Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Part 12: Coming to America

Castle Garden in NYC

Entry 12: Coming to America records gave me a glimpse into Mary Ann’s first steps on U.S. soil. I knew she had stood without her husband, her children in tow, on the deck of the Minnesota as it pulled into New York Harbor that day in September of 1870. The U.S. census, taken in June of that year showed Thomas was already at work in the mines of Vershire, Vermont. I had little understanding of what this experience must have been like for Mary Ann and her young family. So much has been written about passengers chugging into this harbor, waving at the Statue of Liberty, but then undergoing the humiliation and fear of Ellis Island. I knew Mary Ann had arrived before either of these landmarks were in place. What had happened?
It was by chance that I came across the name, Castle Garden, while reading the novel, The Shoemaker’s Wife. This place with the welcoming name was the entry point for immigrants between 1855 and 1890. But it was not so welcoming. New arrivals were herded off the ship that had held them for the two week voyage. They were crowded together for processing and examination. But the degradation didn’t stop there. Once freed from the dank conditions that “greeted them to the land of opportunity” hawkers of all sorts usually accosted them with false promises ranging from a safe and inexpensive journey to an intended destination or employment that resulted in years of slave labor. The streets of New York were not kind to newcomers. We often conjure up a picture of the immigrant, beaming with hope for the opportunities that waited. But the truth was far different. Our ancestors likely felt trepidation, as they were not welcomed but rather humiliated upon arrival and then taken advantage of by unscrupulous vendors.
I can only imagine Mary Ann pulling her children close before finally boarding a train, clutching the directions her husband had asked someone to write for her. Thomas was illiterate but Mary Ann could read and write, likely thanks to her schoolteacher mother.
The Symons family likely took a similar train from NYC to Vermont.
Following the path of others like her, it is probable she boarded a train for the next part of her journey. New England’s autumn countryside was just beginning to glow with the beauty of the season showing off its finery before the dark of winter descended. When the snow fell, the landscape would hold its white covering for months, something unusual for a family used to the more temperate climate of Cornwall.
The train stopped at White River Junction, Vermont. Anecdotal stories passed down by others who had made similar journeys indicate that the new family was in all probability met by a horse drawn buggy and bumped along the last 40 miles to the mining community of Vershire, a place that was populated by newcomers and run by those fueled with thoughts of riches.
Site of the Ely/Vershire mine.
Today this spot that once held so much promise for so many is now an EPA Super Fund site. Its grounds are not safe for schoolchildren to walk. Here and there a rock still wears a jacket of the toxic chemicals that once covered the area. This was to be home for the Symons and Richards families for eleven years. My great great grandmother Harriet was married here at 14 years of age, and my great grandfather treasured the memory of the town he called Ely to his dying day.
But we have no clues as to Mary Ann’s state of mind; we are left to wonder if she felt excitement or trepidation as she left her homeland, taking her children on such a journey, and setting up a new household in this faraway place. It is likely she had a panoply of emotions.
There is much of me that longs for the discovery of a letter tucked in an unexpected place or that email from a descendent of Mary Ann’s sister, telling me there is a newfound stash of correspondence. But I know better than to dream of this. I have learned this is not the way of the Symons family. They left their history as a type of scavenger hunt to be unearthed in tiny pieces. Likely it never entered the mind of Mary Ann that her great great great granddaughter would long to know her story. Perhaps the lesson for me is to leave a written record of my thoughts and an account of my adventures and misadventures for my descendants. I also keep a daily log of memories as they nudge me so that special events along with the mannerisms, sayings, and beliefs of my grandparents and parents will not be lost. That, I believe, is part of the necessary work of the genealogist. We must take care to leave a path for the future to find.


  1. Hi Kathy, A quick glance at this post, I suddenly got excited, because my aunt lived in Ely for several years. Second, I ordered, The Shoemaker's Daughter, two days ago, and now I see you've read it. I wonder what else we'll share. Welcome to the world of blogging.

  2. Thank you so much, Barbara. I had heard about Ely my entire life, only to find the area my great great grandfather was talking about was really Vershire, having had the name Ely for just a short time...but the villages are close to one another. I had to make a second trip to Vermont after I discovered this information. I'm sure you'll love The Shoemaker's Daughter. Keep me posted. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Welcome to Geneabloggers, Kathy. I have enjoyed reading your well-written posts. I am another Kathy and although our ancestry is very different in terms of European country of our forebears, we both share a love of learning our family's story. I have "The Shoemaker's Daughter" on reserve at the library and am happy that Adriana Trigiani's family came through Castle Garden, which is so unknown compared to Ellis Island. Perhaps Castle Garden will finally get more recognition. I'm sending you the URL for a post I wrote about it - which was followed by a second post in which I imagined my German ancestors arriving there in 1861. You will find that Castle Garden was not as bad as you imagine - if one can believe the article written by the current director of this historic site.