A question of identity

With A. J. Jacobs at the Global Family Reunion in early June.

Over the years I have had the chance to discuss the subject of ethnicity (and identity) with avid genealogists and those who are not all that interested in the field of genealogy. Many people will quickly share with you what their ethnicity is, with answers varying from “American” to a varied mix of ethnic origins. This answer, as you can imagine, can vary greatly with the knowledge each person has as to what was passed down to them by their parents about their own heritage. What I have noticed in these discussions is the depth in which these generational levels of ethnic origin will differ.

For instance, I like to think of myself as American, but I am also dual citizen of Canada – so that makes me 50/50. But when I was born I was only American: I applied for dual citizenship in 2007, so therefore I always referred to myself as an American before then.

My mother was  a naturalized American citizen, but she was born in Toronto, Ontario. My father was born in East Boston, Massachusetts, and was an American. So if I refer to the generation of my parents, I am ½ Canadian and ½ American.

But this changes drastically once I go to the level of my grandparents. My maternal grandfather was born in Nantwich, Cheshire, England; my paternal grandfather born on the French island of St. Pierre et Miquelon (off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada); my paternal  grandmother was born in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada; and my maternal grandmother was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

So at my grandparents’ generation I am ¼ English, ¼ French, ¼ American, and ¼ Canadian.

If I go back to my great-grandparents, though, my French ancestry is eliminated until the twelfth century. The nativity of the parents of my French grandfather was not French but Irish and English. My paternal great-grandfather was born in Nova Scotia and his bride was born in Newfoundland. The Lamberts were merchants on St. Pierre et Miquelon, where my grandfather and his siblings were born at the end of the nineteenth century. So based on my great-grandparents, I am ½ Canadian, ¼ British, and ¼ American. And if you get technical, two of my Canadian great-grandparents were born before 1867 and, thus, before the confederation of Canada. So I am really ½ British, ¼ Canadian, and ¼ American!

Skipping back to my great-great-great-grandparents’ generation, four were born in Ireland, nine in England, twelve in Canada, and seven in America. This is not taking into consideration those who were British-born Canadians born before 1867 or Americans born before the Declaration of Independence. So for percentages at this generation, I am 1/8 Irish, 9/32 English, 3/8 Canadian, and 7/32 American.

As a contrast, my friend and colleague Christopher C. Child, Senior Genealogist of the Newbury Street Press, is 100% American at the level of his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents. It is only at the level of his great-great-great-grandparents that you find the first set of non-American born relatives, making him 1/16 Irish and 15/16 American. If Christopher had not been a genealogist, he might never have been aware of this 1/16 Irish heritage at all.

As you will notice in your own genealogy, each generation of your ethnicity will be slightly different, as you can see by my example above. By the tenth generation I also have Swiss and German ancestors that figure into my percentages. By the eleventh century I can add a handful of European countries to claim kinship, and countless unknown origins of assumed European heritage. So I hope this blog post makes you think a little more deeply on what you consider your own ethnicity to be – a fascinating, and ever-changing, question.

David Allen Lambert

About David Allen Lambert

David Lambert has been on the staff of NEHGS since 1993 and is the organization’s Chief Genealogist. David is an internationally recognized speaker on the topics of genealogy and history. His genealogical expertise includes New England and Atlantic Canadian records of the 17th through 21st century; military records; DNA research; and Native American and African American genealogical research in New England. Lambert has published many articles in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the New Hampshire Genealogical Record, Rhode Island Roots, The Mayflower Descendant, and American Ancestors magazine. He has also published A Guide to Massachusetts Cemeteries (NEHGS, 2009). David is an elected Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Mass., and a life member of the New Hampshire Society of the Cincinnati. He is also the tribal genealogist for the Massachuset-Punkapoag Indians of Massachusetts.

35 thoughts on “A question of identity

  1. Interesting Mr. Lambert. But I notice you associate your ethnicity with place of birth which I am not sure is the same thing. On the other hand, I really think the term “Caucsian” is truly dumb unless you are from the Trans-Caucuses Republics or that is the root of your ethnicity. I explain my ethnicity this way “English-Scots/Irish-Irish-German-French-Welsh” but my nationality is American (because there is no “American” ethnicity -there are hundres of American ethnicities). Just my 2 cents.

