Immigration, especially on the GOP side of the political spectrum, is a hot political topic as the 2016 Presidential race begins. The GOP, which has snatched the mantle of the Know Nothings, the Dixiecrats, and pro segregationists, is angry about those who immigrate without following the rules and some are angry about immigrants in general, legal or illegal.
“My ancestors played by the rules,” their argument goes. “Today’s immigrants should too.” Hard-core anti-immigrationists would just as soon deport all immigrants, leaving behind only ‘true’ Americans, all of whom, of course, including Native People, are also either immigrants or or their descendants.
Anyway, it got me to wondering about the procedure all those legal immigrants had to follow when they arrived, especially during the heyday of European immigration. Turns out, if you were a European, there really weren’t a whole lot of rules.
The earliest arriving ancestor I know about was Baltzer Lantz, my five-times great grandfather on my Grandmother Holzhueter’s side, who stepped off the ship Phoenix, probably in Philadelphia, in 1750. Since there was no United States yet, Baltzer didn’t have a problem fitting in, since Pennsylvania was filled with Germans. He was a mason by trade who helped build forts on what was then the Pennsylvania frontier during the last of the French and Indian wars before settling down and raising his family in Lancaster County.
My dad’s Matile ancestors arrived in the U.S. in 1867. Henri Francois and Verginie (Ducommun-Dit-Veron) Matile, my great-grandparents, were among 126 passengers who sailed to the U.S. aboard the Harvest Home, a 598-ton wooden-hulled bark-rigged (three masts, with square sails on the fore and main masts and a triangular fore-and-aft sail on the mizzen mast) vessel of U.S. registry. Traveling from Switzerland’s canton of Neuchâtel, they embarked at LeHavre, France with their six children, and sailed for the port of New York, arriving Aug. 3, 1867.
Wilhelm and Fredericka (Tesch) Holzhueter, great-grandparents on my mom’s side, immigrated to the U.S. aboard the fast steamer Eider in 1885. The Eider was a new ship, many times larger than the Harvest Home that brought the Matiles to the U.S. Launched Dec. 15, 1884 in Glasgow, Scotland, she was a 4,719-ton iron-hulled ship with four masts and two funnels for her single steam engine. The Holzhueters and their three children were among 1,250 passengers and 167 crew on the voyage, arriving at the port of New York from Bremen, Germany on April 26, 1885.
During that era, immigrant ships debarked their passengers at Castle Garden in New York harbor—Ellis Island wouldn’t open for business until 1892. There were no visas at the time, and passports really weren’t necessary, either. Henri and Virginie only had to give their names, ages, occupations, and places from where where they’d come. Wilhelm and Fredericka, on the other hand, answered a fairly long battery of questions that included everything the Matiles had been asked, plus a few more—whether they could read and write (yes), whether they had ever been in prison or an almshouse (no), and others. They also had to undergo a cursory health inspection before they were allowed to leave Castle Garden and make their way to Illinois where they first settled with my great-grandmother’s relatives before making their own home amongst the other Germans who had settled on Aurora’s Far East Side in what was then nicknamed Dutchtown.
Baltzer was never naturalized. Seeing as how he got here before the country was established he was grandfathered in. But Henri Matile did go through the naturalization process, as did my Holzhueter great-grandparents, and all became citizens.
That process, too, was straightforward and not at all complicated. Immigrants had to live in the U.S. for five years, and for a year in the state in which they were wishing to be naturalized. With the residency requirements out of the way, they could file a declaration of intent to become citizens. A couple years later (the time varied from one to three years depending on the state) they could file their second petition for naturalization. They were then required to sign an Oath of Allegiance that pledged their allegiance to the United States. After that, they were sworn in as U.S. citizens by a judge in their local court, and a certificate of naturalization was issued to them.
And just like that, they could pay taxes and vote.
My ancestors were fortunate they were white, European Protestant Christians. Catholics from Ireland and Southern Europe weren’t treated nearly as politely, and Asian people were treated even worse, starting with the Chinese exclusion acts, the first passed in 1879 and pretty much going downhill from there.
None of my ancestors could speak English when they arrived. Henri Matile, his wife, and children spoke only French. Baltzer Lantz and the Holzhueters spoke only German. And, in fact, Henri spoke only French at home for the rest of his life and the Lantzes and Holzhueters only spoke German. That was why my grandmother, a descendant of Baltzer Lantz and Pennsylvania Dutch through and through got on so well with my Grandfather Holzhueter—both families spoke German at home even though the Lantzes had lived in Pennsylvania and then Illinois for 150 years before my grandparents’ marriage—in our neighboring city of Aurora, Lutheran churches held German-language services right up to the 1960s.
So, yes, my ancestors came to America, started new lives, and were engaged in their communities while still retaining their cultural identities that seemed to mix pretty well with everyone else in the melting pot. And they all followed the immigration rules. It’s just that there weren’t many rules to follow, back in the day.