Where Your Roots Are

It might sound like a simple enough concept. We all know where we're from, who we are, and how we feel. At least most of the time. But, for enthusiastic genealogists, that concept is often less certain. Because just about the first thing you learn once you delve into your family tree is that the truths you once held as absolute, are actually quite the opposite. 

On the face of it, it's simple. I know, for example that my family originates basically from either Derbyshire or Lincolnshire. But it didn't take long to work out that this isn't quite as clear-cut. By the time we get to my great-great-great grandparents I've mixed in the Cotswolds, Oxfordshire, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Durham and added a tidy bit of Scottish and Irish blood. Go back a few more generations and I have ancestors from Cornwall, Kent, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Somserset and Suffolk.  So it doesn't take long before I'm a product of pretty much the entire British Isles.  

But it doesn't end there. Because go back much further and I begin to draw in lands much further afield. Thanks to the dedicated research of people to whom I just happen to be distantly related, it turns out I can go back dozens of generations. And that means I can trace at least part of my family back to include famous people from history. 

George Middleton Todd, my great-great grandfather. Born in Fife, he travelled south, herding cattle, until settling in rural Warwickshire. 

At first I was deeply excited. After all, not eveyone can claim to be directly descended from Charlemagne (my 35 x great grandfather). Well, actually, as it turns out, just about everyone can. After all, for me Charlemagne is just one of many, many, many ancestors of mine of his generation. When you realise that each of us has 32,768 14 x great grandparents, you soon realise that there is a very high chance of being descended from just about anyone alive at the time of Charlemagne! Indeed, statisticians reckon that just about everyone whose roots come from Western Europe can boast such ancestry. And I'm prepared to take their word for it, especially since my calculator ran out of digits to calculate just how many 35 x great grandparents I have.  I must admit I was a trifle disappointed. But cheered rather when, on further investigation, I found that, while we might all be able to say we are probably descended from that great Holy Roman Emperor, not that many of us can prove it and track the direct line back. And I can, so there! 

But the point is, that while most of us think we have an idea of who, or what, we are, when we trace our genetic origins right back that assumption is greatly challenged. Because, while I for example, might have assumed I was British through and through, I go back 20 generations and suddenly I've DNA from all over Europe. I've ancestors who were among the earliest Europan immigrants to North America. I'm descended from their children who returned to Britain. From Vikings and Normans, Saxons and Romans. 

There's even the possibility of a hint of 'gypsy'. And, while it's fun to know that I can count Mary Chilton (supposedly the first European to set foot at Plimoth Rock), a couple of saints, a Holy Roman Emperor and a Queen Consort among my ancestors, along with shopkeepers, labourers and farmers. 

I know that it's nothing all that special.  But all this multi-national, ethnically blended ancestry fascinates me, not least because it sort of proves what I've always believed: that nationality is purely an accident of birth. That our ethnic makeup is almost certainly a generous blend of all sorts of DNA. And that whatever our current 'station' in life, all our 'people' pretty much started out in the same place. 

If only we could force extremists and racists to do the same for their own family trees. What a shock they might have! But family research isn't all deep and meaningful. Yes, you get a real sense of history, but also a sense of the characters who make up your DNA. For example, in my family, a largely respectable and very 'proper' one, we have a number of dead ends. We have children with mothers but no fathers (officially, if not biologically, quite common), first cousins who married, intra-family adoptions, mysterious changes in surnames, common-law liasons, marriages that come in the middle of several children's births, women who have the misfortune to marry and be widowed four times and you realise that absolutely nothing modern is new at all. 

Even today's predeliction for unusual names is nothing new. In my family tree I have ancestors boasting names like Theophilus, Ephraim, Ermengarde, Rollo and Ambrose and some delightfully Quaker names like Mercy and Temperance. I have families raised as Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quaker and even Bible Christians.

And I imagine that most of you reading this would find the same. Because my family is nothing special I realise that now but I do know that, given the blend of DNA, of religious background, of race, of class and nationality, it is unique. And so is yours.  

Jane and William Rowley, my great-grandparents.  Jane was born in Surrey.  Her mother, Christianna, was married four times and had children with three of her husbands, making censuses interesting and complicated reading.