Top 13 American Ancestry Surprises All Americans Should Know

There's a lot more to being American than you think

Reynolds Farley writes that "we may now be in an era of optional ethnicity, in which no simple census question will distinguish those who identify strongly with a specific European group from those who report symbolic or imagined ethnicity.

Have you ever wondered what surprises lie behind different nationalities?

“American” ancestry, for example, can mean many different things to different people. Thanks to the hard work and persistence of scientists and DNA testing, we’re able to understand more about the genetic landscape of Americans than ever before. If you identify as American, there’s a lot more to the story than you may think.

Think you know what being American means?

Check out these top 13 American ancestry surprises to see where you fit in—you may be shocked to know your family’s history!

0. What Does it Mean to Be American?

This is a complicated question, and the answer can vary depending on how we approach it. According to Ancestry 2000: Census 2000 Brief from the U.S. Census Bureau, American ancestry refers to people in the United States who self-identify as “American” when it comes to ancestral origin or descent, instead of the more common racial and ethnic groups making up the bulk of the American people that are officially recognized.

Most of these respondents are visibly White Americans, who either:

A. Are far removed from and no longer self-identify with their original ethnic ancestral origins, or

B. Use this response as a political statement

Generational distance from ancestral lineages leads to an increase in these responses, which tend to come from Anglo Americans, Scotch-Irish, English, Welsh, or other British ancestries.  

Demographers have found that those ancestries are typically undercounted in the U.S. Census Bureau when it comes to ancestry self-reporting estimates.

💡 Did you know? 

While “American ancestry” is most commonly reported in the Deep South, the Upland South, and Appalachia, it’s clear that a far greater number of Americans and expatriates alike do not equate their nationality with ancestry, race, or ethnicity, but with citizenship and allegiance.

1. German immigrants arrive in the british colonies (1670s)

The “German belt” extends all the way across the United States, stretching from eastern Pennsylvania to the Oregon coast. Pennsylvania has the largest population of German Americans in the U.S. with approximately 3.5 million people of German ancestry. It is home to one of the group’s original settlements, Germantown (Philadelphia), founded in 1683 and the birthplace of the American antislavery movement in 1688. 

💡 Did you know? 

Unlike other parts of the world, very few German states had colonies in the new world. The first groups of German immigrants arrived in the British colonies in the 1670s, settling primarily in Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia. 

Suggested Reading: Top 6 German Ancestry Surprises All Germans Should Know

Americans with German ancestry by state according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey in 2020 

2. West & Central Africans Arrive in North America (17th century)

Black or African American refers to citizens or residents of the U.S. with part or total ancestry from a native population of Sub-Saharan Africa. During the 17th and 18th centuries, captive Africans from West and Central Africa first set foot in North America as slaves in society.

💡 Did you know?

Africans brought the skills and trades of their homeland to North America, and their expertise shaped the industry and agriculture of the continent. These skills ranged from opening rivers and canals to boat traffic, operating ox teams and managing livestock, as well as large-scale rice and indigo cultivation.

3. Ireland's great famine sparks mass exodus of 4.5 million (1820)

The great famine of the 1840s wreaked havoc on Ireland, sparking a mass exodus. An estimated 4.5 million Irish moved to the United States between 1820 and the 1920s, settling in large cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. 

💡 Did you know?

At least 22 U.S. presidents have been of Irish descent. 

Suggested Reading: Top 5 Irish Ancestry Surprises All Irish Should Know

4. mexicans Have a long history of migration to the U.S. (1848 - 1930)

Mexican immigration began in 1848, at the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War. Currently, Mexicans make up one of the largest ethnic groups in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 data, there were approximately 37.7 million individuals of Mexican origin living in the United States. This figure includes both U.S. citizens and non-citizens.  

💡 Did you know?

Generally, Mexicans have both European and Amerindian ancestries, boasting a complex and rich history; in smaller percentages, African ancestry is also present. The proportion of these ancestries varies widely by region and individuals.   

5. Europeans Migrate to the new world from british isles (1620s)

Increasingly, citizens of English descent have started to list themselves as “American.” The number of people reporting English ancestry decreased by at least 20 million since the 1980 U.S. Census. Nowadays, English Americans are found in large numbers in the Northwest and West, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. 

💡 Did you know? 

The first significant European immigration to the New World came from the British Isles during the 1620’s. Most English settler immigrants formed communities in New England as members of religious dissenter groups. 

6. Italians Arrive in the U.S. 4 million strong (1880 - 1920)

The arrival of more than 4 million Italian immigrants arrive in the United States between 1880 and 1920 enable them to establish “Little Italies” in many large Northeastern cities, as well as in remote areas in California and Louisiana. Another large batch of migrants settled in America after World War II. 

💡 Did you know? 

The largest concentration of Italian-Americans can be found in New York (Suffolk County). Famous Americans with Italian descent are Maria Bartiromo, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, and Madonna. 

Suggested Reading: 27% of Americans Are Related to THIS Royal Figure . . .

