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America’s First Official Thanksgiving

Located on the banks of the James River in Charles City County, Va., is the Berkeley Plantation, a three-story brick mansion with a lot of history.

Built by Benjamin Harrison IV, it is the birthplace of descendants Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States; and the ancestral home of Benjamin Harrison, the twenty-third president.

But along with a list of prominent residents, the Berkley Plantation is also the purported site of the first official American Thanksgiving.

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Now, if you are anything like me, I was quick to dispute this. After all, especially being a New Englander, we were all taught the first Thanksgiving took place in the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. When the Mayflower arrived on the shores of Massachusetts, with its 102 passengers and about 30 crewmembers, it was welcomed by a harsh November climate. Due to exposure, disease and shortages of food, only 53 Pilgrims survived their first New England winter.

Were it not for the help of Squanto and the Wampanoag people, those 53 Pilgrims may not have had anything to be thankful for. Squanto is known for teaching the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow crops, as well as acting as interpreter between them and the Wampanoag. Along with Squanto’s help, the Wampanoag leader Massasoit supplied the Pilgrims with food the first winter when supplies from England fell short.

Due to the help they received, the surviving Pilgrims of the Mayflower in early autumn of 1621 enjoyed their first successful harvest. To celebrate the occasion, a three-day feast was held attended by Massasoit, about 90 of his people, Squanto and the Pilgrims. This three-day event of games, singing and dancing while two cultures sat down sharing a meal is what has been romanticized by history as our first Thanksgiving.

However, a historian working at the Berkeley Plantation was kind enough to explain that the traditional meaning of Thanksgiving was strictly a religious observance. In the past it revolved entirely around days of prayer.

Thanksgiving was not an occasion designed with the sole purpose of eating until your stomach explodes (followed up by hours of football) like it has become today.  The Berkeley Plantation also argues there is no evidence that the Pilgrims declared their festival as a Thanksgiving.

Due to overpopulation, unemployment, poverty and a failing woolen industry, people in England looked to the New World as an opportunity for a better life. Looking for religious freedom, fortune and a bit of adventure, many boarded ships to settle in Virginia Colony. While many settlers fought to survive the horrible living conditions in Jamestown, four men in England planned settlement of what would become known as the Berkeley Hundred in Virginia.

With an 8,000-acre land grant along the James River from the London Company, William Throckmorton, Richard Berkeley, George Thorpe and John Smyth looked to make their fortune in tobacco crops.  Together, they commissioned Captain John Woodlief to lead the expedition and the assignment of establishing a government for the Berkeley Hundred.

On Sept. 16, 1619, Throckmorton, Berkeley, Thorpe, Smyth and Woodlief boarded the Good Ship Margaret in Kingrode, Bristol, England. Margaret carried a total of 38 men, all handpicked by Woodlief for their strength and skill. Also on board were large supplies of food, tools, weapons, construction and agricultural tools – as well as goods to trade with the natives.

Barely surviving the two and a half-month journey across the stormy Atlantic, the 47-ton, 35-foot-long ship finally arrived at its destination on Dec. 4, 1619. Once all 38 men were rowed to shore with their personal belongings, they all knelt as Captain Woodlief led them in prayer.

 

Following the specific requests of the London Company, Woodlief declared, “We ordaine that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantacon, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

And it is this well-documented event that the Berkeley Plantation believes is the first official American Thanksgiving.

It is hard to deny the documents; the fact is this event took place almost two years before the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration – and it fits the traditional meaning of Thanksgiving. Yet the Berkeley Plantation cannot deny our modern national holiday, declared by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, more closely resembles the celebration of the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony.

Regardless of where it was originally held, and our need as humans to always be the first, to me it has always been the spirit of the holiday that’s most important. It is about being tolerant and learning to appreciate each other’s differences, which is something our colonist ancestors did not excel at despite the stories we’ve been taught.

The holiday also serves as a reminder to be thankful for, and celebrate, the positive aspects in our lives – such as time with our family, friends and good health. In the end, these are important lessons that should be remembered throughout the year, beyond our one-day celebration of overdosing on turkey and pumpkin pie.

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Our Ancestors and The Spiritualist Movement

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Today it is almost impossible to find a channel without a show that revolves around the paranormal. Every time we turn around there’s a new series that shadows a paranormal group as they investigate unexplained sights and sounds under the green glow of an infrared camera. Armed with an assortment of gadgets, the investigators claim to use science and commonsense to prove or debunk believed paranormal activity.

Due to the popularity of these shows, new paranormal groups have popped up everywhere, while thousands flock to attend lectures, conventions, and ghost hunts looking for an experience of their own. It was just ten years ago having a ghost story would be enough to be labeled crazy, where today it seems as though everybody has one. Ghosts and hauntings are no longer stories saved for around a campfire.

However, this isn’t the first time the need or belief in communicating with the dead has been popular. In March 1848, the Spiritualist Movement was born in Hydesville, NY when two sisters claimed to make contact with a peddler who had supposedly been murdered in their home. Kate and Margaret Fox would ask for knocks from the spirit in response to their questions. When unexplained rappings came from the walls, witnesses were left completely baffled.

It didn’t take long for news of the Fox sister’s supernatural talents to spread throughout their town and eventually the country. Shortly after, they began touring as mediums holding public séances and lectures. As the popularity of these events grew, thousands of believers flocked to mediums to attend séances in hopes of contacting their lost loved ones.

The Spiritualist Movement saw two spikes in popularity: following the Civil War and again following World War I. Many believe it is due to the fact our ancestors were being exposed to the harsh reality of war through photography. Although photography was used to document some battles before the Civil War, they weren’t as extensively covered. War was no longer just some romanticized event rendered in an artist’s work. Our ancestors were being bombarded with gruesome pictures from the battlefields and left mourning the tragic loss of their loved ones in large numbers.

Mixed with our age-long curiosity in life after death, Spiritualism gave our ancestors some comfort. It was a movement that was founded on the beliefs that life existed after death, our spirits went on to a better place, and that they could communicate with the living. By going to a medium, there was a sense that their deceased loved ones weren’t really lost. These beliefs appealed to a wide variety of people, even Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln was known to seek the help of mediums following the death of their young son Willie.

