The Christmas holiday is supposed to be a joyous time of year. Families gather to give gifts, share stories, delight in children, and be merry through the darkest days of the year. Unfortunately, the past several years haven’t been so merry for our family.
Many a Blue Christmas
On Christmas Eve 2010, we were at my in-laws’ house when my parents called to tell me my grandfather had collapsed and might not make it. We changed plans, drove six-and-a-half hours to Grand Island, Nebraska, and were at my grandfather’s bedside when he died at 11:30 Christmas Eve. Not exactly the gift Santa was supposed to bring.
Last year my aunt died suddenly the day after Christmas. She was just 61. Once again, our holiday plans changed. New Years weekend was spent not with friends and champagne but rather attending her funeral in Sioux Falls and helping my cousins clean out her house. The deaths of my grandfather and aunt mean Christmas will always be tinged with sadness, especially for my dad.
We made big plans with both sides of our family this year. Our daughter is two, so this is the first year she’s old enough to get super excited about Christmas. Everyone was looking forward to it. We were going to spend the days before Christmas with my wife’s family in Mankato. On Saturday the 23rd, we would all drive to tiny Lucan, Minnesota, (pop. 180) to celebrate Christmas with my mother-in-law’s family. My wife would get to see her ten aunts and uncles, many of he first cousins, and Grandma Martha, matriarch of the family. Martha just turned 84 on December 20th, so it would be a double celebration. Then we would spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my immediate family. Finally, the 26th would be a day just for us. My wife and I were excited to have a day off without our two year old. We intended to see the new Star Wars movie.
Unfortunately, the holiday curse struck again this year, and with a vengeance. First, on December 21, my grandmother’s brother Pat passed away. My grandmother is 92 and has a failing memory. The death of her only sibling has been quite hard on her. In a terrible cycle, she forgets it happened and then learns about it all over again. It’s really disheartening.
Then the next morning my mother-in-law called to tell us that my wife’s grandma Martha had died suddenly overnight. We were planning to spend time with her in Lucan the very next day. The family still go together in Lucan on the 23rd, but it was a somber Christmas gathering as Martha’s 11 children arranged her funeral instead of working on plans for the family reunion that had been scheduled for next summer in honor of her 85th birthday. Christmas itself was still fun (that’s the purpose of two-year-olds), but the joy was tampered by shock and emotional exhaustion. On the 26th, instead of seeing Star Wars, we drove back to Lucan for Martha’s visitation. The funeral and burial took place on the 27th, a frigid day as we awoke to a temperature of 14 degrees below zero. And of course, our two year old came down with a fever. (Par for the course at this point.) At least our car started.
Look for the Silver Lining
I have tried to find silver linings in this seemingly endless series of unfortunate events. For one thing, Christmas is a time for family. Deaths too bring families together. It is as if the deceased knew their families would be better able to grieve together and to support one another because they were already planning to be together for the holidays. Indeed, by making us think about losing a family member, all of these Christmas deaths set our holiday priorities in high relief. It’s easy, especially with children, to get caught up in the excitement of giving and receiving gifts. But Christmas is about family first and gifts a distant second (or, for some people, God first, family second, gifts a distant third). Yes, we get nice things for Christmas, but they mean little without the important people in our lives.
That was Martha’s philosophy. Martha’s greatest gifts—and she would have agreed—were her children and grandchildren. She has 54 living descendants and another one on the way (the baby my wife and I are expecting in April). When you add in her five siblings, a dozen nieces and nephews, and all of the spouses and in-laws who spent time with her, you see how many lives she touched. It’s a pretty remarkable family for such an unassuming woman from Lucan, Minnesota.
The final silver lining I draw from deaths around Christmas is this: The holiday is supposed to be one of hope—the birth of a savior, anticipation of the longer and brighter days of spring, hope for the future embodied by giggling children. We find hope when we look not at the life we lost, but at those still living and yet to be born. In Martha’s case, that’s a lot of wonderful people.
I am working up a research proposal to identify all the tenants who lived in Minneapolis’s oldest house between 1853, when the first family moved out, and 1905, when the Hennepin County Territorial Pioneer’s Association bought it with the intention of turning it into a museum. Today I stopped in the special collections room at the Minneapolis Central Library to read through a 1983 research report, newspaper clippings, and other materials about the history of the house.
To my surprise, an article published in the February 13, 1927, issue of the Minneapolis Journal carried the headline, “DO YOU REMEMBER SPHIKENSHPOKENBLUNGGERFUNGGER? He Was Listed in First Minneapolis Directory of 1859, Preserved at Godfrey House.” I will be relying heavily on the Minneapolis city directories for my research, so I already know my way around them. When I checked the city directory from 1859-60, sure enough, there was Hans Von Shpikenshpokenblanggerfungger. According to the directory, he resided, on Main Street near the sidewalk.
Who was Hans Von Sphikenshpokenblunggerfungger? He can’t be found in any census records. Was this a case of atrocious spelling of a long German surname? Was it the whimsical alias of a local comedian? The 1927 newspaper article provides the answer. “Hans was really a joke of the publishers. He never existed save in their fancy, but his name was a byword in the pioneer homes of the time.” Perhaps it was a derisive nickname used by Yankee residents for German and Scandinavian immigrants in the city (though there wen’t that many yet in 1859; most residents were from New England or upstate New York).
The moral of the story is, you never know what real or fictitious people you will run across when doing genealogy research!
You know what that means. It’s time to dive into the family tree to find potential baby names.
How people choose names
Naming a child is a special event. The name we choose will shape other people’s first impressions of him or her from day one and it will affect our child’s self-identity as s/he grows up. It’s a big decision. We took it seriously with our first child, a daughter named Eliza, and we’re taking it seriously again. But how should we choose the best name?
Some people choose names that are popular at the moment. We all know the names that were popular when we went to school. Linda and Bob? 1950s. Jennifer and David? 1970s. I bet you can guess my age pretty accurately if I I tell you is that I was high school friends with triplets named Amanda, Megan, and Sara.
Other people name their children after famous or important contemporary figures. How many of you have a George Washington [Surname] or Thomas Jefferson [Surname] in your family tree? One collateral family in my tree contains sons named John Wesley Nelson, Columbus Washington Nelson, Henry Clay Nelson, George Washington Harrison Nelson, and Zachariah Winfield Santa-Anna Nelson, among others. In the last instance, the parents obviously couldn’t decide which Mexican-American War general they wanted to honor and decided to reference them all.
Many names from European cultures originally carried a literal meaning. Today, people generally don’t know the underlying meaning of most names and only go searching when expecting a baby. But even though people don’t know such meanings by heart, they still affect which names many parents choose for their children.
Biblical names like John or Elizabeth derive from Hebrew and in their original language typically spelled out the child’s relationship to God: Yochanan, “Yahveh is gracious,” or ‘Elisheva’, “My God is abundance.” Most Western versions of Hebrew names passed into common use via a Bible written in Greek or Latin, and so we have inherited Johannes (Latin from Greek) and John rather than Yochanan, andElisabet (Greek) rather than ‘Elisheva’. For many Christians through the ages, the underlying Hebrew meaning was less important than the name’s association with important Biblical characters.
Immigrant groups from outside Europe are adding new names to America’s pool of names and meanings every day. To give just one example, a state congressional district here in Minnesota recently elected former Somali refugee Ilhan Omar as its representative. Fittingly for a politician, her given name means “to state something eloquently” in Arabic. Several names more commonly found in African-American families, such a Imani and Tariq, also derive ultimately from Arabic words and may reflect a much older link to the Muslim communities of East Africa.
For genealogists, family names are especially important. Because our family trees are bigger and we often know them by heart, we typically have more family names to choose from. We can dig deeper into the past to find the best fit. Indeed, one of my stipulations is that the names we choose must come from somewhere in our child’s direct ancestry.
Having said that, choosing a family name is just one of several important factors. There are practical things to consider like spelling in elementary school and job applications as an adult. Here are the general criteria we are using to choose names for for our children, in rough order of importance. (We never formally spelled it out like this. This is essentially a summary of many conversations over dinner and before bed.)
A name we both like
Goes well with our last name (probably no alliteration)
From a direct ancestor (ideally a person who led an interesting or inspiring life)
Sounds cute for a kid AND respectable for an adult. It has to look good on a resume.
