DNA results vs records #dna

Elaine King

I have just received updated DNA results from Ancestry. They confirm what I have always known about my father's family, that they were German, or more particularly, Prussian. But in the naturalization records, etc., they are listed as having been born in Russia. (They also say they spoke English, which makes me wonder if they spent some time in England on their way to the U.S.)  We are talking about the late 1800s, so is this a geographic/historical thing, that country borders changed so much?

Elaine King

Sally Bruckheimer <sallybruc@...>

"We are talking about the late 1800s, so is this a geographic/historical thing, that country borders changed so much?"

Records of your family beat DNA every time. Much of what was Prussia became Poland, some Germany. In Napoleon's time, the Kingdom of Poland, roughly, was French, the Department of Warszaw.

Where my ggrandparents lived was Prussian (New East Prussia), French, then Russian; later it was Poland, near Lithuania and Belarus, so they probably spoke some of all these languages.  Their neighbors spoke them all. Even in Germany or Italy, people from one town couldn't understand people from another town, unless they were familiar with that language. Our ancestors knew Hebrew and Yiddish, and they spoke whatever languages were spoken around them, as they bought and sold, so they had to buy and sell in whatever language you spoke. If your ancestor did business with Englishmen, he spoke English

My 2nd ggrandfather, actually my ggrandmother's foster father and probable uncle, was a translator for the NYC police department. He was from Sztettin, and spoke the usual bunch of languages, Polish, Russian, German, and dialects of them; Hebrew and Yiddish, of course, and he probably learned enough Italian to get by.

Sally Bruckheimer
Princeton, NJ

Adam Turner

Forgive the silly question, but it's worth clarifying, since some non-Jewish people do post here occasionally: the ancestors you're referring to in your father's family were Jewish, right? Because when you say "updated DNA results," that makes me think that what you're referring to is Ancestry's estimate of your ethnicity (which were just updated this week for many if not all customers), as opposed to your father's family's birthplaces or their nationality. 

Ancestry now gets fairly granular at estimating ethnicity, for both Jewish and non-Jewish ethnicities. Within the "European Jewish" ethnicity there are are now six different sub-regions, which have substantial geographical overlap with one another and are organized into two different groups: three sub-regions in "Central and Eastern Europe," and three in "Western and Central Europe." (This latter group includes the sub-region I think you might be referring to here: "Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg." There are even more sub-regions listed for the non-Jewish "Germanic Europe" ethnicity. 

Here's the thing: the ethnicity estimates are not even close to a declaration of the specific geographical location where your family lived when they immigrated from Europe about 130 years ago. They are a broad and likely messy estimate of a population your ancestors were a part of, say, 400 to 1500 years ago. (Ancestry says: " your ethnicity estimate..shows you where your ancestors might have lived hundreds, or even a thousand years ago.") But people, especially Ashkenazi Jews, didn't stay in the same place for a thousand years! So just because AncestryDNA's estimate gives your ethnicity as "European Jewish-->Western and Central Europe--> Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg", that doesn't mean that your ancestors couldn't have lived in the Russian Empire around 1880. All it means is a substantial number of your ancestors in maybe 1300 or 1400 most likely came from a Jewish population in Central or Western Europe. They could definitely have moved east from what is now Germany into what became the Russian Empire over the intervening centuries.

So where, exactly, did your ancestors live in the 19th century, and how might a family with ancestors who likely lived in Central Europe around the Middle Ages ended up listing "Russia" as their birthplace on their naturalization papers? An ethnicity estimate can't even begin to give you answers to those questions; only careful research can.

Adam Turner

The Becker's Email

Speaking English does not necessarily indicate your family spent time in England before arriving in the US.  My assumption would be that by the time they applied for US citizenship, they had picked up enough English to manage daily affairs.  They had to be in the US at  least 5 years before becoming a citizen and, for some, they were here a  lot longer.

And, as Sally notes in her reply, Germany, Russia and Poland seemed to be frequently re-dividing up parts of Europe.

