I never had any doubts about my heritage growing up. My mother’s German lineage was well documented. Her family came to America in the 1600’s and settled in Pennsylvania. My grandmother lived in Souderton and her twin sister in Sellersville. Their father was a Souder and their mother a Seller, both direct descendents of the towns’ founders.
We didn’t have any information about my father’s lineage, although with Whitman as our last name, we were clearly of English descent. This belief was reinforced when Dad purchased a Whitman family crest. The documentation informed us that Whitman is an old Anglo Saxon name meaning “white man” and that the first Whitmans to come to America arrived in New England in 1635.
I always thought that Whitman was a pretty cool last name. “Whitman. Like the candy,” I used to tell people when they asked how to spell it. My siblings and I felt a special pride in buying Whitman samplers for our mother on her birthday and Christmas. Perhaps we were distantly related to the makers of our favorite candy. In school, I studied the poetry of Walt Whitman and read about Marcus and Priscilla Whitman, pioneer missionaries to Oregon who were killed in the “Whitman Massacre” in 1847.
Last fall my brother Andy suggested the siblings all chip in to pay for a DNA test on our father. Andy has been researching our Whitman family genealogy for several years. We had grown up with the impression that we were part Native American, and we were excited when Andy discovered that one of our great-grandmothers was a Saponi woman named Red Fern.
Andy had connected with some distant cousins, also descendents of Red Fern, who knew of other Native American ancestors in their lineage. Wanting to know if we had other Native American ancestors led Andy to suggest the DNA test. He researched the various tests and decided upon the saliva method. We all contributed and the test kit was ordered. The results arrived shortly before Christmas.
We were surprised that it detected no Native American DNA, since Andy had confirmed Red Fern as a direct ancestor. Andy explained that the test can only go back five generations, and Red Fern was born seven generations before our father. We were even more surprised to learn that the test identified our father as being of Jewish descent. Andy did some more research and discovered that the first “Whitman” in our lineage was actually Peter Weideman who immigrated to America in the early 1800’s. Although he came here from Sweden, he was most likely German. Upon arrival his name was Anglicized to Whitman. So much for one day inheriting the Whitman Candies Company.
It’s been said that America is a great melting pot where many different cultures merged. My family is more a part of that tradition that we thought. We now know that our ancestors included Germans, Jews, and a least one Native American. Ironically, we haven’t identified any ancestors of English descent.
It’s a bit disconcerting to find out that you are not who you thought your were. Of course, in all the ways that really matter, nothing has changed. I’m still a wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, and grandmother to some of the most wonderful people in the world. I do, however, feel more of a connection to the Israelites I read about in the Bible knowing that some of them are my distant ancestors.
So, what’s in your DNA? It might surprise you.