Many people “know” their ethnic heritage. They’ve heard stories for years about how their grandparents or great-grandparents came from the “old” country to start their lives in the United States.
Because of the popularity of easily available DNA tests from purveyors like Ancestry.com and 23andMe many people are also discovering everything they’ve always believed about their ethnic heritage is wrong.
“DNA will not lie, it’s very accurate. I’ve found when people have thought they are from a certain country, or region, it’s often from stories passed down throughout the years in their families, folklore passed down through the generations,” said GlennaRae White, director of the Family History Center in Valencia.
White said many of those stories could be true, but might leave out an important detail, like grandparents who were born in Germany but their ancestors a generation or two removed originally came from Norway.
“They haven’t researched the genealogical records where they can find sources to learn where their family really originated,” she said.
Family folklore can be entertaining but often is embellished, White said.
“People might be told, ‘You are a descendent of King Henry,’ for example, but it turns out they really are a descendent of horse thieves,” she said.
There are many reasons that DNA might not line up with family folklore, said White.
One reason DNA can reflect a different ancestry than expected could come from long ago conquests of countries from an occupying army that intermarried with the local populations. Some examples include the Roman occupation of Great Britain and the invading Viking and Norsemen into much of Western Europe.
White said the Valencia Family History Center offers free help to all residents of the SCV who are looking to research their family tree.
“This is free to the entire community. We have 22 consultants who have been trained and many have 35 to 40 years experience,” said White. “They will sit side by side with you and help you find names of relatives.”
Dennis Poore, of Canyon Country, said he was surprised when he received the results of the DNA test his daughter had given him for his birthday.
“I’ve been told my whole life, by my father, that I was part Cherokee, Native American,” he said. “That was a big thing for me. When I visited a Cherokee reservation I felt like, ‘oh, I’m home.’ I went through my whole life thinking I was part Cherokee, or at least that I had some Cherokee in me.”
Six weeks after he sent in his Ancestry.com com DNA test kit he received the surprising news that there was no Native American DNA in his gene pool.
“It was really a shock to me when I got the results. It turns out that I’m 60 percent Irish, 20 percent English, 10 percent Italian and 10 percent Scandinavian,” he said. “I am about as Western European as you can imagine. Not even a drip of Cherokee.”
Poore said he was disheartened by the results
“I was hoping even to have a little African in me, something to add a little pepper to all the salt,” he said. “The real surprise was the percent of Irish. My dad told me I had some Irish and some Dutch, but I thought I was mostly English.”
Poore said the DNA test also revealed that his Irish ancestry could be traced to County Cork in Ireland.
“Someone suggested somewhere in my lineage there might be an adoptee which could explain why there is so much Irish,” he said.
It’s all Greek to us
Jo Ann Vindigni, of Valencia, said she and her twin brother, Steve Panzera, have heard throughout their lives that she looks like her father and her brother looks like her mother.
“My father’s Italian and my mother is a mix of Irish and German. I was the Italian twin and he was the Irish twin,” she said.
Her father encouraged the siblings to take the My Heritage DNA test.
“We did the same test within days of each other,” she said.
Vindigni said the family was somewhat surprised by the results.
“My twin is Greek, English, Scandinavian, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Balkan (which includes countries in Southeastern Europe),” she said.
Vindigni said his highest percentage of DNA came from Greece.
“My DNA came back that I am Italian, North and West European, Greek, Irish, Scottish and Welsh,” she said.
While her brother didn’t come back with any specific Italian DNA Vindigni’s DNA “map” did.
“My map is all over Italy, then North and Western European, then the top of Italy and Switzerland and finally, Greece,” she said. “My brother’s map shows Greece, then up to the United Kingdom and then Sweden, Norway and Denmark.”
What was most surprising in the results was the connection to Greece.
“No one had any idea about a connection to Greece,” she said.
When Vindigni looked closer at her family history she said she could understand how DNA from Greece could have made its way into her gene pool.
“My father’s family was completely Italian,” she said. “My paternal grandmother was from the northern part of Italy and my grandfather was from somewhere in central Italy to southern Italy,” she said. “So that was no surprise. We knew that.”
Vindigni said her father’s family was known to have originally come from the African continent.
“The Greek connection probably came from relatives moving northward from Africa through Greece, it makes sense if you follow the migration trail,” she said.
Vindigni said her father was amused at how the test results came out, and the revelation of the Greek DNA.
“What I found so interesting is that my twin is not Italian and I am not Scandinavian, not at all,” she said. “We thought it was hysterical.”
Vindigni said the DNA results make sense when you look at the twins’ physical appearance.
“It makes sense that we took on the characteristics of the people that we inherited the most DNA from since I look like my father and he looks like my mother,” she said.
Vicci DeLill Zimmerman, of Canyon Country, was adopted as an infant. In 2016 she found a half-brother on her birth mother’s side. He had been abandoned in a train station five years after Zimmerman’s birth.
DNA matches led her to a half-niece on her paternal side in December and, as a result, she discovered a younger half-brother and half-sister.
In the last eight months Zimmerman has traveled to Milwaukee three times to visit her new-found relations and her half-sister has traveled to the Santa Clarita Valley to visit Zimmerman once.
Zimmerman said she has found a strong connection with her new relatives.
“This enormous Polish clan have welcomed me like no other,” she said. “I was never curious about any of this and yet now that I have found them, I have never wanted anything so badly.”
