A subject which often arises when I chat with friends here in the UK is how curious it is that most Americans know not just their ethnic background, but are able to quantify it readily. This seems to be a byproduct of the waves of immigration which had different groups arriving in the US at different times meaning that groups tended to be segregated at first, think of the famous stereotypes of the signs “Irish need not apply” for example. This reluctance of the older immigrant groups to welcome new ones seems to have created points in time where families would look back at when they themselves first came to the American continent.
Since new waves of immigrants continued to come from around the world, and still do, this retrospection of one’s family’s or one’s own origins kept being reinforced. A further factor which emphasizes the ratio of an American’s ethnic makeup is that new immigrants often settled in like communities. For example, in my home state of North Dakota the groups which immigrated are largely Swedish, Norwegian, and German. These groups ended up settled in towns largely equidistant along the train line with immigrants from Germany getting off on one stop, those from Norway getting off at the next, and Swedes getting off at the next. This created very tight-knit communities which, until the age of large-scale agriculture and the interstate system remained largely closed.
It was often quite the scandal if a woman from one town married a man from another, such as happened with my great-grandparents who were Swedish and Norwegian respectively. This further emphasized where origins were from creating a third pressure to remember.
But, there can be practical reasoning behind this sectioning off of one’s person as well. In this I mean that there are some groups of individuals where membership offers either monetary or societal rewards such as with certain Native American tribes. While it would be a grave mistake to simplify the greater impact of membership to these groups it can be beneficial in certain specific areas, especially where there are casinos which offer a redistribution of wealth throughout the community. In these cases, to try and prevent abuse of these income sources inclusion in the tribe is sometimes strictly limited to members who can prove a certain percentage of heritage within that group.
All of these various forces result in the ability of many Americans to calculate exactly where their ancestors came from, and in some cases the precise time of their arrival as well. This boils down to the peculiar ability to site ones own ethnic heritage very precisely, in my case 50% German, 25% Norwegian, and 25% Swedish. A fact that to me is just basic knowledge but to many of my British and European friends is often surprising and puzzling.
Thanks for reading and I hope you found this as curious and interesting as I have come to.