Standard spelling. Sorry to all the Jaiessuns out there, but why make a simple name more complicated?
Not in the Top 10 most popular. No offense to the Lindas of the 1950s or the Liams of today, but we don’t want our child to share his or her name with half the school room. A certain degree of individuality is a good thing.
Not too obscure for the United States in the 21st century. (The flip side of #6.)
Ancient/original meaning is fitting and aligns with our values
We named our first daughter Eliza Pauline. It was important to me as a genealogist to find meaning in the names we chose from the personalities or life histories of the namesake ancestors. Ultimately, that’s why we do genealogy, isn’t it? Our ancestors don’t care whether we remember them. They’re dead. But we find meaning in their lives. They help us figure out our place in the world. They may have passed skills or personality traits down to us. They can teach us how to live (or how not to live). Choosing a name of an ancestor for a new child reflects how we, as parents, understand our heritage right now.
The name Eliza comes from my side of the family and Pauline from my wife’s. There are two Elizas in our daughter’s direct ancestry.
Eliza Nelson is my 4x-great-grandmother on my dad’s old-stock American side. She was born around 1810 probably in Frederick County, Maryland. I don’t know many details of her life. In fact, I only have three primary sources that give her name: an 1831 marriage record from Harrison County, Ohio; the 1850 census from Pike County, Illinois; and her gravestone, erected presumably in 1857 when she was buried.
Eliza Kinney was born to Irish immigrants in Canada around 1845. She is my 3x-great-grandmother on my mom’s Irish side. Eliza moved many times in her life. As a girl, she traveled with her parents from Canada to Vermont and then to northern Pennsylvania. In 1864, alongside her new husband James Daly, she moved west to settle with her new family in southern Wisconsin. She left her parents and many siblings behind in Pennsylvania. Only five years later, Eliza was on the move again, this time traveling farther west to cut a new farm out of the prairie in southwestern Minnesota. By age 30, Eliza had already made five major cross-country moves—all without automobiles and mostly without trains. Later in life, Eliza’s family made a final move, another 100+ miles northwest to a farm near the South Dakota border. This Eliza is also a bit of an enigma. After her husband’s death in 1913, I can’t find her again. Her gravestone, marked “1845-1931,” is the only evidence of her whereabouts after 1913.
Though we don’t know much about the personality of either Eliza, we can still draw meaning from their stories. Both Elizas were migrants, especially Eliza Kinney. Like her namesakes, we hope our daughter Eliza goes where life takes her, or rather, takes her life where she want it to go, wherever that may be. Like her ancestors, we hope she grows up to change her own circumstances for the better.
Pauline Shoultz was my wife’s grandmother. We know a lot more about her personality. Even though she was an “old” grandma (she was almost 71 when my wife was born) my wife and her sister got to spend a lot of time with Pauline while they were growing up. I also got to know her a little bit before she passed away. She was a spirited if uncompromising woman of fully German descent. My wife remembered her this way. “She wasn’t like other people’s grandmas—polite, sweet. She was a spitfire with her own sense of humor. Grandma Pauline wasn’t a proper lady. She liked sports and hanging with the old guys at the coffee shop. She said a lot of really funny things, intentionally and unintentionally. At the same time, she was an emotional rock, steadfast and determined.” These qualities helped her live to be 98 years old.
When our daughter Eliza Pauline is a little older, we’ll explain to her why we chose the names we did. We’ll teach her about her ancestors. We’ll share our desire for her to grow into an adventurous, independent woman who is also kind, loving, and loyal.
Great family names . . . for someone else’s child
Yes, we like old family names. There aren’t a lot of Elizas or Paulines these days, but both names fit the resurgence of names that were popular around 1900. Of course, not all old family names make good names in 21st century America. My wife’s 2x-great-grandmother was named Svanhilde. It’s a unique old Scandinavian name that was first documented in the 18th century in the same county in western Norway where our Svanhilde lived. (Her grandmother, born in 1775, was also named Svanhilde and may have been the first recorded bearer of the name since the Viking-age sagas.) I have teased my wife about naming our next child Svanhilde so much that she is frankly tired of the humor. (I think she’s taking our naming duty more seriously than I am.)
With Svanhilde at the head of the list, here’s a list of old family names we will not be using for our next child (but that I like to threaten to write on the birth certificate while my wife is still recovering):
Yes, all of these are given names in our future child’s direct ancestry. Most of them sound distinctively “ethnic” in 21st century America. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, searching the Social Security baby names lists for a few other “ethnic” names from our family tree, I discovered that more than 550 American girls were named Ingrid in 2008 and more than 650 boys were named Johan in 2016. Bridget is an evergreen name of Gaelic/Irish origin.
That said, such names do tend to raise questions about where a person is from. Svanhilde, Ambjør, Orlaug, Asbjørn, and Ole are all Norwegian in origin. (They’re “old” names in Norway now, too.) Gunnar is Swedish. Désiré and Livinus are Dutch/Flemish. Ladislav, Václav, Vavřinec,and Olga are names of some of my Czech ancestors. Josephte is a distinctively French-Canadian female name while Euphroseine is a Greek name carried by a handful of my female French-Canadian ancestors. Mareen was a French Huguenot man who settled in colonial Maryland. Burgess is an archaic given name of Scottish or English origin and the given name of Eliza Nelson’s paternal grandfather. All are interesting names for different reasons, but none fit our family in this time and this place.
So which name will we choose for baby #2? Well, you’ll have to wait for a birth announcement! We still have the boy name we chose from my wife’s first pregnancy (and we still like it). We recently agreed upon another girl name. I think we also recently agreed that, just like our first pregnancy, we won’t find out the baby’s sex until s/he is born. We like the mystery. Doing it the old fashioned way also makes naming the child a part of the birth event itself. I still remember calling Eliza by her name for the first time right after she was born. It was moment I’ll never forget.
Anyone doing French-Canadian genealogy eventually runs across “dit” (pronounced “dee”) names. Meaning “called,” the “dit” name functioned like an alias or a second surname. It could be used together with the regular surname or as a substitute. Sometimes the “dit” name was not necessary and was left out of certain records. Not all French-Canadian individuals or families had a “dit” name. So where did “dit” names come from? How were they chosen? A cousin of mine recently asked me me about the origin of a specific “dit” name, that of Francois Forcier dit Nadeau (1740-1800). I thought I would share my findings with all of you, since they help answer the broader questions posed above.
In general, “dit” names became common in French Canada as a way to help distinguish different branches of the same family. The founding population of French Canada numbered only about 20,000 settled immigrants during the French period, and due to the colony’s early gender imbalance, only about half of those individuals left behind descendants. All of our French-Canadian heritage thus goes back to the same 10,000 or so founders. That may sound like a lot, but it’s actually not that many families, only a few thousand. As the years progressed, the population expanded rapidly from this small founding stock. A few of the original settlers already had 5,000 to 10,000 married descendants by the year 1800! As you can imagine, some families had dozens of people alive at the same time who shared the same handful of common given names: Joseph, Francois, Jacques, Pierre, Louis, Jean, and Jean-Baptiste; Marie, Marguerite, Magdaleine, Louise, Josephte, and Francoise. This was the case with the Forcier family.
The Forcier family in Quebec goes back to a single couple, Pierre Forcier and Marguerite Girard, who married in about 1670. Pierre and Marguerite settled on a farm in the parish of St-Francois du Lac, a few miles inland from the south shore of the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Trois-Rivieres. Pierre and Marguerite had four surviving children, including two sons, Joseph-Antoine and Jacques. These two men each fathered four sons of their own who left descendants. As the family grew through several generations, many younger Forciers moved into the neighboring parish of Yamaska. Within three or four generations, by the 1730s and 1740s, the Forcier families of St-Francois du Lac and Yamaska faced the dilemma of how to keep everyone straight without each person needing to recount his or her full lineage. “Dit” names were one solution.
How did a person choose a new “dit” name? In our case, why Nadeau? Historically, “dit” names had many sources. Some were nicknames given to soldiers. Some were descriptive. Jean Lehay dit Hibernois, for example, was an Irishman taken captive in upstate New York during King William’s War. After marrying and settling down in New France, he was given the “dit” name Hibernois, “the Irishman,” a name many of his descendants continued to carry. Sometimes the “dit” name derived from the mother’s family. One branch of the Petit family carried the “dit” name Gobin. The founding couple of this line was Francois Petit and Jeanne Gobin.