Unfortunately, the fame and fortune mediums were receiving began to attract frauds who were looking to take advantage of those who were grieving. Desperate to believe, some were blind to the trickery pulled by those looking to make a quick buck. During this time, many people stepped forward looking to expose the frauds, including Harry Houdini.

Houdini became interested in the Spiritualist Movement following the death of his mother. After attending several séances in hopes of making contact with her, he discovered the mediums were playing basic parlor tricks on their trusting audience. Using his knowledge as a magician, he made it his mission to expose those who were making a living off of deception while hoping to meet a medium he could not debunk.

After years of being scrutinized by skeptics, with a majority of mediums being exposed as frauds, the Spiritualist Movement’s popularity began to dwindle. The final blow came when one of the founders, Margaret Fox, denounced Spiritualism as “an absolute falsehood from beginning to end” where she went on to publicly display how her and her sister played on the imaginations of their audiences. A year later, she tried to recant her confession; however, at that point the damage was already done.

Today, even with all of our technology, I can’t help but wonder if we are really any closer to discovering the truth putting all of our faith, some blindly, into equipment like our ancestors did in the past with mediums. Like Houdini, even though I have become more and more skeptical over the years, there is still something in me that wants to believe. Call it human nature or chalk it up to some of the experiences I have had that I still am trying to wrap my head around. After six years, I am still looking for that one piece of evidence that will no longer leave me questioning.

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The Ghost of Aaron Young

Over the last six years I have taken part in hundreds of paranormal investigations and, as many of you know by now, I have been obsessed with genealogy since I was in the fourth grade. That said, I am often surprised by how different genealogy and the paranormal are viewed considering the strong similarities between the two.

The first similarity, being the most obvious, is the fact that both genealogy and paranormal investigation revolve around researching the dead. When it comes to the actual historical research on a location, all the same steps are taken that would be used to trace an ancestor. Think about it: If the paranormal theories are correct, and locations are haunted by people who have passed, who were those people? Finally both genealogy and paranormal investigation have a common motivator; they are both used to fill our need of keeping the dead alive.

Despite these similarities, genealogy is commonly viewed as the past-time of grandparents, while paranormal investigation is extremely popular across all age groups.

Why is this? Especially when genealogy gives you the ability to hunt the ghosts of your own past, rather than any old ghost in any old location.

Keeping the above in mind, I wanted to share with you one of my favorite paranormal investigations that is a great example of just how much genealogy and the paranormal have in common.

Several years ago I had the pleasure of investigating a bed and breakfast in Virginia known as Edgewood Plantation. While there were several paranormal claims reported over the years from owners and visitors, there was one in particular I was assigned to research.

The claim was tied to a little cabin in the back of the property, where a woman checked in for a long weekend and claimed she was woken in the middle of the night by the ghost of a Civil War soldier. What’s more, the ghost supposedly introduced himself as Aaron Young III. The following morning, even though she had booked her stay for several nights, the woman checked out saying she was unable to sleep because this young confederate soldier would not stop talking.

Since the owner of the bed and breakfast had no knowledge of anyone named Aaron Young being connected to the property, it became my job to research the name. Utilizing the information I was given about the supposed ghostly experience, I decided the first thing to do is check Civil War military records for the name Aaron Young III. To my surprise, a total of nine Aaron Young’s surfaced; six were union soldiers and three were confederate. Since the woman claimed the ghost she saw was a confederate soldier, I immediately crossed the union soldiers off my list.

Turning my attention to the three confederate soldiers I found, two were from Virginia and one was from Tennessee. With a bit of digging I was able to determine that the man from Tennessee never fought in Virginia, so I saw no need to research him further.

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With only private Aaron B. Young of the 31st Virginia Infantry Company C and 2nd Lieutenant Aaron B. Young of the 20th Virginia Cavalry Company F remaining, I began to see some similarities between the two. The most obvious was the middle initial. However, after closer inspection of their military records, I also noticed they shared the same date of birth and place of birth, which brought me to the conclusion they were the same man.

Aaron B. Young had started out as a private in the 31st Infantry. Due to the severe number of casualties within that regiment, he was moved to the 20th Cavalry where he was eventually promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. The only thing that left me confused at this point were the several documents contradicting whether or not Aaron survived the war.

One record in particular stated he had died at war from a gunshot wound while serving in the 31st Regiment, which was clearly inaccurate since I had proof he went on to fight in the 20th Cavalry. There were also several other records that claimed he died due to illness, while others listed him as absent recovering from an illness.

All of this confusion left me with two questions: Did Aaron B. Young survive the Civil War? And was he the third male to carry the name in his family?

In order to find the answers to these questions, I turned to the internet.

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With the basic information I had on Aaron he was not a hard one to find due to his military records. Although Aaron Bell Young was not the third male to carry the name in his family, he did survive the Civil War. In fact, he went on to marry twice and had a total of 21 children.

At this point, it would be fair to say that I had become obsessed with researching Aaron’s life and the thought of him possibly haunting Edgewood Plantation. I was left wondering, “Could I place Aaron at Edgewood?” To try to answer this question I had to consider the history behind Edgewood Plantation and needed to re-examine Aaron’s military records.

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Going through Aaron’s military records again, depending on their accuracy, I was able to place him within 15 miles of the plantation by mapping out the distance between the battles his regiments took part in around Edgewood. That — mixed with the fact that Edgewood was used as a signal post by the Confederate Army to spy on the Union Army camped at nearby Berkley plantation with more than 100,000 troops — really made me question if Aaron B. Young would have come in contact with Edgewood.

Even if he had, though, what could have happened to him at Edgewood that would lead him to haunt the location especially since he had not died there? Still, whether or not Edgewood is haunted by the ghost of Aaron Young, his ghost is alive and well — in the genealogical sense — through the stories of his descendants.

The episode featuring Edgewood Plantation, with my research involving Aaron, aired months later. And this led to another interesting twist: I was emailed by one of his descendants.

