How ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ shapes my perspective of my 2x great-grandmothers

Over a year ago, I took on a daunting task of blogging about the lives of my eight 2x-great grandmothers (2gg’s) aka the grandmothers of my own grandparents I have four grandparents, they each had two and that equals eight. Technically, I also had three step-2x-great-grandmothers who were the second spouses of my male ancestors, but I will save their stories for another day.

I started this journey really with the intent to explore the realities of immigration in my own family. People were casually tossing around phases like “We are all immigrants” which ignored that fact that most Black Americans did not emigrate by choice to this land, but were enslaved and transported here to be sold and used as a tool in service of the economic empire others enjoyed. It also ignored the realities of the oppression of the Indigenous residents of this land, both during the early days of colonization and continuing through now. I was curious to explore the immigration stories of my own family – what would they reveal?

My 2x great-grandmother, Jennie Tarleton Remley Murray, was my most recent immigrant relative. And when I explored her story from departing Glasgow Scotland on her own in 1884 to her death in 1941 as a resident of a County Asylum, I was shocked to learn that she and her second husband were nativists who actively opposed newer generations of immigrants.

But Jennie’s story also unfolded in unexpected ways, giving me access to the typical experiences of a woman in this time frame with the additional layer of the other players in her story being my own relatives. I moved onto Sadie Butler whose parents were immigrants from Ireland and soon enough I was drawn in to these women’s lives.

You can read the stories here.

Perspective

This generation existed at a time when government documents had moved away from focusing on ‘men and family’ to listing the details of spouses and children on the Census, in death records, and more. Newspapers also offered more robust descriptions of daily lives from the society columns in the rural communities to the details of even the pettiest of crimes. The lives of these women were more accessible with existing archives than the lives of their mothers.

All of the 2gg’s were born between 1852-1874. Their deaths ranged from 1898-1960, the shortest life span stretching just 25 years and the longest to 96 years. That time frame covers the Civil War to the Vietnam War.  But their collective lives overlapped by only 24 years (1874-1898.)

Three of these women were born while slavery was still legal with several being directly related to people who enslaved human beings. All of them lived during Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

All were born without the right to vote. Five lived to see suffrage extended to women, mostly white women. None of them lived to see full enfranchisement via the elimination of the poll tax and other voter suppression tactics that had impacts on their families and neighbors.

Understanding how the intersection of race and gender shaped their lives would require many blog posts that I may or may not have the capacity to write. I do, however, have the audacity to acknowledge that any genealogist writing about these generations without referencing the context of slavery and the oppression of Indigenous peoples is doing themselves and their families an injustice.

And then there is poverty.

Most of my 2gg’s lived without indoor plumbing, electricity, or similar conveniences. They lived in cramped quarters, heated with wood, and walked everywhere for most of their lives. None lived in affluence, even the one (Caroline RItter Pryor) whose brother went on to become a multi-millionaire after her death. They were all very much working class women, the daughters and wives of farmers and coal miners and steel workers and a few ne’er do wells, living on next to nothing with very little resources.

That’s not to say there aren’t important differences between their experiences – Anna Gottheld spent most of her adult life in one home on the Southside whereas Jennie Tarleton was seemingly always on the move as both of her husbands pursued work around the region. Five of these women were widowed, some more than once. The other three died with young children still at home, left to be raised by their fathers, stepmothers, and extended family. Jennie sailed across the sea while Alice Jenkins traveled across the United States and back by train. Regina Kramer is not know to have traveled more than a few miles from her home in Butler County.

It is easy to romanticize this period of time, but the reality is that most of us – even in our toughest times – had a far better quality of life. Better housing, sanitation, food, healthcare, nutrition, education, and individual autonomy. I should clarify that for *me* this is true. No matter how hard things have been, I am aware that their lives are tied to the good and bad in my own life.

Contemporaries

Think about Mary and Laura Ingalls. Mary was born in 1865 and Laura in 1867. Whether you are familiar with the fictionalized versions in the TV series and childhood books Little House on the Prairie or the more scholarly research into their lives, you probably have some sense of the realities of women’s lives during this time period. Three of my 2gg’s grew up on farms or in rural communities with a fourth moving from the Pittsburgh urban world to rural Butler County upon the occasion of her marriage. They weren’t pioneer girls, but they were rural farm girls who did backbreaking labor with few opportunities. I’m not aware that they had much education or encouragement in that direction. In some ways, they are like the background characters in these books & novels who appeared briefly and then disappeared into the background.

