Friday, December 28, 2001

My family bleeds history

If the sap of a tree is blood, then my family tree bleeds history, like I suppose all family trees must.

My wife's mother was part of the second generation in her family born in the United States. Her maiden name was Wilhelmy, a surname her grandfather assumed after passing through Ellis Island as a nod to his ancestry. As she has explained to me, my wife — and therefore our daughter as well — is descended from Kaiser Wilhelm.

As an aside, I've always understood that my wife's great-grandfather added the Y to Wilhelm in an attempt to mask his ancestry, from a concern over potential germanophobia. I imagine an angry mob chasing the fellow down a dark alley only there to hear his name properly for the first time.

"Wait boys," the mob's leader says. "His name is Wilhelmy. He's not a kraut after all. Sorry about the misunderstanding, sir."

There is no such illustrious pedigree on my side of the family, from what I can gather, although I do have a Green ancestor who served in the court of King Richard II of England. He even appears in Shakespeare's play. The first Learn was an immigrant from one of the German lands who appeared in Tannersville, Pa., some time before the American Revolution.

We have our share of interesting legends, though. They include an ancestor who was a prisoner of war at Andersonville during the Civil War, and an Indian attack on the original Learn homestead that led to the Sullivan campaign in the Northeast to drive the local Indians off the land.

That second one was a pretty tragic story. The whole family was killed except for one teenager and a couple infants/toddlers, who were taken prisoner. The teen went into Stroudsburg to get help in mounting a rescue, but the rescue party was so drunken and disorganized that the Indians heard them coming a mile off and the children were killed.

The family tree bleeds history. I need to find out more.

Copyright © 2001 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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