Ancestors: The Things You Don’t Expect to Learn

There are some things about ancestors where I did not expect to have a “Who Do You Think You Are?” moment. I am a professional and have researched family history (genealogy) for years. I have expertise in the Mid-Atlantic states areas, although I also have familiarity with Slovak, Canadian, and Californian records and I know enough of the basics for being “dangerous.” I love the topic, seemingly never stop talking about it, and I eat, breathe, and generally do things with it more likely than not.

It’s been a long time since I last researched my family. There’s been a break of a few years, full-disclosure. It’s been a rough time, actually. That aside, tonight I needed to get back to my touch-stone. I came to one of my schools in a rain storm because of their Ancestry Library subscription. Usually this means that I start asking “who wants to be found?” and follow whatever guidance there is. Not exactly the professional manner of doing things, but I always find things that way. Going by one’s gut, instincts, or other methods, it produces the same results. And training helps with knowing search patterns, but it was looking and then I came across “nothing” for a while. Searched a few people…whomever looked interesting, but nothing methodical. I was actually distracted by the people next to me.

After looking up my g^x power great-grandma, I was playing on the site and noticed ships manifests… more records were there than were on the site a few years ago. Before, it was always my great-grandfather and his sister. Been there, memorized those. This time, though, it was different.

I saw my great-aunt Regina Opacity’s record. She was a good, nice woman from all accounts. She had some sort of eye problem and came to America and lived with my great-grandfather’s family. Tonight I saw her manifest and then saw her detention record. I looked over her detention report, and although on the manifest it gave the record of who she was going to live with, she was still detained for the following reasons: “LPC Aliens likely to become public charges, P.D. Aliens with mental, physical, economic or educational disqualifications”. That ticked me off. She had someone who she was going to, legitimately. It was the same family member that my great-grandfather went to, and it was not a “fake” family member. So what if she had a problem with her eye? This was prior to EEO, but … I felt defensive for her. I tried to investigate the inspector, but came up with nothing from minimal Google searching.

All that I know is that when I was Ellis Island years ago, I felt drawn to the inspection room for reasons unknown to me. I was honestly scared of the inspection room although I had no legitimate reason for this emotion for my own purposes. I saw the stairs leading up to the room, and the thought of “The stairs! The stairs!” came to mind. Felt like a scared adrenaline rush. It was not my personal thought process. I tried to look into the room but I was too short. Still, I felt compelled to see the inside of that room. Went down the stairs and then up a side stairway to the outer balcony area to try to see into the room as it was set a little lower than the outside for sight lines. I could not see much, but I felt like something that was not positive happened there and I was the first family member back to that place since they all came through originally in the 1920’s. It had been 85 years but something was as fresh as if it was two weeks ago and traumatic. I was witness of some sort, and Regina was NOT happy with whatever happened there. She was dead years before my birth. However, there was a feeling of fiery indignation, and I could assume that whatever happened there was basically humiliating. Unknown character Inspector Marsh was on her detention sheet. I think that she was the only one detained from her ship, and she was at the most 26 years old in 1921. Come to your own conclusions.

Great Hall, Ellis Island

Great Hall, Ellis Island, 2006, Pictures shot by author.

The design of Ellis Island made the Great Hall into two wings. One was where they had the computers for the tourists. Back then, it was crowd control. Took a while to get to the other section where there was a massive glass window made up of miniature windows where there was the most beautiful New York skyline possible. Stuck between the ocean and across a very short bay to a beautiful New York skyline, waiting for a fate that could be anything, better or worse than home.

Ellis Island parapet from archives

Ellis Island Parapet through archives skylight, July 2006.

I made an appointment before arriving there to see what was in their archives on the roof of the building (I could not take pictures in the archive, so I snapped the parapet.) There was a collection of photographs taken by one of the inspectors. Striking, but every photograph had a person dressed up as if they were one step below meeting the queen yet they all had the most hateful, distrustful expressions on their faces. These were not happy people. Dressed to make the best impression that they could, fearful for their lives. Despite the nostalgic view that people on this side of Atlantic have a few generations later about civil liberties and the like, no one came here only because of opportunity. It was either America or in many cases death. Not exactly the best thing ever, but better than starving. I have no idea what kinds of features were available to the travelers, but I know that I have been extremely lucky and blessed in how people treat me thinking about Regina and her treatment upon coming to “the land of opportunity.”

Regina had a happy life with her family, but she never married and never had children. All that I know is that years ago when I was at Ellis Island, I did not expect to see or feel any of that. In going there, I was so happily expectant to make this connection of being somewhere where family members had been and figured that “Yeah. I’m part of America. My family came through Ellis Island,” and I bought two of the same shirt and still wear them. Then I learned more about the struggles of Americans that had nothing to do with military, but had everything to do with freedom. Now, seeing her detention record, I have documentation to back up those impressions. Although my experience was personal, the documentation was there and I found it. I doubt that anyone of my family has seen this since it was first typed over 90 years later. Digitized years after my trip, the document and experience did not come together until tonight and I remembered what happened.

Leaving Ellis Island

Leaving Ellis Island, afternoon July 2006.

Somehow I think that I am not the only person who something like this has happened to, but I wanted to write it down. There’s a lot more out there than natural senses explain and sometimes documents help. Had that not happened, this would be just another document. Her basics vital stats were recent enough that the family knew parts about her life that she came to America, lived with the family and was “everyone’s favorite aunt.” I did not know what else she had been through, and both experiences make her life more fleshed out. I do not know other aspects of her life, but I feel like she is determined to matter to her great-grandniece. I am listening and learning.