So few degrees of separation

William Brewster

William Brewster

My parents, at 92, don’t really shop any more.  So for birthdays and holidays they give a check and I pick my own gift.  This year for my birthday I bought an Ancestry DNA test and then took advantage of a sale and purchased six months of membership so I’d be able to take advantage of the test results.  I’ve been immersed in research ever since and feeling such shifts because of it.

Thomas Prence

I’ve filled in some extensive branches of the tree, found out I’m a Mayflower Descendant, a many times great granddaughter of a governor of the Plymouth Colony and a distant cousin to Frank and Jesse James.  Oh and my great grandfather died as a result of wounds sustained in a knife fight with a Constable who was trying to arrest him.  Whew.

Thomas Gaitskill stabbing

All the research I’ve done before this seemed to lead to poor tenant farmers who left the British Isles to try for a better chance over here.  And everyone I’d found owned a farm over here.  I thought of my ancestors as up-by-the-bootstraps poor folks, some of whom prospered well in the “new land”.  I saw poverty consciousness, anger and repression.

Now I see the Gaitskills were actually ship captains for a few generations.  And bunches of my ancestors were fairly prominent in the Virginia Colony.  It’s hard to describe the inner shift it creates to feel I came from people from all walks of life and that they weren’t all poor and scrabbling.  I have the qualities of those leaders and movers and shakers in me as well.  It makes me feel…  different.

As I discover surname after surname on my tree, read histories of Colonial Virginia that are loaded with these names, check out the migration pattern of all those names into Kentucky, and extend my tree, I’m so amazed to realize all these connections.  To see that I have cousins of various levels by the hundreds of thousands out there [just to give you an idea, they estimate the number of current descendants of my one 10x great grandfather Mayflower passenger is multi-thousands and we all have 4196 10x great grandparents — do the math!!!].  Suddenly it’s so clear that the “one web” isn’t just an amorphous spiritual concept but a physical reality.

Just as I found out several years ago that an acquaintance of several years is actually my double fourth cousin, we’re all probably passing cousins in the street all the time, friends with cousins, working with cousins.  My seemingly all-British roots turn out to go back to Europe and ancestors who entered Britain as part of the Norman invasion, according to the DNA test.  And there are hints of ancestors before that who go back to some sort of migration from India.  Slaveholders in my tree have provided me with Black cousins.  My cousin’s children are half Chinese.  I’m connected to every other race and many ethnicities even though hundreds of years of history say I’m WASP through and through.

I’m sure the same is true of most of the people who wear their whiteness as some sort of badge of honor that makes them better or more entitled or whatever their goofy thought process is.  If they only knew their whole ancestral picture I wonder if it might change them?  It becomes so clear — at least to me — that we are all separated by only a few degrees.  One.  All one.

11 thoughts on “So few degrees of separation

    • Thanks! I’d seen the post inviting submissions and I’ve been working on in it my head. I did a whole series of posts last November and December about exactly that –including one 5 part series I might turn into a book — so I’m trying to decide whether to just do a condensed version of what I’ve already written or try to think up a new angle. I appreciate the personal invite!

  1. Fascinating, isn’t it! I did this same search a few years ago. Most of my family’s origins are in England, Wales and Holland. I had an ancestor through my paternal grandmother who was an assistant to George Washington at Valley Forge. Beyond that not much with historical connections like that. Although if I assume the accuracy of the records is good I am a descendant of 11th century English and Welsh royalty! That puts me about 12,000,000th in the line to the throne!

  2. What a wonderful gift! And so true it is – many of us weavings of so many more strands than we (or many others) would never assume based on assumptions about the ‘wrapping’. The DNA migration path and more recent-generation DNA ‘certainties’ are revealing. My own DNA ancestry test helped confirm oral traditions of Native American ancestors a few generations back, and also showed migration trails that led back to what’s now Turkey and North-Western Africa. What’s really interesting, too, is how that links with things that arise intuitively, through ancestral memory. So many unknown cousins! Thanks for sharing this from your own genealogy and DNA sleuthing, Leigh.

    • Oh, interesting– although my immediate family never had a Native American story, I’ve seen on Ancestry that a number of other descendants of one of my 3x great grandmothers have been convinced her mother was Native American. All of the descendants who’ve taken the DNA test –including me — are saying the results show zero Native American, so we proved the opposite. It’s pretty amazing what these tests let us do!

  3. Pingback: Blog-Share: So Few Degrees of Separation – Finding Gifts in the Family Tree – Sophia's Children

  4. Although I’ve never been interested in my ancestors I found this truly heart-warming. And it’s almost as if telling me your story you told me my own even though I would no doubt trace my ancestors back to convicts on the First Fleet to Australia. One. All One.
    Alison

    • Oh yes convicts — I’m waiting to run into that one (although I think my great grandpa in a knife fight is pretty good 🙂 ) I have encountered an indentured servant or two which I think also happened a lot in Australia? Fun stuff. And yes, gives me chills to see how closely knit we all really are!

  5. What a lot of history you have uncovered within your DNA Leigh and amazing parents at 92.. 🙂 It is surprising how many can trace their ancestry back to the May Flower and those first pilgrims that set sail for a new life… And like the Irish who fled starvation after the potato blight, So very interesting to read Leigh..
    Thank you xx

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