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.
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.
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.
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."
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.