My Unexpected DNA Discovery – Part One

DNA Discovery

Every DNA class I have taken, every detailed DNA blog post I have read, all contain the same caveat – You need to be prepared for the unexpected if you are going to take a DNA test.  For some reason, I never considered that this applied to me and my family.  But there is a reason that every good genetic genealogist regularly issues this word of caution.  No family is immune from secrets.  Including mine.

For the past few years I have been learning about DNA tests and DNA testing companies trying to figure out who I wanted to test and which company I wanted to use.  The big mystery I was hoping to solve was the mystery of my great grandfather’s family.  John Costello is my elusive, tantalizingly-close-but-oh-so-out-of-reach, great grandfather.  Earlier this year I selected my course of action and tested a handful of family members.

The first test I chose was a Y-DNA test for my uncle.  He is the son of John Costello’s son.  The results were a huge surprise.  My Spanish-born, Spanish-Italian, Roman Catholic great grandfather was ethnically Jewish.  You could have knocked me over with a feather that day I opened the long planned for and anxiously awaited results.  I had been warned that DNA results can bring unexpected information to light.  I was learning how true that statement was.  But even that surprise could not prepare me for the series of surprises that awaited me.

Looking back, all of the clues were there.  I could have at least seen an inkling of something.  If those moments were a movie, and the audience had been introduced to all of the players – that instant I learned I was part Jewish, would also be the moment the audience knew what was coming before I did.

What was this clue?  What was this foreshadowing of a surprising journey I would take a few months in my future?

My uncle had only one perfect Y-DNA match.  This one perfect match had no data – no tree, no surnames listed, no places listed.  He had only two items, his name and his email address.  Let’s call him Bob*.

Aside from being shocked to learn my great grandfather was Jewish, the other thought I had was this – Bob can’t help me.  He’s clearly not a genealogist.  He is an adoptee looking for his family.  He will not help me solve the John Costello mystery.

This thought was followed by a lot more shock and awe to learn I was part Jewish.

The clues were there.  But I was so distracted by the ethnic surprise that I didn’t see the real surprise that was literally staring me in the face.  The surprise that I correctly identified as soon as I saw it.  Bob, my uncle’s only perfect Y-DNA match, was an adoptee looking for his family.  A family he never knew.


My family.



to be continued…


*Names, dates, and places in this series of posts will be changed or omitted for privacy purposes.



My DNA Results – How do they compare to my tree? (Updated)

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Yesterday I shared my ethnicity percentages based on my tree.  They look a little something like this:

  • 62.5% – British Isles (English, Mixed British Isles, Scottish, Welsh)
  • 15.6% – Europe West (French Canadian, French)
  • 9.4% – Scandinavian
  • 6.3% – Some mixture of European Jewish & Italy, Greece
  • 6.3% – Iberian Peninsula (Spanish)

As you can see from my screenshot up there, I have some interesting differences between my tree and the DNA I inherited.  Here is a comparison of my tree ethnicities and my DNA ethnicities.

Ethnicity comparison - Sheet1

The first important note is that those trace ethnicities, 2% or lower, are often considered noise.  In my case, those bottom three surprise ethnicities are not backed up by documentation.  The first six however, are documented, even the 1% Iberian Peninsula.

The biggest surprises for me are these:

  • How little of the French and French Canadian DNA I inherited.
  • How much European Jewish DNA I inherited.
  • How much Italy, Greece DNA I inherited.

John Costello and his ancestors make up 12.5% of my tree.  And yet, I inherited 19% of the three regions he could have contributed – Iberian Peninsula, European Jewish, and Italy, Greece.

And here is where I need to beef up my learning, you see something I read recently caused me to misunderstand a very important point – you inherit 50% of your DNA from each parent, beyond that, it is a random mixture of all that came before them.  I had a handful of paragraphs with some interesting questions and insights into some of the nuances of my tree.  But those questions and insights were based on my misunderstanding, so I chopped them out.  😉  Thank you Deborah for some helpful pointers!  (See her comment below).

