Immigrants everywhere

All this talk about immigrants lately had me wondering about my European roots, so I did a little bit of digging.

My father’s side of the family is hopeless. I think they came over to the Americas from England and the Netherlands in the bilge, along with the rats, and almost immediately lit out for the frontier, where ever it was, probably because they were all ruffians and scalawags who got chased out of any civilized settlement. They were immigrants, all right, but I don’t know of any reliable records. They’ve been here since the 17th century, I think, and probably up to no good.

My mother’s side is easier: all Scandinavian farmers. I knew my great grandparents with their strong accents and their house decorated with Swedish and Norwegian accents, and that’s where I learned to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Norwegian (don’t ask me now, I’ve completely forgotten).

My great grandfather, Peter Westad, was born in 1880, in Minnesota. He was American by birth! My great-great-grandfather, Jens Westad, was also born in America in 1850, also in Minnesota. It clearly took them several generations to acculturate. My great-great-grandfather, Dyre Westad, was apparently born in Norway, but that’s all I know about him.

The surprise, to me, was that it was the women who were all more recent immigrants. I guess those Norwegian bachelor farmers who were living the hard farming life in frigid Minnesota had to write off to the old country for their brides.

So, my great-grandmother, Christina Stephenson, was born in 1884 in Transtrand, Sweden, and came over to the US in her early 20s to marry Peter. I had to look up Transtrand: current population is 386, so I guess it wasn’t too great of a shock to move to northern Minnesota.

My great-great-grandmother, Marit Olsdatter, was also an import, born in Flesberg, Norway in 1849, and brought to the US to marry Jens. Flesberg seems a bit more cosmopolitan now, with a population of 2500.

I hadn’t realized what a lovely example of chain migration was in my family history, where one or a few pioneers establish a foothold and then bring in friends and family at later dates to build up a community. It’s also an example of how immigrant families adapt over time, where time is several generations.

It’s also what’s going on with families from Somalia and Syria and all those other countries our government wants to ban — which is nothing less than an effort to disrupt that pattern of chain migration which is so important to accommodating people to a new country. There’s no difference in the general pattern between a Scandinavian family in the 1850s and a Somali family in the 2000s — let ’em live and grow and they will be a productive part of the American culture.

What part of your family would have been wrecked by current policies?

I had another thought: those radical immigrants, coming in and challenging the established order, are one of the concerns of the powers-that-be. The Scandinavians had them, too, like Joel Emmanuel Hägglund from Gävle, Sweden, better known as Joe Hill. A labor activist and songwriter, he was killed by The Man in 1915.

We need more Joe Hills. Maybe they’ll come from those Muslim countries this time around.


  1. gmacs says

    My mom’s great-grandparents all came over from Norway. Her father (two generations later) did probably about half his schooling in Norwegian. He continued to sing hymns in Norwegian his whole life.

    My wife’s grandmother was born in the US, as were her parents before that. But two generations in, and they spoke German at home. She told us she didn’t learn to speak English until she went off to school at 5 or 6.

    And yet, I hear family members of mine talk about how immigrants need to assimilate.

  2. stevewatson says

    Mine wouldn’t — they were all white, Protestant and English, i.e. the “good” kind of Canadian immigrant. My wife’s Eastern European Jewish forebears, however….

  3. says

    Yeah, my father’s family were the “good” kind of American, too. Scandinavians are sort of in there, too, although at the time of peak immigration, the squareheads faced some resentment and discrimination, which is probably one other reason they clustered so tightly.

  4. chigau (ever-elliptical) says

    I am Canadian.
    All four grandparents were immigrants.
    Two from England, two from Hungary.

  5. Becca Stareyes says

    My father is an Irish immigrant who got his citizenship after 9-11 when he suspected there might be increased problems with not being a citizen of the USA and doing scientific research that occasionally required government labs. His first US residence was the Boston area (he was a grad student at Harvard), which had a large Irish diaspora community. (And right now is blogging about how this ban is messing with academia: given his background, I imagine that comes to mind first.)

