Context in immigration stories is crucial to understanding the past. Context explains why, what happened, and what was that like. Information missing from the documents. Details that make compelling stories.
In addition, context can confirm family traditions, fill-in details, or correct misconceptions.
Why Context in Immigration Stories Matters
In an article for JSTOR, Paul Lauter states:
… no single set of experiences can typify the enormously varied processes which brought people to these shores.
He’s right. Stereotypes are more apt to mislead than to demystify. We need individual stories. Stories with rich context.
Legal, emotional, cultural, economic, family, and geopolitical details make stories more compelling and more accurate. This is something that journalist and scholar Jane Regen likes to stress to her journalism students:
In the classroom, I emphasize that every news story—even a little one about a city sidewalk repair—must provide context. Why that sidewalk, why now? Who lives there and walks there? What sidewalks are not getting repaired? When was the sidewalk first built? What’s the budget? And so on.”
Her article, Immigration Story Missing Context of Hunger and Freedom, illustrates how context can enrich a story. She uses a spectrum of context: legal statutes, historical data, and the conditions from which people flee.
Where to find the Context
Finding the context for your stories will probably involve doing a little research. I recommend turning to the experts in the field.
- For beginners researching immigration into the USA, John Phillip Colletta’s book, They Came in Ships: Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Arrival Record, makes a good starting place.
- For immigration from the British Isles to Australia try Arrivals in Australia from 1788, by Kerry Farmer.
- Christine Woodcock of Genealogy Tours of Scotland is my go-to for Scottish migration.
- Blogs are another valuable resource. Search for the ones that interest you at com/members.
- Don’t overlook webinars or presentations at conferences. For example, Rootstech London has many immigration-related sessions. In the USA, look for opportunities to hear Lisa Alzo or John Colletta speak.
Adding Context to the Stories
How can you weave context in immigration stories?
Interpret the documents.
Original documents aren’t always easy to understand. Your narrative should clarify uncommon terminology. You can also summarize the demographics of the passengers or explain conditions people traveling steerage class likely endured.
Likewise, take the year and the weather into account. What would the passage have been like? Perhaps you can find a historical newspaper that highlights the voyage by searching archives at the port of entry.
Add historical backdrop.
Including context in immigration stories means framing them in history. What else was going on in that time and at that place? What was public sentiment towards immigrants at that time? (This also means research. 😊)
Helpful resources include
- Ted Hesson’s 23 Defining Moments in Immigration Policy History, from ABC News, November 27, 2012.
- Joe Myers’ These 3 charts explain the complex history of US immigration,” from the World Economic Forum, February 1, 2017.
- History.com’s U.S. Immigration Timeline, last updated Dec 21, 2018.
- U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (or an equivalent institution in the relevant country of research)
What made them leave their homeland? What brought them to their new country?
In her RootsTech 2019 session, Lisa Alzo suggested researching the circumstances which “pushed” people from their home as well as the “pull” factors in the country of immigration. This push/pull juxtaposition makes an engaging story. You can contrast the stories of those who migrated with the histories of those left behind.
Don’t leave out family tradition.
Readers connect with characters they can imagine. Show your ancestor’s personality. Elizabeth O’Neal’s Anna Susan Bires: Cinderella Story to Happy Ending is a good example.
Add rich sensory details.
Refer back to Brains on Stories for how sensory details engage curiosity and emotions.
For instance, what would they have seen, felt, heard, or smelled on deck? In the port of departure? Upon arrival? Processing? Put your readers in their shoes to whatever extent you can.
Perhaps the context is the story.
Context alone can make a fascinating read. Check out Jeff Goertzen’s How 102 Pilgrims crammed inside the Mayflower a year before their first Thanksgiving.
How have you (or will you) portrayed context in immigration stories in your family? (If you’re a GeneaBlogger with an great example to share, include a link.)
Background image of title graphic courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
“The Chinese invasion” by J. Keppler,1880. Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C.
Background image of pinnable graphic, Immigrants on an Atlantic Liner, courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
 Jane Regen, “Finding Context for Your Family’s Immigration Stories,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), July 12, 2018, https://fair.org/home/immigration-story-missing-context-of-hunger-and-freedom/.