Genealogist Lynn Serafinn shares a story from her own Trentino family history, and proposes we shed a different light on what it means to be a ‘hero’.
In honour of Memorial Day in the US, I wanted to share some photos and the story of a member of my family who fell during World War I: LUIGI GIUSEPPE PARISI (1866-1917), the beloved younger brother of my great-grandmother Europa Parisi (she was the mother of my grandfather, Luigi Pietro Serafini).
But here’s the catch: Luigi Giuseppe died while fighting with the Austro-Hungarian army – the proclaimed ‘enemy’ of the US during that war. And Luigi’s story is even more complicated than that, as you’ll see as you read this article.
Luigi the Trailblazer
Luigi Parisi was born on 27 February 1866 in Duvredo, a small frazione (hamlet) in the rural parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio in Val Giudicarie in Trentino. My father was born in the same frazione. Although he was not my ancestor, I feel a strong debt to Luigi, as he played a huge role in the destiny of our family, as well as the Trentini community.
He was the first in our family to travel to America in search of a better life, after devastatingly hard economic times had fallen on his ancestral homelands, leaving his life as an Alpine farmer to work in the coal mines of Brockwayville (now Brockway) and Brandy Camp Pennsylvania. Regarding Brandy Camp, on page 231 of the book A Courageous People from the Dolomites (1981), author Father Bonifacio Bolognani says:
‘The first settler in Brandy Camp as a Parisi from Santa Croce del Bleggio. He is also the father of the present pastor of Santa Croce, Father Leone Parisi.’
Although he does not give the first name of said ‘Parisi’, the author is referring to Luigi, whose son Leone served as pastor of Santa Croce del Bleggio for many years. The presence of the Bleggiani in Brandy Camp had a permanent affect on the local culture. The clearest example is in the choice to call their local church ‘Holy Cross’ (which is what ‘Santa Croce’ means), to honour the memory of their home parish.
Families Separated By An Ocean
Many people mistakenly assume our ancestors never went back once they had left the ‘old country’, but many (if not most) of the early Trentini immigrants had no intention of staying permanently in the US. Luigi was no exception to this. Gleaning what I can from immigration records, Luigi seems to have gone back and forth to America four times,crossing the ocean eight times between 1890 and 1911. (His young nephew Emmanuele Giuseppe would eventually make the trip 12 times before he ‘retired’ with his Trentino family at the age of 51).
During those years, Luigi managed to father 10 children (only six of whom survived to adulthood), with two wives in between his stays in the US. The mother of his first five children was Emma Bleggi, who died in 1898 at the young age of 34 from tuberculosis – a disease that claimed the lives of so many young adults in their 20s and 30s. After Emma passed away, Luigi married Emma’s younger sister, Ottavia. He and Ottavia called their first daughter ‘Emma’ to honour the memory of their late wife/sister. Aside from Emma, they had four other children, one of whom died in infancy.
Mentor and Guardian of the Next Generation
In 1906, my grandfather, Luigi Pietro Serafini, who was then 18 years old, followed in his uncle’s footsteps and joined him to work in the mines. Later, his younger brother Angelo Serafini would join them, along with an equally young cousin named Emmanuele Giuseppe Serafini. Their uncle Luigi was both their mentor and their guardian as they adapted to this strange new land and dangerous new occupation.
Around 1910, leaving my grandfather in charge of the younger boys, Luigi made a short trip back home to Duvredo. He made his fourth (and what would be his final) trip to the US in November 1911, a few months after the birth of his last child.
According to Aldo, the 98-year-old son of my grandfather’s brother Angelo, my grandfather and the other younger men were enjoying the ‘freedom’ of their young bachelor lives in Pennsylvania. But Luigi was no longer a young man, and was surely tiring of his trans-Atlantic journeys and harsh existence in the mines. He also felt a sense of responsibility for the younger men. So, early in 1914, Luigi, who was now nearing 50 years old, told his nephews that he missed his wife and children and wanted to return to Trentino.
He also advised that it was about time my grandfather, now 26 years old, went home to find a bride.
The young men did as their uncle bid, and returned with him to Trentino, albeit half-heartedly. That April of 1914, my grandfather did indeed get married to my grandmother Maria Onorati. His brother Angelo and cousin Emmanuele Giuseppe, being a several years younger, decided to wait a few years before settling down.
The Great War Arrives
But as we all know, later in 1914, the world was shaken up when the Great War – which we now call World War 1 – began that summer. In those days, Trentino was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; for many centuries before it fell under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire, which was essentially by Germanic/Austrian. However, most Trentini (including most of my own family) had Italian names and spoke Italianate dialects.
When the war first broke out, Italy wanted to remain neutral. But later, they joined the Allies in 1915. One of their main reasons for doing so was because the Allies promised to give Italy the Austrian ruled provinces of Trentino and Alto-Adige if they won the war.
The Great Political Divide
All of these factors meant that there were many varying loyalties in the region: many Trentini wanted to become part of Italy, while many others wanted to remain part of Austria. Sometimes divided loyalties could even be found within the same family. For example, my great-uncle Luigi Parisi is reported to have been pro-Italy, while both of my grandparents were very much pro-Austria.
While none of us can possibly know what he truly felt, Luigi’s purported political leanings are mentioned on page 100 of the book Ricordando by Luigi Bailo, who says Luigi Parisi was reputed to be a friend and political sympathiser of the priest don Giovanni Battisti Lenzi.
Don Lenzi was labelled an ‘irridentista’ (an advocate for the unification of Italy) by the Austrian government and was exiled from Trentino by the Austrian government during the war. So, if Bailo is correct and Luigi Parisi was also pro-unification, does it mean his being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army compelled him to fight on ‘the wrong side’ from his perspective?
Sadly, although pardoned in 1917, don Lenzi died in Innsbruck before he could return to his homeland. His remains were later returned to Santa Croce, where there is a memorial to him outside the parish church.
Trentini Soldiers in Russia
Because Trentino was so split in loyalty, the Austrian government feared that if they sent Trentini soldiers to fight on the Western front, they would ‘turn coat’ and defect to the Italian army. So, instead, most of the Trentini men – including my grandfather, his brother Angelo and his uncle Luigi Parisi – were sent to the Eastern front to fight in Russia. The battles there were notoriously brutal, as was the bitter weather and harsh living conditions.
My grandfather and his brother spent a significant period of time in Siberia as prisoners of war (1915-1917), along with an astonishing 2.3 million other Austro-Hungarian troops, most of whom were captured after the battle of Galicia. The majority of those who managed to survive ended up WALKING home across Europe, after the Russian revolution caused their entire infrastructure to collapse, resulting in the release of the POWs.
Luigi Parisi: ‘Missing in Russia’
But their uncle Luigi Parisi was still fighting on the Eastern front in 1917. Then, one day he and his regiment were crossing a river under fire. When they took roll call on the other side, Luigi never replied.
At age 51, Luigi Parisi had vanished and was never seen again. His military record says ‘disperso in Russia’ (missing in Russia). He is listed in the Tyrolean ‘honour roll’ in Innsbruck as having fallen in battle, as he was presumed dead.
A photo of his memorial card appears on page 100 of Ricordando:
The Family Left Behind
As mentioned earlier, one of Luigi Parisi’s six children, a boy named Leone (who was only 7 years old when his father fell in the war), grew up to become the parish priest of Santa Croce, known to all as ‘don Leone’.
Until his death in 1986, don Leone was highly influential and widely loved in the community and played a role in the lives of many people in the parish. Below is a photo of don Leone as a young priest, with many members of his extended Parisi-Bleggi family. His mother, the widowed Ottavia Bleggio, is the elderly lady seated behind and to his right.
After the war, my grandfather and his brother returned to America. A few years later, they were followed by their wives and children, including my late father Romeo Fedele Serafini (Ralph Raymond Serafinn). Between them, these two brothers went on to have 8 children and dozens of grandchildren (and now a new generation of great-grandchildren), who all grew up in America.
I truly doubt these young men and their families could have settled as quickly and successfully as they did had they not been mentored by their late uncle Luigi before the war. I doubt I would even be alive had he not blazed the trail for the rest of us back in the late 19th Century.
What Do We Mean By ‘Hero’?
While his country has dubbed him ‘hero’ because he fell in battle, I see my great-grand uncle Luigi Parisi through a different lens.
Politics do not define him to me. It doesn’t matter to me that he fought for the ‘enemy’ of the US, or that he might have secretly been ‘an enemy’ of the Austrian empire, or that he might have been ‘pro’ Italy. None of that matters to me.
To me, he is a herobecause he was a guiding light for his family and his community – on BOTH side of the Atlantic. His story and photos reveal an intensity of character that was demonstrated by his actions throughout life. I know I owe my life to him, although I never met him.