    Right now, the Irish are considered the ‘right’ sort of immigrant: white, Christian, and English-speaking. But it’s easy to remember times in the past when being Catholic, or being mostly poor, or coming from an area unsettled by terrorism or famine made you the ‘wrong’ sort, even if you were white and English-speaking.

    Mom’s family is mostly Irish diaspora in the Boston area, so those ancestors did emigrate when they were the ‘wrong’ sort of immigrant. She told me stories about how the Irish Catholic community reacted to JFK as ‘their president’ in ways that echo Obama and the African American community later.

  6. cartomancer says

    A quick search of English Parish Registers online turns up 313 people called Myers (or variants such are Myres and Myars) born in England between 1600 and 1700. The vast majority in Yorkshire (mostly Guiseley and Leeds), some in Lancashire and Shropshire, one or two in London. One of them might well be an ancestor.

  7. cartomancer says

    I would add my own story of immigrant ancestors to the mix, but it turns out that precisely one of my forebears went to live somewhere other than where they were born. My paternal Grandmother came to Kent from Roscommon in Ireland, but all her ancestors, as far as we can tell, remained firmly where they were in Roscommon. My paternal Grandfather and my mother’s entire family have been in Kent since at least the Twelfth Century. I wouldn’t be surprised to find they were autocthones, sprung from the soil fully formed.

  8. blf says

    I don’t particularly trust the stories I’ve been told. Only one person cared; I don’t, I’m not interested. That one individual claimed to have done some self-research back in the days of dusty volumes, but that individual’s research abilities are highly questionable.

    Assuming the stories are true, both sides of my family came from Prussia. Except when I was living in Ireland, then someone really came from Ireland. (See what I mean about questionable research?) My surname, however, is not Prussian / germanic, but could be Irish…

    In the Prussian version, both came to someplace in the South, at different times, before both moved towards the northern midwest. After that I haven’t a clew (e.g., I have no idea where my parents met (see? not interested!)), with the additional confusion I myself was not born in the States.

    In at least one version of the Prussian version, supposedly an enslaved Native American was raped. Due to the highly dubious “research”, the victim is probably the someone who magically later came from Ireland.

  9. says

    I’m English by birth, to an East London family with a South African grandfather, and Scots on the maternal side.

    That is to say, I’m an immigrant to Canada, daughter of an immigrant to England, granddaughter of an immigrant family in South Africa.

    Of course, being white, I’m “the good kind” of immigrant, the kind who get called expats.

  10. =8)-DX says

    Immigrant here. Thought of posting the different countries of birth and life of me and my parents, but decided posting identifiable information about oneself online is not a good idea, what with all the doxxing and harassment anti-“sjw” dudes are happy to indulge in now.

  11. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    My maternal heritage is all German. Her parents were both 1st generation immigrants. Who settled in ‘Cinci’ Ohio.
    My paternal side is undecipherable British, a melange of English, Irish, maybe Scottish, and possibly Welsh. Who knows. Recent ancestors settled on roughly the eastern edge of the MidWest.
    I lack the will to undergo a DNA analysis to get the precise ancestry. My maternal grandfather originally had the family name Giwer, yet immigration altered its spelling to its german pronunciation of Giver. Or he might have changed it himself because all the Americans he knew kept pronouncing it Giwer in English; I can’t fully recall. I’ve heard it both ways.

  12. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Three of my great grandparents were born in Scotland. The others were descended from some mix of German, English, and Irish Americans (maybe some Dutch thrown in; who knows what else?). One of my ancestors was in the first wave of European immigrants to New England (aka the Mayflower); his family seems to have been Huguenot.

    My wife is Spanish, from the Basque country but mostly Asturian. She probably has some Moorish ancestry.

