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Tracing Family History Posted by on Oct 25, 2018 in American history, Culture, News

US President Donald Trump has had a long-standing feud with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren over her claims of having a Native American heritage. For years he has derisively called her “Pocahontas”, a reference to the Powhatan woman who famously saved settler John Smith from execution at the Jamestown colony. That selfless act may have been a folktale and not historically accurate, and it has long been Trump’s assertion that Warren’s Native American heritage claims are equally inaccurate. He offered her “a million dollars” if she could prove it.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

Recently, Senator Warren set out to do just that. She underwent genetic testing and the results basically confirmed her claims. Although the findings indicate her heritage to be overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon European, she can certainly point to DNA evidence as proof of her family background. Trump, for his part, now asserts that he never made the million-dollar offer.

This odd political side note is important for two reasons. Because Warren seems to be positioning herself for a presidential run in 2020, she would love to have this question settled before any campaigning can begin. When she first ran for the Senate (and won), her opponent claimed that she had used her alleged Native American roots to give herself an advantage in her academic career, a claim which she has denied. The Pocahontas name-calling is also deeply offensive to the Native American community. Putting the dispute behind her is clearly in her political best interest.

But, perhaps most importantly, this incident has cast a spotlight on one of the fastest growing obsessions in the United States – tracing family heritage.


Americans actively research their family roots with meticulous detail. They honor their ancestors by hanging framed pictures of their family tree and great-great grandparents. Researching the family tree is reportedly the #2 most popular hobby in America, behind watching sports. Because church and local records are now available online, it has been possible for the average person to trace family ancestry from the comfort of their living rooms. Sites like Ancestry.com enable Americans to find relatives in other countries and “friend” them on Facebook.

Think of studying ancestral history as a means of solving a complex mystery. Almost all Americans are descendants of immigrants. Their parents may have spoken about previous generations arriving on a boat. But, where did that boat dock? What was its port of departure? Did the family split up, with brothers and sisters journeying to different corners of the country? It is now possible to answer all of those questions and much more.

Begin with interviews with relatives regarding family history and stories. Then move on to explore birth, marriage, death, and census records, all of which can be found online with some research. Generational links can now begin to emerge. Using original documents instead of transcriptions may be more time consuming, but they will produce more accurate results. Names were often misspelled, but the original ship manifests were typically accurate.


The cost of taking a DNA test to trace your heritage, as Senator Warren did, is now an affordable option, and many are doing it. It’s personal in a way that no other hobby can be. You learn your true ethnicity, connections you might have to other parts of the world, and sometimes astonishing detail.

DNA testing is often used to link people who are uncertain of their biological background. Your genes are located in your DNA. Everyone has a 50% chance of inheriting different types of DNA from each of their parents. You then have a 50% chance of passing parts of your DNA to the next generation, and so on. This is how physical features and other family traits are inherited. The more genes you share with someone, the closer they will be to you as relatives.

Autosomal DNA can match you to genetic relatives throughout history, thus connecting you to more family members. The background information learned through this type of genetic matching would far exceed the detail you’d get from simply cross-referencing historical records.

As I said, tracing family heritage is largely a way of solving a complex, but personal, mystery. Sometimes people find that they are linked to celebrities and famous historical figures. Sometimes, like Senator Warren, there may be more practical reasons. But, the best reason Americans have for generational research is to honor their past and to hand that legacy on to the next generation.

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