Orlando's picture

    Halcyon Days of Yore

    I've been doing a lot of research into my family history lately, for this little project I'm working on. I'm following lines back into the past, trying to figure out who came over, when they came over, etc. It's interesting stuff. So interesting that I stayed up all night on Saturday, compulsively searching for more and more information. I finally fell asleep somewhere around 6 am, and when my dog woke me at 10 to go out, I got up and started searching some more. (Which is why I was so (apparently) mean to our new guest blogger Prophet on Sunday. I need my sleep for my filter to prevent me from blurting out bitchy thoughts.)

    This little project of mine is taking shape. It's fun imagining what life must have been like in the mid to late 1800s, which is the period I'm particularly interested in. It was a hard life for my ancestors. They were farmers and laborers for the most part. The women worked just as hard, if not harder, than the men. Many babies died before they got a real shot at living and the women were pregnant all the damn time.

    More people were more devout back then too, I think. There are two people in my family tree that I'm focusing on. One of them came from a Mennonite family near what is now Stuttgart, Germany. The other was a reformed Lutheran from a Germany family near Bern, Switzerland. These are my great grandparents, who met in central Illinois at the end of the 19th century. We're talking hard core, no hair cutting, no colored clothes wearing, no music, no joy kind of stuff. My grandfather, their son, is the only one of his siblings who left the Mennonite faith, to the undying gratitude of his three granddaughters.

    My great-grandmother came to the U.S. with her mother and siblings in 1885. Pretty standard stuff, right? Except her father stayed in Switzerland--alone. He didn't die until 1893. I've been turning over all sorts of ideas for why this may have happened and I wasn't coming up with any satisfactory theories.

    I've romanticized people from the past to the point that they aren't real. They are selfless men and women, very much in love, who worked hard, prayed hard, and waited for their reward on the other side. Except they weren't.

    Today, in what can only be described as hitting paydirt, I came upon information much more illuminating than the mere names, dates, and places that I've been pouring over. Today, I discovered that my great-great-grandfather--devoted son, loving husband, and father of twelve children--took up with a barmaid. 

    A barmaid? Are you effing kidding me? 

    Apparently, my great-great-grandmother had had enough. She grabbed her kids and headed for a new life. See ya later, you big jerk. Pretty cool, when you think about it--probably not the first, and definitely not the last, in a long line of headstrong, independent women who don't put up with a lot of crap.

    My point here is that the past isn't as idyllic as we might like to think. People have been remarkably consistent in their shortcomings since the dawn of time. Abstinence-only advocates might want to pay attention to that.

    So now, I've got a juicy family scandal to share with everybody as we gather around the Christmas tree. Anybody has have any historical family baggage to share? (Only dead people, please.)



    I've had some pretty nutty ancestors, myself.  Oh, I know, that's so hard to imagine, isn't it??

    Boiling them all down to just my grandparents, alone....well.....here's a taste.  My parents eloped in college.  They had their first "in-laws" night directly afterward.

    My paternal grandfather got drunk, as was his norm, and made a pass at my maternal grandmother.

    Oh, and my only famous ancestor was William H. Seward.  Of Seward's folly, i.e. Canal.

    My husband and I have both done a great deal of geneology, and found lots of interesting characters. We both have ancesters that came over on the Mayflower (William Brewster is my grandpa!) several polygamists (which makes for a pretty interesting looking family tree!) and have both traced back to Scotland, England and Wales plus I have some in Ireland. While in the U.K. a few years ago we found the headstones of some of his family. Seems I have a castle in Scotland. Oh how far the royalty have fallen!

    Polygamy. Now that's what I'm talking about. Scandalous! 

    But LisB, you get a close 2nd for in-law passes. Yikes.

    We know a lot of our family history, back for centuries. Some in books, but much oral. And yes, much nightmarishly repulsive. This year I've been researching new stuff on the Scots clans & the Leipzig Jews. My fave story was when 2 brothers who'd led the Scottish military lost, and fled to Europe, ended up as a chief advisor & Field Marshall for Frederick the Great. Why it's cool is that one brother led the forces into... Leipzig. Where the Jewish side had been living, printing music. Just imagining their eyes meeting is a wonderful image for me, not knowing that at some point, their descendants will wed.

    The horrific stuff is pretty... horrific. Much of which only comes out later, for some odd reason. For starters, my Grandfather hid his wife's Jewishness until a decade ago. We had brewers on the other side... which meant 5 generations of complete (male) alcoholism. Bastards, sexual abuse, violence - yup, dark side. But also, victories, universities, books, churches, good stuff.

    Ok. I shouldn't tell you this probably, but the best is from a new book by a US academic. The guy was my G-G-G-Grandfather's nephew. Amongst other nefarious deeds (truly), he was... ummmm... a terrorist. Killed a lot of people. But also, kind to animals, I'm sure.

    I hasten to add, I did NOT descend from his line, but still... gotta include him in the whole mess. Anyone wanna drop by our next family reunion? Laughing

    My greataunt was very beautiful, and had a long relationship with Allan Lehman, younger brother to Robert, chairman of the recently-defunct Lehman Brothers. Allan was a partner in the firm, but was something of a rich playboy, had a yacht, played tennis, went to nightclubs, etc. He donated the yacht to the Navy during WWII.

    Since she was Catholic and he was Jewish, he wouldn't marry my greataunt while his mother was alive. They did eventually marry but had no children, and he died before I was born. We used to visit her big estate in Old Westbury, and once flew down to her sugar plantation in Jamaica. We chewed sugar cane, chased lizards and tried to play with the young, barefoot girls that were supposed to be cleaning her house.

    Allan had only left her the use of the estate. She was trying to transfer assets to her own family (us), but died suddenly in Jamaica.

    The research continues. Were yesterday I discovered that one great-great-grandfather was a cheating dog, today I discovered the other was a pious man who lived his convictions. See, he was a Mennonite, and they believe strongly in pacisfism. So, in 1877, when Germany was getting set to go to war against France for some silly incident, and when Mennonites were no longer able to pay higher taxes in exchange for an exemption from being conscripted, my great-great-grandfather crossed the border into Switzerland and booked passage for his three military age sons. Then, because Germany also didn't allow emigration without permission, those three sons just disappeared in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. (So goes the story told by a neighbor. I'm sure their mother must have been in on the plan). The war never happened, by the way, but it was just as well. More wars were coming.

    One of those military-aged sons was my great grandfather, who eventually ended up in central Illinois where he farmed and had a bunch of kids. I don't usually believe in playing favorites, but of all my great-great-grandfathers, I think he's my favorite. 

    Oh, and part of my husband's family were LOYALISTS and had to escape to Canada to avoid getting killed by the Patriots! Cool stuff, huh? Makes history so much more intersting when you think of your own family as having been a part of it...

    sorry, that was me married into the loyalist family...forgot to log in!

    Latest Comments