As we had told the owner of Edgewood, I explained to his descendant that it was nearly impossible to prove beyond a doubt that Aaron haunted the location. However, for paranormal investigators, it was interesting to find that a confederate soldier by the name of Aaron Young did exist in the area.

As different as these two worlds may seem at first glance, it was my love of history and genealogy that pushed me into the paranormal. It gave me the opportunity to use my research skills in historical locations I never dreamed of having the opportunity to visit. From old abandoned hospitals, jails and places of historical importance in the United States, to European castles, World War II forts and Mayan Ruins, I was intrigued by the idea that the past may still be playing out in those locations.

It also made me question, if ghosts are people who have passed, who might my ancestors be haunting?

 

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(Aaron Young Picture With His Sons)

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A Haunting Reality

Over the years, I have learned many things about life and myself by researching my ancestors. Through interviewing my parents, grandparents and other descendants, making visits to town halls, libraries, vital statistic offices and cemeteries I have discovered several things about my family’s past. Every now and then though, this look back comes with a very unexpected and haunting look forward.

The story of my great grandfather, Robert Henry Williams has always been a mystery. My grandfather was only 13 when his father passed away from a massive heart attack at the age of 39. Being as young as my grandfather was when he became the “man of the house”, he really didn’t know or remember a lot about his father.

Grandpa was able to tell me that Robert was born in Waterville, Maine. He said that he remembered taking trips to Vermont with his parents to visit his father’s family. I also learned that Robert was a WWI veteran who served in France as a wagoner. The only story passed down through the family about his service, had to do with trench warfare and Robert being “gassed”… Tear gas? Chlorine? Mustard, perhaps?

Following the war, Robert became the district manager for Waldorf Café, which had him traveling around New England. He married my great grandmother, Marjorie Washburn and together they had a total of seven children. The family seemed to be living a comfortable life in Lynn, Massachusetts when they were dealt an unexpected and devastating blow.

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On April 19, 1935, Robert was in the middle of a meeting inside a Waldorf Café freezer when he began to feel ill. His co-workers instructed him to lay down on the floor of the freezer while they called for a doctor. By the time the doctor arrived to have a look at Robert, he was feeling better.

Shortly after the doctor left, my great grandfather died of a massive heart attack.

Growing up I had heard many stories about the chaos that followed Robert’s death. His untimely passing changed my grandfather’s family forever. Outside of the obvious emotional and financial problems, he and his siblings watched on as their mother (who was pregnant with her seventh child) was forced to make tough decisions in – what she believed to be – the best interest of her family.

I have often wondered, as I am sure the family did, how different their lives would have been had Robert lived to an old age. It’s no surprise my grandfather and his siblings knew so little about their father, they were so young when they lost him. As they got older, their days were spent going to school and finding odd jobs to help their mother financially. Their focus wouldn’t have been on enjoying their childhood; it would have been focused on survival.

My grandfather’s story has always upset me.

I couldn’t imagine how hard life was for his family and I couldn’t imagine losing my father at the age of 13. It made me realize how fortunate I was; not only did I have an amazing grandfather, he and my grandmother gave me an amazing father.

Listening to my grandfather’s stories, I could tell he wished he knew more about his father. His need to know more motivated me to do some digging… I wanted to know more as well. What kind of man was he? What did he do in the war? What was his childhood like? What was his family like? All of these questions lead me to many places, one of which was Chestnut Hill Cemetery in Burlington, Massachusetts.

There I was… finally standing in front of his headstone for the first time…

My stomached turned, I began to tremble and my eyes welled up with tears… I thought I was going to be sick. Having been so set on learning more about my great grandfather, I wasn’t prepared for the haunting reality that was waiting for me at that headstone.

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“Robert Henry Williams”, it read…

The same name as my brother, my father and my grandfather, who were all alive and well… Three men in my life that meant the world to me… and there was their name, etched in the cold granite staring back at me. I cried uncontrollably while I tore away at the grass and dirt that had begun growing over the ground level stone with my hands.

While the purpose of the visit was to learn more about my great grandfather, I walked away with much more than that. As important as it is to learn about your family’s past, it is just as important to learn how to be present.

Too many of us take our loved ones for granted. We forget (or refuse to acknowledge) that they won’t always be there. We tell ourselves we’ll visit, call or email tomorrow, this weekend or next week. Life gets crazy, we get sidetracked with day-to-day bullshit and we make excuses.

What’s the old saying, “time waits for no man”?

As if my grandfather’s story of loss wasn’t enough, it took seeing the names of my loved ones carved in stone for that message to stick.

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Today’s Advice? Get off your buttocks and reach out to your loved ones. It’s time spent you’ll never regret.

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American Servicemen In Australia

The Japanese military attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, thrust the United States into WWII. It wasn’t long after that Australia and New Zealand found themselves also under threat of Japanese attacks. While the majority of Australia’s soldiers fought alongside the British Royal Army against the Germans in the Middle East and Africa, the Japanese made their way through South Asia and South Pacific with little resistance. It was then that Australia and the United States joined forces to stop their military expansion.

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My grandfather was one of a million American servicemen who found himself in Australia during World War II. While Australians had popular Hollywood movies to familiarize them with American culture, Americans knew very little about Australia or its citizens. Our soldiers were in a foreign land trying to make sense of the currency, a new environment, unfamiliar foods and, of course, colorful Australian slang.

On a trip to Canberra, Australia’s capital city, I visited the Australian War Memorial. I was beyond impressed and moved by the Australian War Memorial’s collection and its presentation of the artifacts. The memorial was filled with detailed dioramas and paintings that depicted battles, along with pictures of soldiers paired with stories of their bravery. Some displays left me speechless, such as the restored planes paired with a large screen that played re-enactments of air battles which brought the aircraft’s history back to life. Another exhibit – a wall of thousands of names of soldiers who died in battle – was decorated with small red flowers called poppies. The wall left me with an overwhelming sadness that I could only compare to what I felt on my first visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.

