I come from a big family scattered across the states. Growing up I was told that I was about one-quarter Italian, Russian, Scottish and English. This knowledge was satisfying enough until I married Sean, and we decided to grow our own family. Then, I began to crave a deeper understanding of my roots so that I would be able to pass our family heritage forward.
So I started an ancestry.com account, taking hints from my family to uncover census records, birth and marriage certificates that helped me connect the dots. From this, I was able to add amazing context to my family history.
Now when I say I’m Italian from my maternal grandmother, Mary, for example, I know that it really wasn’t that long ago that her side of the family immigrated here from Sicily. Mary grew up in NYC, but her parents – Joseph Licata and Josephine Licata (Ferranti) were fresh off the boat.
Her father Joseph came here at age 24 from Sicily in 1915, a few years after her mother Josephine immigrated here with her parents and siblings. I found records of Joseph serving in WWI, but I don’t have any stories from his service. A 1940 census places Joseph and Josephine in Queens, living with another family, the Grosos, who appeared to be from Scotland. Joseph reportedly worked as a “presser.” After a little more research, I learned that “pressmen” in the early 1900s was a term for those who worked in printing. Hmm, maybe he worked in newspapers? If so, it’s no wonder where I get my passion for journalism and writing.
While my grandma’s family was adjusting to life in the big city from Italy, my grandpa’s family was in a similar situation not too far away. My maternal grandpa, Boris, also came here by way of his parents, Michael Melnick and Serafine Wejciechowska. They were both born in Russia, though Serafine would sometimes write Russia-Poland on documents. They arrived separately – Michael in Feb. 1914 and Serafine in Oct. 1925. Four years later they would marry in New York and move in together on East 6th St. NY, NY. Michael was also a WWI veteran, serving from 1917-1919 (112th Trench Mortar Battery 37 DIV, US ARMY Corporal). But in later census reports, he documented working as an “index maker” in the industry of “book binding.”
On my dad’s side, however, I found that our family had been settled in America for quite some time. My paternal grandma, Marjorie, comes from a long lineage of Wilsons who’ve lived mostly between Ohio and Michigan for many generations. My 3x great grandparents, Flora and Frank Wilson, both had documentation being born in Ohio; they reported that their parents were also born in the Midwest. This is around the 1820s, and unfortunately I couldn’t dig back any further to pinpoint when the Wilsons came to America, or from where. It was interesting to me, though, to see so much family history in Ohio. That is where I spent most of my childhood, but little did I know that we were certainly not the first to find home in the Buckeye state.
My paternal grandpa, Harvey H., is who I get my Scottish roots from. His paternal grandparents, Robert and Rubena (Watt), came to New York from Scotland. Rubena, who had been in New York since arriving in 1910 at age 23, also reported that her parents were from Scotland. Sadly, it appears that she was widowed young, and it is thought that her husband Robert died at war. A 1940 census places her living in Erie, NY with their son Harvey W. and his son – my grandpa – Harvey H. Sadly, my grandpa’s dad was also a young widow after his mom, Ruth DeMann, died the same year he was born. Rumor is she may have died from a breastfeeding infection. Even though Rubena was the head of household at this time, my grandpa’s dad was the breadwinner, working full-time as a “stenographer” according to the census.
Because my great grandma Ruth died young, I don’t know if her side was also Scottish or something else. Word of mouth is that she was from Portugal, which could explain my recent DNA test results – that’s right, after all this research, my husband surprised me with ancestry.com’s DNA test!
The results? My genetic make-up pulls most from my Melnick-Russian roots (31%), followed by my Blakely-Sottish roots (23%) and Licata-Italian roots (16%). Then, I have a chunk of “European Western”(10%) and “Iberian Peninsula” (7%). European Western is considered anything from Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, England, Denmark, Italy, Slovenia, to the Czech Republic. This is likely where my Wilson heritage comes from, but we just don’t know enough to narrow down further. However, when I look into the meaning of Wilson as a last name, its roots align with England, so perhaps my family’s guess that I have some English in me is right.
And as for the Iberian Peninsula, that refers to anything from Spain, Portugal, France, Morocco, Algeria, to Italy. Knowing what I know now about my great grandma Ruth potentially being from Portugal, I’m able to take an educated guess that I’m a little Portuguese.
As for the rest of me? Only traces of other regions showed up from the test – which are too small to say for certain, but they include: Africa, the Middle East, European Jewish, Great Britain, Scandinavia, and Finland.
My results confirmed what I had been uncovering, but also proved that I am more of a mixed breed than I thought – especially when compared to my husband’s results, which came back with only two ethnicities: three-quarters Russian/Polish, and one quarter Italian.
Knowing that Russian is not only a heritage that my husband and I both share, but is the most prominent genetic makeup for both of us, makes me think twice about how we came to pick Ivan for our son’s name – the Russian name for John, meaning gracious gift from God. We fell in love with it before we knew just how Russian we were, and so I can’t help but wonder if our ancestors were nudging us towards this name as we glanced over our options.
This all makes me take a step back and realize that I am not American by privilege or luck, but because of conscious, brave decisions, sacrifices and hardships that my ancestors endured to secure their footing here – not only for themselves, but for the rest of us. And if they did not have that opportunity to come here, I – along with millions of others – would not be where we are today. Yes we are American, but that truly means something different for all of us, doesn’t it?
For me personally, it is remembering where I came from that adds true meaning to being American.