On my mother's side, there were two brothers, Thomas and Patrick, who left Ireland around 1850. They traveled to New York together. Thomas, my great great grandfather, made his way upstate and settled in for a while somewhere around Albany. His brother Patrick shipped out again as a deckhand on a freighter. He spent six or eight years working at sea, traveling as far as Australia, before finding his way back to New York. He then reunited with Thomas and the two of them started a tugboat business in New York Harbor.
My grandparents on my father's side of the family arrived here in the 1890s, both from Central Europe. They met and married in New York, then wandered around Pennsylvania and Ohio looking for work. After a few disappointing years they settled in Connecticut where my grandfather found a steady job in a metal-fabricating factory. They had seven children. The oldest died in the 1917 flu epidemic. The youngest, the last surviving sibling, served in World War II and died in Las Vegas in 2003.
So I sometimes wonder: When I'm reading about our Founding Fathers, or the Puritans in New England or the Dutch in New York, am I even learning about my own heritage? My ancestors had nothing to do with America at that point; they were trying to scratch out a living somewhere in Europe.
But then, I think, in a way I'm more American than the Daughters of the Revolution, or anyone else who claims ancestry back to colonial times. After all, my immigrant experience is much more typical than someone who claims some faint connection to the Founding Fathers. The population of the United States in 1776 was around 2.6 million people. But some 4 million Irish immigrated to the U. S. in the 19th century. And there were even more from Central Europe. The total figure I found put the number at 30 million Europeans who migrated from Europe to America between 1836 and 1914.
Maybe I find the Dutch interesting because, according to Robert Shorto, they deserve credit for bringing the first seeds of democracy to the New World -- the seeds of freedom, opportunity and self-rule -- and that above all is what defines our aspirations, whether we're from the Netherlands or Nicaragua, or England or Estonia or Ecuador.
Also, the Dutch also gave the word for cookies (originally koekjes), which in my book is reason enough to celebrate their culture!
And as Robert Shorto points out, the Dutch also brought us the word for boss (originally baas) which he says is a uniquely American concept. The word does not connote any divine favor or royal lineage. It just refers to the person who's in charge. There's the Mafia boss, the political boss, the boss at work -- all of whom attained their position not by any royal connection, but by some combination of talent, hard work, street smarts, and maybe a little luck. The boss is no better than we are, and if things change, as they often do, the boss could be gone tomorrow . . . and maybe we'll become the boss.
Then there's The Boss. American icon Bruce Springsteen, from working class New Jersey. According to Shorto, the Springsteens were among the original Dutch settlers of New Netherland.