Modern Europe Journal: Immigration and Family History

Recently, our own Prof. Diana Magnuson took a break from U.S. history to guest-teach a session of HIS354 Modern Europe, surveying some of the causes of migration from Europe to the United States in the 19th century — and helping students to imaginatively understand the experience of immigration. Afterwards, students were asked to reflect on their own family’s history of coming to this country (however recent or distant an experience it was): whether it resonated with the themes Diana introduced, and whether that history (and the culture of the place from which the student’s ancestors migrated) remained significant in their family.

One of the many fine responses came from Tom Keefe (’14), a History and Social Studies Education major. This is Tom’s second appearance on the blog: last spring his essay on encountering the history of the Great Depression through literature was featured in our Modern American Encounters series.

Dr. Magnuson’s presentation on immigration was interesting for me to experience. For a variety of reasons, I have not greatly pondered the experience of my ancestors in their journey to America. I think this phenomenon has a multitude of explanations, the first being that I am a ethnic “mutt” of sorts. I am Irish, Swiss and German, and my mixed background dissuades me from possessing a true European national allegiance. In addition, I am far removed from the immigration of these ancestors, as both groups emigrated from Europe in the mid-1800’s. Furthermore, my family really does not carry on any ethnic European traditions. My Dad said that when he was growing up, my Grandfather would insist on a traditional Irish meal at least once a month (usually incorporating boiled cabbage). In addition, My Mother’s side would partake in a Swiss tradition on Christmas Eve, but our nuclear family has not carried on either of these traditions. This is led to an indifferent disposition regarding my heritage (which I find unfortunate). Despite these factors which lead to a lack of thought and identity in my history, through talks with my Father and Mother, I discovered some interesting things about my past that made me dwell on themes discussed in Dr. Magnuson’s lecture.

Although I did not learn very much about the immigration of my Mother’s two families (from Switzerland and Germany), the story of the Keefe family (my Dad’s side) was very intriguing. The ancestral Keefe’s left their Irish home in the 1850’s in the latter half of the Great Potato Famine in Ireland. They came through Castle Garden in New York and had their names changed from O’Keef to Keefe due to the preponderance of the former name in America. The newly-named Keefe family eventually settled in the Fox Valley in Wisconsin, and we have stayed relatively close to that sight ever since. This interesting history made me consider and connect my family’s story to the “push factors” that Dr. Magnuson proposed. Specifically, it was pretty clear that my ancestors were hoping to move from from an impoverished standard of living to a greatly improved standard of living. A hope for a better future (and a better economic stature) was enough motivation to escape an evil that eventually claimed almost a quarter of the Irish population (through death or emigration). In her discussion, Dr. Magnuson stated that members of society from all classes made the transcontinental move, and it made me wonder what was the economic state of my family prior their emigration from Ireland. Even more, it was interesting to consider how this standing became irrelevant in the face of a massive conflict. Although the story of my family is not necessarily unique (especially for those of Irish ancestry), I find it fascinating that my predecessors entered this nation with the masses fleeing a great economic and environmental evil. Although I find my lack of understanding of my family history relatively embarrassing, thinking about my ancestors through Dr. Magnuson’s lecture and talks with my parents was thought-provoking and very exciting in ways.

– Tom Keefe

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