Finding a better life

Susan Duross
Susan (Duross) McKenna, daughter of Terence Duross.

It is said time and time again that our immigrant ancestors came to America for a better life. What I often find in my research is that once they made the journey, they were met with hardship and heartache.

In 1845, my great-great-great-grandfather Terence Duross and his brother Charles emigrated from Trillick (Kilskeery parish) in County Tyrone, Ireland. They settled in Massachusetts where they were naturalized, married, and had children. Then in 1862, at age 36, Terence was struck by lightning and killed, leaving behind his wife and three small children. In 1876, Charles was killed in a railroad car accident at age 47, leaving his wife and six children ranging in age from 3 to 21. It was the not future they had envisioned, certainly. But given that they left Ireland at the time of the Great Famine, what choice did they really have?

Charles Duross’ daughter Sarah married James Colford in 1896. In 1901, Sarah gave birth to a son who she named Charles, after her father. Tragically, Sarah died less than two weeks after giving birth at age 29. When I found Sarah’s 1901 death record, my eyes were drawn to the death of another Colford on the same page of the register. It was Catherine Colford, Sarah’s mother-in-law, who committed suicide exactly three months after Sarah’s death. A closer look at Catherine’s life revealed another story of an immigrant to America who suffered great tragedy in her new home country.

Like Terence and Charles, Catherine (Harper) Colford emigrated from Ireland, and she and her husband Thomas had five children here. Their youngest son, Nicholas, was killed at age 27 in a railroad car accident. In 1900, Thomas died of stomach cancer. Six months after his death, Sarah (Duross) Colford died after giving birth, and three months after that, Catherine’s body was found in a field, a half-empty bottle of strychnine by her side.

And then there is my great-great-grandfather Domenico Caldarelli, who was responsible for his own hardships in America. He and his wife Maria emigrated from Naples in the 1890s with their four children and settled in New York City. Through census records, court records, and newspaper articles, I learned last year that a few short years after emigrating, Domenico shot a man in the head in broad daylight. The victim, on his deathbed, claimed to be in love with Maria, and added that she was in love with him as well.

He may have been defending his marriage, but Domenico was sentenced to serve ten years in Sing Sing. After eight years he was released from prison and is seen a few months after his release in the 1905 New York Census living with Maria and the children. But he died just a year later. When he boarded the ship for America, he could not have anticipated spending most of the rest of his life in prison.

I’m afraid that many of our immigrant ancestors didn’t get the better life they were seeking. We, however, are the beneficiaries of their courage and willingness to seek new lives. And isn’t that a big part of what they sought? We all want our children to have more opportunities than we have. I’m sure our immigrant ancestors wanted their children and grandchildren to have every chance at a better life than the one they left behind. Terence and Charles and Catherine and Domenico may have faced hardship and heartache, but they did, indeed, provide more and greater opportunities for those of us who came after.

About Patty Vitale

Patty Vitale lives in Germantown, Maryland. Born and raised in Massachusetts, she has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1986. She has a B.S. Business Administration from Boston University and a J.D. from American University. Patty is a member of the Society of Mayflower Descendants as well as the Daughters of the American Revolution, Hungerford’s Tavern Chapter, where she serves as the Chair of the Women’s Issues Committee.

9 thoughts on “Finding a better life

  1. I appreciate all of your ancestors stories. As a family researcher, the weight of their collective disappointments must have been unbelievable. I admire them – my Irish and Italian ancestors gave as example a life of hard work and

  2. Life has a tendency to be romanticized when it comes to our immigrant ancestors, but truth be known life was difficult and tragedy was more often the norm. Thank you for sharing your information. Good research Patty.

  3. Thank you, Patty, for bringing this topic out in the open. Life was not easy for many of our immigrant ancestors, and it was time we admitted it. They deserve at least that much respect.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to read the article. One story I didn’t add, because I was focusing on the folks who immigrated, is the story of Susan (Duross) McKenna, who is pictured above. In a 10-year period, she lost 4 of her 6 children, and her husband, all to different diseases. The two surviving children lived long lives and I knew them both (one was my great-grandmother). That may be a story for a separate post!

  5. But at that time Victorian or earlier …. life was hard for everyone regardless of the social status or what side of the “pond” you inhabited. But the current situation in American society is the real tragedy of such hardships…. never really maturing as a county we are going backwards where the present generation is less well off than that one that proceded it !

  6. Really appreciated hearing some reality in your stories. My great-grandparents came from the Polish Corridor, Germans, with one child and one on the way in 1894. They settled with his two brothers in Moyer, Pennsylvania and were blacksmiths. After the birth of that child and two more, one of which was my grandfather, thank goodness, there was a depression in the area and times got super tough. Their Lutheran Church decided to travel west as a group and settled in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, my great grandfather took his wife and children and RETURNED to Prussia. Guess what, it was worse there! Even worse, great-grandfather was conscripted into the Russian army and hurt badly. Then he could not return to the US. The three US born children were sent back between 1912 and 1914, JUST before WWI. By the time the war ended, the great-grandparents were dead and at least 1 or 2 more children. The others were displaced and never came to the USA. The ones that made it to the US had full and more prosperous lives. Life is not always smooth and choices sometimes were not the best in the big picture. So grateful Grampa was born here!

  7. Patty, I had a similar ancestor, my great grandfather Lorenzo “Lawrence” Fascella (1887-1947). He was so infamous in his family that his brother wanted to name a son after him in Palermo, but was told not to by his family members because Lawrence “did something bad”. Well, my grandfather, I was told by Italian relatives, shot a man over a woman. I cannot find him in the manifests because he used an alias, but I have his naturalization. In 1917, he threatened to kill his brother in law and actually told him to say his prayers as he put the gun to his head, but detectives just happened to be near the occurrence and chased him down the street and tackled and arrested him. All this was reported in a Brooklyn NY newspaper. What an embarrassing thing!

    1. Don’t feel guilty. I think what you are not taking into account is the different times and the culture which shaped your ggrandfather and do not come into play in your life. We tend to view the past with the lens of today….Actually, that differentness is playing out in Europe right now. Not only do different cultures have “benign” differences, using different languages, different food, different ways of singing lullabies to their children, but they have different traditions (not benign at all) of what is the right way to solve a dispute, what is wrong and right, and what is tolerable and required, and these are often different from what we might find acceptable stateside. Most Americans are “monocultural” even today, and although we may “visit” other cultures by having an international friend, attending an international food festival, or traveling abroad, the realities of “otherness” in another culture are arresting and go far beyond even speaking another language well. Anthropologists insist that cultural awareness of shared commonalities may even be critical for tribal survival. Today, foreign immigrants expect to be able to fully re-establish their culture here because we have had an all-encompassing welcoming, accepting, enthusiastic attitude toward diversity. However, ask any immigrant what would happen if we moved to their countries and expected them to learn our language, print their govt documents in our language, and provide us with free or subsidized housing, schooling, food stamps, and health care at tax-payer cost. (In response, I have been told, “Ahh, but this is America…..” – the world’s Utopia?) Cultures wax, wane, and die: current research indicates that the Native American cultures we tend to revere as “original” here were probably not the first comers after all. We judge the humaneness of other times by our current cultural views (thank goodness) but the chance at the dream, in those times, was enough for them.

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