09 November 2018

5 Steps to Writing Your Ancestor's Life Story

You've got the raw materials. Shape them into a remembrance of your ancestor.

Have you ever thought of writing about your family history? Do you have an ancestor who's interesting enough to write a whole book about, but you don't know where to start?

It's very possible you haven't started because the whole project seems too big.

Your tree on Ancestry.com has a LifeStory view.
Your tree on Ancestry.com has a LifeStory view.

Let's end that problem here and now. Stop thinking of your ancestor's story as a book. Don't even think about it as a short story.

Break things down to 5 simple steps and watch the project take on a life of its own. To show you this simple process, I'll use my grandfather Adamo Leone as an example. Since he was a World War I veteran, this is good timing.

Step 1: Gather Basic Facts

I've gathered almost every major document possible for my grandfather. Only his naturalization papers are missing. I'll start this process by looking at this facts chronologically.

In my Family Tree Maker software I can view a timeline of every recorded fact. On Ancestry.com I can view his "LifeStory".

No matter how you view your collected facts, this is where you'll begin. Use whatever word processing software you prefer. Put your ancestor's name at the top and start a bulleted list using the simple format of Date: Event.

Family Tree Maker has a nice timeline view. Does your software?
Family Tree Maker has a nice timeline view. Does your software?

Copy the main facts, in order, into your outline. Try to use complete sentences, but don't worry about making things perfect. If you're inspired to add a sentence or two to describe something about a fact, go right ahead.

Step 2: Add Historical Context

My grandfather fought in World War I and was a prisoner of war in Austria for a year. I've gathered facts about the battle where he and 300,000 other Italian soldiers were captured. Earlier this year I went to Italy and photographed his Italian military record. That document is packed with dates I can add to his timeline.

I'll add the name and date of his battle. I'll add the dates of his imprisonment. I'll add the time he spent recuperating before returning to New York.

I'll add some facts I've gathered about the places he worked or owned a shoe store.

In short, I'll try to paint a picture of what was going on in my grandfather's life and in the world.

Step 3: Add Documents and Photos

You don't want to make your file too big to share. So don't add every document you've collected to this file.

There's probably no one who cares as much about every single census record as you do. Be conservative as you add images to your ancestor's life story.

Place some photos and document images where they belong in the timeline.

When you break it down, writing your ancestor's story can be pretty easy.
When you break it down, writing your ancestor's story can be pretty easy.

Step 4: Personalize Facts with Basic Details

Now that you've got so many facts listed in chronological order, it won't be hard to make them more fun to read.

Go through all the facts one by one. Add words to make more complete sentences. Add details that you know from memory or from family stories.

For instance, when my grandfather had his own shoe repair store, he once made shoes for the famous actress Gloria Swanson. She was only 5’1” tall and had tiny feet. She wore a size 4 shoe. Sometimes he would make sample shoes for her. If there were any that she didn’t want, Adamo brought them home to his wife, Mary. No matter how tiny the sample shoes were, she would cram her feet in there and wear them proudly. Eventually he stopped bringing them home, maybe because he saw how much pain they caused his wife.

Step 5: Add Memories

Step outside of your list of dates. After all the facts, start writing some of your personal memories about your ancestor. If you're too young to remember them, ask your parents or older relatives for their memories.

When I think about my grandfather, I mostly think about when I was a little girl—even though I was 28 when he died.

I remember being in my grandfather’s house for every holiday. The house was actually an apartment building. He and my grandmother lived upstairs, and my great grandparents lived downstairs. As kids, we were running up and down those stairs all the time. My grandfather would take a chair and sit in the hall outside his apartment. All he ever said, in Italian, was something that sounded like "sorda sord". I understood it to mean "quiet down, stop running, behave". Now I think he was saying "sotto, sotto", short for sottovoce: whisper or quiet down.

Put each story in a separate paragraph. Once you're done, arrange those paragraphs in chronological order as best you can.

Now all you need is an ending. It may be a quote from the person or a quick summary of their life.

My grandfather was a quiet man who always had a smile on his face. He loved his family and his life in his adopted country. How I wish I could have him with me when I've gone to visit his hometown in Italy. But, of course, I do feel his presence when I'm there.

You can complete a life story for one ancestor in a single day. Where and how will you share them? Consider:
  • saving the file as a PDF so it's easy to share
  • adding the file to your family tree
  • printing the file to create a booklet to give to your interested relatives
  • publishing the contents on your blog or your Facebook page.
Several years ago I went to a seminar about writing your ancestor's story. I was focusing on my great grandfather Giovanni. But I never wrote his story. I didn't know how or where to dive in.