My personal belief is:
If everyone could embrace their ancestors and family members from the past as ‘heroes’ in this way – without any prejudice or political bias – the world will become a much more loving and forgiving place.
I encourage and invite you to remember and celebrate all of your family heroes, whatever ‘side’ they might have been on. We owe so much to all of them.
Please feel free to share your own ‘family hero stories’ in the comments box below.
27 May 2019
P.S. My next trip to Trento is coming up from June 29th to July 27th 2019. My client roster is currently FULL for that trip. But if you would like to ask me to do some research for you on one of my future trips, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using theContact form on this site. Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.
P.P.S.: I am still working on the edits for the PDF eBook on DNA tests, which I will be offering for FREE to my blog subscribers. I will send you a link to download it when it is done. Please be patient, as it will take a month or so to edit the articles and put them into the eBook format. If you are not yet subscribed, you can do so using the subscription form at the top-right of your screen
BAILO, Luigi. 2000. Ricordando… Dedicato ai Caduti della Prima Guerra Mondiale dell Giudicarie Esteriore.
NOTE:Ricordando is also out of print, but you can sometimes find it in Italian bookshops. The book is about all the soldiers from Val Giudicarie who perished in World War 1. While a goldmine on some levels, I have found many errors in it. Men frequently had the wrong birth date or the wrong age at time of death listed. In at least one case, the author had listed the grandparents of the man, instead of the parents. I ended up noting all the errors I found and writing to the archdiocese to double check whether the error was in the book or with my own data. In every case it was an error in the book. Unfortunately, the author is now deceased and an updated printing of the book is almost surely never to happen. Still, even with the errors, the anecdotal information he had gathered via postcards and letters he had gathered from the families made it a rich and invaluable resource.
BOLOGNANI, Bonifacio. 1981. A Courageous People from the Dolomites: The Immigrants from Trentino on U.S.A. Trails.
NOTE: This book is out of print and is VERY expensive when you find it used. There are a few sites that offer a downloadable PDF version of the book for free, but you do have to give them your email address. One such site can be found at: https://www.e-bookdownload.net/search/a-courageous-people-from-the-dolomites . I cannot vouch for its quality, as I haven’t downloaded it myself from them.
Genealogist Lynn Serafinn tackles DNA test ethnicity estimates, showing how and why they might contradict each other and genealogical research. Article 4 of 4.
Today’s article is actually the only one I had planned to write when I first decided to tackle the subject of DNA tests. My original intention was to look at my own ethnicity reports from various companies and show you how their ethnicity estimates stacked up against my own genealogical research.
But as I began writing earlier this year, I realised there were so many underlying factors that needed to be explained before my original ideas would make any sense. Thus, I decided to turn this into a 4-part series, this being the final segment.
If you haven’t yet read articles 1-3 (or you wish to refresh your memory on any of the topics), you can find them at these links:
ARTICLE 1: In which we examined (TOPIC 1) the different kinds of DNA tests and (TOPIC 2) some basics about autosomal DNA.
In this final article of the series, we’ll at last come to TOPIC 6, which is all about ‘ethnicity reports’ or ‘ethnicity estimates’, i.e. what DNA testing companies like AncestryDNA, 23AndMe, etc. say you ‘are’ in terms of ethnic makeup, primarily based on autosomal DNA testing (if you don’t know what this means, I explain it in Article 1).
It is my observation that DNA ethnicity reports are often a source of confusion – and even emotional upset – for many users, as they are often at odds at what they know or have been told about their own ethnicity. It is my hope this article can help explain why your ethnicity report might contain information that makes no sense to you and share my own thoughts on how we can try to improve the ‘system’ to make these reports more accurate in the future.
TIP: I will be compiling all four articles from this series (editing out the repetition) into a PDF eBook, which I will be offering for FREE to my blog subscribers. If you would like to receive this free eBook, simply subscribe to this blog using the form at the top of this page. If you are reading this on a mobile phone, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Advertising and the Truth About ‘Reference Panels’
I believe there are two primary causes for the confusion many people experience when they get their ethnicity estimate back from their DNA testing company.
One, which I’ve mentioned earlier in this series, is misleading advertising wherein companies explicitly say these tests will tell you who you ARE. As I have previously expressed, people who are descended from immigrant families are especially desirous to know ‘who they are’ because they have been cut off from their ancestral past and feel a strong desire to reconnect.
But misleading advertising gets compounded by a second cause for confusion: a general lack of understanding on the part of consumers about how DNA testing companies create their ethnicity estimates. The truth is:
Ethnicity reports from DNA testing companies do not – and CANNOT – tell you ‘who you ARE’, but only who you are most similar to in COMPARISON to other test takers in their system.
To generate your ethnicity report, DNA testing companies compare your DNA to data gathered from ‘test groups’ of living people (Ancestry calls them a ‘reference panel’) who have known, documented ethnicities. The members of these reference panels are grouped according to ‘ethnicity’ or, in 23AndMe jargon, ‘populations’.
These reference sets provide DNA testing companies with the comparative foundation for their data. And this is the crucial detail that many people don’t seem to understand. The ethnicity reports you receive from DNA tests are not based on some ‘ethnic gene’ sitting in a vault with the name of an ethnic group neatly labelled on it. The reports you receive are COMPARATIVE, not ‘absolute’.
‘Each testing company builds its own reference data set, drawn primarily from its own customers, and each company also creates its own algorithm for assigning heritage. In other words, customers’ results are based on inferences and are merely an estimate, often a very rough one — something many test takers don’t realize and testing companies play down.’ (my emphasis added)
In the same article, Padawer adds:
[The DNA from the test group] ‘becomes the company’s reference data set for that geographic area. When a segment of your DNA closely matches the data for that location, the company assigns you that ancestry. The more segments on your genome that match that genetic pattern, the larger your estimated percentage will be for that ancestry….’
In other words, the DNA companies are comparing your DNA to the information they have in their ‘pool’. Theoretically, the bigger and more ethnically diverse the group, the more accurate the results would be. The smaller the pool, and the fewer ethnic groups represented, the less accurate the results would be.
However, while larger numbers in the sample group ‘theoretically’ mean a better change at accuracy and precision, in practice, it isn’t exactly that simple.
Competition and Lack of Uniformity Between DNA Testing Companies
One reason for this lack of simplicity is the inconsistency with which DNA testing companies label their ethnic populations. The crucial thing to remember is that, despite how they are marketing themselves to us, DNA testing companies are NOT scientific organisations, but commercial competitors. Some of the implications of this are:
No two companies have the same test people in their reference panels.
No two companies have the same number of ‘populations’/ethic groups.
No two companies label their ‘populations’ with the same names.
No two companies define these populations with the same geographic boundaries.
Thus, the accuracy of your ethnicity report depends COMPLETELY upon who the test company is comparing you to. This means:
Because ethnicity reports are comparative, the results you will receive from one DNA testing company is likely to be different (sometimes radically) from what you receive from another.
Ethnic Populations Represented in DNA Test Groups
In their 2018 white paper on ethnicity estimates, AncestryDNA explained how they chose the people who formulated their DNA reference panels, which (in 2018) contained 16,638 samples, broken into 43 overlapping global regions – a big leap up from their previous DNA test group, which had 3,000 samples, and represented only 26 global regions.
While they say they drew upon samples from the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) and the 1000 Genomes Project, they clarified, ‘it was not possible to confirm family trees’ for people from these groups. I take this to mean the ethnic groupings were not based on ‘documented’ (i.e. genealogical) evidence.
They then explained that they ‘examined samples from a proprietary AncestryDNA reference collection as well as AncestryDNA samples from customers’, most of whom were selected because their online trees ‘confirmed that they had a long family history in a particular region or within a particular group.’ They said their aim was to use only ‘single-origin individuals’ for their reference panel, i.e. people who are known to be ‘100% of a single ethnicity’, based upon documentation (again, genealogical evidence).
As a genealogist, this in itself is interesting to me, as I believe many people have the mistaken impression that DNA exists as a science independent of genealogy (something I discussed in Article 2). These statements by AncestryDNA confirm they can only work when used hand-in-hand.
How Far Back in Time Do Ethnicity Reports Reflect?
But what exactly do AncestryDNA mean by ‘long family history’?
In that same white paper, AncestryDNA express the challenges of finding suitable candidates with well-documented ancestry. They explain:
‘When asked to trace familial origins, most people can only reliably go back one to five generations, making it difficult to find individuals with knowledge about more distant ancestry. This is because as we go back in time, historical records become sparse, and the number of ancestors we have to follow doubles with each generation.’
‘Five generations back’ is great-great-great-grandparents (3X GGP). My 3X GGPs were born in the late 1700s, less than 250 years ago.
