This began as a reply to a comment on my previous post. It’s an explanation of why no “ethnic identity” is very central to who I think I am.
My father’s family, my name ancestors, were from Alsace-Lorraine, a border region on the banks of the Rhine between France and Germany. His father (my grandfather) told his children the family was ethnic French; it is recorded that one of his and my direct-line ancestors was an officer under Napoleon who died leading his men in a charge against the walls of Moscow in 1813. But I learned in my teens, after my father had been doing some genealogical digging, that the family had formerly identified itself as ethnic Germans. This is not as odd as it now sounds. Before world War II there were pockets of ethnic Germans under other sovereignty all over Europe; the “wrong” bank of the Rhine wouldn’t have been at all a strange place to look for them.
I still recall my father’s expression of surprise as he reported that his father had been fibbing about that. We didn’t know why at the time, but I now suspect that it was an effect of strong anti-German sentiment during World War I. A lot of the ethnic Germans in the U.S. at that time suppressed their German ties and even changed their names, though this wasn’t necessary in our case. (I do, however, suspect that I have relatives from the other bank of the Rhine named Riemann or Reeman).
The point here is that half my alleged ethnicity, the “French” part, turned out to be a fiction spun by my paternal grandfather. You may be sure that learning this discouraged me from taking any claim about my ancestry very seriously. He died in the 1940s when my dad was in his teens, so I never got to ask the old man what was up with that myself. He was a formidable character by all accounts, a train driver on the Pennsylvania Railroad back when that was a prestigious high-tech job.
And it’s actually a little messier than I’ve described yet, because my father’s cousins later did their own digging and they think the family was an eastern sprig of a very old Norman-French noble house of Raymonds. Which of course would make us Danish or Norwegian Vikings far enough back, even if we got assimilated among ethnic Germans on the French side of the Rhine later on. Could be just romanticism, but….Napoleon did recruit a lot of officers from the noble and gentry families who survived the Terror. I actually queried the French national archives about this years ago, and was sent back a coat of arms attributed to a “Raymond” family in Alsace-Lorraine. I rather suspect that my Moscow-charging ancestor had the use of it.
One reason for that suspicion is that the (normally aristocratic) tradition of producing cavalry officers stuck with us in the New World. Another direct-line ancestor, the Napoleonic officer’s grandson, was a Union cavalry officer who died at Gettysburg. That’s only a few hours from here; I keep meaning to go look for his name on the monument.
I suppose, just to make the infodump about family tradition complete, that we’re pretty sure my father’s direct ancestor lit out of France in 1815 because it wasn’t comfortable for Napoleonist grognards in France just then. And that the next couple of generations of Raymonds became the New World equivalent of petty gentry in central Pennsylvania, producing judges and engineers and military officers until the whole region was economically smashed flat by the Great Depression.
My mother’s family has its own legends. The family name was Lehman and the provenance from the German-Swiss area near Zurich; oddly, one of the things we do know is that some of her name ancestors were styled “Bishops” under some German Protestant sect that used the title. But there was Irish in her ancestry as well, and Amerind, and some tenuous connection to the royal house of Scotland. They crossed the U.S. in Conestoga wagons in the mid-1800s and settled in Nebraska. My maternal grandfather ditched the rural life to become a sign painter in Hollywood; my mother grew up on Laurel Canyon Road in the 1940s with Robert Heinlein as a near neighbor.
Anyway. I’ve actually had three theories presented to me about my father’s family’s actual ethnicity. One exploded, two others differing but possibly both true. Hard to get very attached to any of them, under the circumstances. And under any theory I’ve ever heard I’m probably a mix of French, German, Scots, Irish, Amerind, Scandinavian, and Goddess knows what else – if the people I tend to hang with and some of the women I’ve been attracted to are a clue I’d have to suspect some Ashkenazic Jewish got into the mix somewhere along the ancestral lines. That’d be nice, actually, if I could confirm it.
You can’t really form an “ethnic identity” out of a mess like that. It’s silly to even try. What, am I supposed to beat myself up because my hypothetical ancestors on one bank of the Rhine hated the equally hypothetical ones on the other? About the most sentiment I ever invest in the matter is to wear green on St. Patrick’s day, which in the U.S. is customary if you’re part Irish or even if you’re not.
When the subject of my ancestry comes up and I’m inclined to try to be funny and anti-PC about it (which is usually), I borrow a locution I read on USENET decades ago. What’s my ethnicity? “European dominator party mix.” Yeah. That’ll do.
UPDATE: For you foreign readers, my commenters are quite correct. While the details of my family history are individual this kind of ethnic mix is very normal in my country — I’m a typical American this way.