Thursday, February 23, 2012

Birds of Passage and Twists of Fate

My immediate family immigrated to the United States from Molfetta, Italy, in the early 1970s.  Since my father arrived via JFK Airport rather than through Ellis Island, I grew up assuming that I had no personal connection to the immigrant experience exemplified by weeks of steerage travel and chalk marked clothing.  In short, I was 100% wrong.  However, in the process, I learned some of the most important lessons of family history research, such as:
  • Oscar Wilde was right when he said “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”  So, test assumptions.
  • Don't be afraid to ask relatives for information.  The worst thing they could say is "I don't know."
  • Read historical documents completely...and then go back to them later because you'll be amazed at what you missed the first time. 
Male Italian immigrants of the early 1900s were frequently referred to as "birds of passage" since they often never settled permanently in their destinations.  Rather, they sought work, saved their earnings, and then returned home to their families.  Well, before long, I learned that I had an ancestor that came to the U.S. three, perhaps even four times, in the decade preceding 1913.

Ignazio De Gennaro is pictured in the above photo circa 1930 with his wife Mariantonia Petruzzella.  He is my great-grandfather, or to be more exact, my mother's mother's father.  His earliest documented arrival in the U.S. that I've found was on June 24, 1906.  He arrived with his brother Mauro with the goal of staying with cousins in Brooklyn, according to the ship manifest.  However, there is another important question on the manifest...


Well, Ignazio responded with while Mauro stated  .   Sadly, I have not been able to locate any official records of these supposed earlier arrivals.  However, I have officially confirmed that Ignazio went through Ellis Island once more on  March 26, 1909 and then again on September 29, 1913.  What I find particularly interesting is that Ignazio left Mariantonia with another new born each time he left.  (Insert your comic innuendo of choice here.)  All kidding aside, I try to imagine how difficult it must have been for him to leave his family behind, each time unsure whether he'd ever see them again.  This must have been particularly difficult during his last trip.

According to family lore, his goal was to bring his wife and children to the U.S.  By 1913, Ignazio's youngest sister, Chiara, had settled to raise a family in Hoboken, NJ, with her husband, Giuseppe Gaudio.  Several of Ignazio's brothers were also still making repeated trips to Hoboken in search of work.  Therefore, it's quite possible that Ignazio did in fact plan to have his entire family join him too.  In fact, the following photo of my grandmother, Maria Vincenza (Ignazio's daughter), was allegedly taken for her passport around age 4 circa 1913.

Ignazio's plans were thwarted by a modest, little event called World War I which began during the summer of 1914.  Ignazio had to stay in Hoboken at least through the fall of 1918 as indicated on his World War I Alien Registration Card (below).  It's unclear as to why Ignazio abandoned his plans after the end of the war and returned to Molfetta.  Perhaps he became disillusioned with America.  Perhaps he was merely homesick, or maybe his wife became wary of the dangers of ship travel.  We may never know.

I am perpetually amazed by how events ripple through time to affect the fate of generations.  For instance, had Ignazio's plan to import his family to America come to fruition, I would simply not exist...So, for those who may have tired of me already, who knew that World War I could seem even worse?


  1. Returning to documents a second time is a very good tip. I am usually so excited to find them that I breeze through them quickly and don't notice all the details. Welcome to Geneabloggers...I look forward to reading about your Italian discoveries.

  2. Stopping by from Geneabloggers! Welcome to what is an addictive and friendly world. I look forward to catching up on your recent posts and to following new ones! Like you I have Italian migrant ancestry - to the UK post Second World War.

  3. I love the photo of your Grandmother Maria. Thanks for sharing this interesting post!!

    1. It's the oldest photo that I have of a relative. Thanks so much!

  4. Welcome to the Geneabloggers Family. My wife's ancestors come from Italy.

  5. I found revisiting old notes and documents I collected when I first started my genealogical quests has helped me actually crumble a few walls. Looking at them again with new, more experianced eyes pays off!
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)