Genealogy as Family History, Not Genetics

I was reading some articles about the writing of the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, co-written with her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. On a discussion board, a couple of scenes were mentioned where someone asked for or demanded to have the baby or child of another person. A few people mentioned how this used to be common for people to ask for and raise other people’s children.

There were various reasons for this. A couple who couldn’t have kids might have wanted a kid. Also, because of farm life, having lots of kids around was necessary. And there were many reasons for a couple to give up a kid. They might have been compensated for giving away their child. Or they might simply have hit hard times and couldn’t afford all their children. Or one parent got sick or died.

It was a rough world in centuries past with sickness and death being a near constant factor in people’s lives. Most people didn’t live long and many women died in childbirth. Kids being raised by people who weren’t their parents was extremely common. And no one thought much about it. People used to be a lot less sentimental about children and childhood, largely because most children died in the first few years. For this reason, it was common for children not to even be given names until they survived past toddler age.

This made me think about the problems of genealogy research. It is usually impossible to prove your actual genealogy more than a century back. In the past, birth records, baptismal records, etc were rare. And until the latter half of the 19th century, wives and children weren’t even named in the United States census records. Plus, proving paternity was impossible until the recent development of genetic tests. I remember reading about how many men came home after the Civil War to find their wives pregnant or with children who were born while they weren’t around. The same thing happens in every war, especially major wars like the two world wars. Most people don’t talk about such things, much less leave records indicating questionable paternity.

Most of genealogy is probably fictional. It represents generations of family identity, not genetic inheritance. An child who is adopted or of uncertain paternity is still part of the family they were raised in. That is what genealogy is about.

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Deep Roots in Dark Soil

In doing genealogy research, I’ve made many connections to American history, some of it quite dark and much of it not that far back in time. It is something that has been bothering me for a while. I had a longer series of posts I was writing about it, but I got bogged down with the topic. It’s overwhelming and hard to grapple with. So, let me keep this post simple and to the point.

Possibly the earliest line of my family that came to America was the Peebles. They were Scottish and, maybe for siding with the king, they arrived in the Virginia colony (1649 or 1650) during the English Civil War. David Peebles, the patriarch, came with some help (either indentured servants or slaves) and built a plantation. Later generations of the Peebles were definitely slave owners and they fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The family across the generations drifted further South and West, ending up in Texas. That is where my paternal grandmother was born in 1912, well within living memory of slavery and the Civil War. The last Civil War veterans died in the 1950s, the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States died in the 1930s, the last American born into slavery died in the 1970s — the latter happening just a few years before I was born and about a decade before my grandmother died. None of this is ancient history. It’s possible that if my grandmother had bothered to ask that there were people in the family who still remembered owning slaves.

Also, the early twentieth century was a time of the last of the Indian Wars. There were major battles that happened in that part of the country when my grandmother was a child. The last significant altercation in the United States happened in 1924 when she was twelve years old and that is the age when kids begin to gain awareness of the larger world. But there were Indian holdouts who kept fighting in Mexico and weren’t defeated until nine years later in 1933. My grandmother was twenty-one years old at that point and so this was part of the world she was entering into.

David Peebles himself had been an Indian fighter, a captain in the Virginia militia. He was a well respected man. As reward, he had been given a Native American captive and I’m sure that person was treated as a slave. It’s assumed that David Peebles received an injury from fighting and he slowly disappeared from the records. Between those first Peebles in America and my grandmother, I’m sure there were numerous Indian fighters in my ancestry. After all, that part of my family was involved in the push Westward, as Native Americans retreated or were forcibly removed. And then they ended up in the region of the last battles with the last free natives.

All of this national history is intimately intertwined with my family history. And much of it was still living memory into my grandmothers childhood and even into her adulthood (in some cases, even into my parents’ adulthood). More importantly, it was an ongoing history. The struggles of blacks didn’t end with the Civil War any more than the struggles of Native Americans ended with the Indian Wars. I could understand how much of this history was hidden at the time, even as the suffering and oppression continued. Native Americans, after all, were forced onto reservations that made their plight practically invisible to the rest of the country. It was a problem that wasn’t seen and so didn’t need to be thought about. But the problems facing blacks would have been impossible to ignore for those living in the South and also in the North.

In the South my grandmother grew up in, Jim Crow was in full force and blacks had for decades faced re-enslavement through chain gang labor. My grandmother was a few years old when the Second Klan was founded. The Klan was a growing force during her childhood and was at its height in her teenage years: “At its peak in the mid-1920s, the organization claimed to include about 15% of the nation’s eligible population, approximately 4–5 million men” (Wikipedia). I have no doubt that many generations and many lines of my family were involved in the various incarnations of the Klan, along with other violently racist organizations and activities; but there is no family stories about any of this, as it’s one of those things that people don’t talk about.

When my grandmother was eight years old, a short distance from her childhood home the Tulsa race riots occurred where white mobs rioted and terrorized the black population. It was an actual battle with whites and blacks fighting in the streets (many of them WWI veterans, including black veterans who took their military weapons home with them), snipers were positioned in buildings shooting at people below, airplanes firebombed the wealthiest black community in America at the time (Black Wall Street), and belatedly troops were sent in to restore order. Hundreds of blacks were killed, hundreds more ended up in the hospital, 6,000 black residents were arrested and detained, and in the detention centers blacks were forced to do labor. In the aftermath, most of the black population became refugees who had lost everything and thousands of white residents in Tulsa joined the Klan.

