(Copyright (c) 2010 Cynthia Shenette) I've been thinking about how my son's collective ancestry typifies a large part of what I think of as the American experience, as defined by many of the major events in history since the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in 1620. As a genealogist and family historian, sometimes I think it's easy to look at individuals rather than our ancestry as a sum of many parts.
While my son's ancestors didn't come to America on the Mayflower, they did arrive in Rhode Island in 1633. They survived cold New England winters, disease, and deprivation. They later fought in the American Revolution and as the old saying goes saw the whites of the Red Coat's eyes at Bunker Hill, and after the colonies won their independence, settled along the Mohawk River Valley in New York where they farmed the land for the next two hundred years. As time progressed they watched Scots Irish immigrants come into the area to help construct the the Erie Canal with mule teams and watched factories spring up in the towns and cities that dotted the length of the Mohawk River.
Other ancestors populated Acadia, or Nova Scotia, during the seventeenth century until they were forcibly removed by the British during the Seven Years War or what Americans call the French and Indian War. Some of the ancestors expelled from Acadia eventually ended up in Louisiana, others managed to find their way back to French speaking Canada to resettle in Quebec. During the mid-nineteenth century some made their way to California to seek their fortune during the Gold Rush. Ancestors fought, were wounded, or died of disease during the Civil War. They participated in the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. After the Civil War ancestors joined the great migration of immigrants from Canada to New England to work in the lumber camps of the Green Mountains and the mills of Massachusetts.
At the end of the nineteenth century another set of ancestors left their homeland in Europe. They left their families--mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters--behind and set off in search of a better life in America. They endured difficult conditions on ship and arrived at Ellis Island with the rest of the "yearning masses" also hoping for a better life in their new land. Immigrant ancestors found their way to the Midwest, to Chicago to work in low wage jobs in the steel industry. When they lost their home due to fire they made their way to Massachusetts to join other family members, also immigrants, in the steel mills. They worked long hours in difficult conditions to pursue the American dream.
During the twentieth century ancestors fought in World War I, World War II, and Korea. When both parents in one family died within two days of one another during the great flu pandemic of 1918, their children were adopted by family to become part of an extended family. Ancestors were affected by the crash of the stock market in 1929 and struggled with varying levels of success through the Great Depression. They participated in the Civilian Conservation Corps and joined the military.
One ancestor served his time in the military in the late 1930s and early 1940s, only to be discharged in November of 1941, eighteen days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He reenlisted in February of 1942, served in the Pacific theatre, and participated in the battles of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, the Marshall Islands, and Okinawa. He survived. Another family member fought with Patton's army in the European theatre. He witnessed the liberation of Buchenwald. After World War II family displaced by the chaos of the war in Europe, lingered in a DP camp for years until they were finally able to make their way to a new life in the United States.
Our ancestors survived war, deprivation, and hardship. They survived childbirth when health care was rudimentary or nonexistent, and during times when mothers knew death from childbirth was an ever-present possibility. They suffered from small pox, rheumatic fever, whooping cough, flu, measles, mumps, and a host of diseases our children, thankfully, will never know. There were bad times, but there were of good times as well. They lived life the best they could given their circumstances. That's four hundred years of history in my son's ancestry. He IS my American experience. That's a lot of weight to carry on those little shoulders.
When you sit down to dinner with your family this Thanksgiving, think about the people that came before you. It doesn't matter if they were French, Irish, Polish, Italian, or African American. It's doesn't matter if they came on the Mayflower or not. They were the ultimate survivors. We are here because of them, and our lives are better because of them. I know I have a lot to be thankful for.
What's your American experience? Take some time to write about it over the next week, and then share it with your family over Thanksgiving dinner. Almost four hundred years of history should give you something to talk about. Now, please pass the gravy...
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