Updated: Aug 17, 2021
Season 1 - Episode 8: Web-Trees, DNA, and Vikings - Oh My!!!
We may not be able to trace our clandestine, or ancient ancestors using the traditional paper trail, but DNA and online archival sources have opened-up a whole new world of possibilities. DNA testing has allowed me to find relatives I did not know existed, and most recently, probable connections to ancient ancestors. Hi, I am Kael, your host of The Maple Family Treehouse. In Episode 9 I want to share with you some of what technology and DNA has done for my search into my family’s roots. Introduction: When I first started researching my family history, I joined one of the three major websites that offers to host a personal family tree that you can build with the support of a searchable database of digitized archives. Once on the site it became apparent that if you uploaded your DNA to the website a whole new aspect of finding your relatives was possible. Well, It did not take long for me to give into temptation and order my test kit. What happened next would shock me and bring to light a family secret. As soon as my DNA was uploaded to the website, I was able to see my DNA matches. One of my closest matches was a woman I did not know. She contacted right away. She had loaded her own DNA onto to website in the hopes of finding the relatives of her maternal grandfather who had grown-up in an orphanage in London, Ontario. Our DNA indicated that we were 2nd cousins with no common ancestors on her tree. After a bit of chatting, we had our first lead. Throughout her grandfather’s childhood he would visit a woman named Vera – I had a great aunt Vera. I told my new-found cousin to leave it with me and I would ask around. I started with my father – he did not have a clue and referred me to his oldest sister. When I reached out to my aunt, she told me a VERY interesting story: years ago her younger sister was out celebrating with a group of friends when she was approached by man who had overheard her last name in conversation. Isn’t that strange he said to my aunt, we both have the same last name, in the same town. He explained that his last name was his surname at birth but he had no idea who his relatives were. Admittedly, my aunt stated that she and her younger sister both thought that there was more to the story. I had the same reaction when my aunt told me the story. There had to be a connection. London Ontario is not a huge city. If you meet someone with the same last name you are probably related. About a month later, I got an opportunity to follow-up with my paternal grandmother, and her sister, my great aunt (not Vera, but a different sister). So there I was with my Grandmother and a great aunt, I could not resist the temptation to talk to both of them about my new found cousin and the questions she had about her Grandfather. The opportunity did finally present itself and I had both women sitting at a table with me, I casually mentioned that I had done a DNA test and added it to my family tree only to find a cousin I did know I had. I then told them about her Grandfather, and asked the big question – Did they know anything about his parents? My grandmother immediately claimed ignorance, and then there was silence. And yes, it was awkward because not only did my grandmother’s reaction seem defensive, but her sister sat there at the table looking straight at me as if she desperately wanted to say something but couldn’t. Later that same day, as I was leaving, my great aunt asked for my address to send me some photos for my family research. I gladly gave her my address. We said our goodbyes, and as I drove home I thought this is a dead end. I will have no answers for my new cousin. A few months went by and I got the sad news that my Grandmother had passed away, and a few weeks later her sister. That, it would seem, was an end to the story, or so I thought. My father called me about a week after and said he was given an envelope that my great aunt addressed to me. I rushed to my father’s house and opened the envelope and there it was the whole story of how Raymond was related to me. I looked up at my father and said out loud for the first time, you have a half-brother. The envelope that my great aunt sent me, contained all the documentation to verify that my paternal grandfather was married to another woman before he met my grandmother, and they had a son – Raymond – my cousins grandfather. For reasons I do not know, that relationship ended shortly after Raymond was born, and after that marriage ended MY grandparents immediately got married. I should tell you that my Grandmother was all of 16 years old when this happened, and most likely not in any position to enter into an instant family, although they did start their own family almost immediately. I mentioned earlier that a woman named Vera would visit Raymond. This woman was my grandfathers sister, and she stayed in touch with Raymond throughout his childhood, having him over on weekends and holidays. I was thankful that Raymond had that connection at the very least. Unfortunately, Raymond had passed away before I met my cousin, so he was not able to get reunited with his siblings but his granddaughter got the answers she needed. I was so happy to