Family History Research

Assimilation of Immigrants

America was once described as a melting pot where people of all ethnicities gathered to escape various types of persecution or to improve their life. A great metamorphosis occurred in the melting pot as these ethnic peoples altered their language, dress, religion, and customs and became Americans.

Historians use a model to describe the stages an immigrant’s family went through when they reached America. The first stage describes the immigrant family clinging tightly to their culture and reluctantly learning English to adapt to American society. The second describes the first generation born in America which constantly strove to break away from that culture. The final stage describes the third or later generations, seeking to recover the culture in order to discover who they are and where they came form.

Using this model to analyze the stages families went through can answer many questions researchers might have. For example, why did the children of immigrants not learn the language of their parents? Why did so many of the children of immigrants live in the parents home well into their 20′s?  Why did great grandpa have the same occupation as his father? How did the second generation live as compared to their parents? Why did the cultural aspect of the family resurface after three generations? Asking these types of questions may trigger new questions which will lead to new research avenues.  Comparing the lives of our immigrant ancestors and their children to our lives can raise interesting parallels and new questions. All of these questions and answers will contribute to the rich story we tell about our families.  We must remember though, in comparing and contrasting, to keep in mind the historical time period in which they lived. The time period may also contribute to their assimilation process and roles.

To give an example, I did an assimilation study on the paternal side of my family. The factors studied were transference of language, culture, occupation and women’s roles. The results of the study showed these lines did not exactly follow the model. I found that the parent immigrants did teach their American born children some of their language but the children were not fluent in the parent’s language.  The culture, for some of my families, remained important, but for others, it seemed to be lost until future generations. Where occupations were concerned, the second and third generations seemed to take on new jobs and did not follow in the father’s footsteps. The women in these lines seemed to follow in their mother’s footsteps and become home makers until the third generation when the women began working outside the home in addition to raising their families.

As I look at my life, my roles as mother, wife, housekeeper, cook, volunteer, career woman, friend, etc., I wonder what my immigrant great grandmothers would think of me. Did they have some hidden aspirations to be more than just a mother, wife, housekeeper, cook? Were they active in their communities or were their lives all consumed in the home? Were they allowed to express themselves and be more than the roles determined by the time period? I do not live in the same house as my parents, in fact, I live a state away from them. My children are not being raised to “run across the alley to grandma’s house to visit.”  I worked outside the home and raised children. What would my immigrant great grandmothers think of that? What similarities do I see between those women and myself? I see that as they were, I am a teacher for my children, housekeeper, and cook.

As I look at my brother’s life as career man, bachelor, friend, etc., I wonder what my immigrant great grandfathers would think of him. He did not follow the same career path as his father. He chose to proceed farther in his education. He does not live in the same house or “across the alley” from his parents. What would immigrant great grandfathers think of that?  Compared to those men, I think my brother’s life is vastly different.

I encourage you to look at the lives of your immigrant ancestors and their children, and compare their lives to your own. What similarities do you find? What differences? Are there any parallels between the historical time period in which they lived compared to the current events in your life today? After examining the assimilation patterns of your families, you should have a better understanding of what your ancestors went through to become Americans, and what a great story that will make.

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The Value of Studying History Today

Going through old notes I came across a lecture I attended in the fall of 1999 at the Chicago Humanities Festival.  The theme that year was “Old and New” and incorporated many lectures about history.  One such lecture was “History’s Value Today,” presented by four historians:  Johnathan Clark, John Milton Cooper, Michael Kammen, and David Kennedy.

Clark explored the idea that history has big underlying themes. It is complex and can be used for scholarship to teach or propaganda to sway public opinion. Cooper argued that people expect to get certain knowledge out of history. Kammen took the stand that history should be studied because it is necessary to see the whole human experience. Doing so allows people to know where they are now and where they came from. Kennedy argued that history helps us see who we are and what makes us different from others.  From a family historian’s perspective, Kammen and Kennedy’s arguments should be understood so we may better write our ancestors stories.

Kammen’s stand that history should be studied to see the whole human experience is crucial to family historians.  We must look at the historical context of our ancestors to have some understanding of their values; the choices they made; the lives they lived; and the beliefs and ideas that were passed down to their children, and in some cases, to their present day descendants.  Without looking at the historical context, we could make assumptions and judgments about the kind of person our ancestor was, that may be incorrect.

An example about making judgments about an ancestor can be taken from my husband’s Italian side. His great uncle, Fortunato Fratto, was born about 1869 in Italy, was educated, and held a job as a customs agent. He immigrated to the United States three separate times in the late 1890’s before settling permanently in Chicago. Here, in Chicago he worked for the city as a Street Cleaner.  In an interview in the 1980’s with his daughter, Rose, at the University of Illinois at Chicago for the Italian Project, Rose describes her father as a very strict, demanding, almost dictator-like father figure. She describes how the children would kneel at his feet at bedtime, kiss his hand and ask for his blessing.  She goes on to describe how his word was law and if you disobeyed or spoke against him, you were sometimes hit. She also describes how he felt degraded working as a Street Cleaner and how he disliked living near undesirables (people he considered lower class).