But now I've created this story about my grandfather so easily. (Here's how it turned out.) There's nothing to stop me from doing the same for:
  • my great grandfather
  • my other grandfather
  • my parents
  • and anyone else for whom I've collected enough facts.
What's stopping you?

06 November 2018

What to Find on Your Ancestor's Naturalization Papers

What did your immigrant ancestor gain by becoming a citizen of their adopted country?

If they came from another country, your ancestor had to file their Declaration of Intent to become a U.S. citizen. They had to present it to the court in their jurisdiction. They had to renounce their allegiance to their former country and its head of state. After this declaration, your ancestor's citizenship was either granted or denied.

My grandfather, Pietro Iamarino, was born in Italy in October 1902. He came to America to find work in November 1920. He started working in Newton, Massachusetts, because his mother's brother lived there. Two months later Pietro moved to Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, and went to work for National Tube Company. The United States Steel Corporation (US Steel) had recently acquired this metal tube manufacturer. They most likely had lots of work to offer a healthy young man like Pietro.

Three years later, in February 1924, my grandfather must have decided he wasn't going back to Italy. He filed his Declaration of Intention in the Common Pleas Court in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, where he lived and worked.

Your ancestor's naturalization papers will hold a lot of facts you need.
Your ancestor's naturalization papers will hold a lot of facts you need.

Naturalization Documents Hold Lots of Genealogy Facts

Here's the information you can learn or confirm with your ancestor's Declaration of Intention:
  • Name
  • Physical description (color, complexion, height, weight, hair and eye color, distinctive marks)
  • Date of birth
  • Residence at the time
  • Immigration details (port of departure, name of ship, port of arrival, date of arrival)
  • Hometown
  • Name, place of birth and address of spouse
  • Current country of citizenship

The Process Continues

On 19 Oct. 1926—two and a half years after his declaration of intention—my grandfather's naturalization process was continuing. His Declaration of Intention and a Certificate of Arrival were filed. Two men who knew and worked with him signed a sworn statement that Pietro had been living in the U.S. continuously since he filed his declaration.

Four more months pass. It's now 24 February 1927: 6½ years since his arrival in the U.S. and 3 years since he filed his Declaration of Intention. Pietro takes the Oath of Allegiance. He renounces all allegiance to the King of Italy. He swears to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.

This declaration of intention includes birth dates for the applicant's husband and children.
This declaration of intention includes birth dates for the applicant's husband and children.

Eight months later, U.S. citizen Pietro Iamarino leaves his job at National Tube Company and heads for Youngstown, Ohio. There he finds a job with the Carnegie Steel Company and a room in the home of his father's second cousin, Pasquale Iamarino.

Pasquale's young daughter Lucy Iamarino was born a U.S. citizen to two immigrant parents. Lucy and Pietro, third cousins who had never met before, married in October 1927. Because Pietro was a citizen, Lucy did not have to lose her citizenship.

"What's that?" you say. The U.S. government passed a law in March 1907 called the Expatriation Act. It said an American-born woman would lose her citizenship if she married a non-citizen. If her foreign-born husband later became a U.S. citizen, she would have to go through the naturalization process, too.

Can you imagine having to be naturalized when you've never been outside the United States?

Did this rule apply to men, too? If a male citizen married a foreign woman, did he lose his citizenship? Of course not. What do you think this is—fair? This law didn't go away entirely until the 1940s.

It is possible this law affected my other grandmother, Mary. She was born in New York City to recent immigrants. In fact, she was in utero for the voyage from Italy to America. In 1922 she married my grandfather Adamo, who was from Italy.

I know for sure he was still not naturalized as little as 2½ years before he married my grandmother. I haven't found his naturalization documents. The page seems to be missing from the record collection. So I don't yet know if my grandmother lost her citizenship.

What Was the Process for Our Ancestors?

The basic process of gaining U.S. citizenship today includes:
  • Entering the country and gaining legal permanent resident status.
  • Spending 5 continuous years living here at least 50% of the time.
  • Being at least 18 years old (children can derive citizenship from their parents).
  • Having a basic knowledge of English and of American history. The Immigration Act of 1917 added this requirement. Since my grandfather came here knowing no English, he must have spent his first couple of years here trying to learn the language.
  • Having shown good moral character.
  • Agreeing with the basic concept of the U.S. government system.
  • Swearing an oath of allegiance to the United States.

What Were the Benefits of Citizenship to Our Ancestors?

