For National Roots Day, learn how you can turn holiday gatherings into a time for celebrating family history.

By Jim Brewster

The Beginning of My Genealogical Journey

My father was the self-appointed genealogist for our family. I never gave much thought to the details of any of my ancestors growing up. After all, he had that all covered, right? A devout member of the LDS church his whole life, he maintained the family tree on his Family Search account. When I was 24 years old, he passed away unexpectedly. My mother wanted to retrieve his genealogy to contribute to our family history. I had no interest in genealogy. But since my parents had divorced a couple of years earlier, it fell to me to recover access to his account.

Jim Brewster Immediate Family_Testing Your Roots

“Ugh, fine. I’ll do it for you, Mom, but that’s it; then I’m done.” I accessed his account to discover that he had done very little research. He had entered his grandparents, two sets of his great-grandparents, and that was it. Now, I may not have had any interest in genealogy, but I was (and still am) a stickler for proper documentation, and I couldn’t just stand by and let this partial history languish. “Fine, I’ll document his sources, but then I’m out.”

I Was Hooked

I had recently graduated from Northern Arizona University with a degree in anthropology. One day, while working on my family’s genealogy, I saw a documentary highlighting FamilyTreeDNA. Bennett Greenspan (founder of FamilyTreeDNA) described a company that did genetic testing for genealogy and anthropology. On a whim, I applied. I was sure I had failed the interview since my cat spent the entire video call screaming at me to tell her who I was talking to, but no, my ancestors had other plans for me, it seemed.

Shortly after I started with FamilyTreeDNA, the product manager at the time left the company, leaving a vacancy for an upcoming talk at Rootstech. Because of my LDS upbringing and familiarity with Family Search, our event manager, Janine Cloud, approached me and offered me the talk.

Off I went to Salt Lake City with four whole months of experience in genetic genealogy under my belt. I didn’t utterly fail in giving my talk, so I had that going for me, which is nice. I loved the conference and wanted to work hard to get the opportunity to give more talks. But I decided to make it my mission to learn everything I could to help share my newfound passion with others. Honestly, I fell into this whole thing kicking and screaming. I didn’t choose the genealogy life; the genealogy life chose me.

Bridging the Gap Between the Birth and Death Date

This story is about the holidays. For many people, the holiday season is a time to gather with relatives and sit around sipping eggnog while our relatives regale us with tales of yesteryear. Hearing stories from relatives like mine brings the past to life. Our ancestors had full, rich lives, filled with hopes and dreams, tragedies and triumphs, and legacies to pass on. Stories bring to life that tiny dash between the birth and death dates you find on a gravestone or a death certificate.

As a child, I dreaded these gatherings and couldn’t wait to get away from “back in the day.” Those video games weren’t going to play themselves after all. My grandparents and everyone in their generation have passed on now. My opportunities to hear those stories and help bring that little dash between the dates to life have come and gone. Now, as a genealogist, I sorely regret those missed opportunities.

Listen, kids, don’t make the same mistakes I did. Cherish those moments. They are more important than ever today because not only can you gather family stories, but you can gather DNA samples as well. Holiday gatherings are a great time to see relatives you may not have seen in years and may never see again. They are wonderful chances to contribute to your genetic genealogy as well as your family history.

I can personally relate to this. I moved to Houston, Texas when I started with FamilyTreeDNA. My maternal grandmother was from Galveston (just south of Houston). Unfortunately, she had passed. Fortunately, she had cousins living in the area. I visited them for the holidays my first year in Texas and had a wonderful time hearing stories about my grandmother, her parents, and her aunts and uncles. This brought the past to life in a way that no amount of paper documentation could.

Testing During the Holidays

Family Finder

I was able to collect DNA samples from them. With their Family Finder results in the FamilyTreeDNA database, I was able to filter my matches to those I had in common with them, which connected me to yet other cousins who helped fill in even more stories about ancestors I never had the chance to meet.

If you already have a Family Finder autosomal DNA test, getting additional relatives to take the test can not only unlock new matches but also help you zero in on what branch of the family you might share a common ancestor with.


Some types of DNA follow specific inheritance patterns. For example, only males carry Y-DNA, so only fathers pass Y-DNA on to their sons, making it especially useful for tracing paternal lineages. Among other things, Y-DNA can be used to trace surnames, as surnames are often passed down to children. While women often adopted their husband’s last name, analyzing Y-DNA matches can help clarify the frequent name changes found in maternal lines.

In my maternal grandmother’s case, as a genetic female, she did not have her father’s Y-DNA to pass down. Even if I had gotten a DNA test for her before she passed away, it would still not have told me as much about her paternal lineage as a Y-DNA test would have. Unfortunately for me, both of her cousins are female, so I am unable to get Y-DNA from them. However, if they were male, a Y-DNA test would unlock potential lines of research that would be impossible otherwise. The same holds true regardless of the number of generations separating the descendant from the ancestor. If I have a male second cousin who traces their father’s father’s line to my grandmother’s father, I could test them. Though they may have no more stories of yesteryear than I do, their DNA can pave the way to making connections.


Another type of DNA is mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). mtDNA passes only from mother to child. Although both males and females carry mtDNA in their cells, they inherit it from their mothers. This means that an mtDNA test for myself will not tell me anything about my father’s maternal line. Despite his passing, he had a sister who was willing to provide a DNA sample. By testing her mtDNA, I am able to connect with my paternal grandmother’s line.

Test yourself or a relative today. Who knows, you might be my cousin, and all my long-winded stories will become a treasured part of YOUR family history as well. Believe me, brevity is not in my vocabulary, so there are plenty more ramblings where this came from.


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