It’s All Relative, I Guess.

Posted by admin on November 5, 2018 in Culture |

As you probably know, I have a dysfunctional family. My brothers and I haven’t talked since 1982, I haven’t seen my nieces and nephews since they were little boys and girls. My parents are both dead, and I only have a couple aunts and uncles left in this world.

As I often say, I am really an orphan. Don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty good with it. I even had a half-brother in Nevada at one point, but he turned out to be something of a half-ass. He made the mistake of thinking that nature was equal to nurture. One day he decided to lecture me on how I should conduct my life. This from a one-time drug runner who turned state’s evidence and did some brief jail time. Uh-huh! Suffice it to say, we don’t talk anymore.

This hasn’t stopped me from exploring my roots, however. Yes, I’ve given up on most of the ones still breathing but I have become fascinated with the dead ones.

This all came about after I got my DNA tested several years back. It has changed a couple times since then since they continue to get more samples and more precise results. As of today, I’m roughly two-thirds English/Welsh, a quarter Germanic, specifically Alsace-Lorraine, 6% Irish/Scottish and 2% Norwegian.

It turns out I have a lot of relatives. And they fascinate me.

Case in point. I have one relative who received a series of stern letters from General Washington in the French-Indian Wars. Yes, George. It seems his my ancestor’s wife was sowing seeds of discontent, bordering on treason. And she was also selling booze to the troops. At one point Washington threatened to throw her out of the camp himself. The letters are freakin’ hilarious.

I always knew that my family had played some part in the Revolutionary War. It turns out several relatives were in the heat of battle. I was so excited to see one James A. Bartlett. I found his war records. He was a private in the 15th Virginia Regiment. He was also a deserter. Strangely, he returned to fight again in the War of 1812. He seems to have stuck that one out until its logical conclusion.

His father was also in the Revolutionary War. He signed up in 1777. He died in 1778. I guess he forgot to duck.

Going farther back in time, it turns out I have some Sheriffs in my family. Not the Robin Hood, Nottingham ones, unfortunately. Sir William Skipwith was the Sheriff of Lincolnshire. His father was also Sheriff there. A family business, so to speak.

That starts a whole line of privileged class on my mother’s side, dukes and duchesses, knights and such. Eventually, it goes back to Henry III from what I can tell. I don’t have a lot to say about this side of the family, except to say that my ancestors once owned Quenby Castle, and you can thank them for Stilton Cheese. Someday I’ll show up at the castle and see if I can get a spare set of keys.

My father’s side of the family is full of more colorful characters and mystery. My grandfather was a rum runner for Big Red, Al Capone’s brother, I am told. He immigrated (legally) from Odessa, Russia. He met my grandmother there.

It looks like their parents and grandparents were part of a huge emigration from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France or Germany, depending upon who won the latest war. Napoleon had seized all the lands and homes owned by the Germanic people in the region. At this same time, Catherine II offered land to them in the Black Sea region of Russia.

They didn’t exactly have trains back then. These people had to sneak out of France in the dead of night and travel by cart, foot and barge to their new homeland. That’s a trek of about 1,200 miles as the crow flies, far longer if you want to avoid the mountains.

I can’t imagine what that journey was like for my great-great-great-grandparents. These days we gripe if it takes more than an hour to make it home after work. I feel like such a weeny.

On this land, my ancestors grew wine grapes. I even found a bill of sale for 400 acres of vineyards. It’s not like they wanted to sell it. They had no choice. When the balance of power in Russia shifted, so did the political winds. The Germans were no longer welcomed and they were forced to flee, in many cases, for their lives. Think Fiddler on the Roof, but with Germans.

That’s when my grandfather came to America. Others from this region went to the Dakotas and Saskatchewan. Many of their descendants are still there. After a brief stop in Chicago, where I imagine he met Big Red, he headed to South Dakota with my grandmother.

There’s not much more to tell about that side. Their history peters out in Russia, largely because the Russians made sure to wipe the place clean, including destroying the headstones of most of the Zerrs buried there.

Back in Alsace-Lorraine, there are Zerrs that go back 400 years or more in a town called Neewiller. If I ever get there, I’m sure I will get a big kick out of meeting Zerrs everywhere I go.

I’m sure there’s lots more to discover. In some ways, it’s sad that I can’t share this with any family that is still alive, at least my sibling lines. My son is not old enough to really care, except to nod now and then when I tell him a funny story about his ancestors.

But I must say that it’s all been worth it. I’ve learned that a lot of my family’s stories about where we came from are either true or pretty accurate. I’ve found new relatives who share DNA and ancestors. I’ve even heard from one or two that are definitely part of this new family of mine.

I just hope they don’t expect me to buy them Christmas presents. I’ve saved thousands of dollars over the years with my current dysfunctional family. Not sure I want to open that can of worms. Or do I?

In the Emerald City, enjoying a big glass of wine, knowing that it’s a legitimate part of who I am,

  • Robb


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