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.View all posts by David Allen Lambert