Monday, August 11, 2014

Escape to Kentucky in the 1940s

If you aren’t yet familiar with the novel, A Far Piece to Canaan, by Sam Halpern, you’re in for an unforgettable reading experience.

Used by permission of
Harper Collins and author
 This book, although a novel, reads like a memoir. The first-person narrative keeps you riveted to the page.

You can read Canaan on many levels. First, there is the pure joy of being immersed in rural Kentucky of the 1940s. For anyone with an interest in family history, this is a visit to a by-gone time and place that you won’t want to miss.

When you read Canaan, you get a glimpse of daily life seventy years ago in a small farming community where everyone (except the few landlords) is trying to eke out a living by sharecropping. Although extreme poverty hangs over the community, this seems to help bring people together. We watch neighbors come together at revival meetings, during plantings and harvests when someone is injured or falls sick, and when their stock
Sheep grazing on farm of Russell Spears near Lexington, Kentucky, 
[1940 Sept.?], LC-USF33-031128-M1, 
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 
Washington, DC 20540 USA
 is threatened by an unknown peril.

The main character is Samuel Zelinsky, who at the outset is the twelve-year old son of a Jewish couple, Morris and Liz Zelinsky. Morris is a sharecropper, and the novel begins when the family moves to an area “fifteen miles south of Lexington, Kentucky” to begin three years of cropping on Mr. Berman’s farm. You can read Canaan as a “coming of age” story. Halpern weaves an interlocking tale of a group of young boys who have fun doing things that kids today often miss out on as they build friendships. But the group also finds out that life can put you into situations where you are torn between loyalty and doing what’s right.

Halpern appeals to all of our senses as he paints a picture of Kentucky:

“March and early April crept by in their wet, cool, blustery, miserable way, and real spring come on with its bee-buzzing sounds and warm-wind feeling. 

ForestWander Nature Photography, Wikimedia.
The brown hills turned dark green and the apple trees busted out in pink-white. The creek in the hollow below the tobacco barn
Field of Burley tobacco on farm of Russell Spears, 
drying and curing barn
 in the background, vicinity of Lexington, Ky., 
 photographer, 1940 Sept.,  
LC-DIG-fsac-1a34368, Library of Congress
 Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540
 settled back inside its banks and it was a great feeling to belly down beside it and listen to its sounds and let the sun beat down on my back and smell the grass and warm, black, soft, moist ground.” p. 21

Canaan is also a testament to the American Dream of owning your own piece of land. Genealogists who study early America from the mid-1600s through the early 1900s are familiar with the hunger for land that resulted in people spreading across this continent. I believe this “land rush” lasted longer and had more effect on the making of America than almost any other phenomenon.

By the time Samuel Zelinsky’s family came to Kentucky, the time of land patents, homestead acts, land rushes and military bounty land warrants was long gone. You had to have resources to buy land in the 1940s and after the Great Depression of the past decade, many people had very few. 

Canaan gives us a chance to see the scourges of this poverty up-front as the families in this story are all barely making it from season to season. They often see their profits eaten up by what the landlord claims and by what bad weather does to their crops. But what keeps them going is the hope that sometime in the future, with lots of hard work and luck, they might be able to save some dollars for a down payment on their own few acres.

Willie Nall, 11 years old; Raymond Jones, 10 years old; Denver Jones, 
5 years old; plowing on farm, …Elizabethtown vicinity,
 Kentucky; Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940, photographer; 
1916 May 5, LC-DIG-nclc-00399, Library of Congress Prints
 and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA

For those genealogists who wonder, and I think that includes all of us, how childhood circumstances affected our ancestors in their adult lives, Canaan lets us look over Samuel Zelinsky’s shoulder as he interacts with his peers on neighboring farms. We learn about the values that Samuel internalizes from his day-to-day socialization, some from his parents but mostly from the boys who become his friends. And Canaan’s author gives us the opportunity to see how this early part of Samuel’s life plays a part in his efforts in later life to fit in in college and the workplace.

The book also touches on the themes of immigration and religious persecution. The Zelinsky family is Jewish, and Morris was sent to America from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s to escape pogroms. But he found that even in America, the land of immigrants from so many cultures and religions, anti-semitism was present. When his mother worries about Samuel’s friends, Morris assures her that the boys are good for Samuel:

“…there’s nothing wrong with those boys. They’re good kids and they treat him like one of their own. They don’t hold it against him that he’s a Jew. They don’t look up to him or down at him, just across, and that’s what I want for Samuel.” p. 34

As you watch the adventures that Samuel and his friends have and how they treat each other, you can judge whether or not Morris was right.

You can read Canaan on many different levels: a sociological study of mid-twentieth century rural America, a psychological profile of a man whose relationship challenges in adulthood have their roots in his childhood, a rip-roaring saga of the everyday doings of young boys in the days when after the work was done, you could get lost all day in the woods and never see an adult.

document types

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