Johanna Becker


Expanding a bit on Adam's excellent reply: whether your ancestors were Jewish or not, what it comes down to is that geography is not genetic, no matter what Ancestry and the other DNA companies would have you believe. I think the reference sample databases would need to be at least an order of magnitude bigger -- and more carefully researched! -- for DNA to be able to reliably tell apart neighboring populations, and to reduce the false pattern-population associations that currently plague the genre, but even then, migration will always mess up the urge to label populations geographically.

The recent revisions on Ancestry are a case in point: they used to put my mom as nearly all Eastern European, a broad but basically accurate category. The new estimate gives her 5% Scotland, which is so ridiculous I don't have the words. It's worse than MyHeritage's preposterous 6.3% Scandinavian.

The admixture estimates part of the DNA landscape is still "for entertainment value only"; I used to describe MH as the clown of the show, but I think with Ancestry's latest update, I'm going to have to revise that.

Julia Szent-Györgyi
/\ /\



I received Ancestry's new estimates of ethnicity yesterday along with great fanfare and their airy comments of new definitions and greater accuracy.  Mine changed from 100% European Jewish to 100% European Jewish.  Nope not a typo. No further definitions.  My father's family came from Hanover and Hess in Germany, and Bydgoszcz in Poland (then Bromberg in Prussia), and the Grodno gubernia which was Russia and is now in Belarus, and my mother's from Hungary, and Transylvania (formerly Hungary, now Romania) - A good solid mix of European Jewish ancestry.  If one looks at the US Census records, he/she can see how the country of origin listings change for a person over the years according to who reigns over the territory, and as we have seen they are still changing. L'Shana Tovah.  Rich Meyersburg, Laurel, MD

EdrieAnne Broughton

I'm one of your non-Jewish posters.  I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles.  My friends were mostly Jewish.  My mother had studied anthropology in college and reading was our main 'sport'.  It hasn't changed even in my mid 70s.  I recently finished a Great Courses on Audible on the Ottoman Empire.  I really recommend this geographical history and cultural history to anyone who has roots in Southeastern Europe and Asia Minor.  This includes Christians, Jews and Sunni Muslims.  Many of you who know that Russia had control of parts of your ancestors' homelands completely miss the fact that the Ottomans had control of it for longer that Russia was even a factor.  The Ottomans had a much different management style than the Hapsburgs, Russians or Prussians.  
EdrieAnne Broughton
Vacaville, California   

Elaine King

I appreciate all the answers to my question. Altogether, it just gets more confusing. I have a great-nephew who says my father's family came from Krustpils, Latvia. I can find no records indicating this, and he won't answer me as to why he thinks this. I found a list of residents of Krustpils, but their name wasn't on it. My mother said my father's family came here from Riga, though they were Prussian. But again, there is no record I can find to indicate this. I thought they might have belonged to a synagogue there, and wrote the officials in Riga asking this, but they couldn't find any records either. All I know is that the US immigration records consistently say Russia, which, from what everyone is saying, might mean anywhere. I also appreciate the information about why they knew English. Since they were merchants, that would make sense.

Elaine King

JoAnne Goldberg

When  I first tested, I had this naive hope that I'd get some clues as
to where my father's family lived prior to immigrating to the United
States. No such luck! All anyone (Ancestry, 23, MH, FTDNA) can tell me
is that I'm Jewish which I already kinda knew.