It was one of the most violent and destructive events in American history. Yet it was erased from public awareness almost instantly, as if it had never happened. “The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Blacks and whites alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place” (A.G. Sulzberger, “As Survivors Dwindle, Tulsa Confronts Past“, NYT).

This was just one of many race riots and other acts of mass racial violence that occurred in the decades before and following what happened in Tulsa. Violence like this, including lynchings, would have been common events for the first two-thirds of her life. After her family left Oklahoma, they moved to a part of Mississippi that was a major center of the Second Klan. Then as an adult in 1940, she moved her own young family to Indiana, the headquarters and epicenter of the Second Klan, during a time when the last vestiges of the organization were still to be seen. It was in the 1950s and 1960s when a splintered KKK reasserted itself in fighting the Civil Rights Movement.

Indiana is close to the South and not just geographically. It’s been culturally and economically connected to Kentucky from early on. This area is sometimes referred to as Kentuckiana. Much of Indiana’s population originally came from Kentucky and that has made Indiana the most Southern state in the Midwest (my maternal ancestry includes Indian fighters who came to Kentucky shortly after the American Revolution). A generation after my mother’s family left the border region of Kentucky and Indiana, she grew up in a large industrial city in central Indiana and yet she maintained a Southern accent well into her twenties.

Indiana was a destination of many white Southerners looking for work. Yet Southern blacks knew to mostly avoid Indiana, except for Northern parts of the state closer to Chicago. This wasn’t just a vague notion that blacks had about Indiana. The local white population, Klan and otherwise, made it overtly clear they weren’t welcome in most parts of the state.

My father was born in small town Indiana and then moved to another nearby small town. They were both in an area of much racism, but the second town where he spent most of his early life was a sundown town. When my father and his family moved there, a sign warning blacks to stay away was still visible on a major road into town. My father would have been too young to understand, my Southern grandmother could not have missed something so obvious. They had to have known they moved into a sundown town. Did my father know about this? No. Did his mother, my grandmother, ever talk about it? No. It wasn’t talked about. As my grandfather was the town minister, he could have challenged this racism from the pulpit. Did he? No. The reason for this is that my grandfather My was a racist, although like many he softened his prejudiced views later in life. Still, that doesn’t change the moral failure.

My grandmother was always a religious and spiritual person, moreso than my grandfather despite his being a minister. She grew in that old time religion, Southern Baptist church. When she moved to the West Coast, she became quite liberal and joined extremely liberal churches, such as Unity Church and Science of Mind. It was because of my grandmother that I was raised in the same kind of liberal churches. This led me to become the liberal I am today. Even so, my grandmother never spoke of our family’s ancestral sin of racial oppression, even though she had spent so much of her life right in the middle of it.

My father went off to college at Purdue. The city, Lafayette, had been a sundown town at one point. The systemic racism was lessening there by the time my parents attended, but the black population remained low. While they were at college, the Civil Rights Movement was growing and violence was happening. Professors and college students from Purdue even joined in some of the major events of that time. The world was changing all around my parents, but they apparently were oblivious to it all. When I’ve asked them, they had only slight memory of what was happening at the time, other than some brief news stories that they paid little attention to. It didn’t seem all that important to them, as white conservatives in a white conservative state with a hopeful future before them.

Systemic and institutional racism continued in some parts of the country long after the death of MLK. Blacks were still fighting for basic rights and demanding that laws against racism be enforced, well into my own lifetime (in fact, the struggle for justice continues to this day). For my parents, living in Ohio after college, that was a happy time of their life. As their children were born, protests and riots were going on around the country (including nearby), but it all seemed distant and insignificant, maybe a bit incomprehensible. After that, during the 1980s, our family moved to Deerfield, Illinois — a Chicago suburb with a history of keeping blacks out, something my parents were also unaware of. Then we headed to Iowa, which at the time was a demographic bubble of whiteness.

In my own childhood, I don’t recall my parents or other adults talking about race and racism. I also was oblivious to it all, until we moved to South Carolina when I was thirteen years old. It was a shock to my system. I didn’t grow up with that world and so I saw it with fresh eyes in a way someone wouldn’t have if they had grown up with it. Even then, amidst obvious racism and an overt racial social order, few people talked about it. I saw blacks at school, but no blacks lived in my neighborhood or went to my church. Black kids didn’t come home with me nor did I go home with them.

I was facing generations of denial in my own family. No one gave me any tools to deal with any of it. If not for genealogy research, I might never have realized how close to home all of this comes. Even now, I live in a liberal college town where at an earlier point in time a racist mob chased out of town the radical abolitionist John Brown, shortly before his execution. And a muted form of that old racism lingers still.

How do we deal with the legacy of centuries of oppression when it’s almost impossible to even publicly acknowledge what has happened within living memory? How do we come to terms with the fact that the legacy continues with systemic and institutional racism? How do we open up dialogue? How do we move forward? If more people simply dug into their own family histories, what might they find? And if they put that into context of the larger national history, what understandings might they come to?

My eternal refrain: Then what?

I’ve gained this knowledge and it was no easy task, as I had to find it for myself through decades of obsessive research and intense study. Generations of my own family have avoided this knowledge, built on centuries of ignorance and denial, supported by a vast social order designed to maintain the status quo. So, here we are. Many others like me are looking at these hidden truths now brought to light. What are we supposed to do with it all? How does a society come to terms with collective guilt?