Well, I don’t know who they mean by ‘most people’, but most people I know who are serious about genealogy can trace their roots back further than that. A span of five generations isn’t exactly what I would call ‘deep history’.
But, alarmingly (to me, anyway), they go on to say:
‘Ideally, we’d use people with all of their grandparents from the same country, but due to low numbers for some countries we sometimes use parents or even the customer’s birth location.’ (my emphasis added)
Seriously? These are their criteria for their reference groups?
I myself have traced my own Trentino ancestry back to the early 1400s (and some lines beyond that, via additional historical references), and my Cimbri/Veneto ancestry to the mid-1600s. Moreover, I’ve traced the lineages of many of my Trentino clients back to the 1500s, as we Trentini are fortunate enough to have access to our parish records in digital format at the Diocesan Archives of Trento, plus a wealth of other archives throughout the province.
Given the disparity between the genealogical evidence and what Ancestry DNA (and presumably other companies) are currently using as criteria for comparison, how could their ethnicity estimates possibly represent an accurate ethnic profile of anyone who has traced his/her ancestry back several hundred years?
Again, the facts hardly reflect the promises made in their marketing campaigns.
Under-Represented Ethnicity Groups
AncestryDNA admit that some ethnic groups are less well represented in the database, and that these can cause anomalies in their reporting. They say:
‘For example, individuals from Spain might get some assignments to France and Portugal, while individuals from Norway and Sweden might get some level of assignment to each other.’
I might add to this that a large number of people whose ancestors came from Trentino and other parts of northern Italy are now being labelled ‘French’ (as we’ll look at in a few minutes).
But apart from under-represented ethnic groups, the BIG issue for me is that geographyon its own – and especially the name of a COUNTRY – does not define ethnicity. ‘Nations’ have little to do with ethnicity. The Americas and Australia surely give testament to that. And the fluctuating boundaries throughout the history of the Italian peninsula – including Trentino – also demonstrate this. Any given geographic region can also contain a rich blend of ethnic groups. For example, the Cimbri people (who are of Germanic descent) have lived in many communities in northern Italy for hundreds of years. But what are the chances someone of Cimbri descent will be labelled as such in a DNA test?
Until such ethnic groups are adequately represented in DNA test groups, the answer is ‘virtually nil’.
Ethnicity reports from autosomal DNA tests will frequently CONTRADICT what you know about your own ancestry via genealogical research – especially if your ethnic population is not represented (or under-represented) in their reference panels.
If an ‘ethnic population’ is absent, under-represented, or defined too broadly within a given reference panel, it is unlikely that DNA test will identify these groups with precision (if at all).
In fairness to Ancestry, on page 33 of their white paper, they add some notes about what they call their ‘Ethnicity Improvement Cycle’:
‘Currently, we are working to further expand our global reference panel for future ethnicity updates. We have already begun genotyping and analyzing samples for a future update which we expect will provide even better estimates. We have also begun a new diversity initiative to gather DNA samples from underrepresented regions around the world in order to expand the number of regions we can report back to customers.’
CASE STUDY: My Ethnicity Reports
So how does someone like me show up in commercial DNA ethnicity reports? First, I need to explain what I KNOW about my own ancestry, so you can see the reports in context:
My mother was (to the best of my knowledge) of 100% Irish background, with ancestors primarily from County Cork and Kerry. I have documented evidence for most of her family only back to the early 1800s, as many records for their towns/parishes are missing.
My father and both of his parents came from Trentino, and I have traced nearly all his ancestry there (hundreds of ancestral lines) back to the 1400s.
HOWEVER, my father’s mother’s mother (one of my great-grandmothers) came from Badia Calavena near Verona in Veneto, known to be an ancient Cimbri community. I have traced nearly all her ancestry there back the early 1600s.
Knowing this about me, you would EXPECT my ethnicity report to look something like this:
50% Northern Italian OR some other combination of ethnicities (central and northern Europe, for example), depending on how they divide and label things.
Let’s see how the DNA reports reflect the genealogical data (or not).
EXAMPLE 1: AncestryDNA
As AncestryDNA recently undated their algorithm, I’d like to show a ‘before and after’ comparing their old report to their revised one.
AncestryDNA’s OLD Ethnicity Report
Here is a snapshot of my estimated overall ethnicity, taken from the ethnicity report I received from AncestryDNA a few years ago:
This report shows 49% Irish, which is close enough to the 50% I would have expected for my mother’s side. I assumed the 1% Great Britain probably made up the remainder.
So, if that was the case, it meant the other mishmash of ethnicities represented my dad. Back then, I tried to make sense of these baffling figures.
Let’s look at the reference to Scandinavia, for example. If I actually DID have 4% Scandinavian ancestry, and that percentage referred to a single ancestor, it would have to mean that ancestor was no further back than one of my 3X GGPs. This is because, unlike mitochondrial or Y-DNA, autosomal DNA gets cut by AT LEAST half with each generation. I say ‘by at least half’ because, while we inherit 50% of our DNA from each of our parents, the percentage of DNA we inherit from earlier ancestors becomes less mathematically predictable with every passing generation.
But the thing is, I happen to know my Trentino-born father’s ancestry, and I have traced ALL of his lines hundreds of years past the point of 3X GGPs. In fact, I have been transcribing ALL the parish records for my father’s parish of origin and connected all the families onto one tree. After tracing over 23,000 people so far, every single one of these people WITHOUT EXCEPTION came from Trentino or adjacent regions/provinces like Veneto, Verona, Lombardia or Alto-Adige/Bolzano – for the past five to eight centuries.
Nope. Not a Viking in sight.
So, Am I Really Scandinavian?
So, if I knew for SURE I don’t have any (recent) Scandinavian ancestors, the question was still how that figure of 4% Swedish got into my ethnicity report.
I started hypothesising that it might reflect very ANCIENT Scandinavian ancestry via the LONGOBARDS(whom I discuss in Article 3), whom I knew inhabited my father’s homeland of Val Giudicarie in the Middle Ages.
My hypothesis expanded as I started to study how autosomal DNA is transmitted throughout the centuries. While our inherited autosomal DNA from each individual ancestor decreases by half every generation, something peculiar – and quite interesting – can happen to our autosomal DNA over long periods of time.
Back in Article 1, I talked about ‘pedigree collapses’ and ‘endogamy’, wherein one ancestor (or a pair of ancestors) is related to us via more than one line. Just as this phenomenon can create ‘false positives’ for close living DNA matches, it can ALSO show up as a possibly misleading finding in our ethnicity report. Why? Because the further back you go in time, there is an ever-increasing chance that EVERYONE (especially those living within a given radius) is your ancestor, and probably in multiple ways. This means that, when you get to, say, 1,200 years or more, that probability of being related to ANYONE alive at the time increases to pretty much 100% certainty.
With enthusiasm, I spent a lot of time and energy developing this ‘hypothesis’ of my ancient Longobard ancestry. But then, it all came to a crashing halt in September 2018.
Bye Bye Scandinavia
Well, apparently, all my theories about ancient Longobard roots were simply a waste of time because, when AncestryDNA revealed their new ethnicity reports late last year, and every drop of my Scandinavian ancestry vanished without explanation.
‘Word on the street’ was that Ancestry had realised they had gotten it just plain wrong. In fact, after their new algorithm was announced, I did a bit of digging and found more than one blog article from 2012-13 in which AncestryDNA was criticised for the fact that almost everyone’s DNA results showed Scandinavian heritage!
OK, admittedly they did say that part of the report was ‘low confidence’, but surely this quirk was downplayed to their customers.
AncestryDNA’s NEW Ethnicity Report
So, aside from my vanishing Vikings, what is different in my new, ‘improved’ ethnicity report? Below is a screenshot of what currently greets me on my AncestryDNA landing page. Imagine my bewilderment when I first saw this:
70% Irish? How is that even possible? That would attribute at least 20% of my paternal ancestry to Ireland – meaning my dad was about half Irish, which 500+ years of documented evidence demonstrates he was certainly NOT.
And 30% FRENCH? That would mean my father was more than half French (and the other half presumably Irish).
I took a closer look at the ‘updated estimate’ and saw this map of their ethnicity regions:
Ironically, the detailed breakdown for Ireland, is much MORE accurate and detailed than my earlier report, showing my Irish ancestors were primarily from Munster (which is indeed correct).
But 70% Irish and 30% French? Seriously?
Frankly, when I saw this, I found myself pretty riled. I couldn’t understand how any company could advertise so aggressively, make so many promises (and so much money) and deliver product that was just so…ODD.
What Does Ancestry DNA Mean By ‘French’?
