For me, migration patterns are one of the most fascinating elements of family history. So many of our European ancestors made trans-Atlantic migrations, enduring difficult journeys to arrive in North America and begin new lives among people whose culture and language were foreign. But there are other relocation stories I’ve discovered through my research, too. What prompts a shoemaker in Podlachia to move 150 miles away from his place of birth, and settle in a small village in Mazovia circa 1800? And why does a young girl working as a domestic servant in 1900, leave her job, home, and family in St. Catharines, Ontario, and move to Portland, Oregon? Financial considerations and work opportunities seem to be logical answers, but there are probably other, more personal answers as well. A sense of adventure? Love? A desire to escape difficult circumstances?
I’ve made moves like this myself, both actively and passively. My first home was on Grand Island, New York, but I have no memory of it. When I was about 2, my Dad took a new job and we moved a thousand miles away, to Omaha, Nebraska, where we lived for about a year, until he was transferred to another office in Cincinnati, Ohio. When I was 10, we moved back to Western New York, where I finished my schooling and obtained my bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo, before moving on to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. Primed by those early moves, I felt confident in my choice to move 2,600 miles across the country, and I remember the feeling of excitement as I stepped onto the airplane, bound for California, ready to claim my future. Did my ancestors share that sense of hope and eagerness, or were their moves made in a spirit of resignation, bitterness, or sorrow at what they were leaving behind? Certainly we sacrifice less today than they did, given the ease with which we can stay in touch with our loved ones via Skype, Zoom, and texting, not to mention airline travel.
Or do we? It seems that nowadays, our moves are more solitary. My then-fiancé, now husband came with me to California, also intending to obtain a graduate degree, but it was just the two of us there for five years. There was no chain migration, no steady flow of friends and family from Buffalo coming to join us in Berkeley and establish a new community there. When our oldest son was born, and I was an exhausted, anxious young mother, confronted with the reality that I didn’t know a thing about taking care of an infant, I didn’t have my mother or mother-in-law there to comfort and guide me. Despite their supportive phone calls, we were on our own.
I think that “big moves” of more than a few hundred miles help us understand and define ourselves. Living in California, Bruce and I discovered that our identity derived, in part, from our origins in Buffalo. Buffalonians are like an ethnic group, Bruce observed on one occasion, bound together by our shared experiences and common culture. Moving to a new place forces us to choose—whether consciously or not—the elements of our original culture that are preserved, and the elements that are left behind. Unable to last five years without Buffalo’s famed “beef on weck,” Bruce learned to make his own kummelweck rolls. Unable to find a good Polish deli locally, I ordered kiełbasa from Redliński’s Meats in the Broadway Market and paid an arm and a leg for shipping, despite our impoverished graduate student status, because it was unthinkable to not have kiełbasa for our Święconka celebration at Easter.
Although we chose to preserve these elements of our Buffalo culture, other elements were discarded. The Seven Churches Visitation on Holy Thursday is a lovely custom, but it’s not universally practiced in Catholic communities throughout the U.S., so it was absent from our family culture as we moved from California to Illinois to Massachusetts. Czarnina, or duck’s blood soup, which was popular in Western New York’s Polish community and a favorite of both our mothers, has been jettisoned from the family’s culinary legacy. Although I’m saddened by the fact that our family no longer speaks Polish or German, the languages of (most) of my ancestors, I’m guilty of making the same kinds of cultural choices, keeping what works and what we like, and letting go of the rest.
As family historians, our ability to understand our ancestors’ culture, history, and environment is often the key to breaking through brick walls. By studying their FANs (Friends, Associates and Neighbors), we gain insight into our ancestors’ motivation and thought process. Can’t find documentary evidence for great-great-grandpa’s hometown in Germany? See where his FANs came from. Can’t determine which port he sailed into? Even details such as specific travel routes were often repeated by immigrants from the same villages. In earlier times, people retained their social connections, recreating whole communities on the other side of an ocean. Today, not so much. Nowadays, when people move across the country or across the world in isolation, it can be harder to guess their motivation. Unless, of course, they write a genealogy blog.
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2020