Without understanding the historical time period, one might compare him to a father in the present day and believe Fortunato was the devil himself.  What kind of father behaves this way? Was he prejudice? Were some of those beliefs passed down to his children? When you examine the time period and his ethnicity, you see that class and standing were very important to Italian men.  In Italy he was considered petty-bourgeoisie due to his education and occupational standing.  In the United States, he was considered to be in the lower class because of his job, earnings, and language skills. As head of the house, the Italian father’s word was law. And in the early 1900’s in Chicago, ethnic groups tended to live together in certain areas of the city. While there was some mixing of ethnicities within an area, typically a street would divide one ethnic group from another, keeping the “undesirables” from being too close. The whole historical picture must be examined in order to form more correct assumptions about the lives of our ancestors. By not looking at the whole picture, how could we understand what life was like for our ancestors and their descendants?

Looking at Fortunato’s life leads into Kennedy’s desire for us to understand that history helps us see who we are and what makes us different from others.  From the standpoint of looking at our immigrant ancestors, it is easier to see “who they were.” We can see what their ethnic beliefs and values were. We can see how they were different from other ethnicities. Once our ancestors became part of the melting pot, and ethnicities, beliefs and values were merged, “who we are” becomes a complex make-up of those beliefs and values.  Going a step beyond looking solely at “who we are” based on ethnicity, I think we need to examine “who we are” based on being American. Who are we in the present day? How are we different from people of other countries? How are we similar and different from our assimilated and American-born ancestors?  All these questions generate new insights into our family histories and provide new research paths.

Studying history today and incorporating it into our family histories, allows us to present a more historically complete narrative and make fewer incorrect judgments.  It allows us to view the people as they were during the time in which they lived, rather than what we wish them to be based on our present day experiences. That is the value of studying history today.

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Book Review – Women Adrift

I was looking through my bookcase this morning and came across a book I read in a Chicago Women’s History grad school called Women Adrift, Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930 by Joanne J. Meyerowitz. I thought this would be a great book to mention this week since I wrote an article about women and naturalization.

I do not have any women in my family who went off on their own to become “women adrift” but this book was very interesting to read. The chapters walk the reader through what some of the women experienced. Chapter 1 discusses being apart from the family. Chapter 2 is about exercising caution in the big city. Chapter 3 mentions orphans and innocents while Chapter 4 discusses Surrogate Families. Chapter 5 goes in depth about the people who helped these women and Chapter 6 talks about the women being Urban Pioneers.

Meyerowitz addresses issues such as sexuality of this “new breed” of women coming to the cities; what social circles formed and why; the vices that existed in the cities and how the women handled them or fell prey to them; and contains many tables with statistics, several illustrations, and lengthy note and bibliography sections.

Whether you had a Woman Adrift in your family or not, this book is well worth your time to read. You might just see some similarities between these women and second or third generation women of immigrants in your families who branched out on their own after the 1930′s.

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Your House Has a History

I recently wrote an article about tracing family through street addresses and am now interested in finding the history of some of those houses. While the PDF file mentioned here, Your House Has a History, is specific to Chicago research, some of the tips included can be used in any city.

This booklet is composed of six steps. Step One – Checking the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. Step Two – Finding a copy of the building permit filed when your house was constructed. Step Three – Research information on the construction of your house (and any additions), its architect (if known), and its builder. Step Four – Finding information on the previous owners of your house. Step Five – Finding early or original plans, drawings and photos of your house.  Step Six – Your Neighborhood’s history.  The end of the booklet contains an extensive list of resources to find records.

In our collection of old family photographs, there are probably a few of the homes in which our ancestors lived. Does that home still exist today? One way to find out is to go on Google Earth and enter the address. The program will pinpoint the address and you can zoom in to look at the area. Sometimes a street view is also available. If I enter 2122 W. 18th Place, Chicago, IL, Google Earth will take me to 18th Place and the closest address, which is next door. 2122 does not exist. It was a wooden home, as tall as the ones on either side of it, and is no longer there. Instead, an empty lot filled with grass and trees is where the home stood. The houses on either side of the lot are brick. It will be interesting to find out what happened to the house. Did it burn down? Was it purposely taken down?

What about your current collection of family photographs? Does it include the house where you parents grew up? Where you grew up? Do you have a photograph of the house as it looks today? We can never forget to continue to record our current family history.

For more information specific to Chicago you may visit the Chicago History Museum’s webpage on Architecture.

The Smithsonian has a great booklet online Finding History in your Home.

The Internet Public Library also has an extensive listing of resources on their Guide to Researching the History of your House page. 

Have you traced the history of any homes? What interesting things did you discover?