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Posts Tagged ‘Genealogy’

flying-angel-3This is basically a rerun of a story that I first posted back in 2009.  I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy doing genealogical research, digging back through layers of history, trying to put together a sometimes very complicated puzzle to reveal certain connections.  Sometimes it can be relatively boring, going through generations without finding a visible compelling story.  But once in a while you stumble on an ancestor with heroic traits and an exciting story to tell.  Or one who is a scoundrel who makes you wish you hadn’t found out so much about them.  But one of the great pleasures I take in doing this is coming across the life stories of ancestors that are just plain good tales.

One such is from my wife’s family, the story of the lady they called the Flying Angel.  Her maiden name was Magdalena Dircksen Volckertsen and she was born in New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) in the 1630’s, her father a builder of the earliest homes there for the Dutch West Indies Company.

Her first husband ( not in my wife’s family line) was a privateer for the Dutch West Indies Company.  That is to say, he was a pirate hired by the company to attack foreign ships and competitors in the area.  Called “Captain Caper” for his daring, he was killed in an Indian attack that was the beginning of the Indian Wars of 1655.  Magadalena was left a young widow with an infant child.

Two years later she married Herman Hendricksen Rosenkrance, called “Herman the Portuguese.”  The name came not from his nationality ( he was from Norway) but from his service as a mercenary for the Dutch company in Brazil where they forced their way into sugar growing areas controlled by the Portuguese.  Finally forcibly repelled from Brazil, Herman and his cohorts were sent to New Amsterdam to engage the Indians there.  Herman stayed on as a settler, supposedly running a tavern of low repute called the Flying Angel, the origin of Magdalena’s nickname.

Magdalena had quite the temper.  On her wedding day to Herman, after downing multiple beers, she was walking with her sister just above what is now Wall Street in NYC when she passed and insulted the fire warden.  What was termed a street riot broke out and several weeks later  she was yellow-carded by Peter Stuyvesant, meaning she was expelled from the settlement, sent back to Holland where she and Herman bided their time for two years until they were finally allowed to come back, provided they did not open a tavern or sell spirits.

The following years were a series of adventures involving Indian Wars  (one that had Herman being captured and staked out in the sun before he was able to escape), various  legal troubles, some involving Magadalena throwing beer in the faces of a number of  men, stabbings and accusations of selling liquor to the native Indian population.  They ended up living up the Hudson, near Kingston, where Magdalena lived into her 90’s.

It’s rumored that in her later years, she would chase Indians from her property by running out at them, yelling and shaking a large goiter on her neck at them.  How could she not live past 90?

It’s just an interesting footnote in our history and the early settlement of NY, one that you don’t hear much about.  I’m always excited when I come across such stories, especially when there is a small personal connection.  Magadalena and Herman would be my wive’s 8th generation grandparents.

I’m not sure how proud she is…

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In different hours, a man represents each of several of his ancestors, as if there were seven or eight of us rolled up in each man’s skin, — seven or eight ancestors at least, — and they constitute the variety of notes for that new piece of music which his life is.
―Ralph Waldo Emerson

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GC Myers- Family Lines smThis is another newer painting that is headed to Erie for my show, Into the Common Ground,  in December at the Kada Gallery.  This 30′ by 40″ canvas is titled Family Lines with the Red Tree serving as the symbol of a family tree and the Red Chair acting as an offspring of it.  The broken segments of the winding path leading up to it represent for me the often arduous task of finding your connection to this tree while the light of the sky represents ultimate discovery and illumination.

I’ve often felt as though I had little definition of myself or my connection to the world through my ancestors.  My work as an artist has helped change this in many ways, giving me a portal for displaying who I am or  at least aspire to be in definition.  But my connection to my ancestors was always vague and hidden away beyond my knowledge.  I wondered who they were, what their stories held  and what traits they fed forward  through time to me.  I began to study my genealogy, hoping to discover some form of connection with the past that might help me better understand who I was in the present.  To discover what worlds the winding path that led to my own life traveled through.

It’s been a wonderful process that has given me greater connection with the past and with the history of this country and with those countries that gave birth to my ancestors.  Naturally, I am always drawn to the grand stories that are uncovered, the heroic and celebrated ancestors that I find myself hoping have somehow contributed some of their positive traits to my DNA.  But I am equally intrigued and touched by the simple and sometimes tragic tales that are uncovered.

I had earlier written of a great grand uncle who had lived his whole life in a county home for the infirmed. He was described in the censuses during his life as “feeble-minded” and he was unceremoniously buried  in an unmarked grave there at the county home.  I recently came across his death certificate and they listed him as a lifelong sufferer of epilepsy.  It made the story even more tragic in that this was perhaps a person who had a condition that would be treatable today.

