Isabelle Daly Jordan portrait

Stereotyping Our Ancestors: The Irish and Potatoes

Stereotypes are often created in order to demean certain groups of people. There is usually a kernel of truth behind them, to be sure, but in serving their more sinister purpose most stereotypes blow that kernel out of proportion and/or unjustly link it to other unsavory characteristics. Eventually, though, some stereotypes become little more than a harmless joke.

Original illustration, Atlas des plantes de France, 1891, Autor A. Masclef. Wikimedia Commons.

Take the Irish and potatoes. Even before potato famine of the 1840s, the widespread reliance of Irish tenant farmers on potatoes became the source of a handful of derogatory nicknames and slang among the English. (Even the word Irish itself was used as a mocking adjective.) Worse nicknames welcomed the more than four million Irish refugees who migrated to America before, during, and after the potato famine, including several based on potatoes. These stereotypes were far from harmless. Violence and political repression faced Irish Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic, and they were often considered a different race of people altogether. (Unfortunately, little has changed. We still see almost rabid hatred applied not to those who abuse power and wealth, but rather to those who are poor and seeking refuge.) Stereotypes were a way of not-so-subtly reminding everyone about the existing power dynamic—the Irish were second-class citizens. Behind the name-calling was an implicit threat of something worse.

But as we’ve seen repeatedly among oppressed groups of people, the Irish found solidarity in the very things that made them stand out. They took pride in eating potatoes and in re-creating a sense of community at the local pub. Eventually—it took at least a century—descendants of Irish immigrants integrated into broader American society and no longer bore the brunt of nativist sentiment. Light skin certainly helped. (Some Americans, including many Irish immigrants and of some of their descendants, found other groups to fear and to hate.) Still, despite all the pressure to assimilate completely, certain aspects of the Irish cultural legacy lived on, including a diet rich in potatoes.

Basil Jordan, lover of potatoes, 1943.

In the Irish part of my family, the potato stereotype held fast and true. If anything, it grew stronger in America. My mother has fond memories of her grandparents Basil and Isabelle (Daly) Jordan. They were both American-born, but they retained important aspects of their Irish heritage. According to my mother, Basil loved potatoes. “No meal is complete without a potato,” he always said. And he meant it. He might have a fried potato for breakfast, boiled potatoes with his lunch, and meat and potatoes for dinner. He once told my mom she looked too thin (she has never had this problem) and should eat more potatoes.

Isabelle’s family, too, had deep, tuberous roots in Ireland. In fact, what prompted me to write this post was a recent discovery about Isabelle’s maternal grandparents, William and Mary (Cramsie) Reynolds. I was working on an article about the Reynolds family for an upcoming issue of The Septs, the quarterly publication of the Irish Genealogical Society International, when I came across a sale notice for the Reynolds’ farm in The Derry Journal. It was January 1881, and the family was preparing to leave County Derry  for America that spring. With only a trunk or two to carry their most necessary and valuable possessions, William and Mary had to sell not just the farm land but almost everything on the farm too: livestock, stored crops, farm implements, household furniture, and more. They ran a modest farm and, as Catholics, were in fact fortunate to own the land they cultivated. Among their modest possessions, one thing caught my eye. According to the sale notice, “The Crop consists of Three Stacks Oats, a large quantity of Hay and Straw, and about Twenty Tons of Potatoes, of a superior quality.” It was true! Here was proof that some of my Irish ancestors grew—and apparently subsisted on—tons and tons of potatoes and little else, even thirty-five years after the Great Hunger. Twenty tons of potatoes was more than enough to carry the  family of two adults and five children through winter with some to spare.

William Reynolds' farm sale notice
The Derry Journal, 11 Feb 1881, pg. 1. From the British Newspaper Archive online.

A final point. It’s worth remembering that many of the foods we identify with certain ethnic groups reflect not just voluntary cultural choices, but choices imposed by poverty. Irish peasants ate mostly potatoes and milk because they could afford little else. When we ask, “why did the Irish eat so many potatoes?” our answers are partly to be found in English colonization and the confiscation of land by Protestants. Held in poverty, most Irish Catholics could afford nothing but the potatoes they grew on their small plots of rented land. William Reynolds’ parents Frederick James Reynolds and Mary Hasson were apparently quite poor. They had emigrated separately to America in 1848, arriving in Philadelphia with little more than the clothes on their backs. (Philadelphia was not a welcoming place for Irish immigrants in the 1840s. When and why Frederick and Mary Hasson Reynolds returned to Ireland and how they acquired land there are some of the questions raised in my article.)

