Several years ago I spent a lot of time trying to uncover my family history, about which I knew almost nothing. I learned a lot, not just about my forebears but about the history of this country, how and why my people came here and what they endured. Once you do this, you tend to take a bit longer view of some of the issues of the day and to discover you are a lot more connected to the warp and woof of America than you might have supposed.
For example, I recently watched an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” in which TV host Tom Bergeron learned about his French-Canadian ancestors. They arrived on this continent almost 400 years ago. This was a familiar story to me since my maternal grandfather came from the same people. Indeed, I have one of those Bergerons in the family – Madeleine, born in France 1616, died in Quebec 1686. Small world.
The history that family history teaches was also on my mind because I have just read Joan Didion’s 2003 book, “Where I Was From,” which uses the myths she learned about her family’s history as a jumping off place to discuss the rather different reality she discovered as an adult about the California in which she was raised.
American history is certainly not what any of us learned in school, particularly at the shoe leather level of our workaday ancestors. A few instances from my own family provide a little gloss on what is apparently, to hear the candidates tell it, the most important issue facing the country — immigration.
First, we are all immigrants since no humans at all roamed the hemisphere prior to the ice age land bridge from Asia. Many of our ancestors were the unpopular immigrants of their day. The mastodons didn’t care for the first native-Americans, and they obviously felt about the Conquistadores and the Puritans the way we are now encouraged to feel about Hispanic fruit pickers and turbaned Sikh software engineers.
Many of my wife’s people were the Scots-Irish who were regarded as trash and heretics in the northern colonies when they began appearing in huge numbers in the first half of the eighteenth century. The Puritans made them unwelcome in New England on account of their Presbyterianism. They were Calvinist, but not Calvinist enough to suit those austere folks.
My people include Quaker and Baptist dissenters who were also made unwelcome in Massachusetts. In some cases people from those sects who refused to leave were burned. My people got the message and decamped to Rhode Island, Connecticut and eventually New Jersey. The last, anxious to attract English settlers to keep the Dutch hegemony in New York from expanding, offered cheap land and freedom of religion. Dissenters of all stripes moved on down.
The Scots-Irish fetched up in Pennsylvania which was more tolerant. The Quakers shrewdly calculated that they would be an asset if settled on the frontier as a buffer against hostile Indians. Unlike the Quakers, the Scots-Irish were far from being pacifists. They were a lot less popular with their German neighbors. I have ancestors among that group, and they tended to be neat, orderly, frugal farmers. The Scots-Irish, by contrast, tended to be a lot less tidy and a lot more roistering. The Germans hated them. For his part, no less a figure than Ben Franklin bemoaned the influx of the Germans since they were too stupid to learn English and unsuited by cultural experience to practice democratic government. But the Germans eventually proved smarter than Ben thought and assimilated.
The Scots-Irish moved down the Appalachians to conquer the backcountry south. Without them there might be no country music, NASCAR, barbecue and televangelists. Also perhaps no victory in the Revolution since they nursed a grudge against the Brits for mistreating them for centuries on the Scottish border and in Ulster. When the King’s soldiers showed up again, throwing their weight around, the Scots-Irish saddled up to whip them once and for all.
All of these people came to this country seeking opportunity of one sort or another. The freedom to practice their religion, to choose their path, to prosper economically. The last motivated my mother’s French-Canadian great-grandfather to leave Canada after 250 years. The rise of mechanized agribusiness on the plains made family farming in Quebec no longer viable. My people headed for the booming textile mills of New England in the 1880s. As usual, Americans who had arrived a few years earlier thought the newcomers had no business being there. But we’re still here.
Two generations later, my grandfather Joe who came from these people was living blocks from the industrial flats of Cleveland where the steel mills were going day and night. Though only a second generation American whose grandfather had spoken French, Joe was a man handy with an ethnic epithet for everyone he met in those politically incorrect days.
He found plenty of opportunity to use them.The census records for 1920 and 1930 show that the street where he lived was a mini-United Nations. In those years, following the greatest wave of immigration in our history, the census takers asked respondents in which country they had been born. The houses left, right and across the street from my mother’s childhood home were occupied by people born in the Irish Free State, Scotland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland, Russia, Bohemia, and on and on.
This country has always had people set on restricting access to those who arrived a little later than the supposedly superior people – i.e. them. But by now we are all mongrels, a hearty breed. Good enough to have made America grow, to man its farms and mines and mills, to pioneer westward, fight our wars, build our cities, and invent its future. Our varied roots have produced the hybrid American family tree. Long may it bear diverse fruit. Let he who is without immigrant ancestors cast the first aspersion.