33 and Me: Fallen nobility, losing wars, arbitraging the Black Plague and my further adventures in genealogy
I recently took a dive into genealogy. I blame bourbon and Donald Trump.
If you’ve read my political posts you know I fight the good fight and all of that, but sometimes I just get tired and discouraged. Tired of the direction I see our country heading and discouraged at the realization that there are a great many people who seem OK with that direction. And, in all likelihood, always have been even if I didn’t want to believe it. It’s sobering stuff so, sometimes, the only way to deal with it is to get drunk.
A couple of weeks ago, once again tired and discouraged, I got drunk and asked myself if I had any claim whatsoever to citizenship or permanent residence anywhere but here. Then, before doing a thing about it, I went to sleep. The next morning I was back to wanting to fight the good fight, but it’s always good know if you have an exit, so I decided to run out the ground ball I’d hit the night before. I signed up for a trial account on ancestry.com and began climbing up the tree trunk.
While I waded into some of this before with my mother’s family in service of a good, bloody yarn of murder and insanity, I knew virtually nothing about my father's side of the family until these past couple of weeks. I won’t bore people with a full-on family tree, but here are some fun facts and random observations one finds when one dives into this stuff.
Thirty-three fun facts:
1. I didn’t go too crazy building my family tree out horizontally because that gets really labor intensive really fast. Exponents are no joke. Besides, cousins are mostly bullshit anyway. Sure, we can all trace ourselves back to the same few thousand homo sapiens who survived the last ice age, but you only have to go back a handful of generations until we’re all basically fucking cousins. I’ll leave the bullshit cousins to people who are super into genealogy. Instead I just focused on direct patrilineal and matrilineal lines, figuring they’re a bit more meaningful.
2. While my name is Craig Calcaterra I didn't look too deeply at Calcaterras, either, because I'm not really a Calcaterra for genealogy purposes. My dad was born Richard McIntyre, was adopted and had his name changed by his stepfather, Garfield Calcaterra, when he was in his early teens. I didn’t know any Calcaterras beyond my dad and his sister growing up and, frankly, the name doesn’t have much significance for me beyond its current record-keeping function and the love-hate relationship I have with being extremely Googleable;
3. I took a quick look back at the Calcaterras out of curiosity, of course. Garfield's father was from Milan and his mother was from Austria. They immigrated in the late 1890s, settled in Iron Mountain, Michigan and had a zillion kids (there are a LOT more Calcaterras than you may imagine). One of them, Garfield’s youngest brother, Ralph Calcaterra, ended up being a super successful real estate developer in Palo Alto and Las Vegas and died in his 90s, just a few years ago, a pretty wealthy man. There are Calcaterra Streets in both San Jose and Las Vegas, both of which are named after him. For years friends have sent me photos of themselves in front of the signs and we’ve joked about it. I had no idea until the past couple of weeks, though, that they were named after someone I’m actually related to. Well, sorta related to. Certainly not related to enough to have gotten a piece of that Bay Area real estate scratch, sadly. Which, by the way, is literally the only money that has been in my family for about, oh, the last 300 or 400 years or so. But more about that in a moment.
4. My dad has known he was born a McIntyre for most of his life, but apart from an aunt who sort of floated in and out of his childhood, he didn’t know any of them or anything about them. He assumed the name was Irish. Actually, it’s Scottish. I suspected this because of the spelling but I was able to establish it for certain when I traced the direct male line of McIntyres back to the early 18th century when my sixth-great grandfather, Nicholas McIntyre (1712-63), came over from Islay, Scotland with his wife Margaret and a couple of kids.
5. The McIntyres were part of the Argyll Settlement, which consisted of three boat-loads of families, totaling 400 some-odd people, which settled in what is now Washington County, New York between 1738-1740. The McIntyres arrived on the second boatload, in June of 1739 on a ship called The Happy Return. Lachlan Campbell was the captain. I only know this because there are a whole bunch of Lachlan Campbell descendants who seem to spend a lot of time on ancestry.com. Note: your ability to figure out your family tree without actually doing shoe-leather research in old libraries and government offices is directly proportional to the kind of PR your ancestors gave their ancestors.
6. The Argyll Settlement (sometimes called the Argyle Settlement, which gave the name to the town of Argyle, New York) was kind of a scam, actually. Captain Campbell put it together, getting the King and the Governor of New York to promise families 1,000 acres of Hudson Valley farmland for each adult and 350 acres for each kid. The motivation: respectable Englishmen and their families in Albany and points south kept getting raided by Indians and they wanted some Scottish tomahawk fodder to create a buffer.
Don’t judge, man. People have done worse things to get some land.
