How to Find Your Ethnicity

by Maya Austen

Contructing a family tree can help uncover hidden ethnic roots.

Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images

In "melting pot" countries like the United States, people often lose track of their family's ethnic roots, especially if their ancestors emigrated from their home countries a long time ago. But there are a couple ways to get back in touch with those roots and learn more about your and your family's ethnicity.

Of the two methods available, the simplest and most direct is DNA testing. Your DNA contains genetic footprints which allow you to pinpoint your ancestors’ different countries of origin. The other method is to engage in genealogical research to trace your family heritage back to other countries.

Ordering a DNA Test

You can conduct a DNA test on yourself in the comfort of your own home through an online service like Ancestry.com, MyDNATest.com or 23andme.com. The tests aren't cheap – they can cost upwards of $100 each – but they're simple and generally accurate.

For most services offering home DNA tests, all you have to do is order your DNA kit online and return a small sample of your saliva in the prepaid envelope provided with your kit. The company will then analyze your DNA and email you with a map of your results, which should reveal details about your ethnicity. For example, you should be able to view a pie chart detailing your ethnic roots – a sample chart shown on Ancestry.com's website breaks down one person's ethnicity to 52 percent Ireland, Wales and Scotland; 28 percent Scandinavia; 10 percent Italy and Greece; and 10 percent "other."

Doing Genealogical Research

Starting with yourself, construct a family tree which traces your family roots back as far as you can go on either your mother’s side or father’s side of the family. When performing genealogical research it’s best to concentrate on one side of the family at a time. It helps to focus your research.

Interview older family members to help you expand your family tree based on their general knowledge about your family history. In addition to the names of your ancestors, knowing a few things about their life’s stories can assist you in your research. For example, where and when were they born? Where did they live? Where did they attend school or church? Where and when did they get married? Profession? Military service? Where and when did they die? Family keepsakes such as a family Bible, old journals and letters, preserved financial records and scrap books can help you fill in these details.

Using the clues gathered from the construction of your family tree, try to locate public records and documents which can shed more light on the life of your earliest known ancestor. For example, look up old census records, birth and death records, marriage records, military records, property records, prison records, immigration records, and check old newspapers for obituaries. Many of these records can be found at the national and state archives, local libraries, and by using the research tools on genealogical websites such as ancestry.com.

Trace your family roots back to different countries of origin by continuing the genealogical detective work started in Step 3. Your research may lead you to uncover the name of an earlier ancestor whom you can investigate. Unless you’re a pure Native American, trace your family history back far enough and you will find ancestors who immigrated to America from other countries.

Photo Credits

  • Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images

About the Author

Maya Austen began freelance writing in 2009. She has written for many online publications on a wide variety of topics ranging from physical fitness to amateur astronomy. She's also an author and e-book publisher. Austen has a Bachelor of Arts in communications from the New England Institute of Art and currently lives in Boston, Mass.