The Tree of Me

DNA testing is revolutionizing the field of genealogy. Are we ready for what we might find?

From The New Yorker
March 26, 2001

Why is it that in the United States, the first country in the world to overthrow the accident of birth, people are so fascinated with their ancestors? According to a recent Maritz poll, a hundred and twenty million Americans are interested in family history.

The National Genealogical Society estimates that family history is now the second most popular hobby in the United States, after gardening. Genealogy is also the second most searched-for subject on the Web. (Porn, of course, is No. 1.), a database maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has had more than five billion hits since it was launched, less than two years ago. Many of the Web-based family-history sites combine rich genealogical resources with naked hucksterism. At, for example, you can get a detailed history of your surname, but only if you buy it on a piece of parchment, such as the "Family Name History Masterpiece Scroll," for nineteen dollars and ninety-five cents. As the family Web site gradually takes the place of the family Bible as the standard repository of family history, the controlling structure for the family seems to be evolving from a tree into something more like a root system, hairy with adoptive parents, two-mommy families, sperm-bank daddies, and other kinds of family appendages that don't fit onto trunks and branches.

Genealogy serves two often incompatible human impulses: the desire for self-knowledge and the desire for status. On the one hand, genealogists ask the most profound questions we can ask about ourselves--Where did we come from? and Where are we going? On the other hand, genealogy is the oldest form of social climbing in the world. Long before the ancient Hebrews put their genealogies in writing, in order to prove they were the "chosen people," humans have claimed status and inherited privilege by establishing the superiority of their forebears. The longevity of the British aristocracy, in which a relative few enjoy the majority of the property and wealth, is due in part to the persistent belief that entitlement is inherited "in the blood."

Our Founding Fathers abolished the hereditary aristocracy, but in its place we have an extraordinary variety of hereditary societies. There are early-settler societies, Colonial societies (both Revolutionary and Tory), religious societies, and ethnic societies--everything from the National Society of Daughters of the Barons of Runnemede ("for women of lineal descent from one or more of the barons who served as sureties of the Magna Carta in 1215") to the Society of the Descendants of Washington's Army at Valley Forge. In New York, the headquarters of many of the city's hereditary societies are at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, a stately Italianate building on East Fifty-eighth Street, where the quaint practices of New Yorkers long dead are preserved. At meetings of the Holland Society of New York (for male descendants of residents of New Netherland before 1675), a stuffed-beaver mascot, symbol of the fur trade, is carried around the room by a color guard while one of the guardsmen proclaims, "Gentlemen, the Beaver!" Recently, new ways of identifying ancestors have been developed using DNA analysis. In addition to containing a complete set of instructions for the creation and maintenance of life, DNA is a vast new archive of human history, one that can be used both for answering questions about one's own ancestors and for shedding light on the ancestry of the human species. In our DNA is a history of genetic heritage which includes not only our human ancestors but also our chimpanzee ancestors, our fish ancestors, and our protozoan ancestors, going all the way back to luca (an acronym for "last universal common ancestor")--a thermophilic bacterium that lived some four billion years ago, whose DNA all living things share.

But, if DNA can help us discover who we are, it can also tell us who we aren't. If the only purpose of genealogy were biological ancestry, then the surname should follow the mother's line, because, as any genealogist will tell you, the father is only ever the presumptive parent, whereas the mother is almost always the genetic one. The rate of false paternity in the United States is estimated to be between two and five per cent--not large, but over ten generations the likelihood that a bloodline suffers what geneticists refer to as a "non-paternity event" could approach fifty per cent. This means that many of the fancy pedigrees cherished by great families may not, biologically speaking, be accurate.

In the age of DNA, the Daughters of the Barons of Runnemede may end up belonging to the Daughters of the Paleozoic Invertebrates instead.

I have been a casual family historian for quite a while, but I was not a serious researcher into my own genealogy until a couple of years ago, when I became a father, an ancestor in my own right--no longer a tender young shoot on the family tree but a stouter limb farther back. I don't exactly know why I am so interested in my ancestors. It's not as if I were particularly intimate with my parents, siblings, and cousins. We are close in an unspoken way, but there's a lot about them that I don't know, and that they don't know about me, and most of us seem to be reasonably content with this arrangement. But the lure of ancestors is not like the desire for intimacy with relatives. Ancestors are mostly dead, and while this is the main problem with them--they rarely left behind adequate records of their thinking at crucial junctures in their lives--it is also what makes obsessing about them acceptable. They are less likely to embarrass you, or to show up and stay with you.

Like many Americans, I first became interested in my "crossing ancestors"--the forebears who made the passage from the Old World to this one. Almost every family has a crossing story of some kind to tell: it's the story of the way we became Americans. In African-American family history, the crossing is a nightmare of oppression, and for many other families it is a story of hardship and persecution. But it is also a source of pride, because it's the start of a kind of spiritual pedigree. Crossing stories are rarely written down. They usually exist in the oral legends that families tell about how they got here, in which truth often yields to a good story and an illustrious forebear. My paternal crossing ancestor--the one who brought my branch of the Seabrooks to these shores--was easier to trace than my maternal ancestor (a Toomey), because recordkeeping favors the male line. He was my great-great-grandfather Samuel Seabrook. Samuel came with his family from England sometime between 1855 and 1860, far too late to qualify our family for any of the hereditary societies. My father seems to feel that our family didn't cross soon enough, and for many years he has hoped to prove a connection between our line and the storied South Carolina Seabrooks. Their crossing ancestor, Captain Robert Seabrook, came around 1675, and the family owned several large plantations on the sea islands of Edisto, Johns, and Seabrook, off the Carolina coast, before its fortunes were wrecked by the Civil War. According to the story my father heard from his father, a son of the Carolina Seabrooks could have been sent back to England, to be educated at Cambridge University, where he became an abolitionist. His slave-owning family disowned him, and so he settled in the nearby county of Suffolk, where Samuel's family came from. Virtually everything I know about my Seabrook ancestors is from a genealogy that my grandfather commissioned from a professional genealogist in London, and which he paid the American Historical Company to include in a sixty-five-volume tome called "Colonial and Revolutionary Lineages of America," published in 1954. My grandfather was a self-made man, and, like many other Americans of undistinguished origin who achieve some eminence in the world, at a certain point in his life he found himself wanting the ancestors he deserved. Even though our Seabrook lineage is neither Colonial nor Revolutionary, the American Historical Company counted it among its élite, who are, according to the volumes' foreword, "those who sound their belief in the principles upon which our country was founded, and their adherence to the lofty aims and ideals that were written into the early documents of our government." We all believe that men are created equal, goes the logic here, but let's not forget that some of us believed it first.

