Moving Through Time

She loves the mixture of painstaking order and backbreaking work, hauling earth about      like a navvy one minute and dusting the sand away from a shard of bone the next. She      loves the sight of a neat trench, its sides perfectly straight, the soil below exposed in clear layers.                                                                                                             Elly Griffiths A Dying Fall*                                                                                                                                                                                          

 Archaeology, no genealogy, no archaeology, no genealogy. What is she describing…of course archaeology, and I read this and I see genealogy.

As they walk along a path through a forest or across a field, they see an odd-shaped mound of earth, rising out of an otherwise flat landscape. It has meaning. It is a sign post of people who lived long ago, their village, their temple, their grave. And they wonder who they were, what did they leave behind. Slowly, from this moment, they can scrape through layers of earth and see the picture of what existed before. Who lived here, what they did in their lives here. One layer at a time. Through the present to the past.

As we walk along a path in a cemetery, we spot an intriguing gravestone. A sign post of a person who lived long ago, a name, maybe a date or two. Or we listen to a story about a great-great-grandmother, some bit of her history told out of context. And we wonder who she was, who did she leave behind. And we take the time to slowly search for the documents of her life, her past.

Sometimes we can follow the clues from the present, an obituary, an address, a newspaper article. It is hard to access the records of the present. They are private, they are protected, we must search carefully from odd angles to find the shards, the bones in the present, but they are there. And when you find one, you can sweep away layer after layer to another, saving, labeling, filing away each clue, noting it carefully, where it found, who left it, through the layers of time. Through to the past records, and find who lived there, what they did in their life there. One layer at a time. Through the present to the past.

When an archaeologist digs, it is a one-time opportunity to move from the present into the past. Once a bone or a shard is moved the story is gone. It has to be read and recorded before it is touched. Often, this is how we work, from the present to the past. But sometimes we cannot identify a clue from the present, and we have to jump back in time. There we may find a baptismal record, and then, slowly, work forward, adding layers one by one, creating a life as we move forward in time, from the clues we find from that direction. For genealogists, the story does not disappear as it is discovered. It only becomes more clear. Through the present to the past to the present…


* Elly Griffiths, A Dying Fall, Kindle ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), location 122; downloaded from


Asti to Asti

Immigrants come to this country in many ways. Some in luxury, some crammed into cargo containers. This list is likely almost as long as the list of immigrants themselves. Some like my great-grandfather were recruited, lured by dreams of the future.

Asti, California was developed as an agricultural colony in 1881. The original intent was to create a vineyard and wine-producing cooperative, worked by immigrants from the area of Asti, Italy. This idea of a cooperative agricultural colony was developed by Andrea Sharboro, who immigrated to the U.S. as a child in 1844, and came to San Francisco in 1852. He prospered in the grocery business and later in providing loans to immigrants in the San Francisco Bay area. But he wanted to provide other ways for his countrymen to establish themselves in this country. His idea of a cooperative did not ultimately, work, as many of the immigrant farmers were not willing to give up the option of a wage in favor of investment.  So the colony became employers to the immigrants. The colony, those that did invest, and the immigrant farmers prospered.

These Italian and Swiss immigrants, farmers from the wine-producing region of Piemonte in northern Italy, brought skills and motivation, and settled in northern California. They were expected to stay and work for the colony for a period of time. It was hoped that they would acquire some of their own land and stay there raising families. That was not always the case. After working for a period of time, the immigrants often chose to move on to other areas.

Nonno, my great-grandfather, (“nonno” means grandfather in Italian) arrived in Asti, CA as soon as he turned 18, in 1888, after the Italian-Swiss Agricultural Colony was well established. He stayed and worked for a couple of years, and then, followed the lure of other dreams.


Childs, Harwood Lawrence. “The Asti Colony: the story of a successful cooperative association in California.” Public Opinion 33 (28 August 1902). Online archive. Google eBook ( : 2013).

Gregory, Thomas Jefferson. History of Sonoma County, California, with biographical sketches of the leading men and women of the county, who have been identified with its growth and development from the early days to the present time. Los Angeles: Historic Record Company, 1911. Online archive. ( : 2013).


It is interesting, this whole internment issue. I grew up in CA, in the San Francisco Bay Area, so not in a remote place. My father’s family is all from Santa Cruz, both the Italian and the Anglo sides. During WWII, Santa Cruz and the Bay Area were some of the areas most affected by internment, of Japanese- and Italian- Americans
, in the whole country. And I heard first about Japanese internment in the 1970s, when a book Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, came out. That was 30 years after internment ended. Granted, I did not know many kids of Japanese descent. But still. I thought this was huge news. Why had I not even heard it mentioned?

And guess when I found out about Italian-American internment. 2009. Are you kidding me? Am I so oblivious? No. Although my family was not interned, having come to the U.S. in the mid-1800s as farmers and loggers, they certainly would have been close to the fishing families who were personally affected. Talk about embarrassing secret, well I guess this was it. It wasn’t even beginning to be talked about until the late 1990s and early 2000s, and that was because a man, Lawrence DiStasi, researched, published a book, and put together a traveling program about it. The book is called, appropriately, Una Storia Segreta. The information about Una Storia Segreta is at this website But even after this came out, it was not widely publicized, and you would not have seen it unless you happened to be a member of one of a few Italian-American organizations or on one of the university campuses where it was exhibited.