After spending the afternoon wandering through this shrine to Australia’s fallen heroes, my curiosity was piqued by a little blue book found in the gift shop. The book titled, Instructions for American Servicemen in Australia 1942 was reproduced from the original which was created by the Special Service Division, Services of Supply, United States Army, and issued by the War and Navy Departments Washington, D.C. Although our soldiers presence was mostly welcomed due to our countries’ common goal, that didn’t mean there wasn’t some tension. In order to try and avoid any unneeded drama, this small booklet was produced and issued to each American soldier arriving to Australia, familiarizing them with the Australian people, land, history and culture.

The book mainly focused on our similarities as relatively new countries with British roots. It described Australia as made up of proud, independent people who believed in the importance of personal freedom and democracy. A brief history was given of their involvement in past wars and their record as well-respected, brave soldiers who wouldn’t quit. All of the information covered in the book was used to build respect and a sense of common ground since they were qualities Americans also strived for and respected. More importantly, it stressed the fact we needed Australia’s help just as much as they needed ours.

While the book’s main purpose was to establish a sense of camaraderie between the newly arriving American servicemen and the Australians, at times it tried a little too hard to make that connection. I found some humor as it pushed our mutual love of sports and compared our carnivorous appetite. However, the part that really made me smile can be found at the back of the book, which covers Australian slang. After several of my own visits to Australia, it made me think back on all the words or phrases that ended in funny misunderstandings or left me scratching my head.

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Having a grandfather who spent a great deal of time in Australia during World War II, this book was a fun little find. Sometimes it seems as though our loved ones’ service in the South Pacific during World War II isn’t covered as extensively as our involvement in Europe. Not only is this booklet a piece of history, it allowed me a look into the lives of our servicemen; I can only imagine the mixed feeling of excitement for those who had never left the country before, while also knowing there was a chance they might not come home alive.

Here was a book that was most likely issued to my grandfather that found its way into my hands, 67 years after he served, in the country he fought alongside. There is not one day that goes by that I haven’t wished I asked my grandfather more about his service and his time in Australia. I know he really would have gotten a kick out of my trips to the country he always wished to return to for a visit. It is small unexpected surprises like this that help me put his story together and make me like to think he’s still with me.

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(Grandpa & I – Early 1980’s)

 

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The Importance of Knowing Your Family’s Medical History

I can still remember the look on my doctor’s face when she asked me for my family’s medical history. All she saw was this teenage girl sitting in front of her; I can tell you she did not expect the laundry list of information that came out of me. I rattled off all the information I knew starting with my great grandparents. When I was finally done and she realized I caught her looking at me strangely, she was quick to explain, “Most people don’t know more than their parent’s medical history…”

 

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At that point I had been into genealogy for several years and even as a kid it didn’t take me long to see a pattern in my family’s medical history. Sitting with my grandparents talking about ancestors I had never met, it was only natural to eventually ask how they passed. After awhile I even made a habit of asking my grandparents about illnesses they or their family members had suffered from. Eventually I started to get my hands on death certificates and I made note of the cause of death listed on each record.

From the research I had done, I learned there are several things that my family and I needed be aware of. For the men in my family heart attacks at a fairly young age are not uncommon. While one of my great grandmothers lost her battle with breast cancer, another beat cervical and ovarian cancer. Then there were a few things that affected both men and women in my family, namely other forms of cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

Although all of this may sound depressing, it is important information to know since there are several medical conditions that are believed to be hereditary. Some of these conditions include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, breast and ovarian cancer, glaucoma, Alzheimer’s, allergies and depression.

It is also not uncommon, whether caused genetically or environmentally, that things like alcoholism, drug abuse and learning disabilities have also been found to run through families.

I encourage people to keep record of their family’s medical history, not only will it add to your research, it could save your life or the life of a loved one. Look into your ancestor’s death records, sit with your family, ask questions, record the information and share your findings. Knowing what has afflicted your family in the past will give you and future generations a chance at prevention.

 

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Discovering New Orleans Through Its Civil War History

I would like to thank Holiday Inn for partnering with me to make this post possible. As always, all opinions are my own!  Kris Williams

It has been a few years now since I learned about my ancestor William Z. Morey, who served on the side of the Union during the Civil War. At the age of 44, William enlisted as a private in the 26th Regiment, Massachusetts infantry, company H.

In November of 1861, the 26th regiment was ordered to report to General Butler. Sailing from Boston on the Constitution, they arrived on Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi on December 3, 1861.

It was here that William worked chopping wood, while Butler’s forces were readying themselves for their big move on New Orleans.

In April of 1862, the mouth of the Mississippi River was opened to the Union army by the success of Farragut’s fleet, which led to the occupation of forts St. Phillip and Jackson by the 26th Regiment.

In July of the same year, the 26th regiment moved on to occupy the city of New Orleans. This is where my 4th great grandfather’s regiment stayed until the summer of 1863.

However, the journey ended for William on January 12, 1863 when he died in a New Orleans Hospital.

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Up until I learned of William, New Orleans is where I had my first drink. It was a place that revolved around food, music, old cemeteries, mysterious swamp stories, voodoo and of course, Mardi Gras.

New Orleans was never a stop I associated with the Civil War.

With the generous help of Holiday Inn and inspired by my family’s personal connection to the city and time period, I decided to revisit New Orleans in hopes of getting a unique view of the city through it’s Civil War history.

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Civil War Tours of New Orleans:

My first introduction to the city’s Civil War history was through a Civil War French Quarter tour with Civil War Tours of New Orleans. Owned, operated and created by Nic Clark, the walking tour lasted about three hours and covered everything from secession to Union occupation.

With a love for Civil War study that spans over 20 years, over a decade of experience as a tour guide and a degree in History from Centenary College of Louisiana, Nic was like a walking encyclopedia.

There wasn’t one question he didn’t have an answer for – his knowledge on the topic was pretty impressive!

Although there were many points of interest covered on the tour, I wanted to share with you the ones I enjoyed most… the most surprising, lost little details (unknown to many visitors) on how the Civil War has played a part in shaping New Orleans culture.

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Tujagues:

Located a short 10-15 minute walk from Holiday Inn Chateau Lemoyne, Tujagues was not only the first stop on the tour – it was one of my favorites.

