American ancestry

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American ancestry
Total population
6.6% of the US population in 2017
Regions with significant populations
Southern United States and Midwestern United States
English (American English dialects)
Predominantly Christianity (Mainly Protestantism)
Related ethnic groups
American ancestries

American ancestry refers to people in the United States who self-identify their ancestral origin or descent as "American", rather than the more common officially recognized racial and ethnic groups that make up the bulk of the American people.[2][3][4] The majority of these respondents are visibly White Americans, who either simply use this response as a political statement or are far removed from and no longer self-identify with their original ethnic ancestral origins.[5][6] The latter response is attributed to a multitude of generational distance from ancestral lineages,[3][7][8] and these tend be of English, Scotch-Irish, or other British ancestries, as demographers have observed that those ancestries tend to be seriously undercounted in U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey ancestry self-reporting estimates.[9][10] Although U.S. Census data indicates "American ancestry" is most commonly self-reported in the Deep South, the Upland South, and Appalachia,[11][12] the vast majority of Americans and expatriates do not equate their nationality with ancestry, race or ethnicity, but with citizenship and allegiance.[13][8]

Historical reference[edit]

The earliest attested use of the term "American" to identify an ancestral or cultural identity dates to the late 1500s, with the term signifying "the indigenous peoples discovered in the Western Hemisphere by Europeans."[14] In the following century, the term "American" was extended as a reference to colonists of European descent.[14] The Oxford English Dictionary identifies this secondary meaning as "historical" and states that the term "American" today "chiefly [means] a native (birthright) or citizen of the United States."[14]

American westward expansion is idealized in Emanuel Leutze's famous painting Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1861). The title of the painting, from a 1726 poem by Bishop Berkeley, was a phrase often quoted in the era of "manifest destiny".

President Theodore Roosevelt asserted that an "American race" had been formed on the American frontier, one distinct from other ethnic groups, such as the Anglo-Saxons.[15]: 78, 131  He believed, "The conquest and settlement by the whites of the Indian lands was necessary to the greatness of the race...."[15]: 78  "We are making a new race, a new type, in this country."[15] Roosevelt's "race" beliefs certainly weren't unique in the 19th and early 20th century.[16][17][18][19] Eric Kaufmann has suggested that American nativism has been explained primarily in psychological and economic terms to the neglect of a crucial cultural and ethnic dimension. Kauffman contends American nativism cannot be understood without reference to the theorem of the age that an "American" national ethnic group had taken shape prior to the large-scale immigration of the mid-19th century.[18]

Nativism gained its name from the "Native American" parties of the 1840s and 1850s.[20][21] In this context "Native" does not mean indigenous or American Indian but rather those descended from the inhabitants of the original Thirteen Colonies (Colonial American ancestry).[22][23][18] These "Old Stock Americans", primarily English Protestants, saw Catholic immigrants as a threat to traditional American republican values, as they were loyal to the papacy.[24][25]

Flag of the Know Nothing or American Party, c. 1850

Nativist outbursts occurred in the Northeast from the 1830s to the 1850s, primarily in response to a surge of Catholic immigration.[26] The Order of United American Mechanics was founded as a nativist fraternity, following the Philadelphia nativist riots of the preceding spring and summer, in December 1844.[27] The New York City anti-Irish, anti-German, anti-Catholic secret society the Order of the Star Spangled Banner was formed in 1848.[28] Popularised nativist movements included the Know Nothing or American Party of the 1850s and the Immigration Restriction League of the 1890s.[29] Nativism would eventually influence Congress;[30] in 1924, legislation limiting immigration from Southern and Eastern European countries was ratified, while quantifying previous formal and informal anti-Asian previsions, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907.[31][32]

Modern usage[edit]

Statistical data[edit]

According to U.S. Census Bureau; "Ancestry refers to a person's ethnic origin or descent, 'roots,' or heritage, or the place of birth of the person or the person's parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States".[33]

According to 2000 U.S census data, an increasing number of United States citizens identify simply as "American" on the question of ancestry.[34][35][36] The Census Bureau reports the number of people in the United States who reported "American" and no other ancestry increased from 12.4 million in 1990 to 20.2 million in 2000.[37] This increase represents the largest numerical growth of any ethnic group in the United States during the 1990s.[2] The state with the largest increase over the past two census was Texas, where in 2000 over 1.5 million residents reported having "American ancestry".[38]

In the 1980 census, 26% of United States residents cited that they were of English ancestry, making them the largest group at the time.[39] In the 2000 United States Census, 6.9% of the American population chose to self-identify itself as having "American ancestry".[2] The four states in which a plurality of the population reported American ancestry were Arkansas (15.7%), Kentucky (20.7%), Tennessee (17.3%), and West Virginia (18.7%).[37] Sizable percentages of the populations of Alabama (16.8%), Mississippi (14.0%), North Carolina (13.7%), South Carolina (13.7%), Georgia (13.3%), and Indiana (11.8%) also reported American ancestry.[40]

Map showing areas in red with high concentration of people who self-report as having "American" ancestry in 2000

