Sunday, September 13, 2015

Frustrating Finnish DNA

As I mentioned in a previous post, I took an autosomal DNA test recently and was curious and excited to find out where the results would lead me. Since I took the test, several genealogical websites have provided me lists of DNA matches to other people.

The first three names on the list of matches that gave me were all names of cousins I already had on my family tree, all three on my mother’s side. One of these cousins I’ve never met, but the other two I’ve met in person and enjoyed spending time with.

But that was nearly where the navigable connections stopped on my mother’s side. I’ve been able to laboriously sift through my DNA matches and add a number of previously unrecorded relatives to my father's side of the family tree. But discovering new connections to my mother’s side through DNA matches is nearly impossible.

My mother is of Finnish descent. Three of her grandparents—Matti Hietanen, Jr. (1883-1921), Edla Sussana Salo Hietanen (1884-1961) and Mattias Vihtori Stuuri (1888-1981)—were born in Finland and immigrated to the USA as children. Her fourth grandparent, Wilhelmina Elizabeth “Minnie” Hirvi Stuuri (1890-1946), had parents who were both born in Finland and immigrated to the USA as young adults—Wilhelm Heikkinpoika “William” Hirvi (1865-1949) and Wilhenmina “Minnie” Oberg (1865-1945).

Thanks to extensive international research by other family members, especially my cousin Bob Hietanen, the ancestry of my great-grandfather Matti Hietanen, Jr., is known to a great extent. Other cousins, particularly Jaakko Heinimäki, have provided a lot of ancestral research on my great-great-grandfather Wilhelm Hirvi. (These are my sources for the information that I’m a direct descendant in two lines from sixteenth-century Finnish freedom-fighter Jaakko Ilkka.) But for the rest of my Finnish lines I only know a few generations earlier than my great-great-grandparents at best.

I’d hoped that my DNA test would help reveal more of my Finnish relatives and forebears. But there turns out to be an obstacle I didn’t expect. Up through the nineteenth century the Finns had an unusual custom. The surname of a Finnish family was the same as the name of the family’s farm. When a family moved from one farm to another, the family changed its surname to match the new location. This makes genealogical research based on surnames maddening.

This custom is evident in my family tree. For instance my nine times great-grandfather Heikki was born with the last name Punkari in about 1606. At some point he moved, evidently to the Reini farm, and gained the last name Reini. His son Yrjänä, my eight times great-grandfather, was born with the surname Reini about 1660. Evidently he moved about 1685 to the Karhu farm and took that name. His son Esaias, my seven times great-grandfather, was born there about 1704 and evidently remained living there, since he retained the surname Karhu.

In Finland during those days, if a man married a woman and moved to her home, the man took his wife’s last name, since that was the name of the place where he now lived. That’s what happened when my five times great-grandfather Elias Matinpoika Karhu (1760-1809), who was born with the surname Kujala, married my five times great-grandmother Margareta Andersintytär Uhmusberg (1765-1846). For a few generations after that, this line of the family kept the surname Uhmusberg (pronounced Oomsperry), until my great-great-grandfather Matti Juhonpoika Uhmusberg (1857-1915) ended up with the surname Hietanen.

Matti Juhonpoika Uhmusberg Hietanen (1857-1915).
What prompted that name change? No one’s completely sure. But other family researchers have proposed what seems a likely reason. In 1881 Matti Uhmusberg’s elder sister Maria Uhmusberg (1856-1935) married Jaakko Hermanninpoika Aittanen and moved to the Renko farm where there was a cottage named Hietanen. It’s possible that Matti at one point lived in the cottage on his sister’s farm and took the surname Hietanen from the cottage before he emigrated to the USA in 1887.

Comparing family trees to find common last names among ancestors is the main way to figure out how I’m related to other people who match my DNA. I’ve found a couple family trees of DNA matches that have names and dates corresponding to names and dates on my mom's side of my family tree. If I can trust their research, I believe that I’ve found our exact lines of connection.  But finding the line of connection for a DNA match on my mom's side is rare. The custom of changing last names among the Finns makes it anywhere from difficult to impossible to figure out my connections to DNA matches who have Finnish last names or Finnish backgrounds.

Complicating the last name problem is the fact that a Finn whose last name appears in my family tree might have no connection to my family. That person—or an ancestor—might simply have once lived on the same farm as my ancestor. Juuso Hietanen, the Finnish ice hockey star in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, has the same last name my mother grew up with, but he's probably no relation to me.

All my Finn lines come through the Finnish towns of Ylistaro, Kortesjärvi, and Isokyrö, and my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents were all from Fairport Harbor, Ohio. When I find a DNA match who lists an ancestor who was born, married, or died in any of those places, I feel as if we’re oh-so-close to connecting. Is that name a sister, a brother, a cousin, or some sort of blood relation of one of my Finnish ancestors? I long to make the connection, but the name of a town isn’t enough. Without more information, there’s no way to do it. Like Tantalus reaching to pick a luscious fruit in Hades, I can’t reach far enough. The branch is always just beyond my grasp.

It’s not as though my DNA results haven’t listed many people of Finnish descent who are related to me. There are plenty of them—with ancestors named Myllykoski and Walkkila, Niemi and Luoma, Sillanpaa and Rintamaki, and more. But they’re like puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit together. These puzzle pieces are lying in plain sight, and I’m sure they’re pieces from the same puzzle I’m working on. But the pieces that connect them are missing.

Maybe one day DNA research will be able to pinpoint connections among relatives with much more accuracy. But until that day, I'll just have to live with the frustration.


  1. Greetings Eric
    I have just started working on my family tree. My maternal grandmother’s parents emigrated from Sortalava, Karelia and my father’s parents emigrated to Michigan/ Ontario/ Saskatchewan in the mid 1800’s.

    I noticed that I also have on my tree Yrjana Heikkolan/ Karhu. b 1660 - d. 1706 Isokyro married to Kaisa / Kaarin Valentinty. Peltoniemi b. 1667 Ilmajoki - d. 1708 Isokyro.

    His son is Esaias Yronpoika Karhu b. 1704 Isokyro - d. 1770 Isokyro.... married to Liisa Juhantytar AlaLahti b. 1706 Ylistaro....d. 1772 Ylistaro. My daughter and I have worked out a line back to Jaakko Ilkka and have work to do in verifying records. Our people have come from Ilmajoki , Ylistaro and Isokyro for hundreds of years it seems. and are fleshing out the family tree details and plan to have our DNA testing at some future date.

  2. My paternal grandparents both emigrated from Ylistaro, 🇫🇮

  3. Our family names are Tenkku, Holkko, Lempinen, Maijala, Karhu, Heikkolan, Ala-
    Peltoniemi, ...Illkka🇫🇮

  4. For me, many of the Finnish names are of East Finnish origin. In spite of being North Finnish (North Ostrobothnian) often following an East Finnish tradition of keeping the name for a very long time, perhaps many centuries (with perhaps some smaller alterations). One such name being Määttä.