Adoption plays an often quirky role in genealogy. First, there’s the problem that people often disagree about how to handle adoptive lines when a biological line is also known. And second, there is the problem that modern adoption is a formal, legal procedure, while historic adoption was often informal and can be indistinguishable or almost indistinguishable from fosterage. 

To the early Greeks and Romans, the goal of adoption was to perpetuate the family based on the male line of descent and to ensure the continuation of the family’s religious practices. Thus, the adopter originally had to be a male without a legitimate son. Adoption also served the purpose of cementing political alliances between families and continuing political dynasties. Later Roman emperors, however, did permit adoption by women to “console them for the loss of children” [citations omitted]. 

Roman adoption practices never took hold in England. Statute law first introduced adoption to England in 1926. English concerns with the integrity of blood lines and the desire to ensure that property was inherited by legitimate biological descendants meant that there was no adoption law to be received in postrevolutionary America. In the United States, adoption laws developed in response to the needs of dependent children, not infrequently poor, orphaned, or handicapped. Statutory schemes regulating adoption were first enacted by the states after the middle of the nineteenth century, the earliest probably being in Massachusetts in 1851“[citations omitted].

What this means in practice is that we’ve had only a relatively few generations to think about adoption. Not enough time to reach a cultural consensus. At bottom is a very basic understanding about what we mean by genealogy and family history. Is it an essentialist world where there is a biological absolute, maybe with a cultural overlay? Or is family history entirely cultural, where perhaps it would never be possible to make a rule about which facts best present the history of different families?

It bothers me to see the DNA commercial where the guy turns in his Lederhosen for a kilt. It implies culture is biological. You might have grown up in the German part of town, speaking both English and German, eating German foods, and thinking of yourself as German-American, but if you don’t meet some minimum threshold of German biology, it doesn’t count. Adopted? No one cares. It’s not who you are.

That seems far too harsh to me. But if I twist the question just a bit, and ask about a White family that believes they’re Indian–is that different? I think it is, for reasons I’ve talked about in other posts, but my own answer can’t settle the question for everyone. The examples of White Indians and Ethnic Imposters leaves us wondering how far we can go and be within the “acceptable limits” of “family history”. And our answer there has implications for how we handle adoption in genealogy.

And finally, the unanswerable fact that we cannot bring some kind of scientific precision to these questions shows without doubt that we’re dealing with concepts constructed by culture.

Related Posts


I think probably the first time I heard the term Cracker was in Gone With the Wind. Maybe it’s a Southern word. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used by a Westerner, at least not un-self-consciously. Many people I’ve asked have no idea what it means even though most have heard it.

I read Gone With the Wind in high school, and got the basic meaning from the context and from asking around. A Cracker is a backwoods Southerner; poor, illiterate, and bigoted.

But really I learned about Crackers in a college history class. We had a professor who tried to give us some depth, something more than just events.

One of the things he told us, several times and in several ways, is that those of us from rural Western backgrounds come from a uniquely blended culture. He made it sound special.

Our cowboy culture and country music have roots in the rural South, as indeed we do ourselves in many cases, but our politics have been shaped by 100 years of Yankee schoolmarms. In short, our ancestors didn’t lose the Civil War, so we have a variant of rural Southern culture but with a dash of New England liberalism and without the chip on our shoulders.

Do I need to say it? Of course, this is a generalization. There are exceptions. Back then I thought my Utah Mormon background made me one of the exceptions. Nowadays, I don’t buy that that for a minute.

My professor was really talking about Crackers, although it would not have been politic to call them that.

After college, as a genealogist, I learned to recognize Crackers as being the descendants of 18th century Ulster Scot immigrants. They love God, guns, and now Trump.

Fischer developed this idea further. His idea was that immigrants from northern Britain (“the Borderlands”) 1715-1775 settled in America’s “Backcountry”, becoming one of the four British folkways that contributed to American culture. Crackers.

I have quite a bit of Ulster Scot ancestry, so I’ve been almost endlessly interested in the topic. Barry McCain posted an article yesterday. I always sit and pay attention when it’s him. For this article, I have three take-aways:

  1. A nice summary: “They were basically a semi nomadic group who were excellent hunters, kept free range cattle and pigs, and lived in the backcountry. They were normally of Ulster ancestry, but not exclusively so.” And, “The original Crackers are also associated with free range cattle and lived in the backcountry.
  2. McCain thinks the word “Cracker is the anglicised form of Creachadóir”, which in Ulster and Scots Gaelic means a “raider and freebooter”, but is “also associated with the free range cattle drovers in Ulster.” Same thing to the Elizabethan English, he says. I think he’s likely right about this. Until now I’ve accepted the theory Cracker is an anglicized form of Cracaire. They’ll talk your ear off. McCain considers this idea but he thinks the Gaelic usage is too recent.
  3. Contrary to my impression (and contrary to Wikipedia), McCain says the word Cracker is not derogatory. In fact, it’s a term of pride. He says: “It means you are indigenous to the South, ancestors from Ulster or northwest Britain, have roots in the Uplands or Backcountry, are independent, self-reliant, you act in an honorable way, are good with weapons, hunting, fishing, and are a man who knows how to do things.  As the Southern Crackers settled Texas and the Southwest they became the Cowboy, a cultural continuum of their unique lifestyle.