In the Southern United States as a whole, 11.2% reported "American" ancestry, second only to African American. American was the fourth most common ancestry reported in the Midwest (6.5%) and West (4.1%). All Southern states except for Delaware, Maryland, Florida, and Texas reported 10% or more American, but outside the South, only Missouri and Indiana did so. American was in the top five ancestries reported in all Southern states except for Delaware, in four Midwestern states bordering the South (Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, and Ohio) as well as Iowa, and six Northwestern states (Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming), but only one Northeastern state, Maine. The pattern of areas with high levels of American is similar to that of areas with high levels of not reporting any national ancestry.[40]

In the 2014 American Community Survey, German Americans (14.4%), Irish Americans (10.4%), English Americans (7.6%) and Italian Americans (5.4%) were the four largest self-reported European ancestry groups in the United States, forming 37.8% of the total population.[41] However, English, Scotch-Irish, and British American demography is considered to be seriously undercounted, as the 6.9% of U.S. Census respondents who self-report and identify simply as "American" are primarily of these ancestries.[9]<[10]

Academic analysis[edit]

Reynolds Farley writes that "we may now be in an era of optional ethnicity, in which no simple census question will distinguish those who identify strongly with a specific European group from those who report symbolic or imagined ethnicity."[34]

Stanley Lieberson and Mary C. Waters write: "As whites become increasingly distant in generations and time from their immigrant ancestors, the tendency to distort, or remember selectively, one's ethnic origins increases.... [E]thnic categories are social phenomena that over the long run are constantly being redefined and reformulated."[36][42] Mary C. Waters contends that white Americans of European origin are afforded a wide range of choice: "In a sense, they are constantly given an actual choice—they can either identify themselves with their ethnic ancestry or they can 'melt' into the wider society and call themselves American."[43]