Trying to make sense of their new ‘labels’, I wanted to understand just what Ancestry meant by ‘French’. So, I expanded their report to see this more detailed map:
We can see that Ancestry’s ‘French’ designation actually encompasses many other countries, including Spain, parts of Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria – and northern Italy.
That’s a lot of different countries, and only two of them (apart from France itself) even speak French. Moreover, if you read it carefully, it indicates the actual country of ‘France’, comprises less than 1/3 of the total area of the region being labelled as ‘France’.
So, I’ve got to ask: whose bright idea was it to label all these DIVERSE ethnicities as ‘French’?
The ‘French’ (DNA) Revolution
AncestryDNA might see ‘French’ as an arbitrary designation to label the place (not the people) where THEY have found the highest concentration of this genetic data, but the fact is, this label is anything but arbitrary to their customers.
The public reaction to these new labels became abundantly clear when I visited some of my genealogy groups on Facebook, and read dozens (if not hundreds) of impassioned comments. In fact, people are STILL commenting about them. Here are a few representative highlights:
READER 1: I just realized that I received 37% French in the new update, where none existed before. This would account for 2/3 of my mother’s admix, a first-generation northern Italian American, genetic makeup. Even if there was a previously unknown French ancestor in the mix and the paper trail indicates none, for my mother to be 75% French is ridiculous. (My father is of 100% German heritage, a mix of regions, which is accounted for). #BonjourNo
READER 2: Something is definitely not right. My dad is half northern Italian and half Polish, yet the “updated results” show that he’s 93% Eastern European/Russian and 7% Western European. That cannot be right especially when my updated results show 2% Sardinian and my mother’s side is all German.
READER 3: I just updated! I’m French??? My mother’s family is from Filecchio near Barga near Lucca. My cousin traced them back to 1400-1500. This is northern Italy, not France. If anything, it is more Celtic. My father was 1/2 Irish, 1/2 English (OK, maybe some Scot) My Irish increased, English vastly increased, and Greece popped in the picture. Italy was down (Ancestry assume “Italy” means SOUTHERN Italy). No longer Middle Eastern or other traces. Sure, I took French in high school and I like France, but I know my Italian heritage, and it is not French. Makes me doubt the whole Ancestry DNA analysis…
Clearly, AncestryDNA are upsetting many of their customers. By using a ‘blanket label’ of ‘French’ for northern Italians and other European ethnic groups (even when they have a map explaining what they mean by it):
AncestryDNA are challenging (if not invalidating) the cultural identities of many of their users.
When ‘The French Revolution’ hit the Facebook groups, many people who have purchased these tests in good faith seemed to want to find a reason to believe the new label, despite the fact it went against the grain of what they believed (or KNEW) about their own ethnic origins. Seemingly desperate to make sense of it all, some even suggested our ‘Frenchness’ may have been due to the Napoleonic era. To such musings, I pointed out that, as Napoleon was around only 200 years ago, for 18th century France to change our ethnic identity to such a degree, every one of our Trentino female ancestors would have to have been impregnated by a French soldier roughly between 1805-1815 (which I assure you didn’t happen). This is how much people wanted to trust Ancestry, and to give them the benefit of the doubt.
And when people TRUST you that much, you have an immense MORAL RESPONSIBILTY. But, from my angle, AncestryDNA’s new labelling seems is definitely insensitive, and verging on morally irresponsible.
I do not believe AncestryDNA truly understand the EMOTIONAL impact of their decision, nor the underlying desires of their users. I would be willing to bet a high percentage of their customers are American descendants of European immigrants, who are trying to reconnect to a lost part of themselves. And, as I expressed in Article 3, ‘Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?’, many such people are ALREADY unsure – and often confused – about their own ethnic identity. For them, labels are far from arbitrary; they are VERY important.
Perhaps had AncestryDNA called this group something like ‘Alpine European’, it would probably have been more emotionally acceptable (and respectful) to all those who fall into this category.
Perhaps they’ll read this and reflect on what they’ve actually taken upon themselves.
EXAMPLE 2: 23AndMe Ethnicity Report
Looking at 23AndMe, here is what they told me back when I first bought their test in 2015:
Once again, the Irish side of my ethnicity is pretty accurate, and my dad’s ancestry is a hotchpotch of ethnicities, including a rather intriguing ‘low confidence’ referent to what they said was Yakut in Siberia (‘East Asian’ in chart above).
Their new 2019 stats are interesting, as they SEEM to be trying to ‘fine tune’ different regions at a more granular level:
As you see, they’ve assigned subregions for their ‘British & Irish’ and ‘Italian’ categories. They haven’t yet defined the regions include under ‘French & German’ (they say they’re working on it), and the ‘Broadly’ northwestern and southern European are indeed ‘broad’ designations.
Here’s a look at the Irish subregions, reflecting my mom’s Irish ancestry:
The darker areas (especially Kerry, Cork and Limerick), they say, are those which my ancestors ‘may have lived’ in the last 200 years. In this case, their estimate CONFIRMS what I already know about my mother’s family.
Now, here’s the map of the regions they’ve mapped out for my ‘Italian’ ancestry, which, they say, comprises 4.5% of my DNA:
What is interesting is it shows the strongest ‘likelihood’ of my ancestors coming from Veneto. This, I would ASSUME comes via my great-grandmother, who came from Verona area, and whose ancestry I have traced back about 400 years in that area. My own genealogical research has shown me that Abruzzo and Lazio are definitely not in the picture (at least not in the last 500 years). While a great-grandparent can contribute as much as 12.5% of your total DNA, it isn’t necessarily going to show up that high, so it’s not completely contrary to my genealogical research to see a lower percentage. Besides, I know her family came from a Cimbri community, which means some of her DNA could get flagged up as ‘German’ rather than ‘Italian’.
But if we accept this ‘Italian’ percentage as belonging to my Veronese great-grandmother, and the Irish as belonging to my Irish mother, what about my dad’s Trentino ancestry? What’s THAT mess about?
According to their estimates, 43.2% of ‘me’ is so broad a to be practically useless, except to say I am some sort of ‘European’.
What can I possibly learn from such ambiguity?
I’ll tell you what it tells me. It tells me they have a LOT of people of Irish descent in the 23AndMe database. That’s why the information about my mother’s side is getting more accurate.
It also tells me they have a growing pool of Italians in their database, but possibly NOBODY from Trentino. That is why the ethnicity reports for my father’s side is still a long way from showing anything useful.
So, for now, I can only take from 23AndMe what it gives me, rather than trying to make sense of what it cannot. I feel encouraged by they increased ‘granularity’, and hope to see more detail in the future. And, for now, I’m not going to speculate what their ‘French & German’ category means, as they say they are still expanding it.
EXAMPLE 3: MyHeritageDNA
I haven’t taken a DNA test directly from MyHeritage; rather, I uploaded my ‘raw’ DNA from 23AndMe to their website, when they offered this as a free option a few years ago. Here is their ethnicity breakdown:
As you can see, my mom’s DNA is still showing up as 50% Irish (this time lumped in with Scottish and Welsh), and my dad’s side shows yet another odd potpourri of ethnicities, albeit this time with more emphasis on ‘Italy’.
I won’t say more about this particular report, but I thought you might find it interesting to compare it to the others.
EXAMPLE 4: CRI Genetics
And finally, here are the results of my tests from a company called CRI Genetics, who tout themselves as being ‘genetic scientists’ rather than big business. I ordered both an autosomal AND mitochondrial DNA test from them, with high hopes these ‘scientists’ would reveal more accurate results than their competitors. On a lark, I also bought their ‘Famous People Analysis’, which allegedly identifies some famous people who share your DNA.
But then I got the results. And let me tell you, I think they are the most bizarre I’ve received to date. Here are the results from their autosomal test:
According to them, not only is my father ‘French’, but so is my Irish mother! In fact, according to them, I’m 75% French.
Their mitochondrial test (for which I paid an additional fee) was certifiably underwhelming. If fact, it was less informative than what was included in 23AndMe’s autosomal test, where they identified my maternal haplogroup.
And their ‘Famous People Analysis’? A complete joke. While claiming I am related to modern-day people like actors Meryl Streep and Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, they also claim I am related to the 5000-year-old mummy knowns as ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ via my mother’s mtDNA:
Now, the thing about Ötzi is that just about anyone of European descent IS most likely related to him (but not necessarily a descendant), by simple statistics. But actually saying I am related to him via mitochondrial DNA is just plan LYING.
To rub salt into an already festering DNA wound, CRI Genetics has something they call an ‘Advanced Ancestry Timeline’. According to them, one of my ancestors from around the year 1850 was from Sri Lanka, another from Peru around 1625, and yet another from Gujarat, India in 750 A.D.! Of these claims, they say ‘Statistically we determined this to be 99% accurate.’
Science? More like mythology. And definitely a huge rip-off.
