Ancestors & Colonization: Quebec

When I was exploring my German immigrant ancestors in the context of decolonization, I was struck by the feeling that they arrived after the major struggles of colonization in their part of the country.  For my dad’s family who arrived in the mid-1800s, it was a generation earlier that treaties were pressed upon the Indigenous peoples of those lands, who were forced to move further west or to Oklahoma.  In another branch of my family, my mom’s father was from Austria, and immigrated even later, via Canada, to Detroit in late 1915.

I wonder if these Germanic immigrants even thought about it, or if so, maybe it was like, “We just got here, we don’t have anything to do with those struggles you all had before.” Though, of course, the German farmers benefitted from those earlier actions, because now land was available for low prices. But it can leave a feeling of distant non-involvement, a sense that colonization wasn’t very much about my family.  My mom’s mother was also an immigrant to the United States, but her background is more complex, because she came from Quebec.

When I was younger, the very first ancestors I was curious about were those of my grandmother, born Yvonne Tremblay.  That intensified when I became a feminist, and wanted to learn about my motherline.  Plus, as I have written about elsewhere, she was “part Indian,” and I was curious about that. It turned out that Quebec province kept very good records, and I was able to learn a lot, even before the age of the internet.  But I wasn’t asking questions then about colonization or decolonization.  So this week, I decided to reopen that window of exploration, to see what I could find.

While the information available about my Scottish and Innu ancestors stops with Peter Macleod and Marie Madeleine Montagnaise, (my great-great-great-grandparents), the information about my French ancestors in Quebec goes back to some of the original colonizers.  Yesterday, I learned that one ancestor, Jean Guyon, my 11th great-grandfather, arrived in 1634. But not to get egotistical about it, they say three out of four Quebecois descend from him. And in fact, I am descended from him via four separate lines of ancestry. I am including this monument to the first Tremblays in Quebec, Pierre Tremblay and Ozanne Achon, who arrived in 1657.

Pierre Trembly Ozanne Achon

Today, in my family tree, I accidentally came upon the name Helene Desportes, my 9th great-grandmother. Her birth was listed as 1620 in Quebec, and it turns out she is said to be the first white child born in Canada, though she might have been born on the ship just before arrival. One of my methods is to do an internet search for any of these early names, and I learned there is a recent biography about her, Helene’s World: Helene Desportes of Seventeenth-Century Quebec, by Susan McNelley.

Suddenly, there is a whole new world to explore–okay that was the wrong phrase to use–in my decolonization understanding.

 

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Missouri Germans in the Civil War

I felt an odd sense of relief and satisfaction to learn that my German Missouri ancestors were on the Union side of the Civil War.  While recovering from my latest gardening exploits, I was watching episodes of the Ken Burns documentary “The West.”  I was surprised by the series’ level of truth-telling in stories about colonization, about racism, about the violence endemic to the history of the United States. It has been quite an eye-opener about the “settlement” of the West, and I recommend it to all students of decolonization.

In the episode about the lead-up to the Civil War, I learned that Missouri and Kansas were the site of the heaviest civilian conflict and bloodshed before and during the war.  Earlier, in 1820, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, in conjunction with Maine being admitted as a free state, in the compromise to keep a balance between the free and slave states.  When the Kansas territory was “opened for settlement” in the 1850s it was decided to let the residents vote on whether they would be a slave state or free state.

[“Opened for settlement,” of course, meant the removal and theft of the land from the Arapaho, Comanche, Osage, Kansa, Kiowa, Missouri, Otoe, and Pawnee peoples, plus a dozen more eastern tribes who had been relocated to Kansas/Oklahoma in what was to be their land forever. But moving on for now to the slavery question…]

This new Kansas territory turned into a tinderbox of the national tensions between slavery vs. freedom for African-Americans–white Abolitionists from New England, and white pro-slavery Missourians (with their enslaved people with them) were among those who rushed to live in Kansas to influence the direction it would go.  Eventually, after much bloodshed, burning, looting, and turmoil, Kansas joined the Union in 1861 as a free state.

