Saturday, January 26, 2019


Every once in a while I get back to my ongoing genealogy project.

I kind of let it drop last summer, for reasons I won’t go into now, and then things got busy as they always do and suddenly it was the middle of the fall semester and I was just trying to keep up with all of the things I needed to do.  Trying to pick something back up that I wanted to do wasn’t really on the list of possibilities. 

My dad taught me many things.  One of them is that you can divide all of the tasks that come your way into four piles in descending order of importance – Necessary, Desirable, Optional, and “Let me get back to you on that” – and when the Necessary pile takes over, even the Desirable pile gets pushed aside.

So it’s been a while.

But recently I’ve gone exploring into the family history again.

Now I know how my great-grandmother came to this country.

She and her daughter arrived here by ship not long before Christmas Day, 1907.  It took them over two weeks to get here.  They landed in Ellis Island, cleared immigration, and were apparently met by my great-grandfather (whose name, for some reason, the record keeper switched around so that his first name and the bit following the patronymic were flipped) who was already here.  The record says they were headed to Philadelphia, which sounds right since that’s where he was living and where my own roots are.

This process is called chain migration, by the way.  One person comes over, settles down, checks things out, clears the way, and then others follow in their wake.  It works for families, for neighborhoods, and even entire villages.  It’s probably how your ancestors got here too.  It’s how a lot of immigration works even today.  People who get upset at this tend to be blissfully ignorant of their own history and often get quite angry when you point this out to them, the way people do when you puncture their bubble.  But that doesn’t make it any less true.  We’re a nation of immigrants.  We forget that at our peril.

I don’t know where the rest of the children were.  My grandfather, born five years later, was the youngest of eleven, and the simple math says that there could only have been four kids between her arrival and his birth, even if she was nine months pregnant on arrival and had a child every ten months after that, which strikes me as unreasonably ambitious even for an age that prized large families.  Maybe they came over with their dad.  Maybe they stayed in the old country, if they were old enough to make that decision on their own.  Certainly some other relatives made that choice.  I have some of that correspondence.   

They’re all gone now, of course, my great-grandparents' children.  Most of them never saw adulthood.  My grandfather passed away nearly two decades ago and I never met either of his two siblings who survived childhood.  There’s a story there, of course.  Maybe another time.

What’s interesting about my great-grandmother’s entry is that she is listed as being both a “peasant” by occupation (all but one of her shipmates were also so listed, the exception being a guy who was listed as a barber) and literate, something rare in peasants in any culture.  After she settled in Philadelphia she apparently became something of a neighborhood scribe – people would bring her letters from home to read to them, and she would write letters back for them.  It’s not a surprise that my grandfather finished high school – a rarity among his peers at the time.  I come from a family that values education.

If you know where you’ve been and you know where you are, you can get a pretty good idea of where you’re headed.

We came here.  A lot of people did.  That’s how this country was built.


James A. Brown said...

Have you talked about what tools and methods you're using to uncover your family history? How did you learn that your great-grandmother became a neighborhood scribe?

David said...

Hi James -

I haven't, mostly because they're kind of scattershot and disorganized. I found the ship's registry on, which is kind of the stripped-down free version of Ancestry. There's a lot there, and most of it you can get to without joining the Mormon Church (both Family Search and Ancestry are run by the Mormons, who - for theological reasons - are the foremost geneaologists in the world). I've been plinking around there for a while now and have come up with a lot.

My dad's side of the family goes back a long way in this country and somewhere about 4 or 5 generations ago there were two sisters, one of whom led to me and the other led to another guy who has done a LOT of work, so I've piggybacked on his stuff too. We've talked a bit - I sent him some stuff and he sent me some too.

I've looked at old newspapers (my training as a historian means I'm not fazed by records that are in microform rather than digitized, and I have access to a robust interlibrary loan system) and just searched through Google.

Someday I'll actually spring for an Ancestry account - it would be good if I had the time, which is not my life right now.

As for the story about my great-grandmother being the neighborhood scribe, that came from my mom, who heard it from my grandfather, who was there. My mom is also interested in this stuff and we trade notes and stories. My dad was never interested, but my brother did interview him before he died and I have access to that as well. The first thing a historian recommends is to interview the living sources.

Mostly right now I'm in the information gathering stage - dredging sources, storing them, trying to collate them so that I at least know what I already have when I run into them again. At some point I'll try to organize the stories.

Last year I put together a giant family tree with everything I'd discovered. It was fun.


LucyInDisguise said...

"The rabbit hole is deep."

"Aye, but the will is strong with this one, and his training shall serve him well."

"We can hope. But a lifeline, body harness, and independent air supply would be advised. Also, snaks.
Lots and bunches of snaks."


David said...



I shall descend into the void and return from the other side with riches and my family history in my shoulder bag, as bulky as the snaks which sustained me on my journey through the genealogical underworld.