Recently, I became an immigrant. I must admit I had a very antiquated idea of what it meant to be an immigrant. For me it brought to mind images of long rows of people waiting in line at Ellis Island after a long boat journey, the woman in cloth head coverings and long skirts, men in hats dragging large trunks behind them. It was hard to identify with that word and accept it as a label that applied to me. I knew people who knew people who had done what I was doing, but I didn’t know anyone myself. However, being an American of non-Native American decent, I knew I at least couldn’t have been the first person in my family to have made this decision.
I started researching by building a family tree using ancestry.com, and quickly realized that I didn’t know anyone beyond my own grandparents. My mom and I journeyed down into the depths of the basement to retrieve the family photos her and her siblings had copied and divided when their mother died. But I didn’t just get my moms photos, I also got her story about when her and her siblings divided up their family photos, and her memories of the people in the photos. A few days later, when my mom’s father visited, I pulled out my laptop to show him all of the photos that I had scanned. When I showed him a photo of himself as a toddler holding a puppy, he said that the puppy’s name was Pepper and it was his first dog. No one else in the family knew that before now. I showed him a photo of his own grandmother as an old woman walking with a cane. He said that he had been in the house when she broke her hip while checking the mail. No one knew that either. I was slowly finding that beginning my ancestry research was not only giving me insight into my past, but also bringing me closer to the people in my present.
The first immigrant that I found was named Jakob Schwob. A tinner from Switzerland, he had traveled 4 months by boat in 1749 with a wife and two young children for the promise of farmland and opportunity in the New World. This information was in a big fat book my dad had on his bookshelf that traced the lineage of our last name. I had never known that it even existed before. I was fascinated by the story and the history behind it that led to Jakob’s decision and it only made me want to know more.
After I moved to England I wasn’t allowed to seek work until I was married. That left me with a couple months worth of time to myself while Jon was at work. I signed up for a 14-day free trial of ancestry.com to see if I could push my tree any further than what my parents and remaining grandparents knew. Ancestry has a huge catalogue of records. The ones that I found most useful for filling out my tree were census records and death certificates. For example; my maternal grandmother’s parents were both born in Pennsylvania, but just by looking at the 1930’s census, I can find that her father’s parents were from Czechoslovakia, and her mother’s parents were from Russian-Carpatho. What’s Russian-Carpatho, you may ask? Amazing question. I had no idea. Long story short, it was basically a cross-border region along the Carpathian Mountain range that spans modern-day Poland, Ukraine, and Slovakia. It doesn’t even include Russia. And now, thanks to ancestry, I know that.
Also from this census you can see that this married couple were 18 and 19 years old, and from just this little information I started to paint a picture in my head of people who I will never know. This census captures a moment in their lives, two kids of immigrant parents, just married, excited to start a life of their own, out of their parents house, but also maybe a little afraid. I realized they weren’t so different from me really. Going through each census, decade-by-decade, also gave me a feeling for how fast life goes by.
Throughout my research I found many more immigrants and some surprises, including a 5xgreat-grandfather who was murdered by the Molly Maguires, a violent secret organization of Irish coal miners in Pennsylvania. I also found a 13xgreat-grandfather immigrant that came to America on the Mayflower. I found veterans of the Civil War and Revolutionary War, and many many dutiful mothers, sometimes many times over, whose limited opportunities and tradition kept them in the home. I was so excited by everything I had learned that I wanted to share it with my family. I made a video using iMovie to explain the research I had done and sent a link to my aunts, uncles and cousins. I forced Jon to narrate to video so his British accent to lend a certain gravitas to the production. I realize ancestry research it only interesting when it’s your own family, but for those curious I’ve embedded the video below:
After making Jon help with my project, he became interested in his only family tree. This interest was intensified following the death of his grandfather Eric in February. I volunteered to scan Eric’s photographs and create a slideshow for his wake, and we used them to start filling out his paternal ancestry. This encouraged us to visit his maternal Grandmother, Jean, who is his last living grandparent.
We were up in Sheffield one weekend and Jon’s mother told us that she had told Grandma Jean that we might visit and that we were interested in her ancestry. I knew that meant we had to visit that day. I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing and expectant grandmother. I told Jon to call her and ask when we could come but he was dragging his feet about it, “What’s her phone number?” he finally asked me. I looked at him incredulously. “I’ve never called her before,” he finally admitted. This had never even crossed my mind. I had grown up on my grandma’s farm, quite literally; My dad had built a house on her farmland. The door of my grandma’s farmhouse had been a revolving door to my cousins and I.
When we got to his Grandma’s house she immediately offered to make a round of tea. We tried to politely take over for her, as her mobility is limited, but it was clear that this was her house and we were her guests and she would be making the tea. When we sat down she nonchalantly mentioned that she had gathered some pictures for us if we were interested. She promptly produced a thick folder of old photos from her childhood and before. We started leafing through all the treasures of the folder, and just as it had been with my grandfather, Grandma Jean was eager to offer a commentary on every image. I knew I would not be able to remember everything she was saying and doubted that I could get her to say it all again someday, so I quietly turned on the voice recorder on my iPhone so I could capture her voice describing the indoor swimming pool and theatre her grandfather ran, and how her father tragically died in his 20s of meningitis, and how she emigrated to Australia with her husband and four small daughters for work. I scanned all of the photographs and gave them to Jon’s mom, and told her everything that I had learned. There were even some things that she hadn’t known before.
I hope to sit down with my own grandparents in the future and record their stories. One of the podcasts that I listen to, StoryCorps, hopes to create a more compassionate world through sharing stories, and provides a list of great questions to ask loved ones that you’d like to record interviews with: https://storycorps.org/great-questions/. StoryCorps even has a mobile booth that it currently traveling the US for 10 years to collect stories.
Researching my ancestry has shown me how historical events played a part in my ancestors lives, and how those decisions led to me. It has also created opportunities for me to learn from and bond with living members of my family in ways that I hadn’t before. Lastly, it’s given me a perspective on not only how short life is, but how cyclical it is. Every emotion I feel in my life has been experienced by my mother, her mother, and her mother. When I see pictures of each of them on their wedding day, I see myself and my feelings from that day of my life, and I know no matter how much time has passed, we’re all the same, really.