Since childhood when my maternal grandma put a diary in my hand and encouraged me to write my story, I wondered, “Who am I?” Spending my adult life abroad, where one has to forge a new identity, only magnified that question and made me more curious to find out where I come from. Using DNA testing and search tools like Ancestry.com digging up the family history and skeletons from the past has never been easier.
To begin, I bought my parents a DNA kit and had them to spit in a test tube. We found out that my mom, on the Olson side, is 95% Norwegian, with a touch of Swedish and English. The McKinzie line on my dad’s side is primarily of Scottish descent, but his maternal lineage also can be traced to England, Ireland and Wales.
I discovered I am the great, great grand daughter of a Civil War veteran and a ship captain lost at sea off the Norwegian coast. My forefathers were teachers, statesmen, merchants, pioneer preachers and Scottish Lords. Long ago as clan chiefs, they owned castles as wealthy landowners; centuries later after immigrating to America, they lost land when crops failed and were forced to rent land as poor tenet farmers.
I can claim lineage as one of the First Colonial Families to settle on America soil on the Potomac in Maryland. My family once ruled Scotland’s famous castles – Eilean Donan, Leod, Kincoy, Kinkell and RedCastle – when the Mackenzie Clan reigned as far back as the 13th century. Once the most powerful clan in Northern Scotland, they own land from Ross on the east coast to the Island of Lewis in the west.
Maps show the McKinzie migration ever westward. In the United States, as primarily farmers, they moved from New England to Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa and finally Oklahoma where my paternal great grandfather became a sharecropper outside of Blackwell. My grandfather broke tradition following his dream to play college football in Illinois, and then became a successful coach at Eureka College and Northern Illinois University.
Though I traced my father’s paternal side back 25 generations, my mother’s side is more complicated. In Scandinavian countries, they traditionally add son or dottar to the father’s name. For example, Ole’s son becomes Olson as a surname. I remain stuck in the 17 century a bit muddled up with Olson, Rosholt, Jacobson lines.
To make things even more complicated, when immigrants became naturalized, they often changed their names. My maternal grandfather arrived in America in 1926 as Gustav Andreas Johansen, but changed his name to Gustav Andrew Olson when he became a US citizen. My maternal grandmother, adopted as a child, adds yet another dimension to my search.
My family history is filled with stories. My father’s maternal great great grandfather, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, hosted Lincoln during his campaign at the family home in Augusta Illinois. According to legend, Lincoln once sat on the same piano stool that I loved to spin on as a child at my grandma’s house.
Another of my forefathers fought with French Allies to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War. My great, great grandpa Aaron McKinzie witnessed General Lee’s surrender ending the Civil War when he fought for the Union’s Iowa’s 39th Infantry Regiment.
When I trace my lineage, one thread stands out. My ancestors were resilient. They endured tribal assaults, Spanish flu epidemics, world wars, Nazi Occupation, independence from oppressors and countless clan battles over territory in Scotland. From my hardy Norwegian relatives living above the Arctic Circle to the Mackenzie Clan reigning in the Scottish Highlands, my people had a fighting spirit and will to survive.
Perseverance became part of my bloodline. On bad days, when life feels like a struggle, I look to the stories of my ancestors for strength. Knowing who I am and where I come from gives me courage to keep fighting too. I only wish my grandma was still alive, so I could tell her our story, but her spirit lives on in me.