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.
Josephine Denis, My 2nd Great-Grandmother
21 Jan 1849 • Grez-Doiceau, Belgium
21 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 helped?
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.