Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Storytelling at the Global Family Reunion

Last Saturday I had the great honor of telling family stories at the Global Family Reunion in New York. It was a deeply moving experience, and I look forward to returning to any stage that will have me. While the storytelling was free form, I did write a script for the event, which I have included below. For all of the family and friends who were not in attendance, I hope I can perform at a town near you soon.

The carriage came to a rest at the castle gate, the wind cool as Cornelia emerged, her young children in tow. She took a long deep breath and steeled her nerves, walking through an imposing doorway into a cold and dark space. When she was alone with her husband later that evening away from her children, she wept, but not from joy.

The Swiss for centuries had been mercenaries for numerous European monarchs, and Cornelia had met her husband, the Baron of Vaumarcus, while he was a Swiss officer in the service of the Prince of Orange. They had married and lived happily for 14 years in Holland with their five children.

Her father had been the Mayor of The Hague, and her family art patrons in the Dutch Golden Age. Cornelia’s life had been urbane and pampered. When her husband’s service was at an end in 1771 they returned to the castle of his youth, and as lovely as the view of the Lake of Neuchâtel and surrounding woods were, her new home was ancient, drafty and isolated.

She implored her husband to build her something new. Her most important request was a studio with natural light where she could paint. Being an attentive husband, he had a new addition to the castle built in 1772 going essentially bankrupt in the process.

In this new more comfortable space Cornelia taught her children about the finer things, art foremost among them.

Thanks to her, and her values, there has been an artist of some note in every subsequent generation. These artistic genes I am pleased to say endure in my children as well.

A nurtured creative flame knows no boundaries, and when you are moved to go beyond your limitations, you not only liberate yourself but inspire the world around you.

As you can imagine with a name like mine, going to Starbucks is a rare treat. “Who will I be today?” Geoffrey? Shep? Sean Francisco? The possibilities are simply endless. And as much as I like Star Trek, “Make it so, Jean-Luc Picard!” got a bit old at one point.

There were occasions in elementary school when I thought it might be easier to be named Steve or Bob or Michael, but I knew that my name was not chosen at random. I was named after two good and honorable men, brothers Jean and François Lasserre on my French grandmother’s side who both immigrated to San Francisco in the 1890s. One became a florist, the other a street car conductor. Both survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, even if their homes did not.

I honor Jean everyday by wearing his 1909 wedding band. Fate also made it so. His wedding date, March 27th, was also the day I met my wife, 85 years later. While I still have some distant cousins in France, and feel a deep kinship to my French ancestry, my adult life has been consumed by research into my parental Swiss heritage. A heritage that goes back to the 12th century and the small town of Buren near the Swiss capital of Bern.

My Swiss family members have been soldiers, statesmen, artists, bankers, priests, farmers, vintners, botanists and adventurers.

But I did not grow up in the world of ancient villages. I grew up just over the Golden Gate in the fresh-faced and free-spirited Marin County of the 1970s, and it was very clear to me from an early age, that my home environment was very different from that of my peers. Between ancestral portraits, family artwork, and a small library of books in Latin, French and German, my family home was atypical to put it mildly.

As lucky as I was, my family heritage felt at times like an existential burden, I mean, how do you live up to eight centuries of history? It seems odd to me now as someone who cherishes my individuality, but as a kid, what I wanted more than anything was to be like everyone else and blend in.

A critical step for me was attending a French bilingual school in San Francisco for middle and high school. I was able to embrace my cultural roots more freely, and from a practical point of view, learning French meant I could now read many of my ancestral documents, which up to that point had largely been a mystery. Documents that were housed in an immense ornate armoire.

I would spend weekends lost in examining its treasures, and like the wardrobe to Narnia, I was immediately transported to another time and place as soon as I opened its door. The interpretation of what it all meant to me personally would come much later.

As valuable as my research was, if I had never travelled to or lived in Europe, I would have missed a crucial element. A pilgrimage to the birthplace of your ancestors does more than any amount of research ever could.