How We Can Improve the Future of DNA Testing
I think you might have deduced by now, that I feel it is important NOT to put too much stock in – or get too hung up about – an ethnicity report from ANY company, including those I have not mentioned in this article. Always remember that the results you are getting are all COMPARATIVE based solely on the size of their database, and the picture they paint of your ethnicity is on an ever-expanding canvas.
But please don’t leave with the impression I am suggesting you should NOT do a DNA test, or that I have given up hope on ‘big’ companies like AncestryDNA. Actually, I believe those of us who are passionate about our family history can do much to help IMPROVE the accuracy and precision of ethnicity profiles in these larger companies.
By providing DNA testing companies with more data from currently under-represented ethnic regions.
In other words, TAKE a DNA test, not so much to discover information, but to provide information that can (hopefully) improve the accuracy and precision of genetic science.
Surely Trentino is one such under-represented region, but I am sure many of you reading this can identify hundreds of others. As a genealogist, I would love to present a ‘Trentino contingency’ to both AncestryDNA and 23AndMe, so we are finally represented in their test groups.
Despite my extensive genealogical research into my own ancestry, I might not be the ideal test subject, due to having a ‘mixed’ ethnicity within recent generations. But those of you who are Trentino on both your paternal and maternal sides, and who have well documented family history, would be excellent candidates. If you fall into this category, I would love to hear from you.
Of course, if you are of Trentino descent but you have not yet researched your family very far, you might consider hiring me to help you in this regard (more information about this is below).
I hope this series on DNA testing has helped you better understand what DNA tests are, how genealogy works in tandem with DNA testing, and how ‘ethnicity estimates’ are generated.
Equally, I hope these articles have encouraged you to look more deeply into your own cultural identity, and increased your confidence as you try to make sense of your DNA test results — even when they seem to make NO sense at all.
Many thanks to all of you who have read this entire series, especially those who have left comments on this site. It is truly encouraging to me when I hear your feedback and learn from your experiences.
Now that the series is complete, I will be compiling the articles (editing out the repetition) into a PDF eBook, which I will be offering for FREE to my blog subscribers. If you would like to receive this free eBook, all you have to do is subscribe to this blog using the form at the top of this page. If you are reading this on a mobile phone, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to email@example.com.
Please be patient, as it will take a month or so to edit the articles and put them into the eBook format.
I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below.
P.S. My next trip to Trento is coming up from June 29th to July 27th 2019.
Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses cultural labels and personal identity, and explores the ethnic history of northern Italy. Article 3 of 4 on DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity’.
In the first two articles in this 4-article series on DNA tests, we focussed on the more technical aspects of genetics, and how it relates to genealogy. If you missed those articles, you can catch up by clicking on the links below.
ARTICLE 1: In which we examined (TOPIC 1) the different kinds of DNA tests and (TOPIC 2) some basics about autosomal DNA.
In today’s article, we’ll be shifting focus slightly as we explore:
TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World
TOPIC 5: What Does History Tell Us About Northern Italian Ethnicity?
While the subject of cultural identity might at first seem a bit off the topic of DNA tests, I believe we cannot clearly understand the findings of any DNA test without first examining who we BELIEVE we are. And, as what we think we are and can sometimes conflict with what other people think we are, knowing more about our historic and ethnic background is also crucial to being able to make sense of what we might receive from DNA testing companies.
In today’s article, I will also address the moral responsibility DNA testing companies have in putting ‘labels’ on different ethnic groups. Just HOW those DNA companies decide what to ‘label’ us will be the subject of the fourth and final article in this series.
TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World
Nationality vs. Local Identity
For anyone of northern Italian descent, the whole notion of what it means to be ‘Italian’ is challenging, from both a cultural and historical perspective.
‘Italy’ as we know it today was comprised of independent pockets of cultures, republics and city-states for a lot longer than it was ever called ‘Italy’. The regions of Liguria,Lombardia, Veneto and Piemonte were not integrated into the emerging nation called ‘Italy’ until the second half of the 19th century. And the region of Trentino-Alto Adige – comprised of the two provinces of Trentino (AKA Trento) and Alto-Adige (AKA Bolzano or Bozen) was not officially integrated into Italy until 1919*, at the end of World War 1. The people of Trentino, the southern province of that region, are predominantly Italian-speaking (albeit there are many regional dialects), while the people in the province of Alto Adige are predominantly German-speaking (although most will also speak Italian today).
* Emperor Charles I of Austria relinquished his control on 11 November 1918 (what we English speakers refer to as ‘Armistice Day’), upon which Italian forces moved into Trentino-Alto Adige, but the official treaty of Saint-Germain was signed on 10 September 1919.
While independent from one another, most of these northern states were under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire for about 1,000 years, since the time of Charlemagne (ca. 800 AD). Then, after a very brief period roughly between 1790-1814 when Napoleon was busy stirring things up, these states came back under the control of the Austrian and (later) Austro-Hungarian Empires. These empires, by whatever label, were dominated by the royal Hapsburg family for many centuries.
All the regions of modern Italy have rich cultural histories that long predate the idea of a unified nation. Pick up any book on European history and you will read about the power, importance and influence of northern Italian cities – all independent – such as Genova (Genoa), Milano (Milan), Mantova (Mantua), Venezia (Venice), Verona and Padova (Padua). Even Shakespeare used many of these northern cities as the settings for his plays.
But amongst the northern provinces, Trentino, Bolzano and parts of Lombardia were somewhat different. These provinces were known as a ‘bishoprics’ (vescovile), and each was ruled by a ‘Prince Bishop’ (Principe Vescovo) until the Napoleonic era when the government was secularised. During the reign of Prince Bishop Cristoforo Madruzzo, the famous ‘Council of Trent’ (Concilio di Trento) took place in the city of Trento in the mid-1500s.
The office of the Prince Bishop was exactly what it sounds like: he was BOTH royalty AND an ordained bishop of the Catholic church. As a priest, the Bishop could not pass on his property and title to his children (as he was supposed to be celibate and childless), but we frequently see power passing from an uncle to one of his nephews, thus creating dynasties of bishops throughout history. As royalty, the Prince-Bishop was – just as the Emperor was – able to confer titles of nobility to outstanding citizens in his bishopric. Many of my own Trentino ancestors were ennobled by Prince Bishops. Such titles helped strengthen ties of loyalty between the state, the church and its people. It also helped to forge a sense of pride in – and identification with – the greater area known as ‘Trento’.
In addition, the people of Trentino (especially in rural areas) have always had their own localised cultural identities. For example, people typically think of themselves as belonging to a particular valley (Val di Non, Val di Sole, Val Giudicarie, etc.). These valleys, delineated by the glacial mountains, lakes and rivers of Trentino’s breath-taking natural terrain, embraced pockets of rural communities who spoke local dialects and had surnames often specific to a relatively tiny geographic area. In other words, it wasn’t just the bishopric creating a sense of cultural identity, but the land itself.
Given such history and geography, it is unsurprising that the people of Trentino and other provinces in northern Italy did NOT unilaterally adopt a new cultural identity of ‘being Italian’ when national boundaries and governments changed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even today, many still think reject the ‘label’. Others accept it, but nearly all still tend to identify more strongly with their local culture than with their ‘nationality’. You cannot simply wipe out millennia of local, cultural identity by slapping a new label on it. This is not just true of Italy, but of ALL modern countries, everywhere on the planet.
Unfortunately, the ‘labels’ people receive from DNA tests don’t make things any easier; we’ll come back to this point later in Article 4 of this series.
The Fragile Identity of Youth
When I was 14 (now 50 years ago!), I was invited to a birthday party for one of my male classmates. Now this boy (let’s just call him ‘B’) was arguably the handsomest in our class, and I had had the fiercest crush on him for more than a year. And to be honest, I am pretty sure B had felt some puppy love for me too.
The party was in the basement at B’s house (on Long Island, where I grew up, nearly all of us had finished basements, and these were perfect party places). When the party was over, I was coming up the stairs to go home, and was greeted by B’s father.
Being the 1960s, I always dressed in the ‘mod’ fashion of the times, which meant mini-skirts, fishnet stockings, go-go boots and love beads. And, I had a head of very long, straight, dark brown hair.
As I got to the top of the stairs, B’s father decided to tease me, asking, ‘How do you get that long hair of yours so shiny, Lynn?’
My heart fluttered a bit, because B’s father obviously knew who I was, and I suspected his son had mentioned me as someone he liked.
I replied, ‘Easy. I rinse it with vinegar after I wash it.’ (Believe it or not, that was a common practice back then, especially for dark hair).
He laughed and countered, ‘Ha! Leave it to a nice Italian girl to wash her hair with salad dressing!’