Francois Forcier dit Nadeau appears to have chosen (or been given) the “dit” name Nadeau in honor of Olivier-Francois Nadeau, his godfather and uncle-through-marriage. Francois Forcier was born and baptized June 13, 1740, and Francois Nadeau was listed as his godfather. Marguerite Forcier, Francois Forcier’s aunt, was his female sponsor. Two years later, on April 3, 1742, Olivier-Francois Nadeau married Marguerite Forcier.
The Forciers ended up with three distinct “dit” names: Nadeau, Gaucher, and Mette. (I haven’t researched the origins of the other two “dit” names, but gaucher means left-handed.) Most of Francois’s descendants continued to use the “dit” name Nadeau (though it’s not included on every record). The three “dit” names helped keep different branches straight. Unfortunately, as the families grew even more, even these three extra names could not provide enough variety to sort out all the problems of identity within the Forcier families of Yamaska. Take, for example, this excellent research case in which the author tried to identify which Pierre Forcier from Yamaska was the one who ended up working for the American Fur Company in La Pointe, Wisconsin, in the 1830s.
“Dit” names in the USA
When French-Canadians emigrated to the United States, they typically stopped using a “dit” name. They almost always reverted to using just a single surname. Be aware, though, your French-Canadian immigrant ancestors might have chosen either their traditional surname or their “dit” name as their permanent surname in the United States.
Francois Forcier dit Nadeau’s grandson Jean-Baptiste Forcier dit Nadeau (pictured at right) chose to drop Nadeau in the United States. He became simply Jean Baptiste Forcier. But Olivier Pichet dit Dupre and his brothers all chose to keep the “dit” name Dupre instead of Pichet. Likewise, Joseph Petit dit Gobin became Joseph Gobin.
If you’re struggling to find the connection between your ancestor in the United States and his or her family of origin in Quebec, plug the surname you know into this search bar to find associated “dit” names. You can also review a list of name variations and “dit” names here. This might be the breakthrough you need.
This past weekend I attended a three-day retreat for professional genealogists. The retreat provided a chance for professionals from around the country (including several industry leaders) to discuss anything and everything related to our field. Among many other things, we discussed ideas for working better with clients, ways to improve our businesses (from time management tools to marketing), opportunities for collaborating and subcontracting with other professional genealogists, the ever-changing roles of various national organizations, and the need for a national conversation about ethics and DNA testing.
The secluded setting and lack of a formal schedule encouraged discussions that were challenging, wide-ranging, and honest, but always respectful. Between sessions, we got to know each other on a more personal level. For the most part genealogists work in isolation. The retreat helped create the close professional social network many of us seek but which is hard to develop during the hustle and bustle of conferences. The relationships I formed over the weekend will no doubt be important to my professional life moving forward. Perhaps just as important, I can already see a few of them becoming personal friendships too.
Personal Family History
Like any self-respecting genealogist on a road trip, I had to find a connection to my own family history along the way. And I did. The retreat was held in rural Michigan. To get there from where I live in Minnesota, I had to drive through the Upper Peninsula and across the Mackinaw Bridge. On my way home, I decided to stop at Fort Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City. The current fort is a careful reconstruction based on archaeological findings. It is located on the south shore of the Straits of Mackinac, where the original fort sat from about 1715 until the 1780s when the British moved it to Mackinaw Island. Several of my French-Canadian ancestors engaged as voyageurs in the Pays d’en Haut. While most of them were sent to Grand Portage/Fort William or still farther north and west, some of them no doubt stopped at Michilimackinac on their way.
Perhaps most notably, I am a direct descendant of Olivier Morel, Sieur de LaDurantaye, who was the first French commandant at Michilimackinac. He was stationed near the mission of St. Ignace on the north side of the Straits of Mackinac from 1683 until 1690, years before Fort Michilimackinac was constructed on the south shore.
The fort’s history and my family history come together most closely in the reconstructed Sainte Anne Church, which is inside the fort’s palisade. In October 1746, a baby girl named Agathe was baptized in the original Sainte Anne’s at Michilimackinac. Her mother was “Marie Charlotte, a woman Savage baptized last year” and her father was an unknown Frenchman. However, evidence suggests that her father was probably fur trader and local rapscallion Charles Hamelin, who was based out of Sault Ste. Marie.
According to an inventory conducted after her husband’s death, Agathe Hameline married a French-Canadian voyageur named Joseph Normand in 1761 somewhere in the Illinois Country (perhaps at Fort St. Joseph in modern southwestern Michigan). Their first three children were baptized at Fort St. Joseph in August 1768, among them my ancestor Marie Josèphte Normand. In 1773, when Marie Josèphte was about eight or nine years old, the family moved east to the Province of Quebec, settling west of Montreal. The Normands remained in the east for the remainder of their lives. By the time Marie Josèphte’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren moved to Minnesota 1873, memory of their western ties and Native American ancestry seems to have been lost. At the very least it was obscured. Racial mixing carried a much different social meaning in late 19th century United States than it did during the French fur trade era.
If the part-Ojibwe girl baptized at Michilimackinac in 1746 was indeed the same Agathe who later married Joseph Normand (the case is strong but not definitive), then she is my 7x-great-grandmother. Visiting the reconstructed church on the very site of her baptism opened a window into a life—and a culture—generations removed from present experience. It is as close as a living descendant can come to being present in her story.
For anyone who called herself a genealogist in the past century, spooling microfilm onto a special microfilm reader and scrolling through its pages was a rite of passage. Finding a record of your long-lost ancestor hundreds of pages into the roll was something to celebrate. But it’s the beginning of the end of the microfilm era. A major sign of the transition appeared a couple days ago.
On Monday, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) announced that it would suspend distribution of microfilm rolls on September 1, 2017. The church, which incorporates genealogy into its theology, owns about 2.5 million rolls of microfilm full of genealogical data from all over the world. For the past 80 years, the church has distributed microfilm rolls to designated research centers upon request, to the great benefit of genealogists everywhere.
Microfilm has so many benefits. It condenses information and saves archival space. It allows users to see faithful copies of original documents without risk of damaging the originals (and with very little risk of damaging the microfilm itself.) It allows the contents of parish record books and other large documents to be sent through the mail at minimal cost. Its material components decay very slowly.
But these are not exclusive benefits. Many of them apply to digital information too. And that, indeed, is the future for LDS collections. According to the official LDS statement, “The change is the result of significant progress made in FamilySearch’s microfilm digitization efforts and the obsolescence of microfilm technology.” The church has already digitized more than 1.5 million microforms, with most of them available online at FamilySearch.org for browsing or searching. The rest, says the statement, “should be digitized by the end of 2020.” Three-and-a-half years of waiting isn’t that long for genealogists. I mean, we’re already halfway to the release of the 1950 census on April 1, 2022, and that seems (to me at least) like it’s just around the corner.
For me, the discontinuation of microfilm distribution raises two questions, one immediate and practical and one more general. First, why not continue distribution of undigitized rolls until 2020 for the sake of accessibility? The whole point of both microfilm distribution and digitization is accessibility, right? Well, LDS has a solid answer to this question on a related FAQ page. Below is their explanation. I included it in full because it gets to the heart of the bigger issue of obsolescence.
The microfilm industry has been in decline for a couple of decades since the advent of digitization. The cost of vesicular film used to duplicate microfilm for circulation has risen dramatically while demand has decreased significantly. At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult and costly to maintain the equipment, systems, and processes required for film duplication, distribution, and access. It is not feasible for FamilySearch to continue the microfilm distribution service for longer than it already has. Meanwhile, digitization is nearing completion and many of the records FamilySearch has not yet digitized are available on other websites accessible to FamilySearch patrons. By reinvesting resources in digital efforts, FamilySearch can accelerate and improve electronic access.
Microfilm is dying for economic reasons, plain and simple. Microfilm technology is now a niche market. Production equipment, replacement parts, and people with the proper skills to maintain microform technologies are all harder to find, which puts a premium price on the whole niche. It is easy to understand how the church arrived at its current solution.