I have so much to learn about genetic genealogy.  I need to test my siblings and cousins so I can isolate the various pieces of my DNA and do some fancy-science-y-ultra-nerdy-but-oh-so-cool-DNA-genealogy like this.

While I am still learning, and not completely sure of what my next steps are, the thing I keep coming back to is… How can I be 10% European Jewish when I had no idea I had ANY European Jewish ancestry?  10%.  That’s a lot of percent.  Especially when I didn’t see it coming.

This DNA stuff is oh-so-fascinating.  Have you tested?  Did you find any surprises?

Happy Wednesday, I hope you make a fantastic genealogy discovery today – DNA or otherwise!


John Costello’s DNA – Well, half of it.

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John Costello, my great-grandfather


Just last week I shared my amazing, once-in-a-lifetime find of 7 seconds of video footage of my great-grandfather John Costello.  I continue to delight in it and probably will for the rest of my life.

Seeing John has been so enlightening.  Especially when it is coupled with some recent DNA results.  The last few weeks have felt like “the big reveal” in a few key ways.

Here is what I have always known – John was born in Barcelona to a Spanish mother and an Italian father.  Pretty simple and straightforward.  John was Catholic and attended Mass regularly – usually twice each week his whole adult life.  His wife Mary, who was a Protestant, was baptized Catholic after his death so that she could be buried next to him in a Catholic cemetery.

John had two sons who each had two sons.  From those four grandsons, there are four great-grandsons.  That gave me a potential of ten Y-DNA candidates to test.  I chose my Uncle because that was easiest.  My Uncle took a Y-DNA test for me shortly after RootsTech.

The results surprised me.

A lot.

I was expecting my Uncle to match to a bunch of Italian men with Italian surnames, hopefully several men with the same surname, and hopefully at least one who had a tree and was willing to work with me.  I was hoping this test would help me chip away at the John Costello brick wall.


That is not what happened.

My Uncle matched to 149 men at the 37 markers level.  149 men who ALL have different surnames from each other and from my Uncle.  All different surnames.

Here is a small sampling of some of the surnames on the list:

  • Persson
  • Benowitz
  • Mudd
  • Plotkin
  • Kalmuk
  • Chiprin
  • Meriems
  • Rosenthal
  • Gladtke
  • Mechlowe

There are 139 others.

When I look at his Ancestral Origins list I am seeing this huge list of Eastern and Western European countries like – Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Latvia, Turkey, Hungary, Germany, and Austria.  Notably missing is Italy.  As I am scrolling through this list I keep seeing the same note over and over again – Ashkenazi, Ashkenazi, Ashkenazi.  About 90% of my Uncle’s matches are noted as Ashkenazi.  The rest are not noted with anything.

John Costello’s Italian father was Jewish.

John Costello, who was a devout Catholic, was the son of a man who was, at least on his direct male line, Jewish.  He descended from a male line of Jewish men.

John’s three children who survived infancy never knew that their father was Jewish.  They knew him as a Catholic Spaniard.  So here I am, almost exactly 51 years after his death, discovering a part of himself that he never chose to share.

For many years no one spoke of the fact that he had any Italian blood.  In fact, no one but his children and myself knew that he was half Italian.  His children learned that fact from him, I from research.  It wasn’t until the last few years when I started asking more questions that they were forthcoming with that fact.  Or I suppose it is possible that just my little branch of the family was unaware of his Italian heritage because of separation caused by divorce – and believed this was a new revelation.  Either way, John’s Italian ancestry was a quiet fact.

I wondered if part of the reason behind this was related to his Alien status – a status he held until his death – and the feelings towards Italians during WWII, the internment of Italians during WWII.  Surely, that was an uncomfortable time for him.  Now I wonder if there was more to it.

Now I am wondering how John felt during the war years – Italian and Jewish?

Now I am wondering what happened to his family members on his father’s side during the war years.  I bet he wondered too.  As far as anyone knows, he had no contact with his family after he left.  None of them were literate, or so the story goes.