To walk the same streets as my family did, to visit their homes, to gaze upon the Alps – which are so central to Swiss identity – and perhaps see the same vistas they may have seen centuries before. My heart would swell to near bursting.

I will never forget my first trip to Bern.

As others looked up at the ornate cathedral vaults, I looked down. I was looking at the wooden pews intently, I was looking for "our" seats. I saw many crests carved into the church pews, lions, stars, and various mythical creatures and then I found what I was looking for, three bee hives, our family crest.

I stopped and absorbed the moment. I continued to look, could there be others? To my delight, I found other examples of the crest in pews, in stain glass windows and one under the altar where a family hero of the Burgundian wars is buried. My discoveries left me thoroughly energized. Was I having a religious experience or was this simply overactive family pride?

Later that day, my parents and I visited our Cousin Claire. She was in her eighties and was the last of the family in Bern, a city in which my family had played a central role for six centuries. She was the widow of Eugene, who had been head of the family Bank. Claire was getting on in years but was still mentally sharp and adept in multiple languages. Adept in many languages, so very Swiss.

In subsequent years when I visited Switzerland on summer holiday, I always paid Claire a visit. I was a receptive audience during our meetings and walks in the old town as she regaled me with family stories. I would also visit the library that housed many family papers, and was always the youngest in the reading room by an average of 50 years.

After she passed, I was told that the last time she ventured into town was with me.

On a more recent trip I had the pleasure of being the honored guest at the annual dinner of the Metzgern Zunft or Butchers guild (one of the many medieval guilds still in Bern), an organization that my family became a member of starting in 1342.

The annual celebration commemorates the aftermath of a 14th century battle when soldiers from the guild, exhausted and hungry from a hard fought victory, ate what was available to them, carrots from a local field.

While the feast may celebrate the eating of carrots, do not be fooled, this is not the vegetable guild; meat, meat and more meat is on the menu for this occasion.

I sat in a part of the room nicknamed the “Pig’s corner,” a place traditionally reserved for hog butchers, but now occupied by the young members of the guild.

We started with soup, introductions and speeches. The first speech was made by the President of the guild who after acknowledging his many important guests, most from other local guilds, came to me. He said that a member of one of the oldest families in Bern and of the guild, was with them today, and had also come from California just for the occasion. He stopped speaking in Bärndütsch (the local Swiss-German dialect) and continued in French for my benefit saying that I was always welcome within these walls. To say that I was moved is putting it mildly.

The second course was bone marrow and liver, and not just one platter mind you. The man across from me at the table joked that it didn’t matter how much wine we were all drinking since we were eating liver. The third course arrived with heaping mounds of beef, special sausages and green beans. The wine and conversation flowed for hours. I hope to attend again soon, if only to have a couple more of those sausages.

Over time, my interest in family history has become less of an intellectual exercise and more of a heart-centered one. Beyond simply a deepening relationship with the subject matter, other events have made their mark.

Becoming a father was the most important one. My heart started to open more fully as my girls grew. My children have been my greatest teachers, without question, and as I have supported their dreams, they have supported mine in turn. I would not be here today without the help of their shiny spirits.

As someone who studies the past, I sometimes wanted to take up residence in the land of “what might have been.” The practice of meditation has allowed me to quite my mind, and learn to appreciate the present moment, just as it is.

And the fact is - stories of emotional impact abound in my family history.

A family member who served Louis XVI in Corsica helped get Napoleon Bonaparte promoted as a young man, only to have him repay my ancestor years later, by invading Switzerland and throwing him out of power. Be careful whom you promote.

A female ancestor whose marriage was arranged to an Irishman who was a supposed great match only to have him turn out to be an terrible scoundrel, living high off the hog on her money and disappearing when the coffers were empty. She would return to her mother in disgrace. Not everyone is lucky in love.

Vast tracks of land that had been gained through years of careful planning were almost all lost in one generation by an incorrigible gambler and drunk. The reason I don’t go to Vegas.