If her story isn’t surprising enough this past Easter weekend her husband, James Zimmerman, who is not an adoptee, found a connection with a half-brother, David Brice Ogden, he didn’t know existed.
The couple traveled to Utah on Father’s Day weekend to meet the surprise sibling. Ogden and his family recently traveled to the SCV to visit his new relatives.
Zimmerman had been given up for adoption by her birth mother through the Cradle Society in Illinois.
“I’ve always known I was an adoptee,” Zimmerman said. “It was never a secret. I never was that interested in finding where I came from. I never had any abandonment issues, nothing like that at all.”
It was November of 2016 when Zimmerman mentioned to her sister-in-law that she was curious about her ethnicity.
“I was always interested in knowing where my red hair came from,” she said. “I assumed I was Irish.”
Her sister-in-law suggested she take a DNA test.
“Ancestry.com was having a sale so I decided to take the test,” she said.
Her results arrived in early December.
“I was surprised to learn I am almost completely Polish I thought I was more Irish. That was very exciting for me,” she said.
The results also included DNA matches.
“I didn’t even understand what that meant,” Zimmerman said. “I looked at it and saw I had something like 150 fourth to sixth cousins.”
She showed her husband the results and told him, “Look, look, I have people.”
Her husband asked if she was going to follow up and check out the possible connections.
Zimmerman said she told him, “No, I’m good.”
However, DNA matches are a two-way street and in January 2017 she was contacted by a man named Bill looking for his family. He had been abandoned in a train station in Geneva, Illinois.
The Ancestry.com match suggested that Zimmerman and he were close relatives, possibly first cousins.
As Zimmerman delved deeper into the connection it soon became apparent that Bill was more likely a half-brother, most likely on her paternal side.
It was another year before she discovered her Milwaukee relatives.
After some initial speculation that they were related on the mother’s side, Zimmerman soon found her Milwaukee connection was another branch of the family on the father’s side.
She learned she had a younger half-sister, Mary and a younger half-brother, Bob.
Further research revealed an older half-sister and half-brother from her father’s first marriage.
“Now I realize that I am one of five half-siblings with the same father, six if you count Bill,” she said. “I go from having no living siblings, my adoptive brother Jeff had passed away, to suddenly being one of six.”
In an emotional moment Zimmerman learned from her Milwaukee relatives that if any of her aunts had known of her existence she would never have been given up.
“It meant so much for me to hear those words,” she said. “It meant that I was wanted.”
On Sept. 9 Zimmerman will head back to the Chicago area (where Zimmerman, as well as her Milwaukee family are originally from) with her husband and three daughters to meet the rest of her mid-West family.
Zimmerman’s birth father died in 1969. She has learned enough through her research to have a good idea who her birth mother might be, and she knows her mother doesn’t want to be found. Zimmerman has decided not to pursue the search further despite her desire to know her medical history.
“When the adoption agency unsealed their records, I learned that she was a cost analyst, which is interesting because I’m in the accounting field,” she said.
Zimmerman said it was long known in her husband’s family that there might be some half-siblings. However, when Ogden was found, through an Ancestry.com match, it came as a complete surprise because the birth date didn’t jibe with other known information.
“What’s so great about this is that like my family there is such a strong connection between my husband’s half-brother and our family,” she said.
“When we went to meet them, I was sitting on the porch with my half-sister-in-law and I asked her, ‘Is this weird, that it’s not weird?’”
The sister-in-law had just texted a friend the same sentiment, “It isn’t weird.”
Ogden and his family recently spent five days with the Zimmermans visiting area tourist attractions and enjoying a family party.
Advice for adoptees
Zimmerman has worked with several people in the SCV who are also adoptees.
“I tell adoptees that this is really serious stuff. You have to be really sure you want to find out,” she said. “Once you open that door you can’t close it.”
Zimmerman said many adoptees find they aren’t really ready to deal with the fallout from finding their birth parents. Not all stories end as happily as the Zimmermans.
White, of the Valencia Family History Center, said for many adoptees finding their birth families is important.
“Even when they’ve come from wonderful adoptive families there is still this missing hole in their lives and they want to know where they belong,” she said. “Like all of us, we want to know where we belong. That’s the great thing about the DNA test. It is the first step to find out where your ancestors came from and it tells such a story of who you really are.”
GlennaRae White, director of the Family History Center in Valencia, said DNA tests will show the countries a person hails from, but finding the real names of your ancestors can be very rewarding.
“Finding names is what really tells the story,” she said. “Who are your grandparents, great grandparents great great grandparents? That’s where you find the stories to go along with the DNA tests. It is the names of those people that make it come alive and you can connect with your ancestry. Their struggles and sacrifices are what make my life so wonderful.”
The Valencia Family History Center offers classes the first and third Thursdays of the month at 7 p.m. to help amateur genealogists.
“In addition, we are open 50 hours a week and my consultants are there to help for free anyone who comes in,” she said.
Valencia Family History Center
24443 W. McBean Parkway, Valencia.
Hours: Monday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; 6-9 p.m.
Saturday: 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
The all-volunteer staff of research experts assist interested patrons, who have made more than 2,200 visits to the Center each year. In addition to providing personal assistance, the center’s equipment includes computers with free access to premium websites, microfilm and microfiche readers with access to more than two million rolls of microfilm, printers, scanners, and a book library. For 24-hour recorded information or to speak with someone at the Center, call (661) 259-1347.