Surfing the Waves of Immigration

Nancy Jane Edwards and husband Kennedy "Canada" Freeman, circa 1920, probably Clay County, Kentucky

Nancy Jane Edwards and husband Kennedy “Canada” Freeman, circa 1920, probably Clay County, Kentucky


I read it once somewhere that Steven Spielberg spent quite some time finding a suitable cast for Saving Private Ryan.

Spielberg was diligent enough in his research to note that the faces of American soldiers during WWII were more clearly “ethnic” than most members of the US military at the time of filming in 1997.

This would have been due to the huge waves of immigration to the USA which had taken place in the decades before the war, with Eastern Europeans and Italians in particular adding to the American mosaic.

Two or three generations of inter-ethnic mixing since then have blurred the old ethnic edges somewhat.




But this same process has been ongoing, occurring again and again in the USA and the wider Americas, since the 1500s.

The actor Edward Norton learned this week that his 12th great-grandmother was Matoaka aka “Pocahontas“, a genealogical story which made headlines around the world.

And yet this is only so surprising because Pocahontas and Edward Norton both have “name recognition” in the American canon of celebrity.

I remarked on this aspect of US celebrity culture to a friend – it seems doubtful we’ll ever read about less famous “white” people pleased to be descended from “an African slave woman called Hulda” or a “Catawba washerwoman/sex slave called Sally”, even though the descendants of such couplings are almost innumerable in America…

I suppose part of the surprise regarding Edward Norton lies in the fact that any sharp edges of Powhatan ethnicity have been blurred to such an extent, that had he ever dared to claim indigenous ancestry, he would have been roundly dismissed or even jeered by the majority of Americans.

This levelling-out of ethnic appearance (DNA shuffle) has happened at different speeds in different places.  People “level-out” most quickly in urban environments, more slowly in rural settings, and even slower still in the most remote mountains, hills, hollers, and swamps.

So when we look at photos from 19th and early 20th century Appalachia, for example, and see clear signs of “non-white” ethnicity in the faces of her people, it would be wrong to think we have stumbled upon some mysterious “lost race”.

What we are seeing are the real faces of an earlier “Old Mix” multi-ethnic America, where only some strands looked like Tom Hanks or Grace Kelly.


#BeforeWeWereWhite #EdwardNorton #Pocahontas #StevenSpielberg #SavingPrivateRyan #AppalachianHistory

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *