I remember my father talking about his grandmother, Mary Ellen Myers Peters, being German. He did not remember her. He was only 2 when she died. I think he was going entirely by her surname. If you follow my blog or read my books, you know my interest has mostly been in my Irish, Scottish, and very recently Welsh roots–all from my father’s side of the family, by the way.
But by following one of those green leaf hints on Ancestry.com I uncovered this photograph of this Myers family. I contacted the man who posted it (his name is Mike) and discovered that we are distant cousins and my great grandmother Mary Ellen is in this photograph (number 11), as is her husband seated in front of her. Because it was taken circa 1902, I realized that the child sitting on my great grandfather’s lap is my grandfather when he was about a year old.
Researching German Roots
So, I’m off on a new adventure. Mike will be sending me his files and photos on this family. (By the way, he does not know the identity of the man whose portrait is being held up by my great great grandfather. A mystery I’d love to solve!) Mike knows from where in Germany the family came, and that they
immigrated in the 18th century. It seems all of my lines I know of thus far have lived in this country before we were a country. I’m a deeply rooted American!
Where are they from? Voerstetten, Freiberg, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany. I’m shaking my head. I know so little about that country and culture!Who else is on a German ancestry quest? Click To Tweet
Learning About Wales
Here in America, we hear little about this other Celtic country. We are all about Ireland, which makes sense when you consider the number of Americans who have Irish roots, nearly a quarter according to some sources. And Scotland? We have Braveheart and tartans, just to name a few Scottish influences. There are numerous novels set in these two countries. There are also some novels set in Wales, but not nearly as many. We have the legend of King Arthur, which may come from Wales, but even that is debated.
Today is St. David’s Day, the patron saint of Wales. I wrote a little about this saint here on Celtic Voices.
I have ancestors from the border region of Scotland, from Northern Ireland, from Cornwall, and from Wales. Cornwall and Wales are new discoveries for me, and my ancestors came from those areas very long ago—the first half of the seventeenth century. I will save Cornwall for another post, but my Welsh ancestors came from Anglesey, Wales. Anglesey is actually an island that stretches into the Irish Sea toward the Irish capital of Dublin. Anglesey has a rich Celtic history, which of course fascinates me. I have much to learn about its history still. I don’t know if in the 1500s and 1600s, Anglesey was involved in whaling. But my Anglesey ancestors certainly were people of the sea and fishermen. When they came to Massachusetts, they remained sailors and soon moved to Nantucket and became whalers. My Myrick family is most definitely rooted in Wales.
The Search Begins
My genealogy searches extend beyond names and dates. I want to know about places and about the history of those places. And of course, I want to go there. On my bucket list!
In future posts I’ll look at some novels set in my places of origin and share some of the history as I learn more.
Do you have anything to share about Wales? Please comment! And Happy St. David’s Day!
I wrote this post two years ago on an older blog. It has received so much attention that I thought I’d post an updated (and better edited) version here. If you know something who might enjoy this, please pass it on.
- They came to escape poverty.
This was probably the BIGGEST reason. For the Irish, famine, particularly the Great Potato Famine–an Gorta Mór– in the 1840s to early 1850s, compelled people to seek their living in another place. Throughout the centuries there have been other seasons of failed crops and/or disastrous weather conditions that drove people to leave their homelands. If you know the year your ancestors left, look for what else may have happened during that time to get a better look at possible motivations.
They came for religious freedom.
We’ve all heard that this is why the pilgrims came to America. Many of our ancestors’ narratives passed down contain this reason. But don’t forget that in centuries past the church ran the government, so in a sense they were coming for liberty. However, religious freedom is one of our rights we cherish in America. Today we refer to this as people being marginalized. When a group of people feel that they are in the minority in terms of something that is of major significance to them, they are likely to seek a more hospitable place to live.
They came to avoid prosecution.
I’m sure that reason does not appear in any family Bibles, but the practice was feared enough at one time that the US government put in place stringent immigration rules in an attempt to avoid harboring all the world’s criminals. This did not appear to be a widespread problem at the turn of the 20th century, however, according to this paper. I’m sure there are some good stories out there, though, about folks who ran from the law.
They came because a relative was already here.
Among certain immigrant groups, like the Italians, men would often come first, get a job, earn money, and then send for their wives and children. Or older children in a family would come first and prepare the way. Many Irish girls went to America and then saved money to bring their siblings over. Some immigrants had uncles waiting to help them get a good start. I’m sure many people have stories in their families about reunions at Ellis Island and other immigrant stations. At Ellis Island, in the room where folks rejoined their families, there was a pillar referred to as “The Kissing Post” because so many loved ones had been reunited there.
