It’s In the DNA

I don’t know if this happens to other writers, but I’ve had some strange things happen during the writing of a book.  I once turned a manuscript into my editor at the same time another writer turned in hers.  Oddly, enough, our protagonists shared the same first names and professions.  There were also many other similarities throughout our manuscripts, and all had to be changed.

Another time I was hiking a trail in Mammoth when I met a geologist who was the spitting image of the geologist hero in the book I was working on.  Even weirder, his first name was Damian and I’d named my hero Damon. Close enough, right?

But the strangest thing that happened occurred recently. I’d been toying with the idea of taking a DNA Ancestry test for quite some time, so my daughter decided to gift me with one for Christmas.  The results were pretty much what I expected, with one surprise.   It turns out that the outlaw Jesse James and I share a common ancestor.  

The timing was especially weird since Jesse James plays a part in the book I’m currently working on. Come to think of it, it’s not the first time Jesse James has popped up in one of my books, and I can’t count how many blogs I’ve written about the outlaw.

That’s because Jesse is a fun person to write about.  Not only was he controversial, he had both a light and dark side. The son of a Baptist minister, he was known to pass out press releases to witnesses at his holdups and had no qualms about exaggerating his height.  He might also be the only person on record who took a gang on his honeymoon. I don’t know what his bride did while he and his gang robbed a stage.  Maybe she went shopping.

Jesse James lived for only thirty-four years, but there was never a dull moment.  He was a Confederate guerrilla, was shot in the chest on two separate occasions and once overdosed on morphine. He also claimed to have murdered seventeen people.

Jesse went by many aliases, but his nickname was Dingus because he shot off the tip of his finger while cleaning his pistol.  He wrote glowing articles about his gang, saying that they robbed the rich and gave to the poor, though all indications are that they kept the spoils to themselves.

Far as I know, he was also the first person to prove that housework can kill.  While tidying up his house, he was fatally shot by his new hire Bob Ford in the back of the head. 

I can’t tell you what it was about Jesse James that first caught my interest.  I can’t even tell you why this writer, who’s allergic to horses, writes Westerns.  All I can say, is that it must be in my DNA.

Have any of you had your DNA tested?  If so, were there any surprises that you’re willing to share


“This book charms.”  Publishers Weekly


B & N


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44 thoughts on “It’s In the DNA”

  1. I got the DNA test from Ancestry for Christmas also. But no surprises!! I’m not related to anyone who is famous!?
    Wait a minute… that might be a good thing. I could be related to a very terrible person in history. Awe.. Jessie James would be a fantastic person to be related too. I mean someone who killed 18 people in the ole West. ??
    I’ve read the more people we add to our tree could possibly lead to someone famous. Who know!

  2. I got the DNA test from Ancestry for Christmas also. But no surprises!! I’m not related to anyone who is famous!?
    Wait a minute… that might be a good thing. I could be related to a very terrible person in history. Awe.. Jessie James would be a fantastic person to be related too. I mean someone who killed 18 people in the ole West. ??
    I’ve read the more people we add to our tree could possibly lead to someone famous. Who know!

    • The question marks were supposed to be a crying face and the two question marks together were laughing faces. I didn’t know it doesn’t do emojis. What!!!! I’ve posted two times. I’m getting out of here before I make a fool out of myself!!!

  3. Our ancestry on one side of the family goes back to the Angles (from Denmark) that invaded central England starting in the 450s AD, and the other side goes back to the eastern Mediterranean, back so far it couldn’t be determined if it was modern day Syria or Turkey at about 1000 AD. After the Middle East that side went through the Balkans into Dalmatia, once a part of the Venetian Empire, and then into modern day Italy.

    The only famous relative we’ve found is in a collateral line–Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who historian Shelby Foote said was one of the two smartest men in the Civil War, the other being Abe Lincoln. My great-grandfather lived near various outlaws in the west–members of the James-Younger gang, the Daltons and the Starrs.

    In terms of tracking my own on lines with exact, direct family names, I have the English side back to the 1500s when people started taking on surnames for the first time. Sadly, we’re the last in that direct line, so I’ve enjoyed it for myself and my family (when they were alive) but it’s literally at a dead end now. The Italian side continues on happily though. We also have Scots family lines but they’re all on maternal sides and so have been tough to track. The maternal lines in the Cherokee and Choctaw nations are in the Indian rolls so they have been easier.

