I spend a lot of time reading history. But every once and a while I actually feel like I’ve come into contact with the past in some intimate fashion. The last couple of weeks have given me several such opportunities. One of my hobbies is genealogy and I’ve been interested in tracing my family’s roots since I was about thirteen years old. One thing that had always baffled me was some scant data suggesting that one of my earliest ancestors, Jacques Cossart (1639-1698), a French Huguenot having taken up residence in the Netherlands after fleeing France, married a Walloon (French-speaking Belgian) woman, Lea Villeman ( – 1695)—in Frankenthal, Rhineland. It didn’t seem possible that two folks from a region so close to another in the Low Countries would travel to southern Germany to be married! I even suspected that someone mistranslated at one point and that Jacques and Lea were actually married and must have lived for some time in a place known as Frankendael (or an alternate spelling such as Vrankendaal), somewhere in the Netherlands. (A Dutch reader of my website later informed me that this was complicated by the fact that the only modern place ‘Frankendaal’ is a wealthy region of Amsterdam which was not reclaimed from the sea until much later than the time in question and would have still been swamp or part of the sea in the early seventeenth century). But this week I received some excellent photographs taken of an early seventeenth church register housed at the museum and ruins of the Walloon Church in Frankenthal, Rhineland Pfaltz, Germany. A German woman living near Frankenthal had read about my questions and went to the Walloon church, took some pictures of the ruins, the books, and then leafed through the registers taking some twenty high-resolution images of the entries. What emerges is sure and certain proof that there was a Walloon community in Frankenthal, that Jacques married Lea Villeman on 14. August 1656, had several children baptized in the church, and then in 1659 joined the Walloon church in Leiden, Holland. It was three years later that Jacques, Lea, and their children would, on 14. October 1662, embark on the Dutch ship Pumerlander Kerk bound for Nieuw Amsterdam (now New York) and join the Dutch Reform church there in April 1663. Thanks to Sigrun for taking an interest, collecting the data, and sending it to me.
I wonder what Jacques and Lea would say of they knew a German and an American were exchanging e-mail, electronic photos, Air Mail, and the like 350 years after their own flight. They both must have experienced extreme hardship in choosing to follow their religious beliefs, in leaving behind their extended families and setting sail for a new world, then eventually swearing allegiance to a new crown (1664). But through it all, even the opaque, distant records tell us of several things: they stuck it out, they wanted to find a better life, and they made their faith the center-piece of their lives. I think we also see that the world in the seventeenth century was no less global than the world we live in now; things just took a bit longer. This has been a good chance to become reacquainted with my ancestors Jacques and Lea, to learn their story as it unfolded for them, and to do (or rather have done for me) some original research.
In a tangentially related fashion of touching the past, Michelle and I just finished watching PBS‘s series Colonial House, which followed PBS‘s first and very successful historical reality show, Frontier House. I first wanted to watch Frontier House to get some ideas for our own homestead here in North Carolina. Alas, that didn’t happen too much, although we did learn many great lessons from the experiment of taking three families and plopping them down in an 1883 Montana homestead for six months. We enjoyed Frontier House so much we also watched Colonial House, set in New England in 1628. While my ancestors Jacques and Lea didn’t come to New England and certainly were not the first settlers, their own life must have in many ways been like that of those 26 colonists dropped off in this historical experiment. Seeing the challenges that were faced—not just hardships, but challenges to social structures, faith, etc.—it is even more impressive that my Cossart ancestors stuck it out and were part-and-parcel of the American project from beginning to now. They weren’t movers and shakers, but they shaped the history they’ve helped me to now touch.