Shortly after my son was born, in 1998, I began to try to sort out what about this family history was fact and what was fiction. The following details seemed accurate. Samuel was born in England in 1815. His father was the Reverend Thomas Seabrook, who was the curate of a church in Denston, a village in Suffolk, about twenty miles east of Cambridge. Thomas's father, a farmer named John, was born in the same area, in 1746, and died there in 1801; John's father, Richard, also came from there, although there was no record of his birth. Beyond Richard, nothing, although my grandfather had somehow convinced the editor that he should include a legend about an earlier ancestor who happened to share my grandfather's name:

According to tradition, in the time of Charles II there resided in Wood Ditton, now a part of Newmarket in Suffolk, Charles Seabrook, a doctor. On an occasion when the king was traveling nearby his coach overturned, and the monarch suffered a broken arm and shoulder blade. Dr. Seabrook was summoned, and did his work so well that he was brought back to London where he was made Chief Surgeon to the King.

I do not know why Samuel came to America. All I know is that Samuel's first wife, Clara Peters, had died, and he and his second wife, Fanny Peaters, were married in 1855, in London, where, according to the marriage certificate, Samuel was working as a "warehouseman." Sometime in the next five years, they emigrated, with two of his children from the first marriage and one of their own. On arriving in New York, they found their way up the Hudson River and settled in Rhinebeck. Here, according to family legend, Samuel worked as a caretaker for Horace Greeley, the famous editor of the New York Tribune. This seems highly unlikely, since Greeley's farm was in Chappaqua, eighty-five miles downstate from Rhinebeck, but I have always liked the detail. On East Nineteenth Street in New York, which was the site of Greeley's residence when he was in town and where, a hundred and thirty years later, I lived on first moving to the city, I used to walk along the street imagining different scenarios in which Greeley and my great-great-grandfather might have met.

At some point in the eighteen-sixties, Samuel went down to the far southwestern corner of New Jersey, to a part of the state so rural and untravelled that even today hardly anyone knows it's there, and he settled among the truck farmers and muskrat trappers near the Cohansey River. Why here, of all places, I have always wanted to know. Whatever the reason, it is where my family has lived ever since, and it's where I grew up. Samuel died not long after he arrived, in January of 1871, and was buried in what is known as a "stranger's grave," at the back of the Presbyterian church in the village of Upper Deerfield. A brook running behind the graveyard has overflowed many times since Samuel was placed in it, and whatever stone marked the grave has long since been washed away.

One hot afternoon last summer, I went into the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History, and Genealogy, in the New York Public Library. The Milstein Division is in a narrow, high-ceilinged room that used to house the science-and-technology collection, and the terra-cotta tiles there felt cool on the stifling day. My purpose was to search the census records and see if I could find some mention of Samuel's existence. The index for the 1860 census is on the open shelves, and I found the listings for Dutchess County, where Rhinebeck is situated. I could find no Seabrook, but there was a Samuel "Seabrood." The index gave a number, nine hundred and thirty-four, which corresponded to the page on which Seabrood's entry could be found.

The actual census records are on microfilm, stored in large metal filing cabinets in Room 119, next to the main genealogy room. The tables are filled with microfilm readers. The cowl-like, vaguely ecclesiastical shape of the machines, the users' supplicant posture, and the dim light make research in Room 119 feel a little like prayer. As I scanned the names of the dead, the spooled microfilm whirring, the realization that my life, too, will soon end washed over me. This was not the pleasant sensation of melancholy which comes from wandering around in cemeteries, where grass and old worn stones offer a kind of sensual comfort. This was a complete disaster: everyone was gone.

It was hard to read the faded numbers at the tops of the pages, but after some hunting around I found page 934, and there was Samuel Seabrook--it was definitely a "k" and not a "d"--along with a wife and a daughter and two male children, living in Dutchess County, New York, on April 21, 1860, the day the census-taker came to visit. The age was right, forty-five, and the country of origin, England, and place of dwelling, Rhinebeck, all matched the information I already had. Under "Occupation" there was a word that looked like "herdsman," or maybe "handyman." This discovery was unexpectedly thrilling, and I made a sound, a sound I have since heard others make in Room 119: a sort of exultant grunt that arises spontaneously when you "get" an ancestor. It was like finding something that has been lost for a long time--a kind of redemption.

That was a promising beginning, but after a lot more searching in libraries and archives I didn't learn anything new. The genealogist my grandfather had hired seemed to have found what could be found in the records, and the more tantalizing but undocumented material--the doctor from Wood Ditton, the employment with Greeley--I could neither prove nor disprove. If only there were another way to trace ancestry, a method that didn't rely on the vagaries of records and on the whims of forebears who invented or destroyed documents in order to make themselves more impressive to their descendants. In the hope of finding one, I began to surf the new DNA-based genealogical sites on the Web.

I found a number of services offering DNA-fingerprint tests, mostly for the purpose of proving paternity. In this procedure, lab technicians examine a representative number of sites spread throughout the chromosomes in the human genome. Humans have twenty-three pairs of chromosomes--tightly coiled double-helix ladders of information inside the nucleus of almost all human cells--one set each from the mother and the father. Chromosomes are sequences of chemical compounds, or "bases"--adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, designated by the letters A, C, G, and T--and by recording these sequences scientists can derive a unique genetic fingerprint for every individual on earth.

For years, a suspicious father's only recourse was to make jokes about the milkman; now he can log on to and send away for the GeneSwab(tm) Specimen Collection Kit, which includes DNA swabs in three pastel colors, and promises an answer in seven to ten business days. (Two hundred and ninety dollars for the first test; a hundred and twenty-five dollars for each additional child.) Gene Tree also offers a complete line of products to test your brothers and sisters and your grandparents, as well as SecureGene(tm) DNA Banking, which archives your DNA. There's even ToothFairy DNAPassport(tm) for storing the kids' DNA.

