Posts from ‘Personal’

Mar
24

In March this year we took a vacation to St. Croix during what would have been spring break at my old teaching institution.  It was my first “spring break” vacation to a warm weather climate after thirty years of being stuck in the Northeast while I was teaching.  Every year I watched students take their well deserved break, many to warmer climes, while I stayed in often cold or snowbound Maine. I usually had to grade papers, to recover from the first two thirds of the semester, to prepare for the next third (which always flew by) and try to squeeze a little scholarship out before students returned, many looking tanned and impossibly healthy. This year however I got to go away for my first ever  trip to the Caribbean.

The choice of St. Croix was not arbitrary but the result of a genealogical puzzle I was trying to figure out. Families are intricate webs of secrets.  Information is withheld, lies are told, feelings are suppressed and secrets are kept, all so people can play the roles actor and audience have agreed upon. My family certainly was. My father did not share the same surname with his siblings and indeed no one else in my family.  He passed away long ago but his birth certificate was among the papers I had come into when my mother passed away some twenty years ago. The certificate listed a biological grandfather with a surname he had passed down to my father and me.  This biological grandfather was different from the man my father’s mother had married a few years later and the only grandfather I had known when I was a child. As I was an adult when I learned this I understood about teen unwed parenthood, you know baby mama’s and daddy’s. My grandmother had a youthful indiscretion that resulted in my father before marrying a man with whom she spent the rest of his life.

My grandmother passed away fifteen years ago at the ripe old age of 94 and my cousin in going through her papers found my grandmother’s baptismal certificate. This contained a shock. The surname of my biological grandfather listed on my father’s birth certificate was the same as my grandmother’s birth surname on her baptismal certificate. This raised all sorts of questions. Was my father the product of some incest between my grandmother and perhaps a cousin?  According to the birth dates on my father’s birth certificate both my grandmother and my biological grandfather were just teenagers at the time of my father’s birth. The only other record I subsequently found about my biological grandfather was the 1920 census which listed him at a hospital in New York City. All of the principals in this drama had passed on and so I was at a dead end in learning more about my biological grandfather. While they were alive they had never mentioned anything about it and in fact kept all information secret from the grandchildren. Perhaps they thought it a family scandal that should be hushed up.  In any event it was in the distant past and not a thing you told your grandchildren about.

My grandmother’s baptismal certificate opened a new path of inquiry however. It showed that she was born in St. Thomas in what were at the time the Danish Virgin Islands.  Her father’s first name was Louis and her mother was Lucy.  Further complicating matters my great grandmother had done the same thing as my grandmother.  She had had a child by a different man than she subsequently married. My grandmother was born in 1902 and my great grandmother had married a different man in 1909.  They migrated to New York City and my grandmother took her stepfather’s surname. I can trace my step great grandfather’s household through the 1920, 1930 and 1940 censuses. When my grandmother as a teenager gave birth to my father her parents stood by them and raised my father in their household when my grandmother married a couple of years later and started her own household. My father of course knew his mother and in fact they had a rather warm relationship the rest of their lives.

Okay I knew something of my father, my father’s mother, my father’s mother’s mother and my father’s mother’s stepfather from the U.S. census.  However I knew nothing about my grandmother’s biological father Louis because there was no evidence about him in the U.S. records or anywhere else outside of St. Thomas. So my vacation in St. Croix was partly to allow me to find out more about Louis and indeed my surname in the Virgin Islands. On St. Croix the library that contains genealogical information is located on a former sugar plantation that has been converted to a museum about thirty minutes outside the capital Christiansted. At the library I found nothing about the Louis I was looking for but I found a mention of another Louis with my surname except spelled with two n’s instead of the one with which I spell my name. Unfortunately according to his birth date he is about 25 years younger than the Louis I seek. I also find that there is only one prominent family with the two n’s version of my surname and they seem to be white. The patriarch of that family was a wealthy merchant and a prominent colonial official who even served as governor of the colony for a month or two. I don’t know if there is any relation between that family and mine.  Given what race mixing occurred during such situations there is no telling if a Sally Hemmings-like situation developed at some point.

We take the short flight over to St. Thomas where there is a Caribbean Genealogical Library that has access to many databases about Virgin Islands genealogy. The library is about 10 minutes outside of the capital Charlotte Amelie  in a small strip mall on a hill. The director there is very helpful and we look at several St. Thomas databases including local censuses in Danish, church records,  property records, baptismal records and finally cemetery records. My wife, the director and I divide up the search with census records checked by the director, property records checked by my wife and church baptismal and death records falling to me.  We confirm the baptismal records of which I already have copies and then proceed to search for my surname in the others.  While we turn up some scattered records with my surname in the property records they are few and far between. By chance I get my ‘AHA” moment in the cemetary records.  There amidst a few other mentions of my surname I find Louis, spelled Lewis.  He is the right age and has died in 1917 at age 40. He died in the same year my father (his grandson) was born in New York City, likely never knowing about him. There is something “circle of life-ish” about that.

So, I returned from vacation not only rested, tanned and relaxed but with several other pieces of the puzzle that is my genealogy. I still do not know how all the pieces fit but I will keep trying to find out. I urge you to find out about yours while the people who you could ask are still alive.  It is much harder to piece it all together when they are gone. Unfortunately we usually don’t get interested in this stuff until we get older and they are gone. And families are well, families.