Our ancestors may have found it a lot easier to get work once they became a citizen. The main benefits of citizenship are the right to:
  • vote
  • hold public office
  • travel freely
  • own land
  • reunite your family.

I have one great grandfather who managed to own buildings soon after his arrival in New York City. Apart from him, I think none of these benefits were as important to my immigrant ancestors as merely belonging.

While they didn't lose their accents, they did adopt the American way of life. They were proud that their children were born as U.S. citizens. America was the land of opportunity, and that's really all they wanted. Opportunity.

What this long process like for your ancestors? How would you fare if you stepped off a ship in another country and had a couple of years to learn the language, the history and the legal processes? All while securing good employment and a place to live.

Our ancestors went through more than we'll ever know to give us all the things we take for granted. Like the right to vote. How will you honor them?

02 November 2018

How Did Immigration Laws Guide Your Ancestors?

Even if your ancestors didn't emigrate to the United States, U.S. immigration laws may have influenced their journey.

When my first ancestor left Italy and made the 3-week voyage to New York City in 1890, all he had to do to seek out a better life was:
  • Have somewhere and someone to go to
  • Not be Chinese
You read that right. In 1882 the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning Chinese laborers from coming ashore for 10 years. The many Chinese workers already in the U.S. were not allowed to become citizens.

My many ancestors who came to America had no restrictions. They were not Chinese, they were healthy, and other relatives or friends had paved the way for them, helping them get jobs and a place to live.

Immigrants poured into Ellis Island by the boatload, all day, every day.
Immigrants poured into Ellis Island by the boatload, all day, every day.

Before my second ancestor came here, there was the 1891 Immigration Act. There were more and tougher restrictions. Immigrants had to:
  • Not have a contagious disease
  • Not be a polygamist
My people came right on in.

My two grandmothers were born in New York to recent Italian immigrants. But before my 2 grandfathers arrived, there was the Immigration Act of 1903. This was a big crackdown. For my grandfathers to come into New York, they had to:
  • Not be anarchists
  • Not be beggars
  • Not be pimps
Again, no problem for the average impoverished human looking for a better life.

The next big immigration reform was the 1917 Immigration Act. My grandfathers and other relatives had to:
  • Not be Asian, but the Philippines and Japan were OK
  • Be able to read any one language if you were over the age of 16
You may be noticing an anti-Asian pattern. My husband's grandparents all arrived from Japan with excellent timing. Only the Chinese ban was in place.

Some workers, like my great grandfather, came to earn money, went home, and did it again.
Some workers, like my great grandfather, came to earn money, went home, and did it again.

In 1921 the immigration laws began playing with quotas. They looked at the 1910 U.S. Federal Census to see how many foreign-born people were here, and where they were from. The quota for who could come to America was 3%. If there were 100,000 Romanians in America, 3% of 100,000 would be allowed in. If there were 200,000 Pakistanis in America, 3% of 200,000 would be allowed in. If there were 100 people from India, 3 Indians would be allowed in.

This had little or no effect on Europeans, though, because the Western Hemisphere was excluded from the nationality quota. Still, there was an immigration cap of 350,000 people.

But don't be Asian.

The Immigration Act of 1924 slashed the immigration cap to 165,000 people, dropping the nationality quota to 2%, but basing it on the 1890 census, not the 1910 census. Asians were still barred and were not eligible to become U.S. citizens.

Things stayed this tight with no changes until the Bracero Agreement in 1942. But that only effected you if you were a Mexican national coming here as a temporary agricultural worker. In 1943 the Magnuson Act open the door just a crack for the Chinese. They were allowed to naturalize and 105 new Chinese immigrants would be allowed in.

I'm not going to go much further because most of my readers are researching their grandparents. But in 1952 the Immigration and Nationality Act:
  • Stopped excluding races (Asians)
  • Changed the quotas to one-sixth of 1% of each nationality based on the 1920 census
  • Gave preference to skilled immigrants and family reunification
It was this 1952 immigration law that caused an entire branch of my family to go to Canada instead of America. They had family here, but the quotas were too small. They had to turn north. Now there's a big enclave of my fellow Colle Sannita descendants in Niagara Falls, Canada.

Do you have ancestors who came to America, but their brothers didn't? Maybe they went to Brazil, Canada, Australia or England? It's very possible the U.S. immigration laws and quotas played a big part in that decision.

For an interactive timeline of U.S. immigration laws, see the Pew Research Center website. And see a wonderful video about Ellis Island on History.com.