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The Donner Party & $99 DNA tests

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POSTED September 26, 2017 12:50 a.m.

I do not need a $99 DNA test to know who I am. That’s why God created the FBI and Google.
Yes, DNA can track your lineage and ethnicities going back to where your branch of the family tree of mankind first started sprouting. While it would be nice if more people grasped the concept that essentially we’re all part of one tree as it might get some to tone down the rhetoric and even hate, it’s not the clay that makes a piece of art as much as if is what you mold it into.
DNA doesn’t make you who you are as the measure of a person is not their body and mind but what you do with the vessels. If the things you value and cherish can be turned on end if a DNA test shows that the pie chart of your ethnicity background is different than what you thought it to be, then you aren’t destined to get more than perhaps your feet wet exploring your gene pool. It is shallow to think the measure of who you are is determined by the weight of your DNA to one specific ethnicity.
In a way, it cheapens the concept of researching your family’s genealogy especially if a DNA test is your first serious dive into the effort. But then in a world where Tweets move the needle of social discourse why wouldn’t you expect people to take short cuts to conclusions that essentially are the bare skeleton of human existence. What really counts is the muscle, flesh, and blood that once graced those who contributed to the DNA markers and what they did with it.
I just can’t vision that someone who spends his time celebrating his German heritage with others believing that is his primary ethnic background as the TV commercial says, would all of a sudden forsake his lederhosen, bratwurst, and German social club friends for a switch kilt, kippers, and a new set of friends you decide to replace your old ones with based on the results of a $99 test.
I’m not saying you have to be a diehard genealogist to explore your family tree, but the more thorough search is 1,000 times more meaningful that a drive-by scan.
I will admit I am not anywhere near the class that many are in when it comes to dabbling in genealogy either seriously or on a relatively casual basis. For some it has a deep tie into their faith and their sense of being. I get that. If for no other reason history — especially the personal history made by individual actions — tells you a lot about the value of the people who had an influence on those that go after them.
My interest in my family’s history is relatively limited, figuratively and literally. I know more about mother’s side than my father’s for two reasons. First, I was around them much more and, second, my grandmother was a stickler for holding up what people did to — or for others — and what those actions led to as a way to learn about the concepts of right and wrong.
Grandmother Towle also sacred me off at one point wanting to know anything more about the family tree for a fairly long time. I had a sharp interest in history overall thanks to her. So imagine as a fifth grader being told in the middle of a game of Chinese checkers with the board balanced on her blanket covered lap as she sat next to the furnace in the small home she built with her own hands that I came from a family that was involved with the Donner Party.
I was shocked and repulsed. How could I possibly be a descendent of people who abandoned the high moral ground that my grandmother tried to set — the end doesn’t justify the means and do onto others as you’d want done to you — and decided it was OK to resort to cannibalism to survive?
Making equally bad was all of the school yard jokes given we had studied the Donner Party in the fourth grade the year before. I was mortified to think what my classmates would think and say if they found out.
Three years later as my mother was going through my grandmother’s book collection after she had passed away, she gave me what was then an 80-year-old copy of the “The History of Placer and Nevada Counties.”
It was a volume that makes “War and Peace” seem like a Tweet in comparison. I came across the reference to the Donner Party that I was told about. Grandmother’s mother’s side of the family was indeed involved with the Donner Party. But they weren’t part of the Donner Party, per se. They were pioneers who had come to California prior to the Donner Party and had settled in an area along the Bear River that would eventually become known as Camp Far West when a military camp was established there in 1849 to help protect Yuba County settlers. My grandmother’s family were part of a rescue party that set out to help the Donner Party.
A DNA test would tell me the ethnic makeup of my forefathers, but it wouldn’t tell me more than what their bones can say.
What counts is what is handed down not what is passed on at birth.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.

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