My family is fragmented, and the most immediate members of it are and were broken in many ways. My father, and his father, were scoundrels at best . . . I won’t go into what they were at worst. At any rate, dysfunction caused me to not care, rather belligerently, about my family roots. When I saw people gleefully discovering their history on Ancestry.com, I scoffed. Who cares? I asked myself.
I didn’t even know what my ethnic roots were, other than vaguely German because my mother’s maiden name was Ersch and her father was Adolph. She was born and grew up in the German enclave of Fredericksburg, Texas.
Enter the pandemic. Heading into the winter and looking for indoor activities, I relented after watching all those commercials and signed up for Ancestry.com’s World Explorer Membership. I won’t go into the details of tracking one’s tree, but seeing “potential mother” or “potential father” pop up as you work on the tree always produces a flurry of goosebumps. Who’s next? How far back will it take me?
The path backward in time unraveled a stunning revelation. Well, more than one, actually. But I will focus on the Wallings. At 64, I didn’t even know what a Walling was, in terms of ethnicity. Eventually, I realized that we were English. They clustered in the Middletown, New Jersey, area as far back as the late 1600s. Then I found Gershom Walling, my 7th great-grandfather, born in the colony of Rhode Island.
Gershom’s father was Thomas Wallen, who was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1627. Whoa.
Thomas’ father, Ralph Wallen, sailed to Plymouth in 1623 on the HMS Anne with his wife, Joyce. The Anne was the third ship to arrive at Plymouth, after the Mayflower and the Fortune.
Holy crap: I am descended from Pilgrims! I shared the news with my half-sister; although her mother is a Vietnamese immigrant, she is just as much related to Ralph as I am.
I also traced my maternal grandmother back to Thomas “the Elder” Wheeler of Odell, Cranfield, born in 1563. Even before I really got started, Ancestry showed me how the poet, Emily Dickinson, was my 6th cousin five times removed. That info helped me find my way back to Thomas the Elder.
Filling in the blanks
The Ersch side is fascinating, too, although I can’t get past my great-grandfather Johann Ersch. Following the maternal grandmother line, though, I found my second great-grandmother, Dorinda “Pinky” Zumwalt, who died at 24. She is descended from Captain Adam Black Zumwalt, who fought Comanches in my beloved Texas Hill Country, and battled Mexican soldiers who were reneging on a peace treaty and trying to retake Texas.
I did have to back out of a few rabbit holes. You can’t let wishful thinking take you down the wrong ancestral path. I still have plenty of work to do, filling in the blank spaces along the tree and in the lives of my ancestors.
I am a devout student of the “1619” view of American history, as opposed to the sanitized “1776” whitewash. So I am aware that my ancestors, Pilgrims and Indian fighters, probably followed the unrelenting and violent path of Manifest Destiny. Frankly, this information is all so new I have not had time to process it.
But now, beyond the immediate dysfunction of a broken family, lies the growing knowledge of a people who showed bravery in perilous times. Who sailed and pioneered and fought and achieved and bore children. Who played a role, for better or for worse, in the history of this country.
They are my family.