Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Rise of the Irish in Chicago

I have long lamented the fact that so little is written about the Irish in Chicago in the mid- nineteenth century. I have wondered what life was like in Chicago for my great, great grandparents, John Carney/Kearney and Mary Duffy in the 1870s and 1880s. But as so often happens in life, when you put something out there, suddenly help appears! I found a reference to Ellen Skerrett in a Chicago Tribune newspaper article by Ken O’Brien. He described Ellen as “a walking, talking book of Chicago history.”  When O’Brien further stated that Ellen had spent years researching the Chicago Irish, I was hooked! I had to find out more.  

As I read O’Brien’s article, I saw that while working on her Master’s degree at the University of Chicago in 1974, Ellen began studying the part that neighborhood Catholic parishes played in the lives of the immigrant Irish in Chicago in the nineteenth century. From that time on, she has been researching, writing and collaborating with other experts on the Irish American experience in Chicago to produce numerous books. In this post, I will discuss two of her contributions to the field:

“Nineteenth Century Chicago Irish: A Social and Political Portrait” (Charles Fanning, Ellen Skerrett, John Corrigan).  Loyola University Center for Urban Policy, 1980 [title abbreviation: NCCI]

Used by permission of Ellen Skerrett

Ellen, Skerrett, Editor, At the Crossroads:  Old Saint Patrick’s and the Chicago Irish. Loyola Press, 1997 [title abbreviation: ATC]

Used by permission of Ellen Skerrett
From these two works, I learned much about the attitude of US-born people in Chicago to the immigrant Irish, the poverty that plagued the new arrivals, the role the parish church played in bringing the newcomers into mainstream American life, and how the Irish used the Anglo-Saxon government structure to their advantage. The Irish faced the disadvantages of arriving in this urban setting with few skills other than subsistence farming and of following a religion that raised the suspicions of the native Protestant Chicagoans. Yet, as Ellen discusses in her ATC essay "Creating Sacred Space in an Early Chicago Neighborhood", the Catholic Church provided the Irish with a community that held them together, ministered to their needs and educated their children, thus helping the second generation move toward the middle class:

"...Irish Catholics in Chicago used the process of church-building to create a place for themselves -- and leave their imprint on the landscape." p 24 ATC

St. Patrick's Church, Adams & Desplaines Streets, Chicago
 (Cook County, Illinois, from the 
Historic American
 Buildings Survey
"For immigrants and their children, churches such as Saint Patrick's and Holy Name represented a crucial beginning in creating community, identity, and a sense of belonging in their new urban neighborhoods." p. 30 ATC 

"...creating sacred space in the city built community and laid the foundation for other important initiatives, especially parochial schools and social services." p. 34 ATC

The reaction of US-born Americans to the stream of Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century is a familiar one in American history and is still around today in the immigration debate.  Whether newcomers are welcomed or fiercely rejected by those already here depends on several factors. One is the economy. If it is booming and jobs are plentiful, then new workers are accepted. But when jobs are scarce, new arrivals are viewed as a threat. A second factor, discussed by Eileen Durkin, one of the essayists in ATC, in her piece "Saint Patrick's Day at Saint Patrick's Church", is the number of incoming persons:

“By 1843, they (the Irish immigrants) accounted for only 773 of Chicago’s 7,580  residents (about 10%) ….” p. 5 ATC 

These numbers didn’t raise much worry among the native born population.  But in 1845, the Great Famine struck Ireland, and it continued to devastate the land until 1850. Trying to escape starvation, the Irish came to America in huge numbers, and many settled in Chicago as Ms. Durkin writes:

“After the Famine, almost one in five (about 20%) Chicagoans were Irish-born.”  p. 7 ATC

On the Library of Congress website, I found an advertisement for a "short-lived nativist newspaper" -- American Citizen -- that was published in Boston in 1852. It shows the venom of the nativist position:

A paper entitled the American patriot, Boston : Published by
 J.E. Farwell & Co., 1852, LC-DIG-ppmsca-07575, 
Library of Congress website
As illustrated above, another factor affecting the reception given to immigrants is the religion of the new arrivals. The large increase in mostly poor, low-skilled Irish Catholic immigrants caused fear and anger in the city. No longer were these Catholic newcomers unnoticed. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune in 1855, quoted by Lawrence J. McCaffrey in his essay "Preserving the Union, Shaping a New Image: Chicago's Irish Catholics and the Civil War", captured the sentiments of many “nativists” in Chicago:

“Who does not know that the most depraved, debased, worthless and irredeemable drunkards and sots which curse the community are Irish Catholics?” p. 53 ATC

But McCaffrey goes on to say that the Irish showed patriotism and bravery in the Civil War:
Col. Jas. A. Mulligan: Of the Illinois "Irish Brigade", 
New York: Currier & Ives, between 1860 and 1870,
 (digital file from original print),
 Library of Congress website.

