Topics we study in
history books affected our ancestors in ways we may never realize. For most of
my ancestors, I know little about them, but they are my history.
Denis, My 2nd Great-Grandmother
Jan 1849 • Grez-Doiceau, Belgium
April 1924 • Green Bay, Wisconsin
For the longest time,
Josephine was a mystery. From her marriage certificate, I learned her parents
were Frank and Florence. From the 1860 census, I learned that as a 12-year-old,
she lived with two men: a 40-year-old from Belgium and a 17-year-old from
Holland. The men were laborers. She was a domestic. From that I surmised her
family was poor and she had to work as a maid.
Then, a stroke of luck!
Through a contact in Belgian research in 2018, this family line broke wide
open. “Frank” and “Florence” were actually Jean Francois Denis and Marie
Florence Vanschoelandt. (In France, Germany, and other Catholic countries, boys
were given the first name Jean or Johan, and girls were named Marie or another
saint’s name in the belief the saint would be a heavenly intercessor for them.)
The Denis family lived
in Grez-Doiceau, Belgium, until Florence died in 1856. Frank and the children
immigrated to Wisconsin and its thriving Belgian community, but then Frank sent
his children away. Dispersing the children wasn’t uncommon when a parent died,
but then why didn’t Frank stay in Belgium where he had family who may have
I’ve learned what
happened to Josephine’s two brothers. The 14-year-old served as a laborer with
a young Canadian family in Fort Howard, near Green Bay. The younger brother
lived with a Wisconsin woman and her two grown daughters who worked as
seamstresses. It seems to me that Josephine would have had a better life living
with the women for whom she could have learned a trade.
At the age of nineteen,
she married Moses Martell. They had six children, at least four of whom grew to
adulthood. One of them, Moses Jr., was my great-grandfather. I remember he
always had pink and white mints for my sister and me.