Freedom Bound

Antotoneta Tabach came to America in November of 1909 from Chalyne, Turkey when she was 3-years-old.

“She’s either my great-great or great-great-great-grandma,” said South Whidbey Intermediate School student Payton Tabach. “All I know is that she probably came with an aunt.”

Dinah Hassrick’s great-great grandfather, George Conrad Koetter, and his wife Anna Strassheim Koetter came through Ellis Island in 1900. A cabinetmaker, he fled to America from Rockenberg, Germany, for economic reasons. He would become an ironworker while in America.

Third, fourth and fifth graders at the intermediate school have been busy tracing their bloodlines back in time in preparation for the musical “Freedom Bound”, which is based on historical information about the Anton family, which traveled to America from Europe at the turn of the century. While the Antons will keep their character names, the remaining students in the 46-member cast will take on the names of their ancestors.

“There are history books full of immigrants, but these family stories are what this country is made of,” said South Whidbey Intermediate School teacher Mary McLeod.

In a project that integrates arts into every subject, including history and social studies, the play is pushing participating students to learn as much about themselves as the world around them.

First the students had to find their family’s stories, a task that required some help. Last week, Genealogical Society of South Whidbey Island members Doreen Johnson and Laura Roetcisoender were busy helping the students research.

The students researched high and low. Names, birth dates and birth places have helped lead the students to death certificates, birth certificates, christening records, and any documentation possible to tie down when ancestors came to America.

Research can be tricky at times when it came to the intricate last names of turn of the century immigrants.

“It’s important to realize that many times they were adjusted,” Johnson said.

This is borne out in a scene from “Freedom Bound” when an Ellis Island clerk becomes creative when filling out paperwork of the new arrivals.

“Johannes Schmidengeister, what’s that?” asks the clerk as he changes a newly arrived man’s name to John Smith.

Yet, many of the family names remained intact. Ellie Nicoletta of Freeeland was researching her great-grandmother Claire Nicoletta, who immigrated to America from Italy and settled in Pennsylvania.

“They sailed across the cold sea to america,” Nicoletta said of her ancestor's and other immigrant’s travels.

Megan Jeffers of Freeland was tracking down her great-great-grandmother Anna Jeffers. Jessica Cary’s great-great-grandmother Ann Maebird had two brothers who fought on opposing sides in the Civil War. Stryder Elverum knew that his great-great uncle, George Crouse, was 21-years-old when he came to America from the Philippines.

All these individuals were part of the largest overseas human migration in history. Ancestors like Heinrich Leisle, grandfather of South Whidbey Intermediate student Sean Leisle were among the 8.8 million immigrants who came to America between 1901 and 1910. Of these, the largest numbers of immigrants were European. Italy sent just over 2 million immigrants; 1.6 million were from Russia, and 2.1 million came from Austria-Hungary, according to the 2002 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, published by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics.

The United States is currently in the midst of an even bigger wave of immigration than occurred at the start of the 20th century. More than 9.1 million people legally immigrated into the U.S.. between 1991 and 2000. In 2002, legal immigrants coming from Mexico numbered 217,318 with Central America behind it at 66,520, India at 66,864, China at 55,974, and the former Soviet Union at 55,464.

The 2000 Census also showed that as many as 5.4 million people came to the U.S. illegally during the previous decade.

Lucky for the searching students, genealogy has become the second-most popular hobby in the nation behind gardening, according to the Genealogical Society members. The information possibilities on the Internet alone are seemingly endless.

“Baby boomers are getting older and they want to know where they came from,” Johnson said. “Genealogy is like being a detective and it’s your job to solve the mystery. You have to go all sorts of places to solve it.”

But as great as the research is, Johnson finds the true jewel in the experience to be the newly opened doors between the students and parents, grandparents and others in the family.

“They have the advantage that they’re young and most of their relatives are still alive,” she said. “There isn’t a single person in our organization who doesn’t wish they had asked questions of their grandmother or grandfather.”

Making the parallel between history books and current family reality is key for the students to understand their past, Roetcisoender said.

“They can memorize tons of dates from history but until they realize ‘hey, my great-great-uncle was in the Civil War’ they don’t have a face to put with these events. It makes it come alive.”

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