Two young cousins challenged each other to a duel after an argument over which of their hometowns was more beautiful took an ugly turn. One of them dying as a result. Have I told you how much I love NY?

Prosperous years followed lean ones. Health followed illness. Fame followed disgrace.

As I read my family stories what kept surfacing again and again were the timeless nature of their underlying themes. Do we not see these same things today? This is a reason why Historical Drama works so well as a cinematic art form, and why I feel my storytelling future resides in film.

Throughout my family history, regardless of social status, or society mores, or cultural influence, my ancestors were on some basic emotional level just like me, possible of both incredible feats as well as terrific folly. And since we are cousins, they are you as well. This is why their stories resonate, this is why they matter.

In your own family research it is important to remember that if a story moves you, it was meant for you, and it has something to teach.

The following stories have moved me.

He saw her from across the room, their eyes met - a connection that was instantly electric.

My grandfather was born in 1900 on the family ranch in Argentina. A ranch purchased by his father in 1891, with seed money from the sale of the castle. He would spend his first 11 years in Argentina, before the family moved back to Geneva, ostensibly for children’s schooling.

He was handsome, athletic, and fantastically stubborn. In his early 20s while still living with his siblings and parents in Geneva, his father got him a job at a local factory. My grandfather would leave every morning with his lunchbox and overalls, and return in the evening, very tired.

After a number of weeks, his father contacted the owner of the factory where he was supposedly working, and the owner said, “Your son never showed up”. Every day he had thrown his lunchbox and overalls in the bushes a couple of blocks from the family home, and spent his days with his friends drinking and smoking in town.

His father was none too pleased, and in an effort to teach his son a lesson and at the same give him the practical skills to run a large farm, his father sent him in 1923 to Tranquility, California, near Fresno to work on the farm of a fellow Swiss. He was said to have arrived at the train station in a three-piece suit with a steamer trunk of swords and other weapons, expecting the Wild, Wild West. He would not spend long there.

He later moved to San Francisco and met my grandmother at a French social event. He would not board the steamer to Argentina, leaving the duty of returning to the ranch to his youngest brother, which was a source of tension for the rest of their lives.

My grandfather was a study in contrasts. He was superlative cook and entertainer, had a green thumb, was highly cultured, and spoke many languages. At the same time, he was quick to anger, could be cold and distant, and did not seem to have any real friends.

My grandmother was kind, caring and fiercely intelligent. She was a French teacher in San Francisco, and taught Joe DiMaggio for a time as a boy. She never left the house without gloves or a hat. Opera was her greatest passion, one she passed down to my father.

In her late 70s, over a period of a some years my grandmother had a series of strokes that ultimately left her mentally compromised, a tragedy for a woman who had such a brilliant mind, but her husband never strayed and constantly advocated for her needs.

In 1986 my grandfather fell and broke his hip, he tragically would not leave the hospital. The day he died, my grandmother stopped eating, no one told her what had happened, she simply knew.

Their bond, while complicated, was authentic and their connection undeniable. True love takes many forms.

I am sorry to inform you that what you know about your heritage is incorrect. You are not Dutch, you are in fact Swiss. This is part of a conversation that I remember having with a rediscovered cousin roughly 15 years ago now.

In spite of the incredible scholarship done over time on my family history over the centuries, one glaring hole existed. The lost American branch.

My grandfather was not the first of the family to immigrate to the United States. Two family members left Switzerland for Indiana in 1830. Some information was known about the first generation born in the U.S. and then nothing else.

I started doing some research on Southern Indiana in 1998 while living in Washington D.C., and found that there was an influx of Swiss emigrants in the 1830s to Indiana and was immediately intrigued.

I started posting on Rootsweb and joined (let’s see “Oh, a shaky leaf, honey we’re related to, well, everybody.”). I was eventually contacted by a woman in Louisville, who knew she descended from a van Buren in area in which certain information of mine synched up with hers. van Buren?

