ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Do you ever wonder if those stories about your family’s history are true?
Was that great-great-uncle really at the Alamo? Or did your family of generations ago survive the trek across the Jornada del Muerto?
Maybe you’ve tracked your family’s past only to find your path through history disappears.
For two avid New Mexico genealogists, DNA testing or genetic genealogy confirms the colonial past of family trees they’ve developed over the years.
These tests show how individuals are related through common ancestors and help them get past “adobe walls,” or those spaces in time when paper trails, like documents confirming birth, death, marriage or legal directives, aren’t found.
“When the lineage you’re following disappears, we call that a brick wall in genealogy or in New Mexico, an adobe wall,” explains genealogist Henrietta Martínez Christmas of Corrales, who writes and lectures on the topic. One of the most common barriers for New Mexican families related to early colonists is linking their ancestors in New Spain to those across the Atlantic.
“What has worked for me and others is to verify our paper genealogy with some scientific data and cross-referencing that to the history of New Mexico,” she says. “It makes sense how our ancestors intermarried, yet somehow maintained that sense of ‘I came from Spain,’ although now it’s been more than 400 years.”
Miguél A. Tórrez of La Mesilla near Española says about the DNA testing, “It took me about six months to realize how reliable it was. It’s a powerful tool for being able to compare and validate genealogy.”
The why behind it
In the past two years, a basic autosomal DNA test has become more affordable, often on sale for less than $100. That test looks at genetic material not tied to the X or Y chromosome that determines gender, and so traces both father’s and mother’s ancestry for five or six generations.
Other tests that look at genetic material linked to paternal or maternal lines of father’s father’s father or mother’s mother’s mother are about $200 or more, according to Family Tree DNA.
Michelle Fiedler, a spokeswoman for Family Tree DNA, who has a doctorate in cultural anthropology, says it isn’t just genealogists who find DNA testing valuable. “We get the ‘so what’ question a lot. Some people test because they want to confirm family stories or are just curious about their ethnic mixture.”
Others test because they don’t know their ancestry, like those who are adopted or may not know their father because they were conceived with sperm donation. Because the test results show others with similar biology, cousins, whether close or distant, can connect if they choose, Fiedler says.
Family Tree DNA and other companies who do similar testing don’t offer medical DNA testing, she says. “We believe medical genetic testing should come with a medical professional or genetic counselor.” She recommends visiting a sister company, genebygene.com, for more information on clinical testing.
A body of research
Tórrez, who lectures and writes about New Mexico genetic genealogy, has recruited many people to get their cheek swabbed and send it off for genetic testing since he became fascinated with the abilities of DNA testing for genealogical research into early families of New Mexico.
His research is available on his blog. Tórrez also recommends joining the New Mexico DNA Project on familytreedna.com, a comprehensive data set of results of those who have colonial New Mexican ancestry.
“What the (DNA) tests are showing us is that native New Mexicans have a limited gene pool,” he explains. “That a native New Mexican is likely a descendant of a European – a Spanish or Iberian settler – and probably a Native American mother.”
For example, Torrez says his autosomal tests show that he is 55 percent European, 34 percent Native American and the remainder North African Arab. “This makes sense with the history of my ancestors. They were Spanish who traveled to New Spain in the 1500s and 1600s carrying Moorish ancestry and those of other Western European populations and then mixed with various Native American groups.”
NM ‘Adam and Eve’
Both Christmas and Tórrez trace their families’ roots to those ancestors who came around the time explorer and soon-to be territorial governor Juan de Oñate arrived in 1598, they say.
In fact, many New Mexicans who research their heritage find they are descended from Juan Pérez de Bustillo and María de la Cruz, who had two sons and seven daughters, sort of the New Mexico version of Adam and Eve, Christmas explains.
“When I first started reading about genetic testing, I was skeptical at first like many other people,” Christmas says. “At some point the curious in me decided it was time to try it. I wanted to test and see how the Martínez part of the family would materialize. After doing genealogy on this family for 20 years, it was sort of a fact-check for me.”
She had her brother take the cheek swab test from a kit she ordered to track the paternal lineage. Women don’t have the Y chromosome necessary to track the father’s father’s line, she explains.
It was kind of a letdown, but not really a surprise, she says. “Our results are R1b, which is Western European and match all the Martinez people in New Mexico and beyond.”
Haplogroups and haplotypes are the names of groups of common genetic characteristics that relate to ancient ancestors, according to Family Tree DNA.
The results of her maternal DNA came back as haplotype C, which is Native American, but not distinct to a particular tribe, she says. “When the European soldiers/settlers came into Mexico, then called New Spain, they didn’t bring any wives, so they married locally. I descend from the 11 Oñate soldiers who stayed. So when I look at blank spots in the paper genealogy, I’m pretty sure it’s an indigenous person, who may or may not have been Hispanicized.”
She says many people have had surprising results from DNA testing.
“A friend of mine had her DNA testing done and we sat down to see who her matches were. She was matching another line that was well-documented, but her paper trail didn’t go to that same person. What we did find is that she descends from one of the seven daughters (of Juan Pérez de Bustillo and María de la Cruz).
“It’s fun when it does match your paper trail,” she says. “When it doesn’t, it’s either bad genealogy or somebody jumped the acequia.”