Keeping the immigration realities of a century ago in the past

On December 7, 1917, the IndyStar published nearly 800 names and addresses of unnaturalized German citizens living in Indianapolis.

One of the names on the list was Carl Nikoll - my 2nd great-uncle, an undocumented German immigrant.


Carl came to America in June 1890 with his parents, my great, great grandparents, Louisa and Heinrich Nikoll, from Germany. He was only nine months old when they arrived in New York. They crossed the Atlantic with only one piece of luggage for the three of them, stayed for a brief time in Cincinnati and went on to settle on Indy’s Southside, where Heinrich found work as a cabinet maker (he was not included on the list because he died in 1914).

Image if they had all been turned away. What a different story our family would have had to tell - if one at all.

After the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, President Wilson proclaimed all German citizens living in the U.S. as “alien enemies.” They were barred from living near military facilities or airports, in all port towns and in the nation's capital. They had to disclose their bank accounts and any other property to an Alien Property Custodian appointed by the attorney general. Furthermore, in 1918, Germans had to fill out registration affidavits and be fingerprinted.

Carl’s name appeared as “an alien enemy” solely based on the country where he was born. A country that he probably had no recollection of living in - not knowing the difference between both worlds. He entered the WW1 and WW2 drafts and was prepared to fight for a country who had all but tried to humiliate him and his family with anti-German propaganda based on fear.

I am the proud product of German immigrants and there are certainly thousands of other family stories like Carl’s. I share his story not to give you a history lesson on our family, but to help spark some understanding or enlightenment of what’s transpired this week with our country’s new immigration policies.

You see, if you dig into your own family’s past, you’ll find that stories like this will reveal the struggles of your relatives and possibly help give insight on the perils of other immigrants, also looking for a better life, today. You’d probably see that their tales are not all that different. The realities of a century ago should be kept in the past and not creep into our future.

And if you don’t know where to start with your family genealogy, I am wholeheartedly happy to help, whether you agree with me on this issue or not. Just ask and I can get you pointed in the right direction! :)