British, maybe? Irish, I think?

Rachel Shaw

In 2009, I took a series of anti-racism workshops for white people through The UNtraining. In the first meeting, they asked us to share our ethnicity. I kind of scrunched up my nose and squinted my eyes and said, “British, maybe? Irish, I think? What does it really matter? I’m white, isn’t that why we’re here?” The facilitator gently encouraged me to look into my ethnicity as a way to connect with my experience as a person with a race and an ethnicity, something many white people in America aren’t aware of. I had a vague understanding of what she meant but didn’t totally understand. Nevertheless, I asked a family member to give me names and birthdates of my great grandparents and away I went on

I found that six of my great-great-great-grandparents on my mother’s paternal side were part of a wave of immigrants in the mid-1800s who emigrated from Wales to small Welsh-concentrated towns in upstate New York and Wisconsin. My 4th great grandfather Owen Griffith along with his wife Mary and young children moved from Genesee, Wisconsin to the newly formed “Welsh colony” of Arvonia, Kansas in 1870. Arvonia in Osage County, Kansas was the vision of a small group of Welsh-Americans who bought thousands of acres of land and enticed recent Welsh immigrants to move there.

Thanks to the digitization of several Osage County newspapers, I easily discovered the details of my ancestors’ day-to-day lives. I read that Owen Griffith was badly burned by a prairie fire in 1871 but soon recovered; some of his cattle were infected by rabies; and he and his wife bought a syrup pitcher and bowl for Mr. and Mrs. H.G. Landis’ 25th anniversary party. His family was very musical and participated in the annual Welsh cultural festival of Eistedffod. In fact, he and his son Richard Griffith (my 3rd great grandfather) won a duet singing contest in 1885. That same year, Kansas census records showed that Owen and Richard had adjoining eighty-acre farms complete with horses, cows, pigs, cattle, orchards and a dog. They also made 230 pounds of butter. Reading these details helped me feel connected to my ancestors; I felt the danger of living in a burgeoning town without a fire department and the joys of community building.

As I was doing this research and feeling all glowy about finding these cool details about my family, I also felt a tugging at my heart. My ancestors arrived here with their Welsh-ness fully intact, yet none of this Welsh culture had been passed down beyond the first couple generations. This relinquishing of ethnicity is the price of entry into becoming “American”. We were only able to become assimilated so quickly because we had many of the traits that were accepted by the dominant American culture at that time: white skin, Protestant Christianity, and a strong work ethic.

My Welsh ancestors from the moment they stepped foot in America had access to property, community, and respect at the expense of native people. A December 1869 newspaper article describes Arvonia as “just reclaimed from the untutored hand of the Indian” with “industrious, sober Welshmen and other intelligent citizens…who will grow in everything that makes civilization desirable.”* Reading this description of blatant white supremacy through the denigration of native people juxtaposed with the admiration of Welsh people is difficult for me to reconcile. Not only did becoming American mean we lose our ethnicity but the road to assimilation required the unapologetic taking of native land.

Because The Griffith’s were among the early settlers of Arvonia, they directly displaced the native people who lived there before them. When I first discovered this fact, I felt a strong urge to separate myself from this history and to look for anything that might make my immigrant ancestors less complicit. Yet I couldn’t deny the historical proof that Owen Griffith and his family lived on land that was just a few years before part of the Sac and Fox reservation. The Kansa, Osage, and Kiowa were among the native people who lived in present-day Kansas even before the Sac and Fox were forced there. What is now Osage County was the area the Sac and Fox Indians of the Mississippi band were made to live after they were forced out of Illinois and Iowa in 1844. Just two decades later as white squatters encroached into Kansas, or what was then known as “Indian Territory”, the Sac and Fox were forced to move once again to Oklahoma (the new “Indian Territory”). For twenty years, a small band of Sac and Fox did resist and refuse to leave their home, but by 1886 soldiers were called in to forcibly remove them. My ancestors were able to thrive and grow roots in this land only because the Sac and Fox were forced out as well as the tribes that came before them. The Griffiths directly benefitted from the United States government’s aggressive, manipulative, and genocidal policy of removing native people from their heritage lands.

Dr. Sleeter’s framework for critical family history requires us to look at the raw historical truth. Using just one of her Historical Context Questions – “Who wasn’t around and why?” – helped me begin to understand how my family fits into America’s historical systems of power and privilege. As a white person who has felt ethnicity-less, this research has helped ground me. I feel more connected to the beauty of Welsh culture and the fortitude of their pioneer spirit. At the same time, I feel the loss of my Welsh ethnicity through assimilation and the pain of my complicity in a white supremacist system that dispossessed native people so my ancestors could thrive. Understanding these multiple truths helps me hold myself and my ancestors in all of our complexity. From this place of loss, pain, groundedness, and beauty I can help work towards dismantling white supremacy and making our society more equitable.


*“Homes for the Homeless.” The Osage City Free Press (Osage City, Kansas). 18 Dec. 1869., p. 4

Rachel Shaw is a high school librarian, aspiring genealogist, and teacher at The UNtraining.  


  1. Love this post! I would like to link to it from the UNtraining website. I am also exploring this on my blog Good Little White Girl. An example, where I discover my grandfather was probably in the KKK: “We’re Good White People — Aren’t We?”

    Thanks for your work, Christine!

  2. This piece is great, Rachel, as it dives into the murky waters of what it means to be white in the US. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Pamela Griffiths Koren says:

    You followed the Griffiths side of the family. Did you get a chance to look into the Conley side i.e. Grandma Meredith? According to Meredith she was 1/4 Chickasaw. This of course does not make up for the fact that we all had a devastating effect on Native Peoples. I’d often wondered about the Griffiths side. Meredith had always hinted to an unsavory part of the Griffiths history. Wonderful article, extremely well written. Thanks for sharing it. Now if you’d like to delve into the Hamilton side, it turns out they are from the small town I chose at random to live in, Chambersburg, Pa. The family name here is Kuhn and apparentlyBob Hamilton’ s grandparents are buried here. Illness has stopped me from finding the graves; but I’ll send you a photo when I do. This area is steeped in history. Chambersburg was the only Northern town burnt to the ground during the Civil War. It is the site of the first synagogue west of Philly and has one of the oldest Jewish Cemetaries in the country. At least that’s what I have been told.

  4. Rachel Shaw says:

    Thanks for your comment, Pam! I have done some research on the Conleys but have yet to find a Native ancestor. Chambersburg sounds full of history!

    Also, a little belatedly – Thanks to Janet (one of my mentors and an incredible writer!) and Lori (I loved reading your blog posts!)

  5. Beverly Brett says:

    Hi, I was looking around for DNA info and found your post. I am a big believer in people finding out about their ethnicity as opposed to just assuming you always were “white” . And i think that way we can feel more strongly what was done to native peoples because of what was done to us in Britain if you are a Celt and thus feel even more strongly the sadness and irony. I don’t know as much about welsh as i do about highland gaelic scots and Catholic gaelic irish but Celts were seen as an inferior race by the English and extermination or emigration the best solution. They were all beaten for speaking their language- lands taken from them – starved. I live in a place where there is a Gaelic revival- Cape Breton Island which is why i know. I also have english ancestors so have to accept that. But this is the first I have seen of – people taught to look at their own ancestry- as a better way to look at rascism. It makes me ill to see yet another irish name added to the Trump administration. Whiteness for many was a 20th century event. Thank you.

  6. Thank you, this a very interesting post. We will be interested in following your work if you look more into your Celtic ancestry.

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