Nick explained that much of the bar remained the same as it had back when it was a popular hangout for Union soldiers. The soldiers would have walked through the same door, would have belly upped to the same bar and looked into the same mirror that you do today.

What put this stop on my list though… were the coffee cups.

Nick made a point of ordering a coffee so I could see what it was served in – a plain old glass tumbler.

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This is when I got a lesson on the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, which allowed Union forces to confiscate Confederate property. From weapons to slaves, right down to silverware and fine china – whatever wasn’t nailed down and held value could be confiscated.

The decision to continue using cheap, glass tumblers are a defiant, daily reminder of when the city was ransacked by the Union army.

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Café Du Monde:

Popular with both locals and tourists, Café Du Monde has become a New Orleans landmark and tradition since opening in 1862. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – you will find patrons covered in powdered sugar, while enjoying their beignets, and chatting over cups of chicory coffee.

While beignets are delicious and understandingly popular, have you ever wondered how chicory coffee became a New Orleans’ staple?

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During the Civil War, the port of New Orleans was slapped with a blockade that was put in place by the Union Army. While the act crippled the local economy, New Orleanians were forced to find creative ways of making due with supplies they had on hand.

Being the second largest importer of coffee in the United States, the people of New Orleans decided to cut their coffee with another ingredient to stretch their remaining supply.

Enter chicory.

Although New Orleans was not the first to use chicory as a coffee substitute, I was surprised to learn that the use of chicory in New Orleans is a direct result of the blockade that was placed on New Orleans during the Civil War.

As to why New Orleanians still drink chicory today, Nic speculated it could be attributed to combination of tradition, an acquired taste or again, a defiant reminder of the city’s past.

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Jackson Square and “Beastly” Butler

While touring the French Quarter with Nic, the last thing I expected to hear was that Butler was from Lowell, Massachusetts – the town of my birth.

On this third stop, I learned several things of interest about the disliked Union General Benjamin Butler, the treatment of Union soldiers in New Orleans, confiscated goods that made their way to Boston, as well as a mark Butler left on Jackson Square.

Benjamin Butler was known in the North as a successful lawyer, a controversial Major General in the Civil War and politician, who served as a Massachusetts congressman and as the 33rd Governor of Massachusetts.

Known as “Beastly” Butler in the South, he was strongly despised and is still disliked today.

One of Butler’s most notorious and widely disliked orders was Butler’s General Order No. 28, which was put in place on May 15, 1862.

During the occupation of New Orleans, the women of New Orleans would publicly disrespect, insult, even physically abuse the Union Soldiers in protest of their presence in the city. From swearing and spitting at soldiers to ignoring their presence and dumping the contents of their chamber pots on soldiers heads from upper floor windows…

Butler looked to put an end to the unlady-like behavior.

The act basically stated, if a woman were to openly mistreat any United States soldier or officer… it was then acceptable to treat her like a common prostitute.

Although the purpose of Butler’s act was to tell the women of New Orleans – if you weren’t going to behave like a lady, you wouldn’t be treated like one – it opened the door to women of the city being assaulted by less than respectable men who perversely twisted the intention of the act.

I can see why Butler would have been hated.

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In addition to acts like the one above, Butler was known for his questionable behavior when it came to the Confiscation Acts.

Butler was known for seizing everything from property, to cotton and other personal belongings of value from New Orleanians he deemed disloyal to the United States. Adding salt to the already festering wound, Nic said Bulter would then sell these goods at rigged auctions – making a personal profit off of the confiscated property.

During this part of the tour I was surprised to learn, one of the many things looted… errr confiscated… from New Orleans by Butler were five bronze-colored bells that were sold to a church in Boston.

Another unexpected connection to home!

After all these years, there is still at least one physical mark left on New Orleans from Butler. To check it out, Nic brought me to Jackson Square to have a look at the statue of General Andrew Jackson.

The statue, which was erected before Butler’s arrival, sits on a large stone base in the center of the square. Just beneath the statue, “Beastly” Butler had the words “The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved” engraved …serving as a final reminder (or dig) of the city’s fall, which goes unnoticed by most today.

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St. James General Hospital

For as long as I have known about my Civil War ancestor William Z. Morey, I have struggled to locate the hospital he passed away in. Every document I have lists his place of death as St. James General Hospital in New Orleans, LA… cause of death consumption.

With every new search on its location, I hit a new dead end – until I met Nic.

Although St. James was not on his Civil War French Quarter Tour, I have to credit Nic for helping me break through this brick wall.

When Union forces occupied New Orleans, it wasn’t uncommon for them to use local hotels as makeshift hospitals. So, the hospital William died in was actually St. James Hotel – used and referred to as St. James General Hospital during the war.

Once Nic filled me in on this little secret, I was bummed to learn the hotel had moved a couple of doors down and it’s original location was torn down in the late 1800’s to make way for the Board of Trade Plaza.

Being the persistent (annoying) person that I am… I decided to reach out to several local historical societies as well as The Board of Trade Plaza, in hopes they might have more information on the original St. James… or with any luck – a photo of the old building.

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I have had no luck finding a photo, however chairmen from the Board of Trade Plaza were kind enough to leave me a book titled, 316 Magazine Street March 16, 1968 Plaza Dedication – The New Orleans Board of Trade, Ltd written by Edward J. Cocke. The book dives into the history of New Orleans and The Board of Trade Plaza… which included a couple of blurbs on the St. James Hotel.

Located on Magazine St., the St. James Hotel was built in 1856 and was considered a fine hotel for its time. Just five years later, the hotel began to serve as a Union hospital until 1865.

My ancestor William, was admitted into St. James Hospital on January 1, 1863… dying 11 days later on January 12th of consumption.

According to the book, the entrance to the Board of Trade Plaza was hidden by a five story structure that stood in front of it, the St. James Hotel. In 1889, the hotel was bought by the Board of Trade to serve as an annex and the lobby was renovated into an elaborate, open air entrance way from Magazine St. Once the building was bought, St. James hotel moved to another location just a few doors down from the original structure.

