Back last winter, encouraged by the wonderful program "Faces of America," in which Henry Louis Gates, Jr., does the family history of noted individuals, I started climbing the family tree.
For those of you who have done this, you may resonate with the next statement: Once you go down the rabbit hole it is hard to get out!
I found myself staying up till wee hours following this link and that, pouring through census data, discovering old family records and discovering family stories that had always been a bit murky.
One of those stories involves the family of my grandfather. He was world's greatest teetotaler. One time, as a child, we went to a restaurant that had a bar with Grandpa. I was intrigued by the murals of dogs in a Parisian cafe. He, on the other hand harumphed that "This is nothing but a saloon!"
My mother and her sisters always wondered what prompted that thought. He never mentioned his family of birth except for his sister, "Aunt Ida." As far as we knew, she was the only one and we had no idea where in the world she was, or even if she was still alive. He alluded to her raising him but that didn't answer questions.
The sisters wondered if someone in the family was an alcoholic. Or, had the mother abandoned the family? What about the father? What brought about this secrecy. It was a topic of conversation among my mother and her sisters and one that passed down to their children.
As I dug into the history project, armed with a few dates -- birth and death, mostly -- I went with a quest not only to discover this but more about my grandmother on that side, along with some more information about Dad's side of the family. That's for another post (including the discovery of a cousin I never knew I had!)
There are many geneology programs online and the one I chose was My Heritage because for the most part it was free until your family tree grew beyond more than 250 people. There are others that are free, some with different features. I've explored several and all see about the same -- they offer "hints" or "smart matches" that you can confirm or not that take you on your journey.
Early on, I was able to discover my grandfather's parents' names and was surprised to discover that his mother came from Canada. I also learned, much to my surprise, that he came from a long line of Mennonites on both sides of his family. I was able to trace back relatives on both sides -- his mom and dad -- to 1500s Switzerland.
Because of religious persecution, they moved to Germany, then to America. From America, his mother's side moved north to Canada. It is uncertain why but a possibility is that the Mennonites did not believe in war and many moved north to avoid the conflicts in this new world.
So, did the anti-alcohol stand have to do with religion? It's a possibility. Although today's Mennonites have a variety of beliefs on the subject, did they in the 1800s when Grandpa was growing up? I thought I had it!
And maybe I did. But then I discovered something else. Grandpa's mother died when he was four. (Hence, the Aunt Ida raising him idea got some credibility). In the 1880 census, they were listed but in the 1890 census, no record was found. However, in the 1900 census, my great grandfather was listed as an inmate in the Northern Michigan Asylum, a mental hospital in Northern Michigan. He was there for 13 years before his death.
There is no record as to what brought him there. Melancholia following his wife's death? Alcoholism? Dementia? Epilepsy? Another illness that might now have a name but then was considered a mental illness?
I don't know how I'll find out. My winter may involve getting a court order for the records but they may well have been destroyed in the more than 100 years since his death.
But it is a quest and as I search, I will climb one branch higher on the family tree!
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