However, while DNA fingerprinting can establish a pattern of genetic inheritance between people who are separated by one generation, it doesn't work if you're trying to locate a characteristic genetic signature in distant relatives, or among putative family members who lived hundreds, or even thousands, of years apart. This is because during the formation of sperm in men and eggs in women, the paired chromosomes in the nucleus exchange DNA randomly, a process known as recombination. Shuffling the deck like this contributes to a varied gene pool, but it also makes DNA fingerprints very difficult to trace over many generations.

There is one chromosome, the Y, carried only by men, that does not undergo recombination and remains essentially unchanged, except by rare mutations, as it is passed down through the male line. Since Y chromosomes and surnames are both handed down through the male line in Western culture, genealogists have the opportunity to match the record in our genes with the written records, and to use the former to bridge gaps and dead ends in the latter. In 1997, for example, an ingenious amateur genealogist named Dr. Eugene A. Foster realized that he could use a Y-chromosome test to help settle a genealogical controversy--whether Thomas Jefferson really did father a child with his slave Sally Hemings--that had kept a cottage industry of historians busy for more than a century. As Foster reported in Nature in 1998, tests comparing the Y chromosome of male descendants of Sally Hemings with the Y chromosome of proven descendants of Jefferson showed that there was a strong probability that Hemings's youngest son, Eston, was a Jefferson. (However, the Monticello Association, which oversees the graveyard for lineal descendants of Thomas Jefferson, still won't let any of the Hemings descendants be buried there, partly on the ground that the common ancestor could have been a different Jefferson.)

The Y has also been used to prove ancient tribal affiliations. According to the Old Testament, the descendants of Aaron, the older brother of Moses, are part of the priestly tribe of Jews known as the Cohanim (cohan means priest in Hebrew). The priesthood could pass only from father to son, and for the last three thousand years or so certain Jewish men have been telling their sons that they are Cohanim. Michael Hammer, a geneticist at the University of Arizona, sampled about three hundred Jewish men, and, as he and his collaborators reported in a 1997 paper, "Y Chromosomes of the Jewish Priests," published in Nature, more than fifty per cent of the men whose fathers had told them they were Cohanim shared a similar signature on their Y chromosomes, while only ten per cent of the non-Cohanim had that signature. Another study used the Y as a kind of molecular clock to approximate how far back the common ancestor of all these Cohanim lived, calculating that the man was alive between twenty-one hundred and thirty-two hundred and fifty years ago, which is consistent with the dates given for Moses and Aaron in the Old Testament. At, Hammer's Cohanim test is available to anyone who would like to find out if he has the priestly gene.  

Perhaps the most dramatic example so far of the potential of Y-chromosome-based family history was demonstrated last spring by Bryan Sykes, who is a professor of human genetics at Oxford University, and a colleague, Catherine Irven. Sykes and Irven obtained DNA from forty-eight male Sykeses, who were not, as far as the respondents knew, related either to Dr. Sykes or to each other. By studying the men's Y chromosomes, Sykes discovered, to his astonishment, that there was a distinctive Sykes-family signature on the Y chromosomes of twenty-one of the forty-eight men tested. Four other Sykeses were only one mutation away from those twenty-one. In a paper on the study, published in The American Journal of Human Genetics in April, 2000, Sykes reasoned that since the DNA of the remaining Sykeses was not at all similar, there was probably one original founder of the surviving Sykes line, and that the unrelated Sykeses must be the results of a steady accumulation of non-paternity events or adoptions. Sykes is offering a commercial version of that test, called Y-Line, on a Web site,, where the motto is "We put the gene in genealogy."

It occurred to me that the Y-chromosome test could answer my father's question of whether our Seabrooks are related to the South Carolina Seabrooks. In order for it to work, I would need to find a patrilineal descendant of Captain Robert Seabrook, persuade him to give me his DNA, and compare his Y chromosome with mine. After logging a number of hours on the Web, I found, at one of the thousands of surname-based chat E-mail address of Jeffrey Scott Seabrook, a resident of Argyle, Texas, who has a well-documented paper trail leading to the South Carolina Seabrooks and all the way back to Captain Robert, Jeffrey's great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. I sent Jeffrey an E-mail, and he sent me his cell, work, and home-phone numbers. I reached him in his car and explained that I needed a little more of his information--his DNA. Not a problem, Jeffrey said. "I used to work for a company that helped develop DNA-testing kits," he said. "So I know what this DNA stuff is about." I looked for some other male Seabrooks to sample. According to a database of telephone directories on, there are eight hundred and thirty Seabrooks listed in the United States. Seabrook is not so rare a surname as Crapper (twenty-nine listings) or Lump (sixty-three), but it is not so common as Bundy (3,963) or Reed (91,414) or Adams (142,720). At any rate, it is uncommon enough that whenever I meet another Seabrook we are quick to exchange family histories, to see if our respective branches might be connected by a common ancestor. The Internet has made these random encounters much more likely, and in recent years I have received E-mails from Seabrooks around the world, each trying to find his place in the larger family tree, if indeed one exists. The most active of these family E-storians are Australian Seabrooks, followed closely by Canadians, then by Americans, and finally by British Seabrooks. The general rule seems to be that the farther the bearers of a name get from its motherland the more interested in their roots they become.

It wasn't easy to find Seabrooks around New York who were willing to give me their DNA. First of all, many of the Seabrooks living in New York City are black. This is a cultural legacy of slavery, and specifically of the South Carolina Seabrooks, who at the height of their fortunes owned more than a thousand slaves, some of whom took the name Seabrook on being freed. Larry Seabrook is a former state senator whose district was in the Bronx and part of Westchester. Norman Seabrook is the head of the city correction officers' union ("New York's Boldest"). It is remotely possible that these Seabrooks share some of my DNA, but it seemed insensitive to ask them to take the test in order to find out. (I did fax Senator Seabrook's office, asking for his DNA, and followed up with several calls that were not returned.)

