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Monday, October 21, 2013

A Different Era

My father-in-law's parents immigrated to the US from Italy. They sold all their possessions to book passage in steerage.


Otto (Aro) with sister, Norma, and two cousins
That story always fascinated me. I can't even imagine the hardships they must've faced. Yet they felt that America was full of promise. They would do whatever was necessary to fit in--even rename their children.

My father-in-law's real name was Aro, but when he entered school, his teacher (a German-American) suggested to his parents that he'd have more opportunity in their adoptive country if their son had a more American-sounding name--like Otto.

Greg's grandparents, eager to fit in, and not realizing that Otto was more German than American, readily agreed. Aro became Otto.

It's only within the past 40 years or so that we've become enamored with re-embracing our original heritage--even if we are many generations removed from that heritage. But back in the early part of the 20th century immigrants gladly distanced themselves from their mother country so they could be seen as Americans. 

It's curious to see the pendulum swing in the opposite direction today.

I never got the chance to ask my father-in-law how he felt about his name change. I also wondered if it involved any legal maneuvering--but I doubt it. It was a different time and they didn't bother with trifles. If your parents renamed you, that was legal enough for everyone.

I had a friend who was adopted during the Great Depression. His blood parents, no longer able to feed him, dropped him off at a children's home. A few months later, a couple picked him out of a playground, and took him with them as they traveled cross-country. There were no papers filed or background checks. The home was glad to have one less mouth to feed.

Can you imagine anything like that happening today?

Next week, I'll tell a little story about my great grandmother--a woman I've never met yet haunts me to this very day.

How far can you trace your ancestry?



28 comments:

B.E. Sanderson said...

I can trace some of my family pretty far back - like to 1600s Scotland - but my paternal line only has information available to my great grandparents who emigrated from Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. He came first and she followed months later with their 4 kids. I can't imagine what she went through getting 4 small children across the Atlantic by herself. When they got here, my grandfather, Wilhelm (who was 3), became William.

Maria Zannini said...

BE: I wish we had had enough people in our family to have preserved that information. But I don't blame them. I'm sure they had more important things to do though--like eating and not getting killed. :)

Rula Sinara said...

Interesting stuff! It really is fascinating how times have changed both in terms of adoption as well as in embracing our ancestry.

B.E. Sanderson said...

LOL, I traced it using Ancestry.com. My immediate family didn't really keep that many records. But someone in my tree must've somewhere because it's out there online.

Maria Zannini said...

Rula: That's what I found fascinating too. It's almost as if people are prouder of where they came from rather than where they chose to live.

Maria Zannini said...

BE: We'd considered checking that out but we're pretty sure both our families come from long lines of cattle rustlers and horse thieves. :)

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

My father's family traces back to the time William Penn settled in Penn's Woods that became Pennsylvania. My husband's family traces back to Scotland though I'm not sure of the year. The name change is interesting.

R. Mac Wheeler said...


Several years ago I started working on my ancestry. My father's side was a dead end quickly. Evidently a lot of bad feelings, as frontiersmen headed to the territory.

My mother could go back to her grandparents and that was about it. Everything got left behind in Sweden and England. No ties.

Most disappointing, was that no one in the family really cared. Hm. So much for the importance of one's roots.

Anne Gallagher said...

My father's father can trace back to the Native Americans who met the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. (I did it in college.) Interesting stuff.

My father's mother can trace back to the early colonies too. However, we're not sure which colonies.

My mother's mother came from France originally, my mother's father from Ireland, but I think that's about it until we go there and look it up. (One day when I'm rich. lol. ancestry dot com is just too easy.)

Maria Zannini said...

Susan: Wow! I've always wished we had more family historians in our family. My sister is now, but a few historian ancestors would've been nice too.

Maria Zannini said...

Mac: I really don't think that it was that no one cared but rather what we think is important at the time to squirrel away for posterity or inheritance.

Other than official records like tax, marriage, birth/death, or land records, how much do most of our ancestors have to leave behind?

Maria Zannini said...

Anne: If nothing else, our "footprint" will be wide and deep. We record everything now. I think that's what makes our ancestors history so precious. We have so little to remember them by.

Jenny Schwartz said...

Family history is fascinating. I get interested at times -- like why was my great-great uncle photographed in a Russian officer's uniform when we were meant to be peasants? but then I give up.

Sometimes I think family history is the flipside to astrology. One you try to shape the future to the way you want it. The other you try to shape (or selectively reveal?) the past. Maybe I need more coffee this morning so I'll be less cynical :)

LD Masterson said...

