Immigrant Song

My grandmother came to the US on the Gripsholm.
She was just 18 years old. 
The natives have been complaining about the immigrants for a good 500 years at least.

The first explorers didn't stay long and so they weren't too much of a problem. They would come when the weather was nice, but one winter was about all they could take.

My people first arrived on these shores in 1644. The Gagné brothers had packed up their families and sailed across the Atlantic to New France. They were the early French colonizers of the New World - which, let's face it, was someone else's old world at the time.

Unlike the Coureur des boisVoyageurs and soldiers that had come to Quebec before them, they were coming to stay, to colonize the King's few acres of snow. They were to be a counterbalance to the growing population of English and Spanish colonizers.

Pierre did not live long after his arrival, but Louis carved out a farm above the St. Lawrence river. Both brothers had sailed from La Rochelle with children and pregnant wives in tow. Louis and his wife Marie leased the land from a corporation, but by 1650 a different corporate land owner --Company of Beaupre -- gave him a land grant provided that he build a house on the property by the following year.

If you go to the town of Sainte Anne de Beaupre in Quebec today, you will find a house built on those stone foundations. This house measured just 24 by 22 feet, but the walls are two feet thick.

The home the Gagne brothers left behind in France
(source Gagnier History Website)
The Gagne bothers were pioneers -- immigrants sent by the King to make a new life in a strange world. They braved a dangerous journey with their young children and pregnant wives in search of a better life with hope of a brighter future than they faced back in Ige.

Some were welcoming in the in the land they found, but not everyone. Louis was one of eight people killed and captured by Mohawks in during the Beaver Wars in 1660.

His widow, Marie, was 41 years old and the mother of eight children at the time of his death.

Despite the passing of Pierre and Louis, the Gagnes were fruitful and multiplied in the new world. One of Louis and Marie's sons -- Ignace Gagne born in 1656 in Quebec -- is the father of a long line of "greats" leading directly to my Pépé.

My grandfather, Joseph Gagné was born in Quebec more than two centuries later in 1911. He grew up, for a time at least, as a migrant worker. Moving back and forth across the northern boarder with his family to the United States to work in the textile mills of New England.  When he was 18, he decided to stay in the United States and found work as a mechanic. Eventually he became a chauffeur for a well-to-do family in -- ironically -- New Rochelle, New York. There he met a recent Swedish immigrant named Edith Marta Palmgren who worked as a cook in the big house.

Edith had left her family behind and boarded a ship to the New World when she was still a teenager. No one was calling it the New World by that time, but America still was a land of hope of a better life. Many people watched their children sail across the seas to find a better life.

They were married, had children. During World War II, Joseph -- still a Canadian citizen -- continued his job for Electric Boat building submarines. On the 4th of July 1943, their daughter Alice was born.

Alice is my mother. My mother tells the story of how they didn't bother getting their US citizenship until much later - until after their children had graduated high school.

Patrick Cooper Hunt fled Ireland in black 1849. Starvation was all he left behind. He had an Uncle in New Jersey, so he sailed for the Port of Philadelphia in search of a better life. He was 19 years old. Ireland at the time was occupied by England. The native Irish were oppressed. The legal system did not recognize their language. Indeed, family lore has it that Hunt was just an anglicized version of the Gaelic -- since his Gaelic surname would have been made illegal .

Patrick Cooper Hunt and his children did well in the US. His great - grandson worked for NASA and military designing things that go into space, and things that go boom. My father John Hunt designed a lot of other things too, of course. He even designed that grocery checkout scanner that you find in every store.

Researching my family history left me with a lot of great stories to tell. Sure, I have roots that go deep on American soil.

Yet the idea that strikes me most is how my story is a story of immigrations. Centuries apart, young fathers and mothers, teenagers often, gambling on the unknown in hopes of improving their lot.

That is what immigrants bring -- the search for something better. They struggle, risk, strive and hope for a better life.  They come to the United States -- often exploited, working long hours at the worst jobs -- sacrificing to create a future for their children. They build businesses, they invent things. In so doing, they help the economy of the entire nation.

Given the short sighted nature of our politics and our nation's failure to invest in the education and infrastructure that will build a better world, a little immigrant thinking is not such a bad thing.

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