On Being a Mutt

With the exception of the several million people who descend from the native peoples, all other Americans are immigrants, voluntary or forced.

Most of us who have ancestors who got here a few generations ago have ancestry from half a dozen or more countries in Europe, or from a dozen regions in Africa, often both. Hispanic Americans may descend from a dozen indigenous peoples as well as from different parts of Spain—or may have Irish or German or Polish ancestry, too. More recent immigrants have a less complex bunch of roots, but in time their descendants will be as mixed as the rest of us.

I like to use the term ‘mutt,’ which originally means a mixed breed dog, not a purebred. Purebred dogs often are so interbred that they develop characteristics like hip dysplasia and difficulty in having puppies. Mutts are generally brighter, more personable and often live longer. It’s a bit of a stretch, I suppose, but I think that we Americans are the better for having mixed everything up on this side of the Atlantic.

My ancestors got here from 1636 till 1872. They were largely English, Scots, Scotch Irish, and varieties of German, from the Palatinate, the Rhineland and—said my grandmother, Prussia. And a couple of years ago I joined one of those ancestry outfits, you send a saliva sample in a kit and they identify your ancestry; the latest revision from them has me at 3% Swedish.

My first ancestor here got to Boston in 1636. He was a boy, kidnapped off the streets of London and sold in Boston as an indentured servant. He never returned to England. My second load of ancestors sailed from Rotterdam s part of a religious congregation, I’m guessing. A couple and their four sons sailed, with the father dying on the trip across the Atlantic. They arrived in Philadelphia in 1732, and settled down in Lancaster County, and then eventually moved down the Great Valley (which runs from Pennsylvania down through Virginia and into the Carolinas and Tennessee). One brother settled in Bath County and the other three went on to Tennessee.

The fellow who settled in Virginia was Jacob Cleek, born in 1725. He’s my direct great-great something or other, and lived to 1813. He fought in the French and Indian War under command of an officer named George Washington. My family cemetery is still named after him, and I have 200 years of family buried there. He married a Scotch-Irish woman and descendants of the Germans and the Scotch Irish have been intermarrying ever since, with a few other migrants from unexpected places, like Italy and Greece. If you read this and you are American and your name is ‘Cleek,’ hello, cousin.

My third batch of ancestors arrived at Philadelphia in 1754 aboard a snow, a small ship, named Good Intent. They also settled in Pennsylvania and some trekked to Tennessee. They were apparently refugees from the Palatinate, an area between France and the German places (Germany was not a united country until 1870). I think they were Dunkers, a religious sect. When I was a kid, I thought they were drunkards, not such a good thing to have in ancestry.

The fourth batch got here in 1872, where my last name comes from, arriving from Hesse-Darmstadt. I recently found out that the couple involved was unmarried and already had some children. They promptly left New York for Ohio, where eventually I was born, not a trace of Hessian or German left.

I think this is a typical American story. And I think it is much of what makes Americans, American. I adore Mexican food, but it’s an American version of Mexican that probably would not be recognizable in Mexico. I adore Italian food, but it’s the American version that probably would not be recognized in Palermo. I like bagels and blintzes, both derived from Jewish snacks in New York. I like jambalaya, a Louisiana dish with roots in France, Africa and Cajun Louisiana. And until I became a vegetarian, I liked the Southern dish of biscuits and gravy.

Am I beginning to make my point?
American music also has sort of mutt roots. Much American music originates with African American culture, particularly in the cities like New Orleans and Memphis and St Louis. But the mix is what I think is the coolest aspect. Country music out of Nashville uses the banjo, which came from Africa, and the guitar, which came from Spain. Jazz comes from New Orleans, where French and Spanish (Spain ruled Louisiana from 1763 to 1803) and African music mixed—and it uses the saxophone, invented by a Belgian. Hip hop is related to an old African American (and ultimately West African) pattern of call and response, as can be heard in gospel music.

That’s my point. What makes us American is we are a mix from everyplace. We remix it and produce something our own that then gets exported all over the world.

I think we are already seeing some Asian influence mixing in. Chinese immigration goes back to the 1850s and 1860s, and Chinese-American food has been a staple for generations. More recent migrations, of a million or more people, have come from the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea and yet more recently, India. I think we can look forward to some highly creative food and music as our American mix gets yet better.

Deep knowledge,everyday.
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Happy Reading.

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  1. A superb commentary on what an American is.

    Liked by 1 person

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