Family History, Part 1
Updated: Sep 8
As many people are quarantining and working from home this year, more people are becoming interested in tracing their genealogies and writing family histories. As someone who has had an interest in history generally, and my family history particularly, for as long as I can remember, this is an exciting trend. And so, I decided for at least the next two newsletters that I would share a little bit about some of the people and stories I have uncovered in my family history as an encouragement or inspiration for others to see what you might discover in your own journeys back into time.
For my family, it has been a long journey from my ancestors’ roots in the colder and wetter climes of northern Europe to the lush desert of Tucson, Arizona. Etienne’s journey to New York, which I recounted in my first book, Thrown to the Wind, is only one small piece of that story.
There are many other tales of English, Irish, Scottish, Polish, and German ancestors making their ways to these American shores prompted by the hopes of a better life and promising business ventures, or the urgencies of escaping famine, ongoing wars in the homeland, or seeking religious freedom.
The people behind these stories are as diverse as their reasons for coming. There are rogues and privateers, farmers and sailors, indentured servants and entrepreneurs, men and women willing to stand up to the injustices or persecution of strangers.
There are stories of revolutionaries fighting for a just cause and loyalists forced to leave all they owned behind as they fled for their lives. There are stories of covered wagons making their slow way into Iowa and South Dakota, of miners staking their claims in the Black Hills of North Dakota, of poor immigrants working as household servants, prostitutes, or stonemasons in Chicago after the great fire. There are stories of brothers pitted against one another during the Black Hawk Indian Wars in Michigan and Illinois.
There is, sadly, a branch of the family who owned a few plantations in the early Virginian colony. But there is also a son who rebelled from this life and fought in Bacon’s Rebellion, a wife who persuaded her husband to give up all they had to free their slaves and move to Kentucky to start over, and a great-great-grandfather that fought in the Union cavalry in Civil War at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
There is also the story of a German lad who fell in love with a beautiful milkmaid, only to be ripped away from her when his family emigrated to the United States in order to protect their sons from fighting and dying in Bismarck’s wars for German unification. Moving to Michigan, he was delighted to rediscover his lost milkmaid and quickly married her. Together they built a large, prosperous farm in rural Michigan, where they named a road after him.
As we move forward in time, there was my maternal grandfather, who joined the navy and then married a beautiful woman, a true 1920’s flapper. He then borrowed money from his uncle to buy a small gas station. He and my grandmother lived in the back of this gas station where they ate little more than eggs and bread for a year while he worked to pay his uncle back. He worked every day of the year, except Christmas and New Year’s, eventually building a prominent business in Michigan and raising five daughters.
On my father’s side is a country schoolteacher, who was raised by a father who was a largely unsuccessful tenant farmer during the Great Depression. This schoolteacher, my grandmother, eloped with a man, my grandfather, the son of a prominent and successful farmer, back when country schoolteachers were neither allowed to date nor even visit soda shops. The fear was that they might meet an available young rogue, who would besmirch their upstanding character. This rebellious schoolteacher and her husband, a supervisor for the Farm Service Administration, had a daughter and a son, who would become my father.
My parents married, moved to Iowa for college, where I was born, then on to Australia for Dad’s post-doctorate, back to Maryland, and then out west to Tucson. From these histories, I have learned that, after God, family comes first. But no matter what happens in this life, my family will always be there to offer help, support when needed, love, and sometimes a swift kick in the rear end to get you back on the proper track. From my parents, I have learned to work hard, and also to take time to enjoy this life. They have shown me the world, taught me to see the complexities of life, and challenged me to try to understand the plight of others and better understand their perspectives.
Throughout history, my family members have often been on opposite sides of political, military, and religious conflicts. Even today, we still sometimes argue over politics, religious views, and athletic teams! Yet, we love each other deeply and would fiercely defend each other to the end. That is my family, and that is merely a taste of the numerous stories about these ordinary, yet remarkable, people I hope to one day share.
What stories are buried in your family histories?