I like to say it’s all Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ fault.
For many years I’ve enjoyed his PBS shows on tracing genealogy and I had plenty of questions about my own. Last year I decided to dig into my past in earnest.
Anyone who has engaged in family history research knows that there are a million rabbit holes into which one can fall. Start googling or using one of the several more common genealogy web services out there and you begin to find names you never heard of and stories you never knew. I knew that the results would be interesting. What I didn’t realize was the effect those revelations would have on my sense of self and family.
My mother’s family was a bit of a mystery to my cousins and me. We had a few stories on my grandmother’s side, but Grandpa’s family was a complete unknown, never discussed. Mysteries evoke speculation (there was plenty of that!) and I was determined to learn what happened to my great grandparents, Henry and Angeline (whose names I never knew until I started this journey).
It took awhile but I discovered things I never would have imagined, some sad, some inspiring, some just interesting. As this information was revealed, bit by bit, like layers of an onion gently falling off to reveal its core, I realized that I, too, am part of this story. These men and women and the struggles and challenges they faced, were all part of my DNA, my true self.
Call me ignorant, uninformed or too far beyond the American history I learned in school, but I had long forgotten that not all American settlers in the 1700s came from England and for a variety of reasons. I had no idea that the first immigrants of my great grandmother on my grandfather’s side came as a result of religious persecution that began in Switzerland during the 1500s.
They were Mennonites and part of a group that came to Pennsylvania in the 1700s from Germany known as “Pennsylvania Dutch,” a group that also included the Amish. My Swiss ancestors, those of our great grandmother, Angeline, after fearing torture and even death for their beliefs, fled to Germany and from there to America. They would later move north, to Canada.
My grandfather’s paternal side also came to Pennsylvania in the 1700s, but their initial motivation was to find a better life during a period of financial challenges in Germany that lingered after the Thirty Years War. Many sons in this family also joined the Mennonite movement and my ancestors were among them.
These brave families were indeed pioneers. Pennsylvania had just been established as a commonwealth by William Penn and promised religious freedom and the hope of prosperity. My ancestors, as did many of yours, came thousands of miles on a ship that took months to arrive and on a journey that for many resulted in death at sea. Quite literally, they had nothing but the clothing on their backs and what they could pack. They built the towns, the stores, the schools and farmed land never before cleared.
Think about what it would be like to move into a new community with no ready communication sources, no schools, no stores, no doctor or dentist unless one came along with you. It puts things in perspective.
As the generations moved on, Henry’s ancestors moved west, first to Ohio. In fact, his father walked to Ohio alone, purchased land, established a farm, and then returned to Pennsylvania to bring back his parents and wife in a covered wagon. It was in Ohio where Henry was born and raised. As an adult, he came to Michigan to settle about an hour from where I now live and started his family, my grandfather being one of the youngest of his six children.
I unraveled all sorts of stories about relatives on both sides but the mystery of Henry continued until we learned that he had been committed to a mental institution and in a stroke of great luck, found his commitment papers, which tell a sad story of mania and perhaps schizophrenia.
His counterpart, my grandmother’s father, William (presumably born “at sea” but I’m still looking for documentation), emigrated as an infant to Buffalo, NY and set out on a long career as a confectioner during the booming years of candy making in New York. It was a life of relative prosperity and comfort, much unlike the life of a farmer in the 1800s. Their stories simply couldn’t be more different.
As I’ve studied these stories and others in the family line, I have more than once pondered how I feel about this history and how I fit into this narrative.
And the short answer is proud. And sad. And impressed, in a way.
I have lived in the same city since the day I was born. Sure, I travel, I get around. But I’m not what one would call adventurous. I’m not a risky person. And so to consider that my people lived in such conditions where leaving their homeland was the only reasonable solution to their life situation evokes such a feeling of respect and awe. There are many who would simply deny their faith, fit in with the norms of the time and live in relative safety. But my family took a different path. To make that very long, often dangerous trans-Atlantic crossing required commitment and courage, a courage I’m not sure I have.
I am filled with admiration for their dedication to a faith that provided so many obstacles. While this is not the faith I practice, I admire the Mennonite’s basic tenets of belief, particularly the strong emphasis on peace and not bearing arms, and my ancestors’ willingness to die for it, to hide in caves and to worship in secret. It takes strength of character to defy the rules for one’s beliefs. I like to think I have some of that — but I’m not sure I am that strong.
As I’ve learned about farming in the American Victorian period, I’ve realized how difficult it was when technology had not brought tractors and other farming implements to make the work easier. We all know this, rationally. But it wasn’t until I both read more and then actually saw the property that was my great grandparent’s — 100 acres of farmland in western Michigan — that I realized the challenge of it all. Farming was a family job. The children worked alongside their parents and that work was done manually. Michigan winters are tough and west Michigan tends to have some pretty rugged weather due to the lake effect snow. My people had to work hard, very hard, relying as farmers today do for weather conditions throughout the growing season to provide the best crops.
I have trouble growing tomatoes. In pots.
I am so soft.
I’ve learned I am much like my grandmother — a creative soul who loves to laugh. I had heard stories from my mother, her sisters and my mother’s best friend about my grandmother and her wonderful sense of humor, her creative streak and her good nature. What I didn’t know was that her parents had come to America in the 1800s from England to settle in a new city. Why they left remains a mystery. But somehow, through the chance happening of two people working in the same confectionery business, Minnie’s parents met.
Try as I may, my candy making ventures will never be store-worthy. (Witness the peanut butter fudge epic fail at Christmas.) Yet to know my great grandfather William was a candy maker — and indeed, I have his handwritten recipe book — gives me the confidence to try again.
My ancestors were not academically educated. I believe my mother’s generation was the first in her family to attend college. But they had a toughness and determination to build a good life, a new life, in a new land and to thrive.
I look at today’s news, stories of refugees fleeing oppression and seeking a freedom — religious or otherwise — they do not have. They are no different than the families of Angeline and Henry, William and Bessie. I find myself nurturing a desire to help those who come to my community settle into a new life. I haven’t quite figured out how to do this yet, but if there is one legacy I hold dear from the stories of my past, it is that in challenge we can triumph, over generations we can soar. These new immigrants deserve the same chance as my people did.
Perhaps one day, their descendants, too, will look back with awe, admiration and respect at their courage and strength and feel a little bit changed. I know I do.
About the Author: Jeanie Croope
After a long career in public broadcasting, Jeanie Croope is now doing all the things she loves — art, photography, writing, cooking, reading wonderful books and discovering a multitude of new creative passions. You can find her blogging about life and all the things she loves at The Marmelade Gypsy.