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May 6, 2020


Matt Norwood

Great essay. It brings to mind Townes Van Zandt's lyric:

I come from a long line:
high, low, and in between.
Same as you.

For my part, my surname came out of the Honolulu phone book in 1941 when my paternal grandfather, on shore leave, swapped it for the unpronounceable Kraut name his immigrant parents gave him. I like being able to tell people my impeccably WASPy name is Hawaiian and leaving it at that. Earlier than that and I'm descended from the same mix of slaves and slavemasters as everyone else.


I started working on my family tree because I was interested in finding out where my ancestors came from prior to Australia, plus I'd heard fragments of stories about particularly interesting great grandparents that I wanted to flesh out.

As it happens my paternal ancestry is Welsh, coinciding with many of the Mayflower pilgrims, including its captain. However brick walls of illegitimacy and uncertain paternity make it unlikely that I could ever connect my line with any certainty to those pilgrims.

Two hundred years ago most of my ancestors were basically peasant labourers and tradespeople. What is interesting is the way that education and mobility allowed some of them to flourish in ways they had been historically denied. To see them designing canals, setting up locomotive workshops in India, becoming outstanding sportswomen - that has been more rewarding than any named lines.

Watching my British ancestors move out of villages into the cities through the industrial revolution and form family enclaves in London neighbourhoods is like seeing a historical soap-opera unfold in birth and census records. More than that it demonstrates that they share the same story as communities making the transition to modernity in other countries in the present day. When family members make disparaging remarks about recent migrants, I remind them that they are the beneficiary of their own ancestors making the same journey a century earlier.

Re your DNA: I would take that with a grain of salt. The percentages given by DNA service providers are based on the self-selected spit donors of migrant populations, not source populations. The figures are also going to be different to what your siblings may get, because despite having the same ancestry we each get a unique set of genes and some are going to reflect one ancestral line more than another.

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