 “…the Chicago Times acknowledged the bravery and patriotism of Irish immigrants and noted that thousands of Irish Catholics had already rushed to the rescue of their adopted country, leaving ‘peaceful avocations’; to bring ‘terror and dismay’ to the Confederate foe.” p. 64 ATC

Poverty, its causes and effects can be very public: disease-ravaged slums teeming with families in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation, abandoned children in the poor house, increasing numbers of the destitute, the hopelessness of lack of opportunity, domestic violence and drunkenness were not easy to overlook.

In the eyes of many of the Anglo-Saxon Protestants of Chicago, the poverty of the Irish and their foreign religion were a double threat to the public order. The fear that somehow the Pope might try to influence America’s government was still present when the Irish-American (4th generation Irish) John F. Kennedy  ran for President in 1960.

While local newspapers and some people running for office on an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic platform decried the Irish, the Catholic Church in Chicago set about helping them. As Suellen Hoy describes in her essay "Walking Nuns: Chicago's Irish Sisters of Mercy", in 1846, the Sisters of Mercy arrived in Chicago and began their life-saving ministry, including building Mercy Hospital:

Mercy Hospital, Chicago Daily News, Inc., 
photographer, 1909, DN-0007384,
Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

By 1849, “the Sisters of Mercy were already operating three schools, teaching Sunday School at Saint Patrick’s, running an employment bureau for Irish working women, volunteering at a free dispensary opened by Rush Medical College, and holding night classes for illiterate adults.”  Then “…when a cholera epidemic struck during the summer of 1849…a large number of Irish died….they [the Sisters] began nursing cholera victims.” p. 41 ATC

Sisters of Mercy, afunkydamsel, Taken on
 April 10, 2011, Flickr, Creative Commons.

The Irish turned to their parish churches for more than spiritual guidance, education for their children, and medical help. The parish became the foundation, the springboard for the Irish to infiltrate Chicago politics. It was in the parish that Irish politicians began building their power base, to take advantage of the Irishman’s desire to become American. Citizenship was an important step towards reaching the goal. And with citizenship came the right to vote. The influx of Irish voters guaranteed a majority voting the Irish ticket in Ward elections. And so control was gradually wrested away from the old Anglo-Saxon power elite. (pgs. 2-3 NCCI)  

But getting people to vote and getting into office was just the first part of the Irish-American politicos’strategy. The new Ward aldermen knew their way around the Anglo-Saxon system of government from all the years they and/or their parents had spent living in Ireland and dealing with British colonialism, a knowledge that the other immigrant groups to America lacked. (p. 2, NCCI) Using the boss system or machine politics, (and some would say abusing their political power), the aldermen provided relief to their communities:

“…the poor obtained food, coal, and jobs; Christmas turkeys and Easter hams found their way to empty tables; and the financial burden associated with baptisms, weddings, and wakes was lightened by contributions from the ward boss or his precinct captain.” (p. 14, NCCI)

As you can see, these two histories  ̶  one edited and one co-written by Ellen Skerrett  ̶  give us a clear picture of the life of the Irish in nineteenth century Chicago: their struggle to overcome prejudice, poverty, lack of a voice in the new land, and the role the Catholic Church played in both ameliorating the burdens of the first generation and moving the second generation into the American mainstream. But there is much more to discover in the two books.

Finley Peter Dunne, "Mr. Dooley", Artist: Ward, 
Leslie Matthew, aka SPY, Lithograph July 27, 1905,
 CCNY Art Collection, Flickr, public domain.
Another of the writers, Charles Fanning, presents the life story and career of Finley Peter Dunne, the creator of the Mr. Dooley columns in Chicago newspapers, in his essay "Mr. Dooley Reconsidered, Community Memory, Journalism and the Oral Tradition":

“Between 1893 and 1900, some three hundred Dooley pieces appeared ….Taken together, they form a coherent body of work, in which a vivid, detailed world comes into existence—a self-contained immigrant/ethnic culture with its own customs, ceremonies, ‘sacred sites,’ social pecking order, heroes, villains, and victims.” p. 72 ATC

As you can see, if you want a glimpse into what life was like for the Irish of Chicago in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, you will want to read Ellen Skerrett’s books. Since they are both out of print, you will need to use interlibrary loan, (ILL) or see if you can locate one on, as I did.

Categories: genealogy tools

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Conversing with Your Ancestors

A wonderful tool for genealogists is the mailing list. In a post from September 24, 2011, I wrote about how I used one of these lists to ask a question. You can read even more about this tool and how to use it in Kimberly Powell’s e-article she wrote for  called “How to Use Genealogy Mailing Lists toFurther Your Research.”

