There once was a man named Stephen Allen.
Allen was orphaned during the Revolutionary War and grew up to become an esteemed sail maker. In 1821, he became the 55th mayor of New York City, serving until 1824. Following the Great Fire of New York in 1835, the former mayor led the commission to rebuild the Empire City.
Allen would eventually meet his fate on July 28, 1852, while aboard the steamboat Henry Clay after the ship caught fire on the Hudson Bay. Other notable victims of this disaster included the architect of the original Smithsonian design and the sister of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The sinking of the Henry Clay caused an outrage that led to stricter regulations of steamboats and limitations on the legalities of racing the ships.
Weird tidbit of history right? Well, if the research of my crack team of forensic scientists —my mother with an Ancestry.com account — is correct, Stephen Allen is my maternal eight great-grandfather. This information is relatively new to my family and me. My mom has been working on this family tree for quite some time now and I didn’t really care much about the history until recently. I’ve never been the type of person to give too much weight to family origins and tales of the great-great-greats. I was always confused when folks would talk about the struggles of ancestors centuries past as if they were the closest family. My takeaway was always “I never met this person, I never knew this person, this person didn’t know I would exist and probably wouldn’t care much for me due to differences in the societies we were formed by.”
Now don’t twist my words, I’m not hating on my ancestors. Again, I never knew them. I was barely told anything about them. There’s not enough information there to have any sort of opinion toward them in an emotional manner. My mom kept digging and found the point where one of our ancestors migrated to America and that changed things a bit.
Well beyond the years of Stephen Allen, my ancestors were actually Huguenots, French Protestants who were heavily persecuted by the Catholic Church. Many bloody battles and wars took place between the two and much of the Huguenot population either fled or was killed. So my family came to America after a group of Christians didn’t like the way a different group of Christians were being Christian. Common reasoning, but with an interesting coat of French dressing I was never aware of.
See when my family has discussed our lineage, French has never really been mentioned. German and Norwegian heritage were always thrown around but I honestly haven’t gotten far enough back to find any from there yet.
Well, except for one. My third or fourth great grandfather, the one I share a surname with, came from Germany. I found that information out myself after a short time of digging. My ancestor who I had heard called Anthony came from Alsace Lorraine, Germany in the late 1800s and found his way to an Iowa farm rather quickly.
I was immediately excited, but the Ancestry account I use isn’t able to view international documents. So I decided to look more into Alsace Lorraine. Guess what I learned?
Anthony may have moved from Germany but he wasn’t German. He was born in Alsace Lorraine, yes, but that was before it was annexed and named by Germany following the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
That’s right, Anthony, originally known as Antoine Maeder, was also French.
Now like I said, the furthest I could find on the Maeder side were the names of Antoine’s parents, but nothing else. For all I know they could actually be from the moon and moved there just before giving birth. Yet regardless, still French. Or German, I guess, depending on how you want to look at it.
It’s been eye-opening. I still don’t feel any sort of profound connection to these folks yet I acknowledge that all the consequential history led to me being where I am, when I am. Most importantly, I think my mom’s project has changed how I view my own legacy. I’d say I’ve developed more than just a substantiated fear of steamboats.
When I started working here at the paper, I was tasked with calling the markets everyday. The first time we had an early print and were unable to call markets, I said I hoped nobody would get upset over the absence. Sarah informed me putting grain markets in the paper was less about informing the public and more about recording it for historical purposes.
I don’t know why such a small conversation clicked but I think that changed the way I viewed my work and my history. The stories I write could be looked back at fifty years from now by somebody I don’t know will exist. The actions I make will affect people down my lineage in ways neither of us will ever be aware of. It’s a humbling thought but also a heavy one.
More importantly, the discoveries invigorated my compassion. Everyone can relate to the struggles their family persevered through but there’s nothing to be done generations after the fact. I can’t prevent the Huguenot Wars centuries after they occurred. However, do you know what word actually originated from ‘Huguenot?’
Refugee. There are plenty of those still.
So sure, I can’t lend a hand to my French forefathers, but I can stand up for those whose struggles are happening at the current branch of their family tree. My refugee ancestors wanted freedom, a new life and a better chance. So before you air your grievances over the influx of asylum seekers, look back at your family tree. I bet you will find someone with a similar story.