DNA crisis continued: The bigger picture

Yes, I’m still having a bit of a crisis over the DNA results until things get resolved. It’s not just the being told that my half-brother and I are “not closely related” part. At the same time, I had a huge part of my presumed heritage shift.

As I’ve mentioned before, the test said that I’m a lot more Irish than I thought I was. I knew that I was at least half via my mother, but now that number is over sixty percent. Meanwhile, there’s no German, English, Welsh, Scottish, or French to be found despite presumed genealogical records.

Instead, I have a ton of Scandinavian and some Italian and Basque.

Let me put this in context for my non-American readers. One of those things about us that mystifies visitors from other countries is how we answer the question, “What are you?”

Ask someone from Britain that, and they’ll either say British or declare themselves to be English, Welsh, Scottish, etc. Same thing if you ask somebody in pretty much any other country. The country is the answer.

But ask an American, and the answer you’ll get will basically be a list of where their ancestors came from for as many generations as they know. We can’t help it. More than almost anywhere else, we are an immigrant nation, and as each new immigrant group arrived, its members found themselves and formed their own communities until they spread out and assimilated while frequently still preserving their own cultures — and this country is all the stronger for that latter part.

My mother’s immigrant Irish ancestors, for example, wound up predominantly in upstate New York and rural Pennsylvania, largely because the land and climate reminded them of home. My family’s original locales were Schenectady and Binghamton in New York, and the general Scranton area in Pennsylvania. But I don’t have to tell fans of the American version of The Office where that is.

And while I do have records showing that my father’s ancestors on his paternal grandfather’s side came here by boat from Germany in the 1880s and those on his paternal grandmother’s side got here from England a week after the Pilgrims (more or less), and while at least the German bunch followed the typical immigrant pattern for their group, still — nary a drop of German or English blood.

Which is very strange, because both sides of my dad’s family followed the typical German pattern, particularly the ones who arrived before the Civil War. That pattern was to settle in a big city on the East Coast, frequently in Massachusetts, then be lured west in order to increase a territory’s population to the point that it could become a state with the ultimate goal being to declare it an abolitionist state, aka “no slavery here.”

One of my great-great grandfathers came west in exactly that way, becoming one of the founding residents of Kansas, as well one of the founders of his home county and, ultimately, mayor of his adopted home town.

He also happens to be the one ancestor whose genealogy I can trace back the farthest, to the late 15th century on many branches. And the disturbing part about that is how utterly British his roots were — both English and Welsh.

Or so I thought.

But maybe that’s exactly the point. My ancestors may have come from a country while they weren’t necessarily from there. It only takes one marriage with a male local to bury a family name, after all.

Look at it this way. Let’s say a couple moves from Japan to America. A few generations later, one of their daughters marries the grandson of immigrants from Brazil and takes his name. The two of them eventually move to France.

A couple of generations later, a descendant of theirs, who only knows that their ancestors came from America, does the DNA test, expecting to maybe find Native American or mostly European ancestry. Instead, they come up as Japanese, Brazilian, and maybe a couple of other things.

I think that might be the same effect going on here, and a reminder that humans have always been immigrants. In my case, the Scandinavians were the Vikings, and they’d been adventuring far and wide since at least the 10th Century. Hell, they may have even been the first Europeans to visit America.

Okay, I do know that “Viking” was more of an occupation and not a distinct group of people, and that Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians all partook of the job from time to time but that it was not really their identity. However, like sailors and soldiers throughout history, it was a profession that brought people in it into contact with other cultures in distant lands, and sometimes they stayed.

This was certainly the case in the British Isles, to the extent that for a while, the King of the Britons was actually Danish. Sure, they called the first one Canute, but that’s just an Anglicization of the name Knut.

Side note: When a Dane pronounces that name, it can get awkward fast, because if they introduce themselves, it can sound exactly like they’re saying, “Hi, I’m nude.” Then again, since Scandinavians are notoriously sexy, that’s not such a bad intro after all.

Anyway, the Vikings had a very advanced and complex culture, bringing people and products from far-off lands back to Scandinavia and then to Europe. It’s not hard to believe at all that at some point some Norwegians, Danes, or Swedes made their way down into Europe, and thence to England, Wales, and Germany.

But… they may have also maintained their own communities for generations, just as my early immigrant ancestors to the U.S. did. Hell, it really wasn’t until my generation that my mother’s side of the family started to branch out and marry people who were not Irish Catholic. My mom was one of the first, although it’s still not all that common among them.

