Part 1, Crossings: Miles Finnegan Makes His Mark


SS Germanic

History begins in the present.  “What is history but that which has happened before I was born?” Roland Barthes asks in teasing out the appeal and the power of photography as artifact. 

It is perhaps fitting then that this genealogical family story begins not with a passenger ship manifest marking an ocean crossing but with another document twenty years later—a Declaration of Intention to become a naturalized citizen of the United States of America submitted by my great-grandfather, Miles Finnegan, at the Colorado District Federal Courthouse in Denver on June 12, 1908. 

The historical moment of the document is twofold: the 1908 moment of its submission and the present moment of my discovery of it as an artifact in the time of this writing (give or take a couple of years).  It is a rather basic document; however, the information in it would begin the unraveling of three generations of Finnegan family lore.

With a few minor variations, the story I heard in my childhood and young adulthood was this:  Both of my paternal great-great grandparents came to America from Ireland.  It was not clear whether they knew each other in Ireland or whether they met one another in America.  After years farming on what would ultimately be a failed Homestead Act land claim near Fort Morgan, Colorado, they moved to Leadville, presumably with the hope of Miles getting work in the mines.  My grandfather (Frank Finnegan) was the youngest of six children, himself and five sisters: Rose, Anna, Nellie, and Mae (I don’t ever recall the name of the fifth sister being known or spoken in any of the family stories).  Shortly after Frank was born, Miles deserted the family and was never seen or heard from again.  The two oldest sisters married young, Rose remaining in Leadville and Anna settling in Nebraska, while my great-grand mother, Margaret (né “Maggie”) Finnegan, moved what was left of the family to Butte, Montana.  It remained a mystery as to how or why this happened.  It was said that Margaret or one of the older sisters (or perhaps both) worked as barmaids in taverns.

(“It was said that…”  Always keep an eye out for that phrase in any kind of storytelling; it’s a tell.  More than merely remarking an absence of information or certainty, the phrase also belies a reluctance to know or to speak.  Why were my relatives so hesitant to say  “barmaids,” and when they did, why always in hushed tones?  Was the walk from a barmaid to an “upstairs girl” that short in Butte, Montana in the late 1910s?  And so what if they were?  The truth is always more interesting than the lie or the willful unknowing.) 

One of the three sisters married, and she presumably stayed in Butte (her name again could never seem to be remembered), when—again for no clear reason how or why—Margaret, Frank, and his two remaining sisters (Nellie and Mae) moved to Stockton, California.  Young Frank soon got a job working for the Caterpillar Tractor Company in Stockton, where he worked hard and took advantage of sheet metal courses offered by the company.  When the fast-growing company moved most all of its production operations to Peoria, Illinois in the late 1920s, Frank moved with the company, bringing his mother and Mae with him.  Nellie, it was almost always remarked as an afterthought, had gotten married and stayed in California.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history.  An all-too-familiar masculine kind of history, I would add.  The story of the patriarch as self-made pioneer immigrant.  Though Miles fails in the end, his responsibilities and role as patriarch are taken up by the only son who succeeds in holding the remnants of his family together and making his own crossing from California to Illinois, where he will get married, buy a home, and provide for his two sons so that they might rise up into the ranks of the middle class. 

While there may be a certain amount of truth to this story, it doesn’t take much interpretive pressure to see that there are multiple gaps, a great deal of missing context, and most of all a glaring absence of meaningful details in the women’s immigration stories–all of which are probably much more interesting and insightful than the dominant narrative of immigration, assimilation, self-reliance, and prosperity that Ancestry.com peddles so relentlessly in their advertisements. [I will have more to say about patterns of Ancestry.com’s dominant cultural narratives and their disturbing recycling of eugenics race science in a future post.]

“Medium White”

The masthead of the petition for citizenship document reminds the present-day reader that in 1908 the Department of Commerce and Labor oversaw matters of immigration and naturalization.  They are the authors of this document.

