Yellacat Ranch Under a Western Sky

Grandma’s Ethnicity

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When I was in, oh say 3rd grade we were supposed to go home and ask our parents where our families came from. That was probably the first time in my life I ever heard about this ethnicity thing I’m always writing about. It might also be the first time I had any sense of genealogy.

I don’t actually remember what my mother told me or what I told the teacher the next day. I’d bet my answer was that I’m English and Swedish. Something easy, anyway. I know that because I was surprised so many kids the next day didn’t know and some had what seemed to me to be unnecessarily complicated answers. One guy said he was “Heinz 57” and that was the first time I ever heard that expression. This was Brigham City, Utah circa 1964. You’d think parents would be prepared with answers to genealogy questions.

I’m pretty sure the point of this exercise was to begin introducing us to fractions, but I don’t remember actually doing any fractions here. At least not in school.

But I do remember my mother explaining it all. Her father’s parents both came from Sweden, so he was full Swedish, and that meant she is half Swedish, and I’m a quarter Swedish. There was even an Swedish sailor when I was little who called me his “little qvarter Swede.” (In Greeley, Grandma Long’s boarder.)

What I really remember from it is that Grandma Place was German. Easy. She spoke German. And Grandma Swanstrom was “half English, a quarter Scottish, and a quarter Irish.” Hard. I learned something about fractions.

When I was a bit older I figured out that Grandma Swanstrom’s ethnicity was simpler than I imagined at first. My bet was she arrived at her numbers by figuring her dad was English, and her mom was Scotch-Irish. I was able to confirm this insight many years later when I saw the marriage record for one of Grandma’s brothers. It said exactly that. Father English, Mother Scotch-Irish.

The cool thing for me is because the calculation is not strictly correct, it tells me something about how people simplify American ethnicity. See the chart above for a more detailed analysis of Grandma’s ancestry. Her father has an English mother but his paternal ancestry has bits of Scottish. And her mother has bits of English. But both of them are really mostly just colonial American.

In the course of Grandma’s life I got a few other clues to how she saw ethnicity. Without asking directly. Because I already knew you can’t ask leading questions if you’re really intent on finding out how someone sees something.

I learned that Grandma thought of her red hair and her parents’ red hair as a part of their ethnicity. Her dad had “bright red hair and red handlebar mustache”. Of course. I think today we would say he was a ginger. His mother was from Yorkshire. And her mother had “auburn hair”, which her father said was her mother’s “crowning glory”. Her ancestors were Scots and Irish, so it’s not a surprise they had red hair.

Then too, when Grandma was diagnosed with skin cancer and again when she had high cholesterol, she told me her ancestors would have included many Vikings raping an pillage in Ireland and Scotland. So she must have a lot of Scandinavian ancestry. And that reinforces her fair skin. Plus, she said, half in fun, Scandinavians live up there where’s there’s not enough beef (remember her father was a rancher), so they live on fish. And there’s no fat in fish. So their bodies store every bit of fat they get, to use when they need it. So her high cholesterol proved her Scandinavian ancestry. (Grandma liked to read science and psychology magazines, so I imagine she had a pretty accurate picture of the science behind all this.)

This is all fun stuff. I’m taking time to write about it because it might be interesting someday for Grandma’s descendants to have this little glimpse of how she thought about ethnicity.

More Information

  • Go out and play with Pedigree Pie. It’s the software I used to create the chart of my grandmother’s ancestry. It takes your ancestry from FamilySearch.org. Very handy.
Yellacat Ranch Under a Western Sky
Justin Swanstrom

Justin Swanstrom

Made in America. Retired attorney. Bookseller at Shining Lotus. No Nazis in Valhalla. He/him.

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