However, this may be exactly how I managed to have ancestors who came from certain countries but who were actually not natives of those countries and didn’t mix enough with the locals to have an impression left on them.

Still… I’d really love to know how an Italian and a Basque managed to sneak in there somewhere around the time of my fifth great grandparents and plant their flag, as it were.

Is it weird to have the total rug-yank that tells me, “Hey, you aren’t what you thought you were but, on the other hand, you’re kind of this much cooler thing?” Oh yeah. Very challenging and confusing. I mean, I thought I was supposed to be this brooding, gothic Teuton with no sense of humor mixed with a tight-assed and very class-conscious white person crossed with another bunch of white people who were totally erased by the aforementioned bunch of white people. (Hint: The word we’re looking for for the latter group is the Welsh.)

But, instead, it turns out I’m descended from Sexy Scandinavians — and no one can honestly say that they’ve ever met an ugly Norwegian, Dane, or Swede.

So I can live with that combo. Two thirds short and bandy-legged bullshit artists who love to drink, talk, joke, and fight, and one third tall, strong, ambitious, and tough-assed bastards with great hair who nonetheless could moonlight as supermodels when they’re not conquering other lands through sheer force of personality.

Not a bad trade-off, I suppose. Still, it would be nice to get to the truth, so the next step for my half-brother and I will be to have them run the Y-DNA tests on both of our samples. This is the one that will look specifically at the genes we inherited from our fathers and will tell us definitively whether we have the same one.

Of course, the version we want to run is a bit pricey right now, so we’re hoping it goes on sale for Father’s Day, meaning that this saga will have another chapter. To be continued.

Image source: Wolfmann, (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.


Momentous Monday: I’m not really who I think I am

The surname Bastian is the 11,616th most common in the world — meaning it’s not all that high on the list — and is most common in Germany, which should be a no-brainer, since it is in fact a German name.

Thirty-five percent of Bastians reside in Germany, and the name has been documented in 86 other countries. Surprisingly, it is more popular in Indonesia (21% of Bastians) than in the U.S. (19% of Bastians.)

And yet, a few years back, I had a little existential shock when I found out that I was not a Bastian at all. It all happened because I’d started doing genealogy years ago and lucked out a long time after that when somebody researching the German village my ancestors came from saw a query I’d posted about my great-grandfather, so he sent me all the info.

But, because of that, I don’t know what the family name is really supposed to be because Bastian only goes back to my great-great-great grandmother, Barbara Bastian, who was born in 1801. But… that was her maiden name, and her husband’s name wasn’t recorded, so her sons Peter and Titus assumed the name Bastian. (I’m descended from Titus.)

I have the info on her Bastian ancestors going back four more generations to the 1670s, but no idea who my great-great-great-grandfather in that slot really was. The genealogist said that it could either have been a passing soldier who didn’t stick around (common at the time) or that the husband wasn’t Catholic and the family apparently was, so his info wasn’t recorded in the church records and/or the marriage (if it happened) was never recognized.

Of course, there’s a possibility that Barbara was actually the father, since there is precedent for it being a man’s name and it just got flipped at some point. After all, Marian is still a very common German name for boys. But I’m not counting on that.

So the Bastian line I know of goes: Johannes Georg Bastian and Ursula Rieger begat Johannes Lorenz Bastian; he and Catharina Melchior begat Johannes Georg Bastian; he and Anna Barbara Riger begat Matthias Bastian; he and Dorothea Bittman begat Barbara Bastian; she and some dude begat Titus Bastian; he and Catharina Seiser begat Gustav Bastian; he and Mary Fearl begat Theodore James Bastian; and he and Neva Belle Jones begat my father, who knocked up my mother and begat me.

That’s ten generations, but the last six of them aren’t really Bastians at all.

If any of those surnames sound familiar and you have family in or ancestors from Gaggenau-Michelbach in Baden, Germany, by all means say hello in the comments — we probably are related. That was another thing the genealogist told me — that there were only about nine families in the village, which was isolated, so yes, there were a lot of cousins getting married.

And before you roll your eyes over incest, cousins marrying was the norm throughout most of human history, because those were the only people a lot of people knew but who were distant enough genetically to safely marry but close enough in distance to actually meet. Also, second cousins and beyond were much more common.

I am fortunate, though, in that German obsession to detail and the Catholic penchant for keeping meticulous records combined to preserve this history so that a researcher could find it centuries later.

I’m less fortunate on my mom’s side of the family, which is all Irish, because we have the same genealogical problem that a lot of European Jews do: an attempted genocide intervened to wipe out most of the records.

