Uncovering the Reasons for a Ancestor’s Migrations

April 17, 2012 at 1:47 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies, My Family History Stories | 1 Comment
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Vincent Smarsh 1860 US Census for PA

Vincent Smarsh 1860 US Census for PA

I’ve diligently worked to understand the life of my maternal gggrandfather, Vincent Smarsh (b. 1804 Austria, d 1882 Kansas) – copiously gathering records for years.   From my records the story of an immigrant’s migration was clear.  Leaving Austria he and his young family arrived in Pennsylvania then migrated to Kansas through Tennessee in the years between 1854 and 1872 all within the backdrop of the historic transformation of America during the Civil War.The “Why” Behind the Story

What I didn’t have was “why?” Specifically, why did he move from Pennsylvania to Tennessee to Kansas. Migration in the 19th Century couldn’t have been easy, nor would the decision to move have been taken lightly. Why didn’t he stay in Pennsylvania or Tennessee?  Was he fleeing something or drawn to something or both? In my mind, there had to be a good reason.

What that reason was, I had no clue but I was determined to uncover.  I’ll review for you the theories I explored and the records I reviewed in search of my answer.

The Civil War?

The elephant in the historic room was the Civil War.  I would suspect much relocation was the result of the Civil War.  People changing allegiances, hiding allegiances, fleeing war torn areas, and then there was the mass migration to the north of the slaves.  It seemed like an obvious place to start when looking for a motive.  But a couple facts stood in the way of a clear answer.

  1. Born in 1804, Vincent would be in his late 50s during the Civil War. So, he probably didn’t serve in the military himself.  His son, Vincent A. Smarsh, however, did serve in the Massachusetts militia and was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic.  Although there were many divided loyalties within households, I was willing to surmise this was a Union home.
  2. Why would he move from Pennsylvania, a pro-Union state, to Tennessee, a border and      mixed-alliance state? That would seem to indicate a change of allegiances.

Nonetheless, I wanted some evidence to back or nullify my suspicions.  To shed some light on what may have happened, I turned to the Lancaster County history books. I found a wonderful history of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania with extraordinary detail on the Civil War in Lancaster on Family Search’s Online Genealogy Books website. The book is aptly named, The History of Lancaster County.

It seems that Lancaster County, PA was, as I suspected, was ardently pro-Union. Although, the history details every soldier from every unit mustered from Lancaster County, there isn’t a “Smarsh” among them.  (Vincent A Smarsh, his son, served in nearby Harrisburg, Dauphin County, PA.)  Although troops were rallied in support of the Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns, the history doesn’t tell us that there were actual battles fought in Lancaster County.

So it seems, Vincent didn’t serve, nor did his livelihood suffer the trauma of War.  Something else must have prompted the migration.

Financial Duress?

If he didn’t move because of the War, did he move because of economic circumstances?  Did something change that prompted him to look for greener pastures?  If so, it must have been overwhelmingly compelling because he was a farmer with a big family – deep and wide roots to transplant.

In the 1860 US Census for Pennsylvania(see above), Vincent owned real estate valued at $400 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and $100 in personal property. The real estate is valued at $10,800 in 2010 dollars. (You can play with the value conversion calculator here.) For a new immigrant with only six years in the states, he’s doing pretty good!  Again, I have to ask, why leave?

I then turn to the 1870 US Census for Tennessee; Vincent turns up in Knox County, TN, where he does not own property. However, he is listed as a farmer, and he has $500 in personal property – not real estate – just property.  Additionally, two black men, Henry Dillard, age 35, who can read and write, and Horace Brown, age 67, who cannot read or write (implying he was a former slave), are living with the family and work as farm hands.

My conclusion from these facts is that Vincent is doing pretty good.  It doesn’t look like he’s not moving out of financial need.  Even though he doesn’t own land in Tennessee, he’s managing financially well enough to have hired hands and substantial assets.

The Times?

The light of illumination on this story finally became clear when I turned to the history of the town to which Vincent first immigrated, Elizabethtown, Lancaster, PA.  The book, Elizabethtown The First Three Centuries by the Elizabethtown Historical Society (Masthof Press) breaks down the long history in nicely segmented eras.  Chapter 6, Elizabethtown at Mid-Century (1851-1875) spoke directly to the time and circumstances that prevailed when Vincent lived in this community.  Ah ha!  The answer must be there.  And although Vincent isn’t mentioned specifically, the picture of his life there nonetheless comes alive.

Elizabethtown only had 108 homes in 1854, when Vincent arrived.  It was a very small community, rich in a multidenominational religious history and an agrarian heritage.  However, at least to the latter point, by 1854, “the factory system and heavy industry had begun to change American life.  Even Lancaster County, with its rich agricultural base, had cotton mills and factories…”  Vincent was a farmer among an increasingly mechanized society.  Land was increasing in value as it decreased in availability.  Further, tobacco revolutionized farm production in Lancaster County in the 1850s.  Vincent was a wheat farmer from Austria/Bohemia.  He neither had the skills nor inclination to cultivate tobacco.

As to the former point of the welcoming religious history that Elizabethtown boasted, that changed, too.  A record number of immigrants, 1056, arrived in Lancaster County between 1850 and 1851, presumably putting economic pressure on those already there.  And where there is fear of a secure livelihood, there is fear of the unknown.  Again from the Elizabethtown history, “Some Americans responded negatively and organized the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner to defend American values against Catholics and foreigners.”  Vincent was Catholic.

A number of push circumstances most probably drove him to another place.  Farming wasn’t the future of Lancaster County – at least not wheat farming.  Land prices were increasing, which may have been the cue to sell now and look for more land out West at better prices.  And there were increasing tensions against foreigners and Catholics.  All in all a pretty good motive to move on.

Why Did Vincent Move to Tennessee?

Why Tennessee?  Marsha Hoffman Rising in The Family Tree Problem Solver, tells us that most immigrants moved West in fits and starts, hopscotching across the country in smaller moves. A segment of his community may have move there and he followed.  Knox County was on the Great Wagon Road, a well-worn migration path, so it may have been an inevitable destination.  We may never know, “why Tennessee?”  What we do know is that  Tennessee, a non-Union state and a tobacco-growing region, was probably never meant to be a final destination for Vincent.    Indeed he was only there a year or two, and as mentioned before, he didn’t buy land.  Vincent’s real goal – maybe all along – was to find land to cultivate in a manner he knew well and raise his family in peace and prosperity.

The Last Move

Finally, in 1872, Sedgwick County, Kansas opens  for settlers.  Vincent probably hears word of the land auctions as many men in Tennessee and Kentucky did.  He gathers his family – leaving behind one who married – and moves to Kansas.  He buys 160 acres from the Osage Nation Trust Lands through the State of Kansas at $1.25/acre. (The story of how Osage Nation Trust Lands were available through the State of Kansas will have to wait for another day.)  He becomes a pioneer settling the German Catholic community of St. Marks, Kansas.  And his decendents remain there to this day.

In Conclusion…

The magic of genealogy is tying together the facts to recreate a story that explains not only who our ancestors were, but why they made the choices they did.  Therein, I always find that each life has a compelling story – one worth honoring and remembering.

Happy Researching.


1 Comment »

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  1. I guess I should start by saying ‘Hi, I am Terry. We must be related’. Any luck going back to Bohemia/Austria to continue Vincent’s or Maria’s chain? I started checking and got back to Vincent, then found your post.

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