Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, December 17, 2016

What if my ancestors were refugees?

Many of my ancestors were refugees. In America, we classify immigrants according to the political and social climate of the time they arrive. Most contemporary U.S. citizens would be very surprised to learn that the United States had no restrictions on non-citizens entry into the country until the first Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. Before that time, anyone, regardless of motivation or previous condition could simply enter the country. This is not to say that the immigrants were greeted with open arms. In many cases, they suffered intense persecution and physical isolation from those who were already here.

Some of my ancestors came to America because of religious persecution. Some arrived because they were starving to death in their native land. For example, the Linton family came from Ireland during the time when they were faced with eviction and dislocation from their property and they came to Canada before coming to the United States. They were among those who were not warmly welcomed. Some of my ancestors were driven from their homes in Missouri under threat of extermination from the Governor of the state and then were again driven from their homes in Illinois and sought refuge in Mexico.

I may never know the motivation of some of my ancestors but as a genealogist, I have to confront the fact that the existing records may never adequately explain how or why they came to America. If your ancestors spoke Spanish, they may have lived in America long before the invention of the United States as a country. But in many cases, they may also have come north from Latin America to escape revolutions, death squads or starvation. Unfortunately, many of these refugees are not considered refugees at all but are vilified as "illegals" and persecuted while at the same time people from more socially and politically acceptable countries are termed refugees and welcomed.

We have had our own internal problems with refugees. Some of these, such as the Native American population were indiscriminately killed and forced from their ancestral homes. For example, the Navajos or Dine were forced from their lands by Federal Troops after their crops and fruit trees were burned and their houses destroyed and were forced to walk across the country to Oklahoma. What if your ancestors were on the Long Walk? Can you find them in the records? What about those who were killed or died along the way.

Some of my own relatives and even my ancestors died while crossing the plains. I am here only because some of them lived. One of my ancestral families came to America for religious reasons and were so poor they lived in Boston for five years to work and save to have enough to travel across the country to Utah. There were no social programs or government sponsored interest groups to assist them or prevent them from almost starving to death in a large American city.

What is the practical difference between having your ancestors forcibly removed from their country and sold as slaves in America or having them arrive because of death and destruction in their own country? Did we treat the Africans as refugees?

Some of our most revered historical traditions come from our refugee ancestors. Some of my own ancestors arrived in 1620 in a small ship called the Mayflower. They came to avoid religious persecution in England by way of Holland. Apparently, many of them cut their ties with England so completely that it has proved impossible to discover their own ancestors. Despite this fact, many of our genealogical associates insist on creating a heritage for them, even tying them into the very royalty they were trying to escape.

Is it any wonder that we sometimes have difficulty tracing our ancestry past these refugees? Maybe, just maybe, they were too busy trying to survive to worry about keeping records. Maybe some of them changed their names so as to hide the fact that they belonged to an undesirable group of immigrants. Maybe their memories of the "old world" were so painful, they did not want to talk about their experiences.

In many cases there are records, but as genealogists, we need to be sensitive to our own history. We too are descendants of immigrants or refugees. Perhaps this can serve as a motivation for our own change of heart and acceptance of those less fortunate who have more recently come to America.


  1. Thank you! This is so true. My ancestors were famine refugees from Ireland and others fled religious persecution in 17th century England. Genealogy research gives me better understanding of what today's refugees experience. Compassion is developed this way!

  2. Well said and important message. My husband's ancestors on the Mayflower were fleeing religious persecution in England. My ancestors were fleeing religious persecution in Eastern Europe. Thank you for a thoughtful analysis.