Shelly Harris is actively involved in the genetic genealogy community including the forums at Family Tree DNA and GEDMatch. She works with many surname research groups to make discoveries both through traditional genealogy and DNA testing. Apart from genealogy, she is a mother, business woman, and gardener.
Question: Please tell me about yourself. What do you do for a living? What are your other hobbies and interests apart from genealogy?
Answer: I have a B.A. in Communications with an emphasis in television and radio. My working career has been spent in the education field, first as a Video Producer/Director then as a Director of Marketing. I also wear another occupational hat assisting my husband’s business with bookkeeping and accounting duties.
I am the mother of two young adult children whose activities keep me busy and am married to my college sweetheart.
I am an avid gardener. Although I live on a typical Southern California lot, I grow a variety of fruit and vegetables and raise chickens. I love travel, especially to areas where my ancestors originated.
Question: What brought you to genealogy? What is your favorite part?
Answer: I have had an interest in genealogy since I was a young child but it’s difficult to point to just one instance that brought me to begin my own research. My immediate family was quite small. I am the 3 rd of 4 daughters, born to parents who were the only children of their parents’ marriages, meaning that I have NO full first cousins. To the next generation, only my paternal grandfather had siblings, and only one of them had children. Although there were half siblings here and there, I didn’t grow up with them, so I had a great desire to find family connections somewhere. Adding to my desire was that my maternal grandmother had changed her name and wouldn’t share information about her family origins. As a child, I was an avid reader of Nancy Drew Mysteries, and within my familial framework was a hidden story waiting to be discovered. When I first began my research in 1999, this was the first mystery I sought to unravel.
My favorite part of genealogy is finding connectedness. To that end, I am a firm believer in collaborative research. Since the early 2000s, I have maintained a network of surname groups, adding additional members as we find one another through our shared research. The groups have been fabulous! Not only have we explored theories by working together to find primary sources of information, but group members have shared documents, photographs, and journals of our shared ancestors. My research has taken me to various states and countries where I have had the privilege to walk the land my ancestors farmed and to learn the history of their regions and why they emigrated when they did. But, more importantly, I’ve met plenty of cousins. One of the first was attending a family reunion of hundreds of Canadian cousins related to my maternal grandmother’s lineage just 3 years after I began the search to find the mystery she was hiding. I’ve researched in Salt Lake City with one of my paternal cousins, traveled to Illinois and Wisconsin to meet more distant cousins, and text and email weekly with others. I have reconnected with my father’s half brother. In my first trip to Switzerland, I met elderly cousins of my g-grandfather and have remained in touch with their descendants, most recently visiting them in Switzerland this past summer. With all of my cousins, I no longer feel as if I’m one of a few. My family is big and full and I’m blessed to know them.
Question: How did you become involved in genetic genealogy?
Answer: I began my involvement in genetic genealogy in 2006 with the National Genographic Project. Initially, I got involved in it less because I was curious (I was) but more because my maternal lineage was to a unique ethnic group and I felt that adding my mtDNA to the study might provide some interesting insight for scientific discovery. As it turned out, my “unique” Kashubian ancestry turned out to be Haplogroup H, the most common mtDNA Haplogroup in Europe.
In 2008, one of my surname research groups embarked on a yDNA study by recruiting others and paying for their tests. Although we still have a 150 year gap, we have now narrowed the lineage to one of four men who arrived in 1652 as prisoners of war from Scotland.
I began my atDNA research in 2012, primarily to help identify an unknown 3 rd great grandfather, which is an ongoing research project. That mystery is still not solved, but by testing cousins, I’m getting closer to answers.
Question: The need for consumer genetic testing standards has been a topic for years now. To what extent do you think government regulation is needed? Do you feel that the responsibility for consumer education lies with the testing companies, the citizen science community, or the consumer?
Answer: This is not something I’ve thought much about but I do think it’s important to address. As early adopters of direct to consumer genetic research, we are the vanguards. In that regard, it seems to me that the responsibility will need to be a collaborative effort so that a balance of needs is addressed. We are still very much learning about this new tool, so the discussion of needs will likely develop as we better grasp all the capabilities of testing.
Question: What DNA tests have you taken?
Answer: mtDNA (FTDNA) and atDNA (FTDNA and Ancestry) with results uploaded to GEDmatch.
Question: Have you tested your family?
Answer: I have tested a LOT of family members – atDNA testing on two sisters, our mother, my half uncle (my father is deceased), both of my children, and multiple cousins.
yDNA on my son. My FIL changed his name to that of a step-father and our son is considering changing his back to the original name. Knowing that Non-Paternal- Events happen, I asked him to take the test before going through the challenges and expense of changing his name to one that my not ultimately be his. The surname is an occupational name and it took about a year before a matching surname appeared, to a man with an immigrant ancestor who came to the colonies 60 years later, but from a village 15 miles from my son’s ancestors. Noting the groupings of names and locations within a 40 mile radius of London has been most interesting.
At some point, I’ll probably upgrade my half uncle’s atDNA to a yDNA study of my paternal surname. My grandfather was the child of immigrants from Switzerland, so the DNA pool may still be small.
Question: Have your or your family’s test results ever been a surprise?