      • Although my great-grandfather James likely knew Jesse James (as an older man), we are NOT related to him. I’ve tracked the whole English line myself with all of the grandfathers’ names back to Edward who was the first in the American colonies in 1680 with the English Quakers fleeing religious persecution, and then back to another Edward in the 1500s in Styal, Cheshire, England. I have no idea at all where Jesse James comes from, when or from whom.

        As for important people Nathan Bedford Forrest was far more important to the Civil War as a general than Jesse James ever was as a Confederate guerrilla bushwhacker turned outlaw after the war. Historian Shelby Foote said that if Forrest had been in charge of the Army of Virginia instead of Lee the Confederates would have had a much better fighting chance because Forrest used more modern strategies for battles, ways of fighting, and use of fewer men and supplies than the other generals of his time.

        By chance I have a 4th great-grandfather named Jesse–which was popular back then because Jesse was David’s father’s name in the Bible. My Jesse was born in 1765 and a youngster while his father Jeffrey fought in the Revolution, and an old man by the time his grandsons and great-grandsons fought in the Civil War. In that war, I lost gr-gr-grandfather Thomas and his son named Alfred; my gr-grandfather James was too young to fight.

  4. No I haven’t had my DNA tested but my favorite Aunt and I were just recently discussing that I should do this. Speaking of Jesse James supposedly my Great grandfather was a friend of his my maiden name was Young and according to my Daddy it was Younger once upon a time but it was changed to Young because the Pinkertons were constantly harassing my folks on the whereabouts of Cole. Story goes that Jesse came to visit my Great Grandpa when he came to Alabama to rob a train and Poppa as my Daddy always called him talked him out of robbing the train but he did indeed rob a place in North Alabama and I have checked and Dates do coincide with the robbery dates. I guess that’s not something to really brag about but I really do wish I knew more about my past heritage. I wish my Daddy was here so I could ask so many more questions.
    I love reading and Margaret Brownley an autographed book by you is one I one day long to have. I so enjoy your blogs on Petticoats and Pistols

    • Hi Glenda,yes, you should definitely get tested.

      I think we all get to the point where we wished we had asked more questions of our relatives when they were alive. We often don’t think about it until it’s too late. I wonder why Jesse visited your great grandfather. Interesting.

  5. No I haven’t done the DNA test but I really do want to. It would help me to find out more about my mother’s birth family. Her daddy ran off from her family when the kids were young and he just started a new family. I’d also love to know more about the Indian blood in my fathers side of the family. I love to hear stories about Jesse James!

  6. No testing but my paternal grandparents are from Norway so it goes back on my grandmother’s side 8 generations could be more since DNA was not used back then and all the men were fishermen. I found that interesting.

  7. I have never had my DNA tested. It would be interesting to find out more about my family especially as I don’t know much about my biological father. But the cost keeps me from doing it. Before DNA testing was popular, my ex’s brother traced their family history the old way, by records. He even traveled to different places to do so, meeting people and visiting old cemeteries. They traced a relative way back and found out he was part of Jesse James’s gang. There was a family member that he met with that even had old pictures. I thought that was fascinating.

    • Hi Janine, they do run specials on DNA tests, so you might want to watch for those. Or do what I did: ask for one for Christmas.

      My bridge instructor told me he once held a class that included a relative of Jessie James and a relative of the man who shot him. Can you imagine?

      • I doubt I would ever do the DNA testing. I have curiosities, but living paycheck to paycheck, other things are more important, like paying bills and buying food.

        The story your bridge instructor told you is very interesting.

  8. I did get my DNA tested and alas there were not surprises. I know they have refined it more so I shall have to check again.

  9. This is cool, Margaret. And there are no coincidences with God, just divine appointments. So Jesse is your relative for a reason.
    I do want to get my DNA tested, I know I’m part Native American, Abenaki, my great-grandmother, but they were ashamed of it in those days and kept it quiet. Would love to know how much Abenaki I am and through whose line, even though it’s too late for me to get a scholarship etc. But it’s fun just knowing.

  10. oh wow, all of these are kinda funny. some interesting facts about Jesse. My husband wants to get his DNA tested. we will see what happens. me? i guess i am not so interested.

    • Lori, maybe after your husband gets his, you’ll want to get yours. I was surprised by how much information I got. I now know where my straight hair and short height came from. Fun to know.

