Monday, January 29, 2018

Pandora's Safe Part 2: Bless His Heart

read this first!!! -->

This semester I am spending countless hour doing research with students and I had no idea it would be so fun. It started out innocently with an offer to all the students in a particularly small class. 

Students come to my office to do research, clicking away on their laptop and pausing for questions.  This is much more fun than talking about grades and points. This is actual professoring.  I love it.

One particular student started her own tree, and apparently is an amazing researcher because she came to me with generation after generation filled in.  

She apologized for her tree being boring because everyone pretty much stayed around the same county where they all still live. 

I jump in and start looking at her data and we look for questions to ask.  Do women have less children over generations? If yes, does that start in the 1920s? or 1960s?  Notice how all the families on the census page are white in 1870? How does it change by 1890? Her eyes light up and she digs back into her data and I dig back into mine while a giddy silence falls over us. 

Another student sent me names and dates that I plugged into Ancestry and by the next day I was barely able to contain my excitement over finding out that his family was from Poland, not Greece. 

The student looked at the tree and said nope, that’s not my grandfather and I was crushed. 

Hours later I realized it was his great uncle and all the work I’d done was correct. Yay me. 

I research another student until I find her great-grandparent born in Pottawatomie in 1857, right after the famous massacre. Treasure.  

I click a few more times and find one of her ancestors whose first and middle name is “Thomas Jefferson” and then I go back to another student’s tree and count the president names in HIS family (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Pinckney).  This will now be our game and it started here.
 One particular student just didn’t get how easy and fun I make all this “history research” out to be.    How do you know what to look up?  I shrug, you just start plugging things in and see what you find.  

And how do you know what do to next? Other students who rarely speak leaned in a little for the answer.

 It feels like water rolling downhill, you go with the flow and just keep gathering information.
  What if you get stuck?

You research something else and either let it go or come back to it a different way.  You can’t do research wrong, there is no one waiting for you to come back with one single story.
 He liked that.

I thought I would spend this weekend doing other things but I accidently fell back into a research hole of my own (again.)

A sticking point in our larger family history has to do with Jean-John-Johan, the father of Achilles Soldani, a New Orleans born child who was put on an orphan train and ended up living in Avoyelles Parrish up the Mississippi River.  

He would stay there for the rest of his life, except for one trip.   I know this because I found it documented in an unsigned Xeroxed copy of a seven-page handwritten speech apparently delivered at a gathering of Achille’s descendants.  Clearly a valid source. 

Achilles Soldani was born on November 12, 1863 in Genoa, Italy….”

Stop. I can’t find a single source putting Jean in Genoa, but I do have multiple sources indicating Jean Soldan said he was from Switzerland.

 OK, back to the letter.

“…It is not clear exactly how he ended up in the United States but his mother and father died in what we believe to be a boating accident.  At the age of 5 he was placed in an orphanage in New Orleans.”

Boating accident? Possibly, but not coming from Europe, probably on the Mississippi River. 

The corridor from St. Louis to New Orleans was a lot different during the Civil War, so possibly. 

Or maybe not at all.  Hang on.

Back to the letter.

Achilles courted Ella Mae English and received her hand in marriage.  Prior to his wedding Grandpa returned to the orphanage in New Orleans to attempt to find out something about his people.  He located one brother and three sisters – he visited them and satisfied with having found his relatives he returned home to take his bride in marriage. How times have changed. Grandma Ella always said that Grandpa Achilles first kissed her on the second day after the wedding.  I suspect many of you your brides and brides to be and young girls have not and will not wait until the second day.”

Seriously. Seriously?  People, just because your grandparents tell you something doesn’t make it true, and I think the whole kissing story holds as much water as the part about Achilles being born in Italy.

First of all, how would Achilles know anything about his parents other than what nuns would tell him? Considering the number of orphans and foundlings being delivered to New Orleans orphanages in in the aftermath of the Civil War, what would nuns know about his story?

Second of all, I am suddenly aware that I do NOT know who Achilles’ three sisters and brother are, and now I have to know, so I start hunting. I already know about Isocline, and think I find a brother, Joseph, and then I find something like a Giuseppina who was born in 1869 and could be the child that survived the birth that killed their mother.

These poor kids!

Dad died in 1868, mom died the year after, and they had no aunts or uncles or cousins to help them.

Or did they?

And that’s when I used my history professor brain and shifted my research perspective. Jean-John-Johann Soldani had to have some relatives in the US.  People migrate in small groups and join larger groups often in ethnic enclaves where they can speak their languages while acculturating.

I looked up the Mississippi River to the lovely state of Missouri and I found him right away.

1860 Census shows John-Jean Soldani living with his brother Peter in living in Kansas City; it indicates that he and his brother were born in Switzerland and are saloon keepers. 

 I find multiple contracts and mortgages in Missouri archives under John’s name between 1858-1863, borrowing money to buy goods for the saloon, selling land as the prices went up.

John has two children in Kansas City – Sylvester and Anthony -- and then he disappears.

I already knew that when Civil War started, Missouri stayed on the Union side, and trade traffic on the Mississippi became increasingly perilous and unreliable.

What I didn’t know is that Jean-John-Johan was married in Missouri, and it wasn’t to Achilles’ mom.  

Bless his heart.  
I figured him out.