Thirteen Reasons Our Ancestors Migrated
We are a very mobile society today. People think nothing of accepting a job offer in another state or in another country on the other side of the globe. But it was not always so. In other times, the decision to migrate to another place was a very major consideration. It was fraught with risk and danger, and meant leaving many things behind. Undertaking such a move might also mean never seeing parents, siblings, other family members, and friends again. It was a very big decision!
Do you know where your ancestors came from? Do you know what influenced their decision to migrate? Do you know why your ancestors settled where they did? The answers to these questions can help you better understand your ancestors and, in turn, help you develop better hypotheses about them. In "Along Those Lines . . ." this week, let's consider 13 prominent reasons why ancestors might have migrated from one place to another.
Thirteen Reasons Why
Let me first say that the thirteen reasons that follow cannot possibly encompass the universe of factors that influenced our ancestors to make a move. However, these thirteen (in no particular order) appear throughout history as the most common reasons for migrating to a new place.
Religious or Ethnic Persecution. The desire for the freedom to exercise one's religious beliefs, or to pursue the lifestyle of one's ethnic group, is one the most overwhelming reasons for migration of our ancestors. Protestants practiced their religion in secret during the rule of Catholic monarchs across Europe. You will recall stories of the Puritans, Quakers, and Huguenots and their migrations to establish some of the most successful settlements in the New World. In addition, the persecution of Jews throughout history forced many of them to relocate again and again, and many migrated again to settle in the newly formed nation of Israel after its formation in 1948. Were your ancestors persecuted, and as a result, did they migrate elsewhere?
Natural Disasters. Drought, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, fires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters were life-altering catastrophes that caused people to leave one place and move to another. Recent examples include the Johnstown Flood of 1889, the hurricane in 1900 that decimated Galveston, TX, the San Francisco earthquakes of 1906 and 1989, the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, and this year's devastating wildfires near Los Alamos, NM. All of these calamities resulted in loss of life and destruction of property, and many survivors abandoned the area and migrated elsewhere. Were your ancestors victims of such a catastrophe?
Famine. Drought and plant diseases are common natural causes of famine; wars, land mismanagement, and other human-caused disasters also result in famine. Whatever the reason for famine, people cannot withstand starvation for long, and they often migrate elsewhere. Consider the Irish Potato Famine, the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression in the United States, the accounts of Chinese famines in Jung Chang's book Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, and the TV news accounts we frequently see of famine in Africa. Starving people will become refugees to seek sources of nourishment. Did any of your ancestors migrate because of famine?
Economic Problems. The economic problems of an area can cause people to migrate. Consider the tale of the French stonemason, who because of economic inflation and government politics in the early 1800s, could not find enough work to feed his family and his parents. On hearing of the growing housing development in upstate New York created by the opening of the Erie Canal, he sold everything and moved his entire extended family to America; there he began what became one of the most successful building concerns in what is now the Buffalo, NY area.
War. The conflict and destruction caused by war is a major cause for upheaval of persons. People may have been fleeing approaching armies, or the men may have been trying to avoid conscription in order to protect and provide for their families. They may have lost their homes and possessions as a result of bombing. They may also have been the targets of political or ethnic persecution. They may even have been like Anne Frank, the Jewish girl whose diary recounts her family's persecution, flight, and hiding in Amsterdam during World War II. Wars displace people and make them refugees. Were your ancestors participants in or victims of a war?
Political Strife/Turmoil/Oppression. Political conditions may be too oppressive to be endured, and as a result, people may flee to other areas or countries. The United States has for centuries been a haven to Europeans emigrating to seek freedom from political oppression. German citizens emigrated during the 1930s to avoid the expanding Nazi menace; Russian athletes and dancers defected to the United States when they had an opportunity to visit; and Cuban refugees continue to attempt to flee the Castro regime. Were your ancestors trying to avoid political oppression when they came to North America?
Following Family and Friends. Many people followed other family members or friends who had already moved somewhere else. Tales and promises of better living conditions, prosperity, or opportunity to start a new life were sometimes irresistible lures. Pioneers who went west in wagon trains to settle in California and Oregon wrote home with glowing descriptions that convinced families and friends to join them. And who can forget the irresistible lure of gold in California in the late 1840s and 1850s? Sometimes, too, people decided to accompany their family members or good friends when they decided to migrate. In my own ancestry, I can trace four brothers and their entire families and seventeen families that were their close friends, including their minister and his family, who all migrated from Cecil County, MD to Mecklenburg County, NC in the 1740s. This was not uncommon. Did your ancestors follow or accompany other family or friends to another location?
Adoption. Adoption forces the movement of the adoptee from one place to another without his or her control. Not only were there simple family-to-family placements, but the Orphan Trains also carried children from cities across North American and placed as many as 150,000 to 200,000 children in new homes in forty-seven states, Canada, and South America. Was one of your ancestors an adoptee? Was your ancestor relocated by the Orphan Trains?
Slavery. Unfortunately, the heinous institution of slavery was responsible for rending families apart and relocating tens of thousands of persons. The sale or exchange of human beings removed people from Africa to the New World, and then from place to place as a result of sale or barter. Were any of your ancestors slaves?
Forced Relocation of Native Americans. As the colonies and states grew and expanded, Native Americans were deemed "in the way of progress." Armed conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers and their armies ensued. Ultimately, the Native Americans lost and were coerced or compelled to sign treaties with the government. These treaties called for the ceding of Native American lands and the permanent relocation of American Indians to parcels referred to as reservations. Many died in the relocation marches, such as the "Trail of Tears." Were any of your ancestors Native Americans who were forced to relocate to a reservation?
Criminal Incarceration/Deportment. Some criminals were transported to the colonies to serve their sentences of hard labor or to simply get rid of them permanently. Others were offered the option of relocating to a colony rather than face prolonged imprisonment in their homeland. James Edward Oglethorpe, for instance, devised a plan for the colony of Georgia to be populated by the debtors released from prison and the so-called "worthy poor" of London. Australia was originally a penal colony. Were any of your ancestors criminals or debtors who were deported to another place?
Not a First Son. It was common in the Middle Ages (and later) for the eldest son to inherit all property on the death of his father. He could allow his mother and other siblings to remain or could force them to leave. Sisters to the eldest son were usually married off; depending on the size of the estate and the temperament of the inheritor, his brothers either remained on sufferance or as employees of the eldest son, or they were encouraged to strike out on their own to make their own way in the world. Was your ancestor an inheriting eldest son, or one who moved on to make it on his own?
Great Financial Opportunity. We've all heard tales of immigrants who came to America to see the streets that were "paved with gold." Many immigrants left family, friends, and everything familiar for the opportunity to make a new life and to prosper. Probably more than any other reason for migrating, this is the most common. Did your ancestor come to the United States to make a fortune?
Give It Some Thought
There were many motivations for your ancestors to migrate from overseas to the New World. Once here, they learned firsthand of opportunities where they landed and beyond, and they may have moved once, twice, or more times until they found what suited their needs. It is important to do more than just fill in pedigree charts for your ancestors. Learn all you can about their families. Research the history of the area in which your ancestor began his or her life, and try to determine when he/she moved. What factors may have influenced the decision to migrate? Where did the person(s) migrate to? Did they make multiple moves? Why? And finally, why did they settle where they did? Many of the answers to these questions may help you better understand your family and the values they shared and imparted to succeeding generations. Maybe you'll learn a little more about yourself in the process! Happy Hunting! George G. Morgan