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Thursday, July 1, 2010


My distant ancestors lived in Pratteln, Switzerland. It’s a lovely little town on the Rhine River near the conjunction of Switzerland, France, and Germany. I’ve been there several times to visit.

In 1736, Johannes Till, his wife Anna, and their children got on a ship and emigrated to the royal colony of South Carolina. Johannes died during the voyage; in pity, the colonial government granted Anna a large tract of land near Orangeburg, where many other Swiss were settling at the time -- as well as in New Bern, North Carolina.

I’ve often wondered: what were my ancestors thinking? What drove them to leave the idyllic Swiss countryside to settle in South Carolina flatland alongside a blackwater swamp? As inlanders, did they understand the hazards of a voyage across the North Atlantic? Did they expect to be able to communicate with anyone upon landing in Charleston? When they landed, did they have any paperwork to authorize their admission?

The available records – and there are excellent records in Orangeburg – don’t answer those questions. I can say this: my ancestors learned English, adapted to their new environment, and became citizens of the United States. In the 19th century some of them moved westward into Alabama, Mississippi, and eventually Texas where they became successful farmers; others still live on the original tract near Orangeburg. For right or wrong, many of them gave their lives in the Civil War.

The history of Gail’s ancestors from Russia and Poland is less clear but not much different. We know that they passed through Ellis Island on their way to Detroit.

The Episcopal parish where I’ve been honored to serve as Senior Warden (the elected lay leader) for 18 months has engaged a construction company to erect a new classroom building. I was there yesterday to review some electrical work. Two Hispanic laborers were digging a trench with shovels to expose an underground conduit. It was sunny and hot, but they were energetically doing what their employer had told them to do.

What’s the difference between those two workers and Johannes Till? Nothing but the era in which they lived.

Gail hears an occasional Russian or Polish ethnic joke. Rarely I hear a Swiss ethnic joke, although those are typically obscure and understandable only by people who know Swiss culture. We know that we are the descendants of immigrants – who came to this land much like those two Hispanic workers did. I hope it works out for them as it worked out for my ancestors. And I hope that our nation will be as accommodating of them as it was of mine.