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?
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. 🙂
It happens far more often in the publishing industry than you might think. At first I was crushed, but it happened a few years ago and I’ve recovered. 😉
It was a business decision, but one that I felt was unfair to readers who liked the series and wanted to see it wrapped up. Grace’s Pictures was hailed by Library Journal as,
“…a delightful story of overcoming obstacles. Lynn N. Austin fans will savor this historical fiction series debut.”
Grace’s Pictures at this writing has received 143 customer reviews on Amazon, nearly half 5 stars.
Annie’s Stories was a 2014 Lime Award Nominee from the Christian Manifesto and Romantic Times gave it a 4-star review. And on Amazon 88% of reviewers gave it four or five stars.
Diane on Amazon wrote:
“If you enjoy historical fiction and Christian fiction, Annie’s Stories is a must-read for you. I felt like I was catching up with old friends, and made some new ones that I hope to meet up with again the near future.”
So Why Was the Book Canceled?
Low sales. That is the bottom line. And in this market it is hard to get noticed. I don’t blame my publisher at all for the low sales. They marketed and got it reviewed all over. In fact, I received the most publisher support with these two books than I’ve ever had in my publishing career. Besides low sales, Christian publishers are publishing fewer historical titles these days, and bigger selling authors have become available when their publishers shut down or cut back.
I don’t blame myself either. I worked really hard to get the word out there. In fact, I don’t blame anyone! It’s just the way it is.
Why This is Not as Bad as it Sounds!
Authors have many more options these days. I’m going to publish Sofia’s Tune myself. BUT, having experienced superior editing and outstanding cover design, I will not be content to do a quick and inferior job. And it takes money to publish a great quality book. So I decided to see if readers would like to help with this effort, and I got a great response on Pubslush. I’m continuing the campaign here on my web site until I send the book off to an editor and a cover designer. Here is how you can be a part for as little as $5.
How many of us have remarked that we wished for a time machine. We have to see and experience things ourselves to truly understand them. But since that’s not possible, we can do the next best thing (something I always try to do when writing historical fiction) and read the words and thoughts of those who lived before us. There are a few ways to accomplish this.
Read Their Words
There is nothing like a diary or journal to get into the mindset of the people of the past. Did you know John Adams kept a diary? Here is a fascinating list of online historical diaries. There are slave narratives (audio believe it or not) on the National Archives web site.
You can find more at local historical societies and libraries. Sometimes they are hard to read but worth the effort. My husband found a hand-written genealogy written in 1888 by one of his relatives. It’s not just a genealogy, though. It has memories and stories that relatives told as well, including one man who was a chaplain in the Union army and accompanied the troops on Sherman’s march to the sea. It has remembrances about how one man’s mother was distressed when he joined a different church until a pastor set the mother straight, and even one interesting story about a trip to a fortune teller.
Live in Their Society
Nothing beats contemporary newspapers for learning about the world our ancestors lived in. Of course you can look for names and dates, but to get a feel for how they lived their lives and what events influenced them, read newspapers and magazines. The magazines often contained serial fiction that later was put into books that you’ve probably heard of. In my novel Annie’s Stories I talk about Harper’s doing this, and you can even read some issues online here. For historical newspapers look here.
There are many sites where you can find old photographs, and just doing a Google search will bring up many. If you’ve ever seen photographs of immigrants at Ellis Island, you’ve probably seen Augustus Sherman’s photographs. He makes a cameo appearance in my novel Grace’s Pictures. I love to study the expressions, but you can also learn a lot from the clothing (were they rich or poor?) and even from the setting (in a studio, at home, outside?) Those Ellis Island photographs often depict people in their native garb, something they may have quickly discarded once they stepped foot in Battery Park when relatives met them with more American clothing (so they wouldn’t stand out.)
These are just a few things that help me go back in time. What other ideas do you have?
The Melting Pot
Once when I was at a bed and breakfast in Ireland sitting at a table with folks from other countries, a German photographer noted that while both America and Canada are populated by immigrants, America is different. He didn’t quite say what he meant by that because the conversation drifted to 9-11 and Obama and other subjects that non Americans seem to want to hear about from Americans. While I didn’t ponder further at the time about why Canadians and Americans are different (I’ve met many Canadians and don’t consider them THAT different from me, eh?) I did think about living in a land of immigrants. I wonder if that’s why genealogy is such a popular hobby. Everyone seems to want to get back to their “immigrant ancestor”–the one who came over.
