In the twelve years, I’ve been writing this blog I’ve taken you on many journeys. This time it’s different. This time I don’t know where we are going. Join me as I explore. Together, we will explore the past, and maybe, just maybe, there will be some lessons for us today and in the future in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and others.
Our journey begins just a few short weeks ago. In the midst of the civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a window to the past opened. Those of you who know me personally, know I love exploring the past. Carmen and I have followed the Lewis and Clark Trail from its beginnings in Monticello, Virginia, to the shores of the Pacific Coast near Astoria, Oregon, and back to St. Louis.
Our love for that epic story unlocked our love for our family’s story. We have stood in the tiny abandoned farmhouse where my grandmother was born near Randolph, Nebraska. We have stood near countless graves of our ancestors. For us, history goes beyond the names and dates, it’s about people and their stories. What did they do and why? What were they thinking? What were they feeling?
We have read pages and pages of journals to uncover the stories behind the names and dates. That is why my sister’s note surprised me. Her note included a link to an article she had stumbled across, a link that takes our exploration back further than a few short weeks ago. It uncovers a story. A story that involves a professor, an eagle scout, a retired Chicago police officer, and that is just going back 10 years. The story takes us back 171 years. It takes us back to 1849. It takes us to the story of Jan and Aagje Ton, my great, great grandparents.
Despite all the journals, despite all the graveside visits, what I knew about Jan and Aagje was from a 1945 issue of Life Magazine. That issue ran the story of the fiftieth Ton family reunion held in West Pullman Park on the South Side of Chicago. Over 500 Tons were in attendance. Jan and Aagje were immigrants from De Zaan, Holland. They and eight of their nine children came to the U.S. in the 1840s to flee persecution and high taxes.
Cool story, right? Life Magazine! As an aside, the cover of that issue was of one Jimmy Stewart, the actor, returning home after the war. The article even had a picture of the old farmhouse on the north side of the Little Calumet River. A lifetime of trips to and through Chicago not once were we inspired to track down the story, to visit the graves, or to find the location of the farm. The Life Magazine article is framed and hanging on the stairs in our home. I pass it a dozen times a day.
And then I received the link from my sister. What I learned floored me, blew me away. Jan and Aagje did more than farm on the banks of the Little Calumet River. You see, their farm was a stop along what is now known as the Underground Railroad. Freedom seekers would arrive at the farm on foot, in wagons (hidden under hay or sacks of corn), and sometimes by train. All of them traveling hundreds of miles to find their freedom. Jan would assist by taking them by wagon halfway across Indiana toward Detroit and the Canadian border.
I learned the farm was located at what is today “Chicago’s Finest Marina”. It is a historically black-owned marina. Ronald Gaines, a retired Chicago police officer now owns the marina.
I learned there is a memorial to honor my great, great grandparents near the church they helped found when they immigrated to the area. The memorial was an Eagle Scout project of LeRone Branch. LeRone is now a tax accountant for Deloitte.
Where do we go from here?
I’m hungry to learn more. My curiosity is aroused. Why didn’t we know? How was the story lost to our branch of the family? There isn’t anyone left to ask. My grandparents never spoke of it that any of us remember. My grandfather died in the mid-60s. My grandmother was fiercely proud of being a Ton. Though she married into the family, she was first and foremost a Ton. In all her journals, not one word of this appears. In the countless stories, she told in the years before her death, not even a whisper. I suppose the easy answer is she didn’t know. My grandfather was born nine years after Jan died. He never knew his grandfather. It’s true my branch of the Ton family tree scattered throughout the country in the early to mid-1900s. Perhaps that explains it.
Perhaps the answer is darker.
Come with me on this journey. As I learn more, you will learn more.