The other question raised by the LDS discontinuation of microfilm distribution is about the future of microfilm itself. The technology is still widely used in libraries and archives around the country (and LDS microfilm collections will continue to be available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City). I still use microfilm all the time at the Minnesota Historical Society to search for death certificates, naturalization papers, historical Minnesota newspapers, and more.
Microfilm has a few advantages not shared with digital images. Most notably, microfilm is an analog technology. All you need to read it is a good light source and a magnifying glass. Digital archiving, in fact, presents a much more complicated system of preservation in the long run. File types and software change frequently, so that obsolescence is just as much of a threat to digital media. And just like physical objects, digital objects decay with use. Obviously, the advantages of digital media (color, share-ability, ease of access) more than compensate for the new challenges it presents. Yet I wonder if―because of its simplicity―microfilm will continue to have a place in libraries and archives, including genealogical archives, for decades more. Maybe the end of ordering LDS microfilm rolls isn’t quite the end of the microfilm era.
I recently led my mom (and the rest of my immediate family) on a fun day exploring family history in our own backyard. We toured of part of the region to which my mom never thought she had any special connection: the city of Minneapolis.
My mom always knew she had deep roots in Minnesota, especially to the city of St. Paul and its suburbs. She grew up in St. Paul. Her mother grew up there. Her maternal grandfather worked for years in the stockyards in South St. Paul. My mom also knew some her father’s French-Canadian ancestors had lived in St. Paul’s northern suburbs Little Canada and Centerville for generations, and she had an inkling a few of them had once been in St. Paul, too. (Indeed, one family was among the very first to stake claims in the future state capital in 1838, and in 1841 they donated half the land for the Catholic church that gave the city its name.)
When I first asked my mom and her brothers if we had any direct ties to Minneapolis—the western “twin” of the Twin Cities—they didn’t know. They didn’t think so. I was disappointed by that answer. I grew up in the western suburbs of the Twin Cities. When we went into “the city” for a concert or a baseball game or the farmer’s market, it was almost always to Minneapolis not St. Paul. My dad worked in one of the skyscrapers in downtown Minneapolis. When people from outside Minnesota asked me where I was from, I usually said Minneapolis. As I researched my mom’s family, I wanted to have some relationship to the city’s history. That’s where the action was when I was growing up. That’s where most of the action has been for a century and a half.
Since the 1850s, Minneapolis has been the beating heart of the regional economy. While St. Paul grew into a major city because it was the head of navigation on the Mississippi River and the state capital, Minneapolis grew even bigger because it had the Mississippi River’s only natural waterfall. St. Anthony Falls powered the city’s industries, transforming it into a global saw- and flour-milling superpower by 1880. Its mills processed grain from southern and western Minnesota and the Dakotas and timber from the vast north woods. (Recognizable brand names from this era of Minneapolis history include Pillsbury and Gold Medal Flour.) If my family’s collective memory was all we had to go on, then our family story remained peripheral to the story of Minneapolis. They lived in St. Paul and in the metropolitan area’s agricultural hinterland, but not in industrial Minneapolis.
However, as I researched our LaBelle ancestors (the surname my mom and uncles were born with), I discovered that, in fact, three generations had lived, worked, fell in love, and died in the heart of the Minneapolis Mill District over the course of more than thirty years.
What follows is, first, a narrative of my family’s ties to the St. Anthony Mill District of old Minneapolis, and second, a rundown of the LaBelle family history tour I recently led my family on.
Coming to Minneapolis
The story of the LaBelle migration to Minneapolis is long and complicated. I won’t detail it all here. It was a case of serial migration that lasted at least thirty years, from 1848 to 1878, and included three generations of migrants. The patriarchs were two brothers, Pierre (b: 1799) and Alarie Lebel (b: 1801). (The name had been spelled Lebel in Canada ever since Nicolas Lebel arrived in New France in 1654. LaBelle became the standard form in the U.S.) The migration started from a single spot—their family farms near Gentilly, Quebec—but it ended in towns across the northern United States. Descendants of Pierre and Alarie helped construct the final stretches of the transcontinental railroad in Wyoming, logged and sawed timber in northern Wisconsin, ran a saloon and grocery store in Bay City, Michigan, and became laborers and carpenters in Minneapolis, among many other things. One descendent named George LaBelle ran the largest automobile-based transportation company in the Twin Cities in the mid 1920s and in 1928 was a founding partner in the Allied Van Lines cooperative.
My direct ancestral line brought up the rear. Patriarch Alarie Lebel was already an old man—a 65-year-old widower—when he first came to the United States in 1866. It appears he was cared for in turn by his various children. He settled first with the family of his son Uldorique (Roderick) in Brown County, Wisconsin. That’s where some of Alarie’s nieces and nephews (Pierre’s children) had settled in the late 1840s. By 1880, ol’ man “Alarie” had moved to Bay City, Michigan, where his daughter Adeline and her husband Patrick Pelletier ran a grocery store. Only in 1881, when Alarie was 80 years old, does he show up in the Minneapolis city directory for the first time. By 1881, Minneapolis made the most sense for Alarie to be cared for by his children. In the preceding decade, his children Ovid, Noah, Philonese, Olive, and Roderick had all moved to the city.
Alarie’s eldest son Ovid Lebel (b: 1831) is my direct ancestor. It appears he was the last member of the family to leave Quebec. My hunch is that Ovid was in line to inherit the family farm in Gentilly. Word from relatives must have convinced him and his wife Rosalie Goudreau that they could do better in America. Or perhaps Ovid believed he needed help caring for Rosalie, who began showing symptoms of some sort of mental illness in the early 1870s. (More on this below). Ovid and family came to the United States between 1875 and 1877, settling first in Houghton County, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, and then trickling into Minneapolis during the summer and fall of 1878. Among the children Ovid and Rosalie brought with them was their sixteen-year-old son Ferdinand (b: 1862), my great-great-grandfather.
A Hard Life Along the Riverfront
The LaBelles needed work and Minneapolis needed workers. Upon arriving in the city, Ovid’s family moved straight into the heart of the mill district on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Ovid and the couple’s older sons found plenty of work as day laborers. The family couldn’t afford much for living quarters. In fact, the LaBelles’ first residence in Minneapolis was the oldest house in the city. Ovid’s 1913 obituary states quite clearly (in French) that “35 years ago he resided in the Godfrey House, the first house constructed in Minneapolis.”
Nowadays, the Ard Godfrey House is preserved as a museum, a memorial to the earliest Euro-American settlement at St. Anthony Falls. In 1848, prominent early Minnesota businessman Franklin Steele hired Maine native Ard Godfrey to build the first dam and commercial sawmill at the falls. As part of the deal to bring Godfrey west, Steele agreed to build a house for Godfrey and his family. According to a 1983 report on the house’s history, two French-Canadians, Charles Mousseau and James Brissette, built the small but surprisingly spacious five-bedroom home for Godfrey’s family to live in. The house stood on the east side of the river in an area that would be incorporated as the city of St. Anthony in 1855. The Godfrey family vacated the house in 1853 in order to move across the river to Minneapolis. There Are Godfrey built a new home and mill just below Minnehaha Falls. (St. Anthony and Minneapolis merged in 1872.)
When the LaBelles arrived in the late 1870s, the Godfrey house remained in practically its original location near the riverfront. By then the dense St. Anthony mill district had been built around it. Nobody yet cared that the house was historic. It was simply old and probably a little rundown. It certainly was not in a desirable location. The area was noisy and dirty. On the same block could be found two iron foundries, a machine shop, and a warehouse, according to an 1885 Sanborn insurance map. Yet the fact that the home had five bedrooms and was close to so many industrial jobs made it a suitable boarding house. Newly arrived immigrants piled in family upon family.
When the 1880 census was taken, 28 people from six families were enumerated at the one and only address on the 100 block of Prince Street (site of the Godfrey House):
Ovid and Rose “Label” and five children
Oliver and Mary Juneau with three children
Ovid and Rose’s son Edward Label with his wife Josephine and three children
Ovid and Rose’s son Alfred Label with his wife Adele and one child
Joseph and Caroline “Belajah” [Belanger?] with two children
“Joashem” [Joachim] and Adeline “Turvil” with two children. Joachim Duteau dit Tourville was Ovid LaBelle’s maternal uncle, the younger brother of his deceased mother Genevieve.
