What’s Your Family’s Immigration Story?

Most Americans have many family immigration stories. Those of us who are second or more generations Americans have ancestors who left their homelands under unimaginable harsh circumstances but passed on few personal records to tell their story. The typical immigrant was far too busy to keep a journal, and their descendants may have discarded the once treasured naturalization or foreign birth records.

My grandfather’s naturalization records found in the National Archives

Today, Americans whose ancestors came more than a hundred years ago might consider them as the privileged ones, but these immigrant stories are just as dramatic as modern-day people who cross America’s borders illegally or wait years until their visas are approved.  The immigrants from long ago didn’t just hop off the boat and get on with their lives. Their situation was often more desperate, and they often sacrificed much more.

My ancestral immigrants were quite a varied group: a Mayflower pilgrim, scores of Puritans from the 1600’s, Swedish great-grandparents in 1892, and then my Polish grandparents in 1906-1908. Only a few of my more elite Puritan ancestors were people of privilege, but the wealthier ones returned to England for political reasons. Emanuel and Lucy Downing chose to follow Sir George Downing, their illustrious scoundrel of a son back to England. Another ancestor, William Pynchon, was a minister accused of heresy who fled back to the relative safety of England. Puritans were welcoming as long as you agreed with their religious views.

These white Europeans were the first to immigrate to the colonies, but historians point out that many subsequent European immigrants were persecuted and discriminated against depending on their ethnic and country background. After the First World War, America established quotas giving preference to northern and western Europeans. Those who came from central and southern Europe were in effect not welcome, leading to great injustice during the rise of the Nazis when the most vulnerable and persecuted were unable to immigrate.  In my Polish family, the three eldest siblings, including my grandfather, immigrated to America before 1915. Their younger siblings were not allowed to join them in America when the door was closed after WWI. They were doomed to stay behind to be victimized during the Nazi occupation and then were forced to live behind the Iron Curtain.

House similar to the ones of my great grandparents in Poland during the WWII

My Mayflower pilgrim ancestor, Richard Warren and my Puritan ancestors probably experienced the greatest hardships. The Pilgrims first escaped from England to the more tolerant Holland for over ten years. Even the unfortunate timing of the Mayflower sailing was in part due to these separatists’ status as outlaws by the English authorities. The trip was treacherous, and half of the Mayflower passengers died of disease and illness that first year.

Richard Warren’s Home reconstructed at Plymouth Plantation, Massachusetts

In the 1630’s, the Puritans, like many modern-day immigrants, were greeted by the natives who worried about the changes to their culture and land ownership. Constant worry from the frequent Indian attacks lead to a period of great civil unrest. The deadliest war in all of American history was the King Philip’s War in 1675-76 (King Philip was a Native American chief) when approximately 800 English settlers died. Measured against the total population of New England, the death rate was nearly twice that of America’s most costly war, the American Civil War.

The early colonial immigrants came with a glimmer of hope, but most of them were not wealthy Puritans, but indentured servants. Between one-half and two-thirds of all immigrants during the colonial migration were people who agreed to work for about seven years in return for their passage. Some more unfortunates were either prisoners of the Crown or men captured by pirates who sold their indenture to wealthy New Englanders. Although not slaves, they had no rights and their lives were often very harsh.

America welcomed immigrants during its earliest years because the country’s rapid expansion produced the need for manual laborers before the Industrial Revolution. After a month-long ocean journey, the immigrants relied mostly on the supplies and money they brought along. There was no government assistance offered, but these people understood they could only rely on their own resources and willingness to work in the most menial of tasks.

The states controlled immigration until the federal government passed its first significant legislation aimed at restricting Chinese labors. Californians had agitated for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 blaming the Chinese for the decline in wages. Like many of our recent immigrants, the Chinese were willing to work for less pay.

In the late 1800’s the Federal government began to exert control over the ever-increasing influx of newcomers. Castle Garden in New York Harbor was the official immigration station until Ellis Island opened in 1892.

Augusta, my Swedish great-grandmother, was one of the first immigrants to be processed at Ellis Island. Her husband Carl came through Castle Island in 1891.

Legal Proceedings at Ellis Island

Sweden was experiencing difficult times in the Halland region in the late 1800’s, and many young people and families experienced the push out of their homeland and the pull to America.  In Sweden, improved health and not being at war for over two hundred years created an environment that resulted in a population explosion with little opportunity for young people to inherit good farming land.  Letters from families in the new country described the opportunities of not only free but rich land for farming.   Some information from America was grossly exaggerated, describing the weather and climate in Minnesota and Wisconsin as “never too hot or too cold.”

My Polish grandparents were among the more desperate immigrants in the early 1900’s. Both were the oldest child from a large family but had slightly different personal motivations for leaving. My grandfather was assigned the task of being the first in his family to leave Niwiska in Galicia, one of the poorest regions in all of Europe. He settled in a Polish neighborhood in Cleveland, and local Poles assisted him in getting a menial job.

My grandmother did not want to leave Niwiska, but her family was starving, so she was unofficially indentured to a Jewish family who paid her passage. She worked as their maid and cook in America. The family in Poland told me the story of how fourteen-year-old Marya, who had never attended school, cried for weeks as she traveled alone across the Atlantic Ocean to her new homeland.

Both of my Polish grandparents came to make life better for their destitute families left behind in Poland. From the day they entered America to the day they died, their purpose for immigration was clear. The money sewn into the linings of coats, medicine, and other items sustained the family through two world wars, the worldwide depression, and their decades behind the Iron Curtain. Thirteen families were kept afloat by my grandparents’ twice a year gift of $5 to each home. My Polish cousins were shocked to learn that my grandfather was a floor sweeper at a steel mill in 1940. They thought he was a well-off American.

V2 Missile at Blizna ready to be launched over the house of my great grandmother during WWII

All of my ancestors came to America for different reasons, but all left a legacy of which I can be proud. They applied for citizenship as soon as they qualified and were patriotic Americans who sent their sons to fight in each war. My ancestors found a way to come here legally, each in accordance with the laws of that time. The thought that our government should be required to help them in any way would have been viewed as ludicrous. They were given the privilege to immigrate to America, the one country that offered more opportunity than any other on the face of the earth, and that promise was counted as a blessing.

One thought on “What’s Your Family’s Immigration Story?

  1. Loved reading this Donna. Can’t wait for more. Just learning now about our grandfathers, yours the elder and mine his junior. Their picture together in the wedding party haunts my memory. Mike next to Mary, a young couple and Frank, his younger brother about 13 or 14 in the back of the picture.
    In the front of the picture, my great grandmother, a young widow with her two young children, my grandmother to be just a two year old . All these stories put their life in clearer perspective for us. We do not know how good we have it these days.


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