But all of that leads me to another important question – did he even know any of his father’s family?  His Italian, Jewish father married his Catholic, Spanish mother and they lived in Spain.  Did John ever meet any of his father’s family members?

There are so many more questions now than there were before.

But suddenly I find myself understanding the lack of information just a little bit better.  Or why John may have chosen not to share information.  Jewish persecution is very real and it’s been going on for what feels like forever.  I suppose if you leave your homeland and everyone around you accepts that you are a Spaniard, that is a safe thing to be.

But that means that so much was lost.  So much knowledge and understanding of our family and our family’s roots.  Traditions and faith were left behind.

In fairness, it may well have been John’s father, or grandfather, or great-grandfather who did the leaving and chose not to share information.  I will never know.

Genetically speaking, 12.5% of me is John.  If his father was 100% Jewish, that would make me 6.25% Jewish – assuming the DNA that was passed down reflected the fractions of the tree, which of course is not how that actually plays out.  But for argument’s sake, let’s say that I am 6.25% Jewish.  That is 1/16.  When you look at a family tree – that is a large portion of me.  A portion that I had no inkling was Jewish.

That is a lot of myself that I did not understand.  That I did not know about.

I have so much to learn about this part of my tree.

So much.

Grandpa Costello – you have left me a puzzle that I will keep working on until I solve it.  Even if it takes my entire life.  Even if all I do is stare at the small pieces you left behind until they are emblazoned upon my brain.  Even if those pieces never fit into a bigger picture because so much of the puzzle has been lost to time.  Whatever your or your father’s reasons were for keeping this a secret, I have learned the truth of your ethnic origins.  I honor it, I treasure it, and I will not keep it a secret from our mutual posterity.

And now to commence the learning.



ps – Are you now ever-so-curious about my ethnicity estimates?  I certainly was after getting my Uncle’s results back.  Well, I have them.  I just got them last week.  I will share them soon.  Stay tuned!




Note:  Y-DNA is passed directly from father to son.  It mutates very infrequently and very slightly over time.  If you have a brick wall or tricky spot in your tree and you have a direct line male who is willing to test, the Y-DNA test is generally considered a pretty lucky and straightforward gift – unless you are Jewish or from one of a few other ethnic groups with their own unique challenges.  That doesn’t mean the test won’t help you, it just won’t be simple and straightforward like it is for many other groups of people.  If you have questions about the four different types of DNA tests and when you might use them, this is a great read.  If you don’t yet understand that those Ancestry commercials that encourage tossing the lederhosen for a kilt are not accurately representing the limits of ethnicity estimates, read this.



Ancestor Story – John Costello, Man of Mystery – 52 Ancestors

Scanned Image 101200097John Costello is the patriarch of the family, front and center, looking away – Christmas 1950

I find it frustrating, strange, and utterly ridiculous that John Costello, my great grandfather is a brick wall.  But he is.  My mom knew him.  His three children are still living.  He is just right there – one generation away from my oldest living ancestors and yet I can’t seem to grasp his story.  I have tried many things.  I am in the process of trying a few things.  I am happily taking suggestions if you have them.

This is an outline of John’s life.  Some items have been proven, others have not.  Italicized items are so far, unproven:

  • John Costello
  • Born:  14 February 1893, Barcelona, Spain
  • Parents:  Vincenzo Costello/Castilla and Amelia Pallina
  • Immigration to US:  1915
  • Marriage:  1 January 1919, Spokane, Washington, to Mary Brown Young
  • Residence:  1920 – Spokane, WA, 1930 – Mead, WA, 1940 – Mead, WA
  • Death:  30 May 1966, Spokane, Washington
  • Burial:  Holy Cross Cemetery in Spokane, Washington

Here are the records I have been able to find:

COSTELLO, John & Mary Brown Young, Marriage RecordMarriage Record – This record puzzles me a bit.  The record lists the marriage date as 1 January 1918 and the filing date as 4 January 1919.  Family records list the marriage date in 1919.  I believe 1919 is correct and the Officiant hadn’t gotten used to writing 1919 yet as it was the first day of the year.

