Over the Hill

What is an American?

Phil Dirkx
Phil Dirkx

What is an American? I’ve been thinking about that since I read a letter last week. It was dated Oct. 17, 1911. Actually it’s a copy of a copy of a letter. It was given to me by my cousin Tom Schur, our family’s historian.

The letter was addressed to my late grandmother, Johanna McGinnis. She settled in Rochester, New York, after migrating from Ireland in 1885. She had 13 brothers and sisters. The letter was from Tim Scanlon, one of her brothers in Ireland. He and his family lived on the old family place with his mother.

His letter said, “Dear Hannie, It’s with heartfelt sorrow I have to tell you of poor Mother’s death. She died on Thursday morning at 10 o’clock 12 of Oct.”

He also wrote, “She died very peaceable like a child. She was anointed the night before.” But below his signature he added, “She was anxious to die the poor thing. She was anointed twice, 7 weeks before that again.”

Tim probably wrote that sad letter with a pen he had to dip into the ink after every few words. It was long before e-mail and texting. The letter probably took two weeks or more to reach my grandmother. It crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a ship.

Tim also wrote, “Hannie, Mother told me to always give a welcome to the Americans back to the old home whenever they want to come. I told her a thousand welcomes.”

His calling his relatives in the United States “the Americans” started me thinking. The relatives had settled here; they weren’t visitors. They were Americans. That sounds like a workable answer to the question “What is an American?”

But “American” isn’t the same as “American citizen.” That’s a particular status defined by law. The 1900 census showed that Johanna’s husband, Thomas McGinnis, was a naturalized American citizen. She wasn’t.

The Census records showed many other wives weren’t naturalized. I guess they figured “Why bother.” They couldn’t vote then anyhow. But my grandmother did make a priceless contribution to the United States. Her oldest son joined the U.S. Marines in the first world war. He was killed in action in 1918.

If we had used Tim Scanlon’s definition for “American” we might not have forced 115,000 Japanese-Americans into concentration camps during World War II. More than 60 percent were citizens.

We should never forget our history. Did we or our ancestors come from Africa, Asia, Latin America or Europe? How did we come to America and why?

But we should also live in the present. If we are permanent residents of America we are all fellow Americans. There is no one American race.