My dad was even a member of one of the Italian-American organizations that hosted it, and it snuck right by him. Probably while he was at “Opera Night”. Last summer, Rosemarie DiMaggio, director of the Pittsburg Historical Society’s museum in Pittsburg, CA, was kind enough to let my dad and me wander through the exhibit in the room where it is permanently stored when not on display. It is a touchingly sad collection of photos, letters, newspaper stories and other artifacts of the Italian-American internment experience.

Italian-American internment was for the most part very different from Japanese-American internment. Most Italian-Americans were targeted because older members of the family had not obtained citizenship, and Italian-Americans do not let mama and papa get moved by themselves. So they had to give up jobs, boats, businesses and homes along the coast and relocate inland, sometimes as far inland as Nevada. Some Italian-Americans were targeted because of their affiliation with Italian language schools or newspapers, or other cultural enterprises. They, like the Japanese-Americans, were sent to distant camps, but they were targeted as individuals, not families. Most Japanese-Americans were sent to camps as whole families.

I have wandered, many times, around the place that was Manzanar. If you read my previous post about artifacts, you can imagine the town I described that is no longer there. This is Manzanar. Granted, in this case, there remains an actual building, the gymnasium, unlike the town in my post. It has been refurbished into the National Park museum. It houses the artifacts of internment in a wonderful display. There are also 3 reconstructed building that provide a tangible experience of what the buildings were like. But if you come to see Manzanar, those buildings are only a small part of the experience. Manzanar is much more. It is the extremely remote and lonely space pressed up against the back-side of the Sierra Nevadas. Absolutely freezing in winter, hot and dry in summer, few trees, and windy all the time. Actually an incredibly beautiful area, along one of my favorite drives in California. The town itself remains as only a few square miles surrounded by some dirt roads between scrub and small trees. But look. In among the scrub you can see the remains of what were well-tended gardens and pools, a still-maintained cemetery, and squared off areas that once held hundreds of portable buildings which were the homes, schools, factories, hospitals and churches, for thousands and thousands of people.

What strikes me about Manzanar is the resilience that you can still sense. The harsh environment may have reclaimed the town, but its site still stands testament to the people who were forced from their comfortable urban homes. They did more than exist in this place. They planted, built, created a space, where for the time they were there, they could live.


DiStasi, Lawrence. Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment During World War II. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2001.

Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973.


A few weeks ago, a friend suggested a movie for me to watch. He wanted to know my take on it. I haven’t gotten back to him on this, but I am going to try to lay out a few of those thoughts here. The film is called Everything is Illuminated. It has been described as very quirky. Yes, it is quirky. And to me, it was a visual explanation of what genealogy is. It was what genealogy would look like if it was a picture.

It is basically the story of a man named Jonathan’s search for his ancestry in a distant country, Ukraine, a place where he does not speak the language, or even really know what he is looking for. He is a particular kind of genealogist. Instead of compiling stories or building trees, he collects the “things” of people’s lives. Not even the normal heirlooms one thinks of in families, but rather the detritus of their lives. This was interesting. But what was even more interesting to me were the several side stories. At first they felt just like little parts of the film, but they became, to me, the main part of the story.

The first story was that of the tour guide, who drove the car that Jonathan, in his search for his ancestry, rented. The guide was silent, brusque, and abrasive. We know nothing about him, and it seems he knows nothing about himself, either, until they finally come to the place that Jonathan is searching for. Here the guide comes to remember that the place Jonathan searched for was his place also. And this realization, transforms him into a completely different person than we thought he was.

The second story was the of that place that Jonathan is searching for, itself. This place no longer actually exists in the sense that we normally think of a place as a location on a map. It only exists in the artifacts left behind, buried along a river where the town used to be, prior to its destruction in WWII. The artifacts have their own collector and keeper, a kind of mirror of Jonathan, in the Ukraine. Jonathan is marveled by the collection of artifacts that the collector has amassed. Where he is the keeper of his family’s artifacts, the Ukrainian collector is the keeper of the whole village’s artifacts. An archive of boxes of each person’s belongings. The solid bits of their lives.

The third story is that of the tour guide’s grandson. He is along on the journey with his grandfather, acting as translator for Jonathan. But a translator for more than just language, rather for the foreign world in which Jonathan finds himself immersed. He provides the lens through which Jonathan experiences this trip. The grandson knows little about his grandfather, even though he lives with him, but it is apparent that he loves him very much. As we come to know his grandfather, so does the grandson. And with that understanding of who his grandfather is, he learns that he, himself, is not at all who he thought he was.

Through the lens of the past, the present comes into focus.


Everything is Illuminated. Dir. Liev Schreiber. Perf. Elijah Wood, Eugene Hütz, Boris Leskin, Laryssa Lauret. Warner Independent Pictures, 2005. Film. (Adapted from the novel: Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything is Illuminated. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.)