Husband and I, two teenagers, one pre-schooler and one as-yet-unborn. In 1977 we all squeezed into a 1971 VW camper and set off for a coast to coast camping trip from the SF Bay area to New Haven, where we visited family and old family history sites. About 7,000 miles, ten days each way plus ten days with family.
In 1922, My husband’s father, then sixteen, drove a Model T Ford, in company with his family, (mother, two sisters and four brothers) from eastern Pennsylvania to California, where some of the family (father, uncle, brother) had already moved. They wore out three sets of tires on the gravel and dirt roads. In 1643, my husband’s first known immigrant ancestor, Pardon Tillinghast arrived from southern England to Rhode Island. Those immigrants never expected to see their family again.My own ancestors are both English and Irish – but northern Ireland protestants who may have moved from lowland Scotland. And our four children live in California, New Zealand, Pennsylvania and England.
And yet, a recent DNA study of the population in England, used volunteers only if all four of their grandparents lived within thirty miles of their present place. The discovery was that it is still possible to see the borders of the old English kingdoms from the times of the Anglo-Saxons ( who were earlier migrants) a thousand years ago. So some people, at least until recently, have stayed put in Great Britain.
My most recent library read is Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, by Lillian Schlissel. Fascinating. I wish my ancestors had written such memories.
Common to almost all these 19th century women was the grief at leaving family and friends, even though the wagon trains heading to California and Oregon usually included large and extended families. Men tended to be excited and look forward to adventure and possibilities for wealth in newly settled lands or in the Gold Rush. Women, except unmarried teenagers who were not married yet, and who shared the excitement, were much less eager: in fact reluctant, dreading separations from all the social links that were so vital to them, but in the society of that time, they had to accompany their husbands. Some men went off without wives and family, but almost no women. Reticent because of the taboos of the time, women still obviously were almost overwhelmed by the work of the journey- care of children, cooking, washing, and any hard labor the men had not been able to do. Many of them trudged hundreds of miles of the journey with babies on their hips. Many had several children to care for, many of them were still in their teens and pregnant, though the only mentions are of the actual birth of babies. If the mother died in childbirth it is noted only as “a brief illness” though if she was buried with newly born baby, it is clear what the “illness” was. Cholera and dysentery ensured that the route was lined with graves, which many of the women listed in their diaries. At the beginning of the migration, Indians bartered and guided, but as the stream of wagons grew from year to year, hostile incidents increased between immigrants and Indians, and the women’s fears intensified. Yet the writers of the diaries did not- could not- see the broader picture of history unfolding, aware mostly of their own immediate decisions and needs.
I see a pattern again. Humans have a strong instinct to migrate when conditions seem intolerable where they are and more promising elsewhere, and humans feel an instinct to stay in and claim their own land, among their own people, in places with memories and sacred aura.
As I read about the weary, ill women, walking with little children through rocks, dust, mud, crossing rivers on rafts or frail canoes, leaving possessions by the trail when they could not be transported further, enduring and enduring, I was keenly aware of the migrants of this century, women and children escaping from deadly violence in central America, and dying in the southeast deserts, (or instantly deported to the same desperate situations,) hoping to find a haven in what was still Mexican land at the time these diaries’ eastern immigrants started trudging across the snow of the Sierra. Women, children and men are right now entrusting their hopes to flimsy inflatables to cross the Mediterranean to lands they hope will be safe from war and bombing.
Have we all been trudging towards our hopes ever since we left Africa a million years ago? Are we so long settled in any one land that we forget, in our love for what we have found, that the human story is always of migration?