Once I tried van Buren, the information flooded in. The name had been changed at some point, whether by error or by choice. After spending many hours swapping information with my new distant cousin in Louisville, and even more hours on Ancestry, I had re-constructed the Indiana branch up until the 1930s or so.

I decided to see if I could contact one of the living relatives I found. I found an older cousin and was able to share with him the news of his Swiss heritage for the first time. He was in the midst of caring for his wife who had Alzheimer's and I was concerned he might be resistant or even angry at this new found information, but he remarked jovially without missing a beat, “I heard stories about one of the family members being in the Swiss Guards, and that never make sense to me if we were supposed to be Dutch.

In 2000 upon returning to California, I stopped in Southern Indiana, and saw where the van Buren farm had been. I later lost touch with my new van Buren cousin, and years after our initial conversation I tried to contact him again. Sadly, I learned of his passing, but thankfully for me, his surviving children were listed in the obituary.

I am now in contact with many of my new found cousins and feel blessed that I am able to share with them the richness of our collective heritage.

Be thankful for holes in your research, you never know where they will take you.

The sun glistened off the surface of the blue Caribbean Sea gently rocking a small water taxi as it made its way to port. Mid-morning sunlight shone on an imposing fort and lighthouse crowned by the Spanish colors gently waving in the breeze. Below in elegant cursive the word “Havane”.

This is my first memory of a journal that has consumed my life for the last eight years resulting in two books.

I initially found it as a boy, but certain material only makes sense when you are ready for what it has to teach you. I re-discovered it again in 2007 and instead of merely skimming its beautifully penned pages as before, I decided to read it and hoped it would have secrets to tell. I would not be disappointed.

I discovered that Cuba was only a very small portion of the journal; it was dedicated almost entirely to the day-to-day documentation of an 1853 expedition of European settlers venturing deep into the Amazon of Northern Peru. The pages were brimming with tales of natural beauty, social conflict and internal power struggles. I was hooked, and to my utter amazement I found the journal to have been written by my great-great-grandfather, Henri de Büren.

How did I not know of this before? No one to my knowledge had ever spoken of it. It would have seemed to be a great family story, passed down from generation to generation told over sumptuous dinners, getting more fanciful in each retelling. “Did you hear how grand-père cleared the jungle with only his Swiss Army knife?”

Later on in his life he had sold the family castle, and I believe this tainted his legacy. As a younger man, I often bemoaned the fact that it was no longer in family hands. After much research I have come to understand that he sold the castle primarily so he could secure better services and greater opportunities in Geneva for three of his children who were deaf.

Once I fully understood his motivation, my attitude completely changed. Context in family stories is critical, otherwise you are coming from a place of presumption or judgment.

Passionate about his voyage, I searched for any additional writings and to my delight found another journal that compiled all of his correspondence home to his family. The letters home covered a grander voyage than just Cuba and Peru. It documented a Grand Tour that lasted almost two years and covered thousands of miles, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama and Brazil.

What had started with the fascination surrounding one watercolor illustration had blossomed into finding a detailed first-person account of a journey that covered large parts of the Americas. I felt at that moment, that I had discovered a unique artifact and a piece of cultural history that needed to be shared.

In spite of the early exhilaration of discovery, there have been moments that I doubted my sanity, as did my parents, for throwing myself headlong into this endeavor. There were also those along the way who dismissed it as simply a quaint family project. I have come to feel very strongly that it is far more than that.

Henri was a witness to scientific, social and cultural history in the Americas and in an era of one-way immigration, his return home is something to be acknowledged in itself. When I felt a lead go cold, a new bit of information would be revealed, or when I became dispirited, an invaluable word of encouragement would come from the unlikeliest of sources.

Like Henri's adventure, my project concerning him has continued to evolve. Beyond the intellectual calculations of its historical value, there was a deeply emotional component. The journal felt viscerally part of me, a creative product that called to me, desiring to be expressed. Publishing the journal was my first thought, but am also still considering a documentary film, retracing Henri's route in the present day, and a historical drama.