Answer: One of my main goals has been to locate an unknown 3 rd great grandfather. My 3 rd great grandmother was an unmarried 13 year old when she gave birth to my 2 nd great grandmother. Although I’ve not yet identified him, I’m currently working a theory that the name that was given, Edward, was simply a made up name.
A recent DNA match to a woman whose father was adopted has thrown part of this family line into question. The amount of shared DNA she has with my ½ first cousin once removed and her father’s birth location had me nearly certain of the identity of her unknown grandfather. When her father’s yDNA results were released, I expected one surname, but found it was to a surname further up my tree but there is far, far too much DNA shared to make that connection make sense. Either there is an additional branch of that family in my ½ 1C/1R’s family, or my 2 nd great grandfather isn’t who we believe and instead links back into that other surname. In order to solve this, I’m testing two more branches of cousins on each of the potential lines. It could well change the paternal line of my paternal grandmother which is NOT the line I sought to discover when I set out to find
Question: Has genetic genealogy helped you break through any of your brick walls or solve a family mystery?
Answer: My favorite result is not so much the solving of a mystery, but is perhaps my most interesting find to date because of the beautiful Triangulation Group that has been formed. I have been working with a group of individuals sharing a pair of ancestors born in 1643 and 1657, and who also share a match on chromosome 9. Another researcher and I have been collecting all of our matches on this segment and contacting the individuals to continue working this line. Perhaps most interesting is that this paternal match of mine was not inherited by either of my sisters, nor was it inherited by my daughter whose entire chromosome 9 was handed down from my maternal side. When I upgraded my son’s yDNA test to atDNA, the first thing I looked to see was whether he inherited this segment. I was thrilled to see that the Thomas/Joanna DNA has lived on for at least one more generation. I’m rooting for that DNA to be handed down to my future grandchildren!
Additionally, I have been working with a couple of adopted friends to find their genetic ancestors. One of my friends has reunited with his birth mother and half siblings. Most recently, another friend’s DNA results came in on a Thursday afternoon and by Thursday evening I had identified both of his birth parents. He hasn’t yet made contact and hasn’t yet decided if he will. That is a very personal process and each individual has to decide whether or not to take the next step.
I expect that I’m very close to answering my own mystery regarding my 3 rd great grandfather and that testing more cousins will answer more than just that one mystery, but perhaps the mystery for my new cousin with the adopted father as well.
Question: Do you have advice for someone starting out in genealogy or genetic genealogy DNA?
Answer: I think one of the important discoveries in my own research has been that genealogy and genetic genealogy work best when used together. My best advice to new researchers is this . . . Genetics cannot answer all of your questions without proactive use of standard genealogical research. Likewise, standard genealogical research can “suggest” a lineage that may be proved or disproved by genetic genealogy. There are no quick and easy answers, so it’s important to keep good records of each find because the significance of a clue may become clearer with another piece of evidence.
An example from my own research involves the wife of a 5 th great grandfather, Jacob. Every single tree on the Internet identified a woman named Catherine as the mother of Jacob’s children. Even though it wasn’t needed for proof of lineage for DAR, the fact that she was listed in those records had most folks holding tight to her as the mother of the DAR descendant’s children. But, something just didn’t feel right. I did not believe Catherine was the mother of Jacob’s children, quite frankly for no other reason than because a set of behaviors by both her and Jacob’s descendants appeared to be out of step with a typical parent/child relationship. I later located a reference in a book that suggested that a man named Abraham had a daughter who was married to a man with the same name as my ancestor, Jacob. The location and timing was right, so this new clue became a new theory to follow. In the meantime, with the release of the Pennsylvania will records Catherine’s will proved without a doubt that she is NOT the mother of Jacob’s children. My gut feeling was correct, now proved by standard genealogical research. On the genetic end, I continue to keep watch for possible connections to Abraham’s line. I have identified multiple genetic matches to that line but not yet triangulated, so it’s too soon to make a conclusion.
Ultimately, this new theory will be proved or disproved by a combination of genealogy and genetics, but the key takeaway is that it’s important to use BOTH.
My other recommendation is to test as many relatives as it takes to answer your mysteries, especially the older generations.
Question: What do you think the future holds for genetic genealogy?
Answer: We are the vanguard of genetic genealogy. We are still discovering the patterns, or lack thereof, of inheritance and what our genetics can tell us about our ancestry. As more generations test, we will have a wealth of information at our fingertips.
My biggest worry, however, is that too many people quickly become overwhelmed with genetic genealogy because they expect instant answers and find that they’re simply not there. For deeper genealogy, it’s not as simple as that. The risk is that the lazy habit of copying trees found on the net will lead to incorrect conclusions that will be accepted as genealogical fact “because of the DNA match.” My hope is that good researchers will lead the way and put good records out there to demonstrate how this can be.
I applaud the folks out there designing tools to help researchers make better use of their results, but ultimately believe that the best tools will be those which marry excellent research-based trees with solid chromosome-based results. So far, my absolute best takeaway from this process is how so many of the community members are working together to build this. The collaboration and sharing in the genetic genealogy community is fabulous! As we continue to work together, we have the potential to build something that will lend to discoveries by future generations. I’m proud and excited to be a small part of this process and am eager to contribute to the emerging knowledge on this topic.