If I hoped to discover a Seabrook signature from a relatively small sample, I would probably have more success if I sampled Seabrooks living near the place where our common ancestor--the original Mr. Seabrook--might have lived. This is how Sykes had conducted his study: he obtained DNA from Sykeses in Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Cheshire, where, historical records show, the name Sykes comes from (the word means moorland stream in Old English), and where the largest concentration of Sykeses in England still live. The results of Sykes's study appeared to confirm the research of George Redmonds, a British-surname historian and the author of "Surnames and Genealogy: A New Approach," published in 1997. According to Redmonds, in many cases even relatively common surnames derive from a single ancestor, rather than from multiple progenitors, as is generally believed.

Redmonds came to the May, 2000, annual conference of the National Genealogy Society, held in the Rhode Island Convention Center, in Providence, to give a talk on DNA testing and its role in genealogy, and I took the train up from New York City to meet him. The conference is the big yearly event on the calendar of thousands of enthusiasts. I looked around the Exhibit Hall, where genealogical products were on display. There was a lot of software for sale, much of it produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which has amassed by far the largest collection of genealogical records in the world. (Donny and Marie Osmond would be appearing later to promote a software package called "One Great Family.") In the Mormon faith, it is believed that family members remain together for eternity, not just for their time on earth, and it is the duty of Mormons to help unite families by locating their ancestors and performing a "sealing ceremony," a ritual binding the family together forever. Thanks to the zeal with which they have pursued their mission, Mormons have collected more than two billion names. The bulk are contained on microfilm and include many of the parish registries from England--births, marriages, and deaths, town by town, going back to the fifteenth century. The main collection is stored in the Family History Library, a hundred-and-forty-two-thousand-square-foot facility in Salt Lake City, but some databases can be searched at any one of the nearly two thousand family-history centers around the country. These records are not complete, however, because some parishes refuse to turn their papers over to the Mormons, arguing that their departed parishioners would not have wanted to be baptized by the Mormon Church. Survivors of the Holocaust brought a successful suit against the L.D.S. Church to prevent Holocaust victims from being included.

I met Professor Redmonds in a café upstairs, where he was assembling a batch of scribbled-over sheets of paper for his upcoming lecture. His wife, Ann-marie, was sitting next to him, eying with a certain apprehension the large-bodied Americans who were circling us, holding their N.G.S. tote bags, hoping for a little free genealogical advice from the Master. (Whenever Redmonds speaks, he is asked by family historians to perform a kind of genealogical parlor trick: they tell him their surname, and he endeavors to tell them where it comes from.) Redmonds is a bearded, snaggle-toothed Englishman in his mid-sixties, who speaks with a thick Yorkshire accent. For a long time, his views on the single-place origin of surnames contradicted the mainstream academic view, which held that surnames appeared at multiple spots, adopted by different families. He has subsisted over the years, in part, by doing surname studies for families who request them and by leading groups on heritage tours--those peculiarly American pilgrimages, in which you attempt to relive your ancestors' struggles by dragging the spouse and kids back to the Old Country. Redmonds takes the Fairbanks to the fair bank where their name comes from, and so forth. He generally offers the caveat that one can't be entirely sure that this is the exact fair bank, but his audience rarely seems to mind. It makes a good picture for the Fairbanks back home.

We talked about DNA testing and its impact on genealogy as it is currently practiced. "What DNA represents is a shift in the nature of authority--a shift away from the authority of the book to the authority of the test, away from the library to the lab," Redmonds said. "There has never been absolute proof in genealogy before. As scholars, we work with that understanding. Then DNA comes along and seems to answer the question once and for all in the lab. And, whether or not the answer really is definitive, people believe it in a way that they don't necessarily believe what they read in books."

I asked Redmonds for some practical advice on how best to go about finding where the Seabrooks came from. He directed me to the English Place-Name Society's publications on the development of names in English counties, which had lots of details on the origin of words like "Seabrook." Back in New York, I enjoyed another couple of days in the Milstein Division, where I discovered that a variant of Seabrook first appears in written records from the fourteenth century, in the county of Buckinghamshire, near the village of Ivinghoe, where a now vanished hamlet called Seabrook was once located. I checked this against a database of present-day phone listings on Yahoo, which showed that the greatest concentration of Seabrooks still lived in Buckinghamshire and the neighboring counties. So it appeared that a strip of territory roughly following the Chiltern Hills, running from the south-central part of the country east into the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, was the Seabrook heartland. That was where I should go looking for Seabrooks to sample.

Y-chromosome analysis is available only to men, but there is another type of DNA test, which traces ancestry in the maternal line. These tests use mitochondrial DNA, which is the DNA inside mitochondria, the cellular helpers memorably described in biological texts as "the powerhouses of the cell." Every human cell contains a thousand or more mitochondria, and each mitochondrion has its own DNA. There are mitochondria inside both human eggs and sperm (they help power the tail), but only the mitochondria in the mother's egg remain in the fertilized embryo, where they begin again to multiply and soon produce a body full of mtDNA that is exactly like the mother's mtDNA. Sons get the mother's mtDNA, but, lacking eggs, they can't pass it along to their children. Because there are so many copies of mtDNA within each human cell, mtDNA is easier to obtain from degraded specimens than nuclear DNA. Perhaps the most famous genealogical use of mtDNA was in helping to identify nine skeletons, exhumed in a forest in Siberia in 1991, that were believed to be those of Tsar Nicholas and his family. The test relied on an mtDNA sample given by Queen Elizabeth's husband, Prince Philip, who was a grandson of the Tsarina's sister. The mtDNA matched, proving that the skeletons found in the grave were indeed Romanovs. Researchers then used the Romanov sequence to answer another long-running mystery, by comparing it with the mtDNA of Anna Anderson Manahan, a woman claiming to be the Princess Anastasia, who had escaped execution. Manahan had since died, but a sample of her intestine taken during a 1979 operation had been preserved. There was no match, and she was exposed, posthumously, as a fraud.