While I was upset to learn the original hotel was gone, I was happy to learn elements from the old building were salvaged to decorate the open air entrance way into the Board of Trade and it’s courtyard.

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According to the book, the “square Corinthian cast iron columns and arches” from the first floor of the St. James were reused in the entrance of the Board of Trade (pictured above on the right). In addition to the columns and arches, they also utilized “the cast iron arched lintels of the fifth story windows to form a blind arcade of five arches, corresponding in detail and spacing to the original windows of the old hotel…” to decorate the opposite side of the plaza (pictured above on the left behind the trees).

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They also reconstructed three of the six original window openings with the “cast iron cornices and consoles” from the third floor of the old hotel to decorate the inside of the open air entrance. Looking past the main gate in the photo above, you can see these details decorating the inside wall on the right.

Even though the actual building is long gone… the character of the original St. James has been carried over into the open air entrance and courtyard of the Board of Trade Plaza.

As I stood peering through the main gate, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of these elements decorated the window my ancestor may have gazed out of during his stay…

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Oak Alley Plantation

While Oak Alley Plantation is not located in New Orleans, I felt that it was important to visit a plantation since they played a huge part in the Civil War and would have been directly affected by the war and  blockade in New Orleans.

Located an hour west of Holiday Inn Chateau Lemoyne in New Orleans, I was excited to revisit Oak Alley Plantation. Known for it’s beautiful oak lined entrance and appearances in popular TV shows and movies like Interview with a Vampire – I have always appreciated Oak Alley’s straight forward approach in teaching the history of plantation life.

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The Plantation House:

Situated on the west bank of the Mississippi River in Vacherie, Louisiana, Oak Alley Plantation was built in the late 1830’s by Jacques Roman. Nine years later in 1848, Jacques died of tuberculosis leaving his wife Marie Therese Josephine Celina Pilié Roman (aka Celina) in charge of the estate.

Besides the fact Celina was incapable of running a sugar plantation, she had an extreme problem with spending which nearly bankrupted the business. This lead to her son, Henri taking control of the property in 1859 in hopes of getting things back on track.

Although Oak Alley didn’t suffer from any physical damage from the Civil War, like all plantations, it did suffer economically. Between the family’s debt and the end of slavery, Henri’s efforts to save the estate were failing.

The family was forced to sell the plantation at auction, where it sold to John Armstrong for a $32,800 ($480,000 in today’s money).

From there, the property changed hands several times and began to fall into disrepair. For a while it was even inhabited by a herd of cows… Not kidding. During a bad thunderstorm, the cows managed to break into the abandoned plantation house and there they lived for 12 years – destroying the Italian marble that once covered the entire first floor.

It wasn’t until 1925 that the mansion and it’s 1,200 acers were bought by Andrew Stewart for $50,000. Andrew and his wife Josephine renovated and modernized the house running it as a cattle ranch and later reintroduced the growing of sugar cane.

Following Andrew’s death and shortly before her own on October 3, 1972, Josephine decided to create a non-profit foundation known as the Oak Alley Foundation. Donating the home and 25 acres of land, the purpose of Oak Alley Foundation has been to keep the historic home and grounds open to the public.

(An interesting side note… one of the co-owners of Cafe Du Monde is a descendant of the original owners of Oak Alley Plantation!)

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Slavery at Oak Alley Exhibit:

What I love about Oak Alley is that it does not hide it’s history. It is dedicated to teaching visitor’s of the Plantation about life on the plantation in full – from the grandiose life of the plantation owners to the daily life of Oak Alley’s enslaved community.

Wandering this section of the grounds visitors are able to check out a house slave’s cabin, a field slave’s cabin, a post-emancipation residence and a sick house.

It was interesting to learn about the difference in work, treatment and clothing between the house slaves in comparison to the field slaves. The work was not as physically demanding, however their work did not end until the plantation owners went to bed. They were responsible for watching the children, cooking dinner and running errands for the family. For this reason – house slaves were dressed well to reflect the plantation owners social status.

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Field slaves faced grueling 12-14 hour work days… which I would imagine was unbearable in the hot and humid Louisiana summer. One plaque even discussed the inadequate food rations provided by the Roman family, which resulted in slaves growing their own gardens and raising their own animals to make up for the stingy rations.  Add the efforts in tending to their own gardens and raising their own animals after a 12-14 hour day in the fields… sleep doesn’t sound like something they got much of.

I was surprised to learn some slaves sold what they grew back to the Roman family. The small source of income helped them buy young livestock and other necessities to further provide for their own families.

Although slavery is no doubt one of the darkest periods in our history as a nation – the stories from this time period are important ones to tell. Oak Alley does a fantastic job of covering the history of the plantation as honestly, accurately and tastefully as possible, which I believe is an important element in making sure we never repeat the failings of our past.

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Civil War Encampment: 

On the grounds of Oak Alley plantation you will find a Civil War encampment, which consists of a commanding officer’s tent. I was told all the artifacts in the tent belonged to Confederate General Richard Taylor.

The encampment was one of the many reasons I wanted to return to Oak Alley. I hoped that visiting this section would give me a better idea of what life might have been like for my ancestors who served.

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Stationed at the camp was a man dressed in Confederate uniform, who was able to give me some background on the tent and all the artifacts inside. I was surprised to learn the tent would have taken a total of two hours to put up and take down.

While the tent was an example of a Confederate General’s tent, I was told a Union General’s tent would have looked similar. For my ancestor William and my other ancestors who served as privates, the best they would have had was a pop tent or a blanket and tree for cover.

Between the unfamiliar climate and lack of cover – no wonder so many soldiers died of disease!

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Chalmette National Cemetery:

Driving 20 minutes east from Holiday Inn Chateau Lemoyne, I finally arrived at the last stop of my journey, Chalmette National Cemetery.

Originally established in May 1862 as Monument Cemetery, Chalmette National Cemetery has become the final resting place for nearly 16,000 soldiers and some civilians. Out of the 16,000, about 200 of those are unknown – no names mark their stones,  just numbers.

Luckily, William Z. Morey was not one of those 200.

In fact, like many others, William had been laid to rest at another location before being moved to Chalmette National Cemetery.