All of the adults in the house had been born in French Canada. The adult males were all recorded as laborers. Since city directory listings for 1879 and 1880 suggest Ovid and Edward LaBelle had not moved from their original address in the city and since we know the Godfrey House was on the 100 block of Prince Street, the most logical conclusion is that these 28 people were all living in the Godfrey House in 1880. Each family probably rented a single room in the house while sharing use of the kitchen wing.
Another resident of the Godfrey House around this time was Zephirin Poisson (b: 1853), a French-Canadian man who also hailed from Gentilly. In America, he usually went by the name Frank Fish. His address in the 1879 Minneapolis city directory—Prince St. near 2nd Ave. SE—is identical to the address given for Ovid, Edward and Noah LaBelle. Zephirin’s first wife, Delia Tourville (b: abt 1849), was a daughter of Joachim and Adeline. Delia died in 1882, and in 1883 Zephirin married his second wife, Ovid and Rosalie LaBelle’s daughter Olivine (b: 1867). The LaBelles, Tourvilles, and Poissons obviously knew one another going back to Gentilly, but I suspect Zephirin and Olivine first noticed one another while they both lived at the Godfrey House in 1879. In any case, when Zephirin and Delia moved out of the Godfrey House later that year, they moved just a couple blocks east, to 419 Southeast 2nd Street, where they resided with several other members of the LaBelle family: Louis, Noah, and their families, as well as patriarch Alarie when he arrived in Minneapolis in late 1880 or early 1881.
The LaBelles were obviously poor. Ovid’s next residence near the corner of Polk and Winter Streets, where he lived continuously (with one exception) from 1881 to 1896, was first recorded without a street address simply as “near the junction of the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railroad.” Old city maps show that the house was literally in the middle of a railroad junction. Several other listings mention that Ovid lived “in the rear of building” at that address, which likewise suggests poverty. The railroad junction still exists, but the street grid has long since been removed for safety. Polk St. and Winter St. no longer intersect.
Ovid’s wife Rosalie Goudreau LaBelle also moved to the house by the railroad junction in late 1880 or early 1881. However, her stay was much shorter. Rosalie suffered from some kind of mental illness. She was diagnosed with dementia, though I suspect modern doctors would call it something else. Since the early 1870s, she had been a difficult person to live with. She sometimes broke out in “sudden passion[s]” and “threaten[ed] others with injury.” Barely a year after they settled in Minneapolis, in December 1879, the family sought to have Rosalie committed to the state and placed in an insane asylum. She was committed by the probate judge but remained at home with her family until 1883. On June 29, 1883, she was sent to the Minnesota Asylum for the Insane in St. Peter.
Doctor’s notes tell us that she did ok there in the following years. A note from August 1884 says she was “very pleasant and quiet . . . contented and apparently happy.” A year later she was described as “slightly more irritable” but by 1886 and ’87 she was “fat and hearty” and “fat and happy.” From a modern perspective of mental health, perhaps the most telling indication of her well-being at the asylum was the statement made in 1884 that she “is very quiet but this may in part be due to the fact that no one in the hall can talk French to her.” Social isolation could not have helped her state of mind.
After four years, three months and two days in the asylum, Rosalie was released from the hospital and returned to Minneapolis to live with her family. Her condition had “improved” but she was not fully “recovered.” The final notes, from October 1, 1887, read, “seems pretty well received by friends on trial today,” which I take to mean that her friends and family were happy to see her again when she appeared in court to be evaluated for potential release.
The old St. Anthony section of Minneapolis transformed around the LaBelles in their first decade in the city. Between 1880 and 1886 three of the most iconic parts of the St. Anthony skyline were constructed.
First, in 1877, the year before my branch of the LaBelle family moved in, the area’s French Catholics had purchased a twenty-year-old Greek Revival church from the First Universalist Society of St. Anthony and renamed it Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. The church was located a little more than a block west of the Godfrey House on Prince Street and became the LaBelles’ parish church as soon as they arrived. Between 1880 and 1883, the French Catholics significantly reshaped the structure, “adding a transept, apse and front bell tower with three steeples,” according to Wikipedia. It looks much the same today as it did in 1883.
Second, in 1880, a few blocks to the east of the church and directly across the street from the LaBelles who lived at 419 S.E. 2nd Street , construction began on the world’s largest flour mill. Opened in July 1881, the Pillsbury A-Mill remained the world’s largest flour mill for more than 40 years. I try to imagine the awe the LaBelles must have felt as they watched the six-story behemoth rise from the shoreline. I wonder whether they participated in the intricate dance of workers, machinery, and railcars that took place every day as tons of grain were shipped in and thousands of barrels and sacks of flour were shipped out of the mill. I envision conversations they had about how different their lives were in Minneapolis than they had been on that small farm in Gentilly.
Finally, the most eye-catching structure on the St. Anthony riverfront was built right next to the Godfrey House in 1886. In 1885, Minneapolis boosters organized an industrial exposition fair to be held the following year. Minneapolis had just lost out to St. Paul as the permanent home of the Minnesota State Fair, and Minneapolitans wanted to show off the industrial power of their city. A mostly vacant square between the Godfrey House and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church was chosen as the site of the new Industrial Exposition Building. The building was completed in August 1886, and the initial 40-day fair attracted almost 500,000 visitors. The building later hosted the 1892 Republican National Convention. However, like so many showpiece buildings constructed for big events rather than long-term functionality, the exposition building struggled to find a purpose after the fair exhibitors left in 1893. The Exposition Building was torn down in 1940. (Wikipedia)
At the start of 1887, the St. Anthony skyline was rather impressive. The LaBelles no longer resided in the Godfrey House, but most of them still lived in St. Anthony, within a few blocks of their original landing spot. They continued to attend Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
Life and Death
Rosalie returned from the asylum to the LaBelle household in the fall of 1887. She had missed the wedding of her daughter Olivine in 1883 and son Cyrille in 1886, but she returned in time to see three more of her children tie the knot. Daughter Celina married Edward Wilson ca.1889, son Ferdinand wed Rosalie Roy in 1891, and daughter Ermine married Victor Langlois in 1892.
My great-great-grandfather Ferdinand took a different occupational path from most of his siblings. After his brothers toiled all day as laborers packing bags of flour into railcars at the Pillsbury Mill or as lumbermen guiding river-borne logs into the city’s sawmills, they could stop by the saloons of Adolph Eisler or Solomon Robitshek and find Ferdinand behind the bar. Ferdinand worked as a bartender in Minneapolis for at least a dozen years and perhaps as many as twenty years. It was at one of these establishments (or a nearby restaurant) that he met his future bride.
Rosalie Roy, or Rose King as she sometimes anglicized her name, grew up on a farm in Corcoran Township, twenty miles northwest of Minneapolis. Rose moved to Minneapolis to find work when she reached adulthood. A family story says she met Ferdinand at the restaurant where she worked. Perhaps the story confused which half of the couple worked in food service or maybe they both did. Perhaps they even worked at the same establishment. Unfortunately, Rose never appears in the city directory as an independent young woman, so the family story is all we have to go on.
I like to think Ferdinand and Rose hit it off because they could each tell stories about the challenges of living with mentally ill parents. Family stories passed down the generations tell us that Rose’s mother Desange (Bolduc) Roy wept every time an animal was killed on the farm. We may sympathize with her desire not to harm animals, but such feelings did not make for a very good 19th-century farm wife. Rose’s father Elzear, we are told, went “religious crazy.” His religious fanaticism got so bad that his wife and children eventually drove him out of the house. He disappears from records after 1880. I think I have identified him in Minneapolis in 1888 and in Copley near Bemidji in 1900, in each case working as a teamster. But I can’t be 100% certain the records are for the same Elzear. In any case, Rose could match Ferdinand for stories about how crazy her home life was growing up.
Ferdinand and Rose’s wedding (and probably Ermine and Victor Langlois’s too) took place at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. Their first five children were baptized there during the 1890s.
Ovid LaBelle watched his family grow exponentially during the 1880s and 1890s, but along with marriage and birth often comes death. At least a dozen LaBelle children in Ovid’s extended family died young during the 1880s and 1890s, including Ferdinand and Rose’s daughter Delima. Ovid’s father Alarie Lebel, patriarch of the family, died in September 1890, age 89. After decades of living with his various children, Alarie’s final year was spent in a Minneapolis “inmate home for the aged.”