    1. Anne, thank you for your comment. I have always regarded my ethnicity as related to the specific countries from which my ancestors came. The cultures, the foods, the dress, and the folklore make up a varied culture, albeit one with European origin. My nationality I consider American and Canadian, but I embrace the far-reaching corners of the globe my ancestors once resided. According my Y-DNA, my earliest ancestor resided in what is now Bosnia. So I suppose my deeper examination will give me many pins stuck on a map of the globe.

    2. I agree with you Anne, place of birth has nothing to do with ethnicity, place of birth only indicates nationality, which can change even though you never move. A relative was of Ruthenian ethnicity, born in what was then Austria-Hungary which later became Poland, Ukraine and Russia. She moved to the US and married a US citizen so that was her final ‘Nationality’ but of course she remained Ruthenian.

    1. Through DBA testing I found that my father was Jewish which he didn’t know either. I had long suspected because of an immigration record. Now I have proof. What a surprise

    2. Get your DNA tested — so fun and you will not only know who you are but family lore can as well be re-examined. While I knew of my British / Irish roots …..I was totally surprised however to learn that I am as much German that I knew about but as much French as I am German ! I knew nothing at all of a French ancestry. And while Grandma is dark she is not Native American as family hypothesis suggested — but just dark European . And I luv my “uterine DNA”….. H7a … which I share with the last French Queen Marie !

      1. I have the “same” ggmother: she was known all her adult life as “the squaw”. Turns out she was Welsh.
        Grandma also told me her father’s side was French-Canadian, Charpentier Anglicized to Carpenter. Turns out the Carpenters were English, an early colonial family in New England.
        If you haven’t yet read “the Seven Daughters of Eve”, it’s a must for that mDNA.

  2. Hi – I am mostly Northern European, English, Scot, Irish, Scandinavian and 3.1% Neanderthal but the big surprise was less than 0.1% Japanese!
    Dave Richardson #265533

  3. I also was thinking along the same lines as Anne. My nationality is not the same thing as my sense of ethnic identity, which is much more complex, and influenced by things such as customs passed down through my family, the religious experience of the people I grew up with, the food traditions, the family structures, even the occupations of the people I grew up with and am descended from. Some things I identify with can be linked to a particular time and place, others are amalgamations derived by the communities I have lived in. My nationality is simple; my ethnic identity is complex and nuanced, and subject to what is being referred to these days as “code-switching” depending on where I am and who I am with.

  4. My DNA with exception of 6% Iberian Peninsula is all Great Britain, Europe West and Scandinavia…My son is the same plus his father’s Irish…he married a woman from Siberia and she is predominantly Europe East, Finland/NW Russia and Asia Central.Their son has about 40% of his father. His mother’s results, also, show 1% American – so it looks like there is an American ethnicity?…I assume it’s a connection to the Native American’s origins from my daughter-in-laws area….Jerri Rudloff

    1. I’m wondering if your Iberian might be Basque, via Ireland. There were a lot of Basque who moved over there in the long long ago….Irish pipes actually come from the Pyranees, so there’s that to consider. They made an early sort of bagpipe from sheep’s bladders. Took them to Ireland, where they were refined it over time, and then they got to Scotland, where the drone pipe was added. I know that’s not exactly documentation, but….it’s what we have to work with. Additionally, did you know that the name Gallegos is not Spanish? Nope, it derives from “Gaul”, the ancient Roman name for parts of France. As does the Irish name Gallagher.

      Then you get into the question of Basque origins, whose language is not Indo-European, but a derivative of Sanskrit, as is Finnish. A discussion for another day…

      Tangential to the discussion, but thought it was interesting enough to comment. Language, music, and other cultural phenomena persist longer than paper documents, if they ever existed, and may be one of the few clues we have to work with when looking at our ancient DNA.

      1. I studied historical linguistics. Sanskrit IS I-E, in fact one of the first identified as such, and why it’s called INDO-European. The only languages derived from Sanskit are found in North India, like Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, etc., etc. The IE family is huge, about half the people of the world, including speakers of English, Spanish, Russian, Farsi, Welsh, Albanian, Armenian, and Greek. Finnish is member of the Finno-Ugric group. Finnish and Hungarian are the two most populous languages of this phylum. Basque is what’s known as an isolate with no known or demonstrable affiliations with any other language, though a lot of pseudo-science types keep trying.

