How Genealogy Debunks Myths About History, #3: Moving House

We frequently hear about how much more mobile people are now than in previous eras. Technological developments have made travel and communication easier, so people move around more. I’m sure in many ways that’s true, but I have found that even though moving was more difficult before, people did it pretty often anyway.

When I started researching my ancestors, I had this idea that on each line I would come across that one brave or desperate person who immigrated to America, but most of that person’s ancestors would have lived in one spot, and most of that person’s descendants, at least until the twentieth century, would have too.

In a few cases that was at least partly true. I have one group of ancestors who all lived in the same parish in Ireland for multiple generations until a couple of them made the big leap to the USA. I have another group that, once they got to Newark, New Jersey around 1850, almost all stayed there for a good hundred years, although they spent about ten years in Boston before they got there.

But most of my ancestors suprised me by being much more mobile than I expected. This was equally true of the Irish Catholic ones, the German Jewish ones, the French, the Swiss, the Scots. I would search for ages for a family in New York, and finally find them in Illinois, or Alabama, or California. It’s not just the urban ones, either. I have one line of generations of Mennonite farmers. They are always popping up in different states.

This is true pre-immigration too. I was very excited not long ago to find the town in Alsace one family immigrated from, thinking that might be a sort of ancestral village for them, and it might be, for the husband’s family, but it turns out the wife was born much farther east, deep in what’s now Germany, and only moved there right before their wedding.

The records rarely give reasons why, so I don’t always know which moves were primarily toward something better, and which were away from something worse. I just know that, for at least the last 500 years or so, difficult as it may have been to do, many people moved around an awful lot, and this is one more way that genealogical research shows me how foolish my assumptions can be.

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