I think of this person quite often.  His story is as much a part of that tree as those of  its more celebrated members.  It may not be the most beautiful leaf on the branch but it is there.  As Emerson says, we represent in some form a number of our ancestors and whose to say what part this ancestor plays in that piece of new music that is my life.

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GC Myers- April 2014This is a new painting, a still untitled 12″ by 12″ canvas. Normally when I look at such a piece I see in it something hopeful, forward looking toward a distant horizon.  Destiny bound.  But while I was looking at this piece, absorbing it and trying to take in its feeling, something I had read at some point came to mind.  I can’t remember who said it but the gist of it was that you can’t connect the dots of destiny by looking forward– you can only connect them by looking backwards.

In other words, you can’t plan your destiny.  But you can see how you arrived where you are.

This idea of connecting the dots by looking backwards was no stranger to me.  That was the central appeal of  genealogy for me, being able to find the trail that brought us to where we are at this moment.  To see that path in some sort of view that takes what might be very mundane lives when seen individually and places them in a grand and sweeping perspective.  Doing this made me feel connected with my humanity, able to see that I was not some sort of alienated being  but was a part of that sweeping vision.  Would I be a noteworthy part?  That I could not tell.

As it was said, you can’t plan your destiny.

So looking at this piece with this thought in mind, I no longer see it forward looking.  I view it as the perspective of someone who has turned around on the trail and is looking back at from where they came.  And there’s a certain synchronicity in this.  The sun and the water represent our evolutionary beginnings and the path, our trail though the ages.

Strangely, it doesn’t lose any of its hopefulness by taking on this perspective.  In fact, I now find it comforting from this perspective, that I have a purpose and responsibility as the recipient of a task that must be carried forward, at least for my short stint here on the trail.

The dots are connected and now I can look ahead…

 

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GC Myers-  Time of Peace smThis season always signals the end of one year and the beginning of the next and generally sets me to thinking about pasts and futures, thinking about their connection and how it affects my life and work.  One way to examine the past is to delve into genealogy, something that I began doing in earnest several years ago and continue on a regular basis, especially at this time of the year.  It has provided a background, a basis for being and a connection with my environment that I often felt was missing as I grew up.

I will talk a little bit about it with family members, trying to pass on my findings, but have gotten so used to glassy-eyed looks of disinterest that I now seldom bring it up in conversation.  Not everyone wants to look back and I can respect that.  For me, however, it has been essential to my own progress forward, providing me with perspective and a sense of being.  I wrote a bit about this several years ago on this blog, documenting a relative’s pitiable existence and how it relates to my work.  I think it says as much about how I define my purpose as an artist as well as anything I have written before or since.

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I woke up much too early this morning.  Deep darkness and quiet but my mind racing.  Oddly enough I found myself thinking of a person I had come across in my explorations in my personal genealogy.  It was a cousin  several generations back, someone who lived in the late 1800′s in rural northern Pennsylvania.  The name was one of those you often come across in genealogy, one with few hints as to the life they led.  Few traces of their existence at all. 

 At the time, it piqued my curiosity for some reason I couldn’t identify.  He was simply a son of  the brother of one of my great-great grandparents.  As I said, you run across these people by the droves in genealogy, people who show up then disappear in the mist of history, many dying at a young age.  But this one had something that made me want to look further.  I could find nothing but a mention in an early census record then nothing.  No family of any sort.  No military service.  No land or property.  No listings in the cemeteries around where he lived.  I searched all the local records available to me and finally came across one lone record.  One mention of this name at the right time in the right place, a decade or so from when I lost sight of them.

It was a census record and this person was now in their late 30′s.  It was one line with no other family members, one of many in a long list that stretched over two pages.  I had seen this before.  Maybe this was a jail or a prison.  I had other family members in my tree who, when the census rolled around, were incarcerated and showed up for those years as prisoners.  So I went to the beginning of the list and there was my answer.

It wasn’t a prison.  Well, not in name.  It was the County Home.  This person was either insane or mentally or physically handicapped and was living out their life in a home when they could or would no longer be cared for by family.  It struck me at the time that this was someone who lived and experienced as we all do and who has probably not been thought of in many, many decades.  If ever.

This all came back to me in a flash as I laid there in the dark this morning.  I began to think of what I do and, as is often the case when I find myself wide awake  in the dark at 3:30 AM, began to question why I do it and what purpose it serves in this world.  Is there any value other than pretty pictures to hang on a wall?  How does my work pertain to someone like my relative who lived and died in obscurity? 

