Monday, September 14, 2015


                                 My father was a wandering Aramean...  ~Deuteronomy 26:5

When we lived in Alaska, I was amused to discover that an old Alaska pioneer was anyone who’d been there about ten minutes longer than the next guy.

And on our way to Alaska, I saw a bumper-sticker, “Welcome to Oregon—Now go home!” 

Somewhere in your family’s immigrant past—and mine—someone wanted them to “go home,” whether they were Dumb Norskies, Bohunks, Krauts, Chinee, Polocks, Jews, Darkies, or….

Even if you trace your ancestors to the Mayflower, someone didn’t want them here—and I don’t just mean the Native Americans.  (The very first act of the starving 1620 Mayflower sojourners was to steal a granary of Native corn.) The English Puritans established religious freedom for themselves but didn’t extend it to anyone else. Quincy, Massachusetts, was founded by a group of Puritans who were expelled from Plymouth Colony for being too “merry.” (The original name of Quincy was “Merrymount.”)

Jack Rakove, in Revolutionaries—his excellent history of the American Revolution—points out that Ben Franklin felt that German immigrants should be sent back to where they came from, because they “were too stupid to learn English, didn’t know how to make use of liberty, were too swarthy in their complexion, and ‘will soon outnumber us.’” (That’s not the last time that list of complaints has been uttered.) I don’t know whether or not Franklin later acknowledged the important role played by German-American regiments in the ultimate Colonial victory. Today, 20% of Americans are of German ancestry.

A deeply peripatetic trait known variously as immigration, emigration, migration, wanderlust, pioneering, gold-seeking, refugeeism, draft-dodging, etc., is not only built into our American genes, but is what makes the whole human story a story. The “genographic” map of one’s ancestral line produced by DNA-research projects such as that offered by National Geographic opens a whole world of possible destinations if one wants to visit “the old country.” You and I have been everywhere.

Reasonable and caring people can differ over what might be the most humane and workable approach to the challenge of the current migrant crisis in Europe--and the issues of immigration in our own country.  But I’m grateful that—in the case of my own pioneering ancestors: Jorgen and Hannah and Ole and Beret—they weren’t simply told to “go home.” Or maybe they were. But we’re still here.

Welcome to America. 

"O Pioneers!" is the title of a novel by Willa Cather

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