By Jason Shaneyfelt
When it comes to my family’s ancestry, it’s a bit of a mystery. I’ve found that my family is not unique in that regard. With immigration and refugees being such controversial topics in the world today, it seems my family is not the only American family to have lost touch with our immigrant past.
All we have left now are family legends about our history. Growing up, my grandfather, Glenn Shaneyfelt, was our de facto family historian. According to my sister, Michelle Sullivan, about 20 years ago he undertook a project to dig as deep into our family tree as possible.
Several times growing up he told us we had an ancestor who came over to North America on the Mayflower in 1620. He also claimed we were distantly related to Thomas Jefferson. It’s impossible to say whether or not he found any evidence to support this. Glenn passed away in April 2016 and now there is nothing to prove either of these claims. They’re just stories that I believed wholeheartedly as a child. Now as I look back with the much more skeptical eye of an adult, I’m not so sure. With Glenn’s passing, it appears much of my family history died with him.
On my mother’s side, I know my family hails directly from Germany. Although I don’t know their names, I do know my ancestors on my mother’s side immigrated from Germany, at some point settling in Nebraska as a part of the Homestead Act. At my grandparent’s home on my mom’s side there’s a photo of their farm from about 30 years ago along with an inscription commemorating our family for owning the land for 100 years.
When I inquired about it long ago, my grandparents, Irene and Duane Daubendiek, told me it was originally given to their great grandparents as a part of the Homestead Act. This would place their migration to Nebraska sometime around 1880 where they ended up a few miles outside of what is now Beatrice, Nebraska. This would seem to suggest my ancestors were also farmers, possibly immigrating to the United States to seek more land or better opportunity to escape from poverty or famine.
When they made the move from Germany to the United States is much more difficult to say. History suggest they may have come, along with many other Germans, in the late 1840s or 1850s during a tumultuous time in German history that saw several revolutions and uprisings.
And that’s all I know about my family’s immigrant past. Just a few legends and anecdotes. With my grandfather Glenn’s passing, it seems much of the work he put into digging up our family’s past has been lost. No one else has bothered to pick up that torch. We seem to be letting our family history dissolve.
We know foreign blood runs through our veins, but without a name and a traceable story it’s an easy fact to ignore when discussing topics such as immigration and refugees fleeing from war. Today it’s a bit too easy for many of us to forget our families were not always here.