Family History

Just Who Do You Think You Are?

Have you ever considered what makes you who you are as an individual?  Is it nature or nurture? This debate has gone on for many years. If we think about it deeply enough it is easy to consider and argue both viewpoints. Recently a large part of who I thought I was as well as the history of half of my family was turned on its ear.  Almost everything we thought we knew about ourselves and our origins was discovered to be a fabrication. Somewhere this big lie, that was undoubtedly born of pain, shame, and the hope of assimilation took on a life of it’s own and was passed like a legacy from one ancestor to the next.

I’ll never forget the day that this legacy was passed on to me. I must’ve been six or seven. My father and I were walking, as we usually did, and he proudly told me that we were Native American, a mixture of Shawnee and Cherokee to be exact. How did he know this? His father had died when he was very young so the legacy was passed to my father by his uncles just as they learned it from the generation before them. Rumor had it that long ago a distant relative had ridden with the great Shawnee chief Blue Jacket.

This was an easy story to believe, our skin has a olive hue, the Walton men have dark hair, high foreheads, and larger noses. Aside from these physical characteristics, the story was also something to be proud of for a family that had never amassed any great fortune or fame. It was a legacy that must have provided comfort and continuity to my father and his sister as they were being raised in a succession of horrific foster homes in the 1940’s and 50’s.

It was about ten years ago that the cracks began to spider in this story’s veneer.  My brother, newly divorced and having a lot of time on his hands, decided to start researching our family tree. My mother’s side was easy, most came from Eastern Europe. Her grandfather immigrated from Ukraine and arrived on Ellis Island by steamer shortly after the turn of the century. Answers to the origins of my father’s side of the family didn’t reveal their secrets as easily.

My brother tracked down as many living relatives as he could find.  He discovered that back in the 1990's my father’s last living uncle took some notes, written in his own hand, from what he said claimed to have uncovered from courthouse records. These were just bits and pieces mainly. His pages were filled with tales of running moonshine during the Depression and hints of Native American origins but there was nothing truly cohesive about his words. They seemed like the ramblings of a man who realized he didn’t have many days left on this Earth trying desperately to validate a dream.

If there’s one thing bred into us it is diligence. My brother was steadfast and continued on in his research, probing further and further into the past. He joined a few genealogy websites and then the trail became quite interesting. He could find no evidence of Shawnee or Cherokee blood but eventually traced our lineage back to 1621 in Warwickshire, England.  William Walton was born that year and this was as far back into history as my brother was able to reach.  William resided not far from where Shakespeare had lived, just a few miles to be exact. William produced two sons who eventually sailed to America. But hundred year old lies have deep roots and not too many in the family, especially my father, wanted to believe these findings.

Fast forward a few years. I decided to take a DNA test with the genetic testing company 23andMe. I spit in a vial, mailed it off, and then had to wait a painstaking four or five weeks for the results of the test. My family was on the edge of their seats the whole time. My father somehow knew this would validate his long held beliefs. Finally the email from 23andMe arrived announcing the DNA findings were complete. I clicked on the link contained in the email, logged into the website, and found my way to the results for my paternal line.

The findings of this test changed my family forever. We discovered that my father’s DNA, my paternal haplogroup, originated in Northern Africa thousands of years ago. There were zero Asian markers, which means we have not a drop of Native American blood. Science revealed my paternal haplogroup was J2, which is Ashkenazi Jew. This was the furthest thing from what we expected. My brother and I, once over the initial shock, embraced this newfound knowledge. The older generations aren’t having as easy of a time coming to terms with the truth.

What makes us who we are? Is it nature or nurture? In my mind it’s a little of both and a whole lot of a third, less tangible, element. As humans we have a great and unique freedom. I believe what is written in our genes or the environment in which we are raised are just two small slices of a very large pie. The third and largest piece represents our inner thoughts and beliefs. It may sound overly simplistic but I believe we are who we think we are. From the cradle to the grave it’s mainly our own thoughts and beliefs that ultimately define us.  So I ask you, just who do you think you are?

~Eric Vance Walton~