After many years as a journalist—investigating presidents, congressmen, and labor union officials, examining the military-industrial complex, civil rights and social justice issues—I never imagined that the most challenging and rewarding story would be about my own family.
Growing up in San Antonio, I knew little about my Kallison grandparents in whose home my mother and I lived for the first twelve years of my life. They were two of 23 million men, women and children—two million of them Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe—who surged into the United States from 1880 through 1920—and they rarely spoke of their pasts.
Why hadn’t I asked them about their early lives: Where in Russia were they born? What was it like living as Jews under the autocratic thumb of an oppressive czar? How did they escape from Russia? Why did they come to Texas? How did they grow their harness shop into the largest farm and ranch supply business in the Southwest? How did a Jewish merchant become a path-breaking Texas rancher? I had plenty of opportunities to ask those questions and many others. Yet I knew more about Sam Houston and his victory in the Texas War of Independence from Mexico than I did about my own grandparents’ escape from a different revolution in Russia.
I have discovered that my lack of knowledge about my forbearers is not an unusual phenomenon. Like the Kallisons, millions of American families have poorly documented and preserved their past—a loss for the families themselves and for a wiser understanding of our nation’s history. With the Internet and digitization of so many primary source documents, unearthing your family’s past now is possible even for amateurs with limited computer skills.
Key to the exploration of my roots was a Google search of the Kallison name followed by a letter-writing campaign to those who shared it. Of the 100 letters sent, several bore fruit. One distant cousin provided a family history tracing a common ancestor to the tiny Ukrainian village of Ladyzhinka. Googling that town name led me to the Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago where photographs on headstones revealed identities of unknown ancestors in our family photos: my grandfather’s older and younger brothers, Jacob and Samuel Kallison and their mother Dina Elloff Kallison.
Using ancestry.com and fold3.com (formerly footnotes.com), I accessed ships’ logs, census documents, military records, marriage and death certificates, fifty years of city directories, and even high school and college yearbooks. Those primary sources yielded invaluable information about my grandfather, his extended family and the world in which they lived. The census documents alone were a treasure trove of information. Beyond names, addresses, ages, occupations, income, immigration information, and citizenship status, they revealed who could read and write in English, who suffered the loss of a child, who had servants or took in boarders, even who owned a radio in the early 20th century.
At Newspaperarchives.com, I found a story on published poll tax lists noting that Nathan Kallison was among those who paid for the “right” to vote in Texas in 1911. Spanning decades, I found hundreds of ads for the Kallison’s downtown store and their Bexar County ranch showing the growth of the family’s dual enterprise. Even the local society pages yielded important minutiae from the everyday lives of Nathan and Anna Kallison and their four children: Parties attended; piano recital pieces; debating team topics; roles in school plays; membership in religious, charitable, and community organizations. Together, they gave me a unique picture of who the Kallisons were and what they valued.
For anyone interested in delving into their own family’s past, agencies at all levels of government are digitizing records. It surprised me to discover that in 1927, during Prohibition, the U.S. government indicted my grandfather and Uncle Morris Kallison for violating laws against the production, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages. I read the court transcript and looked at the photographic evidence against them using digitized National Archives records. I also easily accessed Bexar County, Texas’s amazing collection of online files. Among the land records, licenses, and agreements, I found the 1902 contract for the first parcel of land purchased by my grandparents–who as Jews were denied that right in the Russia of their youth. My grandfather signed his name in Hebrew script; my grandmother, with an “x.”
I now realize that the most important history of our country is not found in the grand events of wars and presidencies, but rather in the everyday lives of our citizens: how they worked hard to support their families; how they coped with hardships, discrimination, and human tragedy; and how they contributed to their own communities and nation. There has never been a better time to research your own family’s past. That is the story only you can tell.
Nick Kotz’s book The Harness Maker’s Dream: Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas was published recently. Kotz has received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, the National Magazine Award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Award, among others.