A Reflection on Ancestry
Why Understanding Our Own Roots Helps Us Better Appreciate Others
BY STEPHANIE HASKINS
I just finished reading The Politzer Saga (read my review here) and author Linda Ambrus Broenniman’s deep and fascinating dive into her family’s roots got me thinking about my own.
My musings might not be fodder for an entire book, or land me an exhibition in a European place of worship (where The Politzer Saga is honored), but I still think they’re worth sharing. After all, everybody has a story.
When I was a kid growing up in my little Minnesota town, it was OK to say and believe that our nation was a “melting pot”—that we Americans are all part of some cohort of immigrants who came to this country from some other part of the world.
We believed that carrying the blood, if you will, of people who chose to come here from some other place was something of which to be proud.
Sad to say, however, in recent years many White, radical, “Conservative Christians” (a.k.a. Republicans) have chosen to ignore that we all came from somewhere else (except for those indigenous to the land). But hey, it’s always more convenient just to hate people whose languages are different. Or have different skin tones.
“Melting Pot” has become a pejorative.
Unless, perhaps, the stuff that’s in it is stewing in a “white” sauce.
So, like it or not, in the grand scheme of things for our billions-of-years-old planet, the 400 years since the establishment of the Plymouth Colony are pretty much like a couple of days ago.
I was born with the blood of people mainly from Norway, Germany, and England coursing through my veins. I later learned there were some corpuscles from France and Ireland and the Iberian peninsula as well. But teeny amounts.
I am your typical White chick.
And in Minnesota, being of Norwegian or Swedish or German extraction meant that I was part of the majority population.
Up until I was 10 or so, I knew very little about my ancestors—on either side—because, well, I was a kid.
But that changed when my great Aunt Bertha, who was a genealogist, presented me with a loose leaf binder filled with original drawings of coats of arms and family crests and an actual family tree illustrating who my English and German forebears were.
The Ames family.
They were art of the earliest contingent of settlers who came to the Plymouth Colony of Massachusetts in the early half of the 1600s.
My Aunt Bertha was terribly proud that our family came from to those settlers—the Pilgrims and the Puritans—who first came to the Massachusetts shore in 1620.
I grew up loving history, so I was proud, too. And I could prove where I came from—because it said so in that wonderful book about our particular segment of the Ames clan she’d given to me.
I later learned that, after its arrival in the Plymouth colony, the Ames family had grown and prospered in the Massachusetts towns of Salem, Braintree, and Boston.
As time passed, I came to know a lot about that tribe of east coast patricians who were founding members of my American family on my mother’s side, and how they’d prospered in the northeastern coastal states until some of their brave sons and daughters moved west to the fertile lands of Minnesota and Iowa a couple hundred years later.
My mother’s father, my grandfather, was a full blooded Norwegian, but he was extremely close-mouthed about his upbringing, and in truth, had no interest in discussing his family.
He’d been orphaned at the age of 12. And because he was so young when his parents died—apparently of some disease like smallpox, or typhoid fever or maybe even tuberculosis—he’d never asked or never been told about his roots in great detail.
A whole chunk of family history lost when his parents died unexpectedly.
The little I do know is that my grandfather’s parents married young, had two sons, and had farms or ranches in both Kansas and Illinois. And when they apparently died within days of each other, my grandfather and his younger brother were sent to Minnesota to live with distant relatives.
The rest is unclear.
In the years since my grandfather died, I’ve found little bits of paper with a few dates and names written on them that give a bare bones sense of my Norwegian heritage on his side, but not much else.
For instance, I have no idea what my Norwegian family name on my mother’s father’s side actually is, or was.
When my great, great, great grandparents emigrated from the old country sometime in the mid-1800s, they wanted to shed their “foreign” emigrant status, and they changed their name from whatever their Norwegian name was to—get this—JONES.
Yep. One of the most common names in America, right up there with Smith.
My mother, who really never much cared about knowing anything about her family, thought she’d read that the family name might actually have been Tesdahl. But there’s no proof that I can find.
