Embracing our checkered immigrant past

You may recall my battles with school projects, but I’m here to report some good news:

My printer is working (*duck for lightning strike*).

I have successfully downloaded photos AND VIDEOS from my phone.

And recently my children were both assigned a project that will have lasting value: a family tree.

I love family history, but we soon realized after a cataclysmic search of my desk that we lacked some important facts. Or they were buried too Blog Photodeep to find.

Our grandparents have passed away, and for the relatives who remain the memories are growing dim.

It didn’t help that my maternal grandmother threw out all of her old family photos long ago. Apparently someone once made fun of a relative’s hat, and that “got her Irish up,” my mother says. I was appalled.

So we did a bit of detective work. We called relatives in Nebraska to find out where great-grandparents Herman and Martha were born. We emailed cousins to get wedding dates and checked family histories compiled by distant relatives.

My sister-in-law even combed through my father’s stack of holy cards for loved ones who had died to find birth and death dates; he prayed for each one every day.

We found most of what we needed, but we also got some help from a friend who is a veteran genealogist. Perusing online Census records, we found where our families had lived, who their neighbors were and when our ancestors had arrived in America.

The names and dates scrawled in cursive provided tangible evidence for old family stories I had forgotten.

My paternal grandmother, according to family lore, had been born when her mom was just a teen working as a domestic for another family that had also emigrated from Germany. The head of that household was supposedly the father, but no one ever talked too openly about it.

I remembered the name, and that’s where we found my grandmother living back in 1910, at the age of 16, with her still-single mother.

Our family tree hadn’t accounted for that branch.

Eventually my great-grandmother married another German immigrant, and they all lived on the same block.

On my mother’s side, we found her paternal grandmother in a small Illinois town with nine children, whom she raised herself after her husband ran off to seek adventure at a mining camp in Oregon.

And recently we came across the adoption papers for my husband’s grandmother in Nebraska, which included the name of her single birth mother. Another offshoot of the family tree.

Every family has immigrant stories, and they’re not all the warm-fuzzy-memories kind.

My friend the genealogist likes to share the varied ancestry of her own children. On her husband’s side, they have a relative who came to America in the 1600s, a well-to-do Protestant chap from England who sold his inheritance to sail to the New World. In fact, some people thought he was a pirate because he was “rich.”

Another ancestor was a Scottish slave, sold into indentured servitude with the understanding that he’d be released at the end of his term. But when he got to America, he was sold as a slave to someone else.

My friend’s grandmother was a Croatian immigrant, a single woman betrothed to a man she had never met in Milwaukee. She invented a fictitious brother she was joining in America, as single women weren’t allowed to emigrate alone at the time.

Before she left Croatia, her mother told her not to marry the man if she didn’t like him. She didn’t, and immigration authorities soon showed up at her boarding house. As they prepared to take her away, the man upstairs rushed down and insisted he was going to marry her.

It was “love at first sight,” my friend’s grandmother told her, and they were married for 60 years.

So their family history includes a colonial ancestor, a slave and an illegal immigrant.

To those who claim to be just “American,” my friend responds this way: She has traced more than 300 immigrants on her husband’s side of the family. In her own, which arrived much more recently, there are just eight. Who, she asks, is more “American”?

Every family in this country likely has a checkered immigrant past, whether it’s an illegal or a single mom working to make ends meet.

My paternal grandmother ended up mothering five wonderful children, including my father, who remained close their entire lives and bequeathed to all of us strong “family” values.

We recently visited Omaha, where my mother-in-law has a box with a treasure trove of letters from her mom’s adoptive family. It includes love letters exchanged by her adoptive great-grandparents before they married, one living in Illinois and one in Iowa. Their sweet nothings are written in beautiful penmanship on the backs of business letters or whatever scraps of paper they could find.

These people are not technically related to my children by blood, but they are in our family tree. So is the single mom who gave up her daughter. We have to incorporate all the branches of information that feed into who they are.

So far, they count ancestors from Germany, Ireland, England and Denmark — and more places we haven’t discovered.

That’s what it means to be an American.

(This column originally ran in The News-Gazette on March 5, 2013.)

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What's your immigrant story? Leave a comment below!

Reporter and columnist Julie Wurth blogs about families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.

Photo: A "family tree"  graces the wall of Shane Stewart's home near Tuscola. Vanda Bidwell/The News-Gazette

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Sid Saltfork wrote on March 19, 2013 at 11:03 am

In regard to the Scots, many prisoners of war following the Jacobite Rebellion were transported to America to serve as indentured servants (slaves).  Eventually when they obtained their freedom; they moved into the backcountry of the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.  Other Scots immigrated from Scotland, and northern Ireland in the early 1700's; and moved to Pennsylvania living along side their German neighbors.  Others migrated to Kentucky, and Tennessee.  They were no friends of the English.  However, they were divided in their loyalty during the American Revolution.  Many Scot loyaltists moved to Canada.  Families even divided with minor changes to their surnames to designate their political choice.  Information regarding families can be obtained by attending the numerous Highland Games held in the U.S., and Canada.  Scotland has a large amount of census information available on line also. 

Julie Wurth wrote on March 20, 2013 at 1:03 am
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Interesting history! I'll pass it along to our friend with the ancestor from Scotland. I wondered how much information other countries have online - I'd like to take our research back a few more generations. Thanks!