        1. Thanks Gerald. Good to hear from the expert, so to speak. I was repeating a few things I’d read lately (in ‘books of paper’). Guess it’s not just the internet that’s full of incorrect information!…perhaps there was an implied sub-group or something, I don’t recall that much.

          1. I’m glad that you found the info interesting if not useful. After I did all the Copying and Pasting, I wondered if it wasn’t overkill! It’s just that there’s a fair amount of linguistic nonsense out there and I’d just read a blog entry with more than its fair share! So I was already irritable. And I’ve been studying the topic for about 50 years, as long as I’ve been doing genealogy, thus I felt obligated to correct some egregious errors. If you have subjects that you have intense feelings about, you know that you almost feel you have a duty. Just don’t get me started on vexillogical design in state flags! Flag Day is an annual catalyst for a case of the grumps.

          2. Don’t give up the grumps! It’s what drives you to correct.
            I must admit, I felt a little slapped when I got that slew of comments. Thinking maybe I’ve wandered in someplace I don’t belong. But if I were you, I’d have done the same. The world needs people who pay attention to detail. (I’m known as the grammar granny round here, but I don’t practice it well any more.)
            What’s funny is that story I had about the pipes, Gaul, Gallegos, Gallagher, etc. was from a guest speaker in college, an Irish piper named Gallagher who brought examples from a Basque sheep’s bladder to a modern Scots bag. I’m wondering how much Blarney he was blessed with, now, and why I swallowed it. It sounded so logical.
            At any rate, I obviously didn’t make my point very well. Only meant to use it as an example of what things we needed to look for pre-documentation, now that we’re getting all of this information on DNA. Wow. If I’d said that in the first place….but I enjoyed your comments and wouldn’t have otherwise had them.
            [btw, I envy you your studies, I really do. some day i’ll have to ask you about Japanese words and motifs in Zuni.]

          3. Ask away about Japanese and Zuñi motifs. I’m not an expert on either, by any means, but aside from whatever I might already know, or think I know 🙂 , I’ve developed mad research skills from years of doing genealogy, history (my BA), translation (mostly French, Spanish, and German, with a smattering of this and that), not to mention letting my curiosity lead me where it wills. Enough to evaluate between reasonable and imaginative info, at any rate.

      2. From French Gaule (“Gaul”), from Middle French Gaule (“Gaul”), from Old French Gaule, Waulle (“Gaul”), a word used as a translation of Latin Gallia (“Gaul”), from Frankish *Walholant (“Gaul, Land of the Romans, foreigners”), from Frankish *Walha (“foreigners, Romans, Celts”), from Proto-Germanic *walhaz (“an outlander, foreigner, Celt”), probably of Celtic origin, from the same source as Latin Volcae (“name of a Celtic tribe in South Germany, which later emmigrated to Gaul”). Akin to Old High German Walh, Walah (“a Celt, Roman, Gaul”), Old English Wealh, Walh (“a non-Germanic foreigner, Celt/Briton/Welshman”), Old Norse Valir (“Gauls, Frenchmen”). More at Wales, Cornwall, Walloon.

        Despite their similar appearance, Latin Gallia is probably not the origin of French Gaul; the similarity is purely coincidental. According to regular sound changes in the development of Old French, Latin g before a becomes j (compare gamba, whence jambe), and the i of terminal -ia transpositions to the preceding syllable (compare gloire from gloria). Thus, the regular outcome of Latin Gallia is Jaille, a component still seen in several French placenames (e.g. La Jaille-Yvon, Saint-Mars-la-Jaille, etc).

        1. Gallagher is the anglicisation of the Irish surname Ó Gallchobhair (or two newer spelling forms: Ó Gallchóir and Ó Gallachóir ), these being masculine forms; the corresponding feminine forms are Ní Ghallchobhair (newer forms Ní Ghallchóir and Ní Ghallachóir), and means “foreign assistance” or “foreign helper”. Apart from the aforementioned spelling there are at least 30 recorded variants including Gallacher, Gallager, Gallaher, Gallocher, Galliher, Gallaugher, Galagher, Galegher, Goligher, Golliher, and Gollaher.

