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Lebanese in the Land of Opportunity

The Michael Family of Clarksburg

By Mary Beth Stenger

Thomas Michael in store

Thomas Michael was a Lebanese immigrant who settled in Harrison County in the 1890's. He first worked in the Clarksburg area as a pack peddler and later became a successful store owner and businessman. He is shown here at his store on Pike Street in Clarksburg with children Anne at left, Helen on tricycle, and Louis at right, in about 1930.

My grandfather Thomas Sheehan was born in 1875 in eastern Lebanon, in the mountainous Saida region. His birth was never recorded with the government, nor did the Maronite Catholic Church keep a baptismal record for him. The Turkish government ruled the region at the time, and births of male children often went unrecorded as parents sought to evade the Turkish rulers, who routinely pressed male subjects into military service.

The family lived in the foothills of Lebanon Mountain and survived by farming a small plot of land and raising sheep. Thomas' father Michael was a shoemaker, and Thomas and his younger brother Jacob apprenticed with him. Thomas and his brother also guarded cattle for neighbors and cultivated the families' mulberry and olive trees.

Life in Lebanon was hard and dangerous for young men. When Thomas visited nearby villages, he had to carry a club for protection, as the passages through the mountainous area were filled with ruffians, wild beasts, and the ever-present threat of the Turks. According to a story handed down in our family, Thomas once fought off a hyena with his bare hands.

Thomas and Jacob realized that, sooner or later, the Turkish government would force them into military service. The Maronite Christian families of Lebanon traditionally felt more allied with western European people; in their view, the Turks were invaders in their land, and Thomas and his family felt no allegiance to the Turkish rulers. [See "Our Lady of Lebanon: The Maronite Church in Wheeling," by Cheryl Ryan Harshman; Summer 1990.]

So, in 1900, against their mother's wishes, Thomas and Jacob emigrated to America. Thomas spoke of their journey as grueling, taking them several weeks to cross the ocean before their arrival at Ellis Island. Though immigration officials often employed translators, it is unclear whether the Arabic language was represented at the customs office when the brothers arrived. Whether or not an interpreter was available, a mix-up occurred, and it causes confusion for our family to this day. When he got off the ship at Ellis Island, Thomas gave his name as Thomas Sheehan, son of Michael. The agent wrote down his name as Thomas Michael. Thus, Michael - not Sheehan - became our family name.

Because the Arabic language is so unlike English, translations are often not precise. My grandfather's original surname is given many spellings, even by his own children. Variations include Shaheen, Sheehean, Sheehan, and even Chahine. Similarly, dates are not precise. My grandfather's year of birth ranges from 1875 to 1881, depending upon the source.

My grandfather moved immediately to West Virginia.

You can read the rest of this article in the Winter 2002 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.