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Why it Took me 17 Centuries to Become an American

Updated on February 13, 2013
Charlemagne, third from left, bottom row
Charlemagne, third from left, bottom row

Because of my confusing ancestry, I am a conundrum inside a poser folded into an enigma, a man whose mind is three parts stew and one part broth and who is trying to survive in this country’s “melting pot.” My father was born in the United States in 1938, and I am a second generation American. How this particular branch of the Murray family came to be American is a strange but true story of coronation, subjugation, execution, frustration, migration, transportation, and emigration.

French (sort of)

Using my mother’s copious genealogical records, I have learned that my most distant ancestors on my father’s side appeared, strangely enough, in France in AD 230:

Dagobert, Duke of the East Franks, begat Genebald, who begat another Dagobert, who begat Clodius, who begat Marcomir, who begat Pharamond, first in a series of French kings directly related to me, culminating in Charlemagne, Charles the Great, Emperor of the West and King of the Franks.

Who were these Franks? According to most reputable history texts, the Franks were a group of Germanic tribes living along the Rhine River in what is now present-day Germany. They were Franks living in Germany or German Frankfurters. The Romans, sensing this obvious sociological oxymoron, rescued the German Franks from themselves, conquering most of them in 358. In true Frankish style, these German Franks became allies of their conquerors and eventually adopted Christianity as their religion, beginning a dangerous liaison with the papacy that would last until the twenty-first century.

Thus, my earliest Frankish ancestors didn’t know exactly who they really were—they were German. My earliest ancestors were easily conquered by a declining Roman Empire—the living Gaul. My ancient kin trusted an Italian pope who wouldn’t even be truly Italian for another 1,500 years, and they had interesting nicknames such as Charles “The Hammer” Martel, Pepin “The Short,” and, of course, the often misspelled Charlemagne or Charles the Great.

German soldiers marching toward Albert, France
German soldiers marching toward Albert, France

French still (sort of) and English

When I first discovered all this as a child, I had my doubts: I can’t be originally French, can I? My teacher told me the Germans clobbered them in two world wars. And why did these French kings marry women with such crummy names like Argotta, Vberica, Clotilde, Ingoberge, Dode Oda, and Chalpaide Alpaide, concubine?

I immediately asked my mother, “What’s a concubine?”

“Charlemagne’s mother was Bertrade, Countess of Laon,” my mother said instead of answering my question. “They called her Bertha Goosefoot.”

“But what’s a concubine?”

“Ask your daddy.”

That meant I had to look up “concubine” in the dictionary. The definition didn’t help.

If this is Mother Goose, I'll eat her hat.
If this is Mother Goose, I'll eat her hat.

“Now, Bertrade was also called Bertha Greatfoot,” my mother said.

“Why?”

“I suppose she had big feet,” she said. “There’s even an ancient rumor that her feet were webbed, and that she, your fortieth great-grandmother, was the original Mother Goose.”

I wonder what Mother Goose’s royalties would be today, but only for a moment. Disney or Viacom would have certainly bought her out by now.

“Ah, here’s someone interesting,” my mother said. “Eleanor of Aquitaine, your twenty-eighth great-grandmother. She was wife to a French king, and then she was wife to an English king.”

King John signing the Magna Carta.
King John signing the Magna Carta.

I later learned that the English king locked dear Eleanor in the Tower of London for fifteen years. It was obviously a marriage for his convenience. He let her out eventually. Eleanor was mother to Richard the Lionhearted and to King John, the man who signed the Magna Carta. She was mother to a hero and a goat, a swashbuckler and a wimp.

“So I’m English, too?” I asked.

“Yes.”

This has puzzled me to this day. By most recent genealogical accounts, I am Scots because of my freckles, reddish-brown hair (now graying), and luve for red, red roses, hot tea, and Robert Burns’ poetry.

I am also Irish because of my temper and wickedly sardonic humor, and I have a touch of German because of my inability to laugh aloud unless ordered to. Yet, I am also descended from the French and English, two entities that had stretched the Hundred Years’ War to 116 years because neither side could count anything but dead bodies and taxes.

Edward III
Edward III

The end of royalty

“But after Edward the Third finished his reign,” my mother had told me, “there are no more kings in your family tree. Seven hundred years ago, you had a king for an ancestor”—the king who started the Hundred Years’ War—“but you’ve had no royalty since then.”

“Why not?” I asked.

My mother winked. “They became real people.”

“Oh.”

Once my ancestry left the muddy waters of royalty and became “real,” I began to see a pattern of deprivation and degradation that would bring my family to the New World, which really wasn’t “new” since Native Americans had already been living in North America for about, oh, 70,000 years.