          1. The evidence for pre-Roman era bagpipes is still uncertain but several textual and visual clues have been suggested. The Oxford History of Music says that a sculpture of bagpipes has been found on a Hittite slab at Euyuk in the Middle East, dated to 1000 BC. Several authors identify the Ancient Greek askaulos (ἀσκός askos – wine-skin, αὐλός aulos – flute) with the bagpipe.[2] In the 2nd century AD, Suetonius described the Roman emperor Nero as a player of the tibia utricularis.[3] Dio Chrysostom wrote in the 1st century of a contemporary sovereign (possibly Nero) who could play a pipe (tibia, Roman reedpipes similar to Greek aulos) with his mouth as well as by tucking a bladder beneath his armpit.[4] It has often been suggested that the bagpipes were first brought to the British Isles during the period of Roman rule.[2]

            Spread and development in EuropeEdit

            Medieval bagpiper at the Cistercian monastery of Santes Creus, Spain

            Image of Irelande, Military use of the bagpipe dated 1581
            The bagpipe was prevalent in the Eastern Roman Empire, and the 9th century Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911); in his lexicographical discussion of instruments cited the salandj (a bagpipe) as a typical Byzantine instrument.[5] Known in Byzantine Greek as the Dankiyo (from ancient Greek: angion (Τὸ ἀγγεῖον) “the container”), it continued to be played throughout the empire’s former realms to the present. (See Balkan Gaida, Greek Tsampouna, Pontic Tulum, Cretan Askomandoura, Armenian Parkapzuk, and Romanian Cimpoi.)

            In the early part of the second millennium, bagpipes began to appear with frequency in Western European art and iconography. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, written in Galician-Portuguese and compiled in Castile in the mid-13th century, depicts several types of bagpipes.[6] Though evidence of bagpipes in the British Isles prior to the 14th century is contested, bagpipes are explicitly mentioned in The Canterbury Tales (written around 1380): A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne, /And ther-with-al he broghte us out of towne.[7]

            Actual examples of bagpipes from before the 18th century are extremely rare; however, a substantial number of paintings, carvings, engravings, manuscript illuminations, and so on survive. They make it clear that bagpipes varied hugely throughout Europe, and even within individual regions. Many examples of early folk bagpipes in continental Europe can be found in the paintings of Brueghel, Teniers, Jordaens, and Durer.[8]

            A bagpiper busking with the Great Highland bagpipe on the street in Edinburgh, Scotland
            The first clear reference to the use of the Scottish Highland bagpipes is from a French history, which mentions their use at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547. George Buchanan (1506–82) claimed that they had replaced the trumpet on the battlefield. This period saw the creation of the ceòl mór (great music) of the bagpipe, which reflected its martial origins, with battle-tunes, marches, gatherings, salutes and laments.[9] The Highlands of the early seventeenth century saw the development of piping families including the MacCrimmonds, MacArthurs, MacGregors and the Mackays of Gairloch.[10]

            Evidence of the bagpipe in Ireland occurs in 1581, when John Derrick’s The Image of Irelande clearly depicts a bagpiper. Derrick’s illustrations are considered to be reasonably faithful depictions of the attire and equipment of the English and Irish population of the 16th century.[11] The “Battell” sequence from My Ladye Nevells Booke (1591) by William Byrd, which probably alludes to the Irish wars of 1578, contains a piece entitled The bagpipe: & the drone. In 1760, the first serious study of the Scottish Highland bagpipe and its music was attempted, in Joseph MacDonald’s Compleat Theory. Further south, a manuscript from the 1730s by a William Dixon from Northumberland contains music that fits the border pipes, a nine-note bellows-blown bagpipe whose chanter is similar to that of the modern Great Highland bagpipe. However the music in Dixon’s manuscript varied greatly from modern Highland bagpipe tunes, consisting mostly of extended variation sets of common dance tunes. Some of the tunes in the Dixon manuscript correspond to tunes found in early 19th century published and manuscript sources of Northumbrian smallpipe tunes, notably the rare book of 50 tunes, many with variations, by John Peacock.

          2. And this one WAS useful..at least of personal interest. Hubby’s name, Cohig, is from O’Cobhthaigh with variants from Cowhig to McVeigh. Most Americans changed to a more phonetic spelling, Coffey. Don’t ask me about this bunch. They dropped letters along the way in Ireland, culminating in our missing “u” from Couhig, which happened in Lynn during a split between brothers (details of which are a mystery to descendants of both sides. All we know is that “Something Happened”).