They came not to stay.
This was particularly true of some Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. They brought no family, sent for no one, and came over just to work and save enough money to buy their own businesses or farms back in their native country. This was the time of the Industrial Revolution. They built the railroads, worked in mines, built the skyscrapers. America needed workers. These immigrants put up with squalid living conditions so that they could hoard as much as they could to send home to their families and to invest in businesses.
This is not a story you hear very often when you look at those tenement pictures. I’m not saying everyone who came chose that kind of life, but some did. Many used the Land of Opportunity to get a better financial footing back home. However, there were some who had planned to stay temporarily but ended up never going back.
What stories have you heard? Why did your ancestors immigrate?
Conversations That Matter
No, not politics or even religion. Not currently, anyway. Holidays are often the only times we get extended family together, so you should take advantage of the opportunity to build the story of your family’s heritage and then preserve it. Here are some things you definitely should talk about.
You did not all grow up at the same time. At least I’m assuming you’ll have multiple generations present, as most people do. Did you always have turkey? Were there Thanksgiving services at the church? When did everyone start watching football? Prompting with just a few questions can ignite some stories that might have otherwise been lost.
Who Was Invited to the Dinner?
Was there a kids table? Did you ever invite the neighbors? Who was the most unique guest you’ve ever had at your table? Were there special events this time of year that encouraged generosity? Has anyone ever been on the receiving end of someone’s act of good will? Asking questions like these will give younger generations a picture of the family’s hospitality and perhaps encourage them to continue the practice.
Have You Ever Tried to Cook a Frozen Turkey?
I imagine every family has had some Thanksgiving cooking disaster. Confessing these might be humorous. On the other hand, these stories might help to show that no one’s perfect and mishaps in life happen to us all. It’s the journey that’s important.
Record the Stories
These are just a few ideas to get the ball rolling, but when people start talking be sure to either write down the stories or record them on video. The time will come when seats are empty at your table. Save those stories while you can. For more ideas on conversation starters, see this article from Family Tree Magazine.
Recently on Twitter I saw this picture:
American Politics Abroad
And it immediately reminded me how many people we met while in Ireland who asked about how we felt about the Clintons or about Obama or Bush. They wanted to know how Americans felt, and I quite honestly said that I didn’t feel right speaking for all Americans. Perhaps it’s the size difference in countries or how they view politics. I just didn’t understand it. So, when I saw this, I posted a response saying how I didn’t understand why other countries jump into our politics.
Maybe I should have worded it differently. Maybe it sounded snooty. I meant it literally. I didn’t say this but looking at that tweet I wondered… “their” candidate? As I said, I don’t get it. And for me, I dread the upcoming election. I’m tired of politicians and their games. Why would you want to get into this when you didn’t have to? (I know lots of people are politically active. No criticism intended.)
And then I got this:
Woo. I tried to keep the conversation going, saying, no, I am puzzled. But David, it seemed, was finished. I’d been judged.
To Whom Does a Country Belong?To Whom Does a Country Belong? Click To Tweet
And of course, this got me thinking some more. I have never claimed to be anything but American. We know because of a current ethnic denial that the public looks down on this sort of thing, for the most part. I know I’m American. My research has shown my family has been in America long before we were even a country, about 150 years before in one line. Sometimes at book signings people ask me if I’m Irish and I reply that I have Irish roots way back.How do you define your ethnic connection? Does it matter? Author Cindy Thomson discusses on her blog. Click To Tweet
So why write about a country that you personally are not from? Well, if I wrote about Kansas, where I was born, I wouldn’t know much about it. I only lived there the first three months of my life. I haven’t done the research. But I have researched Ireland because of my genealogy search and just because it interests me, greatly. Is that wrong? I never thought so. I still don’t. David on Twitter was just spouting off. I’ve met plenty of people from Ireland who seem to appreciate my work. My first two Irish books were published by a British publisher. They didn’t mind I was American. If you research, you can write about any country in the world, and in fact, by doing so you help enlighten the people in your own country, who will be primarily the ones who read your stuff anyway.
I have a friend who lives in Northern Ireland. Most of his writing is about Americans with Irish roots. He has traced their history here, and he knows a lot about it, more than most Americans know. He is writing often about his kin, those who left Ireland and came here, and I am doing just the opposite when I trace my line from here back there.
