Genealogical Musings on Migration: People Who Stay, People Who Go

I just finished reading A Scattered People: An American Family Moves West by Gerald W. McFarland.    The author writes about various lines of his family who immigrate to the “American” East Coast in the 1700’s, travel to the Mid West and end up on the West Coast by the early 1900’s. His family were movers, leavers, people with optimism and belief that the grass really is greener in the next pasture.  Sometime it was true and sometimes it wasn’t.

My daughter was married last Friday to a wonderful guy who comes from family of  people who have stayed primarily. We are definitely a family who goes….you have to go back to generations in the early 1800’s to find anyone who stayed in a place for a 2nd, much less a 3rd generation!  And this has made me ponder what this will mean for them and the next generation?  Will they stay or will they go?

Genealogists are taught to pay attention to the push and pull motivators that cause people to move.  Was it war, famine, religious freedom or economic opportunity? But I find myself looking a little deeper into character and temperament. Is it genetic or environmental, this inclination to move or stay in the same place?  By our very definition of American’s we have all come here from different places (unless of course you are a Native American).   Has the American cultural belief in the “promised land” and new opportunities shaped our DNA?

I think in our particular family, we are extremely independent, have a need to be individuals and make our own way without the very strong personalities of our parents and family (in every generation!) influencing our life path.  My great-great grand father moved from England in 1872 to Chicago to work in the steel mills, most likely for financial opportunities and a better life for his family.  His son was a retail entrepreneur and moved to Los Angeles in the 1920’s to open his own store.  My earlier ancestors on other lines came to New York in the 1600‘s and Pennsylvania in the 1700’s, each generation continued to move up and down the Eastern seaboard, then to the mid-west and the south, to California and finally ending up with me in Seattle.   Whether it was cheap farm land or new types of industry opening in a different city, many of our ancestors were not tied to the land or people from which they were born.  Are we the type that are more susceptible to creating our own particular alchemy of people, place and time?

And what about those that stay? Humans have always been amazingly mobile, yet there are many who stayed in the same place. Europe and Asia are still populated with those who didn’t feel a need to cross the pond. People on the East Coast and Mid West are the descendants of those who finally found a place to call home and didn’t see a reason to leave.  They seem to have the ability to root.  They have found places that resonate in their soul and see no good reason to leave. They are satisfied. This doesn’t mean they haven’t had financial, personal or even political challenges, but still they stay.  They are risk takers and entrepreneurs too, but they have strong roots that do not pull up easily and take the risks in their home town or state.

So what will happen with the grandchildren I hope to have?  Will they stay in the place of their birth or will they have the itch to move on?  Which genetic or environmental influence will end up winning out?  I don’t know, but I know that I will keep making the trek back to New York regularly to see my daughter and her new family. The space between us is smaller with air travel and I have even thought of buying a place there.  Of course that is because of who I am, one who moves more easily.

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3 Responses to Genealogical Musings on Migration: People Who Stay, People Who Go

  1. Val says:

    Thought provoking post, Rachelle. I too have a family split between movers and stayers. I come from the ‘mover’ line and am just getting to know the ‘stayer’ side back in Minnesota. The stories are different, the notion of who are family is, of course, is different, but when we get together and blend our information, we see a more complete picture.

  2. Desiree says:

    All my lines were the “movers” – many coming on the Mayflower and in Great Migration; almost all before 1700; all from England (except one from Ireland…): Winthrop, Hull, Wing, Littlefield, Millay, Allen, Ingram, Nye, to name a few. But my ancestors were the ones who kept moving on – from Massachusetts to New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma – the children never born in the same state as their parents; rarely dying in the state where they were born. And in the more recent generations, some of their brothers and sisters moving on to California, Washington, and Oregon. It leaves us without a deep sense of who we are beyond our grandparents and whatever they told us about their parents – which was often very little. And so we dig to find whatever ashes and bones of our ancestors we can find. I was born in Oklahoma – amazingly, 3rd generation to be born there which for my age is impressive since one grandmother was born in Oklahoma Territory and 10 years later the other was born in the State of Oklahoma. But I did the reverse migration to Illinois, not knowing that a paternal great-grandmother was born several hours from where I lived for years and that her grandparents are buried in a town where I worked. A maternal great-grandmother died about an hour from where I live – although the cemetery seems to have been returned to prairie or farmland; no records remain of where it is. I had no idea of any of this when I was a kid learning American history – not knowing that it really was my history…

    • Rachelle says:

      I continue to find the migrations some of the most interesting part of our ancestor’s stories. How they could move such great distances and under difficult conditions of finding food, water, shelter (and in some cases safety) is a marvel. I like your point about moving back to where your ancestors lived. In our mobile world, where we are not moving for land, but moving for jobs, this is happening more often.

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