This was not something I thought about as a child in the 1970’s and 1980’s in suburban West Mifflin, Pennsylvania.
I knew my living grandparents and their basic backstories and a little bit about their respective parents. I was raised to believe I was mostly an Irish Catholic/little bit of German kid which turned out to be not quite true, but it was the paradigm of my understanding of myself as an American. I was just American – no unique cultural or ethnic traditions because I didn’t understand that my family’s traditions set the tone decades earlier. The only immigrant in our family was my uncle’s wife who was English, survived the Blitz and emigrated with her family to the United States in the middle of the 20th century. I was taught not to ask her questions ‘because of the war’ so I never did. Turns out that was also a lie (not her immigrant status, but the reason I was discouraged from talking with her.)
Twenty years ago, I began digging into my family tree. I discovered that this identity story wasn’t quite accurate.
Most of my ancestors were settled in the United States before the Civil War, many as far back as the late 17th century (1600’s.) Most were laborers or working class folks with a few exceptions. Most were German or under that broad definition of Central European/German states with some having ties to Great Britain. Some of them had almost no choice about their immigration per the brutal dictator kings in Europe using poor folks as pawns in their power games.
But they did have opportunity once they arrived. And that’s essential to understand – the distinction between those who had no choice to immigrate and those who were brutally enslaved and brought here by force. How people came to this nation absolutely determined how their descendants lived in this nation.
Most historical accounts that I find focus on my ancestors’ historical ‘bootstrap’ story – they came to this ‘savage land’ and brought much good and industry and became the backbone of American mythology, etc. It is not often mentioned that they *took* the land from the indigenous residents, much as Louis XIV took their homelands in the Palatinate region of Germany. Or that they remained pawns in the rise of American industry that sucked the life out of their sons in dangerous, back-breaking conditions. Or that they were both oppressed and oppressors – a state of tension that white American struggle to this day to reconcile in our minds.
As I continued to dig into the archives, I find other recurring themes – mainly, grinding poverty. Family after family blown apart when the breadwinner dies, often in industrial or farming accidents, sending children spiraling out into the care of extended family or strangers. Some clawed their way upwards into the middle class, some did not. The alternative narrative is a woman dying in childbirth leaving her living children with no caretaker. I recently read of one woman (a great-great aunt) who had 8 children in 11 years and died at age 31 of heart failure. This was 1927, not even one hundred years ago.
It is certainly true that my immigrant ancestors helped to build America in all of its complicated glory – I can trace 6 generations of steelworkers. It is probably true that they were the ones resisting newer generations of immigrants – that the German-Americans of the 18th century did not want my mid-19th century Irish ancestors coming to America even though their mutual grandchildren eventually intermarried. And that they all turned back around in the 20th century to pretend not be German at all. By 1940, almost everyone had left the City of Pittsburgh for suburbs (or other cities entirely.) It seems we never learn, do we?
My most recently arrived direct ancestor is my great-great-grandmother Jennie Tarleton Remley Murray who arrived on her own from Scotland in 1880. That’s five generations removed from me. She went on to marry, have five children, lose her husband while the children were young, marry again, lose her second husband and eventually spend her final years in an asylum, dying alone in 1942 here in Pittsburgh. Her lifespan overlapped my father’s by a few years, but he never met her to his knowledge. My grandmother rarely saw her because her own mother was determined to leave the poor relations behind and move firmly into a respectable middle class paradigm. So poorly was she perceived that some of my grandmother’s cousins insist Jennie was not a biological relative, merely a second wife even though there is zero evidence to suggest that. Actually, it is not true because I have plenty of evidence to show otherwise. It is a false narrative.
A lot of my family history was a false narrative. No one ever mentioned that both of my grandmothers were pregnant before marriage when they lectured us about chastity or that my great-great-great-grandmother gave birth and raised her son without a husband – in the 1870s. No one talked about the history of mental illness in the family which I found out via death certificates for dozens of mostly female ancestors. They never mentioned the hundreds of interpersonal details that were harsh, ugly or difficult to understand.
But they also changed the larger narrative. I was an Irish Catholic Kerr until I wasn’t – until I was a Protestant Irish Kerr with many more German Catholic relatives. Not exactly a massive culture shift unless you happen to be Irish and/or German. What was more upsetting were the ease with which small deceptions fed the larger tragedies. The disconnect between my slave-owning ancestors and their suburban dwelling direct descendants hiring black women to care for their children, clean their houses and so forth. The veneration of boys over girls even into my own generation to the extent of protecting abusers at the expense of victims. The callous dismissal of adopted and step children as not ‘real’ family even as both sides of my family were filled with complex extended family networks that provided literal life lines to hundreds of our child ancestors.
What does this have to teach me about immigration?
Well, there has always been a first person in each family tree. Each branch reaches back through the centuries, curling tendrils around time frames and events, to that one person or one family making a journey, by choice or coercion (but not by enslavement), across the sea to an unknown land. They stumbled onto land in New York, Philadelphia or Baltimore. They ended up in Pennsylvania – some in Lycoming County, most others in Butler and Washington counties. They made the best of their situations, I think. They survived, I am more confident in saying.
They were not inherently kind to future immigrants. Their own experiences didn’t necessarily give them copious amounts of empathy. They were also not inherently kind to their own ancestors, erasing significant portions of their experiences to fit an ever-evolving understanding of a real American family. Ironically, those actions are pretty much what has come to define our understanding of ourselves – redefining ourselves to the point of almost a parody of what it means to be a basic white girl.
I”m not suggesting life would have been better if we stayed in the Palatinate or allowed our families to starve during famines or otherwise chose to stay in Europe rather than immigrate. I’m suggesting that we have more honest conversations about the immigration experience and acknowledge that our fears today – being displaced, paying for their expenses, fear of unfamiliar cultures, losing our sense of self – are not much different than fears earlier generations experienced and didn’t always manage with grace and dignity. We do have the capacity to get beyond the ‘we are all immigrants’ meme to a more robust understanding of how we got to the point that we thought otherwise.
Let me close with an example of what I mean. This is a historical reference to the settlement of Clearfield Township in Butler County in the late 18th century. They saw that it was *literally* cleared by the indigenous residents for the purposes of cultivating food and reframed that as a sign from God that they were meant to just take the land. Sigh.
It derived its name from the fact that when the early settlers came in from Westmoreland County and elsewhere as early as 1794, they discovered, much to their surprise, a large square of cleared land in the vicinity of a family of MILLIGANs, in Buffalo Township. From its general indication it was concluded that it was an Indian corn-field. There was no doubt in the minds of the pioneers but that the cultivation was recent, as the ground was still soft and loamy. The name Clearfield, was, therefore, very appropriate, for nothing was further from the minds of the early pioneers than the thought of discovering an arena such as that in the dense and almost impenetrable forests of this portion of the country, and at so early a period.
What’s your immigration story? Regardless, let’s move forward with clear eyes and a better understanding of the values that created all of this opportunity for all of us. Exclusion was never a successful value. Neither was fear.