As part of my installation project "I Am My White Ancestors: Self Portraits through Time," I am in research mode. My goal over the next six months is to locate 10 ancestors stretching back as far as 1000 b.c.e. and learn about their lives. It is lonely and depressing work, not least because of what I am finding. European American history is a mine field. I feel like I am channeling my astro-archaeologist father, holed up in his study, nose in a musty book, tracking down connections between ancient cultures and the sky. I know he was at heart a treasurer hunter or detective. Both of those jobs are filled with dead ends and hours of tedious work, but they also contain moments of discovery. And lots of questions.
Some of my ancestors lived in Switzerland before they emigrated to South Carolina in 1735. I have found Heini Salley (Sali or Salin) who was born in 1690 in Zeglinen, in Basel-land. That is different from the city of Basel, I have learned. I have also learned about the Basel Massacre of 1349, when the town fathers decided to blame the bubonic plague on their Jewish neighbors and proceeded to execute almost all of them. Then, a few years later, after the 1359 Basel Earthquake, they used the money from the Jews to rebuild the city. Were my ancestors in Basel then? Did they participate in that horrible act?
Heini Salley's wife, Mariah von Arx, was born in Palatinate, Germany. How did Mariah get to Basel? People in the Palatinate area of Germany were emigrating to Pennsylvania in great numbers during the early 1700s. Was she and her family part of that movement and just stopped in Switzerland on the way? I do know they were swayed by a popular brochure produced by Jean-Peirre Pury, who earned a fee for each person he brought to South Carolina. Why do I assume that families stayed in one town their whole lives? I am starting to think that human beings are incredibly mobile and do unexpected things.