Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Lessons from Refugees


By Bob Ferris
Syrian refugees in Turkey.
I have been meaning for some time to write a piece on the Syrian refugees.  Part of that comes from the situation itself which is deplorable and my anger over some reactions in the US.  Part of it too comes from the wonderful cartoon of Patrick Bagley (and congratulations on your Pease Prize, Patrick) expressing the very American characteristic of accepting refugees with open arms.  And part of it comes from a profound and deeply engrained feeling of empathy as members of my family first found refuge on this continent nearly 400 years ago and continued repeating the practice until 1795 when my last refugee ancestors Joseph Gales, his wife Winifred Marshall Gales and their children Joseph (aged 9), Winifred (aged 8), Sarah (aged 7), Thomas (aged 5) and Altona (aged 1) disembarked from the good ship William and Henry in Philadelphia on July 30, 1795.

Now in this it is important to differentiate between immigrants and refugees.  For example, Donald Trump’s grandfather Frederick and the Koch brothers’grandfather Harry as well as Rupert Murdoch were and are immigrants who came to these shores simply to make money.  They were not being persecuted for religious or ideological beliefs nor were they leaving their natal lands to avoid being unjustly put to death or being imprisoned.  Refugees on the other hand experience all of these latter hardships and more.

Typed transcript of Winifred Gales recounting of her distress when Joseph was forced to leave England or face trial from The Gales Family Papers 1815-1939 
But these are hardships often stirred profoundly by a stick of firmly-held principles.  Here the Gales are good examples.  When gentlewoman and novelist Winifred Marshall married commoner and journalist Joseph Gales in 1784 she knew she was going to be disinherited by her family who objected to the match solely on the grounds of social class.  She stood on principle as did Joseph when he printed the works of friend Thomas Paine—particularly The Age of Reason—in his publishing house in Sheffield, England and sold them in his book shop.  And they both stood on principle when they espoused religious tolerance, became Unitarians, opposed slavery, and stood up against boxing and also bull-baiting.  The end result being that officials were sent after Joseph who was then forced to flee to Germany for had he stayed he would likely have been tried for treason because of his printing and selling of the Paine piece thus risking a noose or transport to Botany Bay. Soon thereafter a very pregnant Winifred boarded a leaky ship with their four children to rejoin her husband near Hamburg on the Elbe River in Altona where their daughter Altona was born.

Typed transcript of Winifred Gales on the Brittannia sailing with her children to Hamburg to rejoin her husband in The Gales Papers 1815-1939
It is difficult in reading of the Gales’ catalytic principles leading to their serious travails not to think there are likely parallel factors affecting the Syrian refugees.  Their clinging to those principles and then having to uproot themselves to flee persecution often in leaky and dangerous boats is eerily similar.  Those with families and principles understand that these choices are not easy nor are they taken lightly.  And while there will be those who are aghast that I would ever compare an educated woman of privilege with a Syrian refugee, my sense is that when Winifred Gales held her young son Thomas to her bosom and he asked why she had subjected him to the hardship described above, the material differences between her and a Syrian mother with a scared and soaking child on a struggling boat become very, very slight.

The William and Henry dropped seven souls on the landings in Philadelphia on that fine day in July. What did the newly formed US get for its open arms policy at the point?

Joseph Gales Sr.
Joseph Gales Sr. (1761–1841) Joseph bought and sold a paper and helped found a Unitarian congregation in Philadelphia before leaving to settle in Raleigh, North Carolina.  There he founded the Raleigh Register in 1799, served at the state printer, and held the office of mayor of Raleigh from 1819-1833 and from 1840 until his death in 1841.  He also trained many journalists and printers including two of his sons (see also 1,2,3)



Winifred Marshall Gales (1761–1839) Winifred continued to write and was credited with being the first female novelist in North Carolina when Matilda Berkely was published 1804.  (see also 1,2,3)

Joseph Gales Jr.
Joseph Gales Jr. (1786 - 1860) Joseph worked for his father and other publishers until 1810 when his father facilitated the purchase of the National Intelligencer in Washington DC from the same individual who once purchased his Philadelphia paper.  It should be noted that the British burned the Washington, DC offices during the War of 1812, because they considered both father and son traitors.  Joseph Jr. also served as mayor of DC from 1827-1830 and was a founding partner in Gales & Seaton.  As mayor he broke ground on the C&O Canal. (also see 1,2,3)

Winifred M Gales Johnson (1787-1825)  Winifred married General Robert Ransom Johnson from a prominent North Carolina family in 1804 on the 20th anniversary of her parent’s wedding.  She died at 38 and some of her children were raised by her mother and father.

