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By Daniel Hubbard | October 25, 2010

I’ve been looking at a lot of immigrants over the last week and I do mean a lot. So, I’ve just become interested in pushmi-pullyus for the first time since I was about 8. Sometimes circumstances push people from one country to another. Sometimes circumstances pull people to a new country. Exactly what those circumstances might have been is a good reason to learn the history of the places at both ends of a migration.

Rarely is there only one factor at work. Rarely is it all pull or all push. Factors differ in their importance—sometimes a factor is a strong influence other times only a weak contributing factor. Sometimes a relatively minor problem might turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s pushmi-pullyu’s back.


With many of these factors, it is often hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. Often dividing things into such lists is a good way to understand but the reality is that push factors are often just different parts of the same continuum of suffering.

Hunger It would be hard not to think of the Irish Potato Famine when migration due to hunger is the topic. Of course not every Irishman who left Ireland left because of that famine, and famines in other places have driven migrations.

Religion People often moved to avoid persecution or, sadly, to find a place where they were free to persecute others. The Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be free to practice their religion as they pleased. They forced the founding of Rhode Island by people who were forbidden to practice as they pleased in Massachusetts. Religion certainly has played less obvious roles as well. The direct cause of the Irish Potato Famine was potato blight but it was not made better by English land owners exporting food from Ireland during those dark years. Would English attitudes have allowed that to happen if the Irish hadn’t been predominantly Catholic?

Disease People quite rationally flee when a disease that nearly guarantees death flares up. Yellow fever, cholera and other diseases that are strongly associated with a place will cause people to leave. If a disease becomes endemic in an area, people may migrate. When an epidemic seems to be an isolated occurrence they may intend to return but if they never do, the result is the same as an intentional migration. If a harvest is missed because people have fled or because they were too sick or too burdened by caring for the sick , then hunger may result, forcing more to leave.

Disaster Of course famines and epidemics can be counted among disasters but there are other kinds of disasters that cause migrations. A flood might leave so little of a town standing that the people who survived had little remaining to keep them where they were. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s drove many to try to find somewhere better just as locusts had done on the same plains in earlier decades.

War Clearly, war causes people to move. They flee the approach of the armies as the war begins and they leave their homes as the war’s end shifts borders. Not so long ago, armies were more feared by civilians because of the disease they carried and the crops they voraciously devoured than because of the weapons they bore. An army was a dangerous thing to be sure but an army spreading small pox was viewed as being something virtually out of the Apocalypse, and not without reason. An army living off the land often leaves nothing behind to sustain the populations of the lands it crosses. Deciding if it was the violence, the hunger or the spread of disease that caused people to migrate can be nearly impossible.

Ethnic persecution If the circumstances of your birth mark you for anything from harassment to genocide, the psychological barriers to pulling up your roots can become very small indeed. You might even have been born in a place where you were thought of as belonging, only to have the border change. It suddenly became time to move.


Like the pushes, the pulls can form a continuum. This time though, a continuum of hope.

Gold Whenever some valuable resource—gold, silver, oil, even lead—is discovered, there are people who will go into a state of euphoria and go to any lengths to get themselves into what might be the right spot.

Land The strength of the pull of land often has to do with the strength of a push from a lack of good land. Breaking new land may be hard but when the choice is to remain on a stoney plot that has been shrinking with each generation, the draw of new land becomes irresistible.

Opportunity Even if gold isn’t found and land isn’t being given away cheap, the hope for a better life through whatever opportunities might present themselves has always been irresistible to those with the right mix of desperation and  adventurousness.

Religion As with land, the pull of religion is made more powerful by a religious push. An existing place were you are free to practice as you desire is a powerful draw when there is also a push.

Family Sometimes it is the simple desire to keep a family together that causes some to migrate. Whatever circumstances led to the migration of some family members might not be relevant to those who stayed behind but the draw of a new place is increased by family and friends who are already there.


All of these are general pushes and pulls. There are certainly more. Every individual ancestor was different and felt these pushes and pulls in different ways. Just because a factor is generally agreed to be the most important factor in a migration doesn’t mean that everyone felt the same factors to the same degree, or in the same way. In this kind of microhistory, we need to remember that whenever possible. We need to avoid lumping individuals into groups. When a person or a family seem to have migrated for whatever the standard reasons were for their place and time, it is good to have as many indications as possible that they really were part of the crowd. Not every 49er panned for gold. Some, like a man I researched, made mule harnesses. Do you know what the pushes and pulls might have been for your ancestors? Can you find evidence?

A Nomination—Tongues Firmly in Cheeks

After doing a bit of pushmi-pullyu research, I think they might make fine genealogical mascots.

“PUSHMI-PULLYUS are now extinct. That means, there aren’t any more. But long ago, when Doctor Dolittle was alive, there were some of them still left in the deepest jungles of Africa; and even then they were very, very scarce… They had no tail, but a head at each end, and sharp horns on each head. They were very shy and terribly hard to catch… no matter which way you came towards him, he was always facing you. And besides, only one half of him slept at a time. The other head was always awake—and watching. This was why they were never caught and never seen in Zoos. Though many of the greatest huntsmen and the cleverest menagerie-keepers spent years of their lives searching through the jungles in all weathers for pushmi-pullyus, not a single one had ever been caught. Even then, years ago, he was the only animal in the world with two heads.”

-from The Story of Doctor Dolittle

Lets see if I can count some of the reasons why the pushmi-pullyu should the official mascot of genealogy beyond being excellent symbols for the push and pull of migration-

  1. It is a fictional creature and who among us, especially when first starting out, hasn’t had someone in our pedigrees that has, well, turned out to be just a bit on the fictional side? A fictional character might keep us on our toes.
  2. Pushmi-pullyus are very, very difficult to catch. Remind you of any ancestors? I swear that some of mine manage to see their descendants coming after them from whatever angle we try, suspiciously as if they have an extra set of eyes.
  3. They have two heads, so they look like they must be two creatures not one. I know I’ve been quite sure that I was dealing with only one person but still had to wonder how he managed to look so much like two.
  4. Like some records we’d like to find, pushmi-pullyus were “very, very, scarce.”

[A note on pushmi-pullyus: In the original Dr. Dolittle books, the pushmi-pullyu had one head of a gazelle and one of a unicorn. The movie pushmi-pullyu that I remember from childhood was a sort of two-headed llama. The pushmi-pullyu above was made from an original llama photograph by Kim Foster]

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Topics: Genealogy | 2 Comments »

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2 Responses to “Pushmi-Pullyu”

  1. Greta Koehl Says:
    October 25th, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    You are absolutely right; from now on I will think of pushmi-pullyus as genealogical mascots! An odd comparison, but apt.

  2. Michelle Goodrum Says:
    July 31st, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    What a great comparison. Since I love animals, Dr. Doolittle, and genealogy I won’t be able to help but think of the pushmi-pullyus often when working on my family history from now on.