A few years ago my sister had a DNA profile done. To her surprise, the family stories, passed down from Minnesota Germans and Norwegians, that said our mother’s people were pure Scandinavian and dad’s side was all German, turned out to be more complicated.
Our maternal grandfather came to Minnesota from Hadland, Norway, in the early 1900s, when he was in his teens. He married another Norwegian, whose family had arrived in Minnesota in the 1880s, and they made a family. They spoke Norwegian at home—until mom, their first child, went to school and was made fun of by other kids. Although grandpa spoke with a severe accent, the slap at his daughter rankled him, and he had enough English to declare himself American and English as the language spoken in the house from that day forward.
Dad’s side is a little murkier, but Wandschneiders and Steindorfs came to the States in the great migration out of Germany in the late 1800s. Grandmother was a Steindorf born and raised in Minnesota; our grandfather was not yet two on his arrival. Dad said that his grandparents did not speak English, but we never knew them, and I never heard his parents—our own grandparents—speak German. Maybe they too had decided “to be American.”
Here is the DNA breakdown that my sister got back from the testers:
West & Central Europe—17%
And then traces from Africa and South America!
Two thoughts came immediately to my mind: the marauding Vikings and the shifting borders in Central and Eastern Europe. Germans and Germanic people have slipped and slid across empires and countries from Central Asia to Western Europe for millennia. And the Norsemen made repeated raids in the British Isles, and certainly brought women home with them. Their travels also included the Mediterranean, where they would have run into slavers that might account for African traces. Viking travels and world-wide slavery can probably also account for South American traces.
Borders have always shifted and people have always traveled–even before there were nations. The first thing to remember is that nation-states are a relatively recent historical category, that more than likely most of the world for most of history identified by local tribe—and language—rather than as members of a German, Norwegian, or Ghanaian nation.
Which ties into my interest in the twin evolutions of Manifest Destiny and the American concept of whiteness. In a review of a new book, Making the White Man’s West: Whiteness and the Creation of the American West, by Jason Pierce, in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, Jennifer Kerns explains how Anglo-Americans fueled the westward movement and the taking of Indian lands as “lesser” groups of whites—Irish, Slavs, Eastern Europeans—filled eastern cities and industrial jobs: “Boosters of the West… intellectually imagined the West as a restorative place for Anglo pioneers whose inherent character was at risk of decline when located in the urban East among ‘motley’ immigrants.” I’ve said it before: In its time Manifest Destiny was not about the white—or even European—westward expansion. It was about the Anglo notion of empire and superiority being passed from British Anglos to Anglo-Americans.
Jason Pierce also explains how the railroads, operating with the largesse of the federal government in allotting them Western lands, went to Europe and recruited Germans and Scandinavians they thought hardier and more industrious than other whites. So these Scandinavian and German men (because our history is almost always about men) eventually joined the lead—Anglo-American—jockeys riding Manifest Destiny to the Pacific Ocean.
Only later, in my mind after and in part as a consequence of World War II, did those “lesser” groups of whites become the right kind of white.
The Indians were more complicated. Apparently some early Puritans thought them one of Israel’s lost tribes, and the Mormons found a special place for them in their theology. Some Europeans even mimicked or joined tribal peoples, but for the most part, from Plymouth forward, the Indians were only an obstacle for Anglo-Americans on their march to the Western Sea. Indians–who had grown across two continents and evolved 2500 languages and tribal cultures–died of diseases the immigrants brought from another world, fought when they could, continued to move and mix genes with other tribes and eventually with some Euro-Americans, and miraculously held onto some older languages and markers of identity.
The new DNA analysis business shows us a world as complicated as the 2500 indigenous American languages added to those of other continents. And “the right kind of white,” like my sister’s DNA, is obviously more complicated than many of its defenders would like to know. What modern DNA analyses tell us is that ultimately, as far as the human race is concerned, we’re all related.
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