Mitochondrial-DNA analysis can also provide a record of ancestry where no paper trail exists. Dr. Michael Blakey, a biological anthropologist at Howard University, is the lead scientist with the African Burial Ground project, in New York City, which is documenting a large eighteenth-century graveyard that was discovered in lower Manhattan in 1991. As the skeletons are analyzed, Blakey has been assembling a database of early African-American mtDNA. That database may one day be used to match living African-Americans to their ancestors. In theory, it would also be possible to collect mtDNA signatures from different parts of West Africa with which African-Americans could compare their own mtDNA, in the hope of identifying the village their ancestors came from. Last May, when Rick Kittles, also of Howard University, announced plans for a business venture to provide this kind of genealogical service, his office was overwhelmed with calls from African-Americans. (Kittles himself used DNA testing to trace his African ancestry, and discovered that he was part German on his father's side.) But his plan also drew criticism. "That's like charging Holocaust victims to confirm their relatives were in fact gassed," Fatimah Jackson, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland, said. Other geneticists pointed out that in order for Kittles's applicants to obtain any meaningful result about their ancestors he would need a much larger database of African DNA than is currently available. Kittles hopes to launch his venture later this year.

Finally, and most weirdly, mtDNA data offer living people connections to  female ancestors who lived tens of thousands of years ago. These ancestors are not based on archeological evidence; they are statistical constructs derived from comparing mtDNA samples taken from modern humans all around the world. In a 1987 paper published in Nature, Rebecca Cann and Mark Stoneking, together with the late Allan Wilson, of the University of California at Berkeley, claimed that similarities in worldwide mtDNA samples showed that there must have been a "mitochondrial Eve," a woman who lived in Africa some two hundred thousand years ago whose mtDNA all humans share. Studies carried out in the laboratory of Douglas C. Wallace, of the Emory School of Medicine, in Atlanta, have identified twenty-eight major branches in the mitochon-drial family tree. Wallace has given letter designations to these "Children of Eve," as the different lineages were dubbed in a "Nova" television documentary on DNA-based ancestry, and has shown that many of the branches are continent-specific.

The enterprising Dr. Bryan Sykes has gone a step further, establishing a sort of ancient-pedigree business that allows people of European heritage to find out which of the Seven Daughters of Eve--as he calls these ancestors--they are descended from. In taking this step, Sykes may have crossed a line between good science and entrepreneurship--between telling people the truth about who they are and plying them with a fiction about who they may be. Sykes sells his service (MatriLine) through his Web site, charging a hundred and eighty dollars per test. Sykes's names for his Seven Daughters--Xenia, Ursula, Jasmine, Tara, Velda, Helena, and Katrine--correspond to Wallace's single-letter designations for seven of the mtDNA lineages in Europe (X, U, J, T, V, H, and K), and on his Web site Sykes has added slightly overheated summaries of each of the daughters' epic achievements in the Pleistocene. Tara lived in Tuscany seventeen thousand years ago, and her descendants walked across the land bridge that used to connect England and France, where they founded the Celts. Xenia managed to survive the last Ice Age, and some of her descendants crossed the Bering land bridge to get to North America--X is the only one of the mtDNA European lineages also found in Native Americans (mostly among members of the Ojibwa tribe, who live around the Great Lakes). In July, Norton will publish Sykes's book, entitled "The Seven Daughters of Eve," in which he expands on the daughters' biographies.

When I logged on to Sykes's site and looked over the material on the Daughters of Eve, my immediate thoughts were, in quick succession: 1) What a scam! 2) How many people are actually paying for this? 3) It would be kind of interesting to know which of the Daughters I am descended from. The service was a little pricey, but I was on the verge of getting a new ancestor, and what more can a family historian ask?

About a month later, a package containing several DNA-testing kits arrived in the mail--slender plastic cytology brushes with tiny nylon bristles on the end, packed in sterile translucent envelopes. I carried the instruction sheet into the bathroom. "Holding the stem, brush your inner cheek about ten times on each side to remove cells." I rinsed out my mouth, and scraped ten times on each side, watching myself in the mirror. As I was feeling the coarse bristles cutting through the mucus inside my cheek, collecting my "buccal cells" (producing a bitter taste, which made me gag slightly), I tried to conjure up an image of this warrior-princess ancestor, my Daughter of Eve, whose mtDNA has been passed from woman to woman, down through twenty thousand or so years of mothers and daughters, in order to get here to this bathroom. It was something of a stretch. Both mtDNA- and Y-chromosome-derived lineages represent a relatively small part of the total contribution of your ancestors to your genetic makeup. If I go back four generations, I have sixteen ancestors, but since my mitochondrial DNA comes only from my mother's mother's mother's mother, and my Y chromosome comes from my father's father's father's father, together these two ancestors represent only two-sixteenths of my actual ancestry. The farther back you go, the smaller that fraction becomes. But this is exactly what Sykes is selling through MatriLine--exclusivity. I had E-mailed Dr. Wallace, in Atlanta, about Sykes's Daughters of Eve business. He wrote back that his own group had not tried to seek commercial gain from its mtDNA work, implying that he disapproved of Sykes's efforts to do so (a criticism I heard from other geneticists, too). He also pointed out the potentially misleading aspects of DNA-derived ancestry: an individual who thinks of himself as, say, Anglo-Saxon could find out from an mtDNA test that his deep maternal ancestor is in fact Middle Eastern or African. "For example an individual might consider himself as belonging to a particular group 'A,' " Wallace wrote. "If the individual being tested was subsequently told that his mtDNA is from the 'B' group, he might mistakenly think that his personal identity is misplaced. This could be devastating. Tragically it would also be untrue since the vast majority of this individual's genes would in fact be 'A.' "

I finished collecting my DNA, slipped the brush back inside the envelope, sealed it with tape, and mailed it, along with a check, to the Institute of Molecular Medicine, in Oxford, where Sykes had established his genealogical venture in partnership with Oxford University. I had a couple of DNA-testing kits left over, and I wondered what to do with them. It would be easy to sneak a sample from my son and send it off to Gene Tree. There was no reason to doubt he was "mine," and yet the comfort of certainty was hard to resist. But I resisted it, bearing in mind what may be the golden rule of the age of household genetics: Never ask for an answer you don't need to know.

When I got to England, I went to see Sykes at his lab in Oxford. He was already analyzing my mtDNA, and I had decided to use his Y-Line service to evaluate my male Seabrook samples, too. We talked in the institute's common room. Sykes, forty-nine years old, was dressed in a dark-green suit with a black T-shirt underneath. He was fair-haired and ruddy, and he spoke in the musical, aware-of-itself voice of the star geneticist, used to holding the rapt attention of classrooms and labs full of students.

