Wednesday, March 2, 2011

History Repeats the Old Conceits

In the course of writing last week’s post, I did a quick bit of research to determine exactly how long my ancestors had been in Minnesota. With only the name of my great-grandfather*, I stumbled into a cache of family history I had no idea existed. I was able trace my father’s family in a straight line to 19th century Norway and 16th century England. I discovered that my earliest American ancestor arrived as a 16-year-old indentured servant in some new-fangled town called Boston. There’s a very strong chance that he planted a tree on his first colonial property that became one of the dominant symbols of the American Revolution.

As someone who has always felt completely Midwestern, I was amazed to discover that my family had spent two hundred years in the Boston area, and stunned to realize that the ancestor who took my branch of the family tree out of New England was, it strongly appears, an early Mormon pioneer. His son and grandson (my grreat and grrreat-grandfathers) made their way to Witoka, Minnesota in the 1850s, about the same time my grreat-grandmother’s family traveled from Telemarken, Norway, built a home in a four-family town in Pope County, MN, and then skedaddled for a few years until the “Indian trouble” (aka the Sioux Uprising) settled down. Bert, a descendent of the first colonists, and Anna, a Norwegian immigrant, got married on July 4, 1876, our country’s 100th birthday. Isn’t that the most American thing you’ve ever heard?

Let me be clear, I didn’t actually compile all this research. It was just sitting out there on the Internet, waiting for my Googling eyes. Trying to find other branches of my family brought up absolutely nada, so I suspect the only reason I was able to get these details is because grrrrrrrrreat-grandpa Jared was of some interest to historians. The trail ends at my great-grandfather, and doesn’t include any information about his wife, who died shortly before my birth and nearly became my namesake. But still, I feel lucky to have this one thread tied between me and six-hundred years of genetics. Much luckier than, say, anyone who’s spent the last week listening to me recount tales of my family’s historic adventures.

In all this information, however, are lots of little mysteries. One of the most intriguing to me is whether or not my grreat-grandfather, the aforementioned Bert, was with his Union regiment as they battled in Oxford and Tupelo, MS. He was assigned to the Army of the Tennessee (not to be confused with the confederate Army of Tennessee) during the correct time, but records show that he also spent an unspecified three months recovering from typhoid at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. Memphis was a Union-occupied city at the time, and a major port, so I’d imagine that a regiment coming through the area would have stopped here before moving deeper into Mississippi. Right? Maybe?

It’s an idea built on many tenuous suppositions, but I can’t help but be drawn to the possibility that one of my own was walking these same downtown streets or the halls of the Hunt-Phelan home. It was obviously an atypical time in the city’s history, but I wonder how it would have touched him, a young blacksmith who, like me, spent his entire upbringing around the Great Lakes. I’ve always felt like something of an explorer here, the first one to send back reports to my people in the north. In knowing that at least one ancestor may have preceded me, I feel a new connection to my past, as well as to the place I now call home.

* Hereafter, number of greats will be indicated by Rs, e.g. great-great-grandfather = grreat-grandfather

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