My Immigrant Ancestors: History and Genealogy

Last Sunday I posted the last of my Immigrant Ancestors. Every individual who left their home country to live in the United States has been documented (to the best of my knowledge).

While researching the finer details and filling in gaps of information (to the best of my ability) through Ancestry.com I noticed an interesting trend – my French Canadian/Creole ancestors all left Canada in the late 1800s. Some left with children and babies, which was no small matter during that time. Many settled down in French Canadian/Creole communities with similarly recent French Canadian immigrants, some of whom where blood relation. This made me wonder what, exactly, was happening in Canada during the following years: 1864, 1865, 1869, 1871, 1873. Why were so many people risking everything and moving their entire families into the United States?

A bit of online research led me to resources that clearly differentiate this period from the Great Expulsion that occurred between 1700-1750.

I am a product of the American public school system, which is not known for it’s lessons in either geography or history (or any other number of topics, depending on where in the USA one might be living). Therefore, I was very surprised to learn that the Great Expulsion occurred at all!

Here are a few details from the history books…

Great Expulsion (1700-1750)

The British wanted to control Canada and the United States. (In the United States this same period of time is known as the French and English war, the Seven Year War, and/or the French and Indian War.) When they managed to secure control of the eastern edge of Canada they proceeded to forcibly remove all French, French-speaking and Acadian people. This mass forced migration adversely affected large numbers of European, Native Canadian (first nations) and Metis/Creole (mixed) people. The following TheCanadianEncyclopedia.ca quote sums up this terrible event:

“Of some 3,100 Acadians deported after the fall of Louisbourg in 1758, an estimated 1,649 died by drowning or disease, a fatality rate of 53 per cent.

Between 1755 and 1763, approximately 10,000 Acadians were deported. They were shipped to many points around the Atlantic. Large numbers were landed in the English colonies, others in France or the Caribbean. Thousands died of disease or starvation in the squalid conditions on board ship. To make matters worse, the inhabitants of the English colonies, who had not been informed of the imminent arrival of disease-ridden refugees, were furious. Many Acadians were forced, like the legendary Evangeline of Longfellow’s poem, to wander interminably in search of loved ones or a home.”

As I read about the Great Expulsion, I couldn’t help but compare it to the forced removal of Native Americans from the southern United States. The following History.com quote about the Trail of Tears makes for a sadly (disturbingly) similar story:

“At the beginning of the 1830s, nearly 125,000 Native Americans lived on millions of acres of land in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida–land their ancestors had occupied and cultivated for generations. By the end of the decade, very few natives remained anywhere in the southeastern United States. Working on behalf of white settlers who wanted to grow cotton on the Indians’ land, the federal government forced them to leave their homelands and walk thousands of miles to a specially designated “Indian territory” across the Mississippi River. This difficult and sometimes deadly journey is known as the Trail of Tears.”

Economics, Community and Religion (1850-1900)

As for the late 1800s, the reasons for migration were more complicated. The Metis/Creole,  French speaking and Catholic communities were not treated well under the British government. The opportunities for securing land, running a farm or business and/or getting a job were limited at best. People left Canada looking for better wages in the United States and settled in this country with full-intention of returning to Canada. Many sent money back to families while living here. Most chose to remain after spending a few years in (comparative) financial security.

In other words, they were financial refugees – not unlike the current financial refugees entering the United States from South American countries (and other places around the globe).

Politics of Settlement

Another key historic event is the removal of Native Americans from the Midwest (during the mid 1800s, this was considered ‘the west’). The US government was aggressively recruiting European people to move into the frontier regions, with the full intention of keeping…and continuing to take…lands from their former inhabitants. Light-skinned French speaking Canadians were considered to be white European, which meant the opportunities for economic security were greater in the USA than in Canada.

Conclusion?

Personally, I have taken two key lessons from all of this:

  1. Genealogy makes for an excellent history lesson. Being able to connect historic events to the experiences of your ancestors has a way of turning boring and seemingly irrelevant facts into something very personal and (therefore) interesting.
  2. The more things change, the more they stay the same – and/or those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

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