Researching for this assignment has been a really enlightening journey for me. I’ve honestly never felt closer to my family than after I had multiple interviews with my mom and grandma in preparation to write this paper. Although I didn’t gain much of a cultural perspective through this research process, I do feel like I’ve acquired a new level of respect for my family, especially my maternal ancestral lineage.
First, I learned a little bit about how my family came to live in the Bay Area. My maternal great grandmother, who I was very close with before she passed away in 2014, travelled via covered wagon with her parents and eleven siblings to Walnut Creek, CA, from Missouri when we was only 5-years-old. They were farmers before they moved, and my grandma says that the father had lost his job and the family was all but forced to abandon the farm and go west. That was at the beginning of the Great Depression. My great grandmother grew up to be an incredible person despite this hardship, and when she was a young woman, she went to work as a riveter in the naval ship factory in Richmond during World War II. This conversation inspired my grandma and I to go to the Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond together, and we looked at pictures from the years that her mother worked there. It was a really great experience for me.
My grandmother was also able to point to the mysterious ancestor who was supposedly 100 percent Cherokee. She was my grandmother’s great-grandmother, and she was born on a Cherokee reservation, but later moved after marrying into my bloodline. Unfortunately, no one in my family has any record of her name, or what state she was born in, so I haven’t been able to try and find any paper trails that would lead me to her. I think this is the biggest “missing story” in my family. However, it is helpful to know that she lived so many generations ago that her genetics are unlikely to have made it’s way to me and be able to show up on my DNA test, so there is still a chance that she may have been real. I somehow feel very connected to this woman who probably never existed, I’m hoping that more probing from Ancestry.com will be able to help me locate her or any record of her.
On my father’s side, in contrast, I know very little about my family and lineage. I haven’t spoken with my father or anyone on his side of the family in years, so I relied on Ancestry.com to fill in some of the blanks. I spent a lot of time looking at the section all about surnames, because I’m very interested in finding our immigration story. My father has always claimed Irish heritage when I was young, and with a name like Fagan, I believe him. I learned that there was a huge migration of Fagan families of Irish descent during the mid-19th century, just before 1850, which corresponds very closely with the Irish Potato Famine that killed over a million people in less than ten years in Ireland. Generally speaking, Fagans have historically been poor, hard laborers in this country.
While looking at occupational records, I learned that more than a third of Fagan families were farmers before 1925, and many were servants to wealthy families. I read so many lists of passengers coming by ship to Ellis Island and Honolulu from Ireland, and often found that the women with the last name Fagan were almost always listed as “Dom. Ser.” on their immigration records, and after some digging I realized that meant “Domestic Servant.” So I can say for certain that the women in my family have been working very hard for many many generations on either side of my family.
When it came to my actual DNA results, I would say that my beliefs about my family were mostly confirmed, with only a couple exceptions. The test found that 51 percent of my lineage comes from Great Britain, which is great to know, but just about the most boring result I could have received. The other 49 percent was made up of different regions in Western Europe, which also wasn’t very surprising. The part that really stuck out was that my Irish heritage was placed in the “Low Confidence” section, and ranked as a mere 3 percent. This contradicts a previous DNA test I took with 23andMe, which said that I was nearly 30 percent Irish. Frankly that’s a pretty wide discrepancy, and I’m curious as to why that might have happened. The test also identified two “possible” genetic communities for me among two groups of North American settlers, which–with more research–may lead me down the path to find my family’s immigration story. The connection is listed as “low confidence,” which means there isn’t immediately enough information to identify the time period that my genetic ancestors would have appeared there, but it’s a starting point, and I’m excited to explore that.
As a journalist, I found this exercise very interesting and enlightening. I absolutely believe in the value of knowing yourself and your own story before you can know or tell someone else’s. I think a project like this, that forces the student to reflect, look inside themselves, and take stock of their identity is really valuable because it reminds us that every single one of us has a history, a people, a unique place in the universe. Often in this line of work as journalists, we can lose sight of that, especially when we are working quickly and perhaps less efficiently to try and meet word counts or story counts while running up against a deadline, and our sources become just another quote or another story, and we forget to give each person the care and personal attention that we ourselves would have appreciated. This research was very humanizing, and reminded me of all the best reasons I want to become a journalist.