Recent science has revealed that we, Homo sapiens, may be carrying genes from the Neanderthals, like the model on the left reconstructed from a nearly complete skeleton discovered 100 years ago in France. But what about our other genes, those contributed by our family ancestors?
The quest for family roots is old, and has kept genealogists, amateur and professional alike, engaged in a fascinating search of discovery.
That quest has even been politicized, for at least the last five-years, with the public clamoring for information about the roots of presidential contenders. Fortunately for us commoners, information of our forebears is easy to obtain, in comparison, because of its lack of political sensitivity. This search is eased in part by the help of the Mormon Church.
I’m not a Mormon, but if you’ve spent any time at all on the planet lately, you’ve probably heard that a U.S. Presidential contender is, namely, Mitt Romney. My take on Mormons that I’ve known personally is that they are really nice people, with a strong interest in family … and genealogy. I like to think I hold those values in common with them.
They used to say you are what you eat. But now that the war between nature vs. nurture has quieted down, we recognize we are largely what our genes define, with a good bit of good parenting thrown in. But it’s the genes that interest me the most. Supposedly we share 95-98% of our genome, our collection of genes, with Chimpanzees. Well, as I look in a mirror, I realize that remaining 5% is pretty darned important.
And so out of an abundance of curiosity, decades ago I began transcribing my Grandmother’s family history notes into early DOS-based computer databases. Before long I began to see an interesting panoply of historical faces staring back at me.
I soon learned that the Church of Latter Day Saints had extensive libraries chock full of family files, and due to the Mormon fascination with all things family, my database rapidly grew. With the advent of the Internet and family file sharing, the numbers of known ancestors grew exponentially. That’s when things got interesting.
My Clark(e) ancestors were Scottish, and after coming to the U.S. in the 1700s from Jura, Scotland, they settled in North Carolina. They were thus Southern.
Being Southern led to a conflict between one ancestor, a tall well-educated man who published a Tennessee newspaper, and a carpetbagger during the dark days of Civil War Reconstruction. The abusive carpetbagger threatened my ancestor, publicly, and got shot dead in the process. Unfortunately, the carpetbagger was unarmed at that moment, and carrying a weapon was illegal for the Southerners. That was problematic.
Nevertheless, my ancestor was eventually acquitted. I think the 19th century lesson was, don’t do wrong to a Scotsman, even one in America.
In Scotland, on the Isle of Jura, there seemed to be little to do except make whisky, drink whisky, fight whenever it seemed useful, and contribute the 5% of their unique genes, as often as possible. Not a bad lifestyle, in my opinion.
Some Scotsmen signed an oath of Loyalty to the King of England before leaving Scotland and emigrating to the Unites States. Some of those so-called Loyalists ended-up on the wrong side of the U.S. Revolutionary War.
I admit, some of my Scottish ancestors made bad choices, but they did so with conviction and a sense of honor. A promise made is a promise kept.
The record shows that both Scottish and American women shared a perilous lifestyle, arguably equal in finality with warring Highlanders. The birthing of babies occasionally ended in maternal mortality. Oddly enough, the genes usually won out, because when a mother died, her younger sisters oftentimes were the next to marry the grieving husband. The family genes stayed together, or so says the historical records.
As time went on, the wary North Carolina Scots finally began choosing those with a British ancestry as mates, so the blood lines did not remain isolated for long.
Families have a way of romanticizing their lineage. For instance, I’d always heard that I was related on the maternal side (Harrison) to the unfortunate President William Henry Harrison who died after only 32 days in office. After years of casual researching, there is no relationship, best I can tell.
But I did discover a potential connection to Sir Henry 1st Baronet of Blickling Hall and Chief Justice of Common Pleas Hobart, circa 1500s. (Blickling Hall is reputed to be the most haunted home in the U.K., haunted by the headless ghost of Ann Boleyn.)
I would be impressed with myself, thinking I came from such a distinguished Englishman. But then I realize that his genetic contribution would be like adding a single drop of chocolate syrup to a tanker truck full of milk. We’re a long ways from ending up with a truck full of chocolate milk.
So what is the relevance of all this esoteric knowledge to our daily lives? Well, to the Mormons it’s very relevant, for religious reasons. It’s their way of extending salvation to lost souls; an admirable motivation.
For the rest of us, the relevance is less compelling, unless you enjoy discovering stories like those I’ve shared. It’s like seeing a reality show with an entirely new episode revealed each time you turn on the computer. And in the rolling credits of this show are people who happen to be in some way related to you, contributing the parts of you that make you unique.
Personally, I think history is much more interesting when it is your own.