August 20, 2011

Immigrants of Today Like Those of Old, Author Tells “Genealogy Gems” Host

EXCAVATING HIS FAMILY HISTORY led author John Paul Godges to discover that the immigrant experience of today is very similar to that of a century ago, he explained to Lisa Louise Cooke, host of the “Genealogy Gems” podcast, during an interview at the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree in Burbank, California.

“We hold these myths of our ancestors coming to this country to build a city on the hill. You know, a very clear decision filled with moral clarity and rectitude,” Godges began. But as he found out, “There were ferocious arguments on both sides of the family about the decision to immigrate to America in the first place. In one case, it provoked a divorce. I realized that each decision to come to this country was rent with this conflict between those who wanted to break free and those who wanted just as desperately to keep the family intact.”

Cooke pointed to another little-known fact about immigrants of a century ago, as depicted in Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century. “It was really interesting to hear how many times they crossed the pond before they actually really did settle. They were world travelers, and it was when there were just steamships and barely any cars.”

“Yes!” Godges replied. “We never knew this! Because the story that is passed down is that there was a clean break. Well, no! My mother’s side of the family came between 1902 and 1914. It took a period of 12 years for them to make that break. So it was not clean. It was exactly comparable to migrant laborers today from south of the border. They come here in search of work so they can support the family back home. They’ll come again, if work is available, and go back home. They’ll come again and look for jobs that Americans are unwilling to take.”

Another modern parallel that struck Godges while writing Oh, Beautiful was the news of immigrants suffocating in freight cars in Iowa. “This was just a few years ago. These were hauntingly similar stories to what my great-grandfather experienced upon his arrival to this country. The more I learned about my family history, the more I realized that a lot of things have not changed all that much.”

For the remainder of the interview, which can be viewed below, Cooke asked Godges about the genealogical legwork involved in uncovering his family story and about the process of collecting personal accounts, dealing with the emotions of family members, and conveying the story in a way that could resonate with people outside his family.

“I think genealogy is exciting because it’s not focused just on the past,” Godges concluded. “History is moving so fast now, we’re sort of spinning out of our comfort zones. The importance of knowing where we came from is not simply to get the facts down, but it’s to help us make meaning out of our own lives and come to a richer understanding of how we can move forward.”


The full interview plays in the three videos below. The podcast is also available free through iTunes, the iPhone and iPad app, the Android app, the Genealogy Gems Toolbar, and the Genealogy Gems website, linked from the podcast logo below.


“There is this ongoing conflict from one generation to the next, I discovered in my family’s experience and I think in the American experience, between the need to find your niche as an individual and yet clinging to some sense of community.”

Running time: 10 minutes, 33 seconds.


“On each page of that particular ship manifest, the customs agent had forgotten to write the name of the ship! The top of each page said S.S. blank. And so although this information, this historical data, had been in existence for a hundred or so years, since 1902, it had been utterly inaccessible.”

Running time: 9 minutes, 35 seconds.


“In today’s world, it seems like more and more people are so inward focused, and yet your book makes it so abundantly clear that we are all connected, whether we know it or like it or not, that we are all products of what was going on around us.”

Running time: 12 minutes, 21 seconds.


Genealogy Gems Podcast