Thursday, June 10, 2010

Roots Rock

By the time my mother’s Scots-Irish ancestors emigrated to America in the late 18th-century and were slowly making their way across the continent, my father’s ascendencias had long been settled in New England.  It was a great surprise when I learned that my ancestral line reached back to the 17th-century emigration of Protestant separatists from England, the Pilgrims. My discovery was serendipitous.
      It had begun, oddly enough, with my strong interest in (and identification with) the mill girls of New England, for like them, I too had been  a poor “country” girl who left rural and agricultural roots to came to the big city for better wages, freedom, and a chance to immerse myself in the cultural and bohemian delights of  romantic San Francisco.
    My love of folk music led to being curious about textile mill workers’ songs, a tradition I traced back from the South to New England, then further back to Scotland, Ireland, and England. My imagination was captured by Yankee farm girls recruited by textile mill agents to work in the newly industrializing corporate towns of eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The agents roamed the New England countryside in wagons they called “slavers” to scoop up the daughters of fine upstanding but eternally poor farmers to come work in the new mill towns. For a brief period--as long as the factory workers were mostly of Anglo descent, the factory system in America was a model work environment--in relative terms--and it drew the likes of Europeans like Charles Dickens who wanted to see what all the fuss was about: factory towns that included libraries, atheneums (places of adult education), and commercial interests that appealed to the new economy were unheard of in Europe where, instead, factories spelled the demise of a girl‘s morals and left families living in squalor. By contrast, these young American girls were such models of cleanliness and morality that the companies where they worked used their images as promotional icons. Like Dickens, I too wanted to see first-hand the birthplaces of American industrialization: Pawtucket, Rhode Island; Lowell, Lawrence, and Waltham, Massachusetts; and Amoskeag, New Hampshire, among others.
Around this time, a friend introduced me to a work colleague who had queried her about my last name (Dresser). He turned out to be a 10th cousin! Dave's mother had done a lot of research on her family tree: Dressers. She traced the Dresser family line back to medieval England and possibly to earlier Viking invasions. I had always had an interest in family history but now I was generously presented with a stack of papers that had been excavated and photocopied showing the Dressers of England and New England. News to me. As far as I and my family knew, the Dressers were mid-Atlantic Americans with no New England roots. I was intrigued to learn that my father's line went back to the Pilgrims. So, armed with this new knowledge, I expanded my research on a trip to study New England textile history.
    Within a one-week period, I dropped into a Twilight Zone where mis asendencias seemed to fervently call on me. Even my husband who is anything but inclined to the supernatural, thought the one-week series of “concidences” were strange. The first came as we visited the pioneer cemetery in Rowley, Massachusetts. The first Dressers  lived here: John and Mary were members of a Yorkshire Puritan congregation who emigrated with their minister, the Reverend Ezekiel Rogers in 1638. I was looking for their tombstones or the graves of other distant relatives, half on a lark, half just needing an excuse to roam a quaint New England town.

    The car alarm screamed at us as we prepared to leave the cemetery. It was my mother-in-law‘s vehicle and we didn‘t know how to turn off the wailing warning system. We had finished our stroll up and down the rows of graves, finally finding a large DRESSER tombstone. The older pioneer markers were illegible and I had been somewhat disappointed to not find the stones markers for John and Mary. I joked about “my ancestors not being willing to let me go after I’d finally come to visit them." But over the next few days, I encountered numerous pieces of evidence of Dresser ancestors who had lived and been buried in New England. Wandering into a gift shop in Gloucester, I spotted a chapbook written by a Thomas Dresser about “Dogtown,“ a haunted village in that part of Massachusetts. On a private tour of the Antiquarian Library in Worcester where I had hoped to find materials related to industrial history, the librarian asked my name; when I told her it was Dresser, she quickly asked, “Oh, are you related to the Dressers of Worcester?“ This was news to me. “Are they blue-eyed and alcoholic?,“ I quipped. “No,“ she told me. In fact, the family had a good reputation, were known to be a very old family in the area, and were philanthropists. In fact, one worker in the library was friends with a Richard Dresser who was a playwright in Manhattan.
    At the cemetery in Cambridge where I wanted to visit the grave of America’s first commercially successful poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who had married into a textile mill owning family, I stumbled across a large patch of Dresser headstones. Again, I had not known of any Dressers of New England before my trip. When I returned from this adventure, I was purchasing tickets for a folk music concert in Berkeley, had written out my check and handed it to the clerk; she looked at my name, and asked, “Oh, are you related to the Dressers of Massachusetts?” This was the first and last time I have been asked about my family name’s connection to that state: it stunned me to happen on the heels of this trip east.
     It’s a strange thing to see one’s name on a grave stone, especially if your family name is slightly unusual and you grew up far from the graves of your father's family. We all know we are going to die but the stark reality of your own name etched into rock has a particular effect. My search for my father's father's people had begun in earnest.
   Dad never cared for the West; he complained about hot dry desert heat; when he was drunk, he raged about being besieged by my mother’s numerous family members. Walter Dresser, Jr., or “Kiddo,” my dad, was from Dares Beach, a small Chesapeake Bay community that his dad, a builder, had tried to develop into a resort town. My father had no any inkling that he represented the 11th generation of Dressers who had pulled up stakes in the East Riding of Yorkshire, to find religious freedom in Rowley, Massachusetts. What has surprised me in learning about his family, is that they have almost always been sea people, living along the Atlantic coast, from Massachusetts up to Maine. Prior to coming to America, the Dressers spent generations near the North Sea and before that, according to the genealogical records, which may or may not be myth, they arrived from Gotland, an island off the southern tip of Sweden. It would not be far-fetched to imagine the ascendencias as members of invading Vikings who built many villages in the eastern areas of the British Isles, and unlike the Romans, the Vikings readily intermarried with the native Celt and Anglo-Saxon populations. For at least twenty generations, then, my patrilineal line were sea-people, builders of ships and sailors, who crossed seas and oceans to settle other coastlands.
     My great-grandfather Dresser was the first to break that link to the sea, but he did it very briefly, moving inland from Maine to Buffalo, New York, where I understand he was a shipwright. His son, my grandfather left this inland place, however, and restored the family tradition of living by the ocean when he migrated south Dares Beach, Maryland, a steamboat dock on the Chesapeake: the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