7. 2.5 million Poles enter the U.S. Pre-World War I (19th century)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, there were approximately 9 million Americans of Polish descent in 202, making them the largest Slavic ethnic group in the country. They represent some of the earliest colonists in the New World. Between the mid-19th century and WW1, an estimated 2.5 million Poles entered the United States, flocking to industrial cities like New York, Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Chicago in search of a better economic life. 

💡 Did you know? 

The Polish community has a strong presence in Chicago. In fact, Chicago is often referred to as the “Polish capital of the United States.” Every year, the windy city hosts the Polish Constitution Day Parade, which is one of the largest Polish parades outside of Poland. 

Suggested Reading: Who Are The Polish People?

8. Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up diverse tribal nations 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2020 data, the estimated population of Native Americans and Alaska Natives in the United States was approximately 6.9 million individuals. However, it’s important to note that this figure encompasses people who identify as solely Native American or Alaska Native, as well as those who identify as Native American or Alaska Native in combination with other racial or ethnic backgrounds.  

💡 Did you know? 

Native Americans and Alaska Natives are not a monolithic group. They belong to diverse tribal nations, each with its distinct cultural practices, languages, and histories. There are more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States. 

9. The French migrate to the U.S., Mainly Louisiana (17th century)

During the age of exploration and colonization in the 17th century, the French found their place in the United States, particularly in Louisiana. Their presence was further strengthened in the 18th century with the arrival of the Huguenots who were expelled from France. The preceding voyages by the Spanish, Portuguese, and English sparked a sense of curiosity in the French to explore the Americas themselves. 

💡 Did you know? 

French-Americans have played a significant role in shaping American culture and history, particularly in the early years of the United States. One notable figure is the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat and military officer who fought alongside the American colonists during the Revolutionary War. Lafayette formed a close bond with General George Washington and became a key advocate for the American cause in France, securing crucial support from the French government. 

10. Scots come to U.S. in search of work in shipping industry (19th century)

During the 19th century, a wave of Scottish adventurers more than a million strong set their sights on the United States, many in search of work in the shipping industry. Scottish immigrants continued to trickle in through the 1920’s, especially as economic conditions worsened in Scotland. States with the most Scottish descendants are California, Florida, Texas, New York, and Michigan.  

💡 Did you know? 

Scottish heritage is celebrated in various parts of the United States through Highland Games, which are festive events that showcase traditional Scottish sports, music, and culture. These games typically include activities such as caber tossing (throwing large wooden poles), hammer throwing, bagpipe competitions, Highland dancing, and traditional Scottish food and drink. 

11. Indian immigrants settle into communities on the West Coast 19th century)

Immigration from India to the United States began in the early 19th century, and communities began settling along the West Coast. As opportunities grew, so did the population through the middle of the 20th century. As of 2019, about 2.7 million Indian immigrants resided in the United States. 

💡 Did you know? 

Today, Indian immigrants account for approximately 6 percent of the U.S. foreign-born population. This makes them the second-largest immigrant group in the country, after Mexicans, and surpassing the number of immigrants from China and the Philippines. 

12. The Dutch come to N. America and found Fort Nassau (17th century)

The first wave of settlement from the Netherlands to North America happened during the early 17th century, and led to the founding of Fort Nassau, which was only the second permanent settlement in North America. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey, there were approximately 4.5 million individuals who identified as having Dutch ancestry in the United States. 

💡 Did you know? 

Dutch-American communities maintain cultural traditions and celebrations through their festivals. One noteworthy event is the Tulip Time Festival held annually in Holland, Michigan, where festival-goers celebrate Dutch heritage with parades, dancing, traditional costumes, and vibrant tulip displays. 

13. The Chinese immigrate to America for “The Gold Mountain” (19th century)

The Chinese came to America for the “The Gold Mountain” aka the California Gold Rush, while others came to look for better economic opportunities. Other were also compelled to leave China either as contract laborers or refugees, and many were an integral part of constructing the Transcontinental Railroad. 

💡 Did you know? 

The concept of fortune cookies is not actually of Chinese origin? Enter Japanese immigrants in America who started this trend of delightful treats now found at the end of Chinese meals, which have now become a popular part of Chinese-American cuisine and culture.

That’s all for the American surprises! There are countless more, and plenty more ancestries to cover, but those are some of the top ancestries represented within America. Here are some others, which you can feel free to look into yourself!

  • Norwegians
  • Swedish
  • Russians
  • Filipinos
  • French-Canadian
  • Korean
  • Danish
  • Greek

Suggested Reading: Here’s Your Ticket to Board the 21st Century Mayflower

Discover Where Your Ancestors Came From

Ancestry DNA can tell you what regions your ancestors came from and which traits are specific to only you. By comparing DNA samples from all over the world, you can zero in on your family’s past, learning where they migrated from, when they moved locations, along with other migration patterns.

You are here today because your ancestors, my ancestors, all our ancestors—conquered unbeatable odds (literally, drought, famine, and the Ice Age could have wiped humans out), so they could pass their genes on to subsequent generations… to us.

For more information concerning DNA testing and how to select the best form of testing for your needs, click HERE.

There is a treasure trove of information waiting to be uncovered.