Nov. 18, 2010 at 7:24 PM ET
Lindsy Stewart Cieslewicz, a stay-at-home mom and dance educator in Utah, has reason to be doubly thankful this Thanksgiving season: She just found out that she's a descendant of the Pilgrims as well as the Native Americans who attended the first Thanksgiving in 1621.
"It's been exciting for my little family to be involved in this," the 34-year-old told me. "It takes us back not only to historical figures, but also to the Wampanoag tribe. We don't look Indian by any means, but to feel that, you get a sense of how varied and rich your culture can be without your even knowing."
The detective work was done by GeneTree, a company that blends genetic testing with genealogical research to firm up the links to ancestors. GeneTree draws upon more than 110,000 sets of pedigrees and DNA records that have been collected over the past decade for the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation.
Cieslewicz vaguely remembered contributing her information (as well as a DNA sample) to the foundation's database about a decade ago, just as I did, but she didn't give it much thought until GeneTree decided to sift through the database looking for Thanksgiving-themed connections. Cieslewicz was one of 297 people in the database whose ancestry could be traced to William Bradford, who was governor of Plymouth Colony for the first Thanksgiving. But out of all those people, Cieslewicz was the only one who was also related to the Wampanoag.
The pedigree laid out by GeneTree shows that Bradford was one of Cieslewicz's 10th-great-grandfathers, while her ninth-great-grandfather on a different line was a member of the Wampanoag tribe living during the era when Chief Massasoit worked out an alliance with the English. The exact identity of Cieslewicz's Indian forefather isn't known.
"There had been a family rumor passed down by my grandfather that we were related to Native Americans," Cieslewicz said. "My grandfather, who was an author and historian himself, never believed it. So that was a funny thing that we all laughed about, because my grandfather passed away exactly a year ago -- and he would have been really interested to hear that the family rumor was actually true."
How rare is it?
Statistical studies have shown that virtually everyone in the Western world is related to Charlemagne, who ruled over the Holy Roman Empire 1,200 years ago. But geneticist Scott Woodward, who's president of Utah-based GeneTree, says Cieslewicz's case is more unusual.
"Almost everybody can trace their lineages through one of these royal-type lines when we get 700 or 800 years into the past," he told me. "It's a little rare when we go back just 300 years, and it's more rare when you have to go through two of those lines."
Believe it or not, tracing Native American ancestry can be tougher than figuring out whether or not your ancestors came over on the Mayflower. "We know it's fairly rare, and one of the reasons we know that is because Native American records and the connections into that population are very rare," Woodward said. Even if the connection was known, it was often hidden -- in part because of the stigma that was once associated with being of "mixed blood."
Nowadays, however, having a little controversy in your family tree can add to the appeal of doing genealogy. For example, researchers recently determined that the descendants of the defendants in the Salem Witch Trials include actress Sarah Jessica Parker ... as well as Scott Woodward himself.
"When I found out that I really am connected to one of those accused witches, it made the story come alive for me," Woodward said. "And when we notified Lindsy about her connection, her words were, 'This is the most exciting e-mail that I have ever received.'"
A new perspective
Cieslewicz confirmed Woodward's account. She said the rest of her family -- including her husband and their five children -- were excited as well, especially with Thanksgiving just around the corner.
"We always go and collect books for the different holidays with my children," she said. "We sat down to read one the other day, and it was the children's story about Thanksgiving. I said, 'Wait, look, we're related to this side, and we're related to that side.' What an amazing thing to be able to sit down with my children and talk to them about the Thanksgiving story, and be able to say, 'One of these Pilgrims is your great-grandfather, and a Native American was also.'"
Cieslewicz said her brother mused that if the first Thanksgiving didn't turn out the way it did, neither of them might have existed. "It sure makes me glad that they decided to have dinner together instead of killing each other," she quoted him as saying.
While Cieslewicz and her family are getting ready for a Utah Thanksgiving, William Holland and his family are in the midst of a Cameroon homecoming. In September, I told you how GeneTree helped Holland determine that he was related to royalty in the West African nation. This week Holland traveled back to Bamenda, along with his mother and two of his siblings.
Holland said his newfound genetic relatives in Cameroon's North West Province were planning a full schedule of celebrations and tours over the next three weeks. One of the places they'll be staying is the palace of the Mankon tribe's chief, His Royal Highness Fo Angwafo III.
"I don't know how we're going to take all this," Holland told me just before the family's departure for Africa. "My mother said, 'I think I'm going to run.'"
He said his family tree includes links to three prominent families in Cameroon, and representatives from all three clans were due to greet the visitors from America. Another high-ranking figure was due to show up as well, to render an apology of sorts. The way Holland explained it, Africans from the area around Bamendjinda in Cameroon played a part in the slave trade of the 18th century. Holland said the present-day chief in Bamendjinda, Jean-Marie Tanefo, wanted to tell Holland about the circumstances that brought his ancestors to America in chains durng the 1770s.
"It's hard to put your finger on it," Holland said. "You have a family you're related to, and then you have a family that wants to make up for something they did wrong. I'm a little nervous, a little excited -- all rolled into one."
If I hear anything from Holland while he's on his trip, I'll be sure to pass it along.
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