Playing Sherlock

©2023 michael raven

I’ve been doing some research after seeing an interesting pattern develop in my occasional forays into my DNA makeup at 23andMe. It’s taken me a bit to put enough stock into what I was seeing to really dig in, but I happened to get one of those regular emails from the service that tells me “X number of new relatives” have been added to the service in the past 30 days.

I decided to meander over to the map section and was reminded that their new prediction model release last July jiggered things around a bit with some interesting results.

I’m not a fanatic about all things DNA or genealogical. I’ve always had a healthy interest in my genetic background, but that’s in large part because my families were both resistant to discussing the matter and I’m sure a lot of family history was likely lost as a result. On one side, my relatives would say things like “you come from horse thief stock” and that would be the end of the discussion (false, by the way or, at least, there is no meaningful record to suggest it might even be close to truth) or “it doesn’t matter, you’re American now” (except it does matter — how can we know where we are heading if we don’t know where we came from). The other side was largely flippant about the matter. While sober enough, the message was “no new tale to tell: ranchers, coal miners and military”.


When I would pry into details about my grandfather…

Long story, short:

The father of my mother was less than absentee. He fathered my mother on my grandmother and disappeared from the picture. My mother refused to talk about what she did know about him (which was not much) and my grandmother was pure venom at the mention of the man and would spit nails if I tried to bring it up when she was alive. He’d fathered my mother, wanted nothing to do with the matter and cut off all contact. I don’t know if he is alive or dead and no one seems to give two shits about the matter besides me.

In other words, I have zero clues about the guy. I don’t want to know him if he is alive. He literally means nothing to me because I have no context about who he might be. He’s just some bloke to spread his DNA around.

But, I know enough of the rest of my DNA makeup and family heritage to raise an eyebrow when I discovered last summer that I had even more relatives than originally thought coming out of Finland and Norway. Way more with the new predictive model as to how I might be related to other 23andMe clients. Granted, most of them are 3rd or 4th cousins (or variations of that when you consider things like “second cousin, once removed”). About that time, my mother must have also gotten word she might be more Scandinavian than she’d thought because she started talking more about her Finnish “heritage”, which she seemed to find amusing.

And sure enough, as I said, I had relatives coming out of the woodwork in that region in my own results.

Knowing that my maternal grandmother’s gene pool is NOT from that area, it had to be my father or my mother’s father. A little simple checking and my mother matches up with the Scandinavia elements, while my father only had Swedish showing up in his own DNA from the region. Dad is most definitely not a Finn in recent DNA history (more Slovak/Polish/Hungarian/Austrian than anything).

So, that leaves my grandfather, the mystery man without a history.

I managed to drag out the name he went by from my mother last night. And, at best, what she heard was his name is probably wrong. The man has no public records by that name for where he was supposed to be at the time period in question. No census, no immigration papers, no military, no conscription registration, no birth, no death. Zilch. Nor for the alternate spellings I was given as potential matches. For all practical purposes, he appears to be a fiction. Granted, he might have been overlooked, but that’s a lot of overlooking. Usually something appears in the public records.

So, no way to trace it back to see if he was a recent immigrant (unlikely, as the surname is Scottish and I don’t have that much Scot in me to account for a recent immigration), or to check if his family could be traced back. Nor does the name show up in any DNA databases as a match. Again, I recognize that his family may never have gotten DNA done, or chose to share it if they did, but I’ve found even my relatively rare legal name has DNA matches, and this isn’t a terribly rare surname. I’ve tried all reasonable variations of the surname (and nicknames associated with his given name, “Richard”). No dice.

So I assume it is a fiction, at least the surname. Or a misremembered surname.

Why do I even care? Well, I’m actually trying to tie down a different genetic mystery and I was hoping to find supporting information about the matter.

Recall how I was left with raised eyebrows when looking at my DNA “map”?

Well, what jumped out at me was not the Finnish relatives that popped up in the map, but the cloud that was most intense in the region over what is now known as Sápmi (formerly known as Lapland), which encompasses the artic circle region of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and a part of Russia. Using some other predictive models for DNA, one strong possibility is that my DNA fragments indicate I might have as much as a quarter Sámi DNA (I probably have closer to an eighth), as recent as the last 200 years (likely sooner because of the relative strength).

I was hoping my grandfather’s surname might point to the area his family was from and maybe offer a traceable confirmation of the model. But, as I said, I suspect it may be a bit of a fabricated surname based on the lack of records and the geographic source of the surname.

Lucky for me, I have other people sharing their DNA. My mothers DNA has up to a third Sámi in her predictive model (probably closer to a quarter just because of the math). My father has none, so that suggests my genetic source of this cloud on the map.

Two female names that come up in matches for me in one of the databases I checked for matches (they are sisters, I assume, based on the contact information and relative relationship to me), one of which has the Sámi mtDNA haplotype (U5b1b1) listed in their profile (the other doesn’t provide the mtDNA). [Note: mtDNA is “mitochondrial DNA”, transferred along matrilineal lines]. That doesn’t mean the second female doesn’t have it — there is just no mtDNA shared at all.

These two are matches for my mother and myself, but not for my father. My best guess is that they are both second cousins, once removed, based on a few assumptions with respect to an estimated 4-generation gap between us (there are other possibilities, but I make the assumption that they are sisters who’s mother submitted their DNA because they share the same contact email which doesn’t match the provided given name).

There are a few more checks and cross-references to make, but it appears that the cloud hanging around the Sápmi region may very well be attributable to the fact that I have previously unknown ancestors from that population of people who were, until recent history (and are still in some cases), nomadic hunter/gatherers.

Which is not at all something I expected to be saying a year ago.

And honestly, I’m at a loss as what to make of the whole matter. It seems a significant development in my identity, but I can’t say exactly how or why. I’m befuddled by the whole realization that came out of my playing Sherlock off and on for the past few weeks.

Maybe Watson will find me in some opium den and drag me out. I feel like that at the moment.

11 thoughts on “Playing Sherlock

    1. Slightly frustrating. It just means that the answers won’t be easy to uncover, should I choose to pursue the grandfather vector further.

      On the other hand, there is quite a bit of satisfaction from applying some of my forensic science skills to a task. I don’t get many opportunities to use that facet of my education in the real world (I currently work in environmental.

      And it is nice to see consistent evidence that I am not subject to my own confirmation bias — a trap that is easy to fall into when doing research of any kind.

      Like you, finding out a few more details about that side has settled some unanswered questions for me, I feel more grounded myself.


  1. I know that it’s a relatively new thing, but I do like the Sami flag.
    I have an elder sister who researched this quite a bit and there is (can’t remember the percentages) a fairly strong Sami link tracing through my family.
    Interesting (though probably totally irrelevant) when I think about some of the musical/artistic leanings that we share.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I’ve been hesitant to add flag, but I have found enough evidence for me that I decided to embrace that identity in the same way as I have embraced my Rusyn identity from my paternal side.

      Interesting that we both seem to have some potentially shared ancestry…

      Who knows if the genetics influences those tastes, but I’m glad we share them all the same. It’ll give us something to talk about over tea when I show up in your neighborhood without warning 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an interesting quest you are on. I’ve wanted to go down that route, but my father (who is adopted) is against finding out anything about his birth family. I may have to wait until he’s no longer around to don my own Sherlock hat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t tell him. You don’t need his permission to look.

      Kind of my approach with my mother’s father. I only asked for his name because it would theoretically make things easier. Too bad it didn’t help.

      But you have a right to know and if he wants to stay ignorant, that’s his business.

      Liked by 1 person

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