Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Climbing the Family Tree

Genealogy has been an interest of mine since a college history class. We lived in Michigan at the time, and frequently drove back to Green Bay. My family humored me by stopping in Milwaukee so I could look through birth, marriage, and death records at the court house. (This was before genealogy became such a booming hobby, and I had ready access to the records, unlike today.) I also visited the Brown and Manitowoc county court houses, and filled a notebook with names and dates.

One of my great-grandmothers displays her hourglass figure.

These days, finding ancestral clues is easier with online genealogy sites and networking. In recent weeks, I’ve come in contact with two distant cousins.
My ancestry is three quarters German, one eighth Dutch, and one sixteen each Belgian and French Canadian. For the longest time, my Dutch line dead-ended with my great-great-grandfather, Gerhard Vogelzang, known in Wisconsin as George Vogels. My new Dutch contact clued me in to the Dutch website, where my Dutch ancestry has burst into bloom. I now know who my gr-gr-gr-gr-grandparents were. That equals some of my German branches.

My gr-gr-grandfather (lower right) was killed in 1925. He was struck by a car while bringing home ice cream.

Despite its small fraction, my French ancestry traces back the farthest. Many of my French ancestors arrived in New France in the mid-1600s. Many of the men were soldiers, come to guard French interests in the New World. In order to maintain a presence there, the king sent marriageable women, including several of my foremothers. Upon arrival, they paired off and married within weeks.
As I enter their names in a family tree on, I’ve been struck by the high number of babies these women bore. And lost. Ten to fourteen children was common, as was losing more than half of them. Many of them, men and women, could not read or write.
My Belgian ancestors continue to elude me. My great-great-grandmother Josephine Dennis is listed on the 1860 census as a 12-year-old, Belgian-born domestic living with a 45-year-old Belgian man and a 17-year-old French male. Where were her parents? Her mother may have died and her father parceled out his children, but what kind of life was that for a young girl in a strange country? All too common, unfortunately.

My only great-grandparent still alive when I was born. He always had pink and white mints for my sister and me.

Many of my books’ characters bear my ancestral names. In Friends & Enemies, there’s Paul Braedel and Heidi Steinhorst Wetzel; in No Neutral Ground, Rafe Martell; and in Soar Like Eagles, Chet Vogel and Carol Doucet. Amazingly, in my next book, no one has an ancestral name. What was I thinking? Hmm, I can still change that.

Paul says in 1 Tomothy 1:3-4, “You may command certain men not to teach…endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith.” Do you think this applies to the hobby of genealogy?


  1. This is a topic that I'm very interested in but have not put the work in for. Thankfully I've had relatives who did some digging and I'm ever so grateful to them! I enjoy your posts! :)

    1. Thank you, Susan. I've learned some funny and not-so-funny things about my ancestors. One foremother had her marriage annulled because her husband turned out to be a bigamist.