Weird stories and shady characters: Giving your own personal history a shot
Note: I’m taking some time working on a more “scholarly” article, so here’s something a little fluffier just for fun in the mean time.
It always troubles me when someone bemoans history as a boring school subject in which they were forced to memorize useless dates and names. I have a BA in history, and I’m certain I could not recite even basic so-called “important” historical dates. For me, the value of history is in its lessons and stories.
Putting aside the problem with unqualified or disinterested coaches dominating social science classes (granted, there are some phenomenal coach-teachers), too many teachers teach history wrong. Dates are important and useful, but they’ll never be as interesting as knowing the honest and unfiltered stories of our nation and world. (I highly recommend James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me for an introduction to the world of textbook-less history.)
Even with a disdain for the classroom version of history, anyone can find an interesting story in the branches of their own family tree.
Growing up, I discovered genealogy and, with it, a love for history and its stories. Young John would scour internet genealogy sites for hours, my eyes burning as I tried not to blink while scrolling through census records and their photocopied and often illegible cursive handwriting. Eventually, I hit a roadblock with ol’ Willoughby Parker . Try as I might, I cannot reach back on my paternal side of the family further than him and his probably-dad William.
I do know that Willoughby and at least one of his brothers served in Major Loveless Gasque’s Battalion in the 27th Regiment of the South Carolina Militia during the War of 1812. And his son, William Kennedy Parker, was an infantryman in Company E, Hagood’s 1st Regiment, South Carolina Infantry. That’s one for two if we’re counting wartime family victors.
“That’s one for two if we’re counting wartime family victors.”
On my mom’s side of the family, I can trace back the family lineage for a millennia to Ireland and England, if Ancestry.com is to be trusted. In fact, a great-x9 grandfather on that side was Robert Moulton, Sr., who is on the record trying (unsuccessfully) to defend Rebecca Nurse during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. They hung her later that year.
Some of my recent research revealed that on my mom’s mom’s side (you read that right) the trail grows cold quick. She grew up in WWII-era Germany, and German genealogy records suck. It’s like Germany is trying to forget its past or something.
Family legend says that my grandmother’s father (Wilhelm Bernard Wergener) changed the family’s last name because it sounded too Jewish. That made things harder on my end of the timeline. An old family bible shows that Wilhelm’s wife, Anna, was born in Braunsberg or Mehlsack in the 1890s. Those are pretty German-sounding places to me. With Wilhelm in Dortmund, and my grandmother also being born in Dortmund, grammy Anna had to have lived the town over, right?
“It’s like Germany is trying to forget its past or something.”
Turns out Braunsberg and Mehlsack aren’t even the places’ names anymore; it’s what they used to be called while they were part of the German Empire in East Prussia. Industrialization happened, and tons of Poles and ethnic Germans migrated from East and West Prussia, Silesia, and Posen to several places further west, including the Ruhr area, in what was called the Ostflucht. These days, Braunsberg is called Braniewo, and Mehlsack is called Pieniężno. Both are now part of northern Poland.
The narrative writes itself. Anna moved with her family from East Prussia to Dortmund, presumably to find work in a booming industrial job market. Anna and Wilhelm meet, fall in love, get married, ensure that the genetic groundwork is laid so one day I can be born. Something like that.
There’s also a story about how Wilhelm fought for the Germans during WWI but was captured and imprisoned in a POW camp in France where he learned to speak French. The man died long before I was born, and, unfortunately, my grandmother passed away several years before I had the wherewithal to ask about and record any of her awesome (potentially racist and/or anti-Semitic) stories.
My point is this: give history — your own personal history — a shot. You never know what weird story hides in your family tree or what shady characters share your DNA, and it’ll probably make a fun story.