          3. Irish spelling is very complicated! But like English orthography, there’s more system to it than there seems to be. Old Irish had sounds that were difficult to represent with the Latin alphabet. The conventions were adapted very early. Over time, between the consonantal lenition found in all Celtic languages and the natural developments of sound change in the various dialects (which explains why there are so many variants), the clerics struggled to keep both continuity and reflect sounds accurately. On the whole, they did a good job. But to anyone, not a native speaker it looks like secret code! Of course, the final layer is modern orthographic reform.

            The final twist was that the English, who for so long kept the official records, often had little clue about how the system worked and struggled to represent what they heard, not always accurately, within the vagaries of their written language’s own peculiarities.

          4. I was just looking into the origins of your husband’s surname and found this bit of linguistic mythology: O’Hart makes a strong point for the similarity of the Irish language with the ancient Scythian and claims this (the Celtic language) was the Adamic language of Eden, the Irish is the most pure form of it, and is a key to the modern languages of Europe. !!!

            Is your husband a good singer and/or storyteller? It may be in the blood.

            This famous Irish surname is recorded in many spellings including O’Coffey, O’Coffie, O’Cohey, Coffee, Coffey, Coshey and Cowhiy. It is an Anglicized form of the pre 10th century Gaelic O’ Cobhthaigh, meaning the descendant of “Cobhthaigh”, the latter being a tribal personal name translating as “The victorious one”, no doubt a reference to a legendary warrior of ancient times. There were three main septs in Ireland making up the clan. The first sept belongs to “Corca Laoidh” or South West Cork, where local pronunciation produced the spelling forms Cowhig and Cowhey. It is claimed that the Cork sept is of the same stock as the great sea-faring clan O’ Driscoll, although quite why this should be so is one of the mysteries of Irish mythology. The hamlet of Dunocowhey in County Cork is named after the clan. A second “Cobhthaigh” sept of considerable importance belongs to the county of Westmeath, in the province of Leinster. This sept were renowned as a great bardic family, the first nameholder as shown below being a famous Gaelic poet. Charles Coffey (1700-1745), the Dublin dramatist and actor, was the first to introduce Irish airs in a play. A third minor sept was a branch of the O’ Maddens in the ancient territory known as Ui Maine. This comprised the modern counties of Galway and Roscommon, in the midlands and west of Irleand. Curiously “Rathcoffey” occurs as a placename, not in those counties but in County Kildare and County Leix, suggesting that the tribe may have migrated at an earlier period. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Dermot O’ Coffey, which was dated 1580, in the “Records and charters of County Westmeath”, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1, known as “Good Queen Bess”, 1558 – 1603. Surnames became necessary when governments introduced personal taxation. In England this was known as Poll Tax. Throughout the centuries, surnames in every country have continued to “develop” often leading to astonishing variants of the original spelling.

      3. The ethnonym Galicians or Galegos, derives from the Latin Gallaecos or Callaeci, itself an adaptation of the name of a local Celtic tribe known to the Greeks as καλλαικoι (Kallaikoi), who lived in what is now northern Portugal and who were conquered by the Roman General Decimus Junius Brutus Callaicus in the 2nd century BCE. The Romans later applied this name to all the people who shared the same culture and language in the north-west, from the Douro river valley in the south to the Cantabrian Sea in the north and west to the Navia river.

        The etymology of the name has been studied since the 7th century by authors such as Isidore of Seville, who wrote that “Galicians are called so, because of their fair skin, as the Gauls”, relating the name to the Greek word for milk, but today scholars derive the name of the ancient Callaeci either from Proto-Indo-European *kal-n-eH2 ‘hill’, through a local relational suffix -aik-, so meaning ‘the highlanders’; or either from Proto-Celtic *kallī- ‘forest’, so meaning ‘the forest (people)’.

      4. Language, music, and other cultural phenomena do tend to last longer. Some of the oldest extant music (that we know how to interpret) is the body od Gregorian chant — the oldest examples bear a date in the late 900s or early 1000s, but that is because we had no system of music notation before then. Some examples may be as ancient as the temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. Significant to note that much of this is still in use in some places in the Roman Catholic Church. Also, the bagpipe can be traced in some form to most of the societies that bred sheep. I’ve always enjoyed a giggle from the German terminology — dudelsack! Further, the one instrument that can really tell us what earlier times sounded like is the pipe organ, many European examples having lasted for hundreds of years. Yes, I am biased, as I am an organist. 😉

        1. Then you’d appreciate one of my latest finds. Doing a tree for my daughter’s father-in-law, and located the parish church in Germany where his family were members. Imagine his joy when I sent him a recent recording from the same organ his ancestors listened to in the 18th century!