Then, without even a moment’s hesitation, I replied, ‘Oh, I’m not Italian. I’m Austrian.’
He looked at me with perplexity. ‘But your name is Serafinn.’
Again, without even thinking, I said, ‘It’s an Austrian name. My father was born in Austria, but it was taken over by Italy.’
(Side note: When I was 14, I didn’t know that Trentino had already become part of Italy when my dad was born there in 1919).
B’s father looked at me oddly. At the time, I thought it was just confusion over what I had just said. But years later, I realise I was probably insulting him. You see, B’s father was a first-generation Italian-American (their surname was most likely Calabrian).
I hadn’t intended to insult him. I was making no judgment or political statement about Italy. I was simply parroting what my father and my grandparents had programmed me to say since I was a child.
But now, half a century later, I realise that in replying to him the way I did, I was actually distancing myself from him. Not only was a drawing a line of distinction between us, I was probably sending out a subtle vibe that I was rejecting Italy and the idea of being Italian.
B’s father made no reply to me after that, but my words had definitely made some sort of impact on him. After that, his son no longer seemed to be interested in me, and I soon learned he had found a ‘nice Italian girl’ as his girlfriend.
My first case of teenage puppy love ended in heartbreak over a case of cultural identity.
Fuzzy Labels. Fuzzy Sense of Self.
Most of us of Trentino descent who were raised in America referred to ourselves as ‘Tyroleans’. I never even HEARD the word ‘Trentino’ until decades later.
I’m pretty sure my dad had originally told me I was ‘Austrian’ when I was little because it was easier for ‘outside’ people to understand than the more perplexing label of ‘Tyrolean’. Other Americans really had no idea what we meant by ‘Tyrolean’, and it always required some explaining – a skill I learned only as I got older.
Even after I started referring to myself this way, I wasn’t really quite sure what the heck I meant by ‘Tyrolean’. Although my dad had been born in the ‘old country’ and spoke dialect fluently, he had come to America when he was very young and didn’t remember much about his homeland.
When I asked him where he came from, he merely said, ‘Near Trento’. When I asked him if he could be more specific, he said the village he came from was so small, you wouldn’t even find it on a map (perhaps true back then, but that was before Google maps!).
Despite such fuzziness, when I was growing up, my father’s culture was unavoidable. I constantly heard my father speaking dialect with members of his family, as he called them on the phone just about every night after work. And whenever we visited my grandparents, aunts and uncles, everyone spoke dialect. I got used to sitting in a roomful of adults speaking a language I couldn’t speak myself, while somehow following the gist of what was being said.
When I asked my dad the name of the language he spoke, he said ‘Tyrolean’. In my teens, I was a classical musician and an opera singer, so I had become familiar with many Italian words. Eventually, I realised the dialect my father spoke (which I now know was Giudicaresi) had a lot of similarities with Italian. But I was told unequivocally it had nothing to do with Italian. It’s Tyrolean. Period.
When I asked him to teach my how to speak ‘Tyrolean’, he refused, saying he only spoke it, but didn’t know how to explain it. Besides, he argued, why would I need it? He wanted me to ‘be American’. Better to speak English.
So, while I inherited a strong sense of being ‘Tyrolean’, I was also being discouraged from trying to ‘go backwards’ to my ancestral roots. The ‘old country’ was in the past. It was almost like those things were ‘dead’ and gone, and I wasn’t allowed to touch them. I strongly feel this kind of mixed message was one of the strongest factors in my DELAYING my ancestral journey or visiting my father’s homeland until after he passed away.
But what my grandparents and father did not (and probably could not) understand at the time was how this severing of ties with the past would leave me with a very hazy and tenuous sense of self.
Much as they wanted me to feel ‘American’, I didn’t.
Much as I wanted to feel ‘Tyrolean’, it was too vague for me to understand in any satisfactory way.
And ‘Italian’? Are you kidding? Just the idea of such a notion seemed completely taboo.
And now, after working with dozens of genealogy clients over the years – all descended from immigrant families – and have seen this same sense of haziness over and over. It’s heart-breaking to watch.
Losing A Surname – The Cruellest Cut of All
Perhaps the biggest vagary in my cultural upbringing – which, sadly, I now realise was a deliberate lie – had to do with our surname.
Back at the birthday party, I had told B’s father that my surname ‘Serafinn’ was Austrian. This belief was forged by my father, who told me the surname ‘Serafinn’ with two ‘ns’ was specifically a ‘Tyrolean’ name. I remember him telling me, ‘If you ever meet anyone with that name, they are related to you.’
Well, he was partially right. If I ever meet anyone with the surname ‘Serafinn’ with two ‘ns’ they ARE indeed related to me. But it’s not because it’s a Tyrolean name. It’s because my grandfather made it up. Historically, there IS no such surname as ‘Serafinn’. The only people called ‘Serafinn’ were my grandparents, my father, his siblings and their children. Other than us, the surname doesn’t exist.
I found out decades later – well after my father and all his siblings had died – that my father’s surname was ‘Serafini’, not ‘Serafinn’. At first, I rejected the idea my father might have deliberately misled me. I theorised that perhaps he hadn’t known Serafini was the family surname, and that he had grown up thinking ‘Serafinn’ was his real name, just as I had. But then, when I started to dig more deeply, I discovered documents listing my dad as ‘Serafini’ through his teens. While I am not sure of the precise date, the official change seems to have been made sometime in the late 1930s, not long before my dad enlisted in the US Army.
Thus, there was no way my dad and his siblings could have been unaware of our original surname. Yet, all of us kids – me, my sister and my cousins – were never told this when we were growing up. Obviously, it had been a family decision to ‘break’ us from the past.
And because the change of surname was one of those proverbial ‘family secrets’ that died along with my father’s family, the actual reasons for the change can only be hypothesised. Was it simply a matter of simplifying the name for Americans, without changing it altogether? Was it an attempt to make the surname look less Italian and more ‘Austrian’ (which, as we saw in the story with B’s father, didn’t exactly work)? Perhaps it was a bit of both, but we’ll never know for sure.
I must confess, when I first discovered my grandfather had changed our surname, I felt a combination of anger and grief. I was angry for being lied to. But I was also deeply aggrieved for having LOST my ‘true’ surname. Even today, I still find myself having to explain my surname to people, especially when I am in Trentino. Sometimes I just say my name is ‘Serafini’ to make it clearer.
Similarly, I have worked with many genealogy clients whose families changed their surnames after emigrating to the Americas. Sometimes the changes are minor – like a change in spelling to make it easier for people in their adopted country to pronounce the name. But the surnames of many of my clients have been radically changed, sometimes with no rhyme or reason as to how they are connected to the original name. Naturally, they ask many of the same questions and go through the same roller coaster of emotions as I did when I discovered my father’s original surname.
For any of us who have experienced a ‘loss’ of name, finding out about our ancestors is often an integral part of healing that wound. Now, after many years of ‘speaking to my ancestors’ through genealogy, I have finally embraced this change of surname to ‘Serafinn’ as a crucial part of my own cultural identity. It is a poignant and important chapter in our family’s history – the story of what happened to us after we left our ancestral homeland.
Austrian, Tyrolean, Italian?
Something I found remarkable when I started digging into my father’s US documentation after he died was his own sense of confusion about what to call himself.
In many documents he says he was born in Austria. However, technically, this isn’t true. He was born in Trentino in October 1919, after the province had become part of Italy. In one US census, it says he was born in Italy and that his elder sister was born in Austria. Now, technically, this IS true; however, the fact is they were actually born in the same HOUSE (my cousins still own it) in Val Giudicarie. What I found even odder, though, was that in his military registration, he cites his place of birth as ‘Tyrol’ – which isn’t a country at all. In fact, trying to define ‘Tyrol’ is kind of like trying to define the molecules of water in a flowing stream.
If my father, who was BORN in Trentino, had so much difficulty deciding how to describe where he came from, what chance did I have of being any clearer about my ethnicity when I was growing up? And what chance of clarity can there be for grandchildren or great-grandchildren of Trentini emigrants who were not exposed to their ancestral culture in childhood as I had been?
I want to address this label ‘Tyrolean’ because I believe it’s crucial to this whole topic of cultural identity when we are talking about people who came from Trentino-Alto Adige. Tyrol (Tirol or Tirolo) was originally a county, headed by the ‘Counts of Tirol’. When the original dynasty of counts died out in 1363, control of the Tyrol was taken over by the royal Habsburgs. In fact, from that point, the title of the ‘Count of Tirol’ was sometimes assumed by the Holy Roman Emperor himself.
