30 June 2017

What Story Does Your Ancestor's Job Tell You?

After visiting the idyllic towns in Italy where my grandfathers were born, I had to wonder why they left their families and came to America.

It turns out their occupations paint two very different pictures. These two stories may represent many immigrants to America.

Our ancestors sought opportunity, work, and a decent living.
Our ancestors sought opportunity, work, and a decent living.

The Skilled Craftsman

My maternal grandfather Adamo left Basélice, Italy twice. The first time he was 23 years old and already listed his occupation as shoemaker. He had two choices:

  • Stay in Basélice and be one of a small number of shoemakers in a small town of about 2,000 people.
  • Go to New York City and be one of many shoemakers serving thousands of people.

Unfortunately, Adamo's plans were rudely interrupted by World War I. He returned to Italy to fight and became a prisoner of war under brutal circumstances.

Eventually he made his way back to New York City. He continued working as a shoemaker and had his own store in the Bronx for a while. Later he did other types of leather work, making saddles and holsters for the police department.

For Adamo, a skilled young tradesman, coming to America meant greater opportunity doing what he knew how to do.

The Unskilled Laborer

My paternal grandfather Pietro left Colle Sannita, Italy at the age of 18. He had no skilled occupation. He was probably working the land to provide food for his family while his father Francesco made several visits to America for work.

On each of Francesco's trips to work in the United States, he was a laborer. He did whatever type of work was available, including railroad labor and mining.

Pietro did the same as his father, working at a bakery near his uncle's home, at a steel company near his cousin's home, and for the railroad. But he wanted a trade that wasn't so dirty and back-breaking. Oral history tells me that Grandpa's opinion of working in the railroad roundhouse was, "This job stinks on-a the ice."

Pietro became a jewel setter, working with his hands at a clean workbench. He liked it well enough that he kept a small workbench in his cellar at home and continued to make trinkets when I was a girl.

For Pietro, an unskilled laborer, coming to America meant opportunities in fields he might never have imagined.

Just as American families today are likely to relocate for a job at some point in their lives, our ancestors faced a similar situation. While they didn't have an IBM paying to move them to a new state, they did need to move in order to prosper.

It's not hard to understand that reality. Is it?

27 June 2017

Picturing America Through Your Ancestors Eyes

When I think of my first ancestor coming from a small rural town in Italy to the metropolis of New York City in 1890, I picture him being overwhelmed by the congestion and fast pace.

But maybe it wasn't that hectic. New York City was dramatically different 127 years ago.

Look at Grand Central Terminal in the 1890s and today. The chaos of yellow taxis and delivery trucks was merely a cable car and some horse-drawn wagons. (And it looked nothing like today's building!)

Take a tour through the online photo collection of the Library of Congress for more images. You can narrow your search by choosing a time period and a location.

The library's collection of historic American buildings can give you a glimpse of the landmarks your ancestors saw in their day.

If your ancestors were here for generations before mine, you might like the Library of Congress' various map collections. Drill down through the Cities and Towns collection, then narrow the results by date and location.

It may be difficult to imagine any U.S. city being underdeveloped. These digital collections can help you get in touch with the United States of your ancestors.

25 June 2017

How to Visualize Your Ancestor-Finding Progress

I've seen lots of graphics lately showing how many direct ancestors we each have. Two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, etc. It adds up fast!

How many direct ancestors can a person have?
Since I've been lucky enough to find a handful of 5th great grandparents lately, I thought it would be a good exercise to see where I stand.

I made a spreadsheet you can download with placeholders for grandparents in one column, great grandparents in the next column, and so on through 10th great grandparents.

Update: I've made a revised spreadsheet to include color coding for your four basic tree branches: one color for each grandparent. I've also created a row at the top to show how many ancestors we each have for each generation.

Then I used Family Tree Maker software to create a chart of my ancestors, labeling the generations. I scrolled across my chart and filled in the blanks on the spreadsheet.

Color coding the 4 branches helps a lot.
Color coding the 4 branches helps a lot.

My results are mixed. When I identified four of my 8th great grandparents and four of my 9th great grandparents, I couldn't have been happier. But now I can see that they aren't even the tip of the iceberg. They're a crystal of the iceberg!

To focus on the plus side, I'm missing only three of my 32 3rd great grandparents. That's pretty good considering they never came to America.

I'm missing 23 of my 64 4th great grandparents. After that, I'm not even counting. Yet.

On the plus side, now I can focus my work on finding as many of the missing "younger" generations as I can. (See "5 Steps to Grow Your Italian Family Tree" and "How I Gained 2 More Generations in 1 Day".)

See what this progress report can tell you about your research!