More surprising was the death of Ovid’s wife. Almost as suddenly as she had returned, Rosalie (Goudreau) LaBelle died. I was incredibly fortunate to find Rosalie’s death in the parish register of Our Lady of Lourdes (on microfilm at the Minnesota Genealogical Society). The books containing the parish’s death registers before 1910 are lost. However, a single sheet of paper—two facing pages—survives from one of the older books, containing the last few deaths of 1892 and most of 1893. Rosalie’s death was first one recorded in 1893. (Two other LaBelle relatives are listed on the second line of each page: Emma Bazinet, daughter of Calixte Bazinet and Olive Lebel [Ovid’s sister], and Dolphis, son of Joseph Lebel and Anne ??? [Ovid’s nephew Joseph and his wife Eleanora, per cemetery records]).
Considering how valuable property along the riverfront was, it makes sense that Our Lady of Lourdes did not have its own cemetery. Most if not all of the LaBelles who died in Minneapolis were buried in St. Anthony’s Cemetery. The cemetery is located on the 2700 block of Central Avenue, two-and-a-half miles north of the St. Anthony Falls riverfront. It was the primary burial ground for Catholics of many nationalities who lived in the old St. Anthony part of Minneapolis. Remarkably, none of the LaBelles buried at St. Anthony’s Cemetery has a gravestone, They were apparently too poor to afford such luxuries. Perhaps the graves once had wooden crosses, but if they did they have long since disappeared.
Two events obscured all of this Minneapolis family history from later generations. First, in late 1899 or early 1900, my great-great grandparents Ferdinand and Rose LaBelle decided to return to their agricultural roots. They left Minneapolis behind to purchase a small farm near Centerville. That farm is where my great-grandfather Alfred LaBelle was raised and where the family linked up with other French-Canadian families that had been in Centerville for several generations. Al had been born in Minneapolis. His baptism is recorded in the parish register of Our Lady of Lourdes. But Al was just an infant when his parents moved to Centerville, and it seems he never knew exactly where he had been born.
Second, in March 1913 Ferdinand’s father Ovid LaBelle moved from Minneapolis into the Centerville home of another of his sons to live out the remainder of his life. He died two months later. Though Ovid had spent most of the previous 35 years in Minneapolis, he died and was buried in Centerville. Ferdinand and Rose are also buried there. To anyone taking just a cursory look back at this family line, it appeared they had always lived in Centerville.
Retracing Their Steps
Two weeks ago, I took my wife, daughter, and parents on a fun day exploring all of this history. Here’s a rundown of what we did, beginning with with two images for reference.
Tour of the Pillsbury A Mill.
We started the day with a 90-minute guided tour of the Pillsbury A Mill led by staff from the Minnesota Historical Society. Located less than two blocks east of the Godfrey House’s original location, the Pillsbury A Mill was the largest flour mill in the world when it was constructed in 1881. It held the title for decades thereafter. The 1881 city directory lists several LaBelles, including patriarch Alarie, at 419 2nd Street SE, across the street from the magnificent new mill. The mill has recently been remodeled into artist lofts. It was an A+ tour, and it looks like an amazing place to live.
Lunch at Pracna.
Pracna is the oldest bar still in operation in Minneapolis. It opened for business in 1890, which means Ovid, Ferdinand and/or Rose Roy might have dined there. In fact, considering they coexisted for so many years in the same neighborhood, I am confident one or more of my ancestors had a drink at Pracna more than a century ago. In the 1905 photograph snip below, it appears Pracna was build right next to the Godfrey House. However, Pracna sits on Main Street, while the Godfrey House is half a block back on Prince Street. Ferdinand never worked at Pracna, but since he spent about 20 years as a Minneapolis bartender, I had a drink in his honor. (I ordered a Hamm’s, the most historic local brew on the menu. It was first brewed in St. Paul in 1865.)
Tour of the Ard Godfrey House.
The Godfrey House is still standing after 168 years, though it has been moved three times in order to preserve it. It now sits in Chute Square, about a block from its original location. The Woman’s Club of Minneapolis owns the house today, and it is open for guided tours on summer weekend afternoons. As I described above, through sheer genealogical fortune, I believe I identified all of the boarders in the Godfrey House in 1880. Though I wasn’t looking for answers about the Godfrey House, since the records about my own family paint a fairly clear picture that they were there, I knew I could help the Woman’s Club fill in the story of the house. When we visited, I donated copies of the documents that link the LaBelles to the house. I also included a copy of an 1885 Sanborn Insurance map and a few parish records from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church that help show how both the LaBelles and the house fit into the greater community during the 1880s.
Attempted visit of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.
We tried to visit Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, but our timing was poor. Saturday afternoon around 2:00 is prime wedding time at a Catholic church, and we chose not to saunter down the aisle in our shorts and t-shirts admiring the architecture in the middle of their ceremony. A plaque outside the church says it is located near the spot where Franco-Belgian Father Louis Hennepin became the first European to see the falls of the Mississippi in 1680. Father Hennepin named the falls St. Anthony after his patron saint Saint Anthony of Padua.
Drive past the former Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged.
Now remodeled as an apartment complex, the former Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged was where Ovid LaBelle spent his final years, excepting the last two months when he moved to Centerville. The Home was both yet another legacy of the family’s poverty and a reminder of how much private charities helped out in an era before Social Security. (Location)
St. Anthony’s Cemetery.
To restate what I wrote above, land along the Mississippi River shore was prime real estate, so most churches in old St. Anthony did not have their own cemeteries. LaBelle patriarch Alarie died in 1890 and was buried there. Ovid’s wife Rosalie Goudreau LaBelle died in 1893, and I have to believe she was buried there too. Ferdinand and Rose LaBelle lost an infant daughter named Melina later in 1893. She was also buried there. In fact, more than 15 LaBelles were buried in the cemetery during the 1880s and 1890s. Astonishingly, NONE of them have a headstone or a marked grave of any kind. The families must simply have been too poor to afford them. The only evidence for their presence at St. Anthony’s comes from the cemetery’s register of burials, which ocassionally matches up with surviving parish records from Our Lady of Lourdes.
My parents are gradually cleaning out their basement. They’re offloading things from my childhood onto me and making the tough decisions about which of their own belongings they want to keep for sentimental reasons and which can go. They’ve also inherited stuff from multiple branches of the family, and I get to pick through most of it for things I think are interesting artifacts of family history.
One of the things my mom recently set aside to show me was a recipe hand-written by my great-grandmother Isabelle (Daly) Jordan. I have previously written about the persistence of ethnic culinary traditions in America using the examples of Isabelle’s grandparents William and Mary Reynolds and her husband Basil Jordan, all Irish-Americans who loved potatoes. Isabelle indeed cooked a lot of potatoes. But at the same time, she was as much a woman of twentieth century middle America as her Italian-American, Swedish-American, fill-in-the-blank-American neighbors, and she modernized her cooking accordingly…
…for better and for worse. Isabelle’s recipe is a mid-century classic. Have a look.
When your lead ingredients are corned beef and lemon jello, you know you’re in for a treat! Mix in mayonnaise, green peppers, olives, and hard-boiled eggs, let chill until firm, and you’ve cooked up the perfect space-age dinner for your family! Yum! It was probably supposed to look something like this.
But actually turned out more like this.
This recipe is now a little family treasure. Isabelle probably copied it out of a friend’s cookbook (perhaps this one) and we can suppose she made it for her family at least once.
A few years ago, my wife and I had a good laugh at a cookbook full of similar recipes that my grandmother Verla had once used. We 21st-century gourmands scoffed at the notion of suspending shrimp in jello and took pleasure in our culinary superiority. But I have no idea which of the recipes in the cookbook Verla actually prepared as food for her family on a regular basis. The fact that Isabelle took the time to hand copy this recipe for her own use makes it that much more special.
My wife and I are not alone among millennials ridiculing the culinary choices of our mid-twentieth century ancestors. For example, there are Pintrest boards dedicated to unearthing “Unfortunate Gelatin” and other “Unfortunate Food” from mid-century recipe books. A few brave people have been bold enough to test some of the worst recipes and report their findings to the world. Blogs like Mid-Century Menu, and Dr. Bobb’s Kitschen (whose authors gelatinized up something very similar to Isabelle’s recipe and produced the second photo above), make for excellent reading. (Neither my wife nor I like olives or hard-boiled eggs, so this is not a recipe we plan to try any time soon.)