  13. Sean Boyd says

    One of my dad’s grandmothers was Mohawk, a schoolteacher in upstate New York. Census records indicate she was white, although as I understand it, Indians were rarely listed as Indian on census records of that era. Down the other side of his family tree is a path to Colonel Daniel Axtell, who was hanged, drawn and quartered by Charles II for his part in deposing Charles I. One of Axtell’s descendents, Moses, is rumored to have participated in the Boston Tea Party, although I can’t find any evidence that he boarded any of the involved ships. My mom is Polish, born in England, raised in Argentina until coming to the US at age 10. Both sides of her family were in Poland during the blitzkrieg. Her dad was a POW, and became an atheist as a result of what he experienced. Her mom was ethnic German: they descended from a family with surname von Braunek (sp?). Accordingly, her family was treated better by the Nazis than most others, although stripped of what little wealth they had. Maternal grandparents met in England, as refugees. Their emigration to the USA from Argentina was due to my granddad’s skill as a machinist, a profession he worked at into his late 70’s. TLDR; my family has both benefited (hello USA!) and suffered from immigration: hello Puritans :(.

  14. joeeggen says

    All of my ancestry came from the region around Dusseldorf, Germany, shortly after the beginning of the 20th Century, and settled in central Missouri. I grew up on the farm that my maternal great great grandfather established over a century ago, in a town of ~260 people. We were/are Catholic (well, except for me and my siblings), which makes us the “alright” sort of immigrant lineage now, I guess.
    Well, I suppose *I’m* not the right sort of American any more, since I decided to leave my country roots for my education, met a nice girl from communist China, got married, had a baby, and got a job with the Evil Federal Gov’t in one of those crime-ridden East Coast cities.
    This immigrant ban has me worried not just on general moral principals, but over personal concerns as well. What happens if we decide to take a trip to China in the next 4 years to see visit family and Cheetoh Mussolini decides that he wants to ramp up the heat even more with that relationship and institutes a travel ban to that country? Or if my wife’s grandparents have further health difficulties – will her mother (who is staying with us and has a greed card) be able to come back to the US? Concerns that should be the sole territory of the tinfoil hat brigade are now, sadly, things that have to be given actual credence.

  15. numerobis says

    I have a bunch of English people coming over in the 17th and 18th century on my dad’s side, settling in Appalachia after the revolution, then staying still. One of two claims of indigenous blood — not unlikely, but no real proof and really quite a long time ago. Many first cousins; the “tree” is full of diamonds. My grandparents fled Appalachia for the cities during the Great Depression, where there was room for two educated rural professionals to blossom.

    On my mom’s side, the wall against smelly Catholics with too many babies who talk funny would have kept some of her ancestors from working in the mills of New England. It would also have removed the escape valve for an overpopulated, empoverished rural Quebec, and hampered the diffusion of industrial expertise that helped along Montreal’s own industrial revolution.

  16. Rich Woods says

    What part of your family would have been wrecked by current policies?

    I’m not American but I have American cousins: one of my aunts was a GI bride. She emigrated to the US in 1946, and as the English wife of a victorious soldier she was made very welcome in Pennsylvania.

    I can’t help but contrast that with some of the stories I heard from a group of American exchange students in the 1980s. Two of them had fathers who had served in Vietnam and brought back Vietnamese wives to the US. They didn’t have it easy.

    Who is going to be harmed this time round, I wonder?

  17. cartomancer says

    I have held off so far on bringing up the comparison with the Roman Empire, because immigration in the ancient world and immigration today are quite different things. The Romans lived in a world without firm borders represented by lines on maps, without birth certificates or ID cards, and without a popular media to report on mass migrations of humanity. They also lived in a world with the high mortality rates of all pre-industrial societies, where migration was vital for maintaining population numbers in large cities (particularly very large malarial cities, like Rome itself). But I still think there is something to be learned from the comparison.

    It is abundantly clear that by the first century BC the Romans thought of themselves as a people descended from immigrants. Their foundation myths traced their people back to Aeneas – a refugee from the Trojan war who founded the city of Alba Longa – and to Romulus and Remus, who were outcasts from Alba Longa. The first Romans to populate the city were thought to be bandits, outcasts, refugees and exiles themselves. Their first wives were the Sabines, tricked into coming to Rome for a festival and carried off by force. This is all quite weird for an ancient Mediterranean city – most cities had their earliest inhabitants spring forth from the soil.

