Genetics, Genealogy, and the search for Identity.

It is my opinion that identity has as much of a biological basis as it does social, cultural and historical. My facial structure, the color of my eyes, these are all parts of my identity as much as my beliefs and ideology. When you consider that some beliefs (a family tradition, if you will), are passed on through the generations, it becomes clear that who we are is both inherited and innovated. We, as humans, are one part the inherited past of our ancestors, and the unique innovations in personality and worldview that makes us individuals.

These thoughts are what set me on the path of genealogy. I knew very little about my family and our history before I began. I had asked my parents where my ancestors came from. “I don’t know. Someone said we came from Ireland once.” Imagine my confusion, how is information like that forgotten? Well, my search for my ancestors, and my inherited identity, had started with zilch. I got a little information about my grandparents, and even less about my great-grandparents, but nothing after that. After that, it became years of research (still on going) and interviews with my living relatives and slowly a picture emerged.

I traced my line back to 1758, with a man named William Haney, who was born in Bedford County, Virginia. But it was here the paper work ended. I had hit a brick wall. No more names. No more ancestors. I walked in the dark for many years, trying to find anything to go on, with no avail. Finally I turned to genetic testing. It took many months to get the tests back, but finally I had more information as to my origins. Most of my genetic matches come from Scandinavia, Norway and Sweden, then Denmark, Germany and England. A semi-clear picture then emerged. At some time in the past my ancestors left Scandinavia (perhaps first for England), and came to America, probably Virginia. I will grant much of this is just speculation, but it gave me leads on which to follow up. Leads I still pursue to this day.

I was amazed how much information was contained in my genes. Genetics is a fascinating field, though it is not my strength. It helped to augment my documentary research. What amazed me most is how my identity took on new forms the more I discovered. I brushed up on my history of all these countries. My ideas changed, my understanding of history changed, and most of all, my sense of self changed. It turned out I was not Irish at all, but Scandinavian.

Not only did I take on new identities, I was forced to reject old ones. This was the hardest part, losing a piece of yourself. It is not an easy process, allowing old cherished beliefs fall away. Even stranger, the feelings as new and different parts of your self form. Genealogy is very much a journey of self-discovery as much as a process of self-destruction. As new facts and data surface, reevaluations take place, sometimes an entire reinvention of the self.

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About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

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