The cemetery was long and narrow – I couldn’t get over how many headstones there were. There was only one road in and out making it easy to navigate but I still had no idea where to begin.

Grabbing a printed self guided tour, I noticed there were only five highlighted graves… one of which was only 5 plot numbers off from William.

Talk about luck!

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After a few minutes of searching section 62 and 13 fire ant bites later (a story for another day), I finally found my 4th great grandfather, William Z. Morey!

For awhile I stood in silence, wondering what it was like to be his wife Elizabeth… learning that her husband had passed and that her eight kids were then fatherless.

I wondered what it would have been like for her, knowing that his body wouldn’t be coming home. Instead, he’d be laid to rest in some far off state. What kind of ceremony did they have for soldiers like, William – if anything?

Having seen photos of his grave online, I knew other descendants had visited his grave… but did his wife or kids ever get the chance?

Finally, how would he have have reacted to being known by and having his gravesite visited by a 4th great grandchild?

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Did William belly up to the bar at Tujagues? Did he care for the chicory or spend time in Jackson Square? Would he have had stories to tell about “Beastly” Butler or experienced poor treatment from locals for being apart of the occupation?

It is all very likely…

Its clear to see the Civil War left it’s mark on New Orleans, which leads me to believe the War and New Orleans would have left a mark on my ancestor, William Z. Morey.

I would like to thank Holiday Inn for helping me connect with my ancestor. Being given the opportunity to revisit New Orleans in this unique way, I can honesty say the city’s past and what I have learned about my ancestor’s time there has forever left a mark on me.

 

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The Great Hunger: Making America Home

Irish Boston
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The Mystery of Alice McCurdy

Alice McCurdy-Death Record

Anyone who has spent years researching their family history will tell you to be prepared for hidden surprises. The lives of our ancestors were just as complicated back then as our lives are today. I think most of us tend to forget they were living breathing people until we start uncovering their lives through the paper trail they left behind. Even after 20 years of research, uncovering my family’s secrets, I must admit that one of my ancestors left me speechless and feeling a little lost last night.

My 2nd great grandmother Alice McCurdy had been a bit of a mystery to me for many years. I knew she existed, she appeared on my great grandfather’s death certificate and I was able to find a marriage certificate for her and my 2nd great grandfather, Melville Williams. However, it wasn’t until the last couple of weeks that some new documents emerged, which helped fill in some missing pieces to her story.

About a week ago I had stumbled upon her death certificate online. I felt like I had hit the jackpot with that discovery since she had been a difficult one to track. From the death certificate I learned she was only 34 when she passed away… the same age I am now. To make matters worse, she left behind a husband and three young children, one of which was my great grandfather Robert Henry Williams.

I had figured she had died young over the years since she didn’t appear in the 1900 census living with her husband, children and parents, Henry Martin McCrudy and Frances Abby Hinds. Given the situation, I figured her parents must have moved in to help Melville with the children. It wasn’t until I got this missing puzzle piece (Alice’s death record) that I was able to learn she died of “Phthisis”, commonly known as Tuberculosis or “consumption”.

As most of us know today tuberculosis was a horrible infectious disease. Many people died from it since it was easily spread by air through the coughs and sneezes of an affected person. Tuberculosis victims would end up weak and gaunt, coughing up blood while suffering from night sweats and extreme weight loss. In many cases, those who were kind enough to care for infected victims ended up coming down with the disease themselves. This was the case for my great grandfather, Percy Leslie’s 16-year-old sister who came down with it after caring for an elderly neighbor who suffered from it.

Learning that this was how my 2nd great grandmother died, I felt horrible. What a terrible thing for the family to witness and for Alice, what a horrible end. At the same time, I felt so fortunate that the disease did not spread to the rest of the family. Had it spread, I would not be here today. Learning her cause of death also made me think back on the many TB hospitals I have visited over the years and the awful stories that came out of them. Did Alice end up in one of these hospitals? That is now on my list of things to research next.

Just as I was finally getting over this new bit of news surrounding Alice’s death, researching her father Henry Martin McCurdy let me in on another family secret.

A few weeks ago I decided to go back through my family tree as an attempt to fill in missing information and just to clean it up. I began writing outlines for each family member, double checking all the details and making more of a story out of the information I had gathered. After finishing up on Alice, I moved on to her father last night. Going through Henry’s information I saw that he married Frances Abby Hinds on January 6, 1864 in Boston, Massachusetts. Skipping ahead to the 1870 U.S. Federal Census I found Henry (age 31) and Frances (age 30) living in Pittston, Maine. Recording all the information I could gather on Henry, I then moved on to the 1880 U.S. Federal Census where I noticed… something just doesn’t add up.

In the 1880 census my 2nd great grandmother Alice makes her first appearance, however I realized that it said she was 13 years old. “Well, this can’t be right…” I thought. If she was 13 in the 1880 census, she should have appeared in the 1870 census with her parents. Knowing that an age being off on a census isn’t that uncommon, I figured I would take a closer look… and there it was…

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Alice was adopted. Just like that, in a matter of seconds everything I thought I knew about my McCurdy branch was wrong. Two little letters left me with a million questions and a sick feeling in my stomach.

Who is Alice? Where did she come from and who were her birth parents? Why did they give her up? The only time I have dealt with adoption in my family the child was adopted by another family member… could this be the case with Alice? Then at least part of the tree I had for her would still be correct. However this all made me wonder, how many ancestors do we have hiding in our trees that were adopted and we have no idea? Entire sections of our tree would be wrong when it comes to tracing bloodlines. If it weren’t for me deciding to clean up my tree and this one document pointing out the adoption, I would have never known.

While I am now left feeling blindsided and facing a new roadblock with Alice, I can’t help but also feel very appreciative towards Henry Martin McCrudy and Francis Abby Hinds. They not only took in my second great grandmother, they took in her children after she passed away. As I said, the 1900 census showed Henry and Frances living in the house of Alice’s husband but the 1910 census showed the kids still living with Frances (who was then widowed) with their father no where to be found.