Anyway, when the Argyll families got there, guess what? That’s right, no land. They were allowed to settle and farm but they didn’t get title for another 25 years when the Governor of New York finally gave in. The McIntyres got their land — only about 500 acres in all, so they were still kinda ripped off — in 1764 in what is now Fort Edward, New York. They’d spend the next several generations farming that land. For all I know they still are. My third-great grandfather, Nicholas McIntyre (1821-96) went west in the 1840s, however, leaving them to it. I should maybe look and see if I have any cousins still living in Fort Edward. Wait, no, forget that. Like I said: cousins are bullshit. Let’s carry on.
7. I can’t find anything about the first Nicholas McIntyre or his ancestors beyond the fact that he was born in Islay, Scotland around 1712 or so. I can trace his wife Margaret’s family back pretty damn far, though. She was a Patterson, and a direct line of Pattersons go back to my 14th-great grandfather, Thomas, who lived around Edinburgh in the late 1400s. If you trace other various matrilineal lines up through that family you can find your way into Scottish nobility, including the Park Clan (going back to the mid-1400s, also around Edinburgh), the Cockburn Clan (early-1400s) and the Home Clan (late 1300s). The most distant direct ancestor of that line I have found so far is a dude named David Home, 1st Baron of Wedderburn (1382-1453), who is my 18th-great grandfather. His family resided in Wedderburn Castle in Berwickshire, Scotland for quite a few generations. The old one, not the current one. The current one only goes back to the 1770s and is so nouveau riche. Must be embarrassing for the people who have it now, really. They probably have fish knives and stuff, bless their hearts.
8. At least I think that was my 18th-great grandfather’s title and at least I think he lived in Wedderburn Castle. I’m a tad uncertain because one thing I discovered in all of this research is that people who do amateur genealogy seem to enjoy fudging it a bit if it makes their family look better. I couldn’t find any reason to question these particular lines, but some other person on ancestry.com who was looking at another random line to which I am related — some bullshit cousin, I’m sure — tried to tie in some pretty famous Anglican Bishop who was involved in a bit of history with Queen Elizabeth I as a something-something-great-grandfather of ours.
That would’ve been pretty cool! Except it made no logical sense for about 11 reasons that took only about ten seconds to Google.
Among those reasons: as far as I can tell via non-ancestry.com research, that guy had no kids and was never married because, in his heart, he was really still a Catholic priest even if he converted in order to keep from being imprisoned (note: he was imprisoned anyway and died there; do NOT fuck with Queen Elizabeth, man). So, yeah, that seems pretty dubious and is probably the case of a similar name and a bit of aspirational exuberance resulting in a sketchy family tree connection. There’s a phrase in media about stories being “too good to check.” There’s a notion in the law and in law enforcement about cases being a bit too neat. I think that applies to a lot of genealogy stuff too.
That being said, I think what I found out about my family between the 14th and 18th centuries is more or less correct. The specifics are less interesting to me than the patterns, however.
9. One clear pattern: my male ancestors, going back to those old Lords and castle-dwellers, were really good at falling down the social ladder as generations went on. I’m the direct descendant of a lot of third sons of fourth sons who were squeezed out of titles or land holdings in favor of older brothers or their sister’s husbands or by simple bad luck or bad choices. After their downfall they’d drift out on their own, somewhat aimlessly it seems. Thankfully they were, occasionally, lifted back up by good women and their more stable families. My family is still a pretty itinerant bunch, but when they have managed to stop and breathe for 50-70 years it was because a woman slapped some temporary sense and respectability into them. There’s probably a lesson in there someplace.
10. My family also had a really bad habit of picking the wrong side in wars. What follows is a brief survey.
11. One of those Lords of Wedderburn — my 15th-great grandfather — fought and died on the losing side in the Battle of Flooden Field. Thankfully for my sake he did so after having kids. This was offset by another ancestor — some random English nobleman who was one of those third sons of fourth sons — who fought on the winning English side at Flooden Field. We’ll call that one a draw.
12. Those two branches of the family would not meet up again for about 350 years, this time in Indiana of all places, when my great-grandfather — descendant of the dead Scottish guy — married my great-grandmother — descendant of the victorious English guy. Imagine fighting a war for the survival of your name, your clan, your land, and your life, only to have it all end up in some podunk farmer’s wedding in friggin’ Indiana.
13. I can trace my mother’s family, the Kniffens, back to the English village of Kniveton (the name was a bastardization of he village) in Derbyshire. The family became fairly wealthy landowners by — I shit you not — buying up a bunch of dead people’s land after the Black Plague. That was pretty savvy! It also got them granted a title of minor nobility, which just goes to show you how messed up capitalism is, now and then. Or maybe that was feudalism. Whatever.