The historian in me remains fascinated. Why would people—urban and rural alike—turn away from wholesome farm cooking in favor of high-tech “food products” like jello and TV dinners? Was the convenience and cultural capital really worth it? Regardless, I think the writers at Mid-Century Menu have it right. “Like it or not, these horrible recipes are part of the culinary evolution of our country. The pilgrims didn’t just come across the water on the Mayflower with their heads stuffed full of Asian fusion cuisine. It was a long, painful and sometimes disgusting road that lead to our current national gourmand status. Most people like to forget about it. I think we should embrace it. Yeah, at one point it was the height of fashion to have sour cream mixed with powered french onion soup mix at your party. Let’s acknowledge it and be proud.”
Recipes like Isabelle’s Corned Beef Salad are part of our shared American heritage. They were produced at a specific time and place and in a specific cultural context. By cooking these recipes for their families and sharing them with their friends, our ancestors were part and parcel of that history. If you inherited recipes or cookbooks that document it—or even better, if your family still makes salads suspended in jello—then you, like me, are the proud owner of a unique artifact of family history.
Stereotypes are often created in order to demean certain groups of people. There is usually a kernel of truth behind them, to be sure, but in serving their more sinister purpose most stereotypes blow that kernel out of proportion and/or unjustly link it to other unsavory characteristics. Eventually, though, some stereotypes become little more than a harmless joke.
Take the Irish and potatoes. Even before potato famine of the 1840s, the widespread reliance of Irish tenant farmers on potatoes became the source of a handful of derogatory nicknames and slang among the English. (Even the word Irish itself was used as a mocking adjective.) Worse nicknames welcomed the more than four million Irish refugees who migrated to America before, during, and after the potato famine, including several based on potatoes. These stereotypes were far from harmless. Violence and political repression faced Irish Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic, and they were often considered a different race of people altogether. (Unfortunately, little has changed. We still see almost rabid hatred applied not to those who abuse power and wealth, but rather to those who are poor and seeking refuge.) Stereotypes were a way of not-so-subtly reminding everyone about the existing power dynamic—the Irish were second-class citizens. Behind the name-calling was an implicit threat of something worse.
But as we’ve seen repeatedly among oppressed groups of people, the Irish found solidarity in the very things that made them stand out. They took pride in eating potatoes and in re-creating a sense of community at the local pub. Eventually—it took at least a century—descendants of Irish immigrants integrated into broader American society and no longer bore the brunt of nativist sentiment. Light skin certainly helped. (Some Americans, including many Irish immigrants and of some of their descendants, found other groups to fear and to hate.) Still, despite all the pressure to assimilate completely, certain aspects of the Irish cultural legacy lived on, including a diet rich in potatoes.
In the Irish part of my family, the potato stereotype held fast and true. If anything, it grew stronger in America. My mother has fond memories of her grandparents Basil and Isabelle (Daly) Jordan. They were both American-born, but they retained important aspects of their Irish heritage. According to my mother, Basil loved potatoes. “No meal is complete without a potato,” he always said. And he meant it. He might have a fried potato for breakfast, boiled potatoes with his lunch, and meat and potatoes for dinner. He once told my mom she looked too thin (she has never had this problem) and should eat more potatoes.
Isabelle’s family, too, had deep, tuberous roots in Ireland. In fact, what prompted me to write this post was a recent discovery about Isabelle’s maternal grandparents, William and Mary (Cramsie) Reynolds. I was working on an article about the Reynolds family for an upcoming issue of The Septs, the quarterly publication of the Irish Genealogical Society International, when I came across a sale notice for the Reynolds’ farm in The Derry Journal. It was January 1881, and the family was preparing to leave County Derry for America that spring. With only a trunk or two to carry their most necessary and valuable possessions, William and Mary had to sell not just the farm land but almost everything on the farm too: livestock, stored crops, farm implements, household furniture, and more. They ran a modest farm and, as Catholics, were in fact fortunate to own the land they cultivated. Among their modest possessions, one thing caught my eye. According to the sale notice, “The Crop consists of Three Stacks Oats, a large quantity of Hay and Straw, and about Twenty Tons of Potatoes, of a superior quality.” It was true! Here was proof that some of my Irish ancestors grew—and apparently subsisted on—tons and tons of potatoes and little else, even thirty-five years after the Great Hunger. Twenty tons of potatoes was more than enough to carry the family of two adults and five children through winter with some to spare.
A final point. It’s worth remembering that many of the foods we identify with certain ethnic groups reflect not just voluntary cultural choices, but choices imposed by poverty. Irish peasants ate mostly potatoes and milk because they could afford little else. When we ask, “why did the Irish eat so many potatoes?” our answers are partly to be found in English colonization and the confiscation of land by Protestants. Held in poverty, most Irish Catholics could afford nothing but the potatoes they grew on their small plots of rented land. William Reynolds’ parents Frederick James Reynolds and Mary Hasson were apparently quite poor. They had emigrated separately to America in 1848, arriving in Philadelphia with little more than the clothes on their backs. (Philadelphia was not a welcoming place for Irish immigrants in the 1840s. When and why Frederick and Mary Hasson Reynolds returned to Ireland and how they acquired land there are some of the questions raised in my article.)
Like the Irish and potatoes, African-American “soul food” reflects a history of oppression. “Soul food” developed from slave cooking in the American South and, after the Civil War, in rural and urban poverty throughout the U.S. While we take pride in all the creative ways the Irish found to cook potatoes and the genius of African-Americans to create “soul food” from scraps, we must remember that if given the choice most of these people would have preferred the varied diets, unusual flavors, and luxuries (like sugar, tea, coffee, and better cuts of meat) that were eaten by the upper classes.
When we think about our cultural inheritance from ancestors in such groups, we ought both to celebrate the perseverance and resourcefulness embodied by their cuisine and recognize the systems of power that limited their culinary (and nutritional) choices in the first place. It’s OK to be both proud and upset by the truth of your family history. So have a laugh when you find proof that the kernel of a now-harmless stereotype turns out to be true, but remember that such stereotypes usually have deeper, more sinister histories. Consider this fact not just when researching your own family’s immigrant ancestors but also when you look at your neighbors today.
Anna Smith’s life began, it seems, before her parents were quite ready for her. She was born January 11, 1873, probably at the home of her maternal grandparents in Big Blue township, Saline County, Nebraska. Exactly a year and a day later, her parents John Smith and Barbara Papik married in the nearby town of Crete. When Anna was born, her father John was still improving the farm he had claimed under the Homestead Act a few years earlier. It was just across the county line in Lancaster County. After the wedding, Barbara and little Anna moved onto the new farm with him.
Anna’s life had gotten off to an inauspicious start—at least if the moral authorities in the community had anything to say about her illegitimacy. I don’t personally believe in divine retribution for sin—especially not on a person who was the consequence not the cause—but as it would turn out, Anna’s adult life “was filled with more sorrow than with happiness” according to her obituary. She suffered from an illness that carried a deep societal stigma, and it ultimately led to a death that was both slow and painful. Anna is the next subject in the blog series You Died How?, which examines all the unusual ways my ancestors died.
A Vulgar Name?
Before we get into the details of Anna’s life and death, a quick note about her name. “Anna Smith” probably strikes you as an uber-generic English name. Our Anna Smith, however, was Czech. Her paternal grandfather was born in 1818 with the name Václav Fucík in the small village of Velká near Milevsko in what is now the region of South Bohemia in the Czech Republic. Václav and his wife Anna Němeček had at least five children between 1842 and 1858, including a son named Johan, Anna’s father.
In 1867, the Fucík family migrated to the United States. The manifest of the Bark Industrie, the ship that carried them across the Atlantic, recorded the German versions of their first names. Václav was written as Wenzel, for example, and František as Franz. Upon entering the United States, they changed names again. Václav became James. Johan became John. The surname Fucík became some version of Smith.
