Connecting Americans to one another – and the world – through genealogy

dnaadventures


OpEd

A few of you may have noticed that the Genealogy Adventures | DNA Adventures tagline recently changed. Our project has outgrown its initial tagline: inspiring your own genealogy adventures. Given the scale of our readers/follows (we are truly humbled!), I think we’ve achieved that initial impetus for the project.  Inspiring people to delve into their own genealogy adventures remains front and centre of everything we do.

Yet, there’s always been an underlying purpose for this project, including the TV series. This is expressed in the new tagline: Connecting Americans to one another- and the world – one family tree at a time.  We like to look at the two taglines this way: the first one acted like a cheerleader. It was all about getting people excited about delving into their own genealogy.

The new tagline represents the foundation of what our project is really about. Think of this new tagline like an American football quarterback (or like a mid-fielder for all of you footie fans). It’s the heart of what we do, and why we do it.

We live in a period marked by profound social and political unrest and divisiveness. I believe genealogy can have a role in addressing this. Now, I’m no Pollyanna. I know that genealogy isn’t a magic wand that can erase so much of what has lead us to this moment, this exact point in time. However, I believe that genealogy can be a route that enables all of us to understand how we arrived at this peculiar junction in history. That would be American history, to be precise. Genealogy and history…they are inseparable and indivisible.  You cannot have one without the other. You cannot understand the history of a family without understanding the historical backdrop that their lives played out against.

The history of any American family is the history of America in microcosm.

A nation founded on immigration has evolved

It’s not a (insert the name of your preferred news channel here) news flash that America was founded by immigration. It was an immigrant nation. Now it’s a nation. Just like a person goes through defined growth stages in the course of their life – infant, toddler, child, teenager, young adult, middle age, and pensioner – a nation goes through growth stages. The day after the American colonials won the Battle of Yorktown, America was in its infancy. The story of an immigrant nation was the narrative of its infancy. I’d argue that its Civil War was America as a teenager.  America can still be seen as an immigrant nation at that point.

Those new immigrants married into older immigrant families. They were absorbed into the fabric of a country that had almost completely morphed into a nation state. By nation state, I’m saying that America didn’t merely exist as a geopolitical entity. It had a distinct culture, which is an essential ingredient for a nation state.

Continued immigration into a nation doesn’t make it an immigrant nation.  Immigration isn’t its defining characteristic, which that phrase implies. Yet, this remains a stubborn narrative today.  That narrative implies that new immigrants today only marry other new immigrants. That’s not the history of our nation. Almost two centuries down the road from the Civil War, all of those immigrant families who arrived on these shores before the outbreak of the Civil War built a nation. A nation of families with unknown and forgotten connections to one another.

Relations between different ethnic groups in colonial era America was surprisingly fluid. That’s the polite way of putting it. While the ruling colonial elite were not best pleased about this, and began to actively legislate against it, cross-cultural sexual relations happened. A. Lot. No, think of a number and multiply it a thousandfold. Now you’re getting it. DNA testing services like AncestryDNA, 23andme and FamilyTree DNA have proven it.

Yet, America remains divided between groups of people who have been actively pitted against one another in a perverse form of an animal blood sport, one that has gone on for centuries.

Each culture that has arrived on these shores has contributed something to the shaping of this nation. There are too many to mention so I will highlight a handful. The Mid-west would have a fundamentally different character/vibe had it not been for the Scandinavians who settled that territory. Texas would be a very different place had it not been for German immigrants. The Southwest and California owe their distinctive flavour to the Spanish and Mexicans who were the first non-Native American inhabitants in this region. American music owes everything to the fusion of Irish and Scottish folk music with the music of Africans.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Genealogy is the road to an American identity

Genealogy has been my faithful and steadfast tutor on American history – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the morally obscene. My roots in America go back further than I could have ever imagined. All the way back to my 12x great grandmother Pocahontas (um, I’m not joking!)

If you’d told me that I had ancestors who settled and built Jamestown (that would be my West family), I’d have told you to go and do one. If anyone had told me that Martha Dandridge Washington, you know, George Washington’s wife, was my cousin, I’d have told you to pull the other one.

I wouldn’t have believed anyone who told me that I was related to and/or descended from signers of the Declaration of the Independence (John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton and Benjamin Harrison). Or that I was the direct descendant of a famed Revolutionary War hero (Patrick Henry), and a staggering list of Colonial Era and post-Revolutionary War governors, congressmen, senators and state representatives.

Or that I was related to an African American scientist who pioneered research in the field of blood transfusions (Charles Richard Drew) – who also developed improved techniques for blood storage, and applied his expert knowledge to developing large-scale blood banks.

The fact that I am related to some of the framers of the American Constitution still blows my mind – that would be John Adams (again) and James Madison.

You wouldn’t think I had these ancestral connections solely based on my complexion. You wouldn’t guess it. Nevertheless, I am descended from, and related to, people who don’t look like me.