William Faulkner spent most of his life a few counties away from my great grandmother’s home in Mississippi, the last place my grandmother lived before adulthood and the area she returned to after college to work a teaching job for a couple of years, around 1935. That is where my father would visit as a child and where he saw his first “colored” water fountain. Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun was set in that part of Mississippi, as were other of his novels. The events in the story were fictionally placed in the years immediately following my grandmother’s departure. The world that Faulkner described was the world that shaped my grandmother, a world she couldn’t leave behind because she carried it with her.

One of Faulkner’s best known lines comes from that novel. He wrote:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

My grandmother was an educated woman, a teacher in fact. I wonder. Did she ever read those words? And if so, what did she think of them? Did she ever look to the past, her own past and that of her family? Or was she trying to escape the past by getting as far away as possible, ending up in the Northwest? It’s ironic that she spent the last years of her life in Oregon, the only state in the Union that was once fully sundown, excluding blacks entirely.

From what I gather, my grandmother was a kindhearted woman, but that could be said of many people. Few white Americans are overtly mean-spirited. People simply try to live their lives, and yet their lives exist along a moral arc bending from the past into the future. How often do any of us consider our place in the larger scheme of things and wonder about what future generations will think of us?

Mid-Atlantic Ancestral Homeland

New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Pennsylvania. Those are the states my family and I visited recently, more or less in that order. It was a return to one of my ancestral homelands, the Mid-Atlantic region. The trip actually only involved part of my family, only one brother and one parent. My father was finally feeling nostalgic in his old age. So, he was our tour guide for much of the trip.

The last stretch involved some brief driving through Vermont and a stop at the Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Vermont was beautiful, exactly as I imagined it would be. And the Gettysburg battlefield was fascinating, similar to a tour years ago of Little Big Horn where Custer had his infamous last stand. As a side note, Custer had been on the winning side at Gettysburg and played a significant role in stopping the Confederate advance, but almost everyone remembers him solely for his later defeat and death. The guy deserves some credit. Enjoyable as it was to see some beautiful countryside and explore an important part of American history, it was the personal side of our East Coast travels that interested me the most. This was first and foremost a tour of family history.

Our first destination was New Jersey. We headed to Morristown. It was in Morris County that my father’s paternal grandparents were born. That is part of the New York Metropolitan area. Morristown itself has been a place since the colonial era that attracted the wealthy (it is still a place of money), but my family wasn’t wealthy and so they lived out in what was the surrounding countryside. Morristown was also a major center for the American Revolution, a meeting place for important figures and a headquarters for George Washington.

My paternal great grandmother is Matilda Reinthaler. Her father, Charles, escaped the Austrian Army, when he was an officer sent to Italy (I guess it was the Crimean War). His men were forced to wear heavy uniforms and, though it was hot, they weren’t allowed to unbutton to cool off. He refused to follow orders and, facing court marshall, was forced to flee, ending up in New York and then New Jersey. Matilda’s mother, Caroline Lindenmeyer, left Bavaria for unknown reasons, but probably related to the 19th century wars and revolutionary fervor.

We found their home and the one room school house she would have attended, still standing down the road. Even with new houses having been built, there was a sense of the rural clinging to the former country road. She had a more stable childhood than experienced by her husband, my paternal great grandfather, Charles Salvester Steele. His grandfather came from Pennsylvania and his mother’s family had been in New Jersey continuously since the colonial era (one line of my own mother’s family, the Hawks, also came from colonial New Jersey, but we didn’t visit that part of the southern part of the state). Charles’ mother died when he was young and, since his father couldn’t afford to raise all the children, he was sent to live with the Shakers somewhere near Rochester.

That particular Shaker village has since become part of a prison. The only way to visit the buildings my great grandfather spent time in would be get arrested for a serious crime. Later on in the trip, we visited a different Shaker village that is still standing in Hancock, Massachusetts. It was part of a complex of villages along the border of New York and Massachusetts. The Shakers were a fascinating group, highly innovative and technologically advanced, business leaders in agriculture and industry. Even the design and quality of their buildings is impressive, such as the round barn we saw which is the most practical barn I’ve seen in my life. They knew how to run an operation and they had no desire to cling to the past, like the Amish. Growing up there would have been simple, but deprivation in any form would not have been an issue. The Shakers for much of their history were successful and wealthy.

My great grandfather’s childhood was a not unusual fate for many poor kids of the time. The Shakers on a regular basis legally adopted children given to them, a practice that continued until the federal government made it illegal for groups to adopt children and thus officially doomed the abstinent Shaker communities. Once reaching adulthood, the children raised were given a choice to stay or leave. My paternal great grandfather was living at the Shaker village at a time when they were already in decline. He decided to leave and that Shaker village closed not too long later.

It seems he returned to Morristown, probably because it was the only other place he knew. He remained in contact with his family, but one gets the sense that the contact was limited. His wife was also from that area and so one might presume that is how they met, although there is no family info about this. My paternal great grandfather would have learned a trade or maybe multiple trades when with the Shakers, as they put heavy focus on practical knowledge and skills. As an adult, he probably did some farming; certainly, the Shakers were famous for their agriculture. While living in this area, he took a large wagon into nearby New York City to sell produce and it likely was produce that he had grown himself.