My family, like many, inherited the folktale about the family’s name being changed by officials at the port of entry. Whether it was officials in Baltimore or earlier Czech immigrants who had a grasp of English, someone suggested the Fucíks find a new surname. My hunch is that somebody pointed out how similar Fucík looks in writing to a particularly vulgar English word. (One irony of the name change, if indeed it was due to its similarity with “f***”, is that Johan Fucík/Smith’s official Certificate of Naturalization twice recorded the misspelled surname “Schidt”.)
According to a note written by John Fucík Smith’s granddaughter Emma Vanek Clark, the name Smith was assigned because John was a blacksmith. In fact, there is no evidence any of the men in the family were blacksmiths. The ship manifest records Václav as a farmer and eldest son Josef as, perhaps, a saddler. All four of the Fucík sons became farmers in America.
Whatever the reason, Václav Fucík became James Smith and the rest of the family followed suit. Ever since, all of Václav’s male-line descendants have carried the non-Slavic name Smith, including his granddaughter Anna.
A Life of Sorrow
Anna Smith grew up on her father’s homesteaded farm in Olive Branch Township, Lancaster County, Nebraska. We know very little about her early years, except that she must at a young age have been required to help her mother care for her many siblings. Eight more children blessed the Smith home, with Barbara giving birth every second or third year until 1892. Thankfully, all of them survived to adulthood. Anna’s parents did reasonably well on their farm, but they were never among the most prosperous families in the area.
Anna’s formal education was minimal. She attended some school alongside her younger siblings, but it appears her responsibilities at home limited her achievement. According to the 1900 census, Anna had not yet learned to speak English. Both of her parents and all of her siblings could. As long as she lived in the predominantly Czech area around the town of Crete, language would not be much of an issue. But that would not always be the case.
On June 4, 1892, Anna married Joseph Vanek. Joseph and his family were more recent arrivals than the Smiths. Joseph had been born in Bohemia in 1869 and had come to America with his parents and two brothers in 1883. Joseph’s teen years were spent on a farm several townships west of the Smiths. I presume the couple met either through mutual acquaintances or at Czech social gatherings in the primary market towns of Crete and Wilber. The wedding took place in Wilber with Anna’s uncles Joseph and Frank Smith serving as witnesses. After the celebration, the newlyweds moved onto 80 acres of farmland in western Saline County. Anna’s new home was more than 25 miles from the farm of her parents and siblings. At least most of their neighbors were still Czech.
The most life-changing event in Anna’s life probably occurred a year or two before the wedding when she suffered her first seizure. It probably struck her while she was a teenager still living at home with her parents. Even today, epilepsy is a mysterious illness and seizures a startling thing to witness. In the 1890s, people knew far less about the disease and the social stigma was significantly greater. Anna’s illness, bouts of which apparently recurred quite frequently, affected her for the remainder of her life. It significantly limited the relationships she had with other people.
Epilepsy did not, however, limit Anna’s fertility. She was almost always pregnant, giving birth to 15 children in just over 20 years. Unfortunately, even her children were a source of sorrow. Anna and Joseph’s very first child, whose name is unknown, died in infancy. Their sixth child, too, spent a heartbreakingly short time on Earth. Seven more healthy children followed before their last two children also died in infancy. Without a strong social network, Anna’s children were her dearest companions. The deaths of so many of her children as infants put even more burden on Anna’s already distressed psyche.
Joseph and Anna had limited options, but they were always looking for ways to improve Anna’s outlook. In 1906, they decided to move. “Thinking that a change of surroundings might be of benefit to his wife’s health,” states Anna’s obituary, Joseph sold the farm in Saline County and bought another one about 70 miles southwest in Nuckolls County, Nebraska, near the Kansas border. The tradeoff for new scenery was that their new farm was well beyond the area of Czech settlement. With no one else around who spoke her language, Anna became extremely lonely. “She missed her parents, brothers, sisters, and people who spoke her language,” continues her obituary. “She was not able to go out much, but was always glad to have people see her.”
And then little James died. James Vanek, called Václav at home after his grandfather, was the couple’s eleventh child. He was born in about April 1908 at the new farm in Nuckolls County. Despite his stern look in the photograph below, he was apparently a sweet boy. His mother had grown quite fond of him before a neočekávaným neštěstím—an “unexpected calamity”—struck him dead in October 1912 at age four-and-a-half. Family lore says he died in a farming accident. Anna’s obituary made special note of James and the affect his death had on a woman who already had more than her share of sorrow. After mentioning the four children Anna lost in infancy, it reads, “and one boy, little James, was accidentally killed at the age of five. Mrs. Vanek seemed to grieve a great deal over the loss of this boy.”
A Long, Painful Death
After moving to Nuckolls County, Anna “continued in poor health until her death,” a span of more than a decade. For a woman who had already suffered so much, one would have hoped that her death, when it came, would be quick. Alas, Anna faced more than three months of misery before the end finally came.
In mid September 1920, Anna suffered another seizure. It was probably no different than the ones she had regularly experienced over the previous thirty years. This time, however, she was not able to get to a safe place. Her death certificate explains what happened, though it is difficult to read on account of the doctor’s handwriting and the number of lines he squeezed into a small space. What I can make out is that a week previous to the doctor’s first visit on September 18, Anna had a seizure that resulted in a “severe scald (burn of right side back and neck . . . .” One can imagine Anna cooking at her potbelly stove when she suddenly collapsed on top of it, severely burning one side of her body.
The doctor treated her burns but they eventually became infected. Day after day she suffered as her wounds tried to heal. The doctor’s notes read, “at least 10 days [illegible] infection until last 10 days [illegible] many burns [illegible] . . .” as the infection slowly spread. Finally, on November 19, 1920, her body gave up.
Anna was just 47 years old. She was survived by both of her parents and all eight of her siblings.
The obituary, which I have quoted several times above, was obviously written by her grieving husband Joseph. The writing expresses far more pathos than was typical for an obituary from this era. Reading it, one senses how much Joseph recognized Anna’s fortitude and how much he loved spending time with her despite the limitations of her illness. One also senses that Anna’s death was in many ways a relief, not least for Anna herself. No more violent seizures. No more shame or social anxiety. No more loneliness. Just peace.
It Could Have Been Worse
When I think about Anna’s life, I am reminded how lucky I am to be healthy, educated, and surrounded by loyal friends. Anna had none of these things. She didn’t so much live as persevere. I admire her for the care and devotion she put into the few relationships she did have. I have a lot of admiration for Joseph Vanek, too, for his strength in dealing with his wife’s illness. He was involved more than most fathers of his day in rearing his children. When Anna died, six children still lived at home with him. He never remarried. Anna was fortunate to have such a devoted husband and father.
Proponents of eugenics for epileptics presumed that the cause of the disease was genetic. They believed they were “purifying” the gene pool and “improving” humanity by removing disease-causing genes. We now know that only in rare cases is epilepsy caused by a single underlying genetic mutation. Most of the time, its cause is more complicated. Sometimes, epilepsy is the result of an undiagnosed brain infection, stroke, or past head trauma. Usually, the cause is a complex of genetic factors and environmental stimuli. More than different 200 genes have been identified that are sometimes associated with epileptic seizures. How these genes interact with each other and with sensory inputs remains the cutting edge of research.
In short, the state-sponsored eugenics of the past was based in ignorance and its measures were extreme, like using a sledgehammer when a scalpel was called for. The collateral damage was immense. It remains perhaps the most striking American example of unnecessary government involvement in citizens’ private lives. The government forcibly prevented thousands of people from having children by destroying their God-given reproductive biology.
At the same time, the impulse behind eugenics doesn’t seem so bad; the goal to eliminate disease and improve human lives is nearly universal. And there have been some noted successes. For example, voluntary genetic testing has been used to discourage marriages between carriers of the recessive gene for Tay-Sachs disease, leading to a significant reduction in the occurrence of the child-killing disease among Ashkenazi Jews in North America.
The debate over the ethics of eugenics continues today. It is philosophical, political, and scientific. It lies at the heart of debates over pre-natal testing, abortion, and genetic engineering of humans and human organs. The lesson to take from last century’s eugenics programs is that we must move forward with caution, taking extra care not to ruin lives in an effort to save them. Anna Smith’s epilepsy was apparently not a case of simple genetic mutation. As far as I am aware, none of her descendants has since suffered from epilepsy. Preventing her from having children would not in any way have “improved” humanity. I, for one, am thankful she had children.