There are hundreds of stories among genealogists of inexplicable coincidences and miracles that lead to finding dead ancestors, live distant cousins, or stories hidden for years. I loved the one about a young English girl who was planting a sunflower in memory of a WWI soldier. The name she was given turned out to be a 3X great uncle. Or the New York real estate broker who was brought in to sell a house that turned out to be owned by his great-grandmother.
My own little “woo woo” story is when I was on a vacation with my friends in Washington D.C./Richmond area for the NGS Conference in 2014. We had dinner with another friend of mine from D.C., who told us there was a 150-year reenactment of the battle of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania the following day. It was at this battle where my 4x Great Uncle Anthony Mattson from Pennsylvania had died. Of course, we had to go to the reenactment. Later, after the NGS conference, we were able to visit the next battle scene at Haw’s Shop, where the youngest brother Jesse Mattson died of wounds he had received there. Then we visited Cold Harbor where the 3rd brother David Baker Mattson was shot but survived. I had hoped to visit the Civil War battle sites in between research in DC and the conference, but I hadn’t really put the dates together to realize we were there exactly 150 years after the events happened. The Mattson’s brothers were definitely reaching out that week and wanted their stories told.
So I was curious about the book American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Southwest by Hannah Nordhaus. The title is really misleading and I think quite a few people thought they were going to get something like Amityville Horror when they picked this up to read and must have been very disappointed! Really, it’s Hannah Nordhaus’s personal journey to understand her German great-great-grandmother, Julia Shuster Staab, who immigrated to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1866. She researches the Staab and Shuster history in Germany and America, which is an enthralling story of German Jews who came to America to find freedom and success. She covers so much territory trying to understand her ancestors, using diaries and records of the family and other pioneers they would have known. She reads newspaper accounts and court records, interviews distant relatives, and travels to Germany to the places Julia and her family lived and visited.
Julia is fascinating, a woman plucked from an upper-middle-class German life who travels across the world to a desert with rough cowboys, Native Americans and Catholic priests and nuns. You may actually know about Julia if you have ever visited La Posada in Santa Fe. This was her house and she is said to haunt it, which is just another venue of research Nordhaus explores. She sees a variety of psychics throughout the book to determine if Julia is really haunting La Posada and if so, what is the cause of her unhappiness. We learn that Julia struggled with her own demons throughout her life, with the loss of children who died, a philandering and domineering husband and perhaps a fragile mental and physical constitution that may have never adjusted to an environment so different than her home in Germany.
Nordhaus’s research was thorough and her storytelling was riveting. If you are thinking about writing a family history, this is definitely a book you should read. Family history doesn’t have to be dry. Though I don’t think the Association of Professional Genealogists is ready to add psychics to their researchers….yet?
Happy New Year and may 2016 be full of blessings for all!