Like many Americans, I come from a ethnic mix that could only happen in this country, my mother being Irish and Manx and my father Hungarian and Slavic. I love genealogy, but cannot go back further than great-grandparents in any direction before I come up against a boat. In this respect I am envious of my husband whose people have all been here since the mid 1800's or longer and also came from places like Holland and Switzerland where excellent records were kept.
As a child I grew up very aware of being Irish (with an Irish grandmother born on St Patrick's day how could I miss) especially the history and culture, particularly the music. (Trying to learn anything about my Manx heritage was another adventure). The heavy focus on the Celts occasionally annoyed my father ("you're Hungarian too you know", he'd mutter, somewhat amused). Ironically one area that we were very Hungarian was the cuisine, since my mom never learned to cook till her mother in law taught her. But when I tried to explore in more detail that side of my family tree I ran into not only boats, but the Iron Curtain.
It wasn't my dad's fault either; as the youngest of 7 kids (and 11 years younger than the next oldest) his immigrant father was quite assimilated by the time he came along. Fluent in English by then, Hungarian was only spoken when my grandparents wanted to talk in front of the kids. My grandfather seldom spoke of his roots, telling his children "We're Americans now."
My grandmother lived with us when I was a child, but her stories were mostly about my dad's childhood, not hers or my grandfather's. Because my grandfather died when I was a baby,(the only one of my grandparents I never knew) I felt a particular desire to know him better.
As soon as I could get online with my poky computer without crashing I went searching for my grandfather. I knew the spelling of the name had been changed, supposedly on Ellis Island, because we had a a Hungarian prayerbook that my grandfather had brought with him. I typed in the name in what we believed to have been the original spelling and got a hit. I told the computer to take me to the page.
There it was, the log for the Cunard ship Pannonia, which arrived at Ellis Island on November 9, 1907 at 1048am--and on line 27 I found my grandfather.
I can't describe the thrill I felt as I stared at the screen. Finally I felt I had made a connection with the side of my family I had neglected for so long. It was one of the great moments of my life.
In a few minutes of Internet searching I confirmed everything I had ever known, and picked up more. He had been trained as a butcher. His next of kin was his mother, whose name was Kathy. I had the name of the town he had come from, the location he was staying at in New York. I had his age and height. I knew he was literate.Because Austria-Hungary was a big empire at the time his exact ethnicity could have been uncertain, but here it stated "Magyar". His boat had sailed from Fiume and could carry 400 regular passengers and 800 in steerage.
The Ellis Island site also has a link to all the ships that came through immigration, so I was able to view a picture of the Pannonia, and learn a little of its history. The Iron Curtain had come up a little bit.
Since then, with greater digitization and availability of records, I have learned more about my family. For example, Ellis Island was totally innocent in the matter of the name change, it happened some time after the 1920 census.
I have learned several lessons from this particular exercise in genealogy. First is the vital importance of oral records. If a family member tells you something, write it down. If the kids or grandkids give you one of those memory books for Christmas, fill it out. (My Irish grandmother filled one out and my mom and aunts made bound copies for all the grand kids. It has been invaluable.) Share info with other family members. Remember what you are doing now will be your descendants' genealogy, so take lots of pictures and label them.
And if anyone in your family came through Ellis Island go toEllis Island's web page and check it
out. Looking at the documents is free, free, free (you can purchase prints if you like).
The site is very informative and easy to use. And I wish you the same thrill I had when I landed on Line 27 for the first time.