Most Americans I know have a family origin myth. It’s not uncommon for us to say I’m Italian and Irish, even though we know we’re Americans. It’s really no surprise because, unless you are fully Native American, your family originally came from some other country, whether taken under duress, shipped with a prison colony, or looking for a new start.
At this point in time, most white, and I dare say African Americans, are a complete mutt and mixture of countries, ethnicities, and even races. I don’t come across too many people that claim to be to be from of just one country origin.
My dad was one of them. His famous claim was that he was all Dutch.
But, there was a little blip on his family tree where he couldn’t be sure if he was honestly all Dutch. His grandmother was adopted. The family lore suggested that his grandmother’s biological mother may have either been Irish or Mexican. She was certainly Catholic and from Texas, but that’s all we knew for sure. Her name was either Mary or Maria. My dad has a nice dark, olive skin tone, and thick black hair – like his mother – and therefore we suspected that her name was Maria and she was Mexican. Or perhaps the biological mother was Black Irish, and therefore my dad had some Jewish blood in him. Otherwise, he was fully Dutch.
I grew up learning all about Dutch culture because I was Dutch: All Dutch on my dad’s side, half on my Mom’s. I was, even accounting for the adopted great-grandmother, at least 50% ethically Dutch.
But as with many of those now taking DNA tests, this narrative came crashing down.
My family knew that not all our ancestors where ethnically Dutch. Before the discovery and eventual rush to The Americas, many refugees sought asylum in the Netherlands. The Pilgrims did this before they came to America. And we knew that my family did the same, it just took them an additional 300 years to immigrate to the US.
The furthest I can track my patrilineal heritage is to France in the early part of the 16th century, when my family was called De Tringham. Side note: My maiden name is eerily similar to my married name, so if you’re seeing Ingraham in De Tringham wait a minute and you’ll see where I’m going.
Peter De Tringham was a French Huguenot and after his village was burned down by the Catholic church, he and his family escaped to the Netherlands, where he changed his name to Tringham. Somehow in the immigration to the US, an “S” was added and we get my maiden Stringham. During this time, a lot of Huguenots immigrated to the Netherlands instead of Germany, or other Protestant leaning nations, because Huguenots followed a more Reformed theology as opposed to a Lutheran theology espoused by Germany.
I also knew that some of my ancestors were from England or general British Isles. They left for similar reasons as the Pilgrims. They were similar to what we call Quakers. Their religious practices were Reformed, simple, personal, austere, and quiet. Huguenots and Quaker/Separatists were welcomed with open arms in the Netherlands, as long as these families became Dutch. You could practice your religion with similar Dutch enclaves as Dutch.
The Pilgrims, unlike my family, didn’t want to become Dutch in culture, so they eventually made the treacherous trip across the Atlantic. My family stayed and became part of the Dutch culture. We became proud of that Dutch culture, but due to famine 300 years after the Pilgrims, were forced to make a new way in the United states.
While my Dutch heritage has started to fade, my family’s loyalty to the same faith that has caused it to move to Holland in the first place, has continued. Being Quaker is so deep within my DNA, that my offspring could mix with extra-terrestrial DNA and we’d still be Quaker.
Back to my dad, and his DNA test: We knew that originally, some of my dad’s DNA was not Dutch, or as the DNA test would lump it together, Western European. But France was still in that broad Western European category, so I assumed he would be at least 50% Western European. And perhaps quite a bit from the British Isles.
There was of course, the possibility that my dad would be part South of the Border, or Jewish. I assumed he would be mostly Western European and British, with a touch of Mexican or Jewish blood in him.
But, we were all wrong. And DNA doesn’t lie.
My dad is just an inexplicably dark, mostly Scandinavian man. I can’t remember the exact break down, but it was something like 40% Scandinavian, 35% British Isles, 18% Eastern European, and only 14% Western European.
I’m going to assume that my great-grandmother’s biological mother was just plain old Irish. I have no idea why my dad’s coloring matches my Hispanic sister. It’s an American mystery. That 14% Western European accounts for 95% of what I know about my family, and the stories that we’ve been told, and we’ve continued to tell, but only account for 14% of the DNA.
I’ve got plenty of stories on my mother’s side too. I’m interested to get DNA tests done on myself, and my mother, to see if the stories we’ve been passed on match our DNA. Was my matrilineal grandmother a gypsy as I’ve been told?
I know lots of Americans have been told stories that aren’t matching their DNA tests. A common story among many Americans is the Indian Princess Narrative. Many families tell a story about a white settler falling in love with and marrying a chief’s daughter. While I know there were lots of tribes scattered throughout America, I kind of doubt 75% of the white population had a Native American princess ancestor. I don’t know why we tell ourselves these stories. Perhaps, to assuage our guilt? If we are part of them, part of that terrible genocide, then maybe we aren’t responsible for what the white part of us did?
While I grapple with not being as ethnically Dutch as I thought, and as I prepare to go back to my ancestral lands, which maybe aren’t so ancestral, have you had an upset to a story your family told? Did you think you were Italian to find out you’re were Russian? How are you dealing with it and how will it change the narrative you tell your kids?
I live in Athens, Georgia, with my son, my husband, and an ever-revolving list of exchange students, who are a never-ending source of entertainment and writing material.