Free Issue! Try Saltscapes Magazine before you buy. Download Now

Where your ancestors came from might not reflect their ethnicity

All of us have met the chap who insists with the fervor of a true believer that his family is, say, Scottish, or perhaps French. Apart from the fact that all human beings share a common starting point, using modern political boundaries to determine your ancestral identity is a risky proposition. Your family came from Belgium? Bet they didn’t speak Belgian; French, Flemish or German perhaps, but there is no Belgian language. No one speaks Swiss or Yugoslav for the same reason.

Some European countries developed mainly around one ethno-linguistic group, such as Estonia or Portugal, but others did not. Colonial powers drew geometric lines across swaths of Africa and the Middle East, ignoring tribal regions, languages and history. Ethnicity, language and state boundaries do not coincide. Treat any ethnic self-identification as a variable rather than a constant.

When people speak of being Scottish, which Scots are they talking about? The Gaels who went across from Ireland were called the Scots, and gave their name to the land, but before the Scots there were the Picts. Where the two groups intersected, their genetic inheritance began to mingle over time. Then there were the Norse who arrived a few hundred years after the Irish Gaels, and a new mixture began to brew in the north of Great Britain.

The Lowlands, meanwhile, were becoming home to people from farther south. We might be tempted to refer to them as English, except that there were no “English” yet, just Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Just as in England in 1066 and afterwards, so in Scotland a generation or two later, there came a Norman influx. Even there, we have to qualify the ethnic identifier. The Normans included Norse, French, Breton and Flemish bloodlines. So what sort of “Scottish” did you mean when you announced that you were Scottish?

Surnames may be used as pointers, but they are not reliable indicators. Were all the people named Stewart or Stuart biologically related to the royal line of Scotland, and therefore ultimately Fitz Alans? Were the Drummonds really Hungarian? Were all the Morrisons Norse and the MacLeans Irish Gaels? Were the Frasers originally Frisians? DNA tests suggest that Somerled, progenitor of many MacDonalds, may have been Norse, rather that Celtic. These discoveries go far to shoot down ethnocentric notions about family origins.

Genealogists frequently use old census returns to find family groups. The Canadian census sometimes asked about ethnic origin and religion as well as age and names, etc. Someone, presumably a member of the household, supplied the answers to those questions, and sometimes they had it wrong. Perhaps they did it on purpose.

Over the past few years I did considerable research on one immigrant population in the mainland Maritimes. These were people from the former little country of Montbéliard. It existed next to Switzerland for four centuries. In 1793, French revolutionaries marched in and took over the undefended territory. People living there and their emigrated relatives did not welcome the annexation. When the 1871 census was taken along the Northumberland Strait, the resentment still echoed in memories. Several hundred respondents would not call themselves “French.” This explains the presence of dozens of households of “Swiss” there.

Sometimes, I have noticed, census takers filled in the religion and ethnic columns at the top line of a form and then put ditto marks right down the page. A family of Irish origin living in a mainly Acadian community might thereby be called French.

When a family headed by Gottlieb Schmidt is called “English,” you have to suspect carelessness. Even during the height of anti-German feeling during the First World War, the best poor Gottlieb could do was to claim to be “Dutch.”

Like many North Americans whose roots on this continent stretch back three, four hundred years or more, I cannot claim to be a thoroughbred. I am a mongrel decanted from more than a dozen breeds, and those are only the ones I know about. Inbreeding is not the most desirable trait. So celebrate the diversity you find in your family tree. Take my word for it, somewhere, sometime in the past, the tree was grafted. The answer to “Where do we come from?” It isn’t a terminus—it’s a way station.

Dr. Terrence M. Punch is a member of the Order of Canada. Find information about his most recent book, Montbéliard Immigration to Nova Scotia, 1749- 1752 (Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore) online at

Other Stories You May Enjoy

Romanced by a River

As my husband, Ron, and I shoved our 16-foot canoe into the water, I had other ideas about how to spend our Canada Day weekend: Chez Francoise in Shediac, NB, or maybe a unit at Summerville, NS,...

On the Front Line

AFTER A CAREER in health care and seven field placements in India, Liberia, Ethiopia and Haiti, mostly with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), nurse Anne MacKinnon semi-retired...

Book Review - Coastal Loves

Our lives are made up of stories: tales we tell to others and ourselves. We’re born into a narrative, ever-evolving from generation to generation. Author and journalist Marjorie Simmins believes in...