An Honest Look at Ancestry Reveals Diversity

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

Darvin L. Martin

Ben Goossen convincingly explains that the development of Mennonite family research a century ago was at least partially motivated by a quest for “blood purity and racial hygiene” (“Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege”). Bridging to the present, Goossen also asserts that these themes become exacerbated through the recent advent of DNA testing, “privileging the notion that Anabaptism is as much an inheritable trait as a religious conviction.” The implication is that interest in ancestry today continues to foster attitudes of exclusion and superiority, when in my experience the opposite can and should be true.

As a prime historic example, Goossen cites the Amish-Mennonite historian C. Z. Mast, who published a genealogy in 1911, and within it spent pages to express his thoughts of heredity, defending a position we now understand as white supremacist. [^1] What Mast articulated on paper, many and perhaps most of his contemporary Mennonites had also embraced, but were ill-equipped to write or to express in detail.

In a lengthy epilogue, Mast proposed that the same natural law exemplified by selecting physical vitality in breeding agricultural stock likewise applied to humans.  He further projected that moral tendencies, in addition to outward form and features, were physically transmitted from parents to their children (747). Mast endorsed the responsibility of governments to convince their populations of the natural laws of heredity, selectively improving “human stock,” by implementing and enforcing regulations against endogamous marriage, and praised purposeful spousal selection as a means to reduce and ultimately eliminate undesirable characteristics and diseases, including blindness, tuberculous, curved legs, and mental handicaps (749).

Mast argued that the remarkable progress of his contemporary early twentieth-century Americans was the expected outcome of inheriting the vitality of the most successful men and women of the different nationalities of Europe. In contrast, he gave examples from other cultures where “divine displeasure is announced.” He cited Native Americans and other “ancient tribes and races of the Orient” having succumbed to severe inbreeding, causing “their physical and mental power [to have] melted into weakness” (748).  He criticized the Catholic royalty in Spain and Portugal, concluding their congenital disorders were the product of pope-blessed marriages between princes and their nieces.  He imprecated the emirs of Turkey for producing “simpletons and imbeciles,” as they have “intermarried so long and extensively [. . .] among those who revere the memory of the prophet” (749).

To use a common and necessary tag line of our time, it is not far-fetched to clearly report that Mast’s comments are the “textbook definition” of racism.  Yet here we have them, published by our very own Mennonite Publishing House in 1911.  In his defense, Mast had merely articulated the mainstream thoughts of the scientific and intellectual community of his time, with a directed passion to convince his Amish and Mennonite cousins to extend the tent a bit wider when looking for a spouse among the community.  But his words also subsequently labeled the “other” communities as inexcusable for the very problems that he found in his own.

Goossen calls us to own the historic racism exhibited by Mast and his fellow Mennonite and Amish family researchers, as rightly we should.  Just like those who descend from slave holders, those of us who are ethnic Mennonites have our own demons to expose. We cannot pretend that our ancestors thought of their whiteness as but one variety among many.  Likewise, let’s not be haphazard in our attempt to separate family history research from racism, as this is no easy task. Especially when Mast and others have been intent on keeping these themes so tightly bound.

For myself, an honest account showcases that Mast’s supremacist ideas sit uncomfortably close to home.  C. Z. Mast’s father was a first cousin to my great-great grandmother, Hannah Kurtz (1855-1937).  They grew up in the same congregation along the upper reaches of the Conestoga River, just west of Morgantown, Pennsylvania.  C. Z. lived on the farm of our common ancestor, Stephen Mast (1800-1868), two miles south of Morgantown.

Perhaps some of C. Z.’s prowess and detail towards family history found a home in my genes as well.  I can relate.  C. Z. was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote this history, and he certainly pursued it as a way to exercise his intellectual curiosity and differentiate himself from the expected mandate to become a farmer.  C. Z. was well read, and ascribed to the basic understanding of genetics promoted in his day—that human genetics were understood as having an ideal, pure and original form; that we exhibit various stages of corruption from that pure form . . . and for some, in Mast’s warped view, the corruption is more extreme than in others.

This understanding, although now proven untrue, had filtered down through my family. Physical and mental problems were blamed on such corruption.  My grandmother (the granddaughter of the Hannah Kurtz mentioned above) scolded her younger brother when in middle-age he fell in love with a woman and decided to marry.  This brother was somewhat mentally and physically limited, had always lived with his parents, and was part of the Friendship Community program sponsored by Mennonites in Lancaster for handicapped individuals.  

From my grandmother’s perspective, marriage and the benefits and responsibilities that came with it were not to be made available to those constrained by handicaps assigned from birth.  In childhood she was told that we have a moral duty to keep handicapped individuals from having children, otherwise we inhibit humanity from rising to its full potential.  She grew up in the face of the eugenics movement, and ultimately had enough control over her brother that he decided not to marry, even though both he and his partner were well beyond child bearing age.  Both my grandmother and her brother had passed away within three weeks of each other in February 2016. These attitudes of restricting bloodlines to attain a supposed ethnic purity haunt our recent past, and perhaps have found expression in new contemporary forms.