I always thought it might have been something like Johanssen, because Jones is an Anglicized derivative of an ethnic-sounding name like that.
My Norwegian ancestors—whatever the hell their names were—apparently came from the coastal Norwegian town of Bergen. And that, folks, is the extent of what I know about my Norwegian family roots.
Regardless, I am more Norwegian than anything else, and so I identify as a Norwegian American. Despite the fact that I have other bloodlines in me from other European nations, I consider Norway to be my genealogical touchpoint.
With that said, I had little interest in learning much about my roots on my father’ side. His ancestors were the usual mix of northern European settlers who immigrated to the southern part of the U.S. and ended up farming in Tennessee. They led quiet, unremarkable lives.
The southern cousins I met a couple of times when I was a kid were, unfortunately, racists. I remember being called a “damn Yankee” a few times. They also used the N word.
I didn’t much like them, and lost touch with most of them many years ago.
Still, one of my nephews has done some digging into our paternal family tree, working with Geni, a commercial genealogy website. About the only interesting relative his research ran across is my eighth great grandfather, who was a preacher by the name of George Burroughs.
He was hanged for supposedly being a warlock, during the Salem witch hysteria. He was strung up in 1692, and is noted for reciting the Lord’s Prayer as he was executed
No one else on that side of my family, that I know of, has subsequently lived (or died) as heroically.
So, those are my roots.
Over the past half-century or so, our culture as a whole has become increasingly fascinated with finding and exploring its roots.
Who are we?
Where did we come from?
And how much does that explain what we are now?
I think it really started about 47 years ago, when historian Alex Haley created the critically-acclaimed and monumentally significant (and aptly titled) television mini-series, Roots. Based on his novel, ABC-TV broadcast Roots over eight consecutive nightsin January 1977.
As those of you 50 and older no doubt recall, Roots was a blockbuster hit and became a cultural phenomenon. It told the story of a family of Black slaves and their struggles that helped shape our country.
It was so beautifully done that it resonated with millions of viewers—both Black and White—well beyond the TV screen. Americans everywhere subsequently began to wonder about their own ancestral heritage and started digging into their family histories.
Thirteen years later, Ancestry.com became one of the first genealogy-based companies. It was formed in 1990 by two Brigham Young University grads to help members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints research their families’ histories—in order to support the church’s practice of baptizing dead relatives and ancestors into their faith. The company went national and has since become deeply embedded in our cultural fabric.
According to Ancestry.com’s Wikipedia page, by 2018 the company had traced the bloodlines of some 18 million customers and had some three million subscribers The company also reported that, as of 2022, it had provided access to approximately 30 billion historical records. We, as a nation of immigrants, have become obsessed with finding out who we are.
Over the past few years, the science of cracking cold criminal cases has been hugely impacted by the process of identifying and tracking genetic connections. The best known was that of the Golden State Killer who (side note!) actually lived not too many miles from me!
In 2012, Harvard professor Louis Henry Gates created the popular, long running Finding Your Roots program on PBS, where celebrities discover information about their own family trees—sometimes to their shock and dismay when it turns out they’re related to people they’d rather not be. The show has spawned plenty of copycat productions ever since.
The oldest human bones discovered, to date, by scientists date back some 300,000 years. Many Christians refute that timeline, of course, and adamantly stick to their guns (literally, in some cases) that we all came to be with the creation of Adam and Eve, some 6,000 years ago.
I’m not interested in debating evolution vs. creationism except to say that regardless of what we each believe, we all have some sort of societal and cultural connection to each other. We all had to begin somewhere.
And I think it’s safe to say that most of us have some level of interest in knowing who we are and where we came from, so we can perhaps better understand where we want to go, and how to get there, as a species.
As human families.
We’re all part of the planetary melting pot that boils us together, whether we like it or not.
Stephanie Haskins is a Reporters Inc. Board Member. You can read more about her here on our Team page. She can be reached at .
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