This week we are interviewing one of my favorite genealogists and genetic experts, Blaine Bettinger author of The Genetic Genealogist. I first came across Blaine’s work with his book The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy that my mother purchased me for Christmas this last year. On a quest to understand more about what makes me, well, me, I delved into the science behind DNA and absolutely loved what I found. Read on to find out more about the man behind the genes.
How do genealogy and DNA intersect for you?
Although I was a genealogist for many years before DNA arrived on the scene, it was DNA that really made me a genealogist.
In 2003, I was in grad school studying biochemistry and I somehow saw an ad for a DNA test. It combined science and genealogy, the two things I love the most. It was actually an autosomal DNA test, unusual at that time. The results came back, wildly inaccurate I now know, but that started my obsession with genetic genealogy. mtDNA and Y-DNA testing soon followed, then asking family members, and much more.
A few years later I found that there were no online resources available for genealogists who were taking these early DNA tests, so I started my blog, The Genetic Genealogist, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. I didn’t know it at the time, but starting that blog would change the entire future direction of my life.
How did you get started in genealogy?
In middle school, my English teacher assigned a short family tree, just 3 or 4 generations. This was before the days of the internet, so I had to actually call up relatives to ask about our family tree (thank goodness for the “good old days”!). I called my grandmother to help, and she recited numerous generations entirely from memory! I attached the extra paper to include all those ancestors.
She’s the reason I’m a genealogist. My paternal grandfather died before I was born, and I had little knowledge of or interaction with the very few people that remained. My grandmother was a gateway to that family and she gave me so much. Needless to say, I was hooked on genealogy after just one phone call.
What is your current study or area of passion?
It’s probably no surprise that it’s DNA. I spend every spare moment of every day thinking about, writing about, or teaching others about DNA. Thankfully I don’t see any end in sight!
Tell us a little quick story about your family history!
In the 1890’s, my 3rd-great-grandmother was elderly and mostly blind. While visiting her daughter and son-in-law, they had her dictate and sign a will. However, the document she signed was actually a deed turning over the entire family farm to the daughter. The trick was soon discovered when the daughter’s brother – who lived on the farm – saw the transaction in the newspaper. Following a short court action brought by the mother and the brother, the deed was overturned. I have some of the court records, and they are fascinating. They contain a transcript of testimony, almost allowing me to “hear” my ancestors’ words. For example, my 3rd-great-grandmother gave the following testimony in court:
“I remember the day I went from my home to New Haven to visit my daughter Betty Van Alstine. My husband had been buried the 30th day of August, which was on Sunday, and two weeks from that day I went to visit her. It was about the middle of September….After we got there, Betty said something about my making a will or disposing of my property. I was there two weeks. William and Betty thought I had ought to do it, or wanted me to do it—make a disposition of my property. They didn’t say much the first week; it was the second week that they importuned me. Betty had told me never to deed away a foot of land while I lived; she said that just a short time before I went there. She was out to my house, back and forth, while her father was sick—both before and after his death. She told me never to sign a note; if I did I would have it to pay. I said to her: “Betty, don’t worry. I shall never deed away a foot of land while I live. If my children can’t trust me, I can’t trust them.” That was the first conversation.”
Some years afterward, the daughter apparently wrote several heartbreaking letters to her mother, apologizing and begging her to forgive her. They never reconciled and the mother died a few short years later. Although those letters existed as recently as 30 years ago, they’ve since been lost. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to see them.
What advice would you give to genealogists?
If at all possible, go to a conference or an institute. The educational opportunities are unparalleled, and it is so affirming to see other people as crazy as you are! These are gatherings of hundreds of people that also yearn to explore the cemeteries they driveby, and have boxes of family heirlooms they’ve been meaning to catalog and preserve for years!
Why is genealogy important to you?
I can’t begin to list all the ways that genealogy is important to me.
Our lives on earth are so fleeting. Studying and recreating the lives of my ancestors gives us a perspective that others may not ever gain. I think we see life as relationships, as friends and families and acquaintances, and we realize that although we may leave a legacy behind, it is over all too quickly. All too soon, the two dates on either side of the hyphen are filled in.
I think that some people have a genetic drive to be the story collectors and storytellers. Genealogists preserve and share the past to help future generations. Maybe there’s even an evolutionary reason we have this drive. For most of human history we collected these stories mentally and shared them orally, and now we use paper and software.
And to me, one of the most important aspects of genealogy has nothing to do with dead people. It’s about the living, the many friends I’ve gained since immersing myself in genealogy. For whatever reason, most genealogists tend to be the friendliest and most fun-loving people I’ve ever met. I’ve found my people, as someone recently said to me, and I am loving every minute of it!