree in genetic counseling. However, I bet if I had known then that I could get a degree that would allow me to do genealogy research, I would have jumped on it.

After college, and a little over a year working in the “real world”, I became a stay-at-home mom. Even though I was staying at home I did my best to keep reading up on all those things that fascinated me. Never once did genealogy come up, by the way; I obviously wasn’t looking hard enough, or I just haven’t had enough sleep in 11 years. You wouldn’t believe how fascinated I was as I learned all the developments and breakthroughs that were happening. Things like this get me re-energized in the field.

This past summer I convinced my father to participate in a DNA testing project for his family surname, Combs. Finally, genetics and genealogy were merged in my life! My dad is participating in a Y-chromosome test. For those who don’t know what this means, this type of testing is done on men that have the same last name, as the Y chromosome is passed down father to son. For example, my dad’s father and brother could participate, but not his sister’s son as he has a different Y chromosome. Since I am an only child, and as of right now my father is the only living male in his line that we know of willing to participate in this study, I am a bit on edge to see what the results say.

After all that, however, we are back to square one. I found out that the company lost the sample, and since they are no longer in business we are investigating other companies to use. Eventually, when dad has this done, it is my hope that it will be able to tell me which of the Combs men from Virginia, born in the middle 1700’s we are related to. Over the past 6 months, I have traced the line back to Charles Combs, who was born in Virginia in 1793 and died in Indiana in 1866. All I know of Charles’s parents is his name may have been William, and that he was from Virginia. My question is: Is this where the Jamestown story my grandmother told me comes from?


Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Shannon Bennett of Locust Grove, Va. Read all her posts at Family Tree University.


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7 thoughts on “Will DNA Testing Confirm Grandma’s Story?

  1. Joan, check out familytreeDNA.com for information about DNA on women. Yes, there are tests for women’s DNA, mitocondrial DNA which tests maternal lineage. I have no experience with mtDNA but have with YDNA for my male surnames.

    My great grandfather as orphaned at a young age and unluckily, his parents were John and Mary Williams. I searched through traditional sources for 15 years and found a family with a child who I thought was my great grandfather. I also found a descendant of that family, met with him and asked for a DNA sample. To my amazement this man matched 65 of 67 markers with one of my brothers. I highly recommend comparing DNA samples if you can find two subjects. There have been no other matches beyond 25 markers so I believe it’s necessary to do the full 67 markers (of the YDNA). You’ll have to research mtDNA to see what markers are available. The more markers you can afford, the more reliable the results.

  2. Becky, how do you convince a ‘stranger’ to give DNA? I cannot get ‘my likely kin’ to answer a letter w/SASE even.

  3. Becky is correct there is mDNA tests for women, and I have heard good things about the company she recommends.

    Good luck if you choose to persue it! Hope you find some cousins.

  4. MaryAnn, I had been given the name of the potential relative, found his number and called him. I introduced myself and said I thought we might be related. I asked if we could meet and discuss our families. He agreed. I didn’t immediately ask for a DNA sample. We talked on several occasions and I think my enthusiasm for genealogy was contagious. After meeting with him several times, taking family photos and talking about my brick wall, I mentioned the DNA service and said my brother was agreeable to give a sample. I then provided the written information from FamilyTree DNA about how the sample was processed, what information it would provide and that it was confidential, etc. He agreed. I took the kit to his house and sat with him while he did the sampling–so he wouldn’t put it on a shelf and forget about it–and asked him to mail it the next day. I paid for postage of course.
    I think the key to his agreeing was that it was non threatening and that I wasn’t interested in finding any dark secrets. The results don’t include medical information and it’s completely confidential, even the resulting that comes from other members of FTDNA are confidential.

    Is there any way you can call the person instead of writing? I think people are very distrustful of providing information. My new cousin was distrustful at first but we went through the information together and discussed what information could be gained from others from his sample. He realized it wasn’t a threat to him for this company to have his DNA.

    Oddly–I haven’t explored this–I get three times the hits from his DNA than I do for my brother’s sample. FTDNA will send emails to you on a regular basis for hits on the samples. These “hits” give a kit number and no personal information (name, email, etc.) for the hit. It’s up to me to go into the database and contact the person through their kit number. I rarely do because the Williams name is so common and most of the hits are 12 or 25 markers which mean they are related so far back in time it’s unlikely I can connect with them.

    This has been a very positive experience for me and I knew it would be even if the results provided no matches. It would have told me the census child was not my great grandfather.

  5. If you do the DNA testing, try to get the highest level of markers you can afford. A 12 or 25 marker test will not give you relatives within 4 or 5 generations of yourself. I started with the 35 marker test which was an immediate hit with the man and my brother. But, the markers at that level can hit on thousands of kit numbers. My new cousin’s DNA gave me over 2000 hits at that level. When I upgraded to the 67 marker test, I only had one hit and that was my brother’s at 65 of the 67 markers. This tells me we are related 5 generations back, which was what I wanted to prove. And I could confirm the relationship in my traditional genealogy sources. I’ve never found a single source record to confirm my great grandfather’s parents, their marriage, his birth, their deaths, etc.

    The testing is not inexpensive. I purchased the first kit at a reduced rate because it was a common name. FTDNA gives you discounts on common surnames. The upgrade was another price and it was done from the initial sample. I think the total cost was about $280 for the 67 markers for the YDNA test. I have little information about the maternal testing but seem to remember it being more expensive.
    Good luck!!

  6. Hi Joan,
    There are two different types of DNA tests that women can take. One is the traditional mtDNA test. At FTDNA, there are three levels of testing offered HRV1, HRV1 + HRV2 and Full Sequence. This type of testing follows your direct maternal line or your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother…(etc…) line. This test is more useful for revealing deep ancestry than for investigating recent genealogical brickwalls.
    The more exciting type of DNA test for genealogy that a woman can take is the “new” autosomal DNA test offered by FTDNA as Family Finder and by 23andMe. We have only been working with this type of DNA for genealogy purposes for about 2.5 years, so a lot of genealogists are not familiar with it yet. This test can reveal information about your more recent ancestry. Your autosomal DNA is inherited from all of your great grandparents and is reliable back, at least, 5 generations and sometimes a number more. Many genealogists have already found success in breaking down their brickwalls with this type of test.
    I write a blog about genetic genealogy. Here is a post about investigating one of my brickwalls using autosomal DNA:
    http://www.yourgeneticgenealogist.com/2011/10/investigating-long-held-genealogical.html
    And here is one about my 2nd cousins studies where I am mapping my great grandparents’ DNA to my chromosomes:
    http://www.yourgeneticgenealogist.com/2011/10/known-relative-studies-at-23andme.html
    Please feel free to write me with questions about the fascinating world of genetic genealogy.
    CeCe Moore

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