But my own curiosity shifted from Kansas over to what happened in Missouri, where my Heisler/Gerling ancestors had settled in the 1850s. I had thought they were on the side of the Union, so what were they doing in a slave state?  Ken Burns didn’t tell their story, but I went hunting on the internet to sort it out.  There I found the rather satisfying news that the German emigrants in Missouri were in fact opposed to slavery, and avid supporters of the Union.  They had emigrated after a failed revolution for democracy in 1848 in the German lands, and held dear the ideals of freedom and equality.  According to Patrick Young, in an article that was part of a series, The Immigrants’ Civil War,

[German Americans] saw parallels in the military coups in the German states in 1848 that ended the democratic dream in Europe. One of the exiled revolutionaries, August Willich, wrote after the attack on Fort Sumter that Germans needed to “protect their new republican homeland against the aristocracy of the South.”

Their influence was part of what kept Missouri in the Union.  According to another article by Patrick Young,

Missouri was a border state. That meant that it was a slave state lying between the Confederacy and the free states of the North. In the 1850s, Missouri had been the staging ground for pro-slavery terror raids against free soil towns in Kansas, but by 1861, the state’s wealthy slaveholding class was being challenged for power from an unlikely quarter.

German immigrants had moved into the state in large numbers in the 1850s. Most crowded into the fast growing industrial metropolis of St. Louis. Others started small German-speaking rural communities, [Note–that would include my ancestors] where they found themselves expected to defer to nearby slaveholders who expressed their worth in the number of humans they owned. The Germans had come to America for freedom, and they resented both slavery and the power it gave slaveholders over Missouri politics. When the Germans became citizens, they quickly formed the state’s most consistently anti-slavery electorate.

Thomas HeislerWhen I look at the lists of Union and Confederate soldiers from Missouri, none of my direct ancestors are included, though there were two Heisler men listed as Union soldiers. It’s possible that my great-great grandfather, Johann Heisler, was too old to enlist–he would have been 40 years old in 1860, with young children. My great grandfather, Thomas Heisler was born in 1857–only a toddler when the war began. Maybe they just tried to farm their land, and keep the peace with their neighbors.  One family story says the four Heisler brothers had left Germany to avoid being drafted into the military there. [Note: see addendum about another brother’s service in the Union Army.]

But it sounds like the war came to everyone’s land.  From the same article:

Even before the war, pro-slavery raiders had tried to drive German farmers out of rural Missouri. Now bringing about the submission or eradication of the Unionist German community became an imperative for Confederates.

Historian Ella Lonn wrote that after the Germans foiled the takeover [by the Missouri Confederates] of the [St. Louis] arsenal and fired into the mob:

“The hatred that Missouri Confederates felt for the Germans was frightful…German farmers were shot down, their fields laid waste, and their houses burned.” 9

German immigrants responded by supplying nearly half the soldiers raised by Missouri for the Union cause over the next four years.9 In that state, the war would take on the vicious character of a guerrilla struggle between Germans trying to make a place in a free America, and native-born Confederates trying to drive them out.

The Germans refused to leave.

So, in the midst of so much that is soul crushing about the history of this country, that’s a satisfying story to learn! There were many other stories about the Germans in Missouri of that time–too numerous to include, but check out the series, The Immigrants’ Civil War. I am inspired in my own work against racism to know they were carrying those values of equality and freedom from their homeland.

 

“Remain in the land and nourish it”

One of my hopes in exploring the stories of my ancestors is to see what cultural wisdom I might reclaim from everything that got lost in translation, especially regarding their relationship to land.  Today I was diving deep into internet stories about East Friesland, the ancestral land of my great grandfather Henry Johnson. His parents and grandparents had traveled from East Friesland to Illinois via New Orleans in the 1850s.

His father, Heye Broer Janssen traveled to the U.S. on the ship “Fannie” with 16 total family members including his parents Broer Janssen Martens and Geske Alber Schoen, arriving in New Orleans October 28, 1851. (The name Martens was dropped in the U.S. and they were called Janssen and then Johnson. Previously in East Friesland, people took the first name of their father as their last name.)  Henry’s mother, Helena Hinrich Janssen arrived in New Orleans on November 8, 1854 with her parents Heinrich Johann H. Janssen and Esse Classen Beckman. Her parents died a few years later, and she and her brothers and sisters were cared for by relatives and neighbors. Heye and Helena (Lena) married in 1862, and Henry was born in 1865, the second of ten children.

I must offer thanks again to my cousin Jim Pattyn for all his work in exploring the genealogy of our common ancestors.  In my search for their relationship to their land, I found myself recording all the towns in which they had lived in East Friesland, in fact for many generations prior: Firrel, Grossoldendorf, Kleinsander, Kleinoldendorf, Hesel, Moordorf, Schwerindorf, Strackholt, Remel.  These small towns are all within about 30 miles of each other in the center of East Friesland, somewhat near the larger town of Aurich.