I hope it’s true the word Cracker is no longer offensive, but I’m skeptical.

More Information

A Better Diaspora

What does it mean — a better diaspora? I started thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when a friend who is Latina mentioned how often people are surprised when they find out she doesn’t speak Spanish.

At the time I just laughed. I don’t speak Swedish or any of my other ancestral languages, so we’re in the same boat.

Later, though, I started thinking. Why would people think Latinxs would be more likely to retain an ancestral language than anyone else?

Historically, most of the United States has been part of the European diaspora. Learning to speak English is a benchmark for assimilation. Yet, there are cultural enclaves everywhere. I’ve lived in Salt Lake City, New York, and Denver. In each of them I lived for a time in particular cultural areas, including Latinx, Russian, German, and Jewish. Now I live on the edge of the Muslim part of Denver.

When I hear the news about Americans who hate immigrants, I think to myself these people must have led very sheltered, small-town lives. In the cities, immigrant communities are just part of life. Their native cultures give us new restaurants and cultural festivals, which are part of the joy of living in a city.

While all this was fresh in my mind, I came across an old Michael Newton article. If you’re not familiar with his work, he’s been called “a leading authority on the literature and cultural legacy of Scottish Highland immigrant communities in America.” I’ve been giving up on him, because he’s retreating behind a paywall but I still read him when I come across something.

Newton argues that most of what passes for Scottish culture in North America — kilts, clans & whisky — is a sham and sometimes even a vehicle for white supremacy. In this “new” article, he is promoting learning Scots Gaelic as a way of improving the Scottish diaspora.

The idea of learning Scots Gaelic as a way of strengthening the culture of the diaspora strikes me as interesting. Despite what I told my Latina friend about not speaking Swedish, I did take a semester in college. I also had high school French and German, and college Latin, German (and Swedish). And, I’ve tried now and then, but without much success, to learn Gaelic and Old Norse.

So, I wonder. Is knowing the language an essential part of affirming identity and belonging? I think I’d want to read a wider spectrum of opinion and debate but it feels like there’s something “there”.

More Information

  • Dr. Michael Newton. “A Better Scottish Diaspora is Possible.” Patreon <>, July 17, 2019. Retrieved May 27, 2020. 

Updated May 27, 2020 to replace the Patreon link, which works but is “Forbidden”.

Not Exactly Cherokee

White Americans love to say they’re part Cherokee. Experts say identifying as Cherokee gives people a feeling of being native to America, but that doesn’t explain how they get the idea. There are a lot of theories here, as you might expect.

RF Tree Genealogy suggests many of these people have Melungeon ancestry. The Melungeons were mixed race communities in the area around Cumberland Gap and East Tennessee. Their ancestry, going back to Colonial Virginia, was a mix of White, Black, and Indian.

Their swarthy complexions led them to develop defensive explanations. To explain their skin color, they said they were Black Dutch, Portuguese, Turks, Moors, or Indians–anything that would give them cover for being part African.

Melungeon descendants in East Tennessee intermarried with backwoods Scots Irish in the years before the American Revolution. Among the Scots Irish, a darker complexion was often explained by having a “Cherokee grandmother.”

The Melungeons were in the wrong area to have had Cherokee ancestry. The geography and migration patterns don’t work. But the Cherokees were one of the Five Civilized Tribes so Cherokee ancestry was accepted as being more respectable than other tribes.

We end up with a modern world where many people who claim to be part Cherokee aren’t really, although they probably do have distant Indian and African ancestry in Colonial Tidewater Virginia. Ironically, they have even more ancestry among the Scots Irish, the frontiersmen and Indian fighters who as a group were the most aggressive about taking Indian land.


Behavioral Genetics

Some of my friends think Human Biodiversity is just alt.right propaganda. Others, equally liberal and progressive, think it’s a breath of fresh air in a field overburdened with political correctness. Me, I’m an agnostic. As I often remind people, I didn’t get the True Believer Gene.

With that out of the way, Jayman has what I think is a very nice intro article, “The Five Laws of Behavioral Genetics”. He offers this summary, then goes into a little more detail about each point:

The five laws of behavioral genetics are:

  1. All human behavioral traits are heritable.
  2. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.
  3. substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.
  4. A typical human behavioral trait is associated with very many genetic variants, each of which accounts for a very small percentage of the behavioral variability.
  5. All phenotypic relationships are to some degree genetically mediated or confounded.

All are simple. All can be said in one sentence. Yet all are incredibly profound and terribly underappreciated in today’s society.

I’m not going to go further than this, at least not today. The article is worth reading if this is a subject that interests you.

Pay to Play Indian

Did you know there was a time when you could pay to be Indian? I’m not sure about the reliability of this information but it has become a common meme about pretend Indians (“pretendians”). 

