Monthly Archives: September 2017

Family Stories, Family Secrets

Lady Liberty didn’t welcome Rosina Zumstein and her family when they entered New York harbor on November 16, 1885. Although the statue had arrived six months earlier, the base for the iconic creation hadn’t been built yet because of a funding shortage. Rosina, a 44-year-old widow from Eptingen, Switzerland, had crossed the Atlantic with her stepson Johann and three younger children aboard the French ship Normandie. Even without the Statue of Liberty to greet them, their first glimpse of New York, which already boasted a population of almost 1.3 million people, must have been equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.

Rosina and her family were processed at Castle Garden, a receiving station operated by the state of New York on the grounds of today’s Battery Park. (Ellis Island, under the oversight of the federal government, didn’t open until 1892.) According to the passenger list, the Zumstein family was ultimately bound for Nebraska. They did head west, but instead of going to Nebraska they put down roots near Chicago, where a thriving Swiss community existed.

Nineteen-year-old Johann, already an adult, probably married soon after reaching Illinois. Six years later Rosina’s only daughter, Ida, married Adam Traudt, a German Congregational minister who had emigrated from Russia. The Traudt family, including Rosina, moved to Denver, where the young minister founded the First German Congregational Church. The first of their eight children was born in 1893, and grandmother Rosina undoubtedly played an important role in the family.

By the early 1920s, the family had settled in San Antonio, Texas. In September 1923, Ida Traudt died of pneumonia at age 52, which was about average for the time. Ida’s mother Rosina, 82 when her daughter died, lived for another six years.

I like to think there’s a bit of Rosina Zumstein, my great-great grandmother, in my DNA. I’ve done some digging into my genealogy over the years, but I only recently discovered Rosina, and thus far, of all the people in my family tree, she fascinates me the most. I can’t imagine what it must have been like, as a woman alone in 1885, to leave the only home I’d ever known with a stepson and children in tow. Evidence suggests that her family, while not wealthy, was not poor either, so it’s unlikely she came to this country only for economic reasons. Perhaps she was simply something of an adventurer by nature.

With persistence—and often a little legwork—uncovering stories like Rosina’s has been possible for some time. In the last few years, however, online databases and DNA testing have given us powerful new tools to shed light on family stories—and family secrets. I didn’t discover anything unexpected on my DNA test; my genes reflect a heritage dominated by those from Great Britain (50%) and Ireland (31%), with a helping of Western Europe (10%), and a hodgepodge of other places (9%).

Maybe you’ve seen the Ancestry.com commercials where someone who thought their ancestors were Scottish learned their roots were Italian instead because of a DNA test. Interesting, but hardly earth shattering, right? Then there’s the New York Times story about Mark, a banker in Delaware, who received his test results back from Ancestry.com along with a list of relatives in its database. There was no one on the list from his father’s side of the family, but he did recognize one name: that of his father’s best friend. His biological father, as it turned out. That’s pretty earth shattering.

My husband John had interesting experience with his DNA test. For years his grandmother and her siblings talked about their ancestor, a Polish Jew, who’d converted to Catholicism in order to avoid persecution during the Russian pograms of the nineteenth century. Great story, except for the fact that his DNA test revealed no Jewish genetic connection. John considered the possibility of a mistake, but recently a cousin who’d had a DNA test that also showed no Jewish genetic connection contacted him, largely debunking the idea that his test was a mistake. They agreed it was puzzling and wondered where and why the tale had originated. And despite databases and DNA testing, that puzzle may well go unsolved.

As exciting as it was for me to discover Rosina and unravel her story, there’s something of a cautionary tale about this whole process—namely that you need to be prepared to accept what you find. Those of us alive today are well aware that, thanks to social media and the internet, keeping a secret is pretty much impossible. But our ancestors couldn’t have foreseen that those tools would expose their long-hidden secrets. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad one is a discussion for another post. In the meantime, I’m just delighted I found Rosina Zumstein.