Out there, somewhere, in all the documents, papers, and stories of humanity, is information concerning one Thomas Napoleon Vandenburg, born in 1814 in either Germany or Holland, and died – according to lore – in 1864 in an insane asylum in Tennessee. We know he married a woman named Elizabeth, had three sons, all of which are easily documented, and the descendants of those three sons are scattered world wide. That’s it, that is all we have about this man who is my direct descendant.
Oh, I know, he is long dead, and that the stories about him died with his children or grandchildren. No one who knew him still walks the earth. But it bothers me that a man who was a father, husband, and no doubt, friend is simply erased as if he was unimportant in the formation of our family line. To me, he isn’t just a name and date on a piece of paper, he is part of who I am from the smallest part of DNA to, perhaps, how I look and act. It is a connection that becomes more important the longer I can’t find an answer.
As most genealogy enthusiasts know, there is always the one brick wall that makes us keep on pounding away. So many things can cause a brick wall. A name change, a spelling change, someone just decides to drop out of sight and moves on with a new life. All of that was much easier the further back one goes in history in the United States and other wilderness areas that became dumping grounds for criminals and religious fanatics. That very combination of rebelliousness was ripe for anarchy. Wars added to the losses, and sometimes, the soldier joined up using a fake name and disappeared into the chaos of history ending in a nameless grave somewhere on a nameless piece of land.
Disease, insanity, grueling hard scrabble lives, starvation, and wanderlust added their share of ghosts and lost men and women who became vague names in some old Bible or land document. There are thousands of ways a man could die in the past that would be cured with a simple pill today. The greed for gold alone took thousands of men from their families into the gold fields of California. A multitude of them were never heard from again. Some simply slipped away, some died horrific deaths, some drank themselves to death, and some managed to make it home, or bring their families to them to start a new life.
Today, it is rare that someone can simply disappear. We have documentation from the second we are born until the day we are buried or cremated at the end of our lives. Millions of tons of paper and ink are outlaid on each person born in a modern society. And now, with social media, computer hackers, and everything available electronically, we are even less likely to be able to disappear. Eventually, someone, somewhere, will recognize the missing person or discover when and where he or she died. I abhor the modern world of constant surveillance and intrusion, yet still wish that our ancestors had been a bit more organized and determined to keep records straight.
However, as I beat against that brick wall that is Thomas Napoleon Vandenburg’s history, I know in my heart that he is happy that someone cares enough to search for him from so far in the future. One day I will find him, and when I do I will do my Happy Dance and know that all the late nights, road trips, digging around in ragged paperwork and frustration was worth it. His story will be written again, and we will be able to move on to the men and women who brought him into this world. I know he’s out there, somewhere. Hang on Thomas, I am searching as hard as I can.