My time researching Henri's life and journals is a metaphor for the voyage itself. In the past eight years I have slowly embraced his adventurous spirit and it has allowed me to redefine how I see myself. As I followed him down the Americas, I simultaneously went deeper into myself and it has inspired me to start to live the life I have always dreamed of.

The Persian Poet Rumi said “What you seek is seeking you.” A fact that was made very clear to me when I visited Switzerland six weeks ago for a book launch on Henri’s voyage. I was having dinner with the family that now owns the castle and midway through dessert an album of pencil sketches was given to me to peruse. It was filled with sketches that my great-great-grandfather had done before and after his journey to the Americas.

I looked at the album with deep reverence, turning the pages gingerly. Mrs. Thalmann, the castle owner said “You can keep it, I know how much you care about your heritage.”

When you are moved to go beyond your limitations, you not only liberate yourself but inspire the world around you.

We are the stories we tell about ourselves.

Make yours bold.

Make yours memorable.

Make yours authentic.

Thank you.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Global Family Reunion

I was recently invited to "tell" at the storytelling portion of the Global Family Reunion on June 6th in New York. I am very excited by the opportunity to share not only my story, but the stories of my ancestors. If you are in the New York area, please come by and say hello.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Upon closer inspection

When we look more closely, we are rewarded with greater insight.

Last week I found a 19th century photo of the Château de Vaumarcus, the de Büren family home for many generations, and decided to make a high resolution scan for this blog. It seemed at first blush to be a standard shot of the castle on a sunny afternoon. Only while digitally repairing the scratches and affects of age did I find some hidden secrets.

A triangular section of masonry above the barn, where the castle wall must have been altered.

A male de Büren relative standing by the ancient drawbridge.

A female de Büren ancestor looking out towards Lake Neuchâtel and the family dog lounging in the sun.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fit to be Square

"Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything." – Plato

My parents purchased the personal estate of my grand-aunt and prolific artist Natalie de Büren–essentially site unseen–in the mid-1980s while on holiday in Switzerland. She was in a nursing home and my father did it in large part to save her artwork, artwork that I have profiled extensively on this site. My father also knew he was preserving other family heirlooms, but was ignorant of all the estate contained.

There were many precious artifacts that emerged from the large steamer crate that finally arrived in California, none more so than the 1793 square piano, built in Bern by Swiss instrument maker Niclaus Kaderli.

“Square pianos first appeared in London in 1766. Harpsichord players loved them - their treble tones sounded so much sweeter than contemporary grand pianos - and these 'small pianofortes' were so much cheaper. Also, their small size and convenient shape made them suitable for any room. In fact they were so portable they could be carried from room to room with ease. Until c.1790 the harpsichord and piano existed side by side, rated as equally useful instruments. Consequently many wealthy home owners had both, finding that a small pianoforte could be easily accommodated.

Their most influential devotees were high society women such as Queen Charlotte of England and Marie Antoinette of France. Both were fond of music and, like many of their contemporaries, they were charmed by the tone of these pianos, not simply in solo pieces but most importantly, in accompaniments for songs. Music-making in a domestic setting was a very frequent and fashionable activity and in this context songs, with a suitable accompaniment from pianos like this one, were of great importance.”

- Square Pianos (A Brief History)

An example of a square piano of the same era can be seen at the Swiss National Museum at the Château de Prangins.

As with many family heirlooms that have perhaps been stored in less than ideal conditions; furniture, documents, and artwork, can arrive in various states of disrepair. This have been the case with many oil portraits and was tragically also the case with the Kaderli piano.

However, this instrument chose the right new home. My father has always been an ardent lover of classical music, opera, ballet, and was a concert pianist as a boy. Once he saw it, he wanted to return this instrument to its former glory. Kaderli's piano that had been played by family members, its music had surely fostered a convivial atmosphere amongst friends and had resided within the walls of the Château de Vaumarcus.

