Category Archives: Immigration experience

Why I Chose to Write About Ellis Island

Ellis Island, Grace's PicturesYou 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.

Cindy Thomson's Ellis Island Series

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

Serbian ImmigrantsThe 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

1900s ManhattanAnother 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. 🙂

C’mon People Now, Smile on Your Brother

In light of being called a bigot for writing about the Scots Irish, I decided to reflect on the attitude held by some of those whose ancestors never left the homeland toward those of us living in the immigrant melting pot called America.

Students at Ellis IslandLabeling our Ancestry

If your ancestors have lived in a country or region for hundreds of years, you might feel a sense of pride in your heritage. You might resent others who claim that heritage but who were never born in your country, but if you do, you are surely short-sighted, or at least, uninformed. America was populated for the most part by people who came from other countries. Some recently, but many from the 18th century to the massive immigration period of the 19th century. That means we have a short past on the North American continent and are likely to identify with the countries from which our ancestors came. Immigrants

Some like to call themselves Irish, English, Italian, or whatever, but what they really mean is they have roots in those countries. If they themselves were born in America, they are American. They might say they are Irish-American, African-American, or Chinese-American, but if they do, they are only referring to the land where their ancestors were born. This is not meant to defame any native born people. I wish people would not take offense. (Personally, I only say I’m American or sometimes American with Irish roots, or Scots-Irish roots, or Welsh roots, because I can positively trace my ancestors to those countries.)

What This Labeling Really Means

Irish famine immigrantsIt means we appreciate the sacrifices those ancestors made. It means we respect their decision and we understand how much they missed the land of their birth. But perhaps even more important, it means we recognize there was family left behind. Sometimes we long to reconnect what our ancestor was forced to sever, even if we can only do it in a small way.

This sums that up so well: Letter to My Irish Ancestor

What the Labeling Does NOT Mean

Flag of the 89th OVI Civil WarIt does not mean we aren’t proud to be Americans. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that. Ever. We live in the land of the home and the brave, the land so many people come to to seek freedom, the country so many people today depend upon to protect democracy or to bring humanitarian relief all over the world.

American Flag

Lee Coursey

We ARE Americans, first and foremost. But to ignore where our ancestors came from would be to ignore part of ourselves. Some do, of course. They are not interested in genealogy. But many, many others care very much.

We Are Family

Truly the entire human race is connected somewhere along the way. Who can truly say he/she is native? People have moved about since the beginning of time. Can anyone truly hold on to his/her ancestry and say it only belongs to those currently living in a particular country? I don’t think so. And if you think so, I say let’s compare DNA. Let’s start living as though we are all long-lost cousins, because in fact, we are.81fa7-congregationpast350

That’s my view.

Living in a Land of Immigrants

Immigrants--author Cindy Thomson

Scottish immigrants at Ellis Island

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

Immigrants--author Cindy Thomson

Irish famine cottage eviction

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!

Dir of Saint Patrick Centre Tim Campbell with Author Cindy Thomson

With Tim Campbell, Director of the Saint Patrick Centre at Milwaukee Irish Festival in 2007.

Tim Campbell, Dir of Saint Patrick Centre with Author Cindy Thomson

With Tim Campbell at the Saint Patrick Centre, Downpatrick, Co Down, in 2010.

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.

Celebrating Culture--author Cindy Thomson

San José Library via Flickr

What groups are you involved in?

Health Checks on Ellis Island

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.

https://www.etsy.com/listing/67884778/vintage-childrens-button-leather-shoes?ref=market

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!

I doubt many immigrants, however, were traumatized for good because of this inspection. They may not have forgotten it, though.

Stepping into the Immigrant’s Shoes

This documentary clip does an excellent job of giving you the feeling of having stepped into the immigrant’s shoes as he or she comes through Ellis Island. You can hear their words and see what they would have seen (although in black and white.) I thought it was powerful so I wanted to share it with you. Enjoy!