return home and send her digital copies of all the documents that were sent to me. She was happy to finally have answers to these longstanding questions in her family. And that my friends, is what DNA can do! But that is not all that DNA can do. Recently I uploaded my DNA to a website that compares the DNA of subscribers to the DNA gathered from ancient remains from some of the most famous archaeological digs from around the world. I got many interesting results from this website, but some of the strongest connections are with Vikings. I know, so manly right! The Viking DNA that I am linked to is from to archeological digs that are linked to one historical event – The St Brice’s Day Viking Massacre. Let me give you a very brief background… Viking societies emerged first in Scandinavia, Sweden, and Norway. The Vikings relied heavily on slavery for economic stability and growth. Kingships were and integral aspect to their social, and political structures. Viking looting and pillaging supplied the economic demand for slaves within the Viking economic system but also for silver, since the slaves were valued even more than most goods such as clothing, furs, and supplies. The looting and pillaging took place all over England. The establishment of the Danelaw and the death of Eric Bloodaxe, Viking King of Northumbria, in 954 initiated the withdrawal of Viking forces and by default, the violence for a period of 25 years. But in 980 the raiders returned and began a new onslaught on port towns. The English ruler at the time, King Aethelred tried to bribe the Vikings to stop the invasion but instead, invasions continued and the demand for money increased over time. Finally, on Nov. 13, 1002 – The revolt against the Vikings was organized around an annual feast held in the name of a 5th century Bishop named St. Brice. There is now archeological evidence that this revolt took place. The exact number of those killed is unknown, but we have evidence from two separate mass graves found in Oxford and Ridgeway Hill. AND some of that evidence was DNA. In 2008 at St John’s College in Oxford, a burial site was discovered holding the bodies of over 35 Viking warriors. The skeletons showed evidence of violent death; many of the attacks appeared to have been from behind, demonstrating a link to the idea of a massacre. A second archeological dig in 2009, called The Ridgeway Hill Viking burial pit at Ridgeway Hill near Weymouth, Dorset, England was a mass grave of 54 skeletons and 51 heads of Scandinavian men executed some time between AD 910 and 1030. Fitting the same timeline as the St. Brice’s Day massacre. The men are believed to have been Vikings executed by local Anglo-Saxons. The dismembered skeletons approximate ages and identities were later confirmed by forensic analyses. According to a comparison done of my DNA with the two groups at each site, I have 4 genetic links at the Oxford site, and 2 links at Ridgeway Hill. Without all the technicalities the 6 genetic links I had in these 2 groups of people ranged anywhere between sharing 10 – 14% DNA. Expressed another way, I am 67 – 94% closer genetically than others in the comparison sample population (three of the comparisons fell in the 90% range). While all of this is interesting and exciting – what do I do with this information. I had this idealist notion that going deeper than my settler past would help me to de-colonize my sense of self and enable me to consider who I am in an even larger story, with even deeper roots. I thought that if I went back far enough, that somewhere there was some pre-colonial past that was better. Learning about my potential Viking connection has made me into more of a realist. I am just beginning to climb my family tree. I am not a professional genealogist. I am not a well-rounded historian. I certainly do not make any claims to understanding genetics and how it reveals our connections. But I am beginning to understand how complicated my ancestors are. They each have their own story. They struggled with the challenges of the day. And the choices they made, left, a lasting legacy. Perhaps part of the healing lies in an ability to see the complications, the legacy, and withhold judgement. I am here now, listening, and taking responsibility for my actions today and tomorrow. It is a new day with new challenges. How will I respond? Can I look back on this time years from now and be confident and proud that I did the best I could for myself and the people around me. Hey before you leave, I want to introduce you to Brian Nash. He is a fellow podcaster. Brian’s Show is called How We Got Here. In this Show Brian tells the stories of not only the people in his family tree, but the stories of people and communities all over Nova Scotia. He calls upon experts and listeners to make contributions and bring the past to life. If you enjoy The Maple Family Treehouse, you will love, How We Got Here. Check it out on Soptify.com. And check out his website: How We Got Here. Ca Thanks for listening to the Maple Family Treehouse. I hope you enjoyed this 9th episode. I would love to here from you. No – really. You can leave voice messages on my podcast platform at anchor.fm/maplefamilytreehouse. Talk to you next Tuesday. Cheers! Kael Sharman