    Rome’s mythmaking gives us a powerful insight into the minds and situation of its people. By the first century they were awash with immigrants from their ever-growing Empire. Most of the million-strong population of Rome came from somewhere else – a lot of them having been brought to Rome as slaves, freed after a decade or two, and become citizens. Others came to trade with the biggest market in the known world. Rome’s food was grown throughout the Mediterranean (much of it in Egypt), their ships were copies of Carthaginian originals, their statues and literary works copies of Greek masters, the silver for their money mined in Spain and Macedonia. Rome was generous in extending her citizenship to new arrivals (the Greeks thought them very weird for freeing their slaves en masse and making them citizens as a norm), and while there was still plenty of racism and xenophobia to go around (Juvenal’s satire 10 on Greeks springs most readily to mind), it was only in the very late years of antiquity that serious concern started to emerge for the security of borders and the impact of mass migrations (Goths, Huns, Vandals and so on). For most of its history Rome was all about expanding its citizenship and making more and more people into Romans, with all the benefits and responsibilities that entailed. Imperium sine fine, as Jupiter puts it in his “manifest destiny” prophecy in the Aeneid – Empire without borders.

    Compare this with Athens or Sparta and the difference is obvious. Athens thought of its citizenship as a very special privilege to be retained by its native people. An Athenian boy only inherited Athenian citizenship if his father was a full citizen, and in the 440s at the height of their Imperial power Pericles changed the law so that he had to have a full Athenian mother as well. Only citizens were allowed to own land in Attica – the whole system was about keeping ownership of the state in the hands of the same people, the same families, it had always been in. Athens did, however, encourage foreigners to settle, rent property and trade out of its ports. It taxed these metoikoi (literally “dwelling beyond”) a flat rate metic tax of twelve drachmas a year, and they were still subject to Athens’s regular taxes (not many of those), required to serve in the military and called on to perform and pay for public services (liturgies) if they were wealthy enough. The only way an Athenian slave or metic could achieve full citizenship was through a special vote of the citizen assembly, and no more than a handful of indivuals ever managed it throughout Athens’s history. The Spartans were even worse – they didn’t even want foreign traders in their polity, and only enfranchised their helot slaves in extreme emergencies. The citizen population of Sparta declined sharply after the Peloponnesian War, until they were politically negligible.

    One would think that the USA would be much more like the Roman model than the Spartan, given how it was founded by immigrants (many of whom were, so the native Americans will tell you, brigands and thieves too) and has benefitted so enormously from successive waves of immigrants, even in living memory. So how exactly is it, then, that such a virulent anti-immigrant sentiment has emerged in America in the 21st century? Why have so many Americans stopped thinking of immigrants as potential new Americans, and begun to think like Athenians about keeping their precious citizenship to their own kind? It’s not like immigration has either speeded up, slowed down, or changed drastically in character.

  18. DonDueed says

    One branch of my family tree immigrated twice, apparently. They came to the new world from Scotland, but that family’s surname suggests that their ancestors immigrated to Scotland from the Netherlands. Apparently that was a thing at one point.

    Anyhow, I guess that makes me a second- or third-generation son-of-immigrants.

  19. killyosaur says

    Dad’s side immigrated from England in the 1640s. Moved from Mass/NY to MI sometime in the 19th century. We supported the British during the revolutionary war :P

    My mom is an immigrant, her parents were Jews from Germany and Austria, met in England (where they lived during the blitzkrieg) moved to Argentina for a spell (mom was born there) move to Detroit in the 60s

  20. peptron says

    Semi-Offtopic, but I think I have reached peak WTF. I bet that even PZ cannot hope to see this level of WTF until two or three days have passed.

    For context: Yesterday, there was a massacre against muslims in the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec, about 10 minutes from my home.

    We now know who is the killer:

    Now, for the WTF of the century:

    The White House uses the massacre of muslims in Quebec TO DEFEND the ban on muslims entering the country! I mean, WTF!? Is this some kind of reverse psychology where the ban on muslim entering the US is to protect them from Trump, Le Pen, Petry, Wilders & other Bürger de la colère?

