Genealogical Thread Weaves a Tighter Fabric of Patriotism
Now I’m as much an American as anybody else of the same legal status. I was born in this country. My parents were born in this country.
Still, as a kid in the 1950s, I frequently had this uneasy feeling I wasn’t quite a real American.
The neighborhood I grew up in was almost entirely Italian. The cooking smells from the houses were pure Abruzzi. The homilies at the early morning Masses in the parish church when I was an altar boy were declaimed in the language of the Old Country (how well I remember the fissured tongues and salami breath of the old, black-clad, medieval-seeming widows receiving the Eucharist). At the parish school, a blond kid was looked upon with the sort of awe normally reserved for rare religious objects.
A visitor to my neighborhood might have entertained something like the question asked by a new Mexican immigrant who was quoted in a recent Times article. Finding herself in one of Los Angeles’ vast Latino neighborhoods where everyone looked like her and spoke Spanish, she asked, “Where are the Americans?” Of course, the best answer to “Who is a real American?” is still “Any citizen who tries to live up to the country’s ideals.”
Still, in this increasingly multiethnic society, you probably can’t help but feel just a little more secure in your American-ness if you can trace your biological origins to people known to have participated in the country’s founding.
Take Pamela Spano Meyers, for instance.
Meyers is a short, dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who once worked as a funeral director and embalmer. She was born 44 years ago in Laurel, Md., and is a descendant of one Hugh Rogers, a soldier who served in George Washington’s Continental Army in the Carolinas during the American War for Independence. Meyers has been an active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution for 16 years. She is currently organizing a new chapter of the DAR in the organization’s San Fernando Valley district.
Meyers wears her American-ness, if not exactly on her sleeve, very nearby. During official functions, she wears shoulder ribbons adorned with 22 pins identifying her ancestor and her work on various DAR committees and projects. In a binder now 5 inches thick, she has meticulously compiled documents that establish her genealogical bona fides, all the way back to Hugh Rogers.
“I certainly don’t want to sound like I walk around with my nose in the air,” she cautions, “because I’m not more of an American than somebody who came in here a few years ago and worked for their citizenship.” She says DAR members have long been active in helping immigrants become citizens.
“But it’s true,” she adds, “that I like the proudness of saying, ‘Yes, I had an ancestor that fought in the revolution that made this country the kind of country where you can walk down the street and not be arrested because of your color or creed.’ And I like being able to prove how I connect up with that. I might have to go through every book in the house to show you how I connect up, but I connect up.”
DAR standards for establishing ancestry have tightened progressively over the years. Where once word of mouth and hearsay sufficed as proof of an ancestor’s involvement in Revolutionary activities, now official records, sworn testimony and personal letters written at the time of the Revolutionary War are typically required.
Under DAR rules, applicants must prove “lineal, bloodline descent from an ancestor who aided in achieving American independence.” Eligible ancestors include the signers of the Declaration of Independence, soldiers of the Revolution, civil servants who held office under authority of the provisional revolutionary government, and people who rendered patriotic service.
Among the 13 subcategories of the latter are “members of the Boston Tea Party,” “ministers who gave patriotic sermons and encouraged patriotic activity” and “service performed by French nationals within the colonies or in Europe in support of the American cause.”
Pamela Meyers’ ardor for the DAR is the legacy of her maternal grandmother, Dorothy Rogers McConnell, a DAR member who raised Meyers.
“I think it has something to do with honoring her, because my grandmother believed in it so much,” Meyers says. “She instilled in me the values and the patriotism and the honor of being in this country.”
Because her grandmother had already established the genealogical link to Hugh Rogers, Meyers was able to gain DAR membership via a short-form application. Essentially, all she had to prove was her blood relationship to her grandmother.
Even though an applicant needs to demonstrate her connection to only one Revolutionary War ancestor, it’s a point of pride among many DAR members to establish links with as many eligible forebears as possible, thus winning additional “ancestor bars” for their shoulder ribbons. Meyers has known women who have proved their connections to as many as 14.
She is at work documenting her blood ties to a so-called supplemental ancestor named Joseph Howell Jr. Howell was a member of the North Carolina militia who fought at Guilford Court House and King’s Mountain, and died in Georgia in 1835 at the age of 102.
Really, Meyers says, all this is just an elaborate way of remembering the people who took such a big risk two centuries ago and who deserve the gratitude of our not forgetting. At this historical remove, the blood of those particular ancestors in modern people has long since been diluted by that of many, many others who had nothing to do with those events.
Her own connection to seminal Americans, she points out, is a thread of identity that comes strictly from her mother’s side of the family.
“On my father’s side,” she says, “I’m Italian.”