Last Christmas, my parents gave me a thoughtful gift: a DNA kit from Ancestry.com. Readers may have seen their commercials. You spit into a vile (saliva contains DNA) and send it to a lab, which runs some tests and gives you a scientific reading of where your ancestors came from. The way it works is that the lab looks at the mutations in your DNA and compares it to population samples from around the world. If your mutations match the mutations found in certain parts of the world--in my case, Ireland--then they can say with confidence that this is where your ancestors came from.
I can't say that I was terribly surprised by, or enamored with, the results. In addition to the late response, the site didn't give me much to look at. I probably finished examining my results within a half hour. My family already has a fair bit of information regarding our Irish roots. We can trace back some of our ancestors to the late-18th century, though going back further would likely require travel to the British Isles. In 2011, when I was working on my dissertation, I did some brief work with the 1830 and 1840 federal censuses, which required a subscription to Ancestry, and along the way, I decided to fill out my family tree. My aunt, Karen Smith, had also done a lot of the hard work on this years ago.
What I was at least somewhat surprised about is that only 6% in my ethnicity estimate was from Great Britain, which includes Scotland. My last name is Scottish. It means "twisted mouth" in Gaelic, apparently because Campbells, who often allied themselves with the English and against the Highland Scots, had a reputation for double-dealing. This goes to show that you can't tell a lot about a person's ancestry just by looking at their last name. There was probably once a time when this was more true than it is today, but consider that "Campbell" is in the top 50 of most popular surnames in the United States (and yet oddly, there are quite a few people who annoyingly pronounce the 'p'), interracial mixing is a lot more common today, and families can acquire a name through marriage, adoption, or in the case of many African Americans, through slavery. I bring this up because you'll find a few examples out there of African Americans today who have the last name "Campbell," and it always takes me by surprise. But then I quickly remind myself that lots of Scots-Irish settled in Appalachia going back to the colonial era. While Pennsylvania and New York have lots of Campbells, there many families of Campbells in slave-owning states like Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, many of which were connected through friendship, politics, and patronage with President Andrew Jackson. Chances are that if an African American today has the last name Campbell, he/she is probably descended from slaves who took the last name of their master. I am pleased to say that I am not descended from any of these Campbell slave owners, which is good because I already deal with enough guilt!
So why would I be mostly Irish with the last name Campbell? Keep in mind that a name can get passed down over decades and centuries but a Campbell living today may only have a very small percentage of DNA similar to the ancestral Campbell living in Scotland in 1800. So unless that Scotsman married a Scottish wife, and more importantly, that the same trend continued in subsequent generations, you may have a Scottish last name but have very little Scottish DNA in you. Most of my mother's side of the family is Irish and as I show in the next blog entry, my father's side also contains a significant number of Irish people. If I recall a story correctly from my late grandfather, John Campbell, nicknamed "Rusty" because of his red hair, his own grandfather was from Dublin. Although Rusty had a Scottish last name, he was not a Presbyterian, as many Scots are, but a devout Catholic--a religion typically associated with the Irish. My guess is that this is because his mother's ancestors were Irish (his middle name is O'Hara). An Irish bookseller once came to my office at Cal Poly and said that he was aware of quite a few Campbells living in Ireland. This brings up the important point about cross-migration in the British Isles. You'll find lots of people with Scottish last names in northern Ireland and England. You'll also find lots of people with Irish last names living in England today. In fact, I would wager that there has been so much intermixing between various parts of the British Isles that it is difficult to tell someone's ethnic heritage just by looking at their last name. Kennedy, typically associated with the Irish, is somewhat common in Scotland. Liverpool has a significant Irish population because during the Industrial Revolution, poor Irish crossed the Irish Sea to work as dockworkers and other laborers in the bustling port city. I recently found out that the most famous Liverpudlians in the world, the Beatles, have Irish ancestry; all four of them.