As part of our family pilgrimage, we headed into New York City. It’s hard to imagine what it must have looked like back then. When my paternal grandfather was younger, he would travel there sometimes, since an uncle had a grocery store in Brooklyn. My family and I only had a day in the city and so we didn’t see much, besides the standard tourist sights, although not even having enough time to visit the 9/11 memorial. The most exciting part was taking the Staten Island Ferry where could be seen the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, famous landmarks for incoming immigrants, although both from an immigrant era that came after my own immigrant ancestry.

Later on following marriage, Charles Salvester Steele worked doing professional gardening and lawn maintenance in Connecticut. He also entered into flower shows, which is where the wealthy Benjamin DeWitt Riegel met him and hired him as the estate superintendent and head groundskeeper. That is how my grandfather ended up growing up on a Long Island Sound estate where, later on, my father in his own childhood would spend his summers.

That estate is apparently known as Xanadu, but my father recalls that to his family and the Riegel family it was simply known as “The Place”. It was still in Riegel ownership until recent years. About a decade ago, my father and uncle were able to get hold of Mr. Riegel’s daughter, Katherine Riegel Emory (she remembered it as “The Place”, when my father mentioned it). She was a childhood playmate of my grandfather, until teenagehood when the fates of the classes diverged. My father and uncle knew her as Mrs. Riegel when they visited in the summers of their youth. In those last years of her life, they were given permission to walk the grounds of the estate one last time, not that they realized it would soon fall under new ownership.

Years of talking about the place was a major reason for this trip. My father has for a long time wanted my brothers and I to see the place of his fond childhood memories. There was no longer a way to get on the estate by invitation with new ownership, but there is a public road that is along one side of it and two public beaches adjacent to it. At low tide, we were able to walk the rocky beach directly between the estate and Long Island Sound, making possible a clear view across the vast lawns my great grandfather once maintained. My dad pointed to all that he remembered from his childhood, along with stories his own father had shared with him, such as the time as a child when my grandfather built a contraption attached to a cable secured to the top story of the barn and stretched taut to the beach upon which the two of them rode it down barely missing a wall in the process. By the way, an article stated that my great grandfather (referred to by his work title, not his name) used to gather the eggs from the chicken coops near the old barn, but according to my father it was in fact my great grandmother who did this — just wanted to set the record straight.

The Xanadu estate is in Fairfield, Connecticut. It is another old area, inhabited long before Europeans settled there in the early colonial era. Before the Riegels bought the property, it was a gentlemen’s horse farm and at some point an onion farm. There was a village nearby that had been almost entirely burned down by the British during the American Revolution, the British having landed right around where the estate is located. As with many places on the Eastern seaboard, there is much history there.

It was nice to finally see this place I’d heard so much about all my life. The Place! I also saw the school my grandfather went to. One time walking to school, the Riegel’s chauffeur drove by on the road splashing muddy water onto my grandfather who thought it was done on purpose. My grandfather grew up with Riegel children and lived a protected life during the Great Depression, but he had an inferiority complex living on the periphery of great wealth. He spent the rest of his days being extremely class conscious and always wanting to enjoy the good life. It was even passed onto his children, including my father who likes nice things (i.e., classy cars, large houses, manicured lawns, expensive resorts, and such), not that my family is wealthy enough afford many nice things.

It would be strange growing up as the son of the help on an estate or even visiting such a place as a child. My dad recalls as a child telling a close friend back in Alexandria, Indiana (“Small Town, USA”) that he spent the summer at an estate and his friend called him a liar. Life on an estate is not an experience most of us ever have.

One thing stood out to me. There are, as I said, two public beaches on either side of the estate. They are fairly nice beaches for the area and when we first arrived many local people lounged around on the sand and played in the water as people do. However, directly on the waterfront of the estate, there is almost nothing other than rocks. This is because the Riegel family had built a seawall that caused erosion of the sand and disallowed the beach to naturally rebuild itself. This is a great example of the opposite of the tragedy of the commons. In trying to protect their private property, they destroyed the beach along their property, while on either side are two popular public beaches with lots of sand forming popular beaches.

After my grandfather graduated college, Mr. Riegel offered him a job as night superintendent at one of his mills in order to get trained. His job was to manage the factory during the night shift. It was the Trion factory in Georgia and my grandfather was one of the fair-haired boys that Mr. Riegel sent down from New York. It was at Trion that my grandfather met his first wife and my grandmother, Billie Jean Nye, who was working as a school teacher employed by the company in the company town. You can see pictures of the mill town at this article, including a picture of the hotel where lived the unmarried employees like my grandparents, the place where they first met, and a picture of the school where I assume my grandmother would have taught.

He had felt socially obligated to accept that job. Mr. Riegel, after all, was not only his father’s boss but also the owner of the house his father lived in. It would have been an offense to decline an offer of such a good job, at a time not long after the Great Depression when the economy was getting back on its feet. Still, my grandfather hated the job, as it was his responsibility to pick the workers for the week out of a crowd of men desperate for a job, deciding who would get work and who wouldn’t. During the Great Depression, my grandfather had lived a protected existence on the estate. Before working at Trion, he probably had never seen much extreme poverty and unemployment. Also, that company town would have still been recovering from recent conflict. In 1934, a year or two before my grandfather arrived, the town had been the site of labor conflict and violence:

“1934 marked the 3rd closing of the plant for any length of time. Throughout the South unions were making a strong push to organize factories and mills. “Flying Squadrons” of union activists were sent into mill communities to gain support. The large group of employees working in Trion was high on their list. Led by a group of people from the Rome Foundry, along with some local people, a mob literally tried to take over the mill. Trion’s Chief of Police, Mr. Hix, was killed attempting to protect the mill. Others that had come on to work that day were beaten or roughed up. Eventually the National Guard was called in. The mill remained closed for approximately six weeks.”

