Not long ago the national news organizations reported that more Americans were descended from German ancestors than from any other group. These reports were no doubt based on the following data released by the U.S, Census Bureau. Observe these charts:
At first glance it seems pretty clear. Glance again. There are many problems with the notion that Germans are the most common ethnic group based on this data. Of course, the data is 16 years old and the influx of Hispanics and Asians may have changed it by now, but I am more concerned with how to interpret this data. Of course, most Americans probably have mixed ancestry. I would venture to guess that most Americans with German surnames also have ancestors with English names and lineage. The reverse is also true. My surname is English but I have German ancestors. So the first question is how many Americans have some English ancestry and how many have some German ancestry. The above charts don’t show this. Since the original colonies were predominantly inhabited by English immigrants, with most Germans coming later, I would guess that more Germans ended up intermarrying with English descendants than the other way around. Still, this is speculation on my part. For purposes of analysis, let’s assume the simplest case, which is also the one most in favor of the Germans as the leading group. I’ll assume that those identified as German are of 100% German ancestry and the English are 100% English, etc.
Look at the bar graph. Still mostly German, you say, right? Not so fast. Look at that group called American. Whoa. Who are they? They’re not Native Americans, i.e. American Indians, because that group is identified separately. It becomes necessary to determine the methodology used to identify the ancestry. I researched this and determined that the Census questionnaire simply asks what is your ancestry and provides a short blank line. The respondent must answer with one or two words of their choosing. It’s not multiple choice and there is no one verifying the answer. A 100% ethnic Han Chinese with a Chinese name could answer English and no one at the Census Bureau would change it. They could put Martian. It’s purely self-identification. So that raises the question of who answers “American”? Look at the geographic distribution. Without going into extensive argument and analysis, I believe it is quite clear that the people most likely to answer that way are those with the longest ancestral ties to the original colonists. Most of those people were of English ancestry or possibly from Scotland or Ireland, especially in the Appalachian region where the highest concentration of “American” responders reside. If you combine those who said English with those who said American the total is higher than Germans.
Then there is the issue of African-Americans. Set aside for the moment the fact that Africa is a continent, not a country, and African-Americans are descended from many different tribes, ethnic groups, and regions of Africa. It’s no secret that most have some ancestry from slaveholders of old. Note that the areas that show African-Americans as the predominant ancestry are surrounded by “Americans.” Think about how many African-Americans you know with German surnames and how many with English ones – Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Jackson, Johnson,… need I go on? Few German immigrants settled in the south, especially during the days of slavery. It is also part of our ugly history that any person with any noticeable African ancestry has been considered black or African-American. Slaves were even marketed with terms like quadroon or octoroon. Someone who was seven-eights white European was still considered black and treated as such. It is fair to say that even today, many people of mixed race who actually have a majority of European ancestry, and this chart shows that to mean primarily English, consider themselves of African ancestry because American society has treated them that way. President Obama considers himself an African-American even though his mother was 100% white.
While none of this is absolute proof, I contend that this data actually provides overwhelming evidence that in fact for Americans it is the English who have the greatest representation among our ancestors. It also raises some very interesting and sometimes disturbing questions about what “ancestry” really means. Is it cultural? Genetic? Are Germans and Dutch different while African-Americans from west and east Africa are the same ethnicity? Is it our surname, our favorite food, our language? Does any of it matter? I’m having a 23andMe analysis done. It will be fun to see what it says about the genes, but I know one thing about my ancestry that it won’t show: I’m American. I have ancestors from England, Wales, Germany, Holland, and some with French- or Irish-sounding names. There’s even a rumor of a Cherokee ancestor who Anglicized his name. My son had his analysis done and he had a small but non-trivial amount of native American genes. My wife has good reason to think there is some native Mexican in her heritage along with the allegedly “pure” Castilian Spanish ancestor. It will be fun to see which of us contributed those genes.
Edit: May 17, 2017.
This post has proven to be one of the most popular ones on my blog, so I thought I would update it now that I have my genetic ancestry mapped with a DNA analysis. I have also seen the analyses done for my son, my wife, a great nephew and several other people 23andMe identifies as my DNA relatives. Without going into detail about how I evaluated it, I believe the ancestry part is quite accurate and consistent with known family history (although the trait part is not so accurate). My ancestry was almost entirely what I expected, with 99.1% European (i.e. white). The breakdown is very close to what my genealogy shows, with over half “British” some Scandinavian, French and German, and a big chunk of “broadly northwestern European” which no doubt includes the large Dutch component I have. The rumor about my Cherokee ancestor is false. My DNA shows 0% Native American. The one thing I did NOT expect is that I am 0.7% West African. That’s 7/10 of 1%, not 7%. At first I thought that was consistent with most white folks since we all came from Africa originally, but after examining the African part of the DNA reports of other white people I’m related to, I have much more than any of them. I even have a “3rd to 5th cousin” who shares DNA with me and is 86% West African. So it is probable one of my ancestors six or seven generations back, around the Revolutionary War or before, was African. For what it may signify, I am about as white as they come – blond (turned brown then gray), blue-eyed, pale as a ghost, and all that. For all that I am still —–American.