Recently, my grandmother proposed an interesting challenge to me. She told me that I had relatives that immigrated to America straight from England; namely, her grandparents. She also had names, addresses, and locations that matched what she knew about her grandparents’ lives in England. However, there were some big gaps in the information that she had, as she hadn’t asked them much about their lives back in their home country when she was young. I did have some old newspaper articles describing their lives in Wisconsin, carefully preserved in laminate. With the birth dates and records that she provided me, I went on a history-fueled scavenger hunt to give me some clues about some of my British family members.
I started with the smaller tasks rather than their more herculean cousins; I found out what the mysterious “E.E” that made up my great-great grandpa’s middle names stood for (Ernest Edward, as it turned out). I located their Ellis Island immigration records from 1910 and 1913 and was rewarded with pictures of what their ships’ mythological-sounding names were. Then came the harder stuff, by which I mean sorting out who my great-great-great (whew, that’s a lot of greats) grandparents could be from a slew of other Williams, Samuels, Anns, and Sarahs. After a number of hours on the computer over a couple of days, I uncovered an entire line of people dating back to 1760 on my great-great grandfather’s side. It just so happens that some of my ancestors were christened in a church where Charles Dickens would wander the pews and pluck names for his characters from the gravestones (how’s that for an interesting fact?). I especially laughed when I found out that the place where my great-great grandparents grew and worked was a mere 22 minutes from the place where I will be studying in the fall. Other facts that I found were sad, as many of the old churches were ruined in the bombings that arrived with the war that my great-great grandparents likely moved to America to evade.
As I riddled out the names of more and more people, I gathered bits and pieces about the jobs they had, the parishes where they worshipped, and even where they might be buried. Parts of the research were frustratingly difficult to carry out, especially because it is hard to trace a maternal lineage due to the name changes that come with marriage. Even so, it was strangely comforting to me to sort through all of these photocopied documents and ship manifests. When I arrive in London in September, I no longer have to think of it as a completely foreign landscape. I can view one street as the former site of the teahouse where my great-great grandmother was a manageress. I can see the docks as the place where my great-great uncle eventually was shipped off to the Boer War in South Africa. It makes me feel safer to know that I came from such courageous people. After all, my great-great grandma sailed across the Atlantic by herself to start a life in a new country. I never chalked up bravery to be a quality that I have in excess, but who knows…maybe it’s a family trait?