Professors Anthony Daniel Perez and Charles Hirschman write: "European national origins are still common among whites—almost 3 of 5 whites name one or more European countries in response to the ancestry question. ... However, a significant share of whites respond that they are simply "American" or leave the ancestry question blank on their census forms. Ethnicity is receding from the consciousness of many white Americans. Because national origins do not count for very much in contemporary America, many whites are content with a simplified Americanized racial identity. The loss of specific ancestral attachments among many white Americans also results from high patterns of intermarriage and ethnic blending among whites of different European stocks."[8]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "PEOPLE REPORTING ANCESTRY 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved June 2, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c Ancestry: 2000 2004, p. 3
  3. ^ a b Jack Citrin; David O. Sears (2014). American Identity and the Politics of Multiculturalism. Cambridge University Press. pp. 153–159. ISBN 978-0-521-82883-3.
  4. ^ Garrick Bailey; James Peoples (2013). Essentials of Cultural Anthropology. Cengage Learning. p. 215. ISBN 978-1-285-41555-0.
  5. ^ Kazimierz J. Zaniewski; Carol J. Rosen (1998). The Atlas of Ethnic Diversity in Wisconsin. Univ. of Wisconsin Press. pp. 65–69. ISBN 978-0-299-16070-8.
  6. ^ Liz O'Connor, Gus Lubin and Dina Specto (2013). "The Largest Ancestry Groups in the United States - Business Insider". Retrieved April 10, 2017.
  7. ^ Jan Harold Brunvand (2006). American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. p. 54. ISBN 978-1-135-57878-7.
  8. ^ a b c Perez AD, Hirschman C. "The Changing Racial and Ethnic Composition of the US Population: Emerging American Identities". Population and Development Review. 2009;35(1):1-51. doi:10.1111/j.1728-4457.2009.00260.x.
  9. ^ a b Dominic Pulera (2004). Sharing the Dream: White Males in Multicultural America. A&C Black. pp. 57–60. ISBN 978-0-8264-1643-8.
  10. ^ a b Elliott Robert Barkan (2013). Immigrants in American History: Arrival, Adaptation, and Integration. ABC-CLIO. pp. 791–. ISBN 978-1-59884-219-7.
  11. ^ Ancestry: 2000 2004, p. 6
  12. ^ Celeste Ray (February 1, 2014). The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 6: Ethnicity. University of North Carolina Press. pp. 19–. ISBN 978-1-4696-1658-2.
  13. ^ Christine Barbour; Gerald C Wright (January 15, 2013). Keeping the Republic: Power and Citizenship in American Politics, 6th Edition: The Essentials. CQ Press. pp. 31–33. ISBN 978-1-4522-4003-9. Retrieved April 10, 2017. Who Is an American? Native-born and naturalized citizens
  14. ^ a b c "American, n. and adj." (PDF). Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press.
  15. ^ a b c Thomas G. Dyer (1992). Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race. LSU Press. ISBN 978-0-8071-1808-5.
  16. ^ Reginald Horsman (2009). Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Harvard University Press. pp. 302–304. ISBN 978-0-674-03877-6.
  17. ^ John Higham (2002). Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. Rutgers University Press. pp. 133–136. ISBN 978-0-8135-3123-6.
  18. ^ a b c Kaufmann, E. P. (1999). "American Exceptionalism Reconsidered: Anglo-Saxon Ethnogenesis in the "Universal" Nation, 1776–1850" (PDF). Journal of American Studies. 33 (3): 437–57. doi:10.1017/S0021875899006180. JSTOR 27556685. In the case of the United States, the national ethnic group was Anglo-American Protestant ("American"). This was the first European group to "imagine" the territory of the United States as its homeland and trace its genealogy back to New World colonists who rebelled against their mother country. In its mind, the American nation-state, its land, its history, its mission and its Anglo-American people were woven into one great tapestry of the imagination. This social construction considered the United States to be founded by the "Americans", who thereby had title to the land and the mandate to mould the nation (and any immigrants who might enter it) in their own Anglo-Saxon, Protestant self-image.
  19. ^ Tyler Anbinder; Tyler Gregory Anbinder (1992). Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. Oxford University Press. p. 107. ISBN 978-0-19-507233-4.
  20. ^ David M. Kennedy; Lizabeth Cohen; Mel Piehl (2017). The Brief American Pageant: A History of the Republic. Cengage Learning. pp. 218–220. ISBN 978-1-285-19329-8.
  21. ^ Ralph Young (2015). Dissent: The History of an American Idea. NYU Press. pp. 268–270. ISBN 978-1-4798-1452-7.
  22. ^ Katie Oxx (2013). The Nativist Movement in America: Religious Conflict in the 19th Century. Routledge. p. 88. ISBN 978-1-136-17603-6.
  23. ^ Russell Andrew Kazal (2004). Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity. Princeton University Press. p. 122. ISBN 0-691-05015-5.
  24. ^ Mary Ellen Snodgrass (2015). The Civil War Era and Reconstruction: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural and Economic History. Routledge. p. 130. ISBN 978-1-317-45791-6. The upsurge of the faithful fueled bigotry among Americans who demonized cities and discounted foreigners, especially Catholics and Jews, as true citizens. Old stock American nativists feared that "papists"...
  25. ^ Andrew Robertson (2010). Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History. SAGE. p. aa266. ISBN 978-0-87289-320-7.
  26. ^ Larry Ceplair (2011). Anti-communism in Twentieth-century America: A Critical History. ABC-CLIO. p. 11. ISBN 978-1-4408-0047-4.
  27. ^ Katie Oxx (2013). The Nativist Movement in America: Religious Conflict in the 19th Century. Routledge. p. 87. ISBN 978-1-136-17603-6.
  28. ^ Tyler Anbinder (1992). Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. Oxford University Press. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-19-508922-6.
  29. ^ Tyler Anbinder (1992). Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. Oxford University Press. pp. 59 (note 18). ISBN 978-0-19-508922-6.
  30. ^ Tyler Anbinder (1992). Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850's. Oxford University Press. p. 272. ISBN 978-0-19-508922-6.
  31. ^ Greg Robinson (2009). A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America. Columbia University Press. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-231-52012-6.
  32. ^ Michael Green; Scott L. Stabler Ph.D. (2015). Ideas and Movements that Shaped America: From the Bill of Rights to "Occupy Wall Street". ABC-CLIO. p. 714. ISBN 978-1-61069-252-6.
  33. ^ Kenneth Prewitt (2013). What Is "Your" Race?: The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans. Princeton University Press. p. 177. ISBN 978-1-4008-4679-5.
  34. ^ a b Farley, Reynolds (1991). "The New Census Question about Ancestry: What Did It Tell Us?". Demography. 28 (3): 411–429. doi:10.2307/2061465. JSTOR 2061465. PMID 1936376. S2CID 41503995.
  35. ^ Lieberson, Stanley; Santi, Lawrence (1985). "The Use of Nativity Data to Estimate Ethnic Characteristics and Patterns". Social Science Research. 14 (1): 44–46. doi:10.1016/0049-089X(85)90011-0.
  36. ^ a b Lieberson, Stanley & Waters, Mary C. (1986). "Ethnic Groups in Flux: The Changing Ethnic Responses of American Whites". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 487 (79): 82–86. doi:10.1177/0002716286487001004. S2CID 60711423.
  37. ^ a b Ancestry: 2000 2004, p. 7
  38. ^ Celeste Ray (2014). The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 6: Ethnicity. University of North Carolina Press. p. 19. ISBN 978-1-4696-1658-2.
  39. ^ "Ancestry of the Population by State: 1980 - Table 3" (PDF). 2017.
  40. ^ a b Census Atlas of the United States (2013). "Ancestry" (PDF). Retrieved April 10, 2017.
  41. ^ "Selected Social Characteristics in the United States (DP02): 2014 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates". U.S. Census Bureau. Archived from the original on February 14, 2020. Retrieved November 10, 2016.
  42. ^ Lieberson, Stanley (1985). "The Use of Nativity Data to Estimate Ethnic Characteristics and Patterns". Social Science Research. 14 (1): 44–46. doi:10.1016/0049-089X(85)90011-0.
  43. ^ Waters, Mary C. (1990). Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. University of California Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-520-07083-7.