Those Who Came Before

Jun 9, 2013 by

images (1)One of my favorite church celebrations is All Saints Sunday – a service to honor and remember all those who have gone before us.  As we sing “For All the Saints” I always get the image in my mind of a large gathering of family and friends – those I knew on earth and those who lived before me.  Honoring those who have gone before has always felt important to me.

Some of those who have gone before me, I knew and loved on earth:  my adoptive grandparents, aunts, uncles and my adoptive Dad.  Others have been unknown to me.  Especially my biological family.  As I’ve learned more and more about my biological family, I’ve been able to put names and some faces with those biological family members who came before me.

In my quest to learn more, in the past few months I’ve been lost in Germany.  Not physically — I’ve been here in Ohio the whole time. I’ve been fascinated with 1800’s Northwest Germany — an area known as Ostfriesland – as I’ve gone deeper into researching my biological family tree.

The day I saw a photo of my 2nd Great Grandparents’ grave markers on Find-A-Grave was the beginning of this latest journey.  Their parents, my 3rd Great Grandparents, all immigrated to Missouri from Germany in the 1850’s.  My 2nd Great Grandparents were born in the U.S.  Yet their tombstones are carved in German.   After hours of additional digging in online databases and libraries, I’ve discovered that none of my biological family set foot in the U.S. before 1850.

My biological family came to the U.S. recently enough that the influence of their German heritage was much more prevalent than that of my adoptive family.  Those German inscriptions for my 2nd Great Grandparents sparked an interest in learning about the lives the German ancestors who came before me.

I have now been able to trace back both my maternal and paternal biological families into the 1700’s I have one Grandmother whose parents are English.  The other three grandparents all have deep German roots.  So, Germany seemed a logical place to begin a deep dive into my ancestors’ lives.

From historical records, I can trace back the ships they sailed on to get from Bremen to New Orleans or New York.  I can discover whom they traveled with. From census records I have learned where they live, and from death certificates, obituaries, and tombstone engravings, I can learn how long they lived and where their final resting place turned out to be.

I’ve learned a few more personal details from a family history shared with me by a biological uncle.  And sometimes even public sources, like a Centennial history book for a town where my family settled, shed light on my family: one set of 2nd great grandparents spent their honeymoon on a ship to the United States.  They first settled in near Chicago.  Then, “when they moved to the Flatville area in 1874, the family came down from Freeport on the train while he drove down with a wagon and team, but they were misdirected somewhere and he arrived in Rantoul before they did”.  Then, talking about their start in farming:  “with two horses, a borrowed mule, and a one-bottom walking blow he broke the marshy prairie.  When furrows were made the snakes and water would follow them”.   These glimpses of my great-great grandparents’ lives fascinate me.

My birth father’s ancestors came from the Northwest coast of Germany; an area with a heavy Dutch influence.  This people from this area are culturally different from much of the rest of Germany, mostly living in peasant villages.  Primarily farmers in a marshy, low-lying, flood-prone area.   They spoke the Low German language (or Plattsdeutch), rather than the “standard” German language that only became the standard after Martin Luther chose to use Middle German in his translation of the Bible.

They farmed when they settled in the United States, too.  Settling in areas with many other German immigrants from the same area, their social life seems to have been built around the Lutheran churches they organized soon after they settled down.

Though I’ve only started to learn about this rich heritage, I have realized that the German culture persisted well into the 1900’s for those who came before me.  In fact, from a DNA “cousin”, I have learned that my father speaks Low German fluently today.

Though I’ve always been interested in history, I asked myself what this particular research project (my husband calls it an obsession) is bringing to my life.  Fellow adoptee Jean Strauss, in her book  “Beneath a Tall Tree” explains this very eloquently.  What she wrote about the conclusions she came to after spending years searching her family tree were an aha moment for me. She put words to my jumbled thoughts about the importance of history and of remembering those who came before us.

“”As I paint the names of these ancestors on my family tree, I reflect on how their actions, large and small, affected the course of families, of history.  Their stories have taught me that what we do in life impacts our descendants.  Our names may not be remembered for long, but our deeds set in motion all that follows. “  Jean Strauss

Learning as much as I can about who my ancestors were and how they lived is my way of honoring the legacy of those who came before me.  Think about this:  the decision each and every one of my ancestors made about whom to marry, where to settle, and how to make a living has impacted the course of history, to some extent.  The choices they made, from my parents on back into history, have certainly impacted who I am and the fact that I even exist.

A hundred years from now, the German names of my Great-Great Grandparents may not be legible on a tombstone from 1916.  But their lives and the lives of all who came before and after will continue to touch lives.  Likewise, a hundred years from now, the choices I made and continue to make will have in impact on my descendants.

I have also been struck by the realization that my biological family doesn’t have dibs on impacting my life.   Since I’ve been three months old, the family that has loved and nurtured me is part of who I am and the legacy I will leave behind.

The more I learn, the easier it is to put faces and stories to those members of my biological family who came before me.  Their faces now join the faces of adoptive family members who are no longer here as I honor their legacy by learning about their lives.


  1. It is wonderful to read about your journey and discovery!

  2. Becky, This is so true! I have A-ancestors who came from Breman around the same time. (Got any Schroeder family? I may have mentioned before…Some of the Schroeders settled in Indiana, (Rising Sun), and others ended up in New Breman and Sydney, OH!)
    I loved Jean Strauss’ book as well. Paige

    • Becky

      Thanks, Paige! It is such a small world. I do know some Schroeders, but not related that I know.

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