A brief history of how I came to be an American

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

After the fall of Napoleon, the people of the Rhineland area along what’s become the traditional French and German border suffered severe economic depression, lack of religious freedom, and governments trying to stop young people in lower classes from marrying and having families.

Four families left that oppression for the tiny outpost of Buffalo in the 1820’s—these are my Grandma Coyle’s mother’s ancestors.

The landed classes didn’t want the Germans in Buffalo.

The most miserable, humiliating, unbearable poverty and famine was felt by the uneducated peasant Catholic population of Ireland during the middle of the 19th Century. To escape poverty and persecution, John Coyle sailed from Ireland to Pennsylvania. His children moved to Buffalo. Thomas Slattery sailed to Prescott, Ontario, and his children moved to Buffalo.  Miles Norton came to Buffalo from Ireland, where he worked in grain mills for 15 years until his death at the age of 48. These are my Grandpa Coyle’s ancestors.

The landed classes didn’t want the Irish in Buffalo.

Mary Ann Vallely was born as a Catholic in Protestant Northern Ireland. Looking for opportunity and freedom from repression, she and her husband moved near Glasgow, Scotland in the 1880s. When her husband died in 1920, she moved to South Buffalo to live among her four children who’d already moved there. Mary Ann Vallely was Grandma Cichon’s grandma.

Grandma Cichon’s father was English—he crossed the Ambassador Bridge from British Canada one day and never went back. He overstayed his visa by more than 50 years, and died a British subject at South Buffalo’s Mercy Hospital.

Jan Cichon was born a subject of the Russian Empire. Ethnically Polish, he was facing compulsory service in the Russian army when he left what is now southern Poland in 1913. It was difficult for a Russian to emigrate to the US—but Jan got around it by setting sail from Hamburg, Germany for Canada. After living in Welland, Ontario for a few weeks, he came to America through the Port of Buffalo under false pretenses.

With $20 in his pocket, my great-grandfather said he was visiting a made-up brother-in-law at a made-up address on Exchange Street. He could read and write, but spelled and signed his name Czychon.

The landed classes didn’t want the Polish—particularly the illegal Polish– in Buffalo.

All of these people went on to contribute to America. To trace the fruits of their loins, you’d be looking at thousands of Americans who’ve done spectacular things to make this country great. Hardworking blue collar men, beautiful women who cared for their families and communities, men and women religious, medical doctors, lawyers, university professors, sea captains, and even a congressman.

But that’s not the whole story—there are quite a few who’ve screwed up as well. Some of whom screwed up terribly.

In my family tree, I have a deported Communist. I have a guy who terrorized his community as serial hatchet-wielding thief, stealing purses off the arms of old ladies. There’s the cousin who spent time in federal prison on racketeering and drug trafficking convictions. There are petty thieves, wife beaters, and drunks. Lots and lots of drunks.

Take a realistic look at any group you belong to, and you’ll find the same. Good and bad.

This is America. This is how America has always been. I can’t imagine America any other way.

 

Published by

Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. The operator of Buffalo Stories Tours writes about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo special at blog.buffalostories.com and daily at buffalonews.com/history. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and spent 20 years working in Buffalo radio and TV, climbing his way to news director at WBEN Radio. Since then, he's been an adjunct professor and produced PBS documentaries. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.