The problem with the different sample populations is that records are
sparse in most countries. The members of the sample may think their
ancestors lived in the same country for the last 500 years, but
generally no proof other than family lore.  Ancestry even says that they
use family trees as an input, and we know how well-documented a lot of
those are. So for non-Jews, it's a best guess estimate that will
continue to evolve as Ancestry et al refine their samples.
JoAnne Goldberg - Menlo Park, California; GEDmatch M131535


Adam Turner

I make no judgment on whether your grandnephew and mother's assertions on your family's Latvian origins are correct - only more research can prove whether they are right. But there is nothing inconsistent with the following clues you've mentioned:

-if your mother/grandnephew are correct, your family likely immigrated from some part of present-day Latvia
-they were Jewish, but considered themselves "Prussian" in some cultural sense
-their immigration records, which may predate the establishment of Latvia as an independent country post-WWI, say they came from "Russia".
-your AncestryDNA ethnicity estimate may list your DNA as being a part of an ethnic Community that includes Germany, suggesting that they may have been part of a population that had lived somewhere well west of Latvia several hundred years ago.

To understand why all of these are very easily reconcilable with one another, you need to acquire some familiarity with Latvian history, and particularly the history of Jews in Latvia. This article from Professor Ruvin Ferber, posted a long time ago by the JewishGen Latvia SIG, seems like one useful starting point on the latter topic: https://www.jewishgen.org/latvia/historyOfLatvia.html

Adam Turner

Sally Bruckheimer <sallybruc@...>

My mother said her mother's family came from Latvia - they were Litvaks after all. She thought Litvaks came from Latvia. Of course, her family weren't from Latvia at all (as far back as I could go), but culturally they were Litvaks, meaning Lithuania (the U in Lithuania is the V in Litvak, originally the same letter). So your mother might be right, or not. Only finding records of your family will tell you who they were and where they really lived.

Our ancestors moved around a lot more than we often think, and not just to the next town over. My family above came to Augustow district of the Kingdom of Poland from somewhere in Russia proper.

Sally Bruckheimer
Princeton, NJ

Jill Whitehead

If Elaine's ancestors came from New East Prussia, the area around Konigsberg, now Kaliningrad, she would have been on the borders of the Suwalki Lomza gubernias in NE Poland which used to be in Lithuania in medieval times, but went through several different ownerships in the 18th and 19th centuries (Prussian, Napoleon, and Russia's Pale of Settlement) and then formed part of the front line in both WW1 and WW2 between Germany and the Allies . in 1919, the northern part of these gubernias returned from Poland to Lithuania. The border changes were very fluid over many centuries and Russia held sway for much of the 19th century in this area.

It was common for those coming from Suwalki Lomza to say they came from Konigsberg/New East Prussia when they went West in the 19th century. All my eight great grandparents came from these gubernias and all of them emigrated to the UK between 1865 and 1875. Some of them said they came from New East Prussia, as likely they were smuggled over the border and likely they sailed across the Baltic from Konigsberg. And their homeland was part of Prussia in their parents' time, but then later on became part of Russia. My ancestors' census and naturalization information say they came from Russian Poland on the whole, because when they arrived Poland was part of the Russian Pale of Settlement.

Depending which DNA provider you go with you get different results - they are not attuned to Jewish DNA and you need more sensitive analysis which can be provided by some specialist DNA providers (I have had this done). On Ancestry (which in my view is the least sensitive), 23andme, FTDNA and My Heritage, I am given wildly different ancestry make ups varying from 100% Ashkenazi to seven eighths Ashkenazi/one eighth Sephardic and to 89% Ashkenazi and 11% Russian/East European. It depends on the reference populations the companies use. And some of the reference populations may self -identify with one country or another, depending who ruled when their families left. Or who rules it today. 

I would take most of the DNA results from the big companies with a barge pole as none of them agree with each other. But at the end of the day it is the combination of the paper trail and DNA results that counts. You need to track your family tree by tried and trusted means before trying to match them to DNA.

Jill Whitehead, Surrey, UK

Klára Majoros

A small thing about changing borders, citizenships, living mobile or staying put in Eastern Europe.

Living in today’s Ukranian Zakarpatska Oblast, formerly Ruthenia, Kárpátalja, etc. meant that born in 1918 by 1991 you could be the citizen of many different countries—the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the Ruszka Krajna Autonom Territory, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union and the Ukraine—even without leaving your house.

Klara Majoros