Like the Irish and potatoes, African-American “soul food” reflects a history of oppression. “Soul food” developed from slave cooking in the American South and, after the Civil War, in rural and urban poverty throughout the U.S. While we take pride in all the creative ways the Irish found to cook potatoes and the genius of African-Americans to create “soul food” from scraps, we must remember that if given the choice most of these people would have preferred the varied diets, unusual flavors, and luxuries (like sugar, tea, coffee, and better cuts of meat) that were eaten by the upper classes.

When we think about our cultural inheritance from ancestors in such groups, we ought both to celebrate the perseverance and resourcefulness embodied by their cuisine and recognize the systems of power that limited their culinary (and nutritional) choices in the first place. It’s OK to be both proud and upset by the truth of your family history. So have a laugh when you find proof that the kernel of a now-harmless stereotype turns out to be true, but remember that such stereotypes usually have deeper, more sinister histories. Consider this fact not just when researching your own family’s immigrant ancestors but also when you look at your neighbors today.

Isabelle Daly Jordan portrait

“More Sorrow than Happiness:” The Life and Death of Anna Smith

John Smith and Barbara Papik, possibly a wedding photograph from 1874, or more likely from the 1880s. Photograph by “The Traveling Art Company,” about which I can find absolutely zero information.

Anna Smith’s life began, it seems, before her parents were quite ready for her. She was born January 11, 1873, probably at the home of her maternal grandparents in Big Blue township, Saline County, Nebraska. Exactly a year and a day later, her parents John Smith and Barbara Papik married in the nearby town of Crete. When Anna was born, her father John was still improving the farm he had claimed under the Homestead Act a few years earlier. It was just across the county line in Lancaster County. After the wedding, Barbara and little Anna moved onto the new farm with him.

Anna’s life had gotten off to an inauspicious start—at least if the moral authorities in the community had anything to say about her illegitimacy. I don’t personally believe in divine retribution for sin—especially not on a person who was the consequence not the cause—but as it would turn out, Anna’s adult life “was filled with more sorrow than with happiness” according to her obituary. She suffered from an illness that carried a deep societal stigma, and it ultimately led to a death that was both slow and painful. Anna is the next subject in the blog series You Died How?, which examines all the unusual ways my ancestors died.

A Vulgar Name?

Anna Němeček, 1890s?
Anna Němeček, ca. 1890

Before we get into the details of Anna’s life and death, a quick note about her name. “Anna Smith” probably strikes you as an uber-generic English name. Our Anna Smith, however, was Czech. Her paternal grandfather was born in 1818 with the name Václav Fucík in the small village of Velká near Milevsko in what is now the region of South Bohemia in the Czech Republic. Václav and his wife Anna Němeček had at least five children between 1842 and 1858, including a son named Johan, Anna’s father.

In 1867, the Fucík family migrated to the United States. The manifest of the Bark Industrie, the ship that carried them across the Atlantic, recorded the German versions of their first names. Václav was written as Wenzel, for example, and František as Franz. Upon entering the United States, they changed names again. Václav became James. Johan became John. The surname Fucík became some version of Smith.Copy of ship manifest from Bark Industrie, which arrived in Baltimore from Bremen Jun 17, 1867, showing the Fucik family. From National Archives microfilm.

John Fucik/Smith's name written as "Schidt" on his Certificate of Naturalization.
John Fucik/Smith’s name written as “John Schidt” on his Certificate of Naturalization, May 14, 1874, in Saline County, Nebraska. In his Homestead paperwork, John had to write an addendum stating that he was the same man who had been recorded under several different names on various attached documents—John and Johan; Smith, Schmidt, and Schidt.

My family, like many, inherited the folktale about the family’s name being changed by officials at the port of entry. Whether it was officials in Baltimore or earlier Czech immigrants who had a grasp of English, someone suggested the Fucíks find a new surname. My hunch is that somebody pointed out how similar Fucík looks in writing to a particularly vulgar English word. (One irony of the name change, if indeed it was due to its similarity with “f***”, is that Johan Fucík/Smith’s official Certificate of Naturalization twice recorded the misspelled surname “Schidt”.)

According to a note written by John Fucík Smith’s granddaughter Emma Vanek Clark, the name Smith was assigned because John was a blacksmith. In fact, there is no evidence any of the men in the family were blacksmiths. The ship manifest records Václav as a farmer and eldest son Josef as, perhaps, a saddler. All four of the Fucík sons became farmers in America.

Whatever the reason, Václav Fucík became James Smith and the rest of the family followed suit. Ever since, all of Václav’s male-line descendants have carried the non-Slavic name Smith, including his granddaughter Anna.

A Life of Sorrow

Anna Smith grew up on her father’s homesteaded farm in Olive Branch Township, Lancaster County, Nebraska. We know very little about her early years, except that she must at a young age have been required to help her mother care for her many siblings. Eight more children blessed the Smith home, with Barbara giving birth every second or third year until 1892. Thankfully, all of them survived to adulthood. Anna’s parents did reasonably well on their farm, but they were never among the most prosperous families in the area.