In my case, it happened over a century earlier, and in a much more passive-aggressive way as England basically did nothing about a potato blight that created a potato famine that decimated the population. So… not an active genocide, I… guess…?

But they also went in and stamped down Irish culture, forcing everyone to speak English and almost killing off Gaelic, and paying no regard to any records.

So… while I can trace that one line through my father back ten generations (and another line on his side that lucks out and hits England back thirty or so), on my mother’s side, the farthest I can get back is… four generations through every branch. It all stops in the mid-19th century, which is also about the same time that most of them arrive in the U.S.

In fact, up each branch, the trail ends with no information on the parents of each one who was the first immigrant to come here. The pattern is “Born in Ireland, died in America, parents unknown.”

It’s kind of ironic, then, that I know more about my English and Welsh ancestry through just one of my father’s 7th great grandparents than I do through my mother, especially considering that genetically I am 50% Irish.

Oh, by the way, not accounting for pedigree collapse, a person has 512 7th great grandparents. That makes sense, since it’s two to the eighth power (don’t forget to add your parents to the seven), then doubled because you have two ancestors per slot per generation.

And, to put the degree of DNA in perspective — 50% from my mom, directly and, while the percentage that came from my dad is the same, the bit that came from that ancestor of his is about 0.39%.

Or, in other words, out of the 30,000 genes in my genome, about 117 came from that ancestor — only to mix ‘n match with the 117-ish other genes that came from every other person swimming in the gene pool that eventually became me at that point in the timeline.

In case you’re wondering, it wouldn’t take anything nearly as big as a swimming pool. In fact, a one liter bottle would hold all of the quarter gram of human eggs and approximately 800 ccs of semen contributed by all of those 7th great grandparents, with room to spare.

But you’re going to need a two liter if you want to go to the next generation, and a gallon jug to hold the ingredients for the one after that. At that point, just forget it, because you’re just going to be exponentially adding gallon jugs from that point on.

Ah. Isn’t genealogy wonderful? Speaking of which, I’ve finally signed up to get my DNA tested with FamilyTreeDNA.  I chose them because my half-brother’s girlfriend had gifted him the service previously –she’s the other one in the family really into genealogy. 

But since he and I share a father, and hence the Bastian name, I found it odd that his test showed absolutely no German heritage. I’ve been a little nervous about getting mine tested, because if I show up German for days, then there’s a bit of an issue somewhere. If I don’t, though, it may just lead to figuring out where that non-Bastian great-great-great-grandfather came from.

I will definitely keep you all posted on that one. Oh — and Schöne Grüße to my many German readers! 

Image by Calips, used unaltered via (CC) BY-SA 3.0.

Talky Tuesday Special: Erin go, bro!

In which I don’t so much write about language as indulge in my Irish gift of gab in the most meta way possible.

Americans may or may not be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow, depending upon which state they live in and whether big gatherings have been allowed yet, although I don’t think that’s the case anywhere. Last year, New York City  cancelled theirs one (of the biggest in the country), along with Chicago and Boston.

But the salient point is that, like Cinco de Mayo to actual Mexicans, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t all that big a deal over in Ireland. It’s more of a religious holiday than a boozefest. They still celebrate it, just not on the same scale as… oh. Never mind. Ireland has cancelled, too.

In honor of the day, I’m bringing up my mother’s people because the Irish in America are a very good example of a group that was once an identifiable and hated minority that went on to assimilate with a vengeance.

If you trust traditional sources, that might not seem the case. According to the Census, 10.5% consider themselves of Irish descent. But, of course, that’s totally unreliable because it’s a self-reported figure. Some people may have no idea where their grandparents or great-grandparents came from. Others may not care about their Irish ancestry, or may identify more strongly with another group or country in their background.

But when you look at objective sources and include any degree of Irish heritage, the number changes dramatically. DNA tests via Ancestry show that two thirds of all people tested have at least some Irish blood in them.

In other words, in that regard, the Irish are the hidden majority in this country. Nice trick, considering that for so much of their history here, mo mhuintir (my people) were a much hated minority.

A group of refuges, fleeing what is basically an attempt at genocide back home, suddenly flood the country. Many of them speak a foreign language or speak English badly; they practice a different religion than most Americans of the time; they are perceived as a big threat to American jobs (although they only took the ones Americans didn’t want); and they are accused of being violent criminals, addicts, or rapists.

Sound familiar? Ripped from recent headlines?

