Discovering Family History With DNA Testing

Discovering Family History With DNA TestingSince childhood when my maternal grandma put a diary in my hand and encouraged me to write my story, I wondered, “Who am I?” Spending my adult life abroad, where one has to forge a new identity, only magnified that question and made me more curious to find out where I come from. Using DNA testing and search tools like digging up the family history and skeletons from the past has never been easier.

Discovering Family History With DNA Testing

my family’s geographical origins

To begin, I bought my parents a DNA kit and had them to spit in a test tube. We found out that my mom, on the Olson side, is 95% Norwegian, with a touch of Swedish and English. The McKinzie line on my dad’s side is primarily of Scottish descent, but his maternal lineage also can be traced to England, Ireland and Wales.

I discovered I am the great, great grand daughter of a Civil War veteran and a ship captain lost at sea off the Norwegian coast. My forefathers were teachers, statesmen, merchants, pioneer preachers and Scottish Lords. Long ago as clan chiefs, they owned castles as wealthy landowners; centuries later after immigrating to America, they lost land when crops failed and were forced to rent land as poor tenet farmers.

Discovering Family History With DNA Testing

Eilean Donan Castle – Scotland Highlands

I can claim lineage as one of the First Colonial Families to settle on America soil on the Potomac in Maryland. My family once ruled Scotland’s famous castles – Eilean Donan, Leod, Kincoy, Kinkell and RedCastle – when the Mackenzie Clan reigned as far back as the 13th century. Once the most powerful clan in Northern Scotland, they own land from Ross on the east coast to the Island of Lewis in the west.

Discovering Family History With DNA Testing

Grandpa Mac – 1922

Maps show the McKinzie migration ever westward. In the United States, as primarily farmers, they moved from New England to Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa and finally Oklahoma where my paternal great grandfather became a sharecropper outside of Blackwell. My grandfather broke tradition following his dream to play college football in Illinois, and then became a successful coach at Eureka College and Northern Illinois University.

Though I traced my father’s paternal side back 25 generations, my mother’s side is more complicated. In Scandinavian countries, they traditionally add son or dottar to the father’s name. For example, Ole’s son becomes Olson as a surname. I remain stuck in the 17 century a bit muddled up with Olson, Rosholt, Jacobson lines.

Discovering Family History With DNA Testing

My grandma – Martha Olson

To make things even more complicated, when immigrants became naturalized, they often changed their names. My maternal grandfather arrived in America in 1926 as Gustav Andreas Johansen, but changed his name to Gustav Andrew Olson when he became a US citizen. My maternal grandmother, adopted as a child, adds yet another dimension to my search.

My family history is filled with stories. My father’s maternal great great grandfather, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, hosted Lincoln during his campaign at the family home in Augusta Illinois. According to legend, Lincoln once sat on the same piano stool that I loved to spin on as a child at my grandma’s house.Discovering Family History With DNA Testing

Another of my forefathers fought with French Allies to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War. My great, great grandpa Aaron McKinzie witnessed General Lee’s surrender ending the Civil War when he fought for the Union’s Iowa’s 39th Infantry Regiment.

When I trace my lineage, one thread stands out. My ancestors were resilient. They endured tribal assaults, Spanish flu epidemics, world wars, Nazi Occupation, independence from oppressors and countless clan battles over territory in Scotland. From my hardy Norwegian relatives living above the Arctic Circle to the Mackenzie Clan reigning in the Scottish Highlands, my people had a fighting spirit and will to survive.

Perseverance became part of my bloodline. On bad days, when life feels like a struggle, I look to the stories of my ancestors for strength. Knowing who I am and where I come from gives me courage to keep fighting too. I only wish my grandma was still alive, so I could tell her our story, but her spirit lives on in me.

Posted in family, relationships, travel.


  1. Fascinating lineage , Pat. And all the research you did on your family is impressive. I don’t think I’d had the energy to follo seven generations much less 25! Thanks for sharing. It’s so cool that you have been able to draw the fight, strength, and resilience from your ancestors. Keep it up.

    • Tina you should try it. And with your love of travel, you could then make a pilgrimage to trace the journey of your ancestors. Jono would have fun with it too once things slow down.

  2. Pat, I’ve long wondered about the DNA testing to discover one’s genealogic history. Thank you for explaining the process and for giving it validation. You come from “good stock,” my friend, and I’m sure it’s a comfort and encouragement to know how sturdy your kinfolks were! One of my late uncles traced our family history back many generations (way before DNA testing) and ran into all kinds of issues, including the destruction of old records from carelessness, fires, etc. Probably lots easier to trace things today.

    • I was skeptical also about DNA testing, but after further research I found it is accurate. I had tried researching the family history decades ago and ran into the same problems as your uncle did. But now with these on-line genealogy search organizations, you can access marriages, census reports, military records and more. I am sure you would enjoy the hunt, if you ever had enough time.

  3. Hi Pat! Isn’t it fun to find out some of the backstory on your family? I did my DNA test last year for both myself and my husband and it was great to get some clarity about some of my background. And yes, in true blogger form I wrote a blog post about it too. Here’s a link to a bit of my story in case you are interested. The best news as bloggers (IMHO) is that we get to keep working on that “story” and sharing it with others. ~Kathy

    • Thanks for stopping by and sharing the link to your post about discovering ancestry. I think my readers would enjoy reading your post too. I also had my husband, who is French, take the test but the results were very limited because DNA testing is illegal in France, so no other people had done research, which would have helped. I have to admit that I was surprised but reimbursed his membership.

  4. I love studying family history. It’s kind of like a cross between regular history and putting together a big puzzle. Both of which I also love. My DNA test didn’t show anything too exciting, but it was fun to do.

    • You are right family history is like a mix between a crossword and jigsaw puzzle with a whole a lot of history, but oh so fascinating. Thanks for stopping by and taking time to comment.

  5. A proper old mix hey? And some English in there too… you’ll have to work on your accent to claim that one LOL ???? I loved hearing about your eclectic DNA. I’ve never searched out mine, but just know we’ve got English, Scottish, Irish and Italian, with a little bit of French too. One day I will trace things some more with that saliva test. In the meantime, a second cousin of ours has an amazing genealogy of my mum’s side of the family and contacted my sister and mum about it a while ago. It’s my dad’s side that is lesser known and Jefferson, so he said, had Welsh and French Normandy origins. He liked to brag to my mum that he was of aristocratic stock, but I don’t know whether that blue blood claim was actually true ???? xxx

    • Oh Rach, you have to start collating your rich family history. It is so interesting that you have Normand origins (you remember my Frenchman is from Normandy?)
      It is also most likely true that you have some blue blood in your background. With your researching and writing skill, you would be able to delve deeply into the search and then record it all for your daughters. The only thing is that once you get the saliva test results, you need ample free time to start digging into the past.

      • Right then, that’s my retirement project sorted ???? Will be a while before I get any time all the while my girls still live with me! Thanks for the inspiration dear Pat xx

  6. Your ancestry is fascinating, Pat! I have also done one of the DNA tests and the results were so interesting.

    • Did your husband also trace his ancestry? I am not getting far with my husband’s even though he took the test. Since DNA testing is illegal in France, no one has done any research on to help me to find out more.

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