Anna’s formal education was minimal. She attended some school alongside her younger siblings, but it appears her responsibilities at home limited her achievement. According to the 1900 census, Anna had not yet learned to speak English. Both of her parents and all of her siblings could. As long as she lived in the predominantly Czech area around the town of Crete, language would not be much of an issue. But that would not always be the case.

On June 4, 1892, Anna married Joseph Vanek. Joseph and his family were more recent arrivals than the Smiths. Joseph had been born in Bohemia in 1869 and had come to America with his parents and two brothers in 1883. Joseph’s teen years were spent on a farm several townships west of the Smiths. I presume the couple met either through mutual acquaintances or at Czech social gatherings in the primary market towns of Crete and Wilber. The wedding took place in Wilber with Anna’s uncles Joseph and Frank Smith serving as witnesses. After the celebration, the newlyweds moved onto 80 acres of farmland in western Saline County. Anna’s new home was more than 25 miles from the farm of her parents and siblings. At least most of their neighbors were still Czech.

The most life-changing event in Anna’s life probably occurred a year or two before the wedding when she suffered her first seizure. It probably struck her while she was a teenager still living at home with her parents. Even today, epilepsy is a mysterious illness and seizures a startling thing to witness. In the 1890s, people knew far less about the disease and the social stigma was significantly greater. Anna’s illness, bouts of which apparently recurred quite frequently, affected her for the remainder of her life. It significantly limited the relationships she had with other people.

Epilepsy did not, however, limit Anna’s fertility. She was almost always pregnant, giving birth to 15 children in just over 20 years. Unfortunately, even her children were a source of sorrow. Anna and Joseph’s very first child, whose name is unknown, died in infancy. Their sixth child, too, spent a heartbreakingly short time on Earth. Seven more healthy children followed before their last two children also died in infancy. Without a strong social network, Anna’s children were her dearest companions. The deaths of so many of her children as infants put even more burden on Anna’s already distressed psyche.

Vanek family photograph, 1908.
This picture was probably taken in early 1908, not 1909. Their next child James was born in about April 1908, and it appears Anna was quite pregnant when this photograph was taken. This dating would match the ages of the other little kids too, including my great-grandfather Lloyd who would have been about three and a half.

Joseph and Anna had limited options, but they were always looking for ways to improve Anna’s outlook. In 1906, they decided to move. “Thinking that a change of surroundings might be of benefit to his wife’s health,” states Anna’s obituary, Joseph sold the farm in Saline County and bought another one about 70 miles southwest in Nuckolls County, Nebraska, near the Kansas border. The tradeoff for new scenery was that their new farm was well beyond the area of Czech settlement. With no one else around who spoke her language, Anna became extremely lonely. “She missed her parents, brothers, sisters, and people who spoke her language,” continues her obituary. “She was not able to go out much, but was always glad to have people see her.”

And then little James died. James Vanek, called Václav at home after his grandfather, was the couple’s eleventh child. He was born in about April 1908 at the new farm in Nuckolls County. Despite his stern look in the photograph below, he was apparently a sweet boy. His mother had grown quite fond of him before a neočekávaným neštěstím—an “unexpected calamity”—struck him dead in October 1912 at age four-and-a-half. Family lore says he died in a farming accident. Anna’s obituary made special note of James and the affect his death had on a woman who already had more than her share of sorrow. After mentioning the four children Anna lost in infancy, it reads, “and one boy, little James, was accidentally killed at the age of five. Mrs. Vanek seemed to grieve a great deal over the loss of this boy.”

Younger Vanek children, 1911.
Younger Vanek children, 1911. Standing: Lloyd, Emma, and Albena. Seated: James and Mary Jane.

Václav (James) Vanek obituary from Wilberske Lisky, 30 Oct 1912, pg. 4.
Václav (James) Vanek obituary from Wilberské listy, 30 Oct 1912, pg. 4. Nebraska Newspapers: http://nebnewspapers.unl.edu. Note that nearly all of the children had both Czech names and English ones. Until I found this obituary, no one in my family knew that my great-grandfather Lloyd was called Ladislav in Czech.

A Long, Painful Death

After moving to Nuckolls County, Anna “continued in poor health until her death,” a span of more than a decade. For a woman who had already suffered so much, one would have hoped that her death, when it came, would be quick. Alas, Anna faced more than three months of misery before the end finally came.

