Our Immigrant Ancestors Were Heroes

Our immigrant ancestors were heroes. Their names will not appear in history books, but their efforts impacted American history, and without their sacrifices, our country would not have developed as it did.

They were mostly farmers who felt they had to leave Europe. Some left due to religious persecution. Many immigrated to survive the poverty they were enduring. If they were married, they left to find food for their children. If they were single, they left to find work because there was an excess of farm labor and no room for them on the family farm.

In the 1600s, the American colonies offered freedom from religious persecution. In the 1700s, the colonies offered land, jobs, and the opportunity for a better life. In the 1800s, the United States needed immigrants even more as their westward movement demanded more farmers, and the growth of their factories required more workers.

As the U.S. became the leading industrial power in the world, the rapid growth of heavy industry had a ripple effect on other sectors of the U.S. economy – mining, heavy equipment, petroleum, manufacturing, and the food industries all saw rapid growth. This increase demanded more workers, and the massive spike in immigration from Europe in the early 1900s gave the need for considerable increases in manpower.

The first immigrants were seeking religious freedom. They arrived with little money and few belongings. However, many were excellent farmers, worked hard, and most were successful. They established many towns in the eastern colonies and were among the first pioneers to move across the Appalachian Mountains. Later, immigrants found farms in the Midwest and continue to build strong roots where ever they settled. During the industrial revolution, our immigrants filled critical positions in factories and mills.

My 4th great-grandfather arrived in 1770 as a redemptioner (an indentured servant), learned a trade (miller), and was one of the early pioneers in Kentucky and Indiana. He and his children help build the communities where they settled with their farming efforts and also furnishing the vital service of milling the grain of their neighbors. After eight generations, he has about 400,000 living descendants. Many of his descendants are farmers and blue-collar workers. Some are also professionals such as lawyers, doctors, dentists, architects.

Our immigrant ancestors are the foundation of our roots in the United States. Our lives would be much different if they did not endure the challenges of emigration from Europe. Do not underestimate their contributions. They may have left us some material wealth, but the most significant contribution they left is their role in the factories and farms of the United States. Their lives were the building blocks in the growth of their new country, and their immigration influenced the quality of our lives today in the United States.

Remember that they made many sacrifices for us and helped build the United States. Hopefully, what you have read in these pages has given you a few clues to expand your vision of your ancestors so you can leave your descendants with more memories of their heritage.

 

My new book: German Immigration to America

Why did your German ancestors immigrate, when did they leave, where did they leave, how did they get here?

These are questions we all hope to find the answers.

This book discusses the history of the Germanic people and gives some insights into possible answers to the questions about your ancestors’ immigration.

The book also presents brief histories of most of the ports that were used by German immigrants for departure from Europe and the ports where they arrived. Also covered are details of life in steerage during the voyage and the process of examination of the immigrants to gain admittance to the United States.

Libraries are closed, what can we do?

Research is important but with most research facilities shutting down, it gives us some time to compile and organize our notes to begin writing our family history. Our research will never be done, so we should begin writing our family history as soon as possible. It does not have to be a finished narrative but summaries of what we have for each individual will organize our information. Putting my information in bullet points always helped me get started. The summaries will put our research in a better format that we can show to family members and doing this now will help us do better research later. If you are frustrated with research facilities closed, start your summaries and begin getting organized. Also, have fun putting life into your ancestors.

International Tracing Service (ITS) – Where can we find the stories for Post-WW II Displaced Persons?

Did your parents or grandparents immigrate to the United States shortly after WW II? If so, they probably told you stories of staying in one or more of the refugee camps at the end of the war. The Allied forces established these camps to handle the masses of displaced persons coming from the German work camps or death camps or who fled their homes to escape communist rule.

Did your ancestors tell you the details of their lives during and after the war, or were they reluctant to talk about their experiences? The International Tracing Service had the task of saving the documents of the refugees and gives us hope to complete their stories.

