Although we live in a floating home that can be moved by simply casting off the docklines, we still have a strong sense of our roots. This past week, colleagues shared their stories from their Christmas holidays. One co-worker travelled to his childhood home and spent hours driving country roads with his Dad who told stories of days gone by. Places were identified by who used to live there, not by their current occupants: the old Sadler farm or Auntie Gail’s house. For people who did not share in the town’s history, the stories would require a historic map to decipher.
For years, my Mom has been trying to trace her family roots back to County Cork, Ireland. An orphan by the age of sixteen, the past gives my Mom a sense of where she came from. I have encouraged her to join ancestry.ca, but she is unfamiliar with computers and intimidated by the prospect. Therefore, I thought I would help her by signing up for the 14-day free trial offer and I haven’t had eight hours of sleep since.
I found out about her grandfather and three of his eight siblings who made the difficult passage across the Atlantic Ocean after post-potato famine days in Ireland. Met with hostility by those who begrudged the newcomers for taking jobs, they stuck together with their kin and worked hard to develop roots in their new home.
I was ecstatic to find their arrival details at Ellis Island in New York City. On May 23, 1892, Inman Lines’ SS City of Chicago (450 feet long by 45 feet wide) arrived carrying a Mom and Dad and four of their children: Thomas J Nagle – farmer, Mary Driscoll, wife, William Nagle – farmer (21), David Nagle – farmer (19), Michael – child (18) and Mary – child (12). Can you imagine how terrifying this must have been for a 12-year old child? The contrast from living in rural Ireland to seeing the Statute of Liberty as they arrived at Ellis Island in New York City.
It was often a customs clerk handwriting the information as 350-400 passengers disembarked ships after weeks at sea: Irish, Norwegian, English, Swedish – all looking for a better life. The occupation for males was often identified as “farmer” even though the immigrants may have been carpenters or other skilled workers. Mistakes were made about nationality and now a century later, their descendants struggle to find proof of their ancestors’ existence.
Today, the idea of crossing an ocean is a daunting task and 120 years ago it was even more so. A quick look at a list of ships wrecked during the 19th century and lives lost would make you think twice before crossing the mighty Atlantic. In fact, the City of Chicago ran aground off the coast of Cork, Ireland in fog two months after my ancestors arrived. Her quick-thinking captain kept the engine running to keep the boat on the rocks instead of slipping back into deeper waters allowing time for all of her passengers and crew to be rescued.
When you start looking online for your ancestors, you will bump into others doing the same thing. The amount of resource information available online is staggering and the generosity of those who will help is amazing. My simple tweet looking for information about Mary Driscoll from Clonakilty, Cork, Ireland resulted in immediate retweets and suggested websites.
It’s important to know where we belong, where our roots are anchored. But in our search for our roots, it becomes apparent that we are all connected and the further back you search the closer those connections are.