It was the kind of clash of the classes that happened in places like that. In controlling employment, the company had total power over people’s lives. It was the largest employer in the area and still there were more people looking for work than there were jobs available. As an interesting side note, this was all going on in the last years of Mr. Riegel’s life. He had contracted some disease, maybe polio, and was kept alive with an iron lung. In 1941, back on the estate, a storm had hit and the power went out. The iron lung was run on electricity and apparently they had no backup generator. My great grandfather was sent for and he tried to hook up the iron lung to the engine of a Model A truck, but it was too late. Mr. Riegel had suffocated to death. Along with the ending of his life, it was the ending of an era.

Anyway, in those remaining years of Mr. Riegel’s life, my grandfather didn’t last long at Trion. He realized there weren’t many respectable ways he could quit without offending Mr. Riegel. He could join the military or he could become a minister. He chose the latter and took his wife with him to Indiana. But Mr. Riegel was still immensely disappointed, having given this son of the help such a rare opportunity to move up in the world.

I could imagine the sense of expectation and conflict. While at Trion, my grandfather managed the mill during the evening shift. Some new advanced machinery had been installed and, along with another guy, my grandfather had to learn how to operate it and keep it running non-stop. The problem is no one had been sent to show how it all worked and something went wrong, destroying the equipment. My grandfather was horrified about the incident, but after an investigation no one was blamed. Mr. Riegel had put immense trust and responsibility onto my grandfather’s shoulders, and he obviously looked to him with great promise. After all of that, it must have seemed ungrateful for my grandfather to quit.

Even so, the training my grandfather received didn’t entirely go to waste. There was a tomato canning factory in Geneva, Indiana where the family (including my father as a young child) lived for a time. It operated seasonally after the tomato harvest and my grandfather, while not doing his ministerial duties, worked there as a temporary factory manager.

My father without realizing it followed in his footsteps when he later became a factory manager, a family tradition that began with with the Riegels. Then my father also fell into the same pattern when he refused career advancement in order to look for other work, initially having considered the ministerial option as well until he decided to become a professor in order to preach at students instead. Like his own father, he found stressful the cutthroat world of business and the harsh reality of controlling the fate of workers, in personally determining who would be hired and fired. My family apparently doesn’t have the right kind of personality traits to be part of the wealthy business elite.

Later on, my great grandmother died on the estate in 1954, when my father was twelve years old. A few years later, the Riegel family asked my great grandfather to leave the property. He was around eighty years old and had spent half of his life working and residing on the estate. It was his home and, from the way my father talks about it, I get the sense that he was heartbroken. Mr. Riegel had promised that he would always be taken care of, but Mr. Riegel died in 1941 and had never wrote anything down. His word-of-mouth promise apparently meant nothing to the heirs of Mr. Riegel or maybe it never came up. Whatever the case, my great grandfather wasn’t given any retirement package or even a place to live. He  was just told to immediately leave the home he had known and loved for so long.

As a comparison, on the other side of the road was the estate of Harold Gray, the comic strip artist of Little Orphan Annie. My great grandparents were good friends with some of long term help at that other estate, only a few minutes walk away. When Gray’s long term help retired, he bought them an expensive house. My great grandfather was probably expecting something similar, as the Riegels were surely even wealthier. Instead, he was forced to move in with his son and died shortly later.

That part of my family has always felt distant to me. This trip was the first time, since I was a baby, that I’ve visited this part of the country. There are still some of the extended family living around there, but we’ve had a hard time contacting them. My father hasn’t seen his extended family on that side since he was a kid. Yet that part of the country is so key, both to my family history and to American history.

As I mentioned, one line of my mother’s family (originating with Sampson Hawk) came from colonial New Jersey. Like my father’s family, they were likely of Germanic ancestry. The difference was that they early on headed for the frontier, whereas the New Jersey lines of my father’s family didn’t venture far. The German-American Riegel family were also from New Jersey, along with Pennsylvania where Mr. Riegel was born. My own surname has an early Pennsylvanian background, although I don’t know the ancestral source of it.

Like the Midwest, the mid-Atlantic region was ethnic American (i.e., non-WASP) territory. Specifically, it was one of the areas where German-Americans were the majority. But none of this comes up much in official histories and collective memory, as cultural amnesia is almost complete. My father has a vague memory of his grandparents having some kind of accent, whatever it was. They weren’t that far from the immigrant experience and they lived in a place where the immigrant experience should have been close to the surface. Even so, my father doesn’t recall anyone ever discussing such things. The oppressive world war era had stigmatized and erased so much of the former ethno-cultural diversity. That makes me sad, as it is a loss of part of the ancestral history that shaped my family.