  5. It made me think. I was born a Monroe (Scottish name), my g-grandparents came from Sweden in the 1880s, my New Englanders were for the most part Brits, there were Moravians on my mother’s side to add to the mix. I am the sixth generation to live in California. The Ancestry DNA gives me a lot of southern European blood, a question mark about what these ancestors were doing before coming to the colonies in the seventeenth. and eighteenth centuries. I have concluded that I am an American mongrel!

  6. Ah, we’re all mongrels, anyway! I tend to agree with David L that ethnicity is more concerned with culture (food, religion, clothing, family patterns, etc) than it is with DNA.
    Also agree with Anne that Caucasian sounds like one from the Caucasus—but that term was invented when people thought there were three “races”, and “mongoloid” sounds like someone from Mongolia, not Japan, etc. So sad that the race terms are still in common usage after we’ve learned better. Wish the world would catch up! Race (Caucasian, Mongolian, Negroid) just doesn’t exist! Many of the world’s problems might dry up if people would get that thru their skulls [opinion only!] I was so fascinated when I learned that skin color is due to the ability to absorb the correct amount of Vitamin D in order to become pregnant. So equatorial peoples had dark skin so they didn’t get too much, and far northerners had pale skin so they could absorb enough. It all had to do with how much sun they had where they lived. Today it doesn’t apply so much, as we have climate control options that render it less vital to survival.
    I’m curious, too, about David R’s Japanese DNA. Most intriguing. Did you know that there were 7 or 8 (I forget exactly) different DNA groups of people living in ancient Africa, and that only one left via the middle east to spread throughout the rest of the world–thus, a Norwegian and a Japanese are more closely related than an east and south African. Oversimplified, yes, but it sure is interesting…..
    Thanks for a great article, David; hoping there’s a lot more discussion on this, and that folks aren’t too sensitive about being politically-correct that we cant discuss it reasonably. We’re all sisters and brothers under the skin. This is my greatest hope for DNA genealogy: that we can one day prove to the “great unwashed” out there that we’re all one big family and enjoy each other!

    1. Nature verse Nurture …. still being debated. But “great unwashed ” and “all one big” family sounds so boring !

      1. I see your point….but have you ever been to a big family Thanksgiving dinner?
        Sometimes I need to get kicked off my soapbox (don’t we all?). Thank you, Viola.
        You know, I think it comes from a total confusion I’m sure I share with millions of others, on just what “ethnicity” means, as David mentioned.

        My hubby claims he’s Irish. Yes, his name is Irish, but he has as much or more English or German in there as Irish.

        My ex-mum-in-law referred to herself as ‘Mexican’ or ‘Chicana’. But the only ancestor she had from Mexico was one Elizabeth MacIntosh, a Scot whose father worked in Mexico. No, her ancestors belonged to an isolated population in southern Colorado/northern New Mexico area composed of various Pueblo Natives and Spanish conquistador/settlers. Why did she do this? When she was a girl, there was a lot of negative stigma attached to “drunken Indians”, and it hurt. As an adult, most of her neighbors were “Mexican” (in those days, meaning Spanish-surnamed), so she wanted to fit in better.

        My own German relatives identified as such, depending on what year it was. When Germans were ‘unpopular’, they were Prussian. Once, I saw ‘Swiss’, which is ludicrous, considering their hometown is now in Poland. So are current residents considered, ethnically, German, Prussian or Polish? I’d say ethnically German, historically Prussian and nationally Polish. But others may have totally different thoughts on that. (Speaking of ‘German’, is the British royal family considered ethnically German for their ancestry, or British for their culture?)

        Have a friend in Singapore. One day asked her what her native language was, and got this reply: She didn’t know. What? Well, it seems both parents were Chinese, but from far-flung provinces. They couldn’t understand each other in “Chinese”, so the family spoke English at home. All schooling there, however, was done in Malaysian. I guess she really didn’t know. Altho this example is about language, it still fits the bill here.

        Seems there was a university professor (who shall remain nameless) here recently in Colorado who thought s/he could claim to be Native American because they identified spiritually with that group, even though there was no evidence of blood relations.