America is a Melting Pot That Some Want to Deny
A few months ago I was scolded by a Scottish man for claiming a connection to Scotland (He might have had too much whiskey because his posts consisted of scattered thoughts.) Well, it’s a historical fact that at least one of my ancestors was born in Scotland, moved to Ireland, and then on to America. I do have a Scottish connection, whether he liked it or not. (You can search for his comments here on this blog if you’re interested. I’m not going to link to it because….well, it was just silly.)
Here is where I think the misunderstanding comes from. The United States is by and large a country of immigrants. And as such, we identify with many other countries. In contrast, those whose families have lived in an area for many generations, as far back as can be remembered, identify themselves as wholly that–Irish, Scottish, French, German or wherever they’re from…and some of them have a strong dislike for Americans who seem to want to say they are one of them. They aren’t at all, in their minds. I’m all for pride in one’s heritage, but I think that’s taking it a bit too far.
To be fair these people who pop up on Twitter or Facebook or even this blog are few compared to those who are welcoming, helpful, and interested in the stories from Americans about those who immigrated. I’m thankful for that. It helps lead to understanding and peace, no matter their political preference.
What do you think?
You would be surprised how many times people ask me that question. Well, maybe you aren’t surprised. Maybe you would ask it yourself because you are curious how an author decides what to write about. Fair enough. But it surprises me because…why wouldn’t I? Ellis Island is iconic. Immigrants to the island passed by The Statue of Liberty and thought about what it would mean to live in America. It’s American pride in our heritage, in the struggles our ancestors endured to come here.
I Am Not From This Tradition
So far as I have been able to research, I have no roots coming through Ellis Island. The first line in which I was able to trace an immigrant ancestor marked his immigration from Ireland as coming in 1771. Ellis Island opened in 1892. The next line I traced back to the Massachusetts Bay Company. He came over from Wales around 1640. I’ve also been told of a possible connection to the Mayflower. There are more lines to trace but it seems pretty obvious I’m not going to find an Ellis Island ancestor.
So this answers another question I often get. Grace and Annie and Sofia–the main characters of my books in the Ellis Island series–are not based on my ancestors. So, why write about Ellis Island? I believe those immigrants, the ones who came over during the late 19th century and early 20th century, contributed greatly to the world we live in today and I wanted to honor their sacrifices by helping people to remember.
They Built America
The railroads, the Industrial Revolution, modern roadways, the Unions, Women’s Rights, motion pictures, subways…I could go on forever but most of these things were built and created and invented by Ellis Island immigrants or by those who came in the decades right before the immigration center was built. So, they are a part of all of America, a part of the past of all of us.
New York City History
Another answer is the fascinating history of that era in New York. It was definitely something I was interested in. The vast divide between the poor and the rich. The corruption of the police department. The fledging publishing industry. The melting pot of first and second generation immigrants. Sofia’s Tune will end this series, and I’ll feel a little sad to let it go. I’ll probably be reading other novels set in that era and continue to think about those Hawkins House girls.
Are you interested in Ellis Island? Tell me why. 🙂
This Book Made Me Think
A novelist gets caught up in her fictional world. That’s not unusual, believe me. But in this story these are her ancestors and she begins to realize their memories have been passed down to her. There is some mention of “genetic memory” and the possibility that DNA, something we don’t completely understand, could also pass down memories.
I don’t know anything about Assassins Creed. It’s a video game and apparently uses this concept as well, but here is a fun summary of what this genetic memory in our DNA is about.
We talk all the time about inheriting traits, saying certain things are in our blood. But this goes a bit further, suggesting that genes might have more influence than we thought. Sure, we will learn skills and have opinions and phobias based on how we were raised, but what if a memory was impressed into our DNA that has nothing to do with our experience? It’s fascinating to think about.
Ancestors’ MemoriesHave you ever thought about memories being passed down through DNA? Click To Tweet
One of the things I really enjoy about the series Who Do You Think You Are is when the subject of the show realizes that something they know about themselves was evident in previous generations. If they have leadership qualities, it is gratifying to find out an ancestor was a senator or led a woman’s suffrage movement. If someone likes music, how cool to find out an ancestor was the church organist or started a music school. Perhaps, if they are a strong believer in social justice, they find out something about an ancestor that helps explain that strong belief.
Passing it Forward
I’m not sure what science will reveal about DNA and genetic memory in the future, but I think it’s clear today–to those who pay attention–that important traits, strengths, beliefs, are passed down. What do you think?
This article first appeared in Discovering Family History Magazine, July/August 2008. No copying without the author’s permission is permitted.