Visiting New Jersey, in particular, gave me a glimpse of the world that once existed there. I have more of a sense of the place. But family history came to life even moreso in our visit to Connecticut. My father doesn’t get too excited about genealogy, maybe having to do with particular disconnections over the generations. Talking about the estate, though, allowed me to see another side of him. The estate was something personally real and important to my father’s life, one of the fondest connections he has to his family history. And for me, the stories I’ve heard for years suddenly had physical locations that I can now see in my mind’s eye.

Family Connections and Disconnections

I’ve been working on genealogical research. I’ve spent most of my time on my mom’s family. That is largely because my mom was more interested in her own family.

Growing up, we spent more time visiting my mom’s family and my mom’s family spent more time visiting us. We also would visit more often the places of my mom’s past and that of her family. We went to the parks that she went to when she was younger. And on numerous occasions we traveled to the places where many of her ancestors settled in Indiana, including a place that became a state park and working village. I’ve seen the old homes where they lived and, in some cases, were born. I’ve walked on the land that they walked on and I’ve stood before their gravestones.

I have a tangible sense of my mother’s family and the world they came from. Many of the states they lived in are states I have lived in, visited, and traveled through. My mother’s family is a product of the Upper South and Lower Midwest, most specifically what some refer as Kentuckiana. I have a personal sense of that place. It feels like my ancestral homeland.

My dad’s family is different, though. I’ve become aware of this as I’ve tried to get motivated about doing genealogical research on his side. I realize I have so little personal connection to his family and so little sense of where his family came from.

My dad’s father and siblings rarely visited in the past. His father is dead now, but his siblings are still alive. My aunt lives on the West Coast and so it is far away. My uncle, however, has remained in the area. He recently visited my parents and that was the first time I’d seen him in more than a decade. The only family member on that side that used to visit regularly was my paternal grandmother, but she died when I was young and so I barely remember her.

My paternal grandmother came from the Deep South. And my paternal grandfather came from the East Coast. Besides a trip when I was an infant, I’ve never visited the parts of the country where my paternal grandparents were born and raised. Even the part of the Deep South I lived in (South Carolina) was a world away from the part of the Deep South my grandmother’s family was from (Texas, Oklahoma, and Mississipi), although many generations before her a line of her family lived a short distance from my home in South Carolina, a fact that my dad didn’t know until recently.

For some reason, my dad’s family isn’t close. Maybe it makes sense, considering the family history. He and his siblings were born and raised far from where their own parents were born and raised. Unlike my mom, my dad didn’t grow up with extended family living nearby.

Also, there were other sad breaks from one generation to another. His mother’s father disappeared when she was a girl and it traumatized her for life (records apparently show that he abandoned his family and started a new life, including a new family—a fact that would have broken my grandmother’s heart, had she known about it). Almost nothing is known about him or where he came from. As for his father’s father, he was given away as a child to a Shaker village and he never fully reconnected with his family. Then, when my dad was hitting young adulthood, his parents divorced with his father heading back to the East Coast and his mother leaving for the far away West Coast, taking his sister along with her. So, there were multiple generations of broken families.

This probably explains a lot. My dad and my uncle would go back to visit their father’s childhood home. It was on an estate on Long Island Sound, where their grandparents lived for most of their lives, their grandfather having been the head gardener. Yet it never occurred to my dad to bring his kids to see the place of his fondest childhood memories. We never even took trips to that part of the country, except for that one time in my infancy. I guess it didn’t seem important to my dad at the time. We are finally planning a visit later this year to visit. But we won’t be able to get onto the estate, because there are new owners.

I recently contacted a long lost relative on that side of my dad’s family, a cousin that is maybe two times removed. He never knew this person, although he does remember some of the same East Coast relatives and places that this person remembers. I got my dad to email this guy, but that was it. The guy gave his phone number months ago. My dad has yet to call this guy. He told me that he didn’t know what to talk about, if he did call. I found that bizarre. This guy is family and so you’d talk to him about family. It’s not complicated.

The real issue is that my dad lacks the motivation. This has been true even for the genealogical research. Trying to get my dad involved in looking into his own family history has been like pulling nails. It seems that part of him doesn’t want to know about his own family, not that he would ever admit this.

My dad’s lack of interest makes it hard for me to get interested as well. I’d like to have a better sense of my dad’s family, where they came from and what shaped them. But at present the personal connection is lacking. There is no living sense of kinship. It’s an emotional dead end, which is sad.

Westerly Migrations

My research on genealogy and family history has shifted gears, that being the proper metaphor to describe my recent family road trip.

The traveling party included my parents, my second oldest brother and myself; although my brother only came for the first half of the trip. It was a long trip, but I didn’t mind too much. I get along well enough with my parents and it was nice to spend some quality time with my brother who, these days, is usually busy with his own family.

It was a trip with family and largely about family. There was much discussion. I prodded my parents with many questions and took extensive notes. My motivation to learn about my extended family is that I didn’t grow up around them nor did I ever see most of them on a regular basis. They are strangers to me, strangers because of distance and time. Some of them, specifically three of my grandparents, were dead before I had become an adult.

I grew up feeling detached from family. As I wasn’t raised with extended family, I wasn’t raised with the belief being overtly instilled in me that there was much value to extended family, my own parents willingly having left their families behind other than for brief visits. There was never a sense of closeness. No big family reunions and holidays. No grandmother next door, no cousins in the neighborhood, not even distant relations in nearby towns.

