In recent weeks, I have been thinking of our immigrant ancestors who came to this country to seek a better life. My great-grandmother came to America from Italy in 1916. The family story was that she was betrothed to a young man here in America. She came to fulfill her betrothal. She arrived safely, met her husband-to-be, and married shortly thereafter, being a bride at the young age of 16. Together, they had five children, all living to adulthood and having families of their own. Many of my other ancestral lines were here in America by the late 1700s and early 1800s. I have not researched them to their point of entry into our country. Some remain lost in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia/West Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. So many ancestors…so little time!
Individuals and families left their home for a variety of reasons:
- Religious and political persecution
- Political unrest
- To avoid mandated military service
- Disease and famine
- Poor crop output
- Seek education or employment
- Better economic opportunities
- Land owner prospects
- Alternative to prison or to escape trouble
- To join family, friends and/or meet a husband-to-be
- Many other reasons
Some came with only the clothes on their back and a few coins in their pocket, traveling in cramped steerage quarters. Others experienced greater wealth and traveled as first and second class passengers. Regardless of their socioeconomic background, most of our ancestors followed the proper procedures for entering our country and becoming naturalized citizens if they so desired. They were listed on ship manifest lists (after 1820 in the US). They arrived through a variety of ports along the East and West Coast as well as the Gulf. Some found it more economical to sail into Canada and enter the U.S. through our northern border. At their point of entry, most immigrants were vetted. Some were turned away if they were not healthy or were considered a possible burden on society. However, most were able to gain entry ultimately.
Immigrants came seeking a better life for themselves and their descendants. They came willing to work hard. Many assimilated into the melting pot of the great U.S.A. Some served in our military in exchange for land, the opportunity to settle on a homestead, or to shorten the naturalization process. Others brought essential skills to help build America and to help defend and settle the western frontier. Many immigrants experienced success in the “land of promise”. On the flip side, many immigrants discovered that the roads in the United States were not paved in gold. Life was difficult. Life was not fair. Many experienced religious and political persecution. Others experienced discrimination. However, through perseverance and hardship, they endured — many obtaining great self-achievements and notable positions and respect in the community. Many were able to pave the road for better lives for their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Many other ethnic groups had no need to migrate into the country. They were already here. As the fledgling United States expanded their territory, many individuals had little choice and accepted their destiny — sometimes with hostility and other times in a peaceful manner.
Take a moment and reflect: Why did your immigrant ancestors come to the United States? What kind of life did they have once they left the ship and stepped foot on this land? If you descend from indigenous peoples, what kind of life did your indigenous ancestors live? Remember, the indigenous people of colonial America and the United States were not considered U.S. citizens until 1924 and even then, many states did not recognize them as U.S. citizens until much later. If you have not researched the why or the how of your ancestors, this may be an interesting part of your family history that needs to be researched and recorded for future generations. If we do not know and understand our past; if we do not educate the present generation why our ancestors came to this great land; if we do not tell about the hardships our ancestors endured and/or escaped from, or about the freedom they so desperately sought; then history will repeat itself! And next time, there may not be a great country promising “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” to all.