What Is Ancestry?
When someone asks you about your ancestry, they're probably not asking about the place where you were born. Many people born in the United States claim German, Irish, and English ancestry, for instance.
In everyday terms, people often refer to their ancestry as their family's country of origin. But the lines aren't always clearly drawn. The term "Scotch-Irish," for example, refers to Scottish dissenters who were driven into the region of Ulster in northern Ireland in the 17th century. If your ancestors are from Ulster, is your heritage Scottish or Irish? Both.
It gets more complicated than that. There are also sub-groups within ancestral groups, like the Pennsylvania Dutch, who were actually just early German settlers of the mid-Atlantic colonies. There are also hybrid ancestral groups, like the Cajuns, who are descendants of the French Acadians of Canada and other ethnicities of Louisiana.
In European tradition, genealogy was of prime importance to members of the royalty and the nobility, who used their rank to legitimize claims to wealth and power. Ancestry was all about inheritance: those of the right descent were entitled to kingship and tracts of land. They could also marry other high-born individuals and thus further their status.
Heraldry, the practice of displaying one's heritage on a coat of arms, developed about 900 years ago and continues to this day. For the elite, lineage became all-encompassing, and European royals became hopelessly inbred as they married within the family-generation after generation-to maintain their position. The Bourbon monarch Alfonso XIII, for instance, had only four great-grandparents instead of the usual eight.
Since that time, genealogy has become the domain of common people as well. Today people study their ancestors not to lay claim to property or to prove their social superiority, but to learn more about their origins. Today, genealogy is the second-most popular hobby in the United States, and thousands of people around the world research their pedigrees to come to an understanding of the people who came before them.