Decades of beliefs and research into family history can be upended by DNA testing, as these 4 families found out

(Courtesy) Utah novelist Mette Ivie Harrison.

No Cherokee line after all

Genealogical research has been a multigenerational obsession for the family of Layton novelist Mette Ivie Harrison.

She and her 10 siblings were named from ancestors on their extensive family tree. She, for instance, was named for her Danish great-grandmother, who had emigrated to America as a young woman after converting to Mormonism against her parents’ wishes.

“Mom used to explain to me how I was related to Winston Churchill, [Pilgrims] John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, and just about any major political figure in the United States or United Kingdom,” Harrison recalls. “When we moved to Utah, she was called as a stake [regional LDS] genealogist and used to take me to read microfiche with her from Danish parishes in the old country.”

Harrison’s family had a legend of Cherokee paternal heritage, but never had been able to prove it through traditional genealogical methods.

“Then DNA testing came along,” she says, “and my father had his done.”

No trace of the Native American tribe was revealed, but there was a surprise: On the supposed Cherokee line of her father, DNA results revealed that his Y chromosome came from Africa.

“My feelings about all of this,” Harrison muses, “[is that] for so many of us, it [is] always going to end up in a realization that somewhere along the line, there was African/black DNA.”

In the past, she says, such “bloodlines” could raise eyebrows within her LDS faith, given former theories, now roundly disavowed, about people being somehow cursed by their skin color.

“[That] still is, unfortunately, all over the Book of Mormon. … [People used] to get really uncomfortable about the truth and start hiding a lot of stuff.”

‘Kind of cool’

For Wayne Fagg, one of seven children — six, including him, adopted — in a Provo Mormon family, DNA testing provided answers to long-asked questions about heritage.

Fagg, who now lives and works in the Atlanta area, says he was the first to be adopted; his parents then took in five more siblings from various other backgrounds.

“Raised in the LDS faith, we were sealed to our parents and remember everyone gathering around the altar in various [Mormon] temples as it occurred,” he says. “I never felt a desire to look for my biological family.”

That changed in 2015, when his youngest brother bought an Ancestry DNA kit and urged Wayne to also “uncover, for once, where we were from.”

He did. He received the kit, spit into the provided vial, mailed it off to the lab and waited.

“When the results came back, I was excited and then a bit disappointed,” Wayne recalls. “Two-thirds of my DNA was just like most of my LDS friends: one-third British Isles and one-third Scandinavia.

“But the other third was kind of cool — an assortment of Greek, Italian, Russian, Jewish and Pakistani.”

It was not until he visited Ancestry’s DNA results site, though, that he got his biggest surprise. “I clicked on the button marked ‘DNA Matches’ and it revealed hundreds of names.”

His story came together from there. “The punchline was my birth mother was 23 when she had me. She was put up in a motel run by my [adoptive] mom’s cousin, Ellen, and her husband near the Los Angeles Temple.

“Ellen was also a volunteer at Santa Monica Hospital, where I was born, and knew my parents were looking to adopt,” he continues. “She [his birth mom] had been raised by a single mother and didn’t want that for me.”

Eventually, Fagg’s biological mother (who had died before he could meet her) married and had four more sons, two of them now Greek Orthodox priests.

“I have met one of them and his wife,” Fagg says. “Great people.”

He also tracked down his birth father, who also had married and had two more children, whom Fagg also has spoken with on the telephone.

And as to why he shared similar heritages with other Mormon friends? Turns out, Fagg’s birth father was born in Provo, related to a prominent pioneer family.

“My great-great-grandfather,” Fagg notes, “was Joseph Stacy Murdock, the first bishop of Heber Valley. Mystery solved.”

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Crystal Young-Otterstrom speaks at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Tuesday Sept. 1, 2015.

‘We were shocked’

Salt Lake City Mormon Crystal Young-Otterstrom says her entire family took the plunge with mutual DNA testing kits as Christmas gifts.

“We were shocked to find out that those of us that look like my dad are majority Scandinavian. My brothers and I even have some Italian,” she says. “My family history has zero documentation from either of those countries, so we think it’s Vikings in our German and English lines.”

Young-Otterstrom was so taken aback by her results that, at first, she thought they may have been somehow mixed up with those of her husband, Joel.

“His great-grandfather was direct from Sweden, but I am more Scandinavian than him,” she adds. “I am also 5 percent African, which wasn’t a surprise, we knew that.”

A sister’s DNA test noted traces of heritage from Asia and India. Her sister’s results were compiled by a different testing company.

“I’m surprised my test didn’t show that,” she says, “so I’m curious to try other companies now.”

‘I’d love to learn’ more

Kathy Riordan, of Fort Myers, Fla., says her test results brought unexpected revelations — and left her hungry to learn more.

“I was surprised to have 30 markers for Native American — more than I expected,” she writes, “and one for Polynesian, and several for European Jewish.”

Her previous family history research actually had shown that most of her ancestors in recent generations hailed from the British Isles.

“I had very few markers from there,” she says, “and far more from Western Europe.”

Her Native American markers pointed to both the Baja California and Mexican regions.

“I’d love to know where they came into my line.”

Return to Story