I stood sentinel one summer Sunday afternoon in a graveyard in rural Centre County, Pennsylvania, surrounded by traditional Amish farms. Suddenly a sea of blue dresses, black pants and white shirts came floating up from the field below, young people mostly, walking back to their homes from church. I made a fine spectacle to them, I expect, stationed there with my sleveless blue and white sundress waving in the wind, holding as impossibly still as I could.
Not a minute earlier I'd scanned the headstones. Name after name--Wolf, Stober--from generations past in my own heritage, from those who came over as Huguenots from Alsatian France and Germany on the Snow Molly, arriving in Philadelphia in 1737.
They didn't know, and I didn't say. I expect they were my cousins.
They watched with interest from wooden porches as I negotiated my little blue Toyota Tercel around in the dirt road just down from the graveyard, and headed back to the city with my notebook and camera.
Spring, early morning: the pre-dawn risers in the French Quarter were up with buckets, hoses, scrubbing down the remnants of the night before as I clip-clopped up and down Chartres Street to the Pharmacy Museum. I was chasing the ghost of an ancestor, Edward Rheiner, who'd left Zurich in a hurry in the middle of the 1800's and landed in New Orleans, where he reputedly practiced medicine.
He was said to have treated patients during the yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans of 1853, and from there made his way up the Mississippi. By 1855 he was in Saint Louis where he married an opera singer. Later he practiced medicine in Iowa and ended up in a graveyard in Springfield, Illinois.
I was looking for evidence that he actually was a legitimately practicing, trained physician. Family legend had it that he'd had to leave Switzerland after someone challenged him to a duel. Whether he'd actually gone to medical school was in question.
The answer came not in New Orleans, but in the Newberry Library in Chicago, where after a long day of requesting information from the closed stacks I finally found the treasured piece of information confirming his medical training and certification, marking a trail from Switzerland to New Orleans and all the way up the Mississippi, patients nurtured along the way.
It was April in England, tulips in bloom, yellows and reds, as I took the train from Wallington to London. I pondered Browning as I walked the Birdcage Walk then stood outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. My great-great-grandmother was born there in the barracks of the Household Cavalry at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War while her father was a guard for Queen Victoria. Later he was sent to Canada with his Irish bride and young family to protect the Queen's interests, and later still he found his way south to the States, and ultimately westward to the Rocky Mountains.
I pressed my face against the bars to watch the changing of the guard, a place I'd stood sentinel before, and wondered what George Harris' life had been like in the service of the Queen.
The westward migration in the middle of the nineteenth century took many with it across desolate plains and challenging circumstances, including several waves of Mormon pioneers, some of them immigrants, some of them New Englanders, all searching for Zion--a new life, in a new land--following the clarion call of their own Moses, Brigham Young. The family of Ebenezer Peck left a corner of Massachusetts tainted by the witch trials when their life intersected with a young Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion. As they made their way west, some settled for a time in a city they called 'Nauvoo the Beautiful' in Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi where Ebenezer's son, Martin Horton Peck, was a member of the Nauvoo Brass Band. Some didn't survive the westward journey and were buried in places like Nauvoo, Far West, Missouri, and Winter Quarters, on the Nebraska/Iowa border, including some of my own ancestors. One young boy, James Marsh from Sutton, Surrey, south of London, walked across those plains without parents. Other families came from England, including the Spencers, where an Orson Spencer also made himself known in Nauvoo.
The Heber C. Kimball Company, 2nd Division, 3rd Company, left Winter Quarters, Nebraska, on June 7, 1848, after outfitting there, and arrived in what is now known as Utah on September 24, 1848, bringing with it Martin Horton Peck, the clarinet player from the Nauvoo Brass Band, Ebenezer's son from Massachusetts. He'd been present at a meeting on August 8, 1844, after the death of Joseph Smith, Jr., when a large portion of those who'd followed Smith as converts to his new religion decided to follow Brigham Young to points west. Like Smith and Young, he took more than one wife, and as he made his westward journey, his family of plural wives and children expanded.
He became one of the first blacksmiths in what is now known as Salt Lake City, well known to many, and forged the first gold coins in the Deseret Mint from gold dust brought back by members of the Mormon Batallion in 1849.
I stood on a riverbank in Nauvoo and pondered the exodus of thousands into an uncertain future in an unsettled land.
The water lapped at the shore.
Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, 1847-1868, Heber C. Kimball Company (1848) - LDS Church History Library
The Stober Family - John Wion
Ship Passenger List - Snow Molly (1737) - RootsWeb
Valentin Stober Pension Application - Patriots and Warriors of the American Revolution
Biography of Martin Horton Peck (1806-1884) - Vernice Peck Gold Rosenvall
Ancestry of Lynne Ann Vincent (b. 1941) - William Addams Reitwiesner
Missouri's Union Provost Marshal Papers: 1861-1866 - Missouri State Archives
(photos, top to bottom: top, Amish quilt square: londonknitter; center, changing of the guard at Wellington Barracks, London: londonbaby; bottom, Mississippi River near Nauvoo, Illinois: Nauvoo the Beautiful)
(An earlier version of this story originally appeared in Open Salon in May 2010)