Over time, ‘Tyrol’ no longer referred to a single county, but to a much wider collective, whose connection was often more ideological than administrative. On one of my recent trips to Trento, my friend and colleague Daiana Boller – an historian and local politician – showed me this beautiful painting entitled ‘Aquila Tirolensis’ by 17th-century Austrian historian and cartographer, Matthias Burglechner. First printed in 1609, this version is dated 1620 in the lower right-hand corner. A highly stylised map, it contains the ‘Aquila’ (eagle) of Tyrol – its stemma, or coat-of-arms – and all the key places considered part of it at that time:
If you look closely at the borders of this picture, you can see ‘Trient’ (Trento) and ‘Bozen’ (Bolzano), as well as many other familiar places such as ‘Brixen’ (Bressanone), ‘Arch’ (Arco), ‘Clauzen’ (Chiusa), ‘Meran’ (Merano), ‘Rofriet’ (Rovereto), as well as parts of present-day Austria, such as ‘Insbrugg’ (Innsbruck).
This stunning image gives us an historical snapshot not only of the official designation of ‘Tyrol’ during this era, but also of the diverse cultural identity of the people who thought of themselves as ‘Tirolesi’.
However, let us bear in mind that this painting is 400 years old, and what it depicts is not necessarily what people meant by ‘Tirol’ when our ancestors left the province, nor indeed what most people mean by the term today.
The fact is, the ‘official’ boundaries of Tirol were constantly changing. Frankly, if I try to figure it all out, it just makes my head spin. Rather than attempt to explain it, I refer you to this website with maps showing how these designations shifted after this painting was make, between 1766 and the present day: http://www.zum.de/whkmla/region/germany/tyroladm.html.
But while official boundaries of any administrative entity come and go like tides, the cultural identity of the people from these entities are far more resistant to change.
How Cultural Identities Get ‘Frozen’ in Time
Most descendants of Trentino ancestors know that their ancestral homeland was once under Austrian rule and was incorporated into Italy after World War 1. But, in my observation, fewer of them seem to know that, while the province of Bolzano is still known as ‘South Tyrol’ (Sud Tirol), the province of Trentino hasn’t been known by the term ‘Tirol’ for the past 100 years.
These days, if you say ‘Tyrolean’ to anyone living anywhere in Europe, they always take it to mean Bolzano and/or Austria. And this INCLUDES the Trentini themselves. I have yet to meet a living native Trentino who refers to him/herself as ‘Tirolesi’. In fact, the first time I visited the province and used the word ‘Tyrolean’, people looked at me with bewilderment, if not a bit of amusement.
‘No, Trentino is not Tirol,’ they said. ‘You are confusing it with Bolzano’.
One person who had family abroad said to me, ‘No, we do not call ourselves Tirolesi. But I’ve heard there are some Americans who think like that.’
So, at the risk of ruffling a few of my readers’ feathers, I have to say that all my experiences and observations have led me to conclude that:
The ONLY people today who use the term ‘Tyrolean’ to describe someone from Trentino are descendants of 19th and 20th century emigrants.
In fact, in 1923, an organisation called the ‘Legione Trentina’ actually made it ILLEGAL to use the word like ‘Tirol’ and its variants (Tyrol, Tyrol, Tiroler, Südtirol etc.) to refer to the land now known as Trentino and its people. One leaflet says that by 1931,fines were issued of ‘up to 2,000 lire (about three average monthly salaries) and three months in prison’ for anyone who used these terms.
After all, when most of our ancestors came from Trentino, the province was either still under Austrian rule, or had only just become part of Italy. When they migrated to their new, adopted homelands, the culture – and cultural identity – they brought with them was from THAT era. We, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, inherited all those things.
BUT the thing is:
When cultures become displaced, the old traditions and ways of thinking do not evolve the same way they would have if they had stayed in their native homeland.
In fact, if anything, they tend to get ‘frozen’ in time. I believe this happens because people who live in places far removed from their ancestral homelands desperately need to feel a connection to their past. And, as they don’t always have any living, breathing connection to those homelands, they will hold onto whatever they’ve got like a life raft.
Moreover, to relinquish that label or change the way of thinking brought across the sea by their emigrant ancestors is seen as a kind of disloyalty – or even betrayal. For this reason, thousands of descendants of Trentino emigrants around the world staunchly retain the a ‘Tyrolean’ (if not ‘Austrian’) cultural identity, despite the fact the label is no longer used by most present-day Trentini.
And no ‘official’ change in nomenclature is going to nullify those powerful feelings.
So, does that mean it’s ‘wrong’ to think of yourself as ‘Tyrolean’? Of course not. Just as my surname ‘Serafinn’ has its own cultural significance, the label ‘Tyrolean’ has its OWN meaning and cultural significance. It doesn’t need to mean what it means in Trentino today or even what it used to mean to our ancestors. It stands on its own as what it is.
For myself, I prefer to use the label ‘Trentina’. And that doesn’t make me ‘wrong’ either. I prefer this term because I have lived in Europe for 20 years, and I go to Trentino frequently. People understand what I MEAN when I use it. So, that designation makes more sense in my situation. But for me, it also carries great meaning. To me, the word represents the thing that makes me feel most connected to my ancestors – the land itself. When I say I am ‘Trentina’, I become part of those glacial mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Through that word, I feel connected to every ancestor and blood relation whose very existence was owed to that majestic land.
But that is simply MY cultural label. It has meaning for me, but perhaps not for you. Never EVER in my life would I ever suggest that someone should reject or change the word they use to identify themselves if that word fills them with joy and makes them feel alive.
Schisms Triggered by Cultural Identity
Challenging another person’s chosen cultural designation is, in fact, a sure-fire way to get yourself into an argument.
One such argument within my own family sticks clearly in my mind even after nearly half a century. I was in my teens visiting at the home of one of my father’s sisters, when an argument broke out between my aunt and her cousin (son of my grandmother’s brother, with the surname Onorati).
Our cousin was complaining that he was tired of having to explain to people that he was ‘Tyrolean’, and that now he just told people he was ‘Italian’.
He argued, ‘I look Italian. I have an Italian name. I’m Italian. What’s the big deal?’
At this point, my aunt entirely lost it. She flew into a rage and shoved our cousin against the wall. She started pounding her fists on his chest and screaming, ‘How could you possibly betray our family by saying such things?’
In hindsight, what is most interesting to me about this incident is the fact that this aunt (my dad’s youngest sister) was actually born in America (in Brandy Camp, Pennsylvania) after my grandparents had emigrated with my dad and two other sisters. At the time of this incident, she was in her mid-40s, and had never even been to her parents’ homeland. In fact, she was apparently confused about where they actually came from, as evidenced by a story she wrote about her parents’ mythical home in Merano (in the province of Bolzano) – a place where they never lived.
I bring this up not to criticise my late aunt (I actually adored her), but to underscore how cultural identity has nothing whatsoever to do with cultural awareness. It lives and breathes in complete independence from historical or geographical accuracy.
One of my father’s 1st cousins (whom, unfortunately, I never met) was the late author Marion Benasutti, who wrote a book called No Steady Job for Papa. Marketed as a ‘novel’, it really is a memoire of her experiences growing up in a Trentini immigrant family in the early 20th century (the family emigrated before World War 1). A strong, recurring theme in that book is the ‘Austrian/Tyrolean’ versus ‘Italian’ cultural identity, and how her father used to argue with friends and family members over their chosen designations.
Lest you think these schisms were limited to first-generation Americans, this ideological divide is still very much alive amongst Trentini descendants today. For example, I recently received this message from a prospective member of my Trentino Genealogy Facebook group:
‘I am 100% Tirolean-American. I am interested in tracing our roots back to the days before the Fascist Italianization of our land when it was Austria-Hungary, of which my grandparents were citizens.’
While Austria-Hungary died 100 years ago, and Mussolini died over 60 years ago, the passion contained within these words is still palpable. You can certainly feel how this person would find it challenging – if not impossible – to think of himself as ‘Italian’. To expect (or force) him to do so would not only be highly insensitive, but utterly futile.
Arguably one of the strongest spokespeople for ‘Tyrolean’ cultural identity is Lou Brunelli, founder and editor of Filò: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.In his editor’s introduction to volume 20 of that magazine (January 2019) he says just as ‘the one and only Tyrol… was ‘usurped’ and ‘annexed to Italy’, the magazine therefore:
‘…usurps the authentic right and privilege to ignore the line and draw a circle embracing, engaging and uniting us to what we were as affirmed by our emigrants who, over and over, declared themselves Tirolesi, Tyroleans and, for us, Tyrolean Americans.’
As you can see, the debate over the cultural identity of Trentino is far from ‘settled’ even after a century has passed.
An Unaddressed Moral Responsibility
I’ve taken this time to talk about cultural identity because I think it has tremendous implications for companies who offer DNA tests.
