I’ve been a family historian all my life, starting in childhood when I listened to the stories told by my mother. However, I began working on genealogical research in earnest several years ago. The process yielded much information—names, places, dates, stories—on the family lines of three of my grandparents
For the most part, I discovered that my great grandparents or 2x great grandparents immigrated from Europe from the early to mid-1800s. I knew where they came from and where they landed in this country. In some cases, I knew the story of WHY my ancestors came to America.
I never knew any of my grandparents well, as we lived a considerable distance from them when I was growing up. Furthermore, all four of them had passed away by the time I was seventeen years old. Still, I knew who my favorite grandparent was: Edna Eash Haarer, my father’s mother. She was a tiny woman with an impeccably kept home, and was cute as a button with her big dark eyes and her Mennonite garb. I found her quirkiness to be sweetly humorous, and her gentle dignity to be refreshing. For some reason, I identified with Grandma Edna’s spirit more than that of any of my other grandparents. I’ve spent all my adult life wishing I’d had the opportunity to know her better.
Sadly, Grandma Edna’s genealogy came up missing in my research. I had very little in the way of names and dates. I had no backstories. I had no idea where this sweet little woman had come from.
Several years after I finished my initial research, I received additional information about my father’s side of the family. And I discovered that while Grandma Edna had lived all her life in LaGrange County, Indiana, she had ancestral roots in Pennsylvania. Now, I had names, dates, and places. But still no stories.
My husband and I enjoy the TV show called Who Do You Think You Are?, in which celebrities trace their lineage to uncover stories about their ancestors. Recently, we watched an episode in which the celebrity discovered a story about an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War. This sparked a discussion between my husband and me about the implications of that war. And I suddenly began to wonder: Is it possible that I had ancestors in this country during the Revolutionary War?
So, I pulled out my genealogical material and checked dates. To my amazement, I realized that, through my Grandma Edna’s family line, I had ancestors aplenty living in colonial America. Some of them were documented to have lived in what are now known to be Somerset, Cambria, and Berks Counties in southern Pennsylvania.
Immediately, my husband and I began looking up articles about the earliest Mennonites who came to this country. They settled in Pennsylvania, the colony established by William Penn as a place where all could practice their religion without fear of harassment.
As the Mennonites had long been persecuted in Europe, they came to Pennsylvania in droves. There, they lived in peace for many years and played an important role in shaping colonial life. They were grateful to the British Crown for the protection afforded them in Penn’s colony.
Sadly, the Revolutionary War disrupted this peaceful era for the Mennonites in Pennsylvania. Harassed by the Patriots for their refusal to take part in the war, they began to wonder whether they would ever again be able to live unmolested in their new land.
Still, I feel indebted to William Penn for his selfless pursuit in establishing his colony for religious freedom. His action was not motivated by greed or the quest for power, but was guided by his own “Inner Light.” His high-minded ideals about tolerance, equality, and “Brotherly Love,” were ahead of their time. Without his vision of religious freedom, my ancestors never would have come to America, and I would not have been born in this country. I think of William Penn as a spiritual ancestor.
It is so gratifying to know that the noblest of my ancestral stories comes through the family line of my favorite grandparent. I am proud to know that my ancestors played a role in shaping the life of one of America’s thirteen original colonies. I am more American than I ever thought.