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Giving Thanks for Our Immigrant Ancestors

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Did your ancestors participate in the very first Thanksgiving?  Tough to tell. Very few of us can trace our lines to those early immigrants.  We can, however, appreciate what our own ancestors did to come to this land, and why they made those choices.  Thanksgiving isn’t just about Pilgrim stories, its also about those who brought their own families here over the generations.

What is Your Immigrant Story?

Let’s take some time to appreciate our immigrant history, and ask questions or research their stories.  Ask yourself:

  • Did your ancestors come because of religious persecution?  To avoid war?
  • Did they only intend on making a living and go back to the mother land, but never actually returned?
  • Did they come through Ellis Island, or even before that?
  • How did their American experience change their culture, customs, and names?
  • Does your family still carry on any customs from your immigrant ancestors’ lands?  Foods, language, holiday traditions?
  • Did they travel first class or steerage?  What was the difference?
  • What jobs did the ancestor take when they came?  What challenges did they face?

How Can I Research My Immigrant Family?

Here are some tips to starting a research project on discovering your immigrant ancestor:

  • First, ask the family for stories – what have they heard?
  • Researching an immigrant from the 1900s is easier than researching one in the 1700s.  Start with later generations.
  • Do you really know where they came from?  Start with censuses.  For example, one census may say they were from Poland, another may say “Galicia.”  Poland was broken up into three parts in the mid-1800s and Polish immigrants from Galicia were on the Russian-controlled side.  Research the history of the lands for better insights.
  • Death records may give more information on birthplaces. Check the death records for their children too.
  • Church records sometimes state the place your ancestor “removed” from when they came to that congregation.  Which churches were closest to where they lived for their denomination?
  • Check for cemetery headstones – they may have specific birthplaces or symbols that indicate origin.
  • Did they naturalize?  When did they arrive?  The 1900 census asks those questions, and some others ask related questions.  The dates given were sometimes  incorrect, but it gives an idea of where to start.
  • They may have petitioned for naturalization in a local county court or in federal court.  Check both.
  • Many websites give information on a particular culture or immigrant group.  A good link to these is on Cyndi’s List and the FamilySearch Wiki.

Above all, spend some time this Thanksgiving holiday thinking about our ancestors who made the brave journey to America. Take the opportunity of  quality time with your relatives to discuss the family lore and uncover new stories about your past. If you learn something exciting, let us know!

A Rocking Thanksgiving

The earthquake that hit the East Coast in the summer of 2011 took me back 60 years.

It was San Francisco in the late 1950’s, and I was six. These were carefree and glorious times.  These were the days of flying a homemade kite with a tail made of cotton rags, of spur-of-the-moment hula-hoop contests with the neighbor kids and roller-skating on the front driveway and the accompanied skinned knees.

On Wednesday, November 25, 1958, San Francisco was hit by a powerful earthquake. Though I was a child, I remember it like it was yesterday.  I was at home at the time. Out-of-town family had already begun to arrive for the Thanksgiving festivities. My grandmother and great grandmother were at home, getting ready.

When the shaking began, I was sitting on the toilet (of all places!), wondering to my young self what in the world was happening.  All of a sudden, my grandmother burst through the bathroom door, pulled up my pants and hustled me towards the front door of our house.   In the process she grabbed her mother.  My grandmother obviously had experienced earthquakes prior to this one. Before flying through the front door with us in tow, she passed the tall wooden liquor cabinet and reaching in, grabbed a large bottle of aged Irish whiskey.

I don’t think I had ever seen my grandmother move so fast!  The next thing I knew we were all standing in the middle of the street staring at the front of our house.  I remember thinking to myself, ‘how strange it was to be standing in the middle of the street when I was so frequently told not to go out in to the street.’

Well, we lost our chimney in that quake and a lot of dishes were broken, too.  But gladly we all survived without a scrape.  I still wonder, as I did then, about my grandmother’s reasoning behind grabbing that large bottle of Irish whiskey. I don’t remember her drinking it, but maybe she did behind my back. Anything to calm the nerves!

So when the earthquake struck in August 2011, I knew exactly what to do. Take action, protect yourself and your loved ones, and drink up.

What are your memories of childhood? What events are stuck in your mind? The simpler times of youth, or the disasters that brought the family together? We’d love to hear your stories!

The Thanksgiving Feast: Food, family, and the future

Thanksgiving brings back plenty of fond memories: visiting with family, watching the Macy’s Day Parade on Thanksgiving morning, and playing football in the afternoon. And of course, everyone’s favorite:  eating the meal of all meals.  We all have our favorites – whether it is a honey roasted spiral cut ham or a Butterball Turkey.  Undoubtedly there will be a myriad of other dishes on the table as well.

Some of my favorites are my mother’s creamed pearl onions. Heavenly! It just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving unless those creamed onions were there at our feast. My two daughters wouldn’t be happy unless I have made my sweet potato casserole and huge tray of stuffed deviled eggs. My husband has a favorite, too. There must be a platter of asparagus with Hollandaise sauce on his side of the Thanksgiving table.

Did your mother or grandmother have special recipes that were unique to them? Here’s a sweet-tasting thought: Thanksgiving is a great time to put together a cookbook of family heirloom recipes so that these special delights will never be missing from your family’s Thanksgiving table.

Here’s mine, Lin’s Sweet Potato Casserole:
Cut six medium sweet potatoes, cooked and peeled, in ½-inch slices. Layer potatoes in buttered  1 ½ quart casserole with ¾ cup brown sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and ¼ cup butter, ending with sugar and butter.  Bake uncovered at 375 degrees about 30 minutes or till glazed.  Add ½ cup miniature marshmallows last five minutes; brown lightly.  Serves 6.

If you make it, let us know how it turns out.  Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Reel Tributes!

How Will You Celebrate the National Day of Listening?

Did you know that the day after Turkey Day is another holiday? Most people don’t know, but we’re here to let you in on a little (but big) secret, so listen up.

Friday, November 25, 2011 is the National Day of Listening. It is considered an “unofficial day of observance.” Americans are encouraged to record the stories of their families, friends, and local communities.  This special day was first launched by the national oral history project StoryCorps in 2008, to be a day set aside for reminiscing, story sharing and creating new memories. So while you’re recovering from the food coma and helping yourself to leftovers, bring the family together for some storytelling. Don’t know where to start? Our friends at AARP have put together a great list of “Story Starters” to give you a helping hand.

For more information about the National Day of Listening, please check out:
http://www.npr.org/series/120540199/storycorps-national-day-of-listening
or http://www.storycorps.org

Photo credit: AARP (Gary Hovland)