Oct 29, 2010 - 23andMe how to

Ancestry at 23andMe: Old Roots and New Horizons


Sheridan* can hardly believe that using 23andMe ancestry tools allowed her to learn something about her deep ancestry on her mother’s side, placed herself genetically among the different populations of the world, connected with a potential fifth cousin, discovered a potential second cousin, and traced a fourth cousin shared DNA connection with her life-long friend Brian (who has Irish ancestry) to a specific spot in their genomes.

When they last parted, Brian had promised to go through his collection of genealogical records for historical clues and Sheridan had sent an introductory message to her intriguing second cousin match.

Now, a few days later, Sheridan and Brian are back in the coffee shop, heads bent over Brian’s dog-eared notebook.

Labeled photographs, scraps of note paper, and photocopied documents stuffed into manila folders lay strewn across the table.

“So the most promising records I have are from my father’s side of the family in the mid-18th century,” says Brian, pointing at a square on a family tree diagram.

“My paternal grandfather Ryan Killoran was my first direct ancestor in the U.S. But I’m not sure if our connection would be through that line anyway — if it was, it would have to be through one of my ancestors in Ireland.”

He taps the page and traces his finger up the tree.

“But I’ve traced his line in Ireland back to Molly Murphy, my great-great-great-great grandmother, born 1846 in Dublin. Even though her son Colm Murphy stayed in Ireland, her daughter — my great-great-great grand… aunt? — Orla Murphy married Donal Fitzpatrick and they settled in South Carolina in around 1889. I found some records of property that they owned there.”

Gesturing to the piles of paper on the table, Brian says, “The rest of this is pretty much about Killorans and Murphys. Some newspaper clippings with marriage announcements and obituaries, more property records, census records, the ship passenger list my grandfather was on, some notes my grandfather had brought with him…”

Sheridan had been staring intently at the diagram Brian had drawn out.

“So you think our common ancestor might be Molly Murphy, through Orla and Donal Fitzpatrick on my side and Colm Murphy on your side?”

“That’s my guess,” shrugs Brian, “but there are a lot of possibilities!”

Well, I got a reply from my second cousin yesterday asking if there was anything I knew that might be useful,” says Sheridan. “I wrote back saying that I had an Irish fourth cousin and an African-American fifth cousin match. In fact, I should log in now and see if he’s replied!”

Opening up her laptop, she quickly logs in to her 23andMe account and finds a new message from her second cousin in her inbox.

Hi Sheridan,

An Irish fourth cousin, you say? That’s interesting — My grandmother’s sister (on my father’s side) married a Fitzpatrick. I think that’s the most relevant surname I can give you. The others I know of kind of range all over: Avey, Wojcicki, Saxonov, Kutcher, Mountain, Gould, Kompel, Khomenko. I can give you a full list if you’d like. I don’t personally have more details about the Fitzpatrick line or any descendants there but I might be able to help find more information through my grandmother. I also don’t have any African ancestry as far as I can tell — my Ancestry Painting is 100% European.


Sheridan and Brian sit stunned for a moment, then, “Fitzpatrick!” Brian cries triumphantly just as Sheridan blurts out “Ancestry Painting?”

They both start talking, stop, then start again. Finally Brian puts his hand up and takes a deep breath.

“Ok,” he says, “So your second cousin Mike’s grandmother’s sister married someone with the last name Fitzpatrick. That’s the same name that my great-great-great grand aunt married into, and the genealogical placement is consistent with both of our match predictions!” He starts furiously scribbling circles and squares and lines on a piece of paper. “But where do I connect this to yours…” he wonders. “Your mother or your father?”

Trying to follow his haphazard pen-strokes, Sheridan furrows her brow and says, “Wait, can we step back a second? What’s this thing called Ancestry Painting?”

Jan 2013 – Editor’s note: Ancestry Painting has been significantly updated and is now known as Ancestry Composition. The images below reflect the previous Ancestry Painting. Stay tuned for an update on Sheridan and her new Ancestry Composition!

Brian stops abruptly, pen frozen in the air. “You haven’t looked at your Ancestry Painting?”

“Um.. no,” says Sheridan somewhat sheepishly.

“I kind of got caught up in everything else. Was I supposed to?”

“Well, it’s kind of the first thing most people look at,” Brian explains, shoving his pen and paper out of the way and grabbing his laptop. He shows her his Ancestry Painting as an example.

“I mean, mine just shows 100% European, but yours could actually be really interesting! Go look!”

Sheridan clicks on her Ancestry Painting and a graphical view of her 23 chromosomes appears in a dramatic splash of color.

“Wow, that’s neat!” says Brian, practically clapping his hands in glee. He squints at the screen, trying to parse the color patterns.

“Well, your ancestry’s definitely mixed, all right.”

“So the bottom half of each of the chromosomes is blue,” Sheridan points out. “Does that mean one of my parents is definitely blue? European, I mean?”

“You’re right — one of your parents has fully European ancestry! With some statistical noise I’m guessing, but that could be normal…”

Brian starts jotting down notes on a new sheet of paper. “And the other half is mostly African ancestry but has a bunch of European and a tiny bit of Asian — I think that’s pretty consistent with African-Americans… now what else do we know?”

Sheridan recounts the various clues the other ancestry tools at 23andMe have told her. After writing all of this down, they look at the list together:

  1. One parent 100% European ancestry
  2. One parent mixed ancestry, mostly African (African-American?)
  3. Maternal haplogroup H2a (Probably European, see 1?)
  4. Globally similar to Northern Africans (mixed ancestry – in between Europe and Africa)
  5. 5th cousin African-American
  6. 2nd cousin 100% European ancestry, grand-aunt married Fitzpatrick
  7. Brian = 4th cousin, great-great-great grand-aunt married Fitzpatrick and came to U.S.

It’s starting to make sense, Sheridan can feel it, but she can’t quite form a concrete picture in her mind. Brian, though, can tell that a family tree will be useful here, and so he once again takes pen to paper.

“I’m going to guess that your mother is the parent with European ancestry based on the haplogroup,” he muses. “But it’s not necessarily so. Either way, that parent is almost certainly the one through which your second cousin and I are related to you, since your second cousin is 100% European. And then your fifth cousin… she might be through your other parent, the one that might be African-American…”

It takes a few false starts and clean slates but finally he thinks he has it mostly worked out.

“There!” Brian says triumphantly.

Sheridan pulls the drawing in front of her and stares. It’s like a map of her past — or, rather, the people and events in the past that led to her, Sheridan, 27 years old, sitting in a coffee shop and searching for answers. Even though most of it is still uncharted, she can see the paths that connect her to other people such as Mike and Brian. Other paths, such as the one connecting her to Akina, are still a mystery, but she now has a place to start. And through some of her distant relatives, she may eventually be able to fill in the gaps that are her mother and father.

When she finally looks up, Brian punches her playfully in the shoulder.

“You should see yourself,” he says. “You’ve got this dreamy far-off look and goofy grin going on.”

“Why don’t you you pat yourself on the back some more,” she flashes back. “You couldn’t look more smug!”

They laugh at each other.

“Well,” says Sheridan, as they start packing up, “I think that’ll do it for today. And I think I need a drink.”

Brian looks at his watch. “It’s a little after 5 — we could have some drinks and grab some dinner.” He zips up his bag and slings it over his head.

“I know a great Irish pub that serves authentic colcannon… you know, connect with your roots and all…”

“I don’t even know what that dish is,” says Sheridan, “but I’d love to.”

And they head out the door.

* The people and events described in these posts are fictional.

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