625px-Ostfriesland_Verkehr-de.svg

East Friesland Map: Photo by NordNordWest – own work, using Ostfriesland de.svg by Enricopedia., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5273792

In a letter dated April 16, 1846, from Alton, Illinois, one of my distant relatives (Heie Keiser) encouraged his family back in East Friesland to come join him. He praised the opportunities in his new home.  I was struck by one of his closing statements. He wrote:

And also think not as the old wives used to say, “Remain in the land and nourish it.” We agree much more with the poet, when he says, “Hail to you Columbus, glory be to you, be highly honored forever.’ You have shown us the way out of hard servitude.”

The East Frisians had a deep love of independence and freedom, and they resonated with the “American dream.”  I appreciate their love of freedom, but in my study of the process of colonization, I cringe at their praise of Columbus–one can see that they jumped at the chance to be part of the settling of this land that was new to them. They were able to work hard and acquire their own land to farm and to cherish.

But as a feminist scholar, I also like to notice wisdom that is hidden by being contradicted.  I wonder, who were the “old wives” who had offered this different sort of wisdom that was being rejected:  “Remain in the land and nourish it.”  That is a heritage I want to claim today, the heritage of the old wives, the ones who stayed.  (I think it also filtered into the ones who came to the U.S., because from what I can gather, the East Frisians were careful farmers who took care of their land so that it might continue productive for long years.)

I also heard about another custom of German immigrants (not sure from which parts of Germany) who carried in their pockets across the ocean some of the soil from their homes, so that at least they might be buried with some of the soil of their own land.  In this exploration of the ancestors and their relationship to land, there is something to grieve and also something to be thankful for.  I think that what Margy and I are trying to do with our land here in Portland might fit into that old wives’ wisdom–remain in the land and nourish it.

 

Prophecy, #4

Another important aspect of communal prophecy is that those of us whose voices are often heard, who have the privilege that creates a larger platform, need to stop speaking sometimes; we need to step back and take time to listen to the voices that have been marginalized. We need to listen to those who are targeted, not merely to come to their aid, but to learn from them, and to take leadership from them. Indigenous people and other people of color have access to truths that mainstream American society may not be able to discern, or may choose not to notice.

For example, those who are new immigrants have valuable truths to share. I think about how so many newcomers to Maine survived in the midst of oppression and persecution in their home countries. They developed personal and communal tools that might be important for all of us in the coming months. Plus, they can observe truths about American culture that those of us who have lived in it all our lives can’t see.

Reza Jalali, a human rights activist and educator, and immigrant to Maine from Iran, gave me some hopeful insights when we were talking about the change in power in Washington. He said, “America has so many non-governmental organizations, like schools and hospitals and churches, and other voluntary associations. These are a potentially powerful source of checks and balances against the damage that the current administration may try to do. Other countries which fell to authoritarian regimes did not have this resource for resistance.”

I had never really thought about our associations and organizations as a resource like that. I had assumed that every country had such things. But someone who has been an outsider can see more clearly what we often take for granted.  Those who have been outsiders within our own country can best name what needs to be known.

I am reminded of a song by Holly Near, called Listen to the Voices. One verse goes like this: “Listen to the voices of the First Nations/Calling out the messages Of the earth and sky/Telling us what we need to know/In order to survive”

Native people have been on the front lines for many decades, even centuries, in the battle against corporate takeover of land and resources. When the people at Standing Rock tell us that water is life, and we need to protect the water, that is prophecy of the highest order. When they build a movement based on prayer and non-violence, we should be taking notes.

Indigenous activist Winona LaDuke has said,

My advice is: learn history. Take responsibility for history. Recognize that sometimes things take a long time to change. If you look at your history in this country, you find that for most rights, people had to struggle.

One of our people in the Native community said the difference between white people and Indians is that Indian people know they are oppressed but don’t feel powerless. White people don’t feel oppressed, but feel powerless. Deconstruct that disempowerment. Part of the mythology that they’ve been teaching you is that you have no power. Power is not brute force and money; power is in your spirit. Power is in your soul. It is what your ancestors, your old people gave you. Power is in the earth; it is in your relationship to the earth.

To be a community of prophecy, to see what is happening, we must listen to the voices that are speaking the truths we cannot see ourselves. We must listen to history, we must listen to the earth, we must listen to people of color, and we must listen to the voice from within, the power in our spirits.

Sun on frozen pond