Caerlaverock Castle, Dumfries, Scotland
Caerlaverock Castle, Dumfries, Scotland

Scots and Irish

By the fourteenth century, my ancestors had settled in Scotland, mining lead and generally being thrifty, and in Ireland, fighting the English and generally being under subjugation. There is some debate about whether the Irish were truly Irish or the Scots were truly Scots in the fourteenth century. The Scots, originally Irish, but by now Scots, were inhabiting Ireland after having driven the Irish, really the Picts, out of Scotland, while the Picts, originally Scots and not the Celts who didn’t exist in anything but the imagination of Irish poets until the nineteenth century, were now Irish.

The British firing Scotland lead at the Americans during the War of 1812
The British firing Scotland lead at the Americans during the War of 1812

At any rate, the English used the lead my Scots/Pict/Irish ancestors mined in Scotland against the French, the Spanish, the Americans, and, of course, the people within Ireland for the next five hundred years. When the lead ran out since no English king had the foresight to recycle, some of my ancestors stayed in Scotland and drank tea and whiskey.

The 5th Duke of Buccleuch
The 5th Duke of Buccleuch

This wondrous mixture resulted in the execution of John Weir, my third great-grandfather, who cursed the Duke of Buccleuch one evening mostly likely after having too many cups of tea laced with whiskey—or whiskey laced with tea. “Ye may own the land,” John Weir reportedly said, “but you’ll ne’er e’er own me.” In kind, typical, English style, Buccleuch had John Weir hanged on his birthday, saving everyone the bother of buying him birthday presents that day and simplifying the headstone carver’s job.

An Gorta Mor memorial
An Gorta Mor memorial
A nice, healthy cow
A nice, healthy cow
An 1840s eviction in Ireland
An 1840s eviction in Ireland

My remaining relatives got the lead out and fled to Ireland. “Fled” is a strong word. “Left for” might do. “Drifted” is most accurate. They drifted to Ireland in the 1840s just in time for the Great Potato Famine, An Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger. So there they were, Germanic-French-Scots-Irish?-Pict? people, smack dab in the middle of an edible starchy tuber shortage. What could they do? What could anyone do?

They stole.

And they were caught.

Often.

One of my distant cousins, John Murray, stole a cow. How do you hide a cow when you’re living underground in a peat bog? What do you say in your defense? “I swear on John Calvin that it followed me home!” you might say. “It was just here when I crawled out of my hole,” you might say. No one evidently listened to John, because he was “transported” to Australia for fourteen years. The word “transported” is a wonderful English euphemism for “taken 12,000 miles on a perilous journey by a leaky sailing ship, where one out of every three convicts might survive the journey with or without scurvy, to a penal colony in Australia, to be farmers.” John received fourteen years for taking one cow. It must have been a very special cow indeed. Perhaps it was the cow that jumped over the moon.

My other Irish ancestors were equally as unfortunate. If they weren’t evicted or quietly starving, they were transported for seven to fourteen years for the following egregious offenses: stealing one turnip, absconding with one burlap bag, borrowing with no inclination to return a shirt, pilfering two handkerchiefs, and thieving a piece of cloth. The English transported another John Murray, age 15, for fourteen years because he set fire to an outhouse with his Anglo-Irish landlord inside. Some scholars, interestingly enough, believe this is when the phrase “hot seat” came into vogue.

The HMS Charlotte, from the "First Fleet" of transportation ships in 1787
The HMS Charlotte, from the "First Fleet" of transportation ships in 1787

Australian and Kiwi (sort of)

When enough of my ancestors had arrived in Australia, after the requisite family reunion with all the wonderful haggis and the corny reunion T-shirts, they hatched a plan since they had finally found others who could understand their Germanic-French-Scots-Irish?-Pict? accents, to escape Australia for New Zealand.

A Maori homestead
A Maori homestead

Despite the perilous journey and an unscheduled landfall in Tasmania, another John Murray arrived in New Zealand, married a Maori princess, had fifteen children, and helped establish Wellington.

And this begs an interesting question. Why would a man, whose family escaped his beloved Scotland because of the English and transported from his adopted Ireland by the English, establish an English-sounding city that would one day be the capital of New Zealand and the second half of a scrumptious English dish?

Irish emigrants on their way to the "coffin ships"
Irish emigrants on their way to the "coffin ships"

Canadian

The English didn’t transport all of my ancestors from Ireland, however. After all, they needed someone to subjugate there. Enough of my kin found their way to Galway and the “coffin ships” to brave the passage to Canada where, in true Germanic-French-Scots-Irish?-Pict? style, they became farmers in Ontario, the very province where the Ice Age decided to stop and deposit more rocks and lakes per square mile than any other land area on earth—with the possible exception of Minnesota. Thus, they farmed boulders, rocks, stones, gravel, and sand until they realized that this was no way to have future descendants. Instead, they would turn to religion, become preachers and evangelists, and migrate south to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.

They had finally become Germanic-French-Scots-Pict?-Irish?-Canadian-Americans.

I could never be a hyphenated American.

My true hyphenation would never fit on the census form.

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