Last night I learned that it doesn’t matter how long you have been into genealogy or how much you think you know about your family, there is always room to be surprised.

 

 

Have you dealt with adoption in your family tree? Any advice on breaking through the dead end? Are you currently battling that road block? Keep an eye out for updates on Alice’s story as I attempt to find the names of Alice’s birth parents.

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Italian Birds of Passage

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Tracing my Italian roots has been difficult to say the least, especially when it comes to name changes or my ancestors names being misspelled. However, I was stumped with a new mystery when I came across three separate passenger lists that listed my 2nd great grand father, Andrea Cautilli.

At first, I figured it must just be multiple men with the same or a similar name but the more I examined and cross referenced the documents I realized all three were in fact records of Andrea’s travels.

Passenger List: New York, New York

On March 22, 1897, “Andria Cantilli” arrived in New York, New York on La Champagne, having departed from Havre. My 2nd great grandfather was only 27 years old when he arrived in the United States with his brother “Sevidio” (Cesidio Cautilli), age 30. Andria, whose occupation was listed as a workman, brought with him only one bag of luggage.

In this 1st document, a couple of details stood out. I knew that my great grand father, Andrea was from Italy and I knew he had an older brother named Cesidio. Although I knew Andrea and Cesidio’s names where spelt incorrectly on this document, I knew this was a common problem in records concerning Italian immigrants and assumed there was a good chance that this was my 2nd great grandfather and his brother.

Passenger List: Boston, Massachusetts

“Andrea Cantilli”, who was from San Donato in Southern Italy, sailed from Naples on the S.S. Cambroman and landed in Boston, Massachusetts on July 1, 1902. At the age of 32 he paid his way to the United States, landing in Boston with only $24.00 in his pocket. This document listed him as married, able to read and write, working as a stonecutter and mentioned that he had been in the United States before, from 1897-1900. Along with this information, the document provided a few other strange details, including the fact that he was not a Polygamist, that he was in good metal and physical health and was not deformed or crippled. In Boston, Andrea planned to stay with his friend, Carmine Cantilli.

This document, paired with the first passenger list provided a few more details and helped confirm that the two documents were pertaining to the same person. First of all, I grew up hearing about my family being from San Donato, Italy-that checked out. 2nd, although it lists Andrea as staying with a friend in Boston, I knew my great grandfather had a brother named Carmine Cautilli. Another thing that got my interest was that I knew Andrea’s son, my great grandfather Abramo was a stonecutter-did Abramo follow in his father’s footsteps? Finally, this record confirmed that Andrea had also traveled to the Untied States in 1897, which helped link the first and second passenger lists to the the same man.

Passenger List: Boston, Massachusetts

On April 22, 1909, Andrea Cautilli sailed from Naples, Italy on the S.S. Cauopic and arrived in Boston, Massachusetts. Andrea was from Southern Italy, in Caserta, San Donato. Listed as his “nearest relative or friend” in Italy is his wife, Angela who lived in San Donato. Andrea was 39 years old, working as a stonecutter, was able to read and write and was headed for his final destination in West Quincy, Massachusetts.

This third passenger list continued to make sense of the previous two. It also gave me a more specific location as to where my family was from in Italy and even mentioned my 2nd great grandmother, whose name was Angela. Finally, it mentioned Quincy, Massachusetts-the location my Cautilli family settled.

Once I went through these three documents, cross examined the information and determined that they all were referring to the same man I couldn’t help but wonder, why did he travel to the United States three separate times? During that time it wasn’t a quick seven to eight hour flight over the Atlantic Ocean… it was at least two miserable weeks trapped on a boat. Not to mention-how the hell was he able to afford the multiple trips?

This new information got my family’s imagination going… was Andrea up to some criminal funny business that lead to his several trips across the ocean? Because that’s the only rational conclusion-everyone’s Italian family must have mafia connections, right? Was there some large Cautilli fortune out there that we were never made aware of? I wonder… who was left the treasure map…

After hours of crazy (but fun) outlandish guesses, I decided to do a search on Italian Immigration in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.

Stepping back to take a look at Italian history around the time my 2nd great grandfather left provided me with some answers regarding his several trips. In fact, it was not uncommon for Italian men to make several journeys to the Untied States during that time period, they were even referred to as “Birds of Passage”.

So what made these Italian men flock to the United States?

From 1876 through 1976 Italy suffered from political, economical and environmental troubles. During this time period Italy was made up of several different states that were all busy fighting each other. In 1860 they were faced with a 10-year civil war, which lead to one million people being slaughtered by the Italian Army of occupation. From what I read, a majority of those targeted were southern Italians… where my family was from.

Following the war, Italy (especially southern) was confronted with an extreme economic depression. The northern Italians who basically ran the government took the opportunity to over tax the southern Italians into poverty. To make matters worse, there was a lack of natural resources, which lead to little to no industry.

To add to the destruction following the war, political corruption and weak economy Italy was hit with a series of natural disasters. There were two volcanoes that erupted burying entire towns and an earthquake in 1908, which killed 100,000 people from the tsunami that followed.

Needless to say southern Italy was a mess when men decided to leave their families (parents or spouses and children) to look for work in America. The plan however was never to stay here, it was to come to the United States to make money during the busy work months to send home to their families and then return home once the work season came to an end. This earned them the name, “Birds of Passage”. This trip across the sea in search of work became a common thing, part of growing up. They were trying to make life for their families back home better AND life in Italy better by getting temporary work here. Once these men made enough to live comfortably in Italy they would return home and stay there while others, after several trips, decided to stay here and become citizens.

From the sounds of it, my 2nd great grandfather Andrea and his brothers were “Birds of Passage”. His final trip to the United States would have happened just a year after the 1908 earthquake. Once he got settled in Quincy, Massachusetts he sent for his wife and three sons to come over in 1910.

Why did he decide to change his plans and make the US his home? That is something I will never know the exact reason for. However, with a little research into Italy’s history I am able to come up with a basic understanding of factors that probably played a part in his decision.

This is also an excellent example of what I love about genealogy-it gives us an awareness and appreciation for the very personal touch past events played in our very own existence.