The work of ITS began in 1943 when the Headquarters of the Allied Forces asked the British Red Cross to set up a registration and tracing service for missing persons. ITS grew out of the Central Tracing Bureau, which was approved on February 15, 1944. The bureau initially worked out of London but was moved from there to Versailles, then to Frankfort am Main, and then to its current location in Bad Arolsen, Germany. On July 1, 1947, the International Refugee Organization (ICRC) took over administration of the bureau on July 1, 1947, and changed the name of the bureau to International Tracing Service on January 1, 1948.

ITS collects and controls the documents, information, and research on Nazi persecution, forced labor, and displaced persons. The archive in Bad Arolsen contains about 30 million records from concentration camps, details of forced labor, and files on displaced persons. The archives have been accessible to researchers since 2007. Requests for information from individuals or descendants can be made by mail or on the ITS website (Home Page – https://arolsen-archives.org/en/). In 2015, ITS began adding records to an online database and today has over two million records in an online searchable collection of documents. Family historians should search the online archive at https://arolsen-archives.org/en/search-explore/ to confirm their ancestors are in the archive. However, the results will show one or two documents but not the complete file. Use the inquiry page (arolsen-archives.org/en/search-explore/inquiries/) to request the entire file. Be patient because the average delivery time for the files is about four months and can take as long as eleven months.

Just published my latest Book: “Czech and Slovak Immigration to America.”

When did your Czech or Slovak ancestors immigrate, where did they leave, why did they leave, how did they get here? This book is a wonderful resource. The author hopes you find the answer to some of these questions in this book. This book discusses the history of their homeland and gives some insights into possible answers to the questions about your ancestors’ immigration.

The book also presents brief histories of most of the ports that were used by your immigrants for departure from Europe and the ports where they arrived. Also covered are details of life in steerage during the voyage and the process of examination of the immigrants to gain admittance to the United States.

Available on Amazon.com

I hated writing, but writing Family History is my Passion

In school, I hated writing, but I love writing about family history. It is one of my passions, but to be readable by my family, I have developed a method that seems to work.

I start by asking myself, What’s my topic? Why is it important? Then I write down the basic facts and stories that I have. Next, I go back to refine it which also usually leads to more research to fill in the missing details to answer my questions.

I try to have the first sentence or paragraph of the finished product reveal something important to the topic, so I grab the reader’s attention. I try to think about why my grandchildren or great-grandchildren would want to read my story. After my opening, the facts and other content need to flow to tell the story I want to tell. The information should flow in a logical order that slowly tells my story. At the end, I summarize my point or transition to the next topic.

The steps above are my method, but it is not from a writing course. If you are finding it hard to get started, you need just to start writing and do the best you can. Keep it simple and use your words and style. If you don’t write it down, who will?

Short Passage from one of my Family Histories – Peter Whittinghill

I write a lot about saving your family history in narratives. Below is an example from one of my families. The passage begins with “Sometime in 1795.” I added information at the beginning and end to give you some context for the sample portion of the total story.

Peter Whittinghill’s move to Kentucky

(Please note that the focus of this passage is about Peter Whittinghill’s migration from Virginia to Kentucky. Details of his life I included before and after his move to Kentucky are summaries of longer narratives)

 Peter Whittinghill was my 4th great-grandfather. He was born in 1752 in Germany and arrived in Virginia in 1770 as a redemptioner (German term similar to indentured servant). He paid for his passage by becoming an apprentice to a mill-wright and married his daughter Catherine Gabbert in 1775. He served in the Virginia militia during the American Revolution and in 1781, he purchased 59 acres along the North Fork of the James River (now called the Maury River) in Rockbridge County where he built a grist mill.

In 1783, the end of the Revolutionary War curtailed trade with Britain and led to a sharp decline in the economy in America immediately following the war. However, the vast lands west of the Appalachians were now available to settlers brave enough to relocate there. Some of the lands were given out in grants to Revolutionary War veterans in payment for their services, and more land was available for purchase at a low cost. These circumstances resulted in a massive movement of settlers to the western territories in the decades following the war.