Whether or not we choose a specific cultural ‘label’, we cannot simply dismiss or ignore them. In my work as a genealogist, most of my clients come from the US, with a handful from South American, Australia and New Zealand. Many of them come to me with a feeling of longing or even emptiness. They are searching for a missing piece of themselves and are often (quite understandably) confused about where their ancestors came from.
Most of the people I know who have taken a DNA test did not embark on their genetic journey just for ‘fun’, but to find answers to deeply personal questions that have been challenging their happiness and/or sense of belonging – sometimes for their entire lifetime.
And, as we’ve just seen, cultural ‘labels’ can often have a powerful – if not EXPLOSIVE – impact on people. You cannot just call people something and expect them to embrace it (or even accept it).
This is something I believe the big companies who handle DNA tests have yet to understand. Knowing how delicate and emotionally charged cultural identities can be, companies who provide DNA ethnicity reports have a HUGE moral responsibility. You cannot play with people’s sense of self – especially not for profit. The labels these companies choose to put on people in their ethnicity reports can sometimes only INTENSIFY the confusion people had that led them to take the DNA test in the first place.
I will be returning to this point in the final article in this series, but for now I want to suggest three crucial shifts that need to occur if we are to increase the value – an minimise the damage – of ethnicity reports offered by DNA testing companies:
Testing companies need to become more educated about cultural identities around the world, so they can create profiles that are more sensitive and relevant to their customers.
There need to be greater numbers of DNA test-takers in under-represented cultural groups.
DNA test-takers need to be more educated about the wider story of the ethnic history of their ancestral homelands.
Only when all three of these things are met can DNA testing truly serve the purpose for which so many people turn to them.
TOPIC 5: What Does History Tell Us About Northern Italian Ethnicity?
Building upon what we’ve discussed so far, the next crucial question we need to ask is:
Does our CULTURAL IDENTITY as ‘northern Italians’, ‘Trentini’ or ‘Tyroleans’ (or whatever) have any foundation in GENETICS?
In other words, are the people from northern Italy genetically ‘different’ from other people, including those from the more southern regions of the Italian peninsula? Or are all these designations simply things we’ve ‘made up’ in order to feel a sense of belonging? Do the DNA tests currently on the market support what northern and southern Italians believe about themselves? Moreover, are their findings consistent from company to company?
We’ll look at the last of those questions in Article 4, when we look at DNA ethnicity reports. But in order to understand what we’ll discuss in that article, let’s first consider northern Italian ethnicity through an historical lens.
Just who were the people who populated Trentino and other parts of northern Italy over the centuries? Below is a short, whistle-stop tour through the millennia.
The Rhaeti and the Celts
About 2,600 years ago, and through the first centuries of the Common Era (A.D.), much of northern Italy was inhabited by Rhaetian and central European Celtic tribes.
Once hypothesised to be related to the Etruscans (ancient people of present-day Tuscany), many scholars today believe the Rhaeti were indigenous Alpine tribes (‘indigenous’ itself being an admittedly vague term). The precise origin of the Celts is much less clear to historians, and many preconceptions about who they were and where they came from are being challenged (although they are most widely believed to have from somewhere in central Europe).
Above is a map showing which languages were spoken around the Italian peninsula circa 600 B.C.
Notice ‘Raetic’ in the orange area at the top, which overlaps with the modern provinces of Trentino and Veneto. The term ‘Gaulish’ in the upper left is another term for Celtic languages. Later, some Rhaeti in south Tyrol (Alto-Adige), Trentino and Veneto, as said to have adopted the Celtic language, at least in part.
Some scholars say that the Alpine language Ladin (NOT the same as ‘Latin’) which is still spoken by an estimated 30,000-60,000 people today (mostly in South Tyrol, Trentino, Belluno and Friuli) is has roots in both Rhaeti and Celtic.
Between around 100 B.C. and 400 A.D., Romans were certainly present in places like the city of Trento. There are, in fact, the remains of the old Roman city beneath Trento, but some historians suggest Trento was kind of a ‘holiday spot’ for the Romans rather than a true settlement. Thus, some historians believe the Romans may not have played a huge part on changing the ethnicity of the area, although others dispute this theory.
What is indisputable, however, is that they brought the Latin language, permanently changing the linguistic landscape of northern Italy. The majority of Trentini speak dialects and have names based on Latin roots.
The Longobards (Lombards)
After the fall of Roman (ca. 400 A.D.), we start to see invasions (and settlement) from Germanic and/or Scandinavian tribes. The most notable of these were the Longobards (called ‘Lombards’ in English), from which the northern region of ‘Lombardia’ (or ‘Lombardy’, in English), gets its name. Today, most scholars believe they originated from somewhere in Scandinavia.
Above is a map showing the Longobard Kingdom (in blue) when it was at its peak in the mid-700s. Although defeated as a political force by Charlemagne around 800 A.D., their nobles lasted in some parts of southern Italy until the 11th century.
A formidable political force, they also influenced many other Germanic tribes – including the Saxons – to settle in Italian lands during their reign. Note: Many people associate the word ‘Saxon’ with England, but they originally came from central Europe; the Germany state of Saxony was once their settlement, before they were defeated by Charlemagne.
The Cimbri and Other Germanic Tribes
During the middle ages (1,000-1,200 A.D.), new waves of Germanic tribes, such as the Cimbri people, migrated and created communities in various parts of Trentino and Veneto. My great-grandmother’s parish of Badia Calavena in the province of Verona is a known Cimbri settlement and, until recently, the people there spoke Cimbro, which, while a distinctly Germanic dialect, also sounds like ENGLISH to my ears. One Veronesi historian I know says he believes this is because Cimbro is related to Old English as spoken by the Saxons. Linguistic connections do not always indicate a genetic connection, but sometimes they might.
What I find so interesting about my great-grandmother’s ancestry, however, is that so many of their surnames – even back to the 1500s – are of Latin/Italian origin, despite their being German speakers. I suppose this is evidence of how long they had lived in that valley, and how thoroughly they had become assimilated into the local culture over the centuries, but again this is pure speculation.
Later Germanic Migrations
Much later, when under Austrian rule in the 1700s-1800s, you will see other scattered Germanic surnames appearing in the church records of the northern provinces, but in a more organic (and less invasive) fashion. As these migrations are relatively recent, you can more easily identify Germanic ‘blood’ through these lines through genealogy alone.
The Ethnic ‘Soup’ of Northern Italy
So, based on what we know about the history of northern Italy, what conclusions can we draw about northern Italian ethnicity?
The truth is, nobody seems to agree.
For example, some historians believe the Longobards, (who comprised an estimated 10% of the population of northern Italy at their peak) had minimal impact the genetic profile of northern Italy because they chose to breed amongst themselves without mixing with other ethnic groups present in the region at the time.
But I’m not so sure. I don’t see how any culture can be in a region for half a millennium and create no impact on the genetic landscape. The Longobards were known to have adopted Roman customs and dress and, although they were always at loggerheads with the Pope, the did actually convert to Christianity.
Given that the Longobards had assimilated, at least in part, to local culture, it seems implausible to me that there was NO inter-breeding between cultures over all that time. My logical brain says at least SOME of that Scandinavian Longobard DNA (and that of all the other ‘imported’ peoples) surely must have mingled – at least to some degree – with that in other ethnic groups in the region.
Moreover, while Charlemagne conquered the Longobard leaders in northern Italy, I cannot imagine they simply ‘vanished’ as an ethnic group. I have seen dozens of Longobard artefacts in many churches and museums in in Trentino. Even the church of my father’s parish in Santa Croce del Bleggio (Val Giudicarie) was built upon the ruins of an old Longobard church.
Even after a political coup, if people have lived in an area for a long time, they tend to stay put, unless they are forced to leave by economic, environmental or political circumstances. And while Charlemagne ousted the Longobard leaders, I have read nothing about any kind of wholesale exodus of the Longobard people from Italy.
At this point, it seems to me the next logical question must surely be:
Can DNA testing shed light on how – or IF – these medieval tribes intermingled?
And if it can…
Will our that DNA profile look different from those of other Italians?
What kind of ‘labels’ will DNA testing companies like Ancestry DNA slap on people like us in their ethnicity reports?
Coming Up Next Time…
Those are the questions we’ll address in fourth and final article in the series on DNA tests.
In that article, we will finally look in depth at ethnicity reports – how they come up with their data, what the data means, and how we genealogists – from ALL ethnic backgrounds – can help improve the future of DNA research.
I will also share examples from my own reports, so you can see how data can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) in context.
I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online, you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below.
P.S. My next trip to Trento is coming SOON 18 February 2019 through 14 March 2019). If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.
Ancestry, family trees, research, translations, genealogy advice for those with ancestors from the province of Trento, Italy (formerly Tyrol, Austria)