    And before people ask, yeah I have already copyrighted the expression “Die Bürger de la colère”. 5$ per use, payable to whoever seems to need that 5$ more than you do.

  21. Jessie Harban says

    We need more Joe Hills.

    Considering that we killed the first one, why would anyone volunteer to be another?

  22. secondtofirstworld says

    My parental side starting with my great grandparents and my parental grandmother were all ethnic German, however more than a century ago forceful assimilation made them drop the original name and language. The Habsburg court lied, as they promised both land and freedom of religion (they left Bavaria to remain Protestant), delivering only on the former.

    We migrated to Western Europe, as our dear motherland is way ahead of Trump’s administration, some issues, like how many were at the mall is so 2002 (and supporters still believe there were 2 million in a square that can hold a 100 thousand, so don’t expect change in belief anytime soon.

    Speaking of which: the EU has joint foreign policy, and we had said no before on Washington’s request to store our biometric data indefinitely, so I absolutely see it in the cards, that if the politicians to Trump’s liking won’t get elected, we too will get on that list. By the way, when Lindbergh had spearheaded the America First Committee, at least one of their members failed to register as a Nazi agent. I’m bringing this up, because both camps talk about exterior threat, and although this female pilot was actively spying for Nazi Germany, she got off with 2 years probation, it’s the same hypocrisy again.

  23. rwgate says

    My fourth g-grandfather came to America in the spring of 1771 on a prison ship. Arrested for theft, he was shipped to America as a convict-servant. Many Americans can say the same. Between 1614 and 1778 over 44,000 British were shipped to America to work as convict servants. My grandfather fled his “master” in June of 1771, was captured, and escaped again in 1775. He joined the Colonials and fought in the American Revolution until captured at the Battle of Guilford County Courthouse, where he fought with another soldier who was my fourth g-grandfather on my mom’s side of the family (also Jimmy Carter’s fourth g-grandfather).

  24. says

    My grandmother was an immigrant from Ireland. Catholic, in the days when that was a negative. Her family disowned her when she married another Irishman, but a Protestant. His family disowned him for marrying a Catholic.

    I emigrated, married a Mexican, then returned to Canada alone years later, bringing in my children as refugees. (Long story) They have since gotten Canadian citizenship, and all married immigrants from a variety of nations, languages and colours. I’m proud of them.

    But I wouldn’t even attempt to enter the US with that background.

  25. birgerjohansson says

    The Scandinavian countries were under the dominion of each other at some time. Finland was part of Sweden, Norway was part of Denmark, and the borders shifted back and forth. All of Scandinavia was ruled by the Danish monarch at one time. So it is difficult to demonise the “other”, at least those just beyond the border.

  26. birgerjohansson says

    The dirt-poor Scandinavian immigrants in USA did have a bad reputation for a while. Then their urban ghettos became populated by hispanics instead. I suppose it helped that the Scandinavians were Lutheran.

  27. lostbrit says

    As far as I can establish, I am British by birth to parents who both come from long lines of entirely Britishness at least as far back as the late 1700s (which is where effort overwhelmed my apathy). There isnt anyone I can find in my family tree born outside a fairly small region of England for the last 300 years.

    Despite this, or possibly because of this, I am – and my entire family is – a great believer in migration and immigration. Nothing makes me (or anyone else) different because I have x generations of English people in my family tree.

    I am amazed at people who claim they want to make Britain “British” again as that implies I am not as British as they are, when the evidence appears to say I am. I assume there are Americans in similar situations, with the added irony that most (if not all) “white” Americans are from migrant families.

    At a very basic level, I dont really get nationalism. I’ve spent most of my adult life travelling the world and never once really understood why “be more nationalistic” is better than any alternative.

  28. arresi says

    On mom’s side, we’re mostly Irish/Cornish. Given they actually were attacked by the KKK, I’m gonna say they wouldn’t have been welcomed.