In my work, the red tree is the most prominent symbol used.   I see myself as the red tree when I look at these paintings and see it as a way of calling attention to the simple fact that I exist in this world.  I think that may be what others see as well– a symbol of their own existence and uniqueness in the world. 

If I am a red tree, isn’t everyone a red tree in some way?  Isn’t my distant cousin living in a rural county home, alone and apart from family, a red tree as well?  What was his uniqueness, his exceptionalism?  He had something, I’m sure.  We all do.

And it came to me then, as I laid in the blackness.  Maybe the red tree isn’t about my own uniqueness.  Maybe it was about recognizing the uniqueness of others and seeing ourselves in them, recognizing that we all have special qualities to celebrate.  Maybe that is the real purpose in what I do.  Perhaps this realization that everyone has an exceptionalism that deserves recognition and celebration is the reason that I find it so hard to shake the red tree from my vocabulary of imagery. 

 Don’t we all deserve to be a red tree, in someone’s eyes?

There was more in the spinning gears this morning but I want to leave it at that for now.  It’s 5:30 AM and the day awaits…

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I’ve always been a fan of graveyards, a fact that I’ve proclaimed here in the past.  The monuments and tombstones are an unceasing source of fascination, both in the data provided and the design of the stones. 

 So you can imagine how happy I was to stumble across a relative who also has a great tombstone.  Such is the case with this particular stone, one that marks the grave of my tenth great grandmother on Martha’s Vineyard.  Died in 1726 at the age of 83.  Her name was Hephzibah Doggett who was married to John Eddey.

Hephzibah Doggett.  Got to love that name.

   Before I started venturing into genealogy a few years back I had no idea of any family before the last two or three generations, and even then the history was sketchy at best.  On my mother’s side, it was almost non-existent.  So, to turn previously unturned pages in the family history is exciting and gives a new perspective on how we arrived at this place.  It also provides an opportunity to imagine how the thoughts and mind of a person like Hephzipah relate to your own, to wonder if their eyes saw things in a way that I could understand.

Of course, I will never know the answers to such questions but at least I know that she existed and has left a wonderful monument as her marker on time.

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I’ve written quite a bit lately about the concept of home and the search that many of us go through in defining what home truly means.  It’s all part of a process of determining who we really are as individuals and what our place is in the grand scheme of things.  Home and family are the two fundamental building blocks upon which we build our own definitions of self.  Home is where we are and feel we belong in the present and family is where we have been in the past, the basic bloodlink that has carried us to this point in time.

I’ve written about my research into my family and that of my wife so it was with some interest that I watched a new program last night called Who Do You Think You Are? that traces the lineage of celebrities on a weekly basis.  I really couldn’t  care less about the celebrity part (in fact, this show might be more interesting if they randomly chose to trace the roots of some very everyday folks) but am always interested in seeing how a person is affected when finding a new depth and understanding of their distant past.  Such was the case with last night’s subject, Sarah Jessica Parker.

Parker, like many of us, knew little of her past and felt that her family was only on the fringe of the American experience, that they had little to do with the events of the past that shaped and made this country.  I knew that feeling well .  In her case, her past easily revealed itself with just a bit of research and she was able to find a great-grandfather who from several generations back who left home and family in Ohio and crossed the country via wagon train, questing for fortune for his family in the gold mines of California.  Part of the Gold Rush and staking a claim with partners, he worked the mine and died of illness within a year.  His story is emblematic of the American push into the west.

Going back further, she found her family in the center of the Salem witch trials of the 1690’s, with a great-grandmother who, as a young woman, was accused of witchcraft but was spared from the death by hanging that all other who had been previously accusedsuffered as the trials were halted before her case came before the court.   Without the stoppage of the trials, Parker’s very existence would be in doubt.  Again, she finds herself in the middle of events that shaped the narrative of our country.  Going further, I’m sure she will find her family in the midst of events that shaped history in the countries of her ancestors.

Such is the case with us all.  It was interesting to see her story and to see how she was moved by and connected with the stories of her ancestors, how she gained insight and appreciation for the journey that led to this very moment in time.  Her’s is a wonderful story but not a rare one.  All of us have a rich heritage if we only choose to look, a wealth of information that winds through and connects us with the annals (yes, annals) of history.  We all are more than we seem and all are alive as the result of  many amazing sets of circumstance.

I have often thought if we all comprehended what it took to get us as a people to this point, how those ancestors who came before us risked and sacrificed for home and family, then we might take more pride in who we are and take more personal responsibility for our future.

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I’ve been doing some genealogy lately.  Don’t worry- I won’t bore you with all the details of my family.  Nobody wants to read that.

But doing so raises the question of why I’m doing this.  What is the purpose in looking back?

