When It Turns Out Your Heritage Isn’t Really Your Heritage

“Are you my dad’s dad’s dad’s dad’s dad’s dad’s ……………. dad?” A portrait of Welsh warrior, Caradog, by Thomas Prytherch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This is pretty small beans compared to other things going on in the world, but recently my sister let me know an interesting historical detail about my paternal grandfather and what it means for our Scottish heritage, and sense of identity in general.

My dad’s wife has been an avid genealogist ever since she decided to retire, and has been doing an amazing job delving into her family history, and also our dad’s family history. My paternal grandfather had been an important and beloved part of our family, and our namesake. Our Scottish last name was a source of pride for the family, and I always thought it would be neat to visit the family lands someday. I even wore a traditional kilt for my wedding day.

However, it turns out that my grandfather wasn’t actually descended from that family. Through some genealogical research, my dad’s wife somehow figured out that my grandfather’s mom (my great-grandmother) had been previously married and had given birth to my grandfather. Later, when she remarried, my grandfather took the new family name, and that’s what we’ve inherited since, but he was only a half-brother at most.

Interestingly, this wasn’t the first clue that something was a bit off about our heritage. Things started to unravel last year when my younger sister took one of those genetic ancestry tests and we found to our surprise that we had surprisingly little Scottish heritage, instead having mostly British, and especially Welsh ancestry. This isn’t too unusual for European-descended Americans here, but we were kind of puzzled. Another time, I once saw a photo of my great-grandfather, and noticed that he looked nothing like my grandfather, but didn’t really think much of it.

Anyhow, the point of all this is that my family name really is just a name for me. It’s worth the paper it’s on and that’s about it. Still, I wouldn’t be here it wasn’t for those same Scottish ancestors who adopted my grandfather, so there is that.

But all this has made me realize that personal ancestry isn’t really who we are. Many of the choices I made in my life, for better or worse, and the life I lead now, have been due to a combination of personal choices, a turn of fortune here and there, and through the kindness and support of others. Little of this was due to my (imagined) heritage.2

It is nice to have a sense of ancestry as a source of pride, as we all want to know our place in the world. With my Welsh/British heritage, who knows? Maybe I have some ancient, ancient ancestors who were British Romans.

Then again what is pride but something that comes before the fall?

1 My wife, who is Japanese, did a genetic test as well and found that (not surprisingly) she is 98% Japanese with 2% Okinawan. That’s pretty typical, though I am surprised Korean heritage isn’t mentioned given how many successive waves of Korean immigrants came to Japan over the centuries. I also suspect that these genetic tests have a western bias, and not enough data samples from non-Westerners to give truly accurate results.

2 Social privileges with being white in American society notwithstanding. 🙁

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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