14. Things went well for the Knivetons/Kniffens for a couple of hundred years and they eventually owned several thousand acres. The rents were pouring in. Again, savvy! What wasn’t so savvy, however, was when my tenth-great grandfather, Sir Andrew Kniveton (d. 1669), began to believe he was an actual knight instead of some landlord with a courtesy title earned over the dead bodies of plague victims and spent WAY too much time and WAY too much money fighting on the Royalist side of the English Civil War. The Royalists lost, of course, and while grandpa Andy didn’t lose his head like Charles I did, he had his title stripped, lost a ton of money and ended up having to sell off almost all of his lands. His son, my ninth-great-grandfather, wisely bolted Oliver Cromwell and England for the New World.
15. The Kniffens were born to lose, it seems, because after about 130 years of some rather prosperous farming in New York and New Jersey they went Royalist again during the Revolutionary War. The king lost again, natch, so they had to flee to Canada in 1781. As I’ve noted in the past, subsequent Kniffens became farmers, roofers, murder victims, truck drivers and such. We get by as best we can.
16. Finally, the whole reason the McIntyres and all the others of the Argyll Settlement left Scotland was because they either took part in or were the children of those who took part in the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715 which — anyone? anyone? — yeah, was a losing cause. As a result, political and economic conditions for people in western Scotland went south, crops failed and a famine hit. By the 1730s there was every reason to leave, so they left.
17. Thankfully, my family got their heads on straight, militarily speaking, after that:
Since then my grandfather, father and brother have all served the U.S. Navy during wartime. We’re due for a traitor, frankly. If I had to wager right now it’s Anna, but time will tell. Carlo has some moxie too, and they both have a strong distrust of authority.
18. After some time as a farmhand, my great-grandfather, William Woodford McIntyre (1881-1960), left Indiana where his people had been for a couple of generations and married the daughter of that Civil War hero. They moved up to Detroit, presumably for a job in an auto plant. He has a passport application from 1917 in which he said he intended to go to England and France to study aircraft manufacturing and design, but I don’t know if he ever went. As it was, the 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses have him listed as working at a tool and die place. His son, my grandfather, Jim McIntyre (1914-1983), was listed as working at the same tool and die place on the 1940 census. At 25, he was still living at home. That year he met and married Irene Lazar (1916-1978), my grandmother.
19. Speaking of the census, the pre-1950 censuses were amazing. Instead of sampling, they simply went door to door and wrote down the name of every man, woman and child in the place, by hand, including their age, their job if they had one, their income if they cared to share along what languages were spoken in the house. Given current attitudes about privacy — and controversies about whether it’s even legitimate to ask about certain things — it’s insane to even think about the modern census going into that level of detail. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine doing genealogy research without those old censuses because they are a goldmine. Indeed, it’s much easier to find out stuff about a dead great-grandfather than a living uncle because of them.
20. That said, it’s worth asking whether genealogy is really all that important to begin with. At best it’s an exercise in privileged distortion. There are loads of records, going back centuries, for those descended from people from the British Isles or the parts of Continental Europe lucky enough to not have been bombed to bits. If, however, your family came from places that were bombed to bits — or if your ancestors were black, Indigenous, Jewish, Roma or were people who were otherwise systematically enslaved or exterminated by the folks whose records are intact — genealogy is a bit of a different matter. It’s a pretty superfluous bit of business, really. Do people other than whites descended from well-off Europeans do it? I have no idea. All I know is that if your roots go back to bombed-out and/or exterminated and/or enslaved peoples it’s not exactly the kind of thing you can easily track, even if you want to. The people whose histories are well-documented have spent centuries wiping out the histories of those whose are not.
This was evident when I made a brief foray into my paternal grandmother’s side of the family.
21. My great-grandfather, Abraham Lazar (1882-1954), was born in Romania. The town is unknown, as are the names of his parents or siblings. All that is known is that he was Jewish and was coming of age in the 1890s at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise in Romania, with laws being passed to prevent Jews from attending college, voting and participating in certain trades. It seems likely that, against this backdrop, Abraham’s parents thought it best to get their son out of the country to find a better opportunity elsewhere.
22. And they did. How? I have no real idea. All I know for sure is that he somehow got to England, alone, and then immediately traveled from Liverpool to Montreal on the ship SS Lake Champlain of the Elder Dempster Beaver Line, arriving alone, on August 4, 1900. He eventually got to Grand Rapids, Michigan. I have no idea how. He then met his wife, Dora Sofferin (1886-1970), whose family, also Jewish, came over from Russia and settled in Grand Rapids in the 1890s. They were married in 1903 and eventually moved to Detroit. I recently wrote a bit about Dora’s youngest brother Sammy, but that’s all I really know about that family besides a few basic birth/marriage/death records.
