Henry Cochran Slaymaker dedicated much of his energy and time to tracing the roots of the Slaymaker clan back to Mathias Slaymaker, the immigrant who left Germany for America. Cochran published his work in 1919, decades before Al Gore invented the internet which has made it possible for us to dig deeper into the archives of the world, unlocking the door to the question: Where did Mathias come from? And what made him tick?

I often ask myself: “Why do I spend so much time looking into the history of our dog gone ancestors?” I could be doing something more constructive with my time: There is a basement to repair, lights to be replaced, and a rock wall that needs mending before winter! Henry Cochran begins his seminal work on the Slaymakers with this qoute from Sir Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay of Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, First Baron Macaulay, son of Zachary, whose name and titles constitue a seminal work in itself.

Lord Macaulay’s words:

“They who take no pride in the deeds of a remote ancestry, will hardly be likely to accomplish anything worthy to be remembered by a remote posterity.”

Or to quote my grampa Leb, “This to shall pass.” But, to give the present moment meaning we must embrace our life and live it fully, as Leb did. We must give credit to those who had a hand in creating our opportunity for a better life and to leave the world in better shape than we found it.

I have been told there was a custom among Japanese artisans who worked with clay. A man would craft a pot and bury it in the earth for his grandchild to find and thus a future generation would have a small item of great value crafted by the hands of an ancestor. This tradition began in a century when a life span was much shorter than now. The odds of knowing one’s grandparent were far slimmer than today. I say the pot was of great value, not for monetary reasons, but for the fact that one generation was touching another and the hands of an ancestor were crafting an object of love, long before Hallmark cards trivialized the importance of remembering and being remembered. My sister Chris told me the Koreans took this procedure a step farther and poured kimchee into the pot and buried it for future consumption. I am grateful I am Irish. We hand down an entirely different recipe and consume it as a beverage. And when festivities are concluded there is nothing of the beverage to be set aside and shared, only the recipe.

As I examine our family tree and the roots that run deep into the annals of time I become aware of several truths that are readily apparent to any casual observer. I believe these truths have had an impact on how we operate in America in 2016. Our ancestors did a far better job of tracking their family ties. Take the Israelites as an example. Have you ever wondered how we managed to have such an accounting of the lineage of Jesus Christ? The Bible tracks his roots back to Adam and Eve. Jesus is not the only one whose roots are so well defined in the Bible, or in history.

The Normans created a Doomsday Book and tracked family history as early as 1066 in England. Of course it all had to do with tracking wealth and collecting taxes, but it provided a record of who lived with whom and where. When you look at those records you realize that families stayed together for the most part. If Uncle William wandered off on a crusade to conquer the Turks or the Moors in Spain, he tended to come back to Shropshire on Severn or Henley on Thames. Unless, of course, he died of the plague, a mortal wound or a bad case of gout gone awry. And in that case they would name a village after him, Gautganarhy, Scotland.

Not only did families stay together, but neighborhoods did as well. It may be that their block parties were such that they did not wish to disband and move away from good ale and good friends. More likely, they were a self sufficient, interdependent community that survived by mutual commitment. When one neighbor got the idea of moving to another part of the world, the neighbors tended to band together and go with the suggestion. Often times the neighbors were related by birth and marriage and more birthing. A lot of birthing. Brothers married the girls next door and sisters married the boys next door and when it came time to catch a boat from Dundalk, Liverpool or Strasbourg to America…. they hopped on board the ship and sailed. Sometimes, someone would stay back. Sometimes the ship would sink and all would be lost. They took their chances.

When the ancestors hit the American shoreline, or Canadian, or Brazilian for that matter, they tended to travel in a band, suitcase in hand. Some carried cargo boxes if they had accumulated any form of wealth in Europe. They would start in places like Wilmington, Delaware; Boston, Massachusetts; Charleston, South Carolina or St. John, Newfoundland and they would begin their quest for a new life.

The quest would take generations down the Great Wagon road from Pennsylvania to North Carolina or from Virginia to Kentucky to Illinois and Kansas. They would travel the Wilderness Road, the Ohio River and the Great River (Mississippi) looking for land and opportunity. One thing was clear: they were running away from something and they were running toward something. They were not cowards for running away. In fact, they were pushed out, forced out: left with little opportunity to survive, let alone thrive in Europe. These pioneers were head strong folks with a sense of commitment to a God they had come to worship in a way that defied the local laws of their land. And sadly the rules for worship in their homeland changed with the changing of the guard. The guard changed often. A protestant king could reverse the fortunes of a catholic population in a heartbeat and vice versa. The Gunpowder Plot (Sir William Parker, a few blogs ago) represents one plot against monarchy based on love of God. But whose God? Plots against a people (the Irish Catholic or French Huguenot) were driven by the church, protestant or catholic. Each equally culpable.

To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling: If you can keep your head while all about you, others are losing theirs….. then you are a man, my son.

I think there is double meaning found in those lines. Some of our ancestors were burned at the stake, beheaded, drawn and quartered for their religious beliefs. Great grandparents, yours… not someone else’s. Some of them escaped and made it out of harm’s way, only to face new dangers in a new land. It never does get any easier. It was cause for one preacher to bellow from the audience at a reading of Kipling’s work: “It’s not so easy to keep your flummoxed head when the fricken King wants it toasted and posted on the Tower of London.”

Mathias Slaymaker brought his family to the New World and a new start in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Obadiah Bruehn left England for New Jersey for similar reasons. And the Osborns, Quaker beliefs in hand, journeyed from shore to shore in America. All of these folks are on Nancy’s side of the family.  While religion was very important on my side as well,  the economy, a search for the next meal, compelled many of my Irish ancestors to seek a better life in America. We will look at some of the folks who sacrificed so that we might benefit.  The question arises: How will we pay it forward?