How We All Became Americans

I have loved this picture since the first time I saw it 3o years ago in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. The little freckle faced boy’s adventurous  idea of his family tree with pirates, soldiers, sailing ships,  cowboys, Indians and more.

At the time I didn’t know all my own family history to realize that at least the part of it with both Union and Confederate soldiers applied to the Nail family American story.

And therein the topic of the role of immigration in the creation of the greatest country in the world.

None of us will disagree that we have an illegal immigration problem that has been ignored for decades and that needs a fair and humane resolution. We have a border that clearly needs to be closed for security reasons but in approaching this issue we cannot lose perspective on how every single person reading this post comes to be an American. Every one of you has a unique story whether you know it or not.

Our forbears all came here from somewhere else seeking a better life. Most came willingly, many did not. Whether your folks came over on the Mayflower, through Ellis Island or yes, across the border illegally we all are Americans.

I am fortunate to have a good sense of how our family arrived here. The Nail (Neal, Neale) side in the early 1700’s through VA, SC, GA, and following the westward migration to TN and finally TX.

5 generations of my grandfathers lie in a cemetery in Crawford dating from 1800 0n, TX including Dr. B.J. Brown, one of the founders of that town who also was Capt. B.J. Brown of the 39th GA, captured and paroled at Vicksburg.

We even have a half Cherokee grandmother in there making the story more exotic.

On my Mom’s side one group came over with William Penn in the 1600’s and the main branch, the McBurney’s from Northern Ireland in 1855 due to the famines and settled in the border state of MO. The Irish were often referred to as “white nXXXers” in those days.

Andrew Nugent McBurney was 15 when he landed here and enlisted in the Union army. He would end up a Lieutenant in the 54th U.S. Colored Infantry commanding black troops. His name is engraved on the  African American Civil War Monument in D.C along with 190,000 black troops and their 10,000 white officers.

My oldest daughter and I have visited the beautiful town of Portaferry from whence he came in Northern Ireland and went to a graveyard where our 11th through 8th great grandfathers were buried dating from 1647.

Coming from a border state it is no surprise that my mother’s family was divided and one other great, great grandfather was a Missouri irregular who was captured by the Union at the very beginning of the war and held for 6 months before being let go. My grandmother Bess McBurney Anger was a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy as a result.

None of our family were wealthy. They were tradesman, farmers, indentured servants and people looking for a new place to start and live the dream of having families, being free and pursuing what we now call the American Dream. They are no different than the immigrants of the late 2oth and 21st century except they were white and English was a native language and there were no laws governing immigration then.

This week we see a new law in Arizona that can be enforced in ways that are simply not American. Stopping people on the street and asking them for their “papers” because they might be hispanic looking. There is no doubt that AZ has issues to deal with but even the most conservative Republicans are not supporting this anti Constitutional law.

A Congressman in CA is calling for the deportation of the children of illegal immigrants who were born here, and  thus are American citizens, like all your forbears once were. This type of absurd and anti Constitutional rhetoric is not only un-American but racist.

There is no question that we must deal with our immigration problem and deal with it in a comprehensive and humane way.

However, lets not lose site of the fact that we are all here not by some God given right, but because in our collective past our ancestors came here from afar to pursue a dream, just like the hispanic immigrants are doing today.

Now back to that freckle faced boy…do you know your family’s American story? If not you should explore it and find out. I will bet it is interesting in its own right and likely at some point the first generations experienced discrimination and hatred as well.

It was only 50 years ago we elected an Irish and Catholic President in John Kennedy and that was a huge deal at the time as even in 1960 being Irish and/or Catholic was still looked down upon by many, many people.

Remember that as you think about and  debate today’s issues and most importantly in how you treat people who may not look like you or speak the best English…yet.

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2 Comments on “How We All Became Americans”

  1. Jim Says:

    70% of Arizona citizens favor the enforcement of this law – they are not all ultra conservatives. This law is nothing more than the same law that exists at the Federal level – the problem is that the US fails to enforce it. There is not a problem with the law, it’s the fact that it is going to be enforced.

    My ancestors did not sneak into the country(and I doubt yours did either), they went through a process to gain legal access. There are millions of hispanics that did the same thing. Arizona is not trying to limit legal immigration in anyway, and the law will be enforced for all illegal immigrants regardless of race. By the way, are you aware that foreign citizens who are in the US on work or travel visas are instructed to keep their papers on them at all times? Fair and humane treatment for people who commit a crime involves incarceration – no matter what race they represent.

    • John Nail Says:

      Jim, if you read my story I do not think anyone snuck in, there were no laws back then. You showed up on the boat and went on with your life (pre Ellis Island)

      Clearly we have a national immigration issue that has been allowed to fester for 25 years across all political parties. The Federal law clearly is in effect but does NOT allow law enforcement to approach people and ask them for papers and arrest them or arrest people who do not turn in illegals.

      So what do we do for the illegals with kids who are American citizens?

      Rounding up 12 M folks and throwing them in jail sounds interesting but we have neither the manpower to do it nor the money.

      We need to solve the problem not violate the civil rights of Americans which will happen here.


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