23. Earlier I joked about bullshit cousins. It’s a 100% certainly that, between the Nazis and the Soviets, I have no cousins left in Russia or Romania, bullshit or otherwise.
24. My grandmother Irene married Jim McIntyre in 1940. My dad was born in 1943. Jim and Irene were not a good match — he was a drunk and they both had volatile personalities — and they divorced by late 1948. She married Garfield Calcaterra in early 1949. When you put it all together it was pretty clear that she and Jim had been separated for a long time by then. It’s also clear that she and Garfield had been shacking up for a long time by then too and they were just making it legal once their divorces finally came through.
25. Irene and Garfield raised my dad and his younger sister in Dearborn, Michigan, which at the time was easily one of the most segregated places north of the Mason-Dixon line thanks to both Henry Ford’s virulent racism and antisemitism and thanks to longtime mayor Orville Hubbard, who was George Wallace, North. I’m not sure how an Italian guy with a Jewish wife managed to settle in Dearborn peacefully in those days, but it probably had at least something to do with Garfield Calcaterra being, well, as crooked as hell.
26. Garfield owned a taxicab company, Lorraine Cab. My dad remembers a lot of shady business around all of that. He told me once that, at Christmastime, police would show up at the house, one after another, and Garfield would give them a free ham. He kept the hams in the trunk of one of his cabs. There are about ten things wrong with that, the least of which is that no one seems to know where the hell the hams came from, but I choose to let it remain a vague, unexamined, grifty mystery. It’s also worth noting that my grandmother did the bookkeeping for the cab company, it was an all cash business and my dad remembers there being piles of bills stacked on the kitchen table every day. That may not have been as sketchy as my great-whatever grandfather arbitraging the Black Plague, but it’s certainly a hell of a thing.
27. Garfield Calcaterra died unexpectedly in 1965 so, obviously, I never met him. Then things got weird.
28. Garfield was only 58 when he died. My dad was already in the Navy, His little sister was close to graduating high school. My grandmother, not even 50 yet, did not deal with it well. I don't know her exact diagnosis, but she, in layman's terms, went crazy. Catatonic. Stopped responding to the world. Needed to be taken care of by her sisters and her daughter. It was really, really bad. In my family people referred to it as "her trip to Europe." If ever something came up from the mid-60s through the early 70s and she didn't remember she’d say "oh that must've been when I was in Europe” or someone else would say “you missed that, Irene, that’s when you were on your trip to Europe.” I'm told that she snapped out of it when my brother was born in 1971. Having a grandchild helped I guess.
29. In the meantime, Jim McIntyre moved to Kansas City, where an older brother lived. He sobered up. He went back to work as a draftsman, which had been his trade before he hit the bottle. He was living a clean but spartan life in a small apartment. A few years ago I found photos of my grandmother and Jim McIntyre in his apartment in the mid-70s. They had reconnected. Both damaged as hell but both having found a bit of light on the other side. The pictures are sad. Haunting, even. But sweet. They were in their 60s, but they seem like children.
30. My grandmother died of cancer in 1978. She was only 62. I have only vague memories of her. I wish I could have talked to her when I was old enough to do so. I wish I could’ve learned how she dealt with what she dealt with and not only came out on the other side of it but found both grace and room for forgiveness. There’s so little of that in the world. They’re the hardest things to grasp and to give.
31. Jim McIntyre died in 1983. My dad never reconnected with him and never seemed to have an interest in doing so. I never met him. My mother, somehow, and for some reason, made a few trips to Kansas City to help take care of him before he died. She has some observations and we got some of his few belongings when he died, but he remains more of a set of genealogy records than anything else to me. Oh, and one photo that my grandmother took when she was visiting him in 1976:
Add a few decades, a few pounds and a little more hair and I suppose that’s me, right down to the eyeglasses. I’m not sure what to think about that.
I’m not sure what to think about any of this, frankly.
32. My dad was brought up without his biological father around. My mom grew up without her mother in the picture. My brother is adopted and had no connection to his biological parents until he was in his 30s. I’m the only person in my family who grew up with both of his actual parents. None of that seemed to matter to any of us one way or the other.
33. I know that, unlike a lot of people who dig into their family's past, I got no feeling of connection or identity discovering any of the dozen and a half generations of relatives I uncovered. I found things to joke about and riff on and a few things that were interesting, intellectually speaking, but they still all seem like abstractions to me. Characters in stories more than family of any kind. I only began to feel some things when I got to the people I either knew or at least who knew people I know. Connections that mattered to people I care about and had some sort of influence, even if only tangentially, in my life.
Blood never mattered much to my own, immediate family. It doesn’t seem to matter all that much when applied across the generations either. Relationships matter. That’s probably all that matters, really. That's all we have. The rest is just . . . documents.