A Muddled Ancestry

My mom recently burrowed into a cedar chest she obtained from my grandmother to find loads of random ephemera: Queries into our family tree, various letters, wills, coats of arms, and newspaper clippings.

Some of it confirmed stories vaguely hinted at some time ago, like the time one of our great great etc. grandfathers saved the life of Theodore Roosevelt from a rogue and crazy horse. It was during a parade in which the president was sitting idly in his carriage, when a runaway horse came bolting straight at him through the crowded street. Our hero valiantly jumped the line and grabbed the horse’s bridle, wrestling him to a stop and getting half trampled for his efforts. He received a bad-ass thanks from the president for saving his life.

It reads,

My dear Mr. Bird:

I am glad to know that you received no permanent injury in the performance of your gallant feat of stopping the runaway.

Trusting you will soon be entirely well, believe me,

Sincerely yours,

Theodore Roosevelt

One branch of our tree was traced back to 1569, when the Trotti family in Prussia and a member of the Teutonic Knights. They were on the losing side of some war [citation needed] and the tree ended up bouncing around Europe, hanging around Italy for a while, then settling in the American south.

That’s where things get a little less-then-admirable for me. In this set of documents, we came across several wills from ancestors who owned plantations and a number of slaves. Within the wills, they identify slaves, their “Negroes,” by name as they divvy them up between their children.

A clip from one of our slave-owning ancestor’s will

In this section, he divides up several people that he owns and gives them to his children. *shudder*

I just want to reach out through time and smack this son of a bitch and all the other asshole slave owners, being the internet tough guy that I am. He’s dealing out people in this letter like he’s dealing out cards in a game of poker. He names them each, as they fall in the document between cattle and pots and pans. James, Ross, Pleasant, Pollepas, Grace, Hannaca, Pryas, Rose, and Hiziah, I have no idea what happened to your branches, but I’d love to know.

And that’s only one confirmed will. We’ve got another questionable branch of ancestry which includes a hard copy of a will that divvies up more slaves than that. However, records on that side are virtually non-existent; the reason seems to be that this particular branch comes from a mixed black and white relationship, possibly slave and slave owner. In some ways, it’s a little reassuring that I, your average all-white cracker, could have the blood of former slaves running through my veins, and not just a bunch of douchebag plantation owners, but if I dwell on that topic too long, I realize that any such relationship probably wasn’t altogether consenting.

Bottom line is this: I’ve got some assholes in a few branches of my family tree. Perhaps they seem over-represented because they were rich enough to afford legal wills that were retained in the county courthouse. Maybe the lot of them weren’t that bad. One of the other things I found out was that my grandparents on that side eventually left the south largely because of the blatant racism and backwoods thinking. They seemed to have gone as far north as possible, to the extreme north of the Upper Peninsula, where they were both professors; my grandmother being the first woman to get tenured, playing a large part of breaking the glass ceiling.

All in all, it’s fascinating to find all these old documents and see what kind of blood is running through my veins. It’s not all pretty, but I’m glad we have these records.

Transit of Venus

It turned out to be a mostly clear evening to watch the Transit of Venus. Jen and I went to Holland State Park so we could watch from the beach and I brought my trusty binoculars and cardboard so I could magnify the sun without burning my retinas. It worked pretty well, though during the next transit, 105 years from now, I think I’ll invest in a tripod to mount the binoculars because holding it by hand is a bit too shaky.

Who needs high tech when you have a steady hand?

There were a few pesky clouds for a while but things were mostly cleared up after 7:30 until sunset. The binocular and cardboard trick worked like a charm. The pictures aren’t the best because I only had a crappy camera phone, but there are plenty of better pictures online. These are mine, so deal with it.

That’s a whole freaking planet nearly the size of the Earth in that pinprick of shadow

I just love the fact that there’s a whole planet there in that little piece of shadow, nearly the size of our own Earth. It puts things into a bit of perspective. Carl Sagan put it much better in Pale Blue Dot, and the same thing can apply here. All our existence and hopes and dreams, wars and loves, they all fit into something about that big; something that, while only a relative stone’s throw away, casts a shadow the size of a grain of sand, and only if you look really hard. We’re pretty insignificant here. Let’s make the most of it. But enough soliloquizing.

There was a small crowd of people that gathered around to see my high tech solution, and I got to play science teacher for a little bit. A few were amazed that such a thing could be done with binoculars, and several were expecting something as large as a lunar eclipse and seemed a little disappointed at how small the shadow was. A little girl asked whether the shadow of Venus would appear on top if I flipped the binoculars, so, in the interest of science, we did a little experiment by flipping over the binoculars and found that no, the image stays just as is.

One of the guys I talked to had a welder’s mask that he let me borrow and I was surprised at how well it worked, that you could see the image just fine. Another fellow had a huge telescope with a solar filter hooked up to a laptop. He drew a bigger crowd than I did. Nerd jealousy.

When the clouds were mostly gone I found I could get a much larger, but much dimmer image from a little farther away when I had a bench to steady my hand. I thought this one was cool.

All in all, it was a whole lot of nerdy fun, and there was ice cream to be had, and a pretty sunset. Just before the sun went down, I hazarded some staring at the sun with only my sunglasses to protect me, and was pleased to see Venus’ backside for the last time in my life. The next transit of Venus is in 2117, and if our species hasn’t managed to eradicate ourselves by then, hopefully we’ll have another generation who will appreciate its beauty. The baton has been passed.