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Walking in the footsteps of the past

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image The Wyckoff House in Brooklyn, New York was built in 1652, one year before my ancestor Willem Traphagen arrived in the New World. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Seeking out the roots of your family, the lineage from whence you came, can do much to help explain who and what you are today.

By Mitch Traphagen
I stood in front of the oldest house in one of the oldest cities in America and tried to open my mind to the past.  The Wyckoff House in Brooklyn was built in 1652, only a year before my ancestor, Willem Traphagen arrived in the New World. From where the port was to where he eventually settled, he almost certainly would have passed this house. As there were relatively few structures at that time, he likely stopped for a look. Back then, the population of what would become New York City was only a few thousand people, spread out among farms and small, developing villages.

There is no way he could have imagined me, his direct descendant, standing in front of the same house in 2013. There is no way he could have imagined 2013. That would be like me trying to imagine one of my descendants standing in this same place in the year 2376.

Genealogy is the study and history of families. While it is an increasingly popular hobby, made easier with the advent of the Internet, it is so much more than that. Seeking out the roots of your family, the lineage from whence you came, can do much to help explain who and what you are today. Despite our technological society that Willem Traphagen could never have imagined 350 years ago, many of the problems and challenges we face today have already been faced and solved by those who came before us. More often than not, what is old is new again.

It is a fascinating experience to walk into the SouthShore Regional Library in Ruskin, pick up a book of historical records and find your family name listed. Although the Traphagen family has been in America since Willem arrived in 1653, I don’t know of many from my family tree living in Florida as most settled in the New York area and spread out along the Upper Midwest.

A notable exception would be Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling, who settled in Cross Creek near Gainesville in the early 1930s. Among her other books is one entitled The Sojourner, reportedly about her Grandfather Traphagen in Michigan.

Mitch Traphagen PhotoBoth the SouthShore and Bloomingdale Regional Libraries offer a number of resources for those interested in researching their past, including books containing historical records and computer terminals with links to a vast collection of online census and historical data. 

At 11 a.m. on Friday, September 6, the Bloomingdale Regional Library will offer a free class covering online genealogy. The SouthShore Library will offer the class at 3:30 p.m. on September 24. Additionally, at the SouthShore Library, genealogists from the South Bay Genealogical Society are on hand from 10 a.m. to noon every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to help those find their way into their past.

My journey in finding my past was a fairly easy one. First and foremost was that an enormous amount of research had already been done by a man from Kansas City named Christopher Brooks. He has been researching my family name for at least two decades, even making visits to Germany to search ancient records. At last report, he had traced the name back to two brothers who had leased a lake in the 1300s.

Secondly, my ancestor Willem had what must have been thought of as a tendency to make waves. And, as a child from a family of considerable means, he also felt compelled to have much of his life documented in official records — including a somewhat premature last will and testament made before a court in New York in the 1680s. He left his family home in Germany during what were likely the darkest years of the Thirty Years’ War, arriving in Amsterdam to become a journeyman baker. Soon after, he made his way to the New World to start all over again. He was one of 23 men who signed on to charter the community of Bushwick, now part of Brooklyn, New York; he made things happen, got into trouble, lost everything and worked his way back — more than once. He was the essence of what could be considered an American more than a century before there was an America.

His grandson, William, who also opened the Traphagen Tavern, now the Beekman Arms, the oldest continuously operating hotel in the United States, founded the town of Rhinebeck, New York. I visited the Beekman Arms in the hopes of finding ghosts, which unfortunately proved elusive. On the upside, I had the rare experience of not having to spell out my name when I made a dinner reservation at the hotel’s Traphagen Tavern restaurant.  More, on that trip I made contact with an archivist from New York State who later managed to find Willem’s will in the state records, bringing his words and sentiments forward through the centuries.

Willem was likely in his 70s when he passed away, a remarkable feat in a place and an age when life expectancy was only 40 or so years. Through his failures, successes and words, he lives on today, but only because people took the time to find him. For me, that is fortuitous as he carries with him lessons on life. From him, I know the worst can be overcome, that life isn’t merely any given moment, it is a collection of times good and bad with things tending to work out in the end.

Mitch Traphagen PhotoBack in the SouthShore Library, I found a book revealing that another relative had been paid $58 for his role in the War of 1812. While the resources at the county libraries are impressive, you can also learn a great deal from your home computer, with a plethora of both free and subscription-based genealogy websites, the largest of which, Ancestry.com, makes tracing your past an easy and fascinating experience.

Moving through the centuries, I found that Henry Traphagen was the mayor of Jersey City in 1874, Ethel Traphagen, a New York fashion designer, is credited with bringing shorts and slacks for women into the mainstream in the early 1900s and Dake Traphagen, a luthier, is still building beautiful, high-end classical guitars in Washington State.

Although I’ll hopefully never be tied to a stake in the town square, thanks to Willem I’ll know that not only would I survive it, I could move on to better things. Genealogy provides the advantage of seeing the lives of distant family members in entirety, revealing that in the end, things tend to work out as they should. Thanks to genealogy, I found a trail blazed by my ancestors that can still be followed today.

The South Bay Genealogical Society of Sun City Center meets at noon on the third Tuesday of each month from September through May in the Royal Palm Room at Little Harbor Resort.

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