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Finding family, ethnic backgrounds through family history DNA tests

It was during a holiday family party at Patricia Bond's grandmother’s farm north of Fort Worth, Texas, that she began to ask her family members questions to fill in a family group sheet.

However, as she asked these questions, she remembered her grandmother being silent and standoffish.

“After several minutes, my grandmother turned around and looked at me, with tears streaming down her face, and said, ‘I will tell you what you want to know, but first you have to make me a promise. You have to promise to find my son,’” Bond recalled.

Her grandmother, who passed away in 1996, explained that before she was married, she had a baby and had to place him for adoption. Since then, she would often cry as she held a box to her chest of baby boy clothes she had kept. About 40 years after the birth of her uncle, Bond went on a quest to find him.

“I had no idea where to even begin looking. Does he want to even know us? What would his reception be? What kind of person would he be? Is he even still alive? I had a lot of questions, and I didn’t ever really act on it,” said Bond, who became interested in family history when she became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when she was 18.

Earlier this year, Bond got her DNA tested with Family Tree DNA. As part of the test, she opted to have her contact information shared with any living relatives from a common ancestor. Shortly after, she received an email from her long-lost uncle, Jack R. Terrell, who had also taken a DNA test a few months later. As they emailed back and forth, they confirmed that he was the man she had promised her grandmother she would find.

"I have waited 85 years to find something like your message. Yes it’s true. I had (a) DNA (test) done six weeks ago. My family and I are so excited, Patricia, and I have tears of much joy. This means so much for me and my family,” read an email to Bond, now 62 and living in Draper.

Similar to Bond, people worldwide are taking their family history experiences to the next level with DNA testing. According to Anna Swyane, an AncestryDNA expert with Ancestry.com, having a DNA match provides a unique and accurate opportunity to connect with other people because “DNA can’t lie.”

“It kind of puts it into perspective, not only knowing where in the world we connect, but also who we connect with,” she said. “It helps us realize we are a part of something much bigger.”

Diahan Southard, founder of YourDNAGuide.com, said there are three main types of DNA tests associated with family history: the Y DNA test, which traces the direct male line; the mitochondrial DNA test, which traces the direct maternal line; and the autosomal DNA test, which is the most popular and traces both sides of the family tree.

The autosomal DNA test produces two kinds of results: matches (a list of individual matches, including cousins, second cousins and so on) and an ethnicity chart. The ethnicity chart is what lures most people, especially nongenealogists, into DNA testing, according to Southard. She said this is particularly appealing to Americans because so many are a mix of ethnicities.

“The ethnicity results get you started with family history," Southard said. "I’d say the large majority of people who are testing today in America are not genealogists; they are regular people who are interested in their ethnicity.”

According to Swyane, since Ancestry.com launched a product featuring an ethnicity breakdown about four and a half years ago, there is an increase every year in the number of people who are taking the test, she said.

“What’s fascinating is once someone takes the DNA test and sees results, it immediately turns to wondering what their parents’ or grandparents’ results look like," she said. "Then you have families taking the test. Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle, and the more people you get information about, the more information you’ll learn about your family.”

Bond said she is grateful for DNA testing because “no research could have ever done what it did.” Not only did Bond have the opportunity to introduce Terrell to his half-sisters and cousins, she was also able to take him to his mother’s grave and to the farm where she lived for more than 60 years.

“One of the first questions he asked was, ‘What color were my mama’s eyes? I always wanted to look into my mama’s eyes,'" Bond said of her uncle. "I told him they were very blue like his. I told him that his mother loved him and didn’t want to give him up. She wanted to know about him and his life.”

Through DNA testing, Terrell, who is now 86, was finally able to meet his family and learn about his birth mother’s life and undying love for him.

“Family history means that everyone has a story, and our own story is unique," Southard said. "I think there’s so much of our own identity we can better understand by understanding our ancestors and learning about them; and in turn knowing that one day we will be those long past ancestors.”

Email: kadams@deseretnews.com