Tracing Your Red River European Heritage
Genealogists who have mostly European family backgrounds often encounter a double-edged sword. Though European Americans, being
the ethnically preferred 'whites,' have usually left some paper trace, researchers also learn quickly that documentation depended on
socio-economic status. Those with ancestors who weren't rich can run across lots of dead ends.
One of the most interesting things to learn from genealogy, however, does not rely on statistical information, but on cultural belonging.
White Americans often lament that they do not have a distinctive cultural identity of their own. But if you know your family's geographical
background you can often discern what old European countries you can feel kinship with.
America is a very strict, class-based society (one of the many cultural traditions handed down by the English), and some Europeans were
'valued' more than others. Hence, Americanization came easier to certain groups than others. Then again, some cultural groups purposely
isolated themselves. Thus, ancestry becomes much easier to trace for those with ties to German, Italian, or Czech communities
In the Red River Valley, however, most white settlers didn't come from overseas - they were Americans seeking opportunity Out West.
Hence, one of the biggest clues as to cultural ancestry is the state from which the family arrived.
Those who discover family from Tennessee or Kentucky - two of the biggest suppliers of 'whites' to the Red River Valley - were mostly
from Scots-Irish-Welsh stock. These families came to America in search of better economic opportunities and were comprised of yeoman
farmers. The first Americans to settle the Red River Valley, most of these early families did not own slaves and generally did not favor
secession, though they did fight in the Confederate Army.
While lower South pioneers had settled quite early in East Texas, most of these families were slave-holders and carried on Southern
plantation culture in cities like Marshall, Tyler, and Jefferson. Their ancestry is a varied lot - though heavily English, many are Creole (a
blending of English, French, and African) or French. Often, French family names were 'anglicanized,' thus making some names look English
when the background is actually French.
Poor families from the Lower South - Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia - made up the majority of settlers to the Red River Valley
after the Civil War. These poor whites were either yeomen or sharecroppers, escaping the harsh and often violent conditions of
Reconstruction. My own family is from this line - they trudged along the lower South for generations, trying to make a living out of
sharecropping before coming to Texas to own a piece of land. These families are often of Scots-Irish-Welsh-English, French, or mixed
ancestry. Mixed race families (a horrible term for sure, as race is a social, not biological, construct) could be comprised of Native
Americans marrying whites, which, after the Indian Removal Act of the 1830s, made Native Americans 'white.' Or, the families could be the
result of white slave owners' sleeping with slave women.
What About the Spanish?
Because the Spanish never settled along the Red River Valley, not many families in this area can trace their ancestry to the Spanish or
Mexicans. If your family is of Spanish heritage, the catholic libraries in Austin and San Antonio is a good place to begin your search.
What about the Germans?
In the 1800s, by far the largest immigrant group arriving in the United States - and into Louisiana and Texas in particular - were Germans.
German surnames are very distinctive, though their place of origin can be murky, as German genealogy relies on church records (and
many of church records were destroyed during WWII). Germans coming into the lower South may have hailed from the Rhineland,
Westphalia, and northern Germany. Most had been leaving Germany due to internal civil wars as well as the forced privitzation of land
holdings, which most Germans could not afford.
|How to Discover European Family Origin
The first place to look when trying to figure out your family's cultural origin is to check port logs. Like Ellis
Island in Manhattan, Southern ports also kept records of those immigrating to America. Galveston and New
Orleans were the two main ports that processed new arrivals.
|Researching European Ancestry
|German immigration map for Texas, made in 1849, Library of Congress.