It may be fashionable to play Indian now, but it was also trendy 125 years ago when people paid $5 apiece for falsified documents declaring them Native on the Dawes Rolls.

The Dawes Rolls were designed to be a definitive citizenship list for the Five Civilized Tribes (Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole). When the rolls became final the lands held by the tribes were to be divided among tribal citizens. Become an Indian, get some land.

‘What we had was simply white people claiming to be Indian,’ [Gregory Smithers] said. ‘They were early wannabes, just like we have today. Five-dollar Indian is just another term for that.’

American Identity

The Radical Genealogist has an interesting article about American ethnic identity. Anyone who has traveled to Europe knows that Europeans are puzzled when Americans claim to be English or Scottish or French or whatever. A friend who had this experience told me that her hosts asked, “Why do Americans always claim to be something else? Don’t they know they’re Americans?”

This disconnect highlights the American habit of identifying with ethnic origins. Personally, I’ve never been so aware of myself as an American as when I traveled abroad. Somehow, the labels “Swedish-American” or “Anglo-American” dissolve into irrelevancy.

I was fascinated to learn from this article that the American South might be an exception. The 2000 Census asked respondents to identify their national origin. Mapping the responses shows a clear preference in the South for identifying simply as American.

The author explains: “[W]hat we are really dealing with here is maps of memories, not of ancestries. Ethnic identity in the United States, just like clan or tribal identity elsewhere, comes from a kind of folk genealogy, the memories of our grandparents. Whether we are dealing with Alabama or Maine, what the counties in the first map have in common is that they have received relatively little immigration from outside the United States since 1760, having been settled primarily by internal migration from earlier populated centers where ethnic mixing had already occurred. Other than the grandfather whose parents immigrated to Missouri from Poland and the great-grandfather from Scotland, my own stock is this kind.

“My grandparents’ grandparents were already mutts of Manifest Destiny, their identity tied primarily to their own republic, not primarily because of any kind of personal ideology they held about Americanness, but because their particular mix (the British Isles, a bit of the whitest, north-westernmost parts of Continental Europe, and maybe some Indians and Africans they were ashamed to talk about) is precisely the ethnic identity that the young republic had assumed for itself. They were Americans in the way the newcomers from Silesia and Sweden were not, because telling what they were would be too long of a story.”

Interestingly, the numbers in 2000 were up dramatically from 1990 — up 63%. The increase might have been due to increased assimilation, increased complexity due to mixing, or perhaps the death of an older generation that had a stronger ethnic identity. Expect another sharp increase in 2010:

“Some will, when asked, pick the one of their ancestries they like, that they are more comfortable with, or, for people who think about their father’s side alone, the place their last name comes from, but many more will decline to answer or put something like “American”. Expect the answer “American” to increase greatly again in 2010 and thereafter as a percentage of the population who identify themselves as white, particularly in those states where “German” and “American” currently co-exist at a high level.”

I know this feeling. My parents’ and grandparents’ neat percentages don’t match their actual ancestries. My grandmother, for example, claimed to be half English, a quarter Irish, and a quarter Scottish. Close, perhaps, but not really. She thought of her dad as English, ignoring his Scottish, Welsh and French ancestry. And, she thought of her mother as Scotch and Irish, instead of Scotch-Irish with a hefty dose of English.

For many of us, the truth is far more complicated, and our ancestries far more mixed, than we “remember”. I try to figure out my ethnic origin from time to time, but there’s no clear place to draw the line. If I try to reach back to every immigrant in my ancestry, the resulting fractions are so cumbersome there would be no way to remember them. The last few years, I’ve had an uneasy peace with the truth. I’ve claimed myself as a mixture of English, Swedish, Scottish, German and Indian, ignoring the small percentages of other ancestries. On a pedantic day, I’ll toss in French. On a careless day, I’ll just answer Swedish, because that’s where my last name originated.

I don’t remember what I answered in 2000; perhaps Swedish-American and Native American. In 2010 I think I will identify simply as American. It will be easier and more accurate.



I use the term Scotch-Irish, which requires some explanation, judging from the nearly hysterical emails I receive from time to time.

Many people erroneously believe that the term means something along the lines of “mixed Scottish and Irish.” Not so. The Scotch-Irish were Scots who lived in Ireland. The term is similar to other ethnic and national combinations, such as German-American.

The Scots in Ireland were a well-defined ethnic group in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were (typically) descendants of lowland Scots who took up farms in northern Ireland during the Ulster Plantations. Their descendants in Ulster became the Irish Protestants, still at odds with the Irish Catholics. Today, they call themselves Ulster Scots. In America, the same group historically called themselves Scotch-Irish.

Some amateur scholars prefer the pedantic emendation Scottish-Irish, on the theory that contemporary Scots distinguish Scottish (themselves) from scotch (whisky). I can hold my own when it comes to academic silliness, but I can’t understand re-renaming an ethnic group to conform to modern notions of style, while disregarding both their historic and modern names for themselves. I prefer the historically correct Scotch-Irish to the artificial Scottish-Irish (and to the demographically correct Ulster Scots).