I am an American.
Yes, you say, you were born in the United States and that makes you an American. While this is technically true, there is more to it. There is actually an ethnicity called “American” and I don’t mean the so-called “Native Americans.” An American is one who identifies themselves as an American rather than with some prefix, such as Irish-American, Italian-American, Polish-American, African-American, Mexican-American etc. and etc. In the 2000 Census more than 7.2% of respondents, almost 70 million people, identified their ethnicity as Americans. The majority of those who did were, not surprisingly, in the South, particularly Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. There is a good reason for this – those four states, and other Southern states, are populated largely by people whose ancestry dates back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who assimilated into the population as a whole while the population of the rest of the country is made up of more recent immigrants and their descendants who continue to identify with their country of origin. Those who identify as American are those who either don’t know where their ancestors came from or who have a myriad of ancestors from diverse countries. Such is my case.
Until recently, I thought my surname was Irish and that I have Cherokee ancestry. While it is, it is also a Scottish name and my ancestors actually were Scottish. It turns out I also have German blood, as well as English, Welsh and Irish and that the most recent of my ancestors to arrive in America were here at least by 1842. That’s when one set of my great-great grandparents, both Irish immigrants, were married in Georgia. I do have Cherokee ancestry. In fact, I’m at least 1/16th, which is enough to be considered “Native American” (a term I hate) and probably more. I also have learned that with one exception, all of my ancestors originally settled in the South, mostly in Virginia. The exception is my German ancestor, an Anabaptist who fled Germany in 1721 with a group of Anabaptists who came to America to get away from Papist persecution. He settled initially in Pennsylvania but migrated south to what is now South Carolina. Many of his descendants moved to West Tennessee in the 1820s-30s.
Although there had been some Germans and Irish in America since the early 1600s, it was in the mid-nineteenth century that large numbers of mostly Catholic Irish and Germans started arriving. While the Irish tended to stay in the northeast, Germans continued to settle in the Midwest. Instead of assimilating into the society of their new land, they tended to stick to themselves and formed communities of people from “the old country” and their descendants tend to identify themselves by their parents and grandparents’ nationality. This is not true of those who came to the South, where new immigrants tended to assimilate as my German ancestor did. His daughter married a Scotsman and over time the German ancestry was forgotten except, perhaps, by those descendants who carried his name. He changed the spelling from Kolb to Culp so they may not have realized it was German. German and Czech communities were established in Texas in the 1840s but even though they still recognize their German heritage, they are as Texan as the descendants of those who came to Texas from elsewhere in the United States. For many, their ancestry is not exclusively German. The same is true of Texans with Hispanic surnames, many of whom are of mixed ancestry. Other Germans established communities in the Midwest. Immigration from Eastern Europe started around the turn of the twentieth century and continued until the 1940s. Most of them settled in Northern cities, particularly New York, Boston,Cleveland and Chicago.
In the mid-nineteenth century, native Americans became concerned about the influx of German and Irish immigrants, many of whom were Catholic. Due to their numbers, German and Irish Catholics, in particular, were gaining political power in the North. “Nativist” political parties were formed in opposition to immigration, mostly in the North, but they fell apart when slavery became an issue, or perhaps because of it because German immigrants were closely allied with New England abolitionists, not for moral reasons but because slavery reduced their employment opportunities. They had no opportunity in the South so they stayed in the North and took jobs in cotton mills and foundries where they were paid little and were treated as badly, or worse, than the slaves in the South. The Union Army depended heavily on German and Irish immigrants during the Civil War. Immigrants who came to the United States from eastern Europe in the early twentieth century stayed in the North because the South was still suffering economic devastation from the war. They tended to settle in urban areas because the land that attracted Germans in the mid-nineteenth century was no longer available.
Now, being an ethnic American does not mean that a person has to be descended from the early settlers even though most who identify as American are. It’s really more of a state of mind, an identification with North America rather than a European country or even Mexico. (Incidentally, the majority of those who identify as Mexican-American are mostly first and second generation Americans whose families immigrated to the United States in the early Twentieth Century. When the United States purchased what is now known as the Louisiana Purchase, the land was sparsely populated, as was Texas prior to the establishment of the Austin Colony in the early nineteenth century. Yes, cities such as El Paso, Santa Fe and border towns such as Presidio date back to the seventeenth century, but most of the American Southwest was lightly populated and the population was mostly American Indian, who are themselves descended from people who migrated to the Americas at some point in history. Tennessee was more populous than California as late as 1909.) Thousands of early German, Irish and other immigrants threw away the trappings of the land they left and immersed themselves in their new land. For instance, although Jews are now associated primarily with New York City, the earliest Jewish settlers were in the South, with the largest concentration being in Charleston, South Carolina until large numbers of Jews began arriving in New York – and staying. However, later immigrants retained their previous national identity – or their descendants resurrected it in the 1960s after the civil rights movement made it politically expedient to do so.
Being an ethnic American is not exclusive to whites. The African-American identification that has become so popular since the 1990s is actually a misnomer that’s based more on skin color than actual ancestry. Large numbers of Americans who identify as African-American actually have more European ancestry than African. In fact, this may be true of the majority, particularly the more affluent. It’s not because of the “master raping the slave” myth either. There have been mixed-race children born of white women and black men since very early in this country’s history. In fact, there is a group in Appalachia that some researchers believe are descendants of mixed-race unions from the seventeenth century Virginia Tidewater.( No one actually knows where the people, who call themselves “Melungeon” actually came from. Melungeons themselves believe they are descendants of North Africans who were deposited in North Carolina in the sixteenth century and eventually made their way inland. I’ll say this much – one of my ancestral names is found among Melungeons and a recent DNA test showed that while my DNA is primarily found in Scotland and northern Europe, it is also found in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Turkey. That same test showed that my DNA is “weakest” in sub-Saharan Africa. Except for South Africa; the African countries where my DNA is found is in North Africa.) African historian Henry Gates Lewis discovered that his ancestry is more than 51% European.
It is those of us whose ancestors came here in the seventeenth to early nineteenth century that are descended from those who actually founded the United States of America (and Canada.) My family goes back at least ten generations in America with the most “recent” arrival, my great-great-grandparents, being five generations ago (or it is six?). It is also we whose ancestors assimilated into the population of their new country and became one. It is also we who are the most conservative while the descendants of those who came to America in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries are more likely to be “progressive.” In short, there are millions of Americans who cannot identify with any specific nationality or culture other than American because our ancestors came from a multitude of nations rather than one. We are not Irish-American, German-American (or German) Dutch-American, Italian-American, Polish-American, Lithuanian-American, Jewish-American, Mexican-American, Spanish-American, Portuguese-American, Hispanic-American, Latino-American, Turkish-American, Hawaiian-American, Asian-American Chinese-American, Japanese-American or any of the other “Americans” with a prefix that sociologists, politicians and activists have come up with for those who came to take advantage of what our ancestors established. We are American, native Americans, and not because we have “Native American” blood, (hich most all of us probably do) although we are native Americans because we and our ancestors for generations were born here. We are ethnic American because our ancestors have been in America for generations, unlike Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump whose American ancestry only goes back a generation or two.