Help by Kosta Kostov, public

Genealogy mailing lists are a great source of information. Not only can you ask a question to the readers of the list, but you can see other people’s queries. Sometimes list members simply post items of interest.

In one of my favorite genealogy mailing lists, the  COOK-CO-IL list, I recently saw a message (Vol. 9 Issue 58) by Laura Aanenson in which she muses about questions she wishes she could ask her ancestors. Laura provides a link to her blog where you can read these questions. 

Just looking down the list of her questions, you get a good idea of how to start a genealogical search: look for vital records! But there are other questions in Laura’s list that most family historians soon learn aren’t easy to find the answers to. Information on the details of daily living, family traditions, and stories passed down: these can’t be found in the census or birth, marriage, and death records. We have to dig deeper.
Where, When, Who, What, Why, How?
 Office for Emergency Management.
 War Production Board, 
ca. 1942 - ca. 1943, Wikimedia.
Laura ended her mailing list message with an invitation to list readers to think of questions they would love to ask their ancestors. I would dearly love to have asked my great grandmother, Mary Carney/Kearney Kries Lauer, who died in 1955 when I was ten, a few things:
Taken by Art Spears, ca. 1955 of
Mary Carney Kries Lauer

  1. How did your parents spell their last name – Carney or Kearney?
  2. Where in Ireland were your parents born?
  3. Did your mother come over from Ireland on her own or with her family? When/where did she arrive in America?
  4. Were you really orphaned as the family story says? Were you put in a Catholic orphanage?
  5. Was Patrick William Kearney, who was born in 1877 and died just two years later, your brother?

Of course I would have a whole lot more things to ask, but the answers to these five questions would really help clear up some of my brick walls.

Brick wall and window by George Hodan,,
My friend and mentor, Kate from Chicago, also answered Laura’s challenge and posted her own set of ancestral questions on the Cook list. Again, Kate’s questions reflect what we yearn to know about our ancestors:

"I always want to know the human side of things. I want to see their eyes ... touch their hands ....
1. What do you remember about growing up? School? Housing? Chores? Celebrations? Tragedies?
2. What did he/she look like? Were they quiet/entertaining? Kind? Gruff?
3. What kind of clothes did you wear? Where did you get them?
4. What did you eat? What were family meals like?
5. Were you close to other family members? Neighbors? Involved in the parish?
6. What kind of work did they do? Describe it.
Kate in Chicago"

To really learn about the details of the lives of those who lived before us, we must dig deeper than the usual birth, marriage, death, and census records. We want to search for stories and histories, letters, diaries, journals, and newspapers. Even if our people did not leave their own personal writings, others who lived near them may have done so. Finding relevant sources  gives you the closest experience possible to being able to ask your ancestors about their lives.

Finally, Laura and Kate’s lists of ancestor questions can serve another function. Even if you can’t ask your questions of deceased ancestors, you can use these lists (and more that you create) to help frame interviews with living relatives. Take these to family reunions. Happy asking!

Miners and their families gather … at the Tennessee Consolidated 
Coal Company first annual picnic…, Environmental
 Protection Agency, 08/1974, Wikimedia.

Categories: genealogy tools, document types

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Writing an Outstanding Family Story

Many family historians begin their search for ancestors in the same way. We start with names and dates of birth and death, relationship to us, and finally countries of origin. But most of us are not satisfied to stop with just the facts. A common trait of genealogists is the hunger for knowledge. We want to know what kind of lives our ancestors had in their countries of birth. Why did some decide to emigrate and others didn’t? What were their lives like in their new countries?

Royall Tyler Collection's original manuscript by John Adams (1735–1826), Wikimedia.

For some of us, these questions can be answered by family stories, diaries and journals, letters, bibles, and published histories.

Letter to Abigail Adams, wife of former President John Adams,
 written by Jefferson at Monticello...15 May 1817.
The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Series 1, General Correspondence,
The Library of Congress, Washington, D. C., Wikimedia

 But for many, our forebears were struggling to survive and may not have been able to read or write. Their individual stories have been lost to the progression of generations who followed them. However, for some families a combination of an auspicious historical time period, a wealth of letter-writing members, and some living relations with excellent memories come together, just waiting for a modern-day scribe to weave a history.

David Laskin is a best-selling author who turned his talents to writing the history of his Hakohen family line in his book, TheFamily: Three Journeys Into The Heartof The Twentieth Century.
Used by permission of publisher
Laskin explains that this surname has three different spellings depending upon the country that some family members were living in. In Russia, where the family story first starts, the name was “Kaganovich.” In America, where one branch of the family immigrated, the name is “Cohen.” In Israel, where another branch chose to live, the name in Hebrew is “Hakohen.”1

Laskin begins his chronicle with Shimon Dov Hakohen and his wife Beyle Shapiro who were born in the mid-1800s in the Russian Pale of Settlement.