My parents didn’t consciously choose this, but on some level I’m sure they understood the choice they were making for their children. They had conflict-ridden or even distant relationships with their own family, especially their parents, and so they did the opposite of prioritizing extended family. Career always came first, a choice that was easily rationalized out of a sense of parental responsibility and duty to self-development. This just makes my parents normal according to the standards of modern American society.

My parents have always wanted normalcy or a close approximation to it. They grew up with the nuclear family fantasy of those early black and white tv sitcoms. That is what they internalized and then modeled in their own adult lives. They just wanted to be good people, responsible adults, dutiful parents. It was a role that society told them to play and they played it well. I make these observations with deep empathy for I understand the pull of wanting to fit in and be accepted, to be perceived as a worthy human being and a valued member of society. It just so happens to be a role I’m not very good at playing. If not for depression, I very well might have followed right along with a career, house, wife and 2.5 kids.

The destination for the road trip was California. It was a journey that followed in the footsteps of family members before me, some of the family I never knew or barely knew. California is a state that for some reason was where several lines of my family ended up in or passed through, not unlike many other Americans. California, the land of new beginnings, the birthplace of the suburban dream.

While in California, my mom visited a cousin she hadn’t seen since childhood and I visited a cousin I hadn’t seen since childhood, two reunions from each side of the family. Along the way, we stopped in a town where my dad recalled visiting a great uncle (where a great aunt also lived nearby) and we stopped in another town where he once visited his mother after his parents divorced.

All of them had their reasons for leaving their families behind. My mom’s cousins ended up there either because their father was escaping debts or because it was suggested that a change in climate would be beneficial for some illness in the family. My dad’s mom simply went for the supposed perfect climate of the bay area, illness not being the motivating factor. My cousin has been there because he has a good job in Silicon Valley. My dad’s great uncle and great aunt moved there for reasons unknown.

California is a place that hasn’t held any personal significance, but this trip has changed that. Starting in the most southern area and heading up just past the Bay area, I was able to get a glimpse of what life is like there — the geography and history, the culture and ethnicities, the settlement patterns and imperial remnants. No doubt it is very much symbolic of America and the American Dream. A society on the move. A people of progress. Keep going West until you can’t go any further. Then what?

Appalachia Meets Midlands: My Kentucky & Indiana Family History

I spent this past week with my parents in Southern Indiana doing genealogy research on my mom’s side of the family. We were staying at Spring Mill State Park and doing some research in nearby Mitchell at the courthouse and the historical museum. Most of my time was spent in Lawrence County, although some of the cemeteries we visited were in Orange County as well.

This was the second genealogical trip I took with my parents. The last visit to Southern Indiana was just a year ago. I knew very little about my family at that time and now I know a lot. I find it fascinating, but I realize talking about family history is not dissimilar to telling someone about your dreams. Most people aren’t interested.

Anyway, let me explain why it fascinates me. I’ve been reading a lot of history in recent years. Most of it has been focused on the colonial and revolutionary eras of North America, but I’ve been studying all the history that led up to that and the larger context of events. On a smaller scale, I’m curious about my mom side of the family that is a mix of early immigrants who were mostly poor ethnic types (Germans, Scottish, Scots-Irish, etc). They weren’t English. They weren’t landed aristocracy. They were the desperate poor (mostly farmers, distillers, and laborers) who sought freedom and opportunity on the frontier as the frontier moved into Kentucky and then into Indiana.

Of course, someone of Native American ancestry or even of French ancestry would describe this very differently. My forefathers and foremothers took possession of land that was formerly occupied. And Indiana where my parents come from was the location of the last great battle where Native Americans tried to hold their ground. It’s a sad history all around, sad and fascinating.

My exploration of family history has been an exploration of my feelings about what it means to be an American. I’ve always identified as a Midwesterner which to me feels like ‘normal’, simply what America means. It’s the freaking Heartland. However, when I moved to South Carolina in 8th grade, I was sometimes jokingly referred to as a Yankee. I had no concept of what a Yankee was at that time. Even now living back in the Midwest for many years, I don’t think of myself as a Yankee. I’m a Midwesterner from the lower Midwest. This is the Midlands, the extension of the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania. This isn’t Yankiedom of Puritan origins.

Many of the lower Midwestern states are split between Midlands and Appalachia, the two regions immigrants traveled to at great risk in order to escape the competing powers of Yankiedom and the Deep South. My mom’s maiden name is Clouse which is Germanic and most German immigrants found Midlands to be the most hospitable, but the Clouses on my mom’s side instead first came to Kentucky and then moved to Southern Indiana (Sarah Sally Walters who married William Jr. Fain, the grandfather of William Edward Clouse who was the second generation born in Kentucky, and Sarah Sally Walters was born in Kentucky in 1801; in that family line, the Clouses, Walters, Fains, Hawks, Stogsdills, Randalls, Waddles, Ashy’s, Welchs, and Hansfords were all in Kentucky in the early 1800s and some going back to the 1700; also, some of them were already in Southern Indiana before the War of 1812). My mom’s family has largely adopted the Scots-Irish culture and mentality of Appalachia. Both of my parents, however, grew up in Northern Indiana where Midlands culture is strong. I only knew of the Scots-Irish aspects of my mom’s family from visiting them since I was a child.

