Rebuilding The Family Tree

Lesley Stahl Reports On The Hopes And Limitations Of Genetic Genealogy

CBS All Access
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This segment was originally broadcast on Oct. 7, 2007. It was updated on June 26, 2008.

Genealogy -- researching family history -- is one of the most popular hobbies in this country, right up there with gardening. A nation of immigrants, we almost all come from somewhere else we wish we knew more about, so searching for our roots holds tremendous appeal. And today there is an exciting new addition to the genealogists' tool kit: genetic genealogy.

As correspondent Lesley Stahl first reported last fall, it turns out that inside each one of us, within every cell of our bodies, is information about who our ancestors were, where they lived, and who we're related to today. Our DNA contains hidden stories about our pasts, and scientists, together with businessmen, are now offering ways to help us read them.

Vy Higginsen is the founder and director of the Mama Foundation for the Arts in Harlem. She believes it's crucial for African-Americans to know and celebrate their heritage. But for most of her life, she knew virtually nothing about her own.

"It happened when my grandmother died. When I saw her laying in the casket, and I realized I didn't know who she was," she explains.

She started researching her family tree, but could only get as far back as her grandmother's father, Robert West. Then she heard about a company that could explore her great grandfather's ancestry, using DNA from a direct male descendent. So she called her cousin James West and asked if she could come swab his cheek.

"So we go down to Washington D.C. We take the test and he's all excited. And we send it back. And, bam, there's a hit," Vy Higgensen remembers.

There was a match between cousin James' DNA and that of several other men whose last name was also West. That means that James, and therefore Vy, are related to all these men, who sent their DNA to the same company, also looking for matches.

Vy was reeling from that information, when she received a phone call from halfway across the country. "And he said, 'Hello. My name is Marion West. And I'm a cattle rancher from Poplar Bluff, Missouri. And I understand we're cousins," Vy, who is African-American, remembers.

Out of the blue, Marion West, who is white, had picked up the phone and reached out to his newfound DNA cousin. "I picked up the phone and dialed her," he tells Stahl.

"You probably never had a cousin that sounded like that before," Stahl remarks.

"No," Vy says. "Not even close. I mean I didn't see a cow 'til I was 22."

And she wasn't exactly what he'd been expecting either: he had tried DNA testing to prove a family story that his bloodline traced back to British royalty.

"You had this sense that your family was pure English, pure blood. Blue blood," Stahl says.

"Oh yeah, 100 percent," Marion West says.

Marion West and Vy's cousin James West are related through the tiny "Y" chromosome, which men pass down unchanged to their sons, so it traces an unbroken line from generation to generation. It was the "Y" chromosome that allowed family members of Sally Hemings to prove they descended from Thomas Jefferson, or at least from one of his male relatives.

Now if you want to find out about your ancestry, there are at least a dozen different companies offering to analyze DNA for prices ranging from $100 to $400 a test.

The company Marion and Vy chose, Family Tree DNA, is one of the largest. They say the DNA proves that Marion and Vy share a common male ancestor, probably within the last 100 to 300 years. And that common ancestor was Caucasian.

Marion says up to that point, it had never before occurred to him that he had a branch of the family that was African-American.

"How did you feel about the prospect of having black relatives?" Stahl asks.

"Well, you know, I really, to tell you the truth, it's just life. I didn't doubt it a bit," he says.