In 2016, Tiffany Herron asked her husband, Michael, for a DNA test for Christmas.
"I wanted science to tell me what I was. I wanted evidence I wasn't dropped off by aliens," says the now-48-year-old creative writing graduate student at the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga.
Herron was born in Hawaii and adopted as an infant. Her adoptive parents are blond and fair-skinned, but Herron has dark hair and an olive complexion. Growing up, she remembers frequently being asked, "What are you?" — especially as a teenager after her family relocated to South Carolina.
Her early medical records didn't help answer that question. Herron's birth certificate says she is Samoan, but other records call her French-Polynesian and Spanish.
"It was just amazing that everybody had such a different twist on what I am. If I was in a good mood I'd tell people I was Samoan when they asked. If I was in a bad mood I'd say, 'I'm a woman. What are you?'" Herron says.
Despite being raised in a loving family, Herron says she couldn't shake the feeling of aloneness.
"I felt like nothing was holding me here, like I had no blood connection to anyone else in the world. I wanted to take [the DNA test] to know what I was ethnically, but more so, I wanted to know if I had any relatives."
That Christmas, Herron's husband bought her a test from Ancestry.com.
In 2000, Family Tree DNA became the first company to offer at-home genetic ancestry testing kits. Today, the market comprises more than 30 companies. Different brands can provide different genetic insights. Some may focus on ethnicity, while others focus on medical predispositions and inherited health risks.
Ancestry.com is considered the leading brand for those who want to find relatives.
In early 2017, eight weeks after submitting her saliva sample, Herron received her DNA results.
"I have always been something 'other' my whole life, but now I can scientifically say I'm Samoan," she reports.
More importantly, she could now register on Ancestry.com's website and search for any relatives who had also taken the test.
Within minutes, she found her second cousin on her mother's side, a woman named Leta Roche who lived in New Zealand. Herron and Roche began to talk through Facebook Messenger, and Roche shared with her the names of more relatives. Joe Schwenke, for example, Herron's uncle and her biological mother's youngest brother.
Through Schwenke, Herron learned that her mother, Clara Loa, had died in 2006.
"I didn't really know her," Schwenke told Herron. As children, he and his seven siblings had all been sent to live with different relatives when their mother, Herron's grandmother, passed away. Schwenke had ended up in Australia. Loa had stayed in Hawaii.
The more Herron learned, the more questions she had. So she wrote to the Hawaiian hospital where she was born and asked for her medical file. Among its pages, she found a copy of her parents' divorce decree dated the year of her birth. The document did not include her father's name, but it did include the names of her mother's two other children: Alex and Gene Briski, Herron's half-brothers.
She searched their names on Facebook and found a profile for Gene Briski — a man who looked just like her and was living in Alpharetta, Georgia, two hours from Chattanooga. She sent him a timid message which began, "I don't want to bother you, but..."
Shortly thereafter, Briski added her to a group message. He introduced her to Alex and two more half-siblings, Lisa Ino and Cain Kamano.
"We have another sister," Briski wrote to the group.
While the five share the same mother, they all have different fathers, with the exception of Alex and Gene. Just as their mother and her siblings had been scattered throughout the world, Herron's brothers and sisters had grown up "knowing of each other but not really knowing each other," she says.
In 2019, after two years of emails and phone calls, the siblings planned a trip to Hawaii together. On their second night, they got together to discuss their expectations related to these newfound connections.
"We made the choice to be a family," says Herron. "It was the strangest thing. I felt automatically connected to them, like we were good friends and just hadn't seen each other in a long time, like they were people I had always known."
In 2019, a Pew Research Center survey found that one in seven American adults say they have taken a direct-to-consumer DNA test. Among their reasons, 87% say it was to learn more about where they came from.
Sometimes that can be a double-edged sword.
Sandy Muncy, 60, grew up in Jefferson City, Tennessee, two hours northeast of Chattanooga.
In early 2019, while researching her family tree, Muncy ordered a DNA test from Ancestry.com. She had always been told that her great-great-great-grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee, and she wanted to learn how much of that blood she shared.
Her results showed no connection to Native American ancestry. However, they did show a close DNA match with the son of Muncy's longtime friend Mary Miller, whose name has been changed for this story.
Miller's family had grown up a quarter-mile from Muncy's childhood home. Amid rumors of an affair between Muncy's father and Miller's mother, Muncy says she always suspected that Miller might be her half-sister.
"She didn't look like me or my sister, but I always thought she looked just like this old photo of my grandmother," Muncy says.
Miller, however, 20 years younger than Muncy, had not suspected it. When Miller learned of the match, she called Muncy.
"What do you think this means?" she asked.
"Well, I think it means we're sisters," Muncy told her.
Their parents had passed on by the time the women received the results. "We never knew how much they actually knew," Muncy says. "It was life-changing for [Miller]. But I mostly just felt betrayed for my mom."
Genetic surprises — though rarely so personal — are somewhat common.
Anne Braly, a Chattanooga-based freelance writer, is among the 27% of test-takers who say they were surprised by their ancestors' ethnic or racial backgrounds. Thirty-eight percent say they were surprised by their countries of origin.
In 2018, after taking a DNA test through Ancestry.com, Braly, 61, learned she has Jewish ancestry.
"I didn't even know there was Jewish DNA," says Braly, who comes from a long line of practicing Catholics, Baptists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians.
But, she learned, Jewish populations from northern and eastern Europe, known as Ashkenazi Jews, are unique in that they are both a religious and an ethnic group.
The Ashkenazi Jews, Ancestry.com writes on its website, are believed to have settled near eastern Europe during the 11th and 12th centuries, after facing persecution in the west. Since Jews have historically married within their faith, for hundreds of years the Ashkenazi group remained genetically isolated.
Gene pool isolation is the basis of all genetic ancestry testing. Millennia ago, when groups of people began to spread out, they often became regionally isolated from other groups. Eventually, this resulted in each group having its own distinct genetic makeup.
"It's about discovery," says Braly, who was inspired to take the test after inheriting all her family's records, a plastic tub filled with letters, diaries and notes dating back to the 1800s.
The desire to preserve one's history is age-old, and where written records fall short, modern tools like Ancestry.com help dig deeper to find roots, to retrace an ancestor's footsteps — which may lead to surprising places.
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