  11. Having my DNA tested is on the top of my wish list. There has been so much speculation in our family about native American ancestry due to my maternal grandmother’s last name and the coloring of many of our family members in both skin and hair color. We thought there was on my my paternal grandmother’s side again a family name, skin and hair color of many of her children and grandchildren hopefully being a clue. My one cousin, who has the dark skin and jet black hair had hers tested and it only came back 1% Native American. It did show 30% Scotland, Ireland and Wales. That was no surprise as our family name is Keith, one of the oldest Scottish clans.
    I have been curious as to which company to go with as far as which one would give the most detailed genetic ancestry information. I would be curious to know what company Glenda and Eliza used.
    Now for my weird stuff. Lol! I am not an author, not published anyway. I have twice dreamt of someone I have never met and then met them a few days or weeks later. One of those people was my future husband. I was totally weirded out by it. I also have such vivid dreams of people and places I have lived that I wake up totally dioriented for a minute. I sometimes distinctly hear someone call my name only they aren’t there. That has happened both when I was sleeping and awake. I have learned to start praying hard for that person. It has been such for other of my maternal family members as well, so yes, it’s in the DNA.
    Loved this post, by the way.

  12. I want to have it tested so much! I love history and I love learning about what makes up someone! I hope to sometime do it in the future! I would love to share it with my kiddos so they have their family history

  13. I have been following my family history back and found interesting things but DNA can also be a bad thing. Had a family member learn they where not family and father was someone else. The sad side of those commercials about finding other relatives. I will just follow my family through birth, death and census. And Jesse James had a hideout Meramac Cave. A lot of my family used Jesse James for first and middle names.

    • Hi Donna, yes, some people have found out dark family secrets and that can be a shock. They’ve even found criminals by tracking relatives through DNA sites. Most people, however, are happy with the results, but there’s always a chance things could go the other way.

  14. Is it bad that I’m not really interested in getting my DNA tested, but I’m dying to know my dog’s DNA? 🙂 The shelter called her a chihuahua mix, but she’s much bigger (25 lbs) and we think she’s part French Bulldog. We call her our French Bu-hua-hua (it’s fun to say, I promise!).

  15. Here is a point to know about DNA TESTING.

    You can only get a direct line if a MALE family member gets tested with his Y chromosome. (That’s how I know specific locations and dates because of the men passing their Y throughout to their sons).

    WOMEN however have two X chromosomes so their DNA tests come back as percentages—so much of this ethnicity, so much of that ethnicity, and so on with no dates.

    As for SPECIFIC family members, that’s still done the old fashion way by looking up court records, censuses and the like, and if you’re lucky other family members who have found various “trails” to help you along.

    My specifics come from my own work (aided by distant cousins), and the direct Angles and Syrian connections from male first cousins taking Y DNA tests.

    P.S. The word “English” comes from the Anglo-Saxon Invasion starting in the 400s.
    “ENGLISH” was founded on the word “ANGLISH”–the Angles who came from Denmark and conquered middle England. The SAXONS were from what is now Germany and they conquered the South of England. Later on around the 900s the Vikings )Swedes and Norwegians) conquered various parts of the British Isles, primarily Scotland and Ireland, but some English too. These conquerors were blond and ginger haired from coming from so far north. Darker haired British tended to come from the continent, particularly the Iberian peninsula after the last ice age.

  16. I haven’t had it done but my youngest daughter and I speeds just talking about it the other night. I’m looking forward to it . My grandparents on my mother’s side were from Italy and my paternal grandparents from Irelabd. A friend of mine had his done and was upset that one of his ancestors was John Wilkes Booth. 🙂 So there are some surprises to say the least.

  17. I have sent a DNA test sample in, but have not yet gotten the results. My brother is doing extensive genealogical research on our family. One of the interesting things he has turned up is we are defended from some of the first french settlers in Canada. King Louis XIV of France wanted to solidify the claim on the area to prevent British expansion north. To do so he recruited women and sent them over to become brides and foster permanent settlements. They were called the Filles du Roi (Daughters of the King). The initial groups that were sent over were given a dowry. About 800 were sent over between 1663 and 1673. They were as young as 13 and as old as the mid 30’s. My brother has found we have about 20 of these women in our family tree. Part of the family came over to Canada from Ireland because of the Potato Famine. I was surprised to discover that Canada was a haven for the Irish during that time. I am really impatient to get my DNA results.

    • Patricia, this is fascinating! I didn’t know that Canada was a haven for the Irish. I wonder if my Irish son-in-law knows about this. Think of the stories those women could have told! Wow!

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