Scientists say that smell is the sense most tied to memory, and , of course, taste is linked. Think of your strongest childhood memories. Pancakes at Grandma’s? A hotdog at a baseball game? The smell of popcorn at a movie theater? The grape Popsicle you had after the doctor gave you stitches? We have such powerful memories tied to what we eat and drink, so it’s logical that our ancestors did also. Many people preserved their recipes and handed them down. Food, like many other factors of everyday life, helps to define people. Discovering family recipes is one way to find out who our ancestors were both economically and socially.
If You Don’t Have the Family Cookbook
If you don’t have a cookbook lovingly handed down to you, there are still ways to learn about what your ancestors ate. Once you find the recipes, you might even want to recreate some of them for a full sensory experience. At the Family Web Cafe, at http://www.familywebcafe.com, you can try some ethnic recipes.
Examples of Ethnic Foods to Try
Irish? Try shepherd’s pie with ground beef, mashed potatoes and cheese. Greek? Souvlaki might satisfy with its marinated meat, Greek olives and feta cheese. Those with Italian ancestry might like to try their hand at making stromboli. Can’t you just smell those amazing dishes right now?
Finding Historical Cookbooks
Early settlers to North America may have brought ingredients and recipes with them, but these were soon adapted to the food supply at hand. Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project. at http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/, is one source for finding these recipes. The project, run by Michigan State University, is an online collection of cookbooks dating from the late 18th century to the early 20th century. The advanced search allows you to find regional and ethnic recipes. Click on “Browse the Collection”, then “By Interest”. Chances are, if your ancestors lived in the same region where these recipes came from, they ate similar things.
What Food Can Tell You
You can learn about the manners, customs and domestic arts of a group of people just by reading a few of these books. For instance, in Mary At the Farm and Book of Recipes Complied During Her Visit Among the “Pennsylvania Germans’, by Edith M. Thomas, you can learn how to preserve yellow ground cherries, make shoo-fly pie, brod knodel and other culinary delights. The book is written in narrative form and gives good insight into the everyday life of the Pennsylvania Dutch. In The Great Western Cook Book, or Table Receipts, Adapted to Western Housewifery by Angelina Maria Collins you can learn how to make veal in “western fashion” and apple pie in a pot.
But these cookbooks offer more than just recipes. There is a discussion in Mary At the Farm about women’s suffrage, both from an older woman’s view who saw no need for women to vote, and from a younger woman’s view who thought it was essential. In Estelle Woods Wilcox’s Buckeye Cookery, And Practical Housekeeping: Complied From Original Recipes, you can learn how to soften well water for washing clothes by using ashes. You never know what you’ll find in these “cookbooks”!
A search in your local library may turn up some interesting cookbooks, both regionally and nationally distributed. Sometimes the old cookbooks are reprinted and historical matter is inserted. Often cookbooks are compiled as fundraisers for churches and other groups.
Preserving Your Own Family Recipes
While you’re digging around for recipes from past generations, don’t forget to preserve those you already have. Here is a great resource to help you with cookbook publishing: [Link from the article is broken. Perhaps you’d like to share one?]
With the popularity of microwave dinners and fast food, some of these family recipes, and the great memories that accompany them, might be lost if you don’t record them. Chances are the smell and taste of bite-sized pizzas will not be memorable enough to evoke emotions the way Christmas plum pudding or fresh baked Johnny Cakes can.
All Saints Sunday
Yesterday the church calendar marked All Saints Day. I remember it growing up as a day when my church would read the names of all the members who have passed away and toll a bell with each name. (I don’t think my current church does that, but many traditional observances seem to be falling away.)
It was a somber tradition, as all moments of remembrance tend to be. It was an observance I never cared for. Too sad. But it’s not truly meant to be depressing. Remembering and honoring are important things to do if we are to realize our place in this world.
The Communion of Saints
Another tradition that is often overlooked is the practice of reciting in a corporate manner, what we as Christian people of the church believe. Spot the word “saints” below:
The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
The communion of saints. There is the Lord’s Supper, which is called Communion, but I think this refers to Webster’s definition: an act or instance of sharing. Believers are called saints, both those living and deceased. All Saints Day is a communion, a sharing. A bond between those who are together in Christ.
Saints Leading the Way
We celebrate today the solemnity of All Saints. This invites us to turn our gaze to the immense multitude of those who have already reached the blessed land, and points us on the path that will lead us to that destination.
Pope John Paul II, All Saints’ Day 2003
“Points us on the path.”–That’s something that has resonated with me ever since I started writing. When you think of the numbers of people who have lived on the earth before us, you have to believe they learned a thing or two about going through life that we could benefit from. Thankfully, many taught and wrote and passed that legacy down to us.
Who is a saint (well known or not) that you have learned from?