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Moments of Discovery

By Michael Kernan | HUMANITIES, November/December 1999 | Volume 20, Number 6

I knew that some ancestor of mine had come over from Ireland nearly two centuries ago and settled in the wilds of northern New York State. It didn't mean a lot to me. But a few years back, a cousin showed me a letter written by the daughter of this forebear, my great-great-grandfather William Kernan, that told of his arrival in New York in August, 1800.

He was twenty-one. According to his daughter, he stood five feet ten inches and had light hair and blue eyes, "a long nose and a very firm mouth...thin and muscular, very strongly built, and weighed about 160 pounds." After a voyage of eighteen weeks, this young native of County Cavan must have been restless, for the ship was quarantined off Staten Island due to a yellow fever epidemic.

William had seen an ad, "Boy Wanted," in the Spectator, so he talked the captain into letting him off the ship early. He came ashore carrying all he owned in a large kerchief and got his job, working for a William Weyman in Maiden Lane. A year later he headed upstate, where he bought land, married and started a family that included a U. S. Senator. His descendants now take up fifteen pages, single-spaced.

But I can never forget how I first really saw him when I read that letter, this tall kid being rowed across New York harbor with a bundle of clothes on his lap and the whole future dancing in his blue eyes. It was a moment of discovery for me.

And I think almost everyone must have some such moment: the realization that you are attached to the past, that you are part of history, that this is perhaps what America is all about. I talked to some people about this, more or less at random. For many of them, the great American westward movement was a family thing.

Diane Gibson is a respected trial lawyer in San Francisco. She is that rarity, a native Californian.

"When I was thirteen," she says, "I was at my great-aunt Evelyn's house and all the older people were looking through a bunch of letters and stuff. I got interested, and that was when I heard the story. My grandfather's grandmother's father came West from Illinois in a wagon train sometime in the 1840s, well before the Gold Rush. They were headed for Texas, but he got sick in the desert. It was cholera. So they left him by the trail to die. That was what they did then. Well, he was only sixteen, and he was strong, and eventually some friendly Indians found him and nursed him back to health. He rejoined the party in Texas."

He became a lawyer, a people's lawyer who took payment in chicken and beets and never got rich. It was his grandson who moved on to California.

"I always wondered what he said to his group when he got to Texas," Diane muses. "I wonder who those friendly Indians were..."

For Mike Maidenburg, publisher of the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota, it was a bunch of letters from Russia. His grandfather had emigrated in 1906, leaving behind parents, four sisters and a brother. In 1956, a letter from that brother arrived, beginning a correspondence that Mike's father Milton nurtured for thirty years. In 1990, Mike took over the job of keeping alive the link with the Old Country. Mostly he corresponded with an uncle who knew English and had had the imagination to write in code during the Cold War, using "cousin Shimon" for Israel, and "crafty enemies" for the USSR.

"Finally I went to Ukraine and Moldova in 1996," he says. "I found the shtetl, a place called Dzigovka. I met my uncle and saw where the old town center had been, the Jewish cemetery, the street where my great-grandfather's tobacco shop had stood. Everything was changed, of course, but I knew I was walking the same cobblestones that my ancestors had. I went to the Jewish cemetary. It was overgrown with brush and the headstones were toppled and fading. I found my great-grandfather's tombstone. I stood there stunned. It was as if a circle had closed."

John Hunter is a teacher of gifted children in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was brought up in the Virginia countryside, but his grandmother, who lived in Harlem, would visit the family in the summer, arriving at the Richmond train station.

"She came with a fashionable hat and veil, and elegant gloves, like an empress, and in that big old neoclassical station, all marble floors and grand columns, she seemed to be from some cosmic realm. She'd sweep in, bringing a world with her."

Flash forward to a dark day when John and his first wife, a white woman, were hauled into court merely for parking in the wrong place. A crowd of good-old-boy truckers attended, to see "justice" done. But when the arresting officer started to read his report, his hands shook and he stammered.

"I felt my grandmother there," John says. "I felt all the generations of my people there, they filled the room. The power of all those people was in the air. People were trembling. The judge felt it too. He dismissed the case and we left the courthouse feeling as if we had narrowly escaped."

Recalls Diana Lawrence, a manager at a software company in Denver: "I was raised in Michigan, but I always knew that I was part of something different from the people I knew. I knew I had roots in New England. Then one day I met a fifth cousin, though we didn't realize it at the time, and when we compared notes we found we were from the same family. Then I knew who the Lawrences were."

They were both descendants of the industrial pioneers who founded the town of Lawrence, Massachusetts. For Diana it wasn't that fact so much as the fact that she just felt more at home when visiting in the Northeast. Until she met her cousin she hadn't understood that she was part of this family network going back for generations.

It was a grand reunion of the Swain family in 1997 in Youngstown, New York, that turned Velma Skidmore on to her past. A former schoolteacher, Velma lives in Manhattan, Kansas. She knew she was a Swain, had heard her parents talking genealogy, but it was the Youngstown gathering that made it all come alive for her.

"There was a Rebecca Swain who married Frederick Williams, the son of a founder of Cleveland - he established a hundred-acre township called Newburgh in the Western Reserve of Ohio, which in those days was the frontier, the Wild West-and Frederick was a Mormon, a counselor to Joseph Smith himself. Frederick died, but Rebecca went on to Utah with a Mormon wagon train in 1849. What was strange was that her brother William Swain was on the trail that same year, headed for the California gold fields. They never knew they were both on the same trail. They never saw each other again."