After some research, a restorer was found. The piano was restored by Bjarne “Barney” Dahl (1930-2009) a craftsman and restorer of harpsichords and antique pianos. He worked on the Kaderli square piano for over a year, my father telling him to take all the time he needed. He was also better known as the longtime owner of the Cardinal Hotel in Palo Alto and was responsible for its restoration. The following section comes from Dahl's restoration summary. I have edited his words only for spelling and grammatical errors. The accompanying photos were also taken by Dahl to document his process.

"Upon my first inspection in May 1987, this piano appeared to be complete with exception of the pedal lyre and one pedal. Only one pedal with a broken hinge remained. The bottom of the case and instrument appeared to have shrunk and wood dust from the powderpost beetle was evident. At the time, this condition did not appear to be serious. When I accepted the commission of restoration, I took the precaution of having the instrument fumigated by Dodd Fumigation in San Francisco.

Upon disassembly, the following conditions of the various action parts were noted (aside from being filthy and moth eaten):

1. Terrible warping of the keys with one ivory missing
2. All wool cloth parts totally destroyed by bugs
3. Most of the parchment hinges and leather hinges were fine
4. All tuning pins were rusty but salvageable
5. All damper return springs were bent but salvageable
6. Damper push rods were badly damaged and shortened, all or most needed replacement
7. Tuning block was in good condition
8. All strings were corroded and rusted
9. Many bumper buckskin coatings were worn through and need replacement
10. Many damper pads needed replacement
11. Soundboard split and under ribs loose.

I removed the soundboard and made horrible discovery. I noticed that the bottom board felt spongy and I could poke my finger through. I discovered total disintegration of this member by the powderpost beetle, a 3 inch thick piece of Swiss pine. The damage covered one 10 inch wide section and meant that I had to take apart every member of the instrument. The functional capacity of the piano was very much in jeopardy if this decayed member were to remain. This was a serious setback.

The beetle damage was evident over the entire length of the piano. I also discovered upon complete disassembly of the ease and bottom member that the builder was an economizer. The bottom is composed of 3 by 3 inch lengths of Swiss pine glued together to make a whole bottom board. He apparently was short of material and deliberately cut short the boards and placed a piece of dovetail or tongue in groove piece to complete the required length of the bottom board member. This additional piece is made of mahogany, and as as result the bugs ate up only one half of the board. They tried to invade the other half but somehow this member dissatisfied them and no damage resulted. The whole board did however shrink in width by at least 1/2 of an inch. This caused the upper case to distort and is still slightly visible even with a newly restored bottom.

After much effort I located a fine piece of Ponderosa pine from a private mill near Jamesville, California. Pine of 3 inch thickness is simply not available from any commercial source that I could find in the west. The piece that Mr. Meinert sent to me is quarter cut and has been seasoned for 2 years. The bottom board is now half original and half new. The upper case is beautifully made and veneered. The joining is exceptional and of very high quality.

I cleaned and replaced all of the case members using hide glue. I repaired the soundboard and lined the repaired seems with Irish linen tape, soaked in glue. The soundboard support host was reset and the under ribs reglued. After the case and soundboard were reassembled, I cleaned and repaired the entire action and restrung the instrument. I then repaired the stand and legs.

The lid hinges are original as well as most of the hardware. The pedal hinges are new and the pedal linkage levers are original. The lid appears to have been made originally for a clavichord and then adapted by the builder for this piano. The lid seems to be planed thinner on the bass end and is uneven. Warp damage is evident but not bad enough for any extensive repair or replacement, I did however have to add a 3/8 inch piece of walnut on the rear side of the lid (it simply did not fit without this addition) to compensate for the case warpage that has occurred.