Goossen suggests that DNA testing has become a new avenue to enforce concepts of ethnic exclusion—that those who grew up Mennonite use this to privilege common ancestry over shared convictions. While there is a tendency to use DNA testing to play the “Mennonite Game,” my own experience in interpreting DNA results of several hundred individuals, both inside and outside the Mennonite circles of ethnicity and persuasion, challenges this notion. DNA testing is all about surprises—that our ancestry is not straightforward, but rather a complicated web of interconnectedness.  We see the surprises advertised in the commercials by the two most prevalent DNA testing companies, Ancestry DNA and 23andMe.  DNA testing reveals the unexpected, and that is what people find attractive.

There are at least a dozen Mennonite DNA projects on the internet that seek to use DNA as a means to link families together.  And all of these clearly reveal an astounding amount of diversity among ethnic Mennonite populations. An honest assessment of the Y-DNA profiles among testers who share the common surnames familiar to ethnic Mennonites reveals that they are not homogenous, but rather span a wide cluster of populations of origin. The “Mennonite DNA Project” by Tim Janzen, the “Swiss Anabaptist DNA Project” by Bonnie Schrack and my own “Mennonite and Amish Immigrants to Pennsylvania DNA Project” are but three examples. While a very selective reading of DNA can enforce a tester’s prejudices, a more complete assessment determines that ancestry is much more complex than first assumed.

Here’s why.  All of us, if we extend our family trees into the past, have an increasing diversity of ancestors.  This is statistically inevitable. Eight great-grandparents descend from sixteen great-great grandparents and thirty-two three great-grandparents, and so forth back through time.  Ten generations back, about 350 years ago, we each should have 512 ancestors.  At twenty generations back, about 700 years ago, that number of ancestors increases to 524,288, and at thirty generations, around 1000 A.D., we should have 536 million, more than the total population of the world at that time.

Those statistics eventually break down due to the inevitable placement of common ancestors in different places on one’s tree.  In my personal example, (through recordkeeping as the result of the privileges received because of 300 years of relative economic and social stability), I can create a nearly complete ancestral chart back ten generations on each side of my family. And in spite of having strong Mennonite background on both sides of my family, the chart shows increasing diversity.

I don’t have 512 ancestors ten generations ago, but instead have 372, due to duplications on my tree.  This is caused by fourth, fifth and sixth cousins marrying each other.  But even so, diversity far outweighs the truncation experienced by intermarriages.  For myself, truncation first appears seven generations back, where a seventh-generation ancestor of my father’s lineage also appears as an eighth-generation ancestor on my mother’s side.  This one and a few others reduce my total ancestral count by about ten percent in the eighth generation, and consistently another ten percent in the ninth, and another ten percent in the tenth, so I am left with 372 unique ancestors, 350 years ago.  

Each of these has a unique story of their own life experience.  Many crossed the ocean to carve out a new existence in America. Many were Swiss—representing at least four cantons, about four dozen were German, as many as ten held Dutch nationality, a few were French, and at least five were Irish.  And I have a few unknowns.  That’s where my genealogy ends.

But let’s assume out of those 372, they each had 372 ancestors ten generations further back.  That gives me 138,384 ancestors twenty generations ago, around the year 1300.  That is far less than the 524,288 I should have, assuming each ancestor a unique individual. Even if a full half of them were duplicates, I’m left with 65,000 people that I can statistically claim as ancestors.  Writing their names alone would fill more than a thousand-page book.  What are the statistics that every one of those had the same five nationalities as my most recent ancestors? The amount itself simply forces further diversity.

And we all experience this diversity, if we take an honest look at ancestry. Some Americans can claim ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War.  Some have found ancestors among the Native Americans, among Africans forced into slavery and transported to America, and among those engaging in the slave trade, all at the same time.  Go back further in time and the probability increases that your ancestors were not just the ones you perceive as friends, but also your foes.

And among these 65,000 people 700 years ago, what if they each had 372 ancestors ten generations back?  That’s twenty-four million ancestors in the year 950.  It is statistically inevitable that at least one of these is a Central Asian merchant of the Nestorian Christian persuasion. At least one is an Arab from the Maghreb practicing Muslim faith, one a caravanning Mongol whose abode lies far to the east in modern China, one a Hindu who bathed in the Ganges, and one a sub-Saharan African herding cattle within the shadow of Kilimanjaro.

I’m only considering a thousand years ago. Jump back another thousand years and it is not difficult to assume that nearly every person alive at that time was an ancestor, statistically speaking.  Even those island populations that have lived in relative isolation for tens of thousands of years, such as the indigenous populations of Australia, New Guinea, and the Andaman Islands would have had occasional escapees and castaways in nearly every generation who mixed with nearby continental populations. Over time the web that starts with yourself extends wider and wider back through time until everyone is included.

