Tag Archives: history

An Open Question on European Ancestry

I recently discovered yet another site on which it is possible to waste your precious time while feeling like you’re learning something. The site is called Dynastree and allows you to map the distribution of surnames in the US, Canada, and a few European countries.

As you can imagine, it’s easy to get carried away searching the maps for your surname, your spouse’s, your mother’s maiden name, your grandmothers’ maiden names, et cetera, et cetera.

But as I was whiling away the minutes, I noticed a few trends which demand some analysis.

First, here is the distribution of the name “Maus” in the US:

The Mice first came to the US in the mid-19th century and settled primarily in Minnesota and Wisconsin. As you can see, they are still mostly concentrated in that same area, although there are also significant concentrations in a few magnetic states in the Northeast, as well as California and Florida.

Next, here is the distribution of the name “Ament,” which is my maternal grandmother’s maiden name:

The Aments came to the US at about the same time as the Mice, settled in the same general areas, and to this day, have a similar distribution across the US.

Both the Maus and Ament clans have only been in the US for a little over 150 years, which perhaps explains why neither has spread too significantly beyond their initial settlements in the US.

In contrast, have a look at the distribution of “Hathaway” which is my mother’s maiden name:

As you can see, the Hathaways are rather ubiquitous in the US. They can be found in every state and there are large concentrations of them in very disparate states — from Massachusetts to Indiana to Washington state.

This seems intuitive: the Hathaways have been in the US since the 17th century and thus have had more time to spread out across the country.

So, if I posed the following question:

“Why is the name ‘Hathaway’ more widespread in the US than either ‘Ament’ or ‘Maus?'”

The logical answer would seem to be “Because the Hathaways have been here longer.” BUT, here is where things get interesting. If the primary limiting factor on a family name’s spread is time, we should expect that in their respective European homelands, each of these names should be fairly widespread, since they all have had hundreds of years to move around.

So, let’s look first at the distribution of “Maus” in Germany:

The Mäuse came from the western edge of Germany in what is now North Rhine-Westphalia, and that is still where they are concentrated. They can be found in other areas of western Germany , but for the most part, they are spread very thinly.

Now let’s look at the Aments:

You can probably guess, from looking at this map, where the Aments came from. They came from the southwest of Germany, in what is now Baden-Württemberg. With the exception of the neighbouring state of Hesse, and a few small clusters around the urban centres of Berlin and Munich, Baden-Württemberg is still one of the only places in Germany that the Aments can be found.

Finally, let’s have a look at the distribution of the Hathaways in the UK:

The Hathaways originated in South Wales and were established in the Severnside and the west of England by the time that some of them left for the US. They are still most concentrated in Gloucestershire and nearby counties. The Hathaways have managed to spread somewhat in the south of England, although curiously, there are some counties with absolutely no Hathaways (such as Leicestershire and Avon) that are adjacent to counties with significant concentrations of Hathaways.

So here is the question that all these brightly-coloured maps raises: Why was it so much easier for families to spread across the US in only a few generations than in their respective European homelands over an even longer period of time?

I have a few possible explanations for this disparity in geographic mobility. Hopefully some of my readers will have more well-researched answers.

1. Ease of displacing neighbours. When the Hathaways and other early European immigrants arrived in the Americas, the land was very sparsely populated, and if they wanted more land, they had to annex it from Native Americans, who had little means of resistance. By the time my German ancestors arrived in the US, the country was much more densely populated, and the neighbours they would have needed to displace to acquire more land were now other Europeans who had better means of resistance than the Native Americans. Ditto in Europe.

2. “New World” effect. Perhaps there is something to that notion that the New World offered an opportunity for European immigrants to start afresh. Local rivalries and prejudices that might have prevented families from moving to nearby areas in England or Germany were either absent or less formidable in the Americas.

3. Time Required for Dynasty formation. Local dynasties can form that elevate a family to a place of regional prominence and therefore give members of that family a strong disincentive to stray too far from their dynasty’s sphere of influence. This would explain why the Cabots, one of the first families of the “Boston Brahmin” are still most concentrated in Massachusetts. But dynasties take time to form, and dynastic families in Europe had a several hundred-year head start on would-be dynasties in the US.  Note that this idea runs counter to the argument that the longer a family has been in the US, the more widespread they would be today.


The “Birthers” of the 19th Century

This is already a departure from the newly established pattern of this blog to generate socially entrepreneurial ideas, but I’m struggling to articulate some of my recent thoughts in this area, and I thought it would be fun to write a short post about a historical figure and our present madness.

Now that President Obama has been forced to stoop to the level of his critics and address the so-called “birthers,” I suppose I too shan’t deem myself above commenting on this petty debate.  But I want to give it some historical depth, by looking at the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, our 7th President, in office from 1829-1837.  There are two competing assertions and assumptions that surround the ruckus over Obama’s birth certificate, that I will challenge:

1. That this issue is all about race.

2. That this is about the President’s place of birth, and the documentation thereof

Point the first

The first point is a common lament of Obama’s supporters who ask if such ridiculous questions would ever be put to a white president.  In some ways, they already were asked of Andrew Jackson (granted,  some of his opponents alleged that he was the son of a British prostitute and a mixed-race father).  North and South Carolina now argue over which state can claim him as their own, but in his day, plenty of his critics alleged that he wasn’t born in the Americas at all.  He was the son of Irish immigrants, and some said that he was born on the ship on the journey over, and even that he wasn’t actually named “Andrew Jackson” but that he’d stolen his brother’s birth certificate.

So, in one sense, ridiculous claims about natural-born citizenship (or lack thereof) can’t be just about race if they were first leveled against Andrew Jackson, a white guy. BUT, in another sense, they are about race.  Jackson’s and Obama’s both were historical presidencies that marked a shift in who Americans considered Presidential.  Before Jackson, all six US Presidents had been Aristocrats from Virginia or Massachusetts who were of English pedigree.  Jackson had plenty of strikes against him: not only was he the son of Irish immigrants, but he grew up dirt poor and openly considered himself a man of the people.  Jackson clearly did not fit the Presidential mould, and that rendered attacks about his upbringing, qualification and family more believable.  Class was to Jackson what race is to Obama –something that set him apart from his predecessors,  and challenged those informal requirements for the Presidency that are not proscribed in law, but rather in American consciousness.  Perhaps, then, we could say that he current birther movement is not so much about race as it is about difference.

Point the Second

How many times have you heard someone say, “I agree with most of President Obama’s policies, but I’m deeply concerned about this birth certificate thing”?  Not very often, right?  And that brings us to the second assumption — that either “birther” conspiracy was actually about place of birth.  As  with President Obama, anyone who said President Jackson wasn’t truly an American citizen probably said much worse things about the man.  Because Jackson was president before anyone had heard of Hitler or before  Socialism became an organized doctrine, Jackson’s opponents used the equivalent labels of the time: Before he was elected,  his opponents spread fear that he would institute a military dictatorship.  When he vetoed the Second Bank charter (if you really want to read more about the Bank War, be my guest), his critics compared him to the French Revolutionaries and the Roman Empire.  It would seem that the belief that Jackson (or Obama) might not be a true American citizen was an effect of his opponent’s fierce dislike of him, and not a cause.