What happened when our ancestors made that decision to leave the land where they were born and make a leap into the unknown? Patterns of migration can be traced to the historic events of those regions: famine, pogroms, wars, feelings of despair over the economic future. Even the earliest settlers of this land that would become the United States were escaping debt, imprisonment, or religious persecution.
My known ancestors came to the US from England, Ireland and Poland. They came with not much more than the clothes on their backs. What they left behind might be considered "shitholes."
Few immigrants traveled alone. Passenger manifests from the mid-1800s often show groups of young Irish men and women in their teens and twenties. They had few career aspirations, most calling themselves "laborers," or "domestics." Passage may have been paid by pooling the family's resources to send one to the "Land of Opportunity" where they might improve their lot.
Let's be clear: before immigration laws were enacted in the early 1900s people from foreign countries needed no visas, no papers, no legal permissions to enter the United States. The boat docked at a port and the immigrants freely disembarked. Where there were screenings, as long as the immigrants were not obviously spreading disease, as long as they professed not to be anarchists nor polygamists, they were allowed entry.
Often new immigrants lived here in squalid conditions until they could earn enough money to afford better housing. And as soon as they had established themselves they paid passage for another relative, brother, sister, wife, parent. The family continued to pool their resources to provide for each other. Ethnic groups in their new country huddled together and provided comfort and support, a sense of familiarity, and financial support through ethnic mutual aid societies.
Now, to our family. When Piotr Szymanowicz, my father's father, arrived in New York Harbor in 1910 his destination was Easthampton, Massachusetts. His country did not exist as a political entity; they were under the rule of the Russian czar. Piotr had served his time in the Russian Army and didn't see a bright future as a fisherman. His brother-in-law Witold Zawacki was already in Easthampton, working in the mills, and paving the way for him. He traveled on the steam ship Kroonland from Antwerp. His sister-in-law was his travelling companion. Five months later, he sent for his wife and young son. Two more of the Zawacki brothers also immigrated. Witold later returned to Poland with a son who was born here and, therefore, an American citizens. Sound familiar? These days the term "chain migration" is used pejoratively to describe families who reunite in the United States. It can take years, and sometimes decades to receive permission to resettle family members. This is not a vague concept; this is a reality that people I know well are dealing with.
Our Irish ancestors also left the dirt-poor "shithole" of western Mayo. My maternal great-grandparents, Dominick Meeneghan and Ellen Broderick, married in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1887. The Irish census of 1911 describes a family whom I believe to be Dominick's parents still living with 4 adult children in a single room home. That is what they left behind. I have yet to definitively make the connection between Ellen and a likely older sister, Margaret, in Ohio, and the link between Dominick and his cousin in Springfield, New York. Dominick and Ellen settled in Springfield soon after their marriage. Within 5 years they were able to buy a home on an acre and a half of land where they raised eight children. They had land and education for their children that they could never have aspired to in Ireland. Ellen's sister also came to Springfield and lived across the street from them. Dominick's sister, Sarah, also lived nearby.
Meeneghan Wedding at their Home in Springfield, 1919
We all came from somewhere, and likely some of our ancestors had reasons for not looking back. What they found in the US was hope, if they could overcome prejudices and language barriers. They had family support and they worked hard. Not much has changed.