Growing up, there was never a sense of history in our families.  It felt as though our family lines had started one or two generations before, little known before the lives of our grandparents.  Hardly anything in the way of familial knowledge was passed down, either in words or objects.  It gave a feeling of being disconnected from the rest of the world.   It left me wondering if the place we occupied in life at the moment was always this same niche.  How did we arrive at this point?

For example, there’s a side in my family that seems like a hopeless lot.  Barely educated with many being illiterate.  Poor.  Prone to violence and crime.  The only stories I heard about this side of my family were lurid accounts of fights breaking out at funerals where the casket ends up overturned and guys kicking out the screens of their televisions while watching professional wrestling.  There were other stories that were worse than that but I’ll keep them to myself, thank you.

The point is, how did they get to this low level?  Were they always like this?  Were they always stupid?  Were they always fighting themselves at the bottom?

When you’re trying to figure out who you are and you see that half of your past is less than inspiring, you begin to wonder.

So I begin to dig, putting together a fragile puzzle with bits and pieces spread all over the place.  I use all the online resources I know of to gain  bits and pieces of info.  There’s hardly any movement then, with a single piece of found information, there’s a landslide of information and the pattern of this family seems to be uncovered.  Their place in the web of the world is there to be seen, not hidden anymore under layers of ignorance and shame.

I felt like an orphan discovering the name of his parents, feeling connected with a knowable history.

And for this side of my family, it was truly enlightening to view their line.  They seemed to be the products of nothing but ignorance at this point but it was not always the case.  Their decline was many, many generations in the making.  They had been religious scholars and among the wealthy merchant class of northern Europe going back to the mid-1500’s.  Recruited by William Penn and coming to America they had been among the first settlers of Philadelphia. They fought with Washington at Valley Forge.  They moved westward, forming some of the earliest frontier settlements in Virginia and beyond.

But as they went, there was a serious erosion of the value they placed on knowledge and learning as evidenced by the numbers of them who were marked down in censuses of the 1800’s as being unable to read or write.  While their family line had once been at the forefront of the great movement west as leaders and landowners, they gradually settled into a life as tenants and farm laborers.  Each generation bringing them closer and closer to the version of this family that I now know.

So what’s the purpose of this whole exercise?  I don’t really know for sure.  For me, it’s finding that my family was an active part of the American past, that there is a foundation down there under the rubble.  It’s a newly found pride in a name that I didn’t want to claim as part of me.  It’s knowing that a positive contribution to the formation of this country has been made and that this line of the family is a real part of the American experience.

It also points out the value of knowledge and education in the survival of a family.

And a country…

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I wrote the other day about doing some genealogy about my great-grandfather, Gilbert Perry, and how interesting it has been in reconnecting with an ancestor about who I knew so little about.  One of the great pleasures has been reading the old newspapers from the late 1800’s that are available online via  the Northern New York Library System.  I am constantly fascinated in browsing the ads and notices of the times, seeing how day to day life changed and evolved.

This ad for a balloon ascension with Professor Squire, a la The Wizard of Oz, at the Franklin County Fair in Malone, NY appeared in the September 2, 1872 edition of the Malone Palladium.  It was on the front page alongside accounts from the Republican convention of that year where Ulysses S. Grant was nominated for the presidency as well as death notices, ads for pianos (they were selling Steinways up there!) and dry goods.  Ads looking for tin peddlers, a furniture dealer selling metal burial caskets, a lumber dealer, carriage painters and a mail order ad for a tea dealer on Wall Street in NYC.  There was a list of  rules of behavior that would be enforced at the Fair.  No drinking or betting on the trotters.

It was all pretty interesting, a glimpse into that time, but the part that caught my eye was near the top of the page, just under the death notices.  It was a Notice of Liberation where my great-great grandfather, Francis Perry, was giving Gilbert Perry, my great-grandfather, the remainder of his minority, giving him freedom from furhter financial obligations to his father.  Gilbert was free to transact business as he saw fit.

It was at this point that Gilbert formed his first crew and headed into the North woods with his first contract to deliver logs.  He was just 18 years old.  He continued to be a logger for the next 60 years, only stopping a few years before his death at age 81.  My Aunt Norma has recollections of visiting his farm in St. Regis Falls when she was small girl in the early 1930’s.  She said there were big log sleds scattered all around, the type pulled by teams of horses.  He was throwback even then to an earlier time before big tractors and chainsaws.

So in this little piece in this little newspaper from the north I see the beginning of my great-grandfather’s world, one that led to my grandmother’s much different world and to my father’s even more different world to my world which would probably seem incomprehensible to a man so at home in the woods.  Or maybe not…

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