Where are you from?


This is one of the first things someone asks when you meet new people, and for me, it’s always been sort of hard to answer. For instance, if I’m traveling, I’ll usually say Philadelphia, since that’s where I live, but it’s not where I grew up and I don’t identify strongly with the city. Usually I either tell people I’m from Pittsburgh, where my parents currently live and where I graduated from high school, or that I grew up in Pittsburgh and western Massachusetts, since I spent six years of my childhood in each place. I usually gloss over the fact that I have also lived in California, Utah, Idaho, and Oregon, because I didn’t live in those places as long and they didn’t have as much of an impact on me, but they are still part of the equation.

But what if I go further back, and think more broadly? I was born in the Bay Area, so sometimes I say I’m a native Californian (this is mostly when I’m comparing myself to my wife, who lived her whole life in California except for her first two weeks, when her family lived in Spokane, so she isn’t a native Californian, like I am). My parents grew up California and Nevada, and their parents in California, Washington, Nevada, and Utah, so I could say I’m from the West or the West Coast. But how did my family get to the West Coast?

This, combined with an on-again-off-again interest in genealogy, led me to map the last ten generations of my family.

Click to enlarge.

My family came to America in two large groups, what I could call Mormon and pre-Mormon. My Mormon ancestors converted to the church in their home countries of England, Denmark, and Norway, and then emigrated to Utah, some of them later spilling out into California. The pre-Mormons came from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Denmark, and Germany, and settled up and down to east coast of the US and Canada, some of them later converting to Mormonism and heading to Utah, with others coming west for new employment, such as mining and ship building.

So that’s the larger, geographic explanation of where I’m from: mostly Scandinavia and the British Isles, where my ancestors came from seeking economic opportunity and religious freedom, eventually settling in the western United States, where I was born and from whence I returned to the East Coast. But geography isn’t the only part of where a person is from; geographically, I’ve lived all over the US, but I consider myself a Pittsburgher because I love the Steelers and Polish food, and a New Englander because of my left leaning politics and the fact that my family has, in the past, made our own maple syrup. So what were the places where my ancestors lived like? I decided to leave out the places where my ancestors moved to or from (the lines on the above map), and focus on the places where they lived for at least one generation (the circles).

Click to enlarge.

Originally I thought that I would spotlight each of the places, but excluding counties there are 32 of them, and that would get tedious, so I’m going to include an image gallery so you can get an idea of what they look like and identify some trends.

Most of the places my ancestors lived in were small towns, villages and hamlets. Only four (Copenhagen, Glasgow, Baltimore and London) are metropolitan centers, and I would only add Walsall and New Haven to to that to make a list of cities. The rest are too small. This makes sense, considering that it is only fairly recently that our world has had more than half of its people living in cities.

Along with being small, most of the places my ancestors lived were very rural. The graph above divides the places based on my matrix of settlement types, showing that they are mostly rural villages. What I think is interesting though is that there are very few suburban places; only Ballerup and Middletown fit this description. Ballerup is a historical town that has been sucked into Copenhagen’s sphere of influence, and Middletown is on the edge of the New York metropolitan area. I wonder how different they might have been when my ancestors lived there. It’s important to note that the suburb as we experience it today, with separated uses, cul-de-sacs, car dependency, and dependency on a larger nearby city, is very much a modern phenomenon, something our ancestors were unfamiliar with. Note: while some might call Walsall a suburb of Birmingham, it features mixed uses and a connected street grid, which give it a more urban character; I would call it a city that is part of the Birmingham metropolis.

I really enjoyed learning more about my ancestors and the places they lived. Check out the gallery below to see more of what these places look like.

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About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

2 Responses to Where are you from?

  1. Pingback: Remember Where You Come From | Munson's City

  2. Pingback: This is how a word nerd and a map nerd decorate their kid’s nursery | spifftacular.

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