Sykes has a knack for using DNA testing in dramatic, media-friendly contexts that generate headlines. He was part of a team that extracted mtDNA from the five-thousand-year-old Ötzi Man, the body of a Neolithic hunter found frozen on an alp near the Ötztal Valley, on the Austrian-Italian border, in 1991. Sykes also recovered mtDNA from a nine-thousand-year-old skeleton of a man found in the Cheddar Gorge, in the English county of Somerset, in 1997. After testing people living in and around Bath, a city near the gorge, Sykes announced that a local schoolteacher named Adrian Targett was a relative of the Cheddar Man.

Sykes's study of male Sykeses increased his fame. His conclusion--that there was an original Mr. Sykes, and that the nonrelated Sykeses were the result of non-paternity events or adoptions--was questioned by some geneticists, who argued that the nonrelated Sykeses could derive from founders of other, less prolific Sykes lines. (Alan Savin, an amateur genealogist in Britain who has conducted a similar study, of British Savins, did not find evidence of a single progenitor.) But the idea that people with the same name might belong to the same genetic family was eagerly lapped up by the press.

Sykes himself has the Sykes Y-chromosome signature, although he told me that it would not have mattered to him if he had discovered evidence of a non-paternity event at some point in his male line. "There are two ways of doing genealogy, both equally valid," he said, putting down a mug of coffee. "There is your cultural family, and there is your genetic family, and the two are often not the same, though you may think they are. There have already been quarrels over this, and there are going to be others, so we have to make it absolutely clear as we go forward: the biological and the paper families are not the same thing, but they are both equally valid."

Sykes said that the joint venture with Oxford University is "genetics for fun." He plans to open genetics shops, where people could stop in to get all their DNA work done, Kinko's style--sequencing, banking, database searching, as well as Daughters of Eve T-shirts. "It's all in the marketing plan," he said.

I asked whether MatriLine, his Daughters of Eve test, had much business yet.

"Hundreds and hundreds of customers," Sykes said. "Most of the interest is in the States, of course. Sometimes it's sons getting their mother's mtDNA sequenced for Mother's Day, or friends giving MatriLine to newlyweds as a wedding gift. People really don't have a personal relationship with their DNA yet. It's been thought of as a chemical, basically. But what it actually is, it's a part of your history. Think of how far your genes have come to get to you. They survived the Ice Age, lived lives very different from the lives we live now. When you reflect that, at any point in the last twenty thousand years or so, there was only one individual woman who carried the same mtDNA you carry, and that she had a daughter, and that daughter had a daughter, and so on, throughout history--it's quite powerful. It's not like nuclear DNA, where you keep multiplying your ancestors as you go back. It's one woman, or, in the case of a Y test, one man. That's what people relate to." Sykes took me on a brief tour of the laboratory, where students and lab workers were involved in the labor-intensive practice of preparing and sequencing DNA samples. In his office, a harried-looking assistant was busy printing out customers' mtDNA sequences and Daughters of Eve genetic trees. Sykes disappeared, returning a little later with a page fresh from the color printer. "Congratulations," he said. "You're a Xenia. The rarest one. Only six per cent come from Xenia."

He paused for a moment to let this sink in, then asked, "How do you feel?"

"Only six per cent!" I said.

"And you are the mysterious X branch," Sykes went on. "Let me ask you, would you seek out other Xenias?"

I didn't think so. I might buy the T-shirt, though.

With a flourish, Sykes signed his name under my mtDNA sequence. A vellum copy, suitable for framing, would be sent to me in the mail.

After seeing Sykes, I rented a car in Oxford and headed north, toward the Seabrook heartland. In Sykes's lab, with its racks of test tubes and its pipette-wielding technicians, I had felt out of place; there were none of the bookish comforts of the Milstein Division. But now that I was once again navigating by written records, which I had found mostly in the English Place Names books, I felt more sure of myself. I had my papers on the seat beside me, with the research I had done into the name Seabrook.

Like DNA, the name has mutated over time, as mistakes, copying errors, and elisions have crept in, producing variations from Seybroke to Sebroc to Seabrooke. Seabrook is a compound word, which Anglo-Saxons were fond of. The first part of it, "sea," modifies the second part, "brook." A "sea" in Middle English meant a dweller by a lake or pool of water, but in Old English "sea" may have come from the word saege, which means slowly moving or trickling. Or it could be from Saega, an Anglo-Saxon personal name--Seaga's Brook. The Anglo-Saxons had many more words to describe landscape features than we do, and they seem to have been especially concerned with water. There were seabrooks, shirebrooks (clear), sambrooks (sandy), skidbrooks (muddy and dirty), and holbrooks (brooks running through hollows). "Brook" always seems to have meant a brook, though it was once spelled "brock," which also meant marsh. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames, a brock was also "a stinking or dirty fellow."

The Anglo-Saxons had only one name, and this was, in the manner of modern pop stars, distinctive enough to be unique: Cerdic, Lemma, Pymma, Ugga, Sprott. But in the centuries following the Norman Conquest, in 1066, partly owing to the popularity of Biblical and royal names--in fourteenth-century England, thirty-four per cent of the men were named John--it became necessary to have two names. In England, most people chose surnames between 1250 and 1400. Surnames were not at first intended to be hereditary but were, as the word suggests, "bynames," more like first names today. Some people chose their bynames from places and topographical features (Hawthorne, Goodwood), some from relationships (Johnson), some from trades (Arrowsmith, Cartwright), and some were descriptive nicknames, both kind (Armstrong, Fairchild) and cruel (Vidler, meaning "wolf-face," and Greeley, "pockmarked").

The road to Ivinghoe was dotted with mutant remnants of Anglo-Saxon words. I passed the village of Tring, which in Old English meant "slope on which trees grow." Ivinghoe itself was in a valley below the ancient Pitstone Hills. Just outside the village, I found a farm called Little Seabrook. As I was walking alongside a hedgerow that marked the boundary of a cow pasture, I heard the farmer and his wife on the other side. I called out that I was a Seabrook, come looking for my roots, and they invited me into the field. We walked through the pasture to the spot where, according to the farmer, Bernard Keable, the hamlet of Seabrook had once stood. "Supposedly, if you look at it from the air you can see discolored patches in the grass," Mrs. Keable said, pointing around at the patchy ground. A little farther along, they brought me to a brook that flowed through the field. Bernard said, "When it rains, you see, that brook floods, and this field becomes a shallow lake." "A sea, like," his wife added.