My time spent in South Carolina and North Carolina has given me some understanding of Scots-Irish culture. In SC, my high school best friend was a typical Scots-Irish redneck. In NC, a summer girlfriend was from a typical Scots-Irish fundamentalist hillbilly family, actually living in a trailer on a lonely country road nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My SC friend had Goff as his last name. I noticed that in early Kentucky records that there were many Goffs there. For what it is worth, the Scots-Irish are part of my family history and also part of my personal experience. I could judge that culture for all of its problems, but I do have a fondness for it that became most clear to me while living in NC. Besides, Appalachia is beautiful country, ticks aside.

In some ways, that culture is the complete opposite of Midlands culture and hence opposite of my Midwestern identity. On the other hand, there has been much mixing between the two cultures and they have shared the distinction of being the main battlegrounds of the American soul. I was thinking about this recently in terms of a radio show such as Coast to Coast AM which used to be hosted by Art Bell. You can hear all kinds of views on that show. Both my uncle Bob (my mom’s brother) and I have listened to it since the 1990s, yet we otherwise have little in common. He is a fundamentalist of Appalachian culture and I’m an agnostic of Midlands culture, but an interest in conspiracy theories and aliens creates a common ground. Coast to Coast AM is a show about alternative culture. The Midlands and Appalachia have always been regions of alternative culture. It is in these places that alternative religious and political communities often settled. That is what I loved about NC, the hidden pockets of odd alternative culture.

Visiting Southern Indiana brings all of this into focus. It is where my family shifted from Appalachia into the Midlands, always following where land and work could be found, generation after generation restlessly moving on in a drift Westward. All of my mom’s lines of family converged in Lawrence County (and the counties right around it, specifically Orange County and Dubois County). The Clouses and Hawks came separately and soon married, two of those marriages ending up in the Mitchell area right around or in Spring Mill back when it was still an operational mill, an infant of one of those marriages buried in the Hamer cemetery there (the Hamers being one of the rich families that moved into the area). At that time, Southern Indiana was attractive to alternative communities and many intellectuals, New Harmony being the most famous example (radical intellectuals from New Harmony would visit the pub at Spring Mill where some of my family lived and worked). It was this radical tradition of Southern Indiana that helped form the mind of Abraham Lincoln, specifically Lincoln’s being influenced by the alternative religion and politics (socialism, feminism, abolitionism, spiritualism, etc) being promoted by people such as the Owens family of New Harmony.

This was the frontier, but not the frontier as you learned about in school. People came to frontier communities for all kinds of reasons. My family would have lived amidst great cultural, ethnic, religious and political diversity.

My mom’s paternal grandfather, Willie Clouse, was born at Spring Mill. The family was still poor and at that time they were squatters. The water mill slowly died because of engine-driven mills made them obsolete. Willie married Inez Rosemary Edwards.

On that other side of the family, two lines of Edwards married and there was also another line of Edwards a few generations back from that point. Inez’s maternal great grandmother was a Toliver who lived more than a century after having come to Mitchel as a young child as part of one of the first families to settle there. She was interviewed a few years before her death and she still remembered her childhood.

It was interesting to read about that era. The Edwards and Tolivers (along with the Way and Evans families), unlike the Clouses and Hawks, went straight from North Carolina to Indiana (some of the family on both sides — Henry Sr Waddle, Elizabeth Morris, William Fain jr, Elizabeth Whicker, Catherine Cox, and Benjamin Hansford — came from Virginia instead, although some of these families were moving back and forth between North Carolina and Virginia, and a few lines came from elsewhere — Sampson Hawk from New Jersey and one line, the Cox family as I recall, can be followed back to South Carolina; my mom’s maternal side of the family is similar, but there are several lines that in the early-to-mid 1800s went straight from the ship docks to Kentucky and Indiana).

All of this research has made history more tangible to me. Spring Mill, the home of my family that is of my mom’s maiden name, is now a preserved historical site. It’s strange to visit my great grandfather’s birth place as a visitor to a park; my mom also visited it as a child and had her grandfather point out the building he claimed to be born in. History gets turned into a theme park. The mill has been fixed back up and they grind corn as a demonstration. They even have an old lady working on a loom and a blacksmith doing his thing. To be truly accurate they’d need people to represent my family as distillers and squatters.

After a few generations of industrial growth, Southern Indiana has returned to its origin in poverty. The difference is that early pioneers had land and many opportunities to better themselves, but the poor people there now are simply getting by or trying to. Southern Indiana once was a place that attracted intellectuals and industry. People like the Owens family sought to create a better world. Later on, many famous socialists and labor organizers came out of Indiana. The tide, however, has turned. No one seems to remember Indiana for the hopes and dreams people living there had for generations. You can’t understand the conservatism and fundamentalism of places like Southern Indiana without understanding this history.

Indiana makes for a useful case history. It is a place where the effects of the past are still visible. It is a place that has been in between, split between Midlands and Appalachia. It is one of the main states where the Midwest first took form as a separate culture from the East Coast states.

Like the ancestors of both my mother’s and father’s families, my parents moved on from Indiana, although their movement no longer coincided with a Westward movement. As a kid, I was forced to move around; but as an adult, I’ve chosen to stay put here in the same Midwestern town I grew to love as a child. Most of my mom’s family, unlike her, chose also to stay in the area in which they grew up in. In this age of globalization, a sense of place is taking on new meaning in context of community and family. For the average person, there no longer is a better life to be sought elsewhere. There is no new frontier land to be settled.