In mid September 1920, Anna suffered another seizure. It was probably no different than the ones she had regularly experienced over the previous thirty years. This time, however, she was not able to get to a safe place. Her death certificate explains what happened, though it is difficult to read on account of the doctor’s handwriting and the number of lines he squeezed into a small space. What I can make out is that a week previous to the doctor’s first visit on September 18, Anna had a seizure that resulted in a “severe scald (burn of right side back and neck . . . .” One can imagine Anna cooking at her potbelly stove when she suddenly collapsed on top of it, severely burning one side of her body.

The doctor treated her burns but they eventually became infected. Day after day she suffered as her wounds tried to heal. The doctor’s notes read, “at least 10 days [illegible] infection until last 10 days [illegible] many burns [illegible] . . .” as the infection slowly spread. Finally, on November 19, 1920, her body gave up.

Cause of death section from Anna Vanek's obituary.
Cause of death section from Anna Vanek’s obituary. It is quite difficult to read.
Needless to say, Joseph and Anna Vanek were not wealthy. All Joseph could afford was this cement slab.

Anna was just 47 years old. She was survived by both of her parents and all eight of her siblings.

The obituary, which I have quoted several times above, was obviously written by her grieving husband Joseph. The writing expresses far more pathos than was typical for an obituary from this era. Reading it, one senses how much Joseph recognized Anna’s fortitude and how much he loved spending time with her despite the limitations of her illness. One also senses that Anna’s death was in many ways a relief, not least for Anna herself. No more violent seizures. No more shame or social anxiety. No more loneliness. Just peace.

It Could Have Been Worse

When I think about Anna’s life, I am reminded how lucky I am to be healthy, educated, and surrounded by loyal friends. Anna had none of these things. She didn’t so much live as persevere. I admire her for the care and devotion she put into the few relationships she did have. I have a lot of admiration for Joseph Vanek, too, for his strength in dealing with his wife’s illness. He was involved more than most fathers of his day in rearing his children. When Anna died, six children still lived at home with him. He never remarried. Anna was fortunate to have such a devoted husband and father.

Joseph Vanek with his and Anna's youngest children, Mary and Herman, ca. 1915.
Joseph Vanek with his and Anna’s youngest children, Mary and Herman, ca. 1915. I adore this photograph. It looks like Joseph loved being a dad.

Anna was fortunate from another perspective, too. Had she been born a generation or two later, in the 1890s, 1900s or 1910s, the state or federal government might have sterilized her against her will. Epileptics were commonly included in eugenics legislation that became widespread during the 1910s and 1920s. (Nebraska passed a number of eugenic sterilization laws, but none of them applied to epileptics.) Some states did not go quite as far as forced sterilization, but they nonetheless prevented epileptics from marrying and having children. If Anna had been sterilized or prevented from marrying, her ten surviving children never would have been born and her many hundreds of descendants would not be here today.

Proponents of eugenics for epileptics presumed that the cause of the disease was genetic. They believed they were “purifying” the gene pool and “improving” humanity by removing disease-causing genes. We now know that only in rare cases is epilepsy caused by a single underlying genetic mutation. Most of the time, its cause is more complicated. Sometimes, epilepsy is the result of an undiagnosed brain infection, stroke, or past head trauma. Usually, the cause is a complex of genetic factors and environmental stimuli. More than different 200 genes have been identified that are sometimes associated with epileptic seizures. How these genes interact with each other and with sensory inputs remains the cutting edge of research.

In short, the state-sponsored eugenics of the past was based in ignorance and its measures were extreme, like using a sledgehammer when a scalpel was called for. The collateral damage was immense. It remains perhaps the most striking American example of unnecessary government involvement in citizens’ private lives. The government forcibly prevented thousands of people from having children by destroying their God-given reproductive biology.

At the same time, the impulse behind eugenics doesn’t seem so bad; the goal to eliminate disease and improve human lives is nearly universal. And there have been some noted successes. For example, voluntary genetic testing has been used to discourage marriages between carriers of the recessive gene for Tay-Sachs disease, leading to a significant reduction in the occurrence of the child-killing disease among Ashkenazi Jews in North America.

The debate over the ethics of eugenics continues today. It is philosophical, political, and scientific. It lies at the heart of debates over pre-natal testing, abortion, and genetic engineering of humans and human organs. The lesson to take from last century’s eugenics programs is that we must move forward with caution, taking extra care not to ruin lives in an effort to save them. Anna Smith’s epilepsy was apparently not a case of simple genetic mutation. As far as I am aware, none of her descendants has since suffered from epilepsy. Preventing her from having children would not in any way have “improved” humanity. I, for one, am thankful she had children.

Children of Joseph and Anna Smith Vanek, 1911.
Children of Joseph and Anna Smith Vanek, 1911. Only Herman, born 23 Apr 1911, is missing. Of the ten who reached adulthood, all but Herman had children of their own.