Sometime in 1795 or early 1796, Peter decided he would move his family west of the Appalachian Mountains. On April 5, 1796, Peter sold his land in Rockbridge for fifty pounds current money of Virginia to Benjamin Hart, who was his brother-in-law. After the sale of his land in April of 1796, Peter and his family began the trek to Kentucky. Family tradition believes that Peter packed a set of grinding stones in the wagons along with some of their furniture, tools, stores, and other needed items. Oxen usually pulled the wagons, and the settlers also brought some livestock such as cattle and pigs. A few of the males rode horses, but most of the travelers walked the trail, herded the livestock, and helped by pushing or pulling the wagons when needed.

Peter probably traveled with members of the Gabbert family and other friends from Rockbridge County. The Gabberts and many surnames found in Rockbridge County records are also in records where Peter lived in Kentucky. The group had two paths they could take. One was directly west from Amherst County through the Appalachian Mountains to the New River near present-day Green Sulphur Springs. The second and most probable path started by going overland 110 miles south from Amherst to the New River near Blacksburg using the Great Valley Road.

At Blacksburg, they found the trail along the banks of the New River. They traveled north on the trace that earlier settlers had cut along its banks from the old Indian Trails. The New River is very shallow with many rapids and is not navigable so that is why rafts are not used. The New River eventually merges with the Kanawha River which flows into the Ohio River. Before the New River reaches the Kanawha, it winds through a narrow gorge for about twenty miles. At the gorge, the trace leaves the banks of the river and follows the bluffs above the river and then descends the slopes of Cotton Hill to rejoin the river below Kanawha Falls. The Kanawha River flows relatively flat to the Ohio River with the mountains above on both sides of its banks. The trip took 3-4 weeks and required setting up many campsites along the banks of the river. Children gathered firewood while the women set up the cooking fires and cooked the meals. The men hunted game during the day for their meals. If they encountered bad weather, they erected lean-tos to wait-out the rain.

At Gallipolis on the Ohio River, the travelers build rafts to float down the Ohio River 120 miles to Maysville, Kentucky. The family then trekked 70 miles overland south to Fayette County.

After traveling about 550 miles through the wilderness or on the Ohio River, they stopped for a short time in Fayette County, Kentucky, which is present-day Lexington. Peter and Catherine probably spent the fall of 1797 looking for land. They selected land in Mercer County, Kentucky which is about 15-20 miles west of Lexington. Peter and Catherine purchased their land in Mercer County, Kentucky on January 26, 1798, from John Stillwell. The deed lists that Stillwell sold the property to Peter Whittinghill of Fayette County, Kentucky. The purchase price was 100 pounds of Kentucky money. Peter ran his grist-mill and farmed in Mercer County for fifteen years before he sold his land and moved 130 miles west to Ohio County, Kentucky. Family tradition believes Peter also moved the grinding stones. His sons continued to use the millstones in their gristmills after Peter advanced to old-age. He died at age 92 in 1844.

Problems with Names

Finding the documents for your ancestors is thrilling. It may lead to an addiction to genealogy and family history. However, there is a challenge when their names are difficult to spell or pronounce. Another problem is interpreting the handwriting on the document.

The name on my grandfather’s manifest was correct but the indexer recorded with the wrong first four letters in the indexed record. Another set of grandparents dropped a few letters in their name once they arrived and this variation made the search very frustrating. I also had difficulty because first names were Americanized and I had to learn the Polish name that appeared on the manifest.

The myth of name changes

Many families believe immigration officials changed family names when the immigrants entered America. However, this is a myth. Officials usually recorded the names on passenger manifests based on official documents presented by the immigrant to the shipping line at the time of boarding. Changing their names would be illegal. Also, immigration stations were staffed with large numbers of translators to help ensure officials recorded accurately the information that was given by the immigrants. If families changed the spelling of their surnames, they did it after arrival, and this was usually to make it easier for the people around them to pronounce and write their name.

Name variations and spelling

Some instances of differences in names found on documents may have been caused when the recording person wrote the name phonetically. Immigrants may not have caught the misspelling of their name because the immigrant may have been illiterate. Also, the immigrant may have recognized their name written in the Cyrillic alphabet or Hebrew but did not know what the person wrote because he used the Latin alphabet.

