I’m going to start sporadically researching the European towns my ancestors left when they came to the US in the 1910s (and to Quebec in 1653). As time allows, and I’m always pressed for time.
I want to visit each of these places one day because no one else in my family has, and for whatever reason I feel like I’m being led to do it. Why do I have feelings for a land my ancestors fled, surely with very good reason? I guess I’ll find out. I’ve always felt so different from my parents. I’m not adopted, why did I emerge all contrary and probing and restless? Who am I? Where did all my quirks come from? Is there any connection at all? Is the connection more real than we can imagine? I don’t know.
Maybe it’s because I lost my only sibling when I was 16. My connections to the past are fleeting, as more and more relatives slip away with time. And tragedy. Maybe I’m trying to rebuild some of what has been lost.
There’s no fame or fortune or royalty to find. Just simple everyday people. But the things your grandparents and parents chose not to tell you are the things that beg to be found. The deeper you search, the more interesting such a seemingly dull lineage becomes.
Story-wise, we’ve got a master carpenter in the sleepy countryside of Nevers, France, recruited by Jesuits in the seventeenth century to help build the city of Montreal. His imprint can still be found on many business names in the city, including a historic photography studio. One of his descendants later left Montreal in a canoe headed downriver with a guy called Cadillac at the helm. When the convoy found a good place to land they built a fort and called it Detroit. Another descendent was scalped by Indians and buried by Gabriel Richard. We have copies of the paperwork, unsigned because family members were illiterate and couldn’t sign their names. An oddly named and mispronounced street in Detroit still bears their name. It once ran alongside the family’s ribbon farm, which stretched out like a ribbon from the Detroit River. Someone once asked me “What’s a Livernois?” and I pointed to my mom “She used to be one.”
Back overseas, early twentieth century, there’s an explosive Prussian soldier who killed a man in a bar fight and fled to the US where he started a family in Pennsylvania, moved them to Detroit after floods destroyed their town and then abandoned his wife and 8 kids in the city. Back in Poland there’s a young woman who ran off with the family gardener and then they lost everything (again) when their trunk was stolen after first setting foot on U.S. soil. Another young Polish woman left all she knew behind because she was sick of cooking for her deadbeat brothers (yet later found herself married to that deadbeat soldier). Another young German girl left Hungary with her family for a better life in Detroit. There’s soon an illegitimate son raised by grandparents and a slew of unanswered questions and incomplete paperwork.
There are people who saw visions of family members who had died that very night an ocean away, people who had eerily prophetic dreams and miraculous healings; a great aunt who snuck her nieces downtown to a seedy fortune teller who foresaw the truth (they swear to this day), superstitious yet fiercely Roman Catholic folks, but also fiercely independent non-conformist thinkers, farm owners, renters, street car conductors, elevator operators, miners, hair dressers and people who entered the “gates of hell” to make steel at the Rouge Factory. There’s a prim and proper always perfectly coiffed woman who was hit by a car on the streets of Detroit yet continued to walk with a cane with intimidating grace and dignity, and, on the other side of the family, a battleaxe broad who would punch out grown men when fighting for coal that fell off railroad cars in frigid winters. There are great uncles who worked speakeasies in Prohibition Detroit, who saw the country by riding the rails with hobos during the depression; one grandfather who went to Henry Ford’s trade school for young boys where they experimented with soybeans for energy; a grandmother who was a real Rosie the Riveter, making airplane parts in a Detroit factory during the war; and another grandmother who fought off an attacker while walking to work at a thread factory or was it a wire factory? I intend to find out..
Are all the above stories - as told to me - true? I hope so. If not, I have a feeling the truth - if it’s ever found - is even stranger.
So many of the buildings in all of these stories have been destroyed and only vacant fields remain where many houses once stood. It could all be so easily forgotten. But I’m like an antennae connecting the present with the past, always alert to clues and finding things in the oddest places. These things just want to be found, like film footage of my Grandparent’s wedding (yes, Grandparents!) found in a distant cousin’s collection after I pressed for some information. My mom had never seen it. Incredible. I bawled.
I will sporadically be posting about:
- First and Foremost: Detroit, where everyone eventually ended up. I love learning about Detroit’s history based on what these varied families may have experienced. I love old photos, interesting tidbits and bizarre facts.
- Pszczyna, Poland
- Jawornik Polski, Poland
- Gdansk / Danzig, Poland
- Bacsordas, Hungary (now Serbia)
- Nevers, France
Those are the places I know about, for now.
I don’t speak Polish, French, German or Russian.
Though I know some Spanish, I, uh, don’t think that will help. Or maybe it will, stranger things have been known to surprise me.
Hasta la vista…..