Wherein, one Miles Finnegan “declares on oath” that he is a 47-year-old laborer whose “personal description is: color white, complexion medium, height 5 feet 8 ½ inches, weight 150 pounds, color of hair brown, color of eyes blue,” and that he has no other “visible distinctive marks.”  The differentiation between race [color] and skin tone [complexion] here reflects the precariousness of whiteness in racist Jim Crow America in 1908, and more particularly it stands as a marker of the extent to which “low Irish” folk like my ancestors had progressed in the transition toward whiteness.

But I’m curious about who filled out the form.  Were these concrete details of personal description self-reported by the petitioner, or were they judgment calls made by a Denver district federal court clerk, perhaps with the aid of a complexion sample chart?  I initially assumed that the adding on of the ½ inch to Miles’ height was likely self-reported, reflecting a masculine anxiety over “measuring up”; however, it is possible I suppose that the state required height and weight measurements to be clinically precise.

Factual information most pertinent to family genealogy comes in the middle of the document, where we learn that Miles Finnegan was born on an unknown day in December 1860 in a place 6 miles west of Carrickmacross in County Monaghan, Ireland.  He immigrated to America from Liverpool, England on the passenger ship Germania, arriving in New York City “on or about” the 5th of February, 1887.   This is the crossing moment, conjuring up those iconic images of a rag-tag people wearing the visible markings of their place of foreign origins and the stone edifice of Ellis Island.  Except that Ellis Island didn’t exist as an immigration processing center in 1887.  The passengers would have disembarked for the sorting and the counting at the Castle Garden Immigrant Landing Depot at the Battery on the southern tip of Manhattan.  The Statue of Liberty was there, however, and, having been completed only four months and a few days prior, it must have been quite a sight—a 150 foot, spectacularly shinny copper beacon soaring a total of 300 feet high atop the stone base, welcoming ships and passengers into the harbor.

Copper would play a significant role in the life of Miles Finnegan and his family.

On his naturalization petition, Miles got the name of the ship wrong, and he missed the date of arrival by two days.  In the 1880s, the SS Germania also made voyages from Dublin to Liverpool to New York, but it was the SS Germanic that arrived in New York on February 7, 1887 with 26-year-old Miles Finnegan (laborer from Ireland) on the passenger list.  Given how much had happened in Miles’ life in the 21 years between his arrival and the submission of this document, these errors are rather astonishingly minimal.  They also offer good teachable moments for amateur Ancestry.com sleuths.  (Really, both an SS Germanic and an SS Germania?  Yes, go figure.)

In the final part of the document, Miles swears that he “is not an anarchist” nor “a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy,” that he intends to become an American citizen and that, as such, it is his “intention to renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to . . . Edward VII, King of Great Britain and Ireland.”   I don’t think he was a true anarchist, but as member of the Western Federation of Miners union he likely would have been called one and treated like one in 1896 and again in 1917.  Renouncing allegiance to the King of England I have to imagine was probably both easy and gratifying for Miles in his journey toward becoming American, but renouncing allegiance and fidelity to Ireland is something else entirely, something not documented by a mere mark on the signature line of this government document. 

And a “mark” is what it is, indicating that Miles was unable to read and write.  Perhaps it was his spouse, Maggie Finnegan, who filled out the form for Miles, since she also signs as his witness.

Maggie’s supportive presence with Miles in Denver in July 1908 creates a significant complication in the narrative of the family history.  How is it that Miles and Maggie are still together at this time in Denver?  I had never heard anything about Denver.  My grandfather, Frank, was two-years-old at this time, so according to the chronology of the family story this must have been after Leadville and just before he deserted the family.  Something started to feel a bit off.

Indeed, searches of the U. S. Federal Census, the Leadville, Butte, and Anaconda city directories, and the newspaper archives of the Leadville Herald Democrat, the Butte Miner, and the Anaconda Standard would demand a substantially different story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s