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Who Do You Think You Are -- I'm Not Who I Think I Am

Updated on February 22, 2019
MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers has been a professional writer/editor for all of her adult life. Before that, she was just a little girl storyteller.

Reivers raid on Gilnockie Tower
Reivers raid on Gilnockie Tower | Source

I am not who I thought I was; we are not who we thought we were. We had everything but the genes to prove who we were, then we just had to take that step and have one of the last male survivors take a DNA test.

This family crest hung on my uncle's wall for over 50  years
This family crest hung on my uncle's wall for over 50 years | Source

Genealogy has let me down

It all started with an email from a distant cousin in Tennessee that said a Johnston family researcher was trying to tie together all the Johnstons in America from the Scottish Johnston clan, including those who went to Ireland in the early 1600s. This researcher had concluded that my brother was the last surviving male from our progenitor’s Scots-Irish line, and requested that he submit to a DNA test to place us on the proper branch of the family tree. The researcher’s name was Mr. Fink (his real name), and he offered to pay for the test. My brother agreed to do it, although a couple of male cousins still live.

My brother received the test, took a simple cheek swab, and sent it back promptly. Then we anxiously waited to see who our kinfolk were. There are thousands of Johnston descendants in America, some direct Scottish immigrants and some Scots-Irish like my father's family.

We knew that Johnston(e)s had an intriguing history starting with murder and espionage and ending in a castle and nobility in Scotland.

A History of Clan Johnston describes the Johnstons (Johnstones) of Annandale as being “among the most intrepid reivers* of the Scottish West March of the Borders.” Because of frequent raids by the English, they became skilled in guerrilla warfare and lost interest in farming as they became more adept at raiding and cattle rustling. That is putting it lightly. Sir Walter Scott, a descendant of the Scott Clan, another bunch of border reivers, with tongue-in-cheek immortalized our clan in his “Fair Maid of Perth”:

Devil's Beef Tub

 Where the Johnstones hid their stolen cattle.
Where the Johnstones hid their stolen cattle. | Source

Within the bounds of Annandale,
The gentle Johnstons ride,
They have been there a thousand years,
And a thousand more they’ll bide.”

~Sir Walter Scott

The clan got its land and titles of nobility from various battles with the English, and it did not hurt that certain members helped put Robert Bruce on the throne of Scotland. There are at least nine titles to which clan nobility may lay claim.Today the current Chief of Clan Johnston, the Earl of Annandale and his wife Countess Susan reside at Raehills on their Annandale estate, which they now run as a commercial enterprise.

Nobility, wow, that sounded great to a little Ozark hillbilly like me! Probably not. I really wondered where my family fit in. They couldn’t have been serfs or they would have never been permitted a land grant in Ireland. So who was our progenitor and why did he immigrate to America in the mid-1700s?

Too much TV

Perhaps I had watched too many episodes of “Who do you think you are?” on TV. I watched enviously as celebrities traced their roots in their old countries. I actually cried tears of joy when Lisa Kudrow traveled to Poland and met modern-day kin and when Emmitt Smith claimed his family in Benin, Africa. I envied Ashley Judd whose family came over on the Mayflower! I waited with bated breath for our results to come back. Who knows, we might be related to the Earl and the Countess.

At last we received the results of my brother’s Y-DNA test. It came in a rather brusque email from Mr. Fink informing us that the 12-marker test indicated that our paternity was not genetically Johnston at all, but Clendinning**. Upon checking the file, sure enough, most of the related genetics were Clendinnings, Clendeninngs, Clendenins, and Glendeninngs (the English-related clan). I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. I felt empty for days. When I told a friend how I felt, she said, “You’ve lost your identity.” Yeah, I felt to a small degree like a kid who had been told she was adopted.

I think my brother hid his disappointment well, but when Mr. Fink suggested that he advance to the 67-marker test, he declined . “I don’t see what difference that would make,” he stated with resignation.

How did this happen?

