walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Another Genealogical Story

My mother's maiden name is unusual. It is mostly limited geographically to a part of Canada (and parts of the Midwest in the US). I was recently quite shocked to see it on a hockey jersey in a television ad, but then again, limited geographically to _Canada_. Family legend says that we are originally Dutch and that our Mennonite ancestors had to leave the Netherlands because of religious persecution (<-- The Dutch are not tolerant because they are pro-diversity. They are tolerant because they're really tired of the fighting. It's a choice, and historically a recent and tenuous one.). They traveled around Europe for a while before settling in the Crimea, which was a good time and a good place for them. Unfortunately, the tsars changed the deal eventually, and they decided to move to Canada, where they settled in two villages in the middle of the country.

By the time I was hearing the story, the family telling it to me lived near Calgary, so I initially assumed they meant Alberta. No, I was told, it was in Manitoba; people had since spread out to get land of their own. That (and a huge number of nth cousins n times removed) were what I knew about my mother's maiden name.

Fast forward. One of my first cousins is a bit of an ass. (Ha! We're all asses. But he stands out a bit, even among us. Only a bit, tho. Probably just means he's slightly more spectrumy than the rest of us. Altho that does not explain him slamming his younger brother's head in a door repeatedly until another brother stopped him. Maybe more than a bit of an ass, come to think of it.) I only see him at funerals, anymore, and then mostly if I don't see him first. (<-- Not a joke.) He was the first (maybe only) person on that side of the family to pursue a PhD, and he didn't get it (in English. Go ahead and laugh. I often do.). When asked, he'd say he just didn't finish his dissertation, but he actually never really got started on the dissertation. His theory was that we weren't actually Dutch at all, but German. Usually when he said this, I'd just pre-emptively say, hey, I know _I'm_ Dutch and point to my father, but the point he was making was regarding my mother's father and his father's father and the Canadian Mennonites in general. His argument was convoluted but revolved around the surname in question not being Dutch.

Fast forward. While I was in the Netherlands, I ask my cousin and her husband about the surname and told them about the pronunciation. By this point, I knew enough Dutch to have gotten somewhat suspicious of the Dutch theory -- but I knew a lot more German, and I knew that theory made even less sense. My cousin's husband proposed a couple alternate spellings but said he had never heard of it either.

Fast forward. I moved to Mayberry, NH (<-- not the real town name) and volunteered at a library. Sometimes I would be reading shelves, which is to say, making sure all the books are in proper order on the shelves. In the course of doing this, I found a copy of _Through Fire and Water_, a Herald Press history of Anabaptists and Mennonites. I'm sorry to say that until I picked it up, it had _never_ occurred to me to attempt to find my relatives in _history_. We just didn't seem important enough to write about. This is an incredible cognitive lapse on my part. I've enjoyed reading about _much_ more obscure things. After reading the book and ordering more, I knew that based on our faith history, we really weren't Dutch: we were Frys. Menno Simons was a priest in _Pingjum_. Already, the two sides of my heritage were converging. Yet I still had no answer on that obscure last name. You can still find Wiebes in Frysland -- but not my mother's maiden name.

I did more research. I got out the self-published genealogy for the clan and googled the oldest guy in the tree. I found other people researching him. I found the boat he came over on (and inevitably, I've misplaced this research as well). I found lists of the Kleine Gemeinde with his name. I found the tiny village they founded back in Russia as a splinter group. It was clear that if I was willing to dig through paper records, I could go back as far as I had the patience for.

Then I found GAMEO: http://www.gameo.org/

For a while, I just wasted time reading random entries that confirmed what had rapidly become very apparent. Mennonites aren't exactly mainstream, and my branch was the batshit crazy branch, a discovery which was simultaneously depressing and relieving -- it's not just me thinking these people are weird. Eventually (months later, IIRC), it occurred to me to just check the surname entry for my name. And there, spelled out as plain as could be: common among Prussian Mennonites, probably of Dutch background, derived from Matthew. I'm sure my annoying cousin would argue, see! That _proves_ we're German, not Dutch.

Whatever, G. It's not a question of whether we're German or Dutch. The question is whether we're Dutch or Frys.
Tags: daily activities, genealogy

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