I shot a glance at her, to see if she was putting me on. An American on a heritage tour is in a pitifully credulous state, willing to believe almost anything the locals tell him. But the Keables appeared sincere. I began composing in my head the E-mail I would send my father about this; it would be a variation on the telegram the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann dispatched when he found the tomb of Agamemnon, in Troy--"I have gazed on the brook from which we came."

There were no Seabrooks left in Ivinghoe, but there were Seabrooks in the towns around it, and the next day I returned to the area to see if I could collect DNA from a few. The first Seabrook I tried wasn't home when I turned up at his door unannounced, and after I told his wife what I needed she looked alarmed.

"My husband's not here now, but I'm sure he wouldn't be interested in something like that." She closed the door. After another rejection, I decided that the best method would be to call first, explain as best I could what I was after, and suggest popping by. The wives of the male Seabrooks often were the ones who answered the phone, and they seemed much more leery of the idea of DNA sampling than the men were, perhaps because women are more aware of the perils of loosely passed out DNA. One Mrs. Seabrook who answered said, "Not another one of these shady Seabrooks coming out of the woodwork!"

Were there a lot of shady Seabrooks around? I asked

"Oh, yes--loads of them!"

By the end of a long day, I had found three Y-bearing Seabrooks, all of them elderly, who didn't seem to have much else to do when I called, and allowed me to come over and sample them. The first was Gerald, who lived alone in a cul-de-sac in the town of Hemel Hempstead; the second was Keith, whom I sampled on the High Street in Bedmond; and the last was Allen, whom I got in his parlor in Chesham, as his wife sat next to him drinking tea. My technique was to chat about our respective families until the moment seemed right to withdraw the sampler from my pocket. I asked each of these Seabrooks what he knew of his own ancestors, and was surprised to discover that not one of them knew anything more about his family history than the name of his grandparents. On the other hand, all the Seabrooks knew a lot about their houses, and the history of the villages I found them in. Could it be that Americans' fascination with genealogy springs in part from our lack of interest in the history of the buildings and towns we live in? In the United States, everything gets thrown out or torn down too fast, until all we've got left is our genes.

On Saturday, I drove up to Suffolk, to see if I could find the grave of Thomas Seabrook, my crossing ancestor's father. According to my grandfather's genealogy, he is buried in the village of Stradishall. I left the motorway and entered the part of the country my ancestors came from. The land became hilly, and from the highest elevations. I had glimpses of the ancient market towns in the distance--Newmarket, Saffron Walden--with the spires of the churches poking up over the old walls. My ancestors must have walked within sight of these views for at least a hundred and forty years. What struck me most about the land was that it looked a lot like the place where I grew up, in South Jersey. Maybe that's why Samuel finally settled there--because he had heard it looked like home.

When I reached Stradishall, at about three o'clock, the town was deserted and silent. Some crows were sitting high in the yew trees that grew around the churchyard. The church itself had been built in the fourteenth century, and was not well preserved; the interior was dank, and smelled strongly of mildew. The register was filled with entries from other ancestor-seeking Americans--"Found my g g g g grandfather in back!!!!" I went outside and began looking for the grave of Thomas. The grass was long and wet, and the ground was uneven, especially behind the church, where some of the older graves were. As I was walking back there, the earth gave way under my foot. I staggered backward and then cautiously peered down into the hole. It seemed to go all the way down into a grave. I looked everywhere, but could find no Seabrook. Then I noticed a row of four stones that were so covered with ivy that I had mistaken them for part of the ground. I pulled the ivy away from the first stone. The lettering was too worn to read by eye, but by tracing with my fingertip along the declivity in the stone I could spell out the letter "S," then "e," then "a," until I got "Seabrook." It was a moment that DNA couldn't touch.

While searching online for Seabrooks to sample, I had sent an E-mail to a Colin Seabrook, who lived just outside Ipswich, a medium-sized city in southeast England. Shortly after returning to New York, I received a reply from him. He declined to take the DNA test, but by comparing genealogies we discovered we had a common ancestor in Richard Seabrook, my great-times-five grandfather and Colin's times-six--which made us sixth cousins once removed. Colin added that he had a "shedful" of information about the Reverend Thomas Seabrook. "With what I know about the Reverend, I could write a small book," Colin said. Apparently, the grave I had found in Stradishall was not Thomas's--he was in a different village altogether. If I felt like coming back to England, Colin wrote, "I'll take you to where the Reverend is buried."

So on a cold, black December day I drove up the A 12 from London, heading northeast past Colchester, the oldest settled town in Britain, and reached Ipswich about midday. The historic meeting between the two branches of the family tree which were separated by Samuel's crossing took place in a car park outside a Toys R Us. I had no idea what Colin looked like, and although we shared the same Y chromosome, the known physical traits the Y expresses, apart from maleness, are hairy ears in Indian men and shape of the tooth. As I walked around peering at the shoppers in the rain, I spotted a nose that looked exactly like the one on my brother's face, Norman in size but Anglo-Saxon in aquilinity--quite a honker. Sure enough, it was Colin.

Colin was fifty-one and had curly salt-and-pepper gray hair and a long neck (like mine). He was friendly--not the least bit brock-like. His father had been a butcher, his grandfather a farmer, and he was a mechanical engineer with British Telecom. Colin had made a large family tree of Seabrooks, which he printed out on a continuous-roll printer, the kind engineers use for making circuit diagrams. We sat in his car and unrolled it, and he traced our connections on the paper with his index finger. I kept stealing glances at his teeth.

I was eager to see the documents Colin had brought with him, but he suggested we have lunch first. He told me about his work for British Telecom, and his two children, a girl and a boy who are eighteen and twenty, respectively, and his wife, Angela. He said his interest in genealogy started when his grandfather died. "I realized how much is lost when a person dies. All that oral history, all that knowledge of who did what to whom, disappears."