Modern DNA testing as it relates to family history grants us the ability to apply specific data towards these statistical results. Through a 23andMe DNA test, I found that my grandmother (mentioned above) has a small snippet of Native American ancestry, predicted to have arisen eight generations back. In one woman around the year 1730, I find the DNA evidence to include 200 to 400 Native American ancestors by the year 1380, and 40,000 in the year 1030, encompassing all the known Native peoples’ groups of the Mid-Atlantic region and likely far beyond.  Can anyone doubt that every one of those migrant families who resided along the Bering land bridge linking Siberia to Alaska during the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago was also an ancestor?  Of course, some left no descendants, but those who left descendants ultimately became the ancestors of all of us.

Through Y-DNA testing, we have uncovered that the prominent Mennonite Groff family shares Y-chromosome affinity not with fellow Swiss Mennonite families, but with a Greco-Roman cluster of Italian families with surnames such as Albarano, Margarelli and Visentin.  Through similar testing, we have uncovered that Mennonites who share the Swiss surname Hollinger, Hullinger or Holiger, have as their next closest matches the Saudi families Almotawa and Al Daihan and the Turkish family Kahanizaman. The Mennonite Metzler family, tracing their lineage of descent through Valentine Metzler, a German immigrant who arrived in Lancaster County with his father Jacob in 1738, has close Y-DNA matches to Jewish families such as Kronik (in Belarus), Cohen and Langer (in Ukraine) and Friedman and Wengrowski (in Poland).

These are only a few of the examples in which DNA showcases the statistical inevitability of diversity as one takes a serious look at ancestry. I haven’t even touched the Y-DNA results of the Mennonite Good family, which reveal an origin in Afghanistan predating the time of Alexander the Great. Nor have we seriously examined the Amish Bassinger families from Ohio, which have a Central Asian Y-DNA signature closer aligned to the Asian origins of the Native Americans than to most European families.  Nor have we investigated the selection of European surnames than showcase Y-DNA signatures more closely matching a recent African origin than the typical Celtic or Greco-Roman cultures of European antiquity.

An honest look at DNA can and should break down the racial prejudices that have defined the last few generations of family researchers.  DNA analysis provides concrete ways that forecast the inevitable diversity that a statistical evaluation of our ancestry requires. Eventually, given enough time, all humans around the world are included in our ancestry, along with their diverse cultures and traditions.  That fusion throws the ideas of genetic purity on its head.  If a pure genepool of humanity exists, it includes the genes of everyone. As family history research increasingly considers DNA as a means to fill in the gaps and extend family trees, these notions of inclusion become inevitable.

I certainly am privileged to be able to construct a genealogy of my ancestry back ten generations.  But DNA testing has now broken down these barriers.  Today, anyone, even one who knows nothing of his or her ancestry, can find pertinent and often surprising information through DNA testing. The most accurate records are the ones stored in our bodies. These records are now becoming accessible and, in many cases, challenge the assertions of a century of family history researchers.

I ponder what C. Z. Mast would think of genetic testing for family history as it exists today.  Would he selectively interpret it to confirm and promote his own stereotypes, or would he embrace the data in its diversity, extending the genealogical fence to include everyone?  I don’t know for sure, but I would like to think that C. Z. Mast could be persuaded through the presentation of DNA test results that his Swiss Mennonite ancestors were vastly more diverse than he could ever have imagined.


Darvin L. Martin is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University (B.S., Agriculture) and Millersville University (B.S., Analytical Chemistry).  As a real occupation, he tinkers with chemistry related instrumentation, but on the side, manages the “Mennonite and Amish Immigrants to Pennsylvania DNA Project” through Family Tree DNA.


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2 thoughts on “An Honest Look at Ancestry Reveals Diversity

  1. Very interesting, examining our past is not putting a rubber stamp on it but honestly, examining it for negative and positive influence.
    I did dna and geology study my goal/hope was to light the map up as much as possible.
    My surprise was Mennonite heritage, Swiss, Dutch, German, I was delighted, I didn’t know I was so exotic!
    Although not perfect, I have loved claiming the passionate anabaptist, quest for knowledge and commitment to faith as part of my heritage. I look forward to examining the links above.
    Our family have partnered with a school in Uganda for 12 years, loving our community there, the amazing beauty of culture and faith, of our Ugandan leadership.
    When I did genealogy, I learned that an Mennonite ancestor signed and American anti slavery document in 1688, I feel, maybe part of our journey is his blessing, I am grateful to see this.
    However we always see, a mix, I want to pass the good parts down 🙂

    Like

  2. Thank you, Darvin, for this essay. Among my questions, this: why do you conclude your ancestors thought of themselves as white people? If they thought of themselves as Mennonites, then aren’t you projecting a contemporary construction back on them?

    Like

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