How Did We End up in America?
Well, I was born here, but only because my ancestors came over. There is some rumor about a bit of Cherokee blood, but mostly I believe I’m of Celtic descent. Really must do a DNA test sometime. Have you done one? (Please share in the comments.)
There are several reasons our ancestors might have come over, not to mention the different time periods when North America saw waves of immigrants. I’ve written a lot about Ellis Island immigrants because of the setting of my latest novels. My ancestors, however, came over earlier. One branch came from Ireland right before the Revolutionary War. There were several periods of Scots-Irish immigration in the 18th century. I wrote about that here. Of course many people can trace their Irish ancestors to the middle of the 19th century and the Potato Famine. I recently found another branch on my tree that came over
much, much earlier, in the 1680’s from Wales. Once you know when your ancestors came over, you can probably determine why just by looking at history. They didn’t come over on a fluke. They were driven by famine, crop failures, and political unrest. Some, like many Italian immigrants, came to seek their fortune and then go back home. (Some stayed on even though it wasn’t their initial intent.) Once you hear these stories, you’ll better appreciate how they paved a way for you.
Why Keeping the Culture Alive is so Important to Us
For Americans, it’s always been important to celebrate the culture from our mother country. Festivals and feast days, ethnic neighborhoods, food, dance, song, stories….
I have attended several Irish festivals to promote my books. Groups from Ireland, especially Northern Ireland and the Saint Patrick Centre–say they have nothing quite like this at home. They have attended these festivals and encouraged tourists to come visit them. It worked on me!
Get Involved in Preserving Culture
There are so many clubs, cultural organizations, genealogical societies, and groups I haven’t even thought of where you can get in touch with your roots. I think that’s mainly an American thing. Correct me if I’m wrong. But our roots are shallow in this country, so I think it’s only natural that we seek our immigrant ancestors.
What groups are you involved in?
I’m looking for your thoughts about what you’d like to see (or not see) in book three of the Ellis Island Series, Sofia’s Tune. No promises, but I might be influenced by what you all say! After all, these books are for YOU! And those of you who’ve read the first two books probably have some great ideas. Now’s your chance to share them!
This poll only lasts a week, so please chime in and send your reading friends over!
Being a former teacher, I like to ponder how readers might be prompted to learn more about history after reading my Ellis Island Series. I’ve added to my “Teaching History” page. Check it out and let me know if you have more ideas!
If you are on Twitter, you can help let others know about this resource by copying the text below:
Stories have been passed down through the years about the horrors immigrants experienced at Ellis Island. The truth is, most passed through quickly without problems. That had to be the case when you think about how many passengers were processed through the country’s largest immigration station at the time. Those who could not pass the health checks were treated, either on the ship or after it was built in the Ellis Island hospital. For an excellent fiction portrayal of the Ellis Island hospital, see Susan Meissner’s A Fall of Marigolds.
But this doesn’t mean the health checks were pleasant. As my characters in Annie’s Stories explain, the eye examination for trachoma, while quick, was traumatic for many. In their hurry to complete inspections as quickly as possible and process thousands of immigrants each day, the Ellis Island doctors peeled back each person’s eyelids to examine them. A buttonhook was the instrument of choice to do this. What’s a buttonhook? We don’t use them today, but during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, buttonhooks were a common tool for fastening shoes.
Trachoma is a highly contagious eye disease that causes scarring under the upper eyelid but another sign is redness of the white part of the eye, which I imagine is also what the doctors looked for. I can only hope the doctors disinfected those buttonhooks after each inspection! Continued exposure to trachoma, or conjunctivitis, can lead to blindness, so it was understandably a dreaded disease at the time. If you saw Bob Costas during last winter’s Olympics, can you imagine him being subjected to an inspection with a buttonhook? Yikes!
If you have ancestors who came through Ellis Island, consider donating. If the organization doesn’t get enough donations they’ll have to charge for what is now free access to the records. Pass this on to your family and friends.