How Did Vikings End Up in My Family Tree?

Tracing Your Roots: A black reader wonders about a DNA test that turned up Orcadian roots.

Skara Brae, Orkney Islands (
Skara Brae, Orkney Islands (

You can find out more information about this through Orcadian Genealogy. It could be that this line of your ancestors arrived in the New World as early as the 17th century.

It’s worth noting that three of the populations from your results are closely related. Finland, Russia and Romania are not only in close proximity to each other, but Russia has occupied both Finland and Romania at various points in each location’s history. From 1809 until the end of World War I, Finland was in the Russian Empire. As a result of the Winter War in 1939 and 1940, a portion of Finnish lands was ceded to Russia. As for Romania, it often served as a Russian ally but has also had portions (especially the Bessarabia region) occupied by the Russians off and on from at least 1812 through 1958.

This has naturally led to the mixing of the populations. To this day, there are large numbers of ethnic Finns and Romanians residing in Russia and vice versa. Your ancestry seems to include at least one line from Eastern Europe. Whether the more recent location was Finland, Russia or Romania, there was also likely some earlier influence from one or both of the other populations.

In the 17th century, some Finns and Russians immigrated to the colony of New Sweden, located on the Delaware River on the borders of what is today Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. At the time, the Swedish Empire contained Finland and parts of what is now Russia. New Sweden was incorporated into New Netherland, the Dutch colony based around New York, and the proportion of Finns in the colony grew. The latter half of the 19th century saw an increase in emigrants from Finland who mostly settled in the U.S. along the Canadian border and in California (for the gold rush). The Institute of Migration has detailed articles about this topic that may be of interest.

Romanians were also attracted by the gold rush but did not arrive in significant numbers until the turn of the century. However, these workers did not usually plan to remain in the U.S. and more often returned to Europe. Russians, like most Eastern Europeans, came to the U.S. in large numbers at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. They tended to settle in New York. There was some earlier movement from Russia to Alaska, but this mostly ended in 1867 when Alaska was sold by Russia to the U.S.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Kyle Hurst, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

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