This instrument has been worked on in the past. Red pads were added on under the damper shanks, action cloth parts added here and there, some leather and parchment hinge parts replaced and several veneer repairs made, etc. An antique coin from Neuchâtel of 1 Creut and a key were found, both not related to the instrument and all removed parts and debris have been boxed and labeled for future reference.

This instrument has turned out very well and musically is superb. Finger articulation is essential for the light action and the pedal for the lute or (sordine) should not be pressed down hard. All effort has been made to preserve as such of the original instrument as possible and with exception of the bottom lyre board very little compromise was necessary.

Bjarne B. Dahl, January 6, 1987"

Thursday, November 27, 2014

1548 Wappenbuch

Having a distinctive coat of arms is great for many reasons, none more so than adding a level of certainty when chasing visual references to your family history. In pursuing a lead last evening I found another such reference.

I found a link through a heraldry site to a 900 page book containing many ancient family coats of arms. On the 40th page I found the de Büren family crest. Unlike lions, symbols, or geometric shapes which are plentiful in heraldry, bee hives are unique. The name above says "Burron" which is how the name of the town Büren, for which we are named was once written. As I perused many of the additional pages I recognized other Swiss families of note from the period, among them Erlach, Hofmeister, and Neuchâtel.

The author and painter Vigil Raber created in the 16th century a collection of 7244 coats of arms of families primarily (I believe) from within the Holy Roman Empire. The book is housed in the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany, a public research library for literary and cultural history with a collection focusing on German literature from the period around 1800. It also preserves literary documents dating from the 9th to the 21st centuries as sources of cultural history and research, indexes them according to form and content and makes them available for use. The library collection amounts to 1 million articles.

Select images from his 1548 Wappenbuch follow.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Château Lafayette

In conducting some research this past week, I stumbled across a rare document currently for sale at the Raab Collection, a renowned historical document dealer, penned by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1829 in which the de Büren family is mentioned.

Lafayette as a lieutenant general, in 1791. Portrait by Joseph-Désiré Court

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) was a French aristocrat and military officer who fought for the U.S. in the American Revolutionary War and was close friend of George Washington. He was also a key figure in the 1789 French revolution as well as the 1830 July revolution which saw the overthrow of King Charles X. For his accomplishments in the service of both France and the United States, he is sometimes known as “The Hero of the Two Worlds”.

The letter was written from Lafayette to the General of Engineers, Baron Simon Bernard (1779-1839) who at the time was part of the U.S. Board of Engineers. Like Lafayette he would return to France in 1830 and assist in the “Second French Revolution”. In the letter Lafayette asks Bernard if he could assist a M. de Büren and a M. Zehender who along with other Swiss who are eager to found an agricultural concern in Florida, with the principal intention of planting wine grapes.

Letter original © Raab Collection

The transcribed French text and English translation follow below:

Paris, 29 avril 1829

Je ne sais, Mon cher Général, quand et ou cette lettre vous parviendra; mais je voudrais bien vous présenter M. M. de Büren et Zehender qui vont avec quelques vignerons en Floride pour former un établissement. C’est d’après les renseignements qui me furent envoyés de Tallahassee que ces messieurs ont pris parti. Ils sont liés avec M. Morlot de Crousaz, riche citoyen de Berne, qui souhaite lui même porter des capitaux en Floride. Il paraît que le gouvernement helvétique s’occupe d’encourager l’émigration Suisse vers les Etats-Unis; cela vaudrait bien mieux que ces capitulations au service des monarques européens, dont les nations ne veulent plus, et dont la Suisse elle même est fort d’égouttée. M. de Büren était officier dans les troupes Suisses des Pays Bas, c’est le seul des deux qui est passé à Paris.  Ce jeune homme est Républicain à la manière Américaine; Il veut établir en Floride, en nommément sur mes propriétés, une habitation cultivée par des mains blanches et libres. Il s’agit d’introduire en Floride la culture de la vigne, de l’olivier, du ver à soie. Si cet essai est bien accueilli dans le pays, et que ces messieurs en vendent de bons comptes chez eux, j’espère qu’il en reviendra à la Floride un accroissement de capital agricole et l’introduction de bons cultivateurs. Vous savez combien l’état de l’Ohio a profité des emigrations. Pourquoi ne rendrait-on pas le même service aux belles salubres et fertiles parties de la Floride? Je donne à ces M. M. une lettre pour mon ami et fondé de pouvoir Graham; et je vous prie de leur rendre les services qui dépendront de vous. Recevez, mon cher Général, l’expression de la tendre amitié que je vous ai vouée pour la vie. Lafayette.