One thing genealogy has taught me: My roots run deep in America. America’s history runs deep within me. And, hand on heart, I’ve only learned the real history of the land of my birth through genealogy. Genealogy gave me the American identity that I never had. My parents, bless them, instilled in me a sense of inclusiveness.

The steady rhythm of history

There is no part of my tree where I can escape the steady rhythm of American history.  My Sheffey ancestors fled the war-torn 18th Century Palatinate region of Germany to become farmers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Weary from endless wars in the land of their birth, they did not hesitate to answer the call of Revolution in their new homeland. Their Ankney cousins landed in Pennsylvania and became part of the steady move westwards – usually amongst the first settlers as the frontier borders moved steadily westward.

My pantheon of Scottish and Irish ancestors were also at the forefront of that same expansion into new western territories, a number dying in skirmishes with various Indian tribes who were defending the lands of their forefathers. Other Scottish and Irish ancestors married Native American women, their descendants numbering in the tens of thousands.

There are my English Quaker ancestors who fled religious persecution in England – you know, the kind of persecution where you were fined, tortured, imprisoned or brutally executed for not practicing the faith of the Church of England or the Church of Scotland. They fled their homeland for Ireland, and then Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

Or my Scottish ancestors who were Covenanters – a group of Scottish Protestants who also fled their native lands for Ireland and the American Colonies.

Or my African descended ancestors who worked their owners’ farms, cooked, looked after their owners’ children or were hired out as skilled tradesmen and tradeswomen: blacksmiths, wagon makers, wheelwrights, horse breeders, dress makers, milliners, etc. Their toil built the wealth of a nation. 

Or my ancestors who were free people of colour, who owned farms, businesses or were gifted artisans/craftsmen, men of the cloth, and healers.

My ancestors from every background fought in every American war, both domestic and foreign. Every. Single. Battle.

I know all of this, and oh so much more, because of genealogy.

And they married. And raised families…many of those families were an impressive size generation after generation after generation. They raised their families; instilling every hope and dream for the future. Whatever their background. Whatever their station in life. Each generation strived to better their parents, attaining their slice of the American dream.

Trust me, some of my ethnic ancestral groups had formidable obsticals to overcome to achieve their dreams. Some continue to battle entrenched obsticals now.

Together, they built America. All of them. In their own way. In time, their countless myriad of descendants become one, big, enormous, American family. Seriously. There are thousands of surnames in my family tree. All of these families are related. Each has spread out to reside in each of the 50 States…and a few American territories to boot.

There is more that unites Americans than divides us

Look, no family is going to get along all of the time. Families have their disagreements, their barneys, their tense moments. The strength of family is the ability to respect the bonds of family. To bounce back from those fractious moments. To respect differences while still acknowledging that you are kin. What strikes me most right now is this: most families I’ve seen unite when a family member is attacked. What frustrates me is how my fellow Americans tear one another apart. A house divided falls – a much more famous man than me said it. And he was right. We are weakest when we are at each other’s throats.We are weakest when we kill one another based on some contrived notion and narrative of “otherness”. 

Try this on for size.  Look at people when you’re out and about doing your usual daily thing.  Not like a stalker. You know, look at them the way people usually notice other people. Ignore the superficial differences like skin color, attire, body decoration, etc. Ignore the displayed symbols of that person’s religion. Don’t look at them like they are an ‘other’. Look at them as a person. And then ask yourself a simple question: How would I see that person if I knew we were related? Because you very well might be. If your family has resided within America’s borders for more than a few generations, don’t be surprised by the number of people you’re related to. And they all won’t look like you. They all won’t be from the same ethnic or cultural group as you.

400+ years of marriages, sex and children in America. How far back can you trace all of your family lines? Don’t make assumptions. That person who you thought something negative about, or made a snap judgement about because of their external appearance…well, you could be related to them. I’m only now discovering that I share common ancestral families with a handful of people I went to high school with twenty-something years ago. My colonial Quaker ancestors are the gift that just keeps giving 😉

Or, to put it this way, as multi-ethnic as I am, as progressive as I am in my socio-economic and world views …I am related to John McCain, who is as European looking and Conservative as one can be. Put us side by side and you’d never guess in a million years that we were related.  Heck, I didn’t even know we were related until I took up genealogy and worked on my family tree. George Walker Bush? He’s my cousin. Preston Brooks, the infamous Senator from South Carolina? He’s my cousin too. Barak Obama?  Yep, another cousin.

You. Never. Know. Not until you do the work, and your family tree makes its revelations.

The meme of American individuality can only take us so far. Separately, sure, we may shine like a single star in a vast and endless universe. Together? We can be an incredible constellation that lights up the night sky. Part of that constellation is recognizing, respecting, and hopefully rejoicing in, the fact that we are connected in ways that have been long forgotten. That constellation is family. It’s your choice, my fellow Americans. There is always a choice. You can probably guess which one I’m hoping will be the outcome.

400+ years of division and hatred should be enough for any country.

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