Yes, but all of those attributes were applied to the Irish who came to America in the wake of the potato famine, or the Great Hunger, of the 1850s. A big part of it was religious discrimination. At the time, America was predominantly Protestant, thanks to its initial British invaders… sorry, settlers, but another big group who came over, the Germans, tended to be Lutheran. The Catholic Germans of the north stayed home.

The English never had any problem with the Germans because, surprise, by the time America was founded, the English royal family was actually… German. They ruled via four Georges, one William, and somebody known as Victoria.

After she died, the name of the house changed twice, first with her successor, and then again during World War I (then known as the Great War) because Windsor sounded so much more British than the German Hanover, and the British were fighting the Germans, after all.

That’s right. World War I wasn’t so much a war as a family squabble.

The Germans in America did just fine, though, and I have plenty of them in my background as well. My last name is German, and my great grandfather came from there. He was pretty successful as well, and as far as I know, the only elected official (mayor) who’s my direct ancestor for at least four hundred years.

My Irish ancestors, not so much. They were depicted in the press in completely stereotyped and racist ways — and yes, even though Irish is a nationality, the prejudice they faced was a type of racism because the Irish were not considered to be white by the native-born of the era.

Note that the mention of Germans also being stereotyped in that era refers to the Catholic ones, who finally came over as Germany dissolved into civil war in the mid to late 1800s. Note that this is exactly when my great-grandfather came over with his family.

It was 1883 and he was 18. The village he came from was Michelbach, in Gaggenau, just outside of Stuttgart. It’s close enough to Hamburg to assume that it was very Catholic, but I don’t have to assume.

Thanks to a genealogist who, while studying the village as a whole, found my query online, I know all about all of my ancestors from there back to the late 17th century, thanks to the Catholic Church they were preserved in. So those Bastians were probably Catholic. My dad was definitely not.

I don’t think he practiced any religion except for the Ritual of the Earliest Tee Time via its patron, St. Golf, but I suspect that it was because his mother, who was a combination of French, Welsh, Scottish, maybe Native American, and who knows what-all else, wasn’t at all religious.

But if it was one civil war that brought my German ancestors to America, it was another that really messed with my Irish ancestors. This would be the American Civil War itself, and, ironically (or not) it was a perfect example of the rich pitting one downtrodden class against another.

April 1, 1863 was the date the government in the north set for all men between 20 and 45 to register for the first ever draft, whether they were citizens or immigrants seeking citizenship. On top of this, while you’d think that everyone in the North was against slavery, you’d be wrong. In fact, not only did the business elites in New York support it because they profited off of the cheap labor, too, but so did the lower classes, because they feared the possibility of freed slaves coming to take their jobs.

Hm. That whole mishmash sounds familiar, too.

Oh… there was one other big flaw in the law, and it was this. Anyone could buy their way out of being drafted by either finding a substitute to take their place, or paying $300. Obviously, this meant that buying their way out was impossible for the poor and working class, and these people went apeshit.

This led to the draft riots, the second largest act of civil insurrection in U.S. history, ironically only beaten out by the Civil War itself. Of course, as the riots started, the disgruntled poor, largely Irish, didn’t go after the rich bastards in charge. Nope — they went after the black community instead.

Even then, America used divide and conquer. An object lesson for today. Keep in mind that before the Civil War, the Irish were shoved into the same social circles as blacks who were not slaves, and there was a lot of intermarriage and the like going on. Sadly, the above scare tactics of “they’ll take your jobs” during the Civil War worked, permanently damaging the Irish/Black relationship.

But… it planted a seed, so to speak, and there are plenty of black Americans today who happen to have Irish genes in them.

So how did the Irish manage to climb up the ladder to become respected and considered “white?” Simple… America, never one to back down on xenophobia, simply found new targets. After the whole Irish thing, there were suddenly Italians, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, and Mexicans flooding our shores.

After all that, the Irish didn’t seem all that bad.

By the time that Great War ended, the Irish were totally assimilated. And they saw their first president elected in 1960… wait, right, no. JFK was not the first Irish-American president. That would have been bloody, bloody Andrew Jackson. Too bad he didn’t also claim the title of biggest racist asshole prior to… well, you know who.

But, surprisingly, even as recently as 1960, the big worry was whether an Irish Catholic president would follow the Pope instead of the Constitution. (Hint: It was unfounded.)

So happy St. Patrick’s Day. Although it’s not really celebrated that much in Ireland, it probably is in America because, if all y’all strip down to your genes, you probably do have a little Irish in you. Erin go bragh!