Paris, April 29, 1829

I do not know, my dear General, when or where this letter will reach you; but I would like to present to you Messieurs de Buren and Zehender, who are traveling to Florida with some winegrowers to form a business concern. These gentlemen have undertaken this course of action based upon the information I received from Tallahassee. They are associated with M. Morlot de Crousaz, a rich citizen of Bern, who wishes to personally invest in Florida. It appears that the Helvetic government is encouraging Swiss immigration to the United States; which is far better than surrendering to the service of European monarchs, which the nations no longer want, and with which Switzerland itself is wholly disgusted. M. de Buren was an officer in the Swiss guards in the Netherlands; he is the only one of the two to have come to Paris. This young man is a Republican in the American fashion; he wants to establish himself in Florida, principally on my land, a property cultivated by free whites. It concerns introducing grape vines, olive trees, and silkworms into Florida. If this effort is well received, and if these gentlemen do well financially, I hope that Florida will see an increase in its agricultural capital and the introduction of good farmers. You know well how the state of Ohio has profited from emigration. Why would we not give the same assistance to the healthy and fertile areas of Florida? I am giving to these gentlemen a letter for my friend and Commissioner Graham; and I bid you to give them the help they need. Accept, my dear General, my warmest expressions of devoted life-long friendship. Lafayette

The family member is question is Louis Amedé de Büren (1802-1879), the first family member to emigrate to the United States and found the renamed Van Buren branch. Louis had served in the Swiss guards in Holland as indicated in the letter, was deeply disenchanted with European society and was looking for a fresh start in the United States.

Louis did in fact emigrate to the United States in 1829, passed through Baltimore and arrived ultimately in Madison, Indiana where he settled down. The letter from Lafayette poses many new questions for me however. Did Louis go to Florida first? Did he go to Indiana with other Swiss emigrants, with plans on moving onto Florida but never go? Did his fellow Bernese compatriot, Zehender go to Florida in his place?

Beyond the importance to my family history, I find the link to the wine fascinating. The first american commercial winery has its roots in Indiana thanks to Swiss emigrants who left Vevey on the lake of Geneva at the end of the 18th century and settled in Vevay, Indiana, the seat of Switzerland county. To commemorate the wine heritage of the region, Vevay holds the Swiss Wine Festival every year in late August.

Whatever the reason, Louis not making it to Florida to grow grapes was for the best. Given the tropical climate and grapevine diseases, viniculture in the sunshine state is very difficult, and would have certainly been a losing proposition in 1829.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Armance Illustrated

Family archives are varied not only by their historical import but also by the nature of the types of objects grouped within. The following book is a prime example.

It is a 1967 French paperback of Stendhal’s Armance, a romance novel originally published in 1827 which revolves around Octave de Malivert, a taciturn but brilliant young man, who is attracted to Armance Zohiloff, who shares his feelings. It describes how a series of misunderstandings have kept the lovers Armance and Octave divided.

The book in and of itself in unremarkable, something you could buy in Paris at a used book shop for a couple of Euros. However, the axiom “never judge a book by its cover” is uniquely appropriate here, for when I loosely thumbed its pages I found countless small drawings adorning them. They appear to be inspired by the text and were done by a family friend as a gift.

The inscription says (translated from French): “To Alfred and Natalie Copponex from François Fosch, with gratitude for the enduring memories.”

Armance had a surprise for me that went beyond the story of two young lovers.


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