Swain found little gold on the Feather River and eventually returned to his wife Sabrina and the old cobblestone house that still stands in Youngstown. His diary, part of a book edited by James S. Holliday, The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, bespeaks the human suffering and endurance that are the real story of the Forty-Niners. Sabrina wrote her husband: "Oh William, if I could see you this morning I would hug you and kiss you till you would blush."

Not every westward movement in America was a happy one. In the 1830s the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees and Seminoles were forced off their lands in the Southeast and sent on the Trail of Tears to live in Oklahoma.

John W. Franklin, who works for the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., has published his grandfather's autobiography with the help of his father, John Hope Franklin. His great-grandfather had come West when the Choctaws and Chickasaws were resettled. The slave of an Indian family named Burney, either escaped or bought his freedom, whereupon he changed his name to Franklin and bought a ranch in southern Oklahoma Indian territory.

"My grandfather grew up on that ranch," says John. "He went to Dawes Academy and then Roger Williams University in Nashville, read law in correspondence school and passed the bar in 1907. Both my grandparents were college educated, and my grandmother was a bishop's daughter. It's a rich legacy."

John Franklin's pride in his forebears comes out as he talks of their tribulations, their rise from slavery. He has known the stories from earliest childhood, but in editing his grandfather's autobiography he gained a new appreciation for the generations that produced him.

"I always knew I was Jewish," says Gerry Aronin, a retired social worker from Baltimore. "My father came over from Russia and followed the orthodox ways. But I didn't understand what a Jewish heritage meant until I started working for the Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center here. Just in the last few years, everything became more real to me. I realized I was part of a much larger community."

Her father was sixteen when he emigrated. He fought with the U.S. Army in World War I, and he would tell his children about Jewish communities in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, about how people lived, about the pogroms.

Last year she went back to the area that is now part of Poland. The shtetls were gone, but in Krakow she met a survivor of the Warsaw uprising, one of the relative handful of Jews left in that country. "We went into a kosher-type restaurant and found food just like what my mother used to make! Talk about connections. It's a big tourist thing now in Poland."

Arturo Madrid's family were part of the original Spanish colonists in America arriving in 1598, well before the Mayflower. His is the third generation with a college education, and in fact he is a professor of humanities at Trinity University in Texas, a distinguished educator with a Ph.D. in modern languages. One of his concerns is the "continuing question of who constitutes and what is required to be a part of the evolving imagined community of the United States."

"In my first year in college I was a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry," he says. "I wondered how the family became Protestant, something that must have happened after they settled in America. It seems that when the U.S. took over what is now New Mexico in 1846, my paternal great-grandfather lived in an isolated community not far from Las Vegas, New Mexico, the first stop on the Santa Fe Trail." According to Arturo, he was a literate man, became a protestant and sent his children to school, where they learned English.

Although he deliberately moved closer to the new Anglo society, he never truly became a part of it. "To the Hispano community on whom he had turned his back, he was a heretic and as far as Anglo Americans were concerned he was an interloper," says Madrid. "This story is not a unique story, but it is often left untold or, if told, distorted."

The man's name was Albino Madrid, and for Arturo he will never be merely a name on a list, but a living person, whose circumstances and choices more than a century ago have shaped the present for his descendents.

Kyung Shin lives in Los Angeles. He is an animator at Warner Brothers studios. Eight years ago he came to this country with his wife and children, leaving his father and brothers behind in South Korea.

"My father is a film animator too, and he visited us four years ago," he recalls. "But there was something I realized when I was in high school, something that made me think about our roots and how hard it can be to get back to them. My father grew up in North Korea, you see. He could never go back to his old home. And this made me appreciate my own history."

Talk about roots to Rohulamin Quander, an administrative judge for the District of Columbia and president of the Quander Historical Society and former president of the Banneker Society: he has traced his ancestry to one Egyar Edoum Amkwandoh, who was kidnapped by slave traders in the 1600s in Cape Coast Ghana, survived the terrible Middle Passage voyage to Barbados and was apparently sold as a slave in Maryland. One of his descendants, Charles Quander was married to Nancy Carter Quander, who was owned and freed by George Washington. Another ancestor Harry Quando (the original Anglicized spelling), hired Francis Scott Key as his attorney in his suit to gain his freedom.

"It's a distinguished African American family," the judge says. "I'm working on a history of it. We've traced our ancestors to Charles County, Maryland, in the 1680s, and President Reagan saluted the family on our three hundredth anniversary celebration in 1984."

Though he had always heard family stories, he first became really involved at a reunion in 1968, when he was a student at Howard University. He learned that another branch of Quanders were freed in the 1680s and but bought land in 1695 from the Wheeler family of Maryland, who had it from Lord Baltimore.

"It's been an inspiration," he says. "I find an expanding thirst for information about my people."

Everyone has a story, even if they don't know it. Some, like historian Will Rivinus of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, have been surrounded by ancestors as long as they can remember-coats of arms on the walls, old portraits, ancient documents showing family trees that go back to St. Martin of Tours in the fourth century-and others, like Barry Morgenstern of Arlington, Virginia, never knew all of their genetic grandparents, because his surviving grandparents remarried before he was born. "My sister adopted a son, so he's not a blood relative either," says Barry, a computer consultant, "but after all, what's a family anyway? It's the people you say it is."

He's right. For better or for worse, they are our personal histories, and to know something about them gives us just that much more of an understanding of who we are.