I have been working on a project for about two years that started when I stumbled up a case involving $7 and an iron safe in the early hours of the Civil War in Jackson County, Missouri.
I have meant to finish this project and turn it into a snappy manuscript over the past year but instead I have rolled with the changes 2020 has brought and instead mastered the art of Zooming while feeding my dog quiet treats to keep her docile.
I have turned my attention to hanging plants, training for a 10K and learning to paint my own nails (I hate it). I have mastered the art of keeping my kitchen clean, lined up all my clothes by color and season, and binged more series than I care to admit. Nothing I do gives me space from this project, instead it seems like every quiet moment I have my mind wanders back to “what if?” and “did you think about” and “oh hey what if this person is the same as …”
By working, I mean putting names and census data on the wall and connecting them with strings and pins to probate documents and naturalization oaths.
Since I am teaching from home during this strange and slippery time when it’s hard to know what to hold on to, I don’t have as many student papers on my desk and instead have neatly labelled vertical files of things I’ve printed out from digital archives even though it is much more awesome it is to be able to pinch and zoom a document than to hold a blurred copy.
The physical files are something to hold, to highlight and to read over and over until new things reveal themselves.
Even after I find new things I still go back and look for more data points to help me connect these dates and misspelled names and silences into stories of people
I have spent many restless nights tossing and turning ruminating on little bits that fit together like a puzzle, wanting to be done with this and share it already and yet in no hurry to move forward with it all.
The names have worked their ways under my skin – Gian-Jean-John, Johann, Achilles, and Sylvester who believed he was an Osage Indian and became a powerful leader in turn of the century Oklahoma. It doesn’t matter at all to me if I am related to any or all of these people whose name I more or less share; their stories as immigrants and orphans are interesting and important on their own.
Today I put names in digital archives again, just like I do every time I don’t want to grade.
Jean Soldani. John Soldani. Jean Goldani. John Soldan. Gian Soldan.
I change one letters and dates like a scientist adding drops of this or that into a test tube and holding the results up to the light.
I print the documents and keep going.
And no you don’t get them now, because then this wouldn’t be a good story, it would be a data dump and that’s no fun at all.
Ground zero of the big story I am taking you to and through for Pandora’s Safe is the 1860 census, but today we are not visiting ground zero. It is too boring to start there, and I don’t have time to waste your time by telling this story wrong. Today we will visit the probate file of someone who may or may not be related to everyone else in this story.
From what I can piece together, Johannes Soldane left Switzerland for the US in 1848. I find several documents of people with names similar to his arriving in the US in the 1840s, and there is no reason to believe he was the kind of man who came to the US several times before bringing his family.
I can’t find his marriage papers, and I can’t find his children’s birth certificates.
A lot of history involves using the stuff you DO find and not losing your mind over what you wish you could find, so I don’t waste too much energy here. I might never know if he was an explorer, but I get the feeling he was the kind of guy who thought crossing the Atlantic was more fun than being in central Europe as the wars of the 1840s pulsed through changing the political and economic landscape forever.
There are no pictures of Johannes Soldane or his wife Maria Anna or their kids, but their actions speak volumes. Johannes Soland moved his family from Europe to the US right as the US and Mexico concluded the war that would lead to the US acquiring California and finding gold there. Maybe that’s where he was headed?
From what I can tell he didn’t buy land or intend to stay in St. Louis very long – or maybe bad luck struck as soon as they settled in. Again, I only know what the data points tell me, and the data is pretty raw here.
When a person dies very often they have a will that is brought to a probate court and then dispassionate bureaucrats make sure the everything unfolds legally and fairly – for example, that the deceased’s goods are appraised at fair value, and that proper notice is posted in newspapers etc. It doesn’t seem as though Johannes Soldane had anything to be probated other than a single bank account, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Page one of his file says that he died in April 1849, but he has no heirs because his wife and two children - -whose names were unknown to the lawyers probating the documents – and died in September and October of that same year.
They didn’t make it to the 1850 census or the 1850 mortality census, which would have given us clues on where they lived and who they lived near. We can’t tell how many children they had in 1847 – six? Four? Two? – and whether they had older children waiting for them who would never know what happened to them specifically but we can guess.
I guess cholera. In 1849 a cholera epidemic swept the young city of St. Louis, killing hundreds a day. Perhaps that’s how they died – one at a time, but all together in the blurr of history – leaving no one to tell their story or claim their bank account. Maybe that’s why Johannes estate is not put into probate until 5 years after his death.
By the standards of many probate files, this one is thin and lacks excitement. No one contests the itemization, no one demands changes. Its freakishly quiet.
The only asset Johannes Soldane has is about $175 he put in an account with three guys whose last name is Rippenstein. By 1855 the Rippensteins are insolvent and don’t give the money to the executor of the will.
The data points can be flexed and bent to imply that there are people in Missouri waiting for Johannes Soldane – perhaps his brothers, cousins, children – but no one document I have found in the hundreds I’ve poured through answers that question with certainty.
The lesson from this tiny piece of one person’s life shows us what we all know. Nothing is certain, no tomorrow is guaranteed. Today is everything, do something.
And now that I’ve written that I feel like he will rest more peacefully tonight now that his family’s tragic 1849 is no longer forgotten.