Mom's Scots-Irish ancestors were willfully migratory by comparison, crossing first an ocean and then a continent to deliver my mother to California‘s great Central Valley, a people possessed by a need to set out and change themselves and others; they were history makers, pioneers, politicians, and preachers. There is an old joke I heard in a pub in Scotland: when people from the British Isles first came to America, the English settled coastal towns, created militias and government; when the Irish came,they established churches and as many pubs; but upon their arrival, the Scots lit out for the west, wanting only to be left alone and free to explore new land, hunt and fish, build simple places to worship, kill Indians, marry Indian maidens, and build whiskey stills and trading posts. They were the original "get government off my back" Tea Partyers.

     The Scots-Irish of my mother‘s side were the explorers while my father’s people seemed content to hunker down not far from the shores where they landed then build up from there. The record shows eleven generations of Dressers in New England (Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine), New York and finally the mid-Atlantic, where my direct relations now live. (My distant cousin's relatives went west toward Michigan, instead.)
    The Dressers were shoemakers, builders, fishermen, lumbermen, and soldiers in the Revolutionary War. The family name is a classic English occupational one that describes the name-bearer as a member of the tanning trade, a dresser tanned and handled leather and/or cloth. In a more modern textile process, a "dresser" is a finisher of cloth in a mill. When I began this project my interest had been solely on the textile industry, not on family history at all, so it was intriguing that on some level I had been "channeling" the ancestors by following my passion for industrial labor history and folk song all along.
    The Baby Boomers may have been the last generation of Americans to be raised on the sweeping and glorious myth of America's "discovery" by Christopher Columbus, of the righteous pursuit of life, liberty and happiness that inspired the American Revolution, and  the contented gurgle of the melting pot. My generation was inculcated with the old stories, even as we were taught to "duck and cover" under our school desks during alarm practices for nuclear attack. We grew up in a turbulent, war-torn country, with important liberation movements tearing our citizens and our towns apart. We watched our leaders murdered and political corruption bring down a President. I am a daughter of Watergate and remember "waking up" politically to the shame of that event.
     There was a terrible cognitive dissonance between the stories of the Greatest Generation’s travails during the Depression and World War II and what was happening in our own time of social upheaval. The history books couldn’t keep up, and the teachers, for the most part, didn’t try to. Anti-Communism was the big theme. Castro and the Soviet Union, the ultimate threats.
    But we knew something was not right. My generation rebelled; we started over with communes, back-to-land movements, organic farm ventures, drug experimentation. We were anything but cynics. We believed society could be changed and we set out to change it. While our parents were saying "America, love it or leave it," we were saying, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

      I was about 14 when I read James Michener's rationalizations for the shootings of four students at Kent State College in Ohio by National Guardsmen in our family's literature: The Reader's Digest. I smelled betrayal on the part of the older generation. Neil Young’s "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We're finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio," helped me discern which side I was on. But I wasn't a rebel, no one in my family--to my knowledge at the time anyway--had been a social rebel. We were the children of builders and farmers, hard-workers who had built America. We were America, right or wrong, weren’t we?
    From an interest in textile workers' songs to what it means to be an American, I've been going backwarder and backwarder to the places where my ascendencias began. Mine is the story of coming-of-age as a working-class white American girl, of the old school of what it means to be an American, but through cultural change and historical realities, recognizing that what I had been told was only partial truth. American identity is something each of us struggles to articulate. As I identify and place ancestors into their historical settings, I discover the full range of personalities and life plans; they bring pride, they bring shame. Clearest of all is that on both sides of my family, there have been major splits and rifts in response to historical events. White America was and will always have its myths to cling to, but the story is an old one that needs to be both excavated and revised in light of greater truths. That's why "backwards ho" is also about a white girl's adventure in race, racism, class and exile. It's fun, it's exciting. Come along with me, backwards to the future.

Pictures, from top: Pilgrims in New England; Lewis Hine's photograph of young girl millworker; a 17th-century emigrant ship; the port of Hull, England, where my ancestors likely shipped out from; Rowley Common, Massachusetts; my family circa 1954, Fresno, California; American pioneers and their prairie schooners; a Scots-Irish woman of the Lamont clan;  my husband and I standing in extant Oregon Trail ruts in eastern Wyoming.