06 July 2012

Ostensibly Alsatian

There's a lot of ambiguity when it comes to my heritage. Some things we know: The first Strout in the New World, Christopher, late of Cornwall, England, arrived in the Americas sometime before 1680, the year he married Sarah Pike (Picke). (There's good evidence that he was conceived out of wedlock around the Christmas/Yule celebration in 1630, and later the legend is that he was shipwrecked here near Cape Cod and decided to stay.) We know my paternal great-grandmother was from Sweden. My Dad's mom was a card-carrying member of the DAR. On my Mom's side, we have another sea captain, this time from the Canary Islands, and her father's family were undoubtedly Scots. And there's no question that the Strout name shows up many, many times in the OR -- the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, mainly on the Union side.

Beyond that, though, my ancestry is made up of quite a bit of speculation and tradition. There's the famous Southern general on my Mom's side. The even-more famous explorer on my Dad's. The Native American that no one talks about. The mysteries surrounding grave sites. The speculation about battling in-laws and cousins. Heck, if you start to follow along some stories too closely, there's actually a better-than-even chance that somewhere along the way, my forebears from both sides of the family actually knew each other, and may have even intermarried!

Despite that, spending so much time in and around Chicago, I was always jealous of my friends' ethnicities. That city is such an amazing melting pot of cultures, and in many ways the annual celebrations of various holidays formed a tapestry of color that at once highlighted their diversity and illustrated their commonalities. I mean really, where else but maybe New York would you experience Día de los Muertos, Halloween, Dzień Wszystkich Świętych/Dzien Zaduszny and other All Saints Day/All Souls Day customs from the Old and New Worlds all in the course of a couple of days of riding to and from work? We had holiday traditions, but they were familial, not cultural. I grew up describing myself as "Heinz 57" -- so many of my friends were just one or two generations "off the boat," whereas I had roots dating back to the Colonies. How much more "American" can you get? But then how do you define "traditional, historical American" culture?

One thing we're sort-of sure of: The origins of our family name, going way back in history, were probably Alsatian. The city we now know as Strasbourg, France, was settled nearly 2,025 years ago, and though the Romans first called it Argentoratum, by the ninth century is was already documented as Strazburg in the local language. Stratisburgum and Strateburgus in Latin later became Strossburi in Alsatian and Straßburg in German; the geneologist who was hired a couple of years back to research the family seems to think that's where our name came from: Strout is distantly related to Strass, Stross, Strauss and other permutations stemming from Strossburi.

The reason I bring this up is because things are about to get pretty interesting in the Tour de France. Saturday's stage skirts Région Alsace and stays in neighboring Lorraine, but still manages to take in the lumps that make up the Vosges mountains with this year's first summit finish. Following on the heels of Friday's fiasco just 25km from the finish in Metz, the shakedown is set to begin -- and I can guarantee the peloton will not be caught out with these "medium mountains" like they were in 2001.

That was the year Kim and I first experienced France -- in fact, Strasbourg was our gateway on our tour following le Tour. I experienced my first mountain climb that summer in les Vosges (being passed uphill on the the Cat. 3 Col du Kreuzweg by rotund men sporting rail-thin legs and smoking cigarettes!) -- and, more importantly, my first mountain descent. What was most incredible to me, though, was the moment we ducked into a side street in the old city, and I realized a lot of the locals looked just like me!

Now, admittedly, it was probably my mind playing tricks. But after a lifetime of being able to identify my classmates' and coworkers' heritages based on their looks, this was the first time I felt like if I looked in a mirror, I belonged. (Combine that with my wife's more-recent German heritage, and yes -- my children look as if they should be named Liesl and Friedrich.)

Perhaps that's why I've taken so lovingly to my adopted hometown in the Appalachians. The Vosges, although geologically very different, look very similar to these mountains here -- in fact, the range is known as "The Blue Line," similar to our own "Blue Ridge." (Though the nickname was political in nature at first -- the Vosges forms a geographic barrier between France and Germany -- it has since become much less divisive.) The densely forested hillsides give way to rounded mountaintops, dotted throughout with balds. The roads are twisty, the valleys narrow. It is a beautiful landscape, and if the architecture here were a bit more medieval, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

(Funnily enough, a case can be made that it's from both sides of the family: This area was heavily settled by Scots, as it is similar to the Highlands of their native land. In fact, the clan bearing my family's name is one of the largest at each year's Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain!)

Whatever the case may be -- whether my ancestry does, in fact, begin in the Vosges, it's going to be fun watching the Tour in the next few days. Not only have I been there, and know what that area is like, I've found a home that is very similar, and I can't wait to get out and find my own version of the Cat. 3 Col de Grosse Pierre or the Cat. 1 La Planche des Belles Filles -- though, thankfully, the history here isn't quite so graphic, as I doubt any of the mountains in Western North Carolina were named after the massacre of the valley women by the Vikings in the 15th Century!


theintospective said...

My mom is a card carrying member of the DAR! My mom has spent a fair amount of time digging into my family's ancestry. So much to know!

theintospective said...

Also a little bit of cool history from my Dad's side on this site my mom made here: