Case Study: How I Used DNA Evidence to Completely Dismantle a Family Story


My great-grandmother Grace is one of the most interesting people in my family tree. As a non-Asian orphan raised in San Francisco among Chinese people at the turn of the century, her history is a jumbled mess of race confusion and what exactly it means to be a minority. Much of the truth of her story is a little cloudy, since she was in the habit of telling tall tales and probably didn’t have much information about her background herself.

The family story has always been that she was part Native American and part Irish, but the details have never been filled in. Earlier this year, however, I decided that it was time to unravel the mystery and I dug deep in California history, tracking the concrete information we had on her and figuring out where Native American and Irish populations would have overlapped. Based on my research (and we’re talking days and days and days of research here), I determined that she was most likely part of the Hupa population of California.

The Hupa is both a relatively small population and one that was extensively studied at the exact time that Grace would have been born, so I had a lot of research to work from. I bought an exhaustive text, went through all of the archives of historical photographs available, and eventually constructed a complicated but water-tight story of how Grace came to be, who her parents likely were, and how she ended up in a Chinese orphanage in San Francisco. I even found a Hupa baby photo that bore a striking resemblance to my grandmother (her daughter). I had solved the mystery!!

IMG_5705 copy

And then…

I had my DNA tested in 2013 by 23andme, so I knew that I was part Native American, but when I looked at the numbers I was confused about my percentage. My DNA revealed that I am only 2.5% Native American according to my results, but if my great-grandmother had been 50% Native American, I should have been at least twice that percentage. Did this mean that Grace was mixed herself? That her Native American mother wasn’t as Native American as we thought she might be? That another race had come into play along the way?


All of these questions could only be answered by more DNA, so I was thrilled when my great-aunt arranged to have my grandmother’s DNA tested. As my great-grandmother’s daughter, my grandma has a much clearer picture of the mysterious racial makeup that I inherited, so I was eager to compare our results.

We got them today. And, crap.


To give you a side by side view, my grandmother is on the left and I am on the right:

DNA comparison

Not sure what you’re looking at? Well, you’re looking at a mess of DNA, but what I really want you to notice is that I actually have more Native American DNA than my grandmother has.

This, friends, is not how this was supposed to work. This is DNA blowing my research out of the water.

Although my grandmother shows 2.3% Broadly East Asian and Native American, it’s likely that this percentage is Asian-Asian-Asian. Like, Asia. I know this because her father was the son of two people who emigrated from China to San Francisco and racial mixing is not the commonplace thing in China that it is over here. The chance that they had anything besides Asian-Asian-Asian in that bloodline is pretty slim, simply because culturally, geographically, and practically it was unlikely. There’s also the fact that my grandmother is exactly (EXACTLY) 50% Asian, 50% White. Like a half/half Easter egg. I didn’t know DNA could come out so perfect even if you know you’re of mixed race heritage.

Scan 16

Utterly. Disappointed.

Now, there is still a chance that my theory is correct and the DNA is off, but it’s looking like my great-grandmother was almost entirely white so her chances of being born to a Native American woman go waaaaaay down. Which really lowers the chance that I’m part Hupa. Which means I now know a whole lot about a Native American population that I have nothing to do with AND I don’t know which Native American population I’m actually connected to (…DAD).

It also returns Grace’s story to the land of murk, because without her own account of being part Native American, I’m a little lost as to where I can begin my research again. Tracking Caucasian orphans in Northern California at the turn of the century is not the easiest thing in the world since it’s not like that wasn’t a populated area and for reasons I won’t get into today, I have every reason to believe that her paper trail was purposefully destroyed when she was still a child. *sigh* But that’s a mystery for another day.

If anyone wants to know anything about the Hupas, let me know. I can totally educate you.

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  • Reply Brandy

    This is all so fascinating, and so frustrating. I am trying to dig into my mothers side and No one seems to know anything. Even my grandmother is fuzzy on her own grandparents names. They are mostly Irish and someone, somewhere was part Native American but I really have no idea how to figure out who. I don’t have names or years. AND because they have a super common English name- its hard to match. Bummer for me we are East Coasters, so definitely NOT Hupas. Could have saved some digging on my part! 🙂

    August 27, 2015 at 1:09 pm
  • Reply Kristen

    Hello 🙂 Fellow Disney Bride here. *waves* I just wanted to reply to say how much I know that frustration of finding out one thing… and then having that completely blown out of the water. While my mom’s side has been difficult (poor record keeping in the Azores, combined with names being changed to sound more ‘American’ at Ellis Island), my dad’s side, the predominantly English side, has been great. With the exception of my great-great-grandfather. Who was also brought up in orphanage, but in Ireland. In the 1800s. That’s been a brick wall in my research for well over a decade now. Here’s to breaking down those walls someday (hopefully sooner, rather than later), and solving mysteries!

    September 13, 2015 at 7:48 pm
  • Reply Ashley

    i have a very similar story! My grandmother was born in Germany, as were the previous 3 generations of her family. So naturally we all thought we were German. I took a DNA test and I am less than 2% German! The other DNA matches where my respective grandfathers and other grandmother are from so I don’t think it’s a lab error. I was just floored to find out that my whole life we have been celebrating our “German” heritage and we don’t actually have any!

    October 9, 2015 at 11:57 pm
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