Once when I was a kid my grandfather on my mother’s side was telling me about his parents, both of whom were born in Italy and moved to the United States separately before meeting, marrying, and putting the family on the path that led to me. Despite my greatest efforts to corroborate this piece of family history, all my searching over the years has so far proved fruitless. I began having even greater doubts when I began as a volunteer at Ellis Island National Monument. Folks would come in and state confidently that “My great grandmother came through here in 1867,” or whatever version of their family story passed down to them. The trouble is, Ellis Island did not become an immigration station until 1892. And, even if one’s relatives did come to America between 1892-1924, there is still a good chance they passed through one of the many other immigration stations across the United States. Baltimore, Savannah, New Orleans, or in my great grandparents’ case Boston, are just a few of the other port cities through which the huddled masses were arriving in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I suppose people think “Ellis Island” because a) it was the largest and, b) it is now–quite properly–integral to our national story.
This came back to me a week or so ago when I forwarded this piece to some colleagues at work. It is about the 10,000 Jews who passed through Galveston Texas from 1907-1917 and eventually settled in the Lone Star State. Indeed many thousands from Eastern Europe had come before them. A spectacular exhibit on Galveston as an immigration station toured the country a few years ago, and made a stop at Ellis Island itself. Stories like this are important reminders that much of what we think we know is, at best, incomplete. Think “Immigrants, 1907” and the narrative shorthand in your head thinks “Lower East Side, tenements, crowded streets.” That is certainly part of the story, but as always the full story is more complicated and interesting. It is a scary proposition. Who wants to think that what they believe might be wrong? I know that fighting such simplifications is something a struggle with every day in my own writing and research. I saw Ellis Island visitors struggling with the same issue when processing that maybe their own history was not so simple. So what is one to do? There is not much to do but accept this and embrace complexity whatever the consequences.
(image/Library of Congress)