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Where Are You Really From?

Growing up, if you asked me what my ancestry was, I would have simply said “German and Irish.”

My father’s side of the family was German. My grandfather on that side was a German immigrant after WWII, and my grandmother’s family came to New York from Germany a few generations earlier.

My mother’s side of the family was Irish. They looked Irish. They identified as Irish. And they had very Irish last names.

So growing up, I thought I was a 50-50 split. But I was wrong. Very wrong.

Getting the Real Story of Your Family

It wasn’t until I was 16 — when I started doing genealogy research and talking to older relatives, grilling them with my questions — that my previous identity started falling apart.

It turns out, my Irish grandfather’s mother (my great-grandmother) was German. So my mother was 25% German — not all Irish. And while I’d always looked more like the German side, suddenly I felt more German too. Then, if you’d asked me what I was, it was more like “more than half German, and mostly Irish on my mother’s side.”

But that wasn’t quite right either.

The Trouble with Surnames

In my research over the years, I’ve learned that my family wasn’t just Irish and German. They were English. And Scottish…

I was actually surprised by the large chunk of that Irish family that wasn’t Irish at all.

That’s the problem with surnames though — two families merge, and you only get one last name and all the connotations it comes with.

In my case, the males happened to be the Irish sides in several regional splits. But the more I dug into my family history over the past decade, the more interest I took in my English lines.

They weren’t only easy to trace far back (thanks to royal lineage which is already well-documented), but they did important things here in the U.S. — they were founding families of quite a few towns and cities in some of the early colonies, like New York (where I was born), Connecticut, and Massachusetts. They’re close enough for me to visit, and that brought a new dimension to my research.

But in researching those English lines, I ran into the same thing — other bits of my history hidden in lines of merging surnames. It turns out we were some of the earliest settlers of New York City (when it was New Amsterdam). I had Dutch ancestors who chose to settle the land where I would later be born, after my most recent immigrant ancestor would happen to settle there as well.

So suddenly I was German, and Irish, and English, and Scottish… and Dutch.

In that research, I also turned up quite a few French lines that merged into English and Irish ones. And ancestors from Denmark. And Wales.

So then I realized I was German, and Irish, and English, and Scottish, and Dutch, and French, and Danish, and Welsh…

Then today I decided to spend some time mapping my ancestors from my family tree (and I have just under 3000 so far, so I just mean mapping countries they came from and country-to-country migration –not highly specific).

And I realized I’d been missing some interesting things. That can happen when your tree gets large — you have to choose which branches to climb first. And unfortunately the software I have, and Ancestry.com, both do a lousy job of letting you search your ancestors by location.

So I did this manually. I went through a full location list, just interested in the countries my family members were born in, or died in.

And while I haven’t dug into these lines very far yet, I found out my family comes from an even broader background than I realized, even at nearly 22 years since I began. I also have direct ancestors from Russia, Hungary, Belgium, Austria, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, Poland, Italy, and — much to my surprise — a distant line from Afghanistan.

On top of that, I had ancestors who — for whatever reason — traveled to, and died in, Bolivia, China, Israel, and Turkey.

What does all of this mean?

Not much at all really. But they’re leads to follow. They’re adventures and choices to understand. They’re stories to discover.

And, for me, genealogy is largely about the story. And the more I find out about my family’s past, the more I seem to find out about myself.

When was the last time you dug deep into the branches of your family tree to see what “new “stories might be hiding in it?

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