Picking up and moving from a place you call “home” to a land filled with wonder and uncertainty had to be both daunting and freeing; scary and exciting; lonely and friendship-building.  Nothing brought that idea to fruition more to me than visiting Ellis Island.

Ellis Island

During my roughly 5 years of ancestry research, I found wondrous records that provided insight into my ancestors’ lives.  How many children did they have?  Where did they live?  What were their occupations?  I started looking at them as more than just names of deceased relatives.  I wondered what sort of experiences they had and how they compared to present day. Sure, the modern word has it’s own share of joys and sorrows but so did 1899.  How did my great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Deen(e)y, manage to raise her children after her husband died so young?  Then her five-year-old daughter, Mary, dies only a month after her husband.  The pain, grief, determination that must have swirled within her.  And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I yearn to know about Elizabeth Burke Deen(e)y.

As I stood in the Great Hall at the Ellis Island museum I gazed in awe at the enormity of the situation.  What entangled web of emotions did the newcomers experience?  Standing amidst a plethora of strangers all with the same hopes of a new life must have been both terrifying and comforting.  “Will they let us all in?  What kind of questions will they ask?  Will I understand what they’re asking me?  Why are they separating members of the same family?”  My heart ached just thinking of the possible scenarios my ancestors, and yours, would’ve likely encountered upon arrival.  That’s not even taking into account the image of leaving home ingrained in your memory and the long passage it took to get them to America.

I have been unsuccessful in locating the Immigration records for my Irish ancestors.  From family stories, I believe Elizabeth Burke came over first and Thomas Deen(e)y followed her, an action that was apparently quite scandalous at the time.  However, I can’t find a marriage record in either Ireland or the State for Thomas and Elizabeth.  My search continues to learn more about their lives in Ireland and when they arrived stateside.  In the meantime, they are not the only immigrants in my family tree.

The majority of ancestors on my maternal branch emigrated from Europe, Eastern Europe to be more specific.  Some came from Germany but another lineage called Austria/Hungary/Czechoslovakia home. Helen (Helena/Ella/Ellie) was born in Sasova, Czechoslovakia in 1858.  She married and had  her first child by age twenty, remarried my great-great grandfather in 1882, and immigrated to the States around 1890 with her husband and daughter from 2nd marriage. According to the 1900 census, Ellie had 10 children but only 6 were living, five of those 6 were living with her.  While I do not have records proving or disproving that Ellie came through Ellis Island, my thinking is that regardless or where she arrived, the trepidation and motivation would have been quite similar.

My suspicion is that this was taken in her Eastern European homeland.

My suspicion is that this was taken in her Eastern European homeland.

Elizabeth and Thomas settled in Philadelphia while Ellie and John made Luzerne County, PA their new residence.  The struggles they encountered in the states (i.e. discrimination) I can only speculate about.  Despite any hurdles in the new country, were they glad they made the brave choices they did?  And, did they ever look across the Atlantic towards the land they once called home?

In contemplating the life-changing choices my immigrant ancestors made, I wonder about my own.  Would I have had the courage at such a young age to pick up and move away from a place I considered to be home?  Even if poverty, political oppression, or starvation plagued the region, would I have been brave enough to seek out a better life for myself and my loved ones?  And, if they can do it then why do so many people today agonize over moving from one state to the next given the ease of transportation and online career networking available?  I’m not claiming it would be easy in today’s time, but by standing in the Great Hall I gained some much-needed perspective.

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