“Finding Your Roots” Reveals Genealogical Secrets in Guests’ DNA

By Diane Haddad

The final episode of “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,” which aired a couple of weeks ago (I’m just now blogging about it thanks to holiday busy-ness), features actor Jessica Alba, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Gates himself.

It also focused on the genetic ancestry of these and previous guests, with analysis from genetic genealogy consultant and Your Genetic Genealogist blogger CeCe Moore.

If you’re considering DNA testing, or you’ve tested and you’re not sure how to use your results, this episode can give you an idea of the possibilities. I’ll include the highlights here, but watch the episode (soon—the video expires Dec. 26) and read Moore’s post on the show’s blog for more details, including information that had to be cut or simplified for the show.

(You also should consider taking the next session of our Family Tree University Genetic Genealogy 101 course, starting Jan. 12 and instructed by The Genetic Genealogist blogger Blaine Bettinger.)

  • Jessica Alba: Gates commented that Alba’s ancestral breakdown was one of the most diverse he’d ever seen, with British, Iberian (where her Mexican heritage comes in), Italian and French-German. Her Mexican family is among the two-thirds of Mexicans of Mestizo heritage, with a combination of European and native roots.

    Alba’s father’s test revealed he has Native American (including Mayan), Jewish, Italian and Middle Eastern ancestry, suggesting Sephardic Jewish roots. Genealogical research shows that his mother’s line includes fourth-great-grandmother Carmen Carillo. His mitochondrial DNA matches who had Carmen in their tree also had confirmed Sephardic Jewish ancestry, suggesting that she’s the link to Alba’s Sephardic roots.

  • Gates: Gates was able to solve one of his own genealogy brick walls with genetic genealogy testing. Although DNA shows that more than half of his ancestors were white, he had never been able to identify them by name. Moore noted that a Mayle family repeatedly occurred in his genetic matches, with many of the matches’ lines going back to a Wilmore Mayle, a white man.

Genealogical research, much of it by Gates’ newfound cousin, Alexandra, revealed that Wilmore Mayle, born in England, emancipated a slave, Nancy, in 1826, with the condition that she remain with him “in the quality of [his] wife.” After that, Mayle appears variously in records as white, free black, and mulatto. The family settled in an isolated area of what’s now West Virginia with other mixed-race families. On the show, Gates joins a gathering of Mayle relatives.

  • Deval Patrick: Patrick’s DNA revealed he’s nearly 40 percent European, with all of his Y-DNA ancestors originating in Europe. Genealogical records for another line showed that Patrick’s African-American great-great-grandmother Emily Wintersmith and her son purchased a farm from a white man, Dr. Harvey Slaughter, for a very small sum. In analyzing Deval Patrick’s autosomal DNA, Moore observed that one of his matches is a woman descended from a Capt. George Gray, the brother of Harvey Slaughter’s mother. This suggests that Harvey Slaughter is Patrick’s great-great-grandfather.

Other interesting genetic genealogy-related tidbits in this episode:

  • Gates put to rest rumors of Native American ancestry in the family trees of Billie Jean King, Anna Deveare Smith and Benjamin Jealous. Those whose American Indian heritage rumors did have merit include Anderson Cooper (who, to oversimplify it, has Chilean DNA on his 21st chromosome—see Moore’s blog post for the details) and Valerie Jarrett (whose DNA corroborated her 7th-great-grandmother’s baptismal record suggesting that her mother was Algonquin).
  • The average African-American today is a quarter European.
  • Humans are genetically 99.9 percent identical. The part of our DNA that makes us different “races” is miniscule.
  • Jessica Alba is related to Alan Dershowitz, who appeared on a previous episode; and Tony Kushner and Carole King also are related.

Moore’s post reports that production for next season is already underway, with Jimmy Kimmel, John McCain, Sandra Cisneros and Soledad O’Brien so far. (All I want for Christmas is to be on that list!)

You can watch the full episode online before Dec. 26 on the ‘Finding Your Roots” website.

Visit the genetic genealogy section of Family Tree Shop for guides such as our Using DNA to Solve Family Mysteries webinar and our DNA Success Stories download.