I can think of only three ways in which this genetic bait and switch may have happened: 1. rape, pillage, and plunder, 2. an adoption into the clan, or 3. an affair, in that order. I figure number 1. It was probably a rape during a village raid. That piqued my curiosity. Was some young maiden the mother and the clan accepted her child? Was it a married woman who didn’t know whose child it was? Did a clansman adopt his wife's orphaned brother? I must say I wish I knew despite the fact it would not make any difference with the results.

Mr. Fink forwarded correspondence and test results to the Tennessee cousins who were as shocked as we were. Cousin Virginia tried to console me by saying that it was all right, we were still their cousins, no matter what. I had to deliver some bad news to cousins Virginia and Jim.

The first thing my aunt said when she heard the results was, “Well, it certainly didn’t happen after your great grandfather came to Arkansas (in 1874 after the Civil War).” She was referring to the fact that all his descendents look like peas in a pod. I had met our Tennessee distant cousin Jim before, and I reminded him of something he had said.

"Jim," I said, “Remember the first thing you said to me when we met? You said you could tell that I was a Johnston just by looking at my eyes.” Jim was referring to the resemblance between my eyes and those of the Tennessee Johnston women. I have never met Virginia, but I’ve seen pictures of her, and I told them that the shape of my eyes and Virginia’s eyes are almost identical.

Mr. Fink had no further interest in us after viewing the DNA test and emailed us a rude dismsslal. Virgina wrote a scathing email back to him. Paraphrasing her: We are Johnstons. For hundreds of years we have been Johnstons, we are still Johnstons and no DNA test is going to take that away from us!

Thanks, Virginia, I needed that, but it still hurts. In a way I wish this DNA test had never been done. I would have always had questions, but it may have been better to wonder. The DNA test didn’t answer any questions but just brought on more.

It reminds me of my boss’s favorite expression, "Be careful what you wish for or you may get it."

Back to the TV show

Brook Shields’ genealogy showed that she is a direct descendant of King Louis IV of France. Somebody better advise her not to have a DNA test!


*reivers -- raiders, The term is mainly used for raiders along the Scottish-English border from the late 13th Century to the early 17th Century. Today these clans might be considered outlaws.

**Clendinning -- I did not include any information about them because I haven't fully researched them. At this point the information I found is that they are a very old Welsh clan dating back to the original inhabitants of Britain. I will write more later..

UPDATE May 12, 2014

My cousin on my mother’s side of the family is now considering having her Dad take a DNA test. He is the last brother and the male line is really dwindling. I hope she does, and I’m not being a glutton for punishment, I hope. Our patriarchal line on Mom’s side is a mystery because our progenitor was running away from something in mid-1700s France (Huguenot maybe?) and changed his name. There are many French of that time period who changed their name to this particular surname, too, because it basically meant “I’m thumbing my nose at you.” In other words, they were giving a Razzberry to their mother country. A DNA test might tell us who Mom’s family really was because it is a big mystery.

Update No. 2 July 9, 2014

We cousins on my mother's side have gathered almost enough money to have my Uncle's DNA tested, and we're goin' for broke with the expensive test that traces our migration. Now I have another family member disputing that the family is French. He claims they are English, and the name was assumed because it means "for God". Well, ain't that a fine kettle of fish! That may be another shocker since I grew up believing that mom was a hot-blooded French woman, not a staunch English woman. I guess we'll find out soon and that may open an entirely new mystery.

Update 2015

I am happy to report that uncle's Y-DNA test indicated that his best matches today are in the Versailles, France, area just as our family historians had told us. I think this proves the perils of inadequate research. The party who believed that our James was English is guilty of shoddy research. Our ancestor fled to London and then took a ship on to the colonies. It appears that his real name possibly was Jacques Paradeaux, but I'm not sure we have any way of verifying that.

Happy Update 2019

I started checking the Johnston ancestry on Family Search, the website of LDS Church (Mormons) who keep up with as many families genealogically as they can. Great grandpa Johnston may have been a Clendinning and not genetically descended from the Johnstons who helped put Robert Bruce on the throne of Scotland, but his wife, great grandma Elizabeth Benton is a direct descendent of the king himself according to LDS researchers. I don't know if that's part of the British and Irish DNA or the "unidentifiable" DNA that showed up in my test. It's kind of balm for my sore feelings.

© 2014 Doris James MizBejabbers


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