Well, I can trace back to when one of my ancestors came to America. Too easy, it was my dad. His parents, George and Mary, lived in coal country in northern England and didn't want their three sons working in the mines. So George left them behind, came to America, and worked until he could afford to bring them over. When George became a U.S. citizen, the three boys' names were scribbled on the back of his naturalization papers. That's the only "citizenship" paper my dad ever had.

Angela Brown said...

The moment I read Otto I got to thinking of how not American it sounded lol!!

No, I can't imagine a kid getting picked up out of the playground and rubber stamped as adopted that way, however, I won't even pretend I can imagine the hard times of The Great Depression. I mean, honestly, you would have thought we were in the Great Depression even now with the way some folks bemoan the state of the economy. And at it's worst, the Great Recession couldn't match the hell those folks dealt with.

I sometimes wonder if GI Joe had it right. If knowing is half the battler, why is it the more we demand to know and have access to, the more loopy things get? It really is a different era.

Maria Zannini said...

Jenny: Sometimes it's so hard to drill down to the truth. Everyone seems to be related to royalty. LOL. But I love the story about your great-great uncle in a Russian uniform. There's got to be a great story behind that.

I hope you find out some day.

Maria Zannini said...

Linda: I believe it. My friends and relatives--those who were born before 1930 had an amazing life that defies what we've come to expect today.

I love listening to old people (older than me--LOL). It's like opening a history book.

Maria Zannini said...

Angela: My friend who got picked out of a playground was one of my art professors. The stories he told about the Depression was nothing less than surreal. That's why I can't get too excited when people say they're struggling. They have no idea what real hardship is like. It was frightening and sometimes deadly.

raelynbarclay said...

My family came through Canada and I'm unaware of any name changes.

I was blessed with some historians on both sides of the family.

On my dad's side I have info back to the late 1700's. I think that's due in part to the 'stairway romance.' ;)

On my mum's side I have info back to the mid 1600's. (Hand written charts handed down to me from Mum's dad.)

I spent a good chunk of time attempting to go back further, and want to return to that at some point.

Great picture Maria! That's one thing I wish I had.

Maria Zannini said...

Raelyn: Wow! That's incredible to not only be able to trace your history but have written records on top of it.

I wonder which of your boys will take up the mantle after you.

Shelley Munro said...

I find genealogy fascinating, and I've done quite a bit of my tree, tracing our family back to the late 1700s. My family came from England and also Ireland. Hubby's can from Scotland.

Maria Zannini said...

Shelley: And I'll bet you've already visited your familial homelands too.

It's fun to think back about family lines. I find myself wondering how they lived and what times were like back then.

Cate Masters said...

My sister does our family's genealogy and I love when she uncovers new stories.
The blonde girl found with the Roma gypsies is causing quite a stir at the moment. I imagine in fringe societies it's easier to get away with simply handing your child over to a stranger. Sad.

Maria Zannini said...

Cate: I've been watching that news story unfold. I hope they find the kid's parents.

Stacy McKitrick said...

My cousin (on my father's side) has traced our family back eons. I am a direct descendant of Susannah Martin, who was hung as a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. Actually, I descend from two of her daughters (as cousins married later on down the line). Fascinating stuff!

Since she took care of my father's side, I worked on my mother's and lost interest when I reached dead ends. But I did get go back quite a bit and there were name changes (not like Aro/Otto)and when I discovered this, it opened up a whole new line to me. Seemed a wife didn't like her husband's last name of Rumbaugh because of the "rum" part and made him change it to Rembaugh. I only knew my gr-gr-grandfather as Horatio Rembaugh and it was a huge block. Then I got my hands on my gr-gr-grandfather's brother's book of family history (what a find that was!!) and discovered what his step-mother had done! Any Rembaughs out there descend from Horatio's father, so I know we're related!

Maria Zannini said...

Stacy: You are so lucky--not that your ancestor was hung as a witch, but that you had ancestors that kept records.

We bought an old house once and found an ancient family bible with handwritten records written on the inside cover and other blank pages of births, marriages, and deaths in the family. We contacted the family who sold us the house and they were grateful beyond words. It's important.

Mike Keyton said...

Great post, Maria, but equally interesting are the comments.

My comment would be too long to post but for anyone interested you could check out

http://baffledspirit.blogspot.co.uk/2007/01/sergeant-john-keyton.html

Maria Zannini said...

Mike: This is why I like to do these posts. The comments add so much to the topic.