Lt. Col. Thomas Gales
From The North Carolina Booklet Volume VII page 4 (July, 1907)
Thomas Gales (1790-1815)   Thomas wanted to become a lawyer rather than a printer which challenged his father.  Around the age of 20 he moved to Louisiana and in 1812 was appointed Judge Advocate for the region with the rank of Major.  For a time in 1814 he was an aid to Andrew Jackson and was with the General when we took Pensacola back from the British and there are stories that he was the one that pulled down the Union Jack.  He apparently developed connections at this time with some southern tribes as there is also mention of him in connection with Gales Indian Corps.  He eventually resigned his Lt. Colonel commission in 1814 to become Indian Commissioner.  In 1814 he married Eliza Ray Hennen Yates and they had a daughter Eliza Rae Gales in 1815.  Tragically when Thomas was looking for housing in September 1815 for his new position as Commissioner, his wife passed away. He followed her in November.  Eliza Rae Gales was raised by her maternal grandmother and became the second wife of George Douglas Ramsay making her my great-great-great grandmother.  (see also here 1,2,3,)

Sarah Weston Gales Seaton with Julia and Augustine.
Sarah Weston Gales Seaton (1790 - 1863) Sarah married William Winston Seaton who once worked for one of her father’s fiercest competitors (as in: beat you with a cane in the middle of street competitors) and then ran his own paper coming to work at the Raleigh Register and ultimately becoming a partner in the National Intelligencer and Gales & Seaton with his brother-in-law. (see also here 1,2,3)

William Winston Seaton
Altona H Gales Forster (1794 - 1827) Altona married Presbyterian minister Anthony Forester who initially felt remorse over the Unitarian beliefs of his wife and in-laws.  In his discussions with them he read more and more about Unitarianism and eventually converted himself (see more here 1,2).

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When I look at the above, I do not see much that this group of seven Gales refugees did that has caused anything, but benefit to this country.  And I do not think that their stories are that unique except perhaps for their level of accomplishment.  They loved their new country and sacrificed much on the altar of public service to make it better.

Now as to the Syrians refugees, we have several questions to ask.  The first is why would these refugees act any differently than other refugees who we have helped in the past?  Yes, there will be some cultural challenges as there always are, but adoption of and adjustment to new cultures take time. Now to those who would ask what about the possibility of ISIL salting the ranks of the refugees to do us harm, my responses would be two. The first is the refugees themselves are fleeing ISIL so it seems unlikely they would voluntarily be complicit in bringing them along.  Moreover, this is likely the wrong question because we should be asking whether or not ISIL will still try to send or recruit operatives in the US to cause us problems regardless of whether we accept the refugees and the answer to that is: Yes.   Essentially we gain nothing from denying them access, but put at risk that which has so often helped us: Crops of grateful new Americans striving to repay our generosity and earn their place in this great country.

Epilogue and After Thoughts


1934 photo of students in front of the Gales School in Washington DC that was built in 1881 and closed in 1944.  After acting as a homeless shelter the school is now the home of the Central Union Mission.
Many of the these Gales refugees are somewhat forgotten even in my own family, but they linger in the shadows.  My younger sister's middle name is Gales and my brother-in-law named their sailboat Merry Gales in honor of this.  My mother has a miniature of Lt. Col. Thomas Gales on her bedroom dresser and my Uncle Pat Ferris has the full and deeply-sad portrait in his living room.  And I used to saunter by the Gales School in my walks around DC and have visited Eliza Ramsay's Grave at Oakhill Cemetery and mean to visit Winifred, Joseph Jr. Sarah and William's graves in the Congressional Cemetery when next I hit DC.  Thinking about the legacy of Joseph and Winifred I cannot help but believe that they would be happy with all of us who descend from them who write in any fashion or think it is important to stay informed.  I would also think that they would love that the school named for their son helped children for nearly half a century and now helps the homeless. And I would have to believe that they would welcome these Syrian refugees with open arms looking for rooms and housing options even before asked we should indeed learn lessons from these refugees.  

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