After lunch, we spread out the documents. The "shed," it appeared, was a figure of speech. Colin had some interesting odds and ends, including the E-mail address of a California branch of the family, who are now called the Fitzpatricks, but he had nothing to explain what Thomas was like, or why his son Samuel might have left this country. Like me, Colin had got no further back than Richard. He had never heard of the Dr. Seabrook who set the king's arm.

I did gain a better sense of what life as a clergyman had been like in this part of Suffolk. Colin showed me a document from the Barnardiston parish registry, which is stored in the records office at Bury St. Edmunds, making Thomas a curate. He was to receive a hundred pounds a year, plus surplus fees--weddings, burials, baptisms--to be paid by the Reverend John Maddy, who was the rector of Stansfield Church. Thomas was responsible for three churches, in three villages, although the contract specified that he was not required to travel more than fifteen miles on a Sunday. And "We do further assign and alot unto you the rectory house for your residence, with the offices, stables, gardens."

That night, the winds were so strong that they blew the roofs off houses in Cardiff. Nothing so organized as a nor'easter or a hurricane, the gale was nevertheless a great blow. As I lay in my hotel room listening to the wind roaring, I remembered the way Colin's nose looked, when I first glimpsed it in the Toys R Us parking lot. I couldn't get that nose out of my mind. I knew that the similarity to my brother's nose was probably a coincidence, but I clung to this bit of physical kinship. Perhaps this was what I was looking to my ancestors to find--some echo of myself. The next morning, as I was coming out of the dining room after breakfast, I saw Colin waiting for me in the lobby. He had arisen early to see Angela and some of her friends off for a bit of shopping in the outlet malls on the French side of the Chunnel. I got my things and we set off in Colin's car, heading for Bury St. Edmunds, resting place of the martyred king of East Anglia, Edmund, whose lungs were ripped out by the Viking leader Ivar the Boneless in 869. Leaving the modern Britain behind, we entered the timeless English countryside, with its perfectly worked fields, deep lanes, and ancient hedgerows.

As we entered the cemetery at Rede, the northernmost of the churches on Thomas's route, there was a rumbling sound, and several huge, extremely healthy-looking workhorses charged across the neighboring pasture to have a look at us, water flying from their steaming bodies, their vitality making a vivid contrast to the dank, licheny silence of the churchyard. The sky had clouded over and rain was threatening again. There were molehills everywhere.

"Moles like worms," Colin said.

We continued on to the village of Wickhambrook, where Thomas had succeeded John Maddy as vicar, although he served for only a year, until his death, at the age of fifty-eight. The interior had the bone-chilling cold peculiar to old churches, which perhaps contributed to Thomas's untimely death. Bits of the original building had been preserved, and there was a north door, typical of the way the Vikings built churches. The stained glass in the windows had been smashed by Puritans in the seventeenth century, all except for a few panes high above the altar.

I walked around, peering at the inscriptions in the walls, until Colin said, "You just walked over Thomas." I looked down, and there was a cracked stone with his name and dates, saying he had been the vicar here. The stone was broken in five or six places, and the words were fractured, the letters beginning to tumble into one another. I took a picture of Colin in front of it, and took another close up, so that I could show Colin's nose to my brother.

Just before Christmas, I got back from Sykes's lab the results of my first six Seabrook-DNA samples. Sykes had compared nine sites on the Y chromosomes. The first two English Seabrooks I sampled, Gerald and Keith, matched one another at all nine sites, and the DNA of Allen, the third English Seabrook, was very close to that of Gerald and Keith. A white American Seabrook, William, of Farmingdale, Long Island, who had also volunteered for my experiment, turned out to be an exact match for my Y at all nine sites. We are only one mutation from Allen, and two from Keith and Gerald. The sole Seabrook who didn't match any of the rest is Jeffrey Scott, of Texas, the scion of the South Carolina Seabrooks.

Sykes called me about my chart shortly after New Year's. He told me what I wanted to hear: he believed the study showed a characteristic Seabrook-family signature on my Y chromosome. "It's a very interesting study, really. It shows all of you except Jeffrey Scott are connected by a common ancestor at some point, though it's hard to say when. Between five hundred and a thousand years ago. Better say fifteen hundred years ago, to be safe. Still, based on this, I'd say there was very clearly one original Mr. Seabrook, from which all five of you come. And you and William are identical. You could be brothers. Are you his brother?"

Not as far as I knew, I said, my mind racing over the possibilities.

I asked about the discrepancy in Jeffrey Scott Seabrook's sample. Did this mean we are conclusively not related to the South Carolina Seabrooks? The prospect of telling my father this news pained me--he would take it hard--but I was pleased that I wouldn't have to feel any more white guilt than I already feel. However, Sykes did leave our family myth some wiggle room: "It would appear from this small sample, especially since three samples come from the homeland of the name, that Jeffrey Scott has a non-paternity event somewhere in his line." Sykes added that the fact that five of the six Seabrooks do have a similar signature is quite a testament to the integrity of the Mrs. Seabrooks. "Their descendants have every reason to be proud of their mating behavior."

The other day, I called William Seabrook, to tell him that according to our Y chromosomes we're related. I reached him at the insurance company where he works, on Pine Street, in downtown Manhattan, about a ten-minute walk from my home. If the point of this ancestor-hunting was to get more connected, then shouldn't finding a living relative matter more than finding a paper ancestor?

But now that I had found a new cousin and he was right across town, I felt more wary than curious. Bill turned out to be a genealogy buff, too, and knew that his crossing ancestor, Fred Seabrook, had come from Sussex in the eighteen-eighties with his family, and settled in Queens. He hadn't traced his line any further back than that, so it's possible that his people came from my people in Suffolk, and then got to Sussex before emigrating.

"What I'd like to find out," Bill went on, "is if we're related to the South Carolina Seabrooks." It seemed that those Seabrooks figured even more prominently in his family's mythology than in mine. He told me the story of how, in the nineteen-fifties, a couple of lawyers representing Seabrook Island, in South Carolina, had written to his grandfather, who was a carpenter in Queens, and offered him the island, saying he was the rightful heir to it--"all the land, the old plantation, everything, for payment of back taxes"--but his grandfather had turned the lawyers down.

"I mean, could you imagine what would have happened if my grandfather had accepted that offer?" he said, his voice dead serious, the way you get when you're telling the family's history. "We'd have the whole island."


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