Ancestors Dark and Light


My kids think I’m nuts on the subject of genealogy. They can’t imagine why I spend so much time doing family history research, never mind the money spent visiting Ireland and Austria and who knows how many future locales. I tell them that some day they will appreciate my quest for roots. They’re dubious.

Up to now, I’ve just ignored their ignorance, assuming it was a factor of their youth. But recently I’ve been wondering if finding roots and unearthing old family stories isn’t more important to some of us than others. Set aside for the moment that I’m a writer and often pop little gems of family history into unlikely places, say travel or political pieces. But that is a happy result of my research, not the motivator.

The motivator is a thirst for connection. I love history. Didn’t I earn the best-in-school history award when in seventh grade? Family vacations during those years always included stops at museums and battlefields: Little Big Horn, Antietam, Lower Sioux Agency. Not that the battlefields meant much to me—then.

I first started asking questions about my heritage when touring Sweden. When driving from the ferry landing at Helsingborg, Skane to Stockholm, I looked out across the fields and firs passing the tour bus window, and felt as if I were in northern Minnesota. The landscape was almost identical to that I had seen all my life. No wonder the Polsons came to Minnesota. Later, I discovered that Minnesota was much better than home for Emrick Polson. Unlike the mountainous Harjedalan Province in northern Sweden, where the growing season was short and arable land scanty, the rolling hills of southeastern Minnesota were fertile and almost free to homesteaders.

On my return, a search for the Polson farm and family gravesites in Wabasha County, introduced me to first cousins once-removed and Emrick’s original farmhouse. By the end of my Swedish quest, I had met dozens of newly-found relatives and seen photos of the log cabin in Sweden where great-grandfather Emrick was born. One treasure was the photo of him staring into the camera in his Union Army uniform and sporting a handsome mustache. Better yet, I had acquired a stash of stories and a family tree that spun back to the 1600s. It included a great-great-grandfather who was thrown into Malmo Prison for stealing a round of cheese and fighting with his brother-in-law. And I finally knew why we had visited Antietam back in the 1950s: Emrick had fought there with the Illinois cavalry.

The fragile line I had thrown out on my return from Sweden now linked me to a parcel of land in Wabasha County that contained my DNA, had then spun out across the Atlantic and attached me to a cabin in Jemtland, and then coursed back to the seventeenth century to Jan Olson and Margreta Larsdotter. I was no longer a free–floating bit of matter wandering the universe. Just like the CSI techs, tracing a cell phone call, I had triangulated and located myself.

But the Swedish genes were only one-fourth of me. What about the rest? One of the Wabasha County cemetery tours led by my Swedish cousins required crawling under an electrified barbed wire fence, luckily turned off, and braving cows to reach an old cemetery in the midst of a farmer’s field. It was there I was launched on my Irish adventures, for in that forgotten little cemetery I found my great-great-great grandmother, Ellen Daily. The search to find my Irish origins eventually led me to the National Library in Dublin and the Public Records Office in Northern Ireland. But research in Ireland is tricky, because meticulously-kept old church records such as those in Sweden are rare, thanks to the English. So far, I know my people are from Belfast, Armagh, and the lovely Dingle Peninsula. That means I’ll just have to keep visiting Ireland until I solve the mystery of their home townlands.

On my paternal side, the origins are Austrian, German, and Alsatian, and at least I knew the respective home villages. An invitation to write on my Austrian ancestors’ immigration experience, sent me to the History Center for weeks of research and then to relatives to for immigration and post-immigration stories. The result was a nine-page narrative of the Austrians’ arrival in St. Paul and later colorful adventures. When an opportunity arose to tour in central Europe, I chose to see Vienna and persuaded my daughter to trek south to Bergenland, find the villages of St. Andra and Andau, and see the bridge made a household word by James Michener after the Hungarian Revolution. Another line spun out and anchored. What remains are the Alsatian and German homelands.

As I studied the family tree information I had scrupulously entered into Family Treemaker software and reread the stories I had recorded, I began to see patterns and ask questions. How was it that alcoholism galloped through two lines? Why had the Irish families virtually disappeared from the census records after 1920? Or had they changed their names to Holland, a more English-sounding version of Houlihan? What about the mental illness on one side? Was there a fault line somewhere?

I began to see that uncovering family history was about more than locating oneself in the universe. It was also about what had made me me, what was stored in the genes I had inherited.

I was a child of survivors, survivors of the Irish famine and the Swedish near-famine, of a Civil War veteran who recovered from his wounds and re-enlisted, and his wife who bore thirteen children, only to see four of them die before they reached four years old–one by falling in to a vat of boiling water. But I also had inherited genes that could have led to alcoholism and mental illness.

Now, occasionally, I try to see that procession of shadows stretching behind me through the centuries and pick out a few faces. From what I’ve learned, they were people who coped; some were admirable, some not so. They survived the best they knew how. Perhaps that’s the best gift of genealogical research: empathy for what those of one’s own blood have faced and somehow survived. And hopefully it inspires a similar sympathy for others not of the blood, but who face like troubles and also survive as best they can. That’s what I wish to pass on to my children.