COSTELLO, John 1920 Census1920 Census – John’s father’s birthplace is listed as Italy and his mother’s birthplace is listed as Spain.   His year of immigration is listed as 1915, status – Alien.  His occupation is listed as Junkman in his own shop.

COSTELLO, John 1930 Census1930 Census – John lists both of his parent’s birthplaces as Spain.  He lists his year of immigration as 1914, status – Alien.   He lists his occupation as Express Driver of a Proprietor Wagon.

COSTELLO, John 1940 Census1940 Census – His occupation is listed as Operator of a Retail Tire Shop.

COSTELLO, John, Selective Service Card - frontCOSTELLO, John, Selective Service - backThis card was given to my mom by John’s daughter.  She said it is the only document she has about him.

COSTELLO, John, ObituaryObituary clipping found among family records – no date or paper name included.

COSTELLO, John - Funeral NoticeThe Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), Wednesday, 1 June 1966, page 9

John Costello, headstoneHeadstone photograph

Family Lore about John gathered from his three living children:

John was born in Barcelona and raised on a farm.  His parents may have raised bulls.  It is believed that he had three sisters – no names are known.  When John was a young man he decided to go to America for a better life and to escape farming.  His family was happy for him and had a big party to celebrate his future.  His two uncles each gave him a ring at the party.  He and his family were not literate and had not had the opportunity to attend school.  John left for America and apparently came through Boston {can’t find a record for this}.  Upon arrival he may have changed his name from Juan Castilla to John Costello.  His children disagree on this point.  John worked his way across the United States.  Somewhere around Ohio he spent some time working on a farm.  The farmer taught him the basics of reading and writing – his first experience with literacy.  Eventually he made it to Spokane where he lived out the remainder of his life.  No one is aware of any contact with his family back in Spain.  None of his children seem to have any more information and no helpful records.  The only document of any kind kept by the family is the above card.

Possible Leads:

COSTELLO, John, Alien File Number

I am hopeful that this Alien File is in fact John’s Alien File and I have begun the process of requesting a copy.  Hopefully it is filled with good details, the most important being the name of the Parish in which he was born and raised.

Catholic Church Records – John was raised Catholic.  He and Mary were married in a Lutheran Church.  He was buried in a Catholic Cemetery.  At some point Mary joined the Catholic Church so she could be buried by John.  I am trying to find the record of her baptism.  I am hopeful that their marriage was blessed in a Catholic Church and that part of that record may contain the name of the church in which John was baptized.  I am also seeking any Catholic Church records regarding John & Mary’s children with the same hope.

Church Record from Marriage – I have contacted the Lutheran Church where John & Mary were married to request any record the church has for their marriage and subsequent membership in the parish.  I had a nice phone conversation with someone but I have not received a reply and need to make contact again.

Possible DNA Tests – John has two living sons and two living grandsons {of his sons}.  I am considering having all four men take DNA tests to help me identify some cousins and possibly narrow down a more specific location in Spain in which to search.

And that is John Costello, my great grandfather – a man of mystery.

Do you have any recent brick walls like this one?  Do you have any ideas for me?


What Are We?

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Several years ago my younger brother Derek asked me this very important question – ‘What are we?’

He was referring to our ethnic makeup.  I pulled out one of the many small, yellow legal pads my mom keeps around and began calculating.  I did have to refer to my tree to double check a few things but the result is this, I am:

  • 7/16 English
  • 3/16 French-Canadian
  • 1/8 Scottish
  • 3/32 Danish
  • 1/16 Spanish
  • 1/16 Italian
  • 1/32 Welsh

I still have that ratty yellow piece of paper.  I think I have hung onto it because it felt so concrete – this map of my fractions.  So many things are used to define us but this, this was a beautiful math problem that represented all of the people who came before me.  The people to whom I owe my very existence.  The people who I carry somewhere in my DNA and more importantly – my heart.

Have you taken the time to answer the question?

What are you?