Consider the March sisters from Little Women who were part of the previous generation – Meg was born 1846, Jo was born in 1845, Beth was born in 1849, and Amy was born in 1850  They lived in genteel poverty. Most of my 2gg’s lived in real poverty without any gloss or sheen.  The granddaughters in that novel (Daisy, Josie, and Bess) were the contemporary generation to my 2gg’s.  The genteel shine (and allure) of the novel doesn’t translate to the working class girls that my 2gg’s represent.

Nellie Bly is a woman actually from Pittsburgh who was born in 1864. Her early years were rural. After her father died, they moved into the City where she put her education to good use writing letters to the editor and eventually earning herself a newspaper column.

Other contemporaries include Grandma Moses (1860-1961), Annie Oakley (1860-1926), Jane Addams (1860-1935), Anne Sullivan (1866-1936), Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954), Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931), Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919), Lyda Conley (1874-1946), Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865–1915), Qiu Jin (1875-1907), and Ida Minerva Tarbell (1857 – 1944.)

These are women (or characters) about whom we know details – their backstory, their accomplishments, challenges they faced, their family lives, and so forth. My 2gg’s and likely yours are not in that category. I have a few photographs that I found in my research. I had little in the way of story or anecdote.

Interesting to note that what seems to make the difference is access to education, whether formal or informal, more so than economic resources or life circumstances. I wonder if that also applies to the men.

One lesser known character whose story came to mind was Katie Rommely Nolan McShane, the mother from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Katie was a first generation immigrant born around 1880, the youngest daughter of Austrian immigrants. Her husband, Johnny, was also a first generation immigrant; his parents came to New York City from Ireland. The book focuses more on the perspective of their daugher, Francie, but even as a young adult reading for the first time, I noticed the symmetry with my own ancestors. My great-grandfather was also a fine Irish tenor who died of pneumonia at a young age and was a known drunk. Did his wife Sadie work herself to the bone like Katie? Did my Austro-Hungarian 2gg’s like Anna Marie Bliss and Anna Gottheld have similar experiences with their parents and siblings?

I’ve always been drawn to the women in this novel, never the alleged romantic tragedy of Johnny Nolan. It was the women whose relationships propelled two immigrant families into the 20th century in the United States. Maybe that early affinity explains why my 2gg’s draw me in so much.

Conclusions

Spending all of these months delving into the everyday experiences of these 8 women has been remarkable. I barely knew a handful of names before I began, so being able to pinpoint so much detail about their lives is glorious. Thinking of how these 8 unconnected women came together to create me and my brother seems both random and also maybe a little foreordained?

Using generational theory, most of these women were part of the Missionary Generation Cohort (1860-1882) and a few, Caroline Ritter and Caroline Feil, were part of the earlier Progressive Generation (1843–1859) Here’s what Wikipedia says about the Missionary Generation:

Members of the Missionary Generation have been described as the “home-and-hearth children of the post-Civil War era”. They were an idealist generation and as young adults, their leaders were the first graduates of newly formed black and women’s colleges.

They rejected the strict Victorian values, questioned gender roles and feared society would become soulless, inhumane, and money-driven.[1]

Their defining characteristics were missionary and social crusades, “muckrake” journalismprohibitionismworkers’ rightstrade unionism and women’s suffrage.[2] In midlife, they developed Prohibition in the United Statesimmigration control, and organized vice squads.

Because the Lost Generation were so decimated by World War I, the leadership of the Missionary Generation lasted longer than previous generations and in the 1930s and 1940s, their elite became the “Wise Old Men” who enacted a “New Deal“, Social Security, led the global war against fascism, and reaffirmed America’s highest ideals during a transformative era in world history.

I wonder if these generational groupings apply across socio-economic boundaries or racial boundaries?

I see little glimpses of myself in their stories – like Jennie, I live with mental illness. Like Sadie, I try to sow good into the world through empowering women. Like Caroline Ritter, my brother’s star has far surpassed my own. Like Anna, I am not in touch with my family of origin. Like Alice, I’ve lived elsewhere but travel home in the end. Like Sarah, I now live in Pittsburgh’s Northside (then Allegheny City.)

Unlike them, I have chosen not to have children. Unlike them, I *have* that choice. So I will never someone’s 2gg. I am queer and partnered to a woman. I have no way of knowing if they questioned their sexual or gender identities. I have a master’s degree while most of them might only have gone through elementary school at best.

So what’s next?

I will continue to revisit their ancestry profiles to see if new clues or information turns up. I have identified descendants of most of them and hope to make contact. I’ll also continue to explore the lives of their mothers, aunts, sisters, and daughters. I call this “moving sideways” … researching folx around folx to find information.

Will I write another blog series? Probably, but I’m not sure what the theme will be just yet. I am grateful for the opportunity to ‘meet’ these ancestors and look forward to exploring their ongoing impact on my life. I’m so, so honored to be able to share their stories and preserve some of the details for future generations.

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