My family doesn’t trace lineage to the Mayflower, played no roles in the Revolutionary War or the Civil War. And I don’t remember anyone referring to our grandparents and great grandparents as “migrants”; they were “immigrants,” people from specific European places seeking new lives in America. And, in those days, roughly from the Civil War to 1900, the biggest groups of immigrants to the United States were German speaking people from war-tossed, shifting borderlands across Northern Europe. Further north, Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians joined the emigration to America, theirs an escape from family farms that had been whittled, generation by generation, to parcels unable to support families.
The Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg tells the story in a four-volume saga called “The Emigrants.” The first novel gets them on the boat, but only after harrowing tales of poverty, religious persecution, death, and intricate family and community break-ups surrounding the troubles at home and the lure of America.
The call of America was land—land that could be had for almost free with homesteading and hard work. Land that had been taken from Native tribes by force, guile, disease, and numbers—numbers bolstered by the sea of European emigrants, including my ancestors, sweeping across the continent.
This sweep was ideological as well as economic. A belief in Manifest Destiny, the idea that Euro-Americans were in all way superior to indigenous peoples, and that God—mostly a protestant God—had willed this mass migration to secure the continent for the new United States. Economics, including homesteading incentives, railroad concessions, and the mass killing of buffalo, were all employed in furthering the ideological mission.
Our ancestors, the people crowded out of Norway and those looking for a way out of the turmoil of German unification, were small pawns in this scheme. They were looking for land and a better life, and the forces of the universe landed them in Minnesota and Wisconsin and Canada—wherever the powers of government and the burgeoning railroads thought that they should go. The late 19th Century boom of settlers filled Midwestern farms and cities, building breweries, meat packing companies, and bakeries in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and St. Louis.
There are no stories of Native displacement—or even Native engagement, in our Minnesota family histories. Most of the displacement and damage to Natives in the upper Midwest had been done with and through the Civil War, Indian Wars, broken treaties and earlier settlement. Indians were, by the time my ancestors arrived in the 1880s and 90s, considered a “vanishing race.”
Unless you carry indigenous blood, your family story is one of emigration to the United States from a place in the world where there were shortages—of land, food, work, and opportunity. The places your family immigrated from were experiencing hard times—climate change and hunger in the 1600s, dwindling land resources with growing families, religious and political persecution in some cases. They came from England and Scotland, then from Northern Europe and later from Southern Europe, and the Balkans.
Maybe they came as indentured servants, their parents not having the wherewithal to feed and clothe them. Maybe they came fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Maybe they came with unscrupulous labor contractors and slavers wanting their brawn to build railroads and work mines and farms. Many—though not the slaves of course—managed to make it and to send money back to the old countries, even to make passage for siblings and other relatives.
The world has turned, communications have accelerated, and now the poor places in the world, the places where crops die, where rains no longer sustain, where corrupt governments and gangs are crushing local populations, where hope is slim and gone, these places are looking to the hope and promise of North America and Western Europe.
And we have a crisis on our borders, and, for that matter, so does Pakistan, which is turning back Afghan refugees. The crisis is that desperate refugees, migrants blowing with the wind and looking for immigrant homes, have thrown all caution to the wind. They are risking it all, death in trying to get to the places they’ve seen on their cell phones, which seem better than the lives they’ve left.
I don’t know how many rootless refugees, how many migrants there are in the world today. I do know that there are four million Syrians in Turkey, that ships full of refugees sink in the Mediterranean off Italy and Greece regularly. I know that there are two million Gazans now without homes. With climate change, festering wars in Palestine and Ukraine, and low-level exchanges of missiles and drones in many places in the world, I can only imagine the migration crisis growing.
Imagine now that you are living in war-torn Afghanistan, or that you are a Gazan whose home has been destroyed and neighbors and relatives killed, or that you live in a drought-stricken Mexico, Central America, or East Africa. Imagine that you have watched your own children die by starvation, diarrhea, or under a building in Gaza or a bomb-blast in Iraq or Syria or Lebanon. Imagine you were on the wrong side of a political tyranny—or an economic one. Is the person you imagine much different from the people you’ve traced on “Ancestry”?
Now imagine that you are a Native American in Minnesota in 1890, one still remaining after the 38 were hanged in Mankato, and the Dakota were forced out of the state in response to an Indian uprising resulting from land thefts and cheating and stealing of foods by Indian agents and the governor. For you, immigration was devastating, another step on a path to extinction.
The imagined consequences that people in Oregon and Idaho—and even California and Arizona—see in our great border crisis pale compared to what happened to that Dakota Indian in 1890 Minnesota.
But he and she have survived, and so will you, even it we take in 10 million migrants, as we wait for the world to turn again, for drought to heal, wars to cease, killings to stop. Ultimately, we’re all the product of chance, and there but for the grace of God go I.
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