        So many examples….but do we have a good solid definition?
        Found two on the ‘net. And they dont really mean the same thing, either:

        1–“Identity with or membership in a particular racial, national, or cultural group and observance of that group’s customs, beliefs, and language.”

        2–“a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like… background, allegiance, or association”

        and a good origin, just to mix it up: “meaning ‘race, culture,’ from Greek ethnos “people, nation, class, caste, tribe; a number of people accustomed to live together”

        So, do we get to choose from a menu of availabilities? Does it have to ‘match’ our close family? Is there a priority? Which criteria are included? The more I think about this, the more perplexing it becomes……we need a new word.

        Thanks, David. I think you’ve opened up an issue much more vast than you intended. Sorry if I sidetracked, but it’s just so darned intriguing, as well as confusing. If we as genealogists and historians cant figure it out, how can anyone else (ie, that ‘great unwashed’)?

  7. Not to be too picky, I certainly agree with Anne and others who point out the difference between ethnicity and nationality. If one is creating a genealogy of one’s family one is told by the experts to insist on accuracy and rely on original sources as much as possible.
    I can see how you may think that your progenitors who came from St. Pierre et Miquelon were French but until one finds that important first record of origin one must leave it open ended.

    Similarly one of our families name is LaHaise going back generations in Quebec. Before that?? no one knew. And we knew they had to have come from somewhere “else.” Until one “Great Uncle” who had time and money and actually traveled there and found the record showing the family originated in Ireland! Here’s where history comes in. If you know the history of Ireland in the 18th century you know that Ireland was inundated with many nationalities who stayed there for generations sometimes. “Uncle” found our Franco-American ancestor was descended from an “Irishman.” (or so he thought) After some searching of original sources in Ireland he found that our “Irish” ancestor’s origin was actually French. For we know before and during the French Revolution many protestants and catholics fled France for religious reasons. Less well known, many noble families fled the French Revolution in fear of being beheaded! Many fled to Ireland.

    So, our Franco-American family was first French, then Irish, then Canadian in national origin. But they always were of French ethnic origin.

    Then, as someone pointed out, there are the cultural influences. Which make a great impression on families starting over in a new and strange location. So then one must account for “cultural origins” and also “religious origins.”

    Therefore, my point is I try not to make sweeping statements until I have the complete picture. I use wording in records such as “to this point” and “as far as we know now,” or “to this point in our research.”

    Who knows where Monsieur le compt de la Haie’s progenitors came from five to ten generations before he fled to Ireland. Spain, Italy, Greece,? Turkey? Which is what you were really saying when you said it is good to drill down into the many layers of ethnicity.
    Does anyone think any person on earth is of pure blood ethnicity, except perhaps those tribes in the Amazon jungle we keep hearing about?

    1. Meeting up person to person “with those tribes in the Amazon jungle” …. they are actually “mixed” with the Spanish living amidst them — so I’d say that they are as well European !

  8. Nationality American; ethnicity “Northern European Mutt” or “Ueber-WASP!” If you asked me when I was a child, I’d have said Swedish, my most recent immigrant (1890). Two grandparents’ ethnicity is very simple; maternal grandmother 100% Swedish ancestry, paternal grandfather 100% German ancestry. The other two are more complicated. Maternal grandfather has German, Scots-Irish, Scottish, and English ancestors; paternal grandmother has Scots-Irish, English, French, and German. My immigrant ancestors cover a wide spectrum of North American history, from 1620 (seven ancestors on the Mayflower) to 1890 (Swedish great-grandmother). Not sure if I’m a melting pot or a tossed salad! 😉

  9. Interesting discussion!

    My most recent immigrant arrived in 1877, the penultimate in the 1820s, so my nationality is definitely American. For the most part, my ancestors came from various parts of pre-Unification Germany and German-speaking Switzerland. My paternal lineage might be described as originally Sayn-Wittgensteiner, which early on became Nassau-Dillenburger. My mitochondrial, Y-chromosomal, and nuclear DNA make me out to be 100% NW European, with my paternal roots for more than 1000 years never more than 50 miles from where the Immigrant started his journey to PA in 1753.

    I have two maternal lineages that may be British, Appleton and Robinson, but I don’t know their immigration history. At the time of the Revolution I have one Scots lineage (paternal) and one Irish, technically Ulster (maternal), though it unclear whether it’s native Irish or Scots-Irish.

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