Other problems were the given names found on documents. The immigrant may have preferred to use their middle name in their daily life, but official documents required their full Christian name. Another challenge we have is to identify the European spelling of the given names.

Searching

Remembering that documents may list your ancestor’s name as a variant should help you find your ancestor faster. Use the correct spelling first and if you cannot find them, use name variations and wildcards. First names are important in your search, and the record may list one of the variations of a given name. Sometimes it is best to use part of the given name with wildcards to reduce the problem with the given name variants. Research the spellings of given names for the countries of your ancestors and find books that provide surname variations

We are descendants of immigrants, and our ancestors contributed to the tremendous growth in America. The industrial growth in the 1900s could not have happened without the immigrants. Find the documents that add to their story to honor them and save for your future generations.

Be patient and remember to have fun looking for your family history.

Start Your Family History Journey

Researching your family history can have some very exciting moments.  Find your first census record and feel the thrill of seeing a snapshot of your family.  I became addicted to genealogy research after finding my grandfather’s passenger manifest and had difficulty waiting to find my next piece of my family’s history. Start your search, and you can also feel this thrill once you find that first document. Filling in more generations of your family tree and finding more family facts will start to haunt your waking thoughts. Get started and be prepared to make researching your family history a lifelong journey. Just like a great novel, it will be hard to put down.

Try to have a goal in your research. I intended to learn more about my family’s heritage and to preserve what I find for my children and grandchildren. Your goals can be similar to mine or yours can be as simple as doing an in-depth study of one of your famous ancestors. Start your journey at home. Collect documents, pictures, and letters that you and your immediate family have stored away in old shoe boxes in the closet or stuffed in desk drawers. Remember also that it is critical to interview your older relatives to save their memories and oral history.

Be organized in your research because this will save you time but will also point the way for more research. I use summaries to organize my facts and as a reference tool while doing my research. My summaries can make my research more efficient and helps me find more documents and facts. The summaries also help me focus my search efforts. Summaries are also a great way to share what I find with my family. Sharing gives me more opportunities for other family members to contribute more oral history, pictures, and old papers. Be prepared to uncover more areas to research after sharing your work. Remember to identify and label the family pictures. Asking relatives to determine who is in the pictures will help extend your family tree and also turn on the memories of the relatives who are trying to help.

Records you find may be confusing, misleading and wrong.  You will need to continually analyze and interpret your information and note where you got your information. As a beginner to genealogy, start now to note where you get every piece of information. Record your information as you find your facts. You may hear arguments that keeping up with sources are time-consuming and too much trouble. It isn’t fun, but without your source information, you can’t evaluate, analyze, and draw conclusions. And you can’t pass along your information because at least one family member will ask, “But how do you know?”

Companies and organizations are listing more and more genealogy records in online databases, and these are great sources to begin your research. However, there are many more genealogy records stored in libraries and historical archives that also may include your ancestors. Be sure to use all the sources in your research, both online and in person. You will be rewarded for your efforts.

Use books, genealogy programs, genealogy conferences, genealogy societies, online educational offerings, and social media to sharpen your genealogy skills. Again, once you start your journey, it will probably be a lifelong passion.

My last thought that may help you develop the same passion for genealogy as I have is

“Remember to have fun.”

Save the memories of your older relatives

  1. Talking to older relatives is a critical early step in genealogical research. Do this as soon as possible. Don’t wait until tomorrow because your relative may suddenly not be there.
  2. Prepare a ring binder with your summaries, charts, and photos to show your progress to your relative
  3. Discussions should be an equal exchange of information and should not be an interrogation.
  4. Establish rapport with family members before interviewing them
  5. Avoid questions that seek a “Yes” or “No” answer
  6. Let your relative talk, do not interrupt them. Their conversation will make them feel comfortable. Learn to listen.
  7. Try to check the information from oral histories – treat information as clues.
  8. Re-visit your relative after you have new and exciting information to show them. Seeing your material may turn on their memory for another story.