"Map of Western Russia Showing the Jewish Pale of Settlement,” 1905, Herman Rosenthal;
J.G. Lipman; Vasili Rosenthal; L. Wygodsky; M. Mysh; Abraham Galante (1905)
 "Russia" in 
The Jewish Encyclopedia: Vol. 10, Philipson–Samoscz,
 New York, N.Y.: 
Funk & Wagnalls, pp. 531, Wikimedia.
By 1900, six children, ranging in age from 17 to 38 were born, and several had children of their own. The family members lived in two small towns between Vilna  and Minsk. Most of Laskin’s story is about the lives of the children of Shimon and Beyle whose lives coincided with the twentieth century.

Like many family chroniclers, Laskin didn’t become interested in the story of his family as a young man. But when he did, he was very fortunate that several members of the family were still living who had knowledge of the past, from hearing first-hand accounts from relatives now passed away, and who were willing to share what they knew. Another very lucky break was the fact that much correspondence among family members, going back to the early 1900s, survived.

The first part of Laskin’s book tells about life for Shimon and Beyle Hakohen, their children and their grandchildren in the Pale. We learn of the conditions of daily life in a small village in the early years of the 1900s with Jewish and Christian neighbors living along side each other. We read about everyday family life, marriages, births, work and economic conditions.

Laskin also tells us of the pogroms that came with regularity and how these devastating periods of slaughter of Jews out of ethnic hatred impacted the younger generation of Hakohens. This history of institutionalized persecution along with bleak economic prospects propeled two branches of third-generation Russian Hakohens out of the Pale forever, illustrating the “push factor” in emigration.
We know the reasons that pushed the young Hakohens to leave the Pale, but what were the “pull factors” or the motives behind where they chose to emigrate? Laskin gives an inspiring picture of Sonia and Chaim Kaganovich, grandchildren of Shimon Dov Hakohen and first cousins, who longed to be part of establishing a Jewish homeland.

Pioneers in Kibbutz Ein Harod , Settlements in Israel,
 between 1920 and 1925,

In Chapters 11 and 12, we read of their separate journeys to Palestine, their individual beginnings in the land and their coming together in marriage. What a powerful window of history Laskin opens for us as we glimpse the struggles of Jews and Arabs to live in the same land.
British Mandate for Palestine, Seblini, 29 January 2012, Wikimedia.
 We watch the pioneering Jews as they tackle often harsh climate conditions to turn barren land into thriving farms. This is a genealogist’s dream: to see into their emigrant ancestors’ daily lives in their new countries.

So far Laskin has introduced us to two branches of the Kaganovich family: one that stayed in the Pale and one that made a foothold in Palestine. But there is a third branch. Itel Kaganovich, the oldest granddaughter, who was born in 1886, had a talent for sewing and for fighting injustice. In Chapter 3, Laskin describes Itel’s journey from seamstress to revolutionary. The younger generation of Jews in the Pale were organizing against the system that condoned the cycle of mayhem against their people. Itel became part of the movement to such a degree that her life was in danger. The man she loved had left for America to escape the death sentence of having to serve in the Tsar’s army as a Jew. After her family was warned that she would be jailed, Itel sailed for America where she would be known as “Ida” and would become a phenomenal success.

"The Steerage" 1907 photograph by Alfred Stieglitz,
public domain, Wikimedia.

Laskin allows us to see the day-by-day struggle of Ida from a near penniless young seamstress
“…a sweatshop inspection in Chicago, Illinois”,
1903, Chicago Historical Society, Wikimedia.

 looking for work on the Lower East Side of New York to the owner of Maidenform Bra Company. So many genealogists have stories of family members who came to America with nothing but hopes and worked hard so that their children could have life a little easier. But very few actually strike it rich and end up owning a world famous company. Laskin shows us just how Ida put together her creative talent, a risk-taking nature, hard work, and a head for business. We get to go on Ida’s unforgettable journey along with her.

As Laskin tells the story of his family, he gives us his theory on the types of immigrants:

“Some immigrants forever grieve for their “real’ homes, the predawn smell of baking bread, the glaze of rain on cobblestone, the echo of bells in the alley. Others step off the boat, fill their lungs with the raw unfamiliar air, and get to work. They never look back because they never have a moment to spare or an urge to regret.”2 

David Laskin’s book is an example of the best kind of family history. Readers not only get the personal history of the family, but these individual stories are woven into local, regional and world history. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Laskin taught a class in “How to write your Family Story” at a professional genealogy conference? While we wait for that to happen, pick up his book and read it for the exciting story that it is, but also study it as an example of excellent genealogy writing.


1David Laskin, The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century (New York, New York: Viking, Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2013), p. 1

2 Ibid., p. 55

Categories: research terms