American Tale

American Tale

During Ellis Island's busiest days, an immigrant family's saga stands out.

 
Last April marked the 100th anniversary of the busiest day ever on Ellis Island: April 17, 1907, officials processed 11,747 arrivals – twice the typical day’s 5,000. That was the middle of the port’s most active month, when 197 ships arrived.

Daniel Lynch, a Connecticut genealogy buff and consultant to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation <ellisisland.org>, became obsessed with one family’s story amid the throngs of passengers. “The entire thing was spawned by my favorite book, The 20th Century Day by Day, which I read a few pages of each night,” he says. “There was a two- or three-sentence blurb about the Natte family from Holland who had lost children at sea and given birth to a baby at Ellis Island.”

Using passenger lists, Port of New York records and New York Times articles, he pieced together the family’s story. The Nattes – 38-year old Evert, his wife, Cato, and their eight children – left Holland in l907 on the SS Potsdam. After a few days on board, 8-year-old Marie fell ill with diphtheria. She died two days later. The day Marie was buried at sea, her 6-year-old sister Klazina succumbed to the same disease.

Upon arrival at Ellis Island March 11, immigration officials sent the remaining children to St. Mary’s Hospital in Hoboken, NJ, where 12-year-old Willem died. Their parents were detained separately; a Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry notes Cato was PGT – pregnant. The Nattes named their son, born in March or April, Robert Ellis after his place of birth and port commissioner Robert Watchorn.

“His birth record should be at the municipal archives in New York City, but no one can find it,” says Lynch. Baby Robert died in 1908 or 1909.

May 3, the family finally left for Minnesota. The two adults spent long enough at Ellis Island to consume 92 breakfasts, 95 dinners, and 92 suppers, which the government billed to the Holland America line. In Leota, Minn., the 1910 census lists two more children and shows Cato had given birth to 12 children, with seven still living (a girl born in 1905 died in Holland). She later had three more babies.

None of those children are living today, but Lynch tracked down a granddaughter, Bernice Bose. Her mother, also named Cato, was 4½ when the Nattes left Holland. Bose remembers her mom talking about two sisters who were “put in boxes,” but she didn’t know the full story of her grandparents’ experiences.

“My daughter and I had seen the manifest when the Ellis Island site came out. [Lynch] knew some things I didn’t, and I knew some things he didn’t,” says Bose. “Grandma had a baby at Ellis Island – I didn’t know that.”

Bose, her husband Donald and their daughter Debra Even traveled to the April 17 Family Heritage Awards ceremony at Ellis Island – alongside honorees Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, AARP CEO Bill Novelli, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and fashion entrepreneur Josie Natori. “We were special guests,” Bose says. “They mentioned our family during the ceremony, then we looked at photos of other immigrants on Ellis Island.”

“To be on the same ground my grandparents were on and to see what they saw … it was overwhelming. Fantastic. I wish my mom was here so I could tell her.”

 
From the September 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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