ICYMI: A question of identity

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With A. J. Jacobs at the Global Family Reunion in early June 2015.

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 29 June 2015.]

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.

The Lamberts were merchants at St. Pierre et Miquelon…

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.

[A] fascinating, and ever-changing, question

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.

8 thoughts on “ICYMI: A question of identity

  1. What do most people consider the start of the United States? Is it 1775 with the start of the Revolutionary War, the end of that war in 1782, or something else? I have some 3g-grandparents definitely born in British North America but others may have been depending on ones deciding on a date for the start of the United States.

        1. So, you would count from when we separated from Britain? Then, there would have to be a name for the area for the period from when the Pilgrims settled here permanently to when the Constitution was signed.

          1. Jane, until the American Colonies declared independence from England, they were “the American Colonies” or “the Colonies”, or went by their individual names, i.e. Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia, etc. But collectively the area was always known on the other side of the Pond (Great Britain, Europe, etc) as some variation of “America”, hence the descendants of my earliest Massachusetts ancestors who arrived in 1634 were always Americans, even before the Colonies split from Mother England. Same for progeny of my Quaker ancestors who arrived in the 1680s.

            Of course, *techically* until the Declaration of Indepence, all American Colonists were British subjects and therefore English. Even during the Revolution, many Colonists remained loyal to King George and refused to take up arms against the Redcoats (the British army). A scenario that set brother against brother, same as happened 90-some years later during the American Civil War.

  2. My husband’s great-grandfather was born in “Austro-Hungary” so the family thought of themselves as Hungarian. When I determined he was born in Kurima, now Slovakia, the family found the information quite unsettling at a deep level despite having no current connections to either Hungary or Slovakia and having plenty of other ethnicities mixed in during the last 100 years. Hungarian “stuck” for some reason.

  3. This is an interesting idea. I had to stop and calculate the ethnic heritage in my family line. All my ancestors were born in America until my great-grandfather who came from England. Among my second great-grandparents I have 12 born in America, 2 born in England, 2 born in Switzerland. At the level of third great-grandparents (32 ancestors), I find 23 born in the US, 4 born in England, 4 born in Switzerland, and one unknown. So roughly, at that generation, I am 3/4 American, and 1/8 English and 1/8 Swiss. I am going to propose this as a fun study project for the members of my local genealogy association.

  4. David, another path to ancestral identity is religion. Thanks to my English-born ggm, my mother and I were raised Methodist, my American-born maternal gm was raised Methodist Episcopal, but her parents later became Seventh Day Adventists. HER earliest ancestors arrived in America in the 1600s; some were C of E and some were Quakers. But on my dad’s side, his mother’s parents were Lutherans from Sweden, and she raised him in that faith. Alas, I don’t think I’ve ever known what religion Dad’s dad belonged to, only that his gf was from Austria or Germany (depending on who was ruling at the time), but he married a woman born in Virginia (as were all her ancestors); he then accompanied her family to northwest Indiana, where they stayed until wanderlust hit and half the family went to Nebraska and half to Kansas. Early on (the mid-late 1700s) there was an Irish branch and one from Scotland, but off the top of my head I don’t recall what denominations they belonged to on this side of the Pond. At any rate, having mostly British blood, I can’t help but have an affinity for Catholism, thanks to ol’ Henry VIII rejecting Rome but continuing many of its practices and traditions in his Church of England. Quite a mix, isn’t it? Is it any wonder my beliefs now incorporate a bit of each but no one religion in particular? ;-}

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