The mysteries of our ancestors

I wonder what ?the rest of the story? really is about Rosa Vascalda.

Rosa was my great-great-grandmother who was an early settler in the Topeka area just like the man she married there, my great-great-grandfather, Charles Engler.

She immigrated to the United States from Belgium I think in the early 1850s. When I see my cousin, Craig, who has become an expert in computer and historical research, next year at the family reunion, I?ll ask him.

At that time she and her family members only spoke French. Although she gave her maiden name as Vascalda, her sister gave their maiden name as Vascalders.

Craig and a history professor at Kansas State Uni?ver?sity both told me this is often evidence of illiteracy or semi-literacy among early immigrants trying to give a spelling for a surname in English.

Whether literate or not, Rosa?s family apparently were hard working and resourceful because they operated a boat ferry across the Kansas River before becoming farmers.

She and Charles both learned English so they could talk together, and be successful. He only spoke German when he immigrated.

Imagine that. I have French or Belgian ancestry, German ancestry, and Scottish and English ancestry from other ancestors. No wonder I fight with myself.

Anyway, the family history passed down seems to have more tidbits about Charles than Rosa.

My great-great-uncle, who as a child actually knew Charles, his grandfather, said he used to joke that all he did in the Civil War was ?run away.?

He was called up as part of the Kan?sas Militia at Topeka to quick march to southeast Kansas to head off a raid by Confederate General Price. Apparently the Militia was in danger when they got there of being cut off, and destroyed by Price, so they double-time marched back to Topeka where they were mustered out.

Charles was paid $15 for that service, but he and Rosa did far better than that in other economic circumstances. It?s well known that they ended up owning somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 acres southwest of Topeka in an era when agriculture was powered by horses, mules and oxen.

Craig found that the couple had some kind of 1800s popularity giving big barn dances on their property. Rosa was reputed to really enjoy that.

Yet I have no idea how literate either became.

Craig has uncovered some ?dark suggestion? that Rosa and her family may have arrived in Topeka under circumstances that were designed to take advantage of poverty or educational ignorance.

We do know she and her family arrived at Topeka by animal-drawn wagon in the company of a French speaking man that known history suggests may have had some education. Perhaps he could read.

He abandoned them at Topeka, she said, at a hill that later became known as Burnett?s Mound. Accord?ing to the family account, the man returned to Belgium.

So, what was this man?s history, and what was his intent?

Rosa?s father had become ill with high fever at Burnett?s Mound, and the family was unable to proceed.

Craig?s research suggests that the man who abandoned the family thought he could sell them into slavery in America. But they were white, not black, and if he thought this was true, he was wrong. Did he discover he was wrong, and use the illness as a moment of opportunity to abandon them?

I don?t know that we?ll ever know.

But the family history does tell the rest of the story. A trapper found the family, and by whatever means of communication they used, he let them know there was a French speaking trapper, Clement Shattio, with a black wife living along Shunga Nunga Creek. Somehow the family was moved to their cabin, and the black woman nursed Rosa?s father, and perhaps the entire family, back to good health.

The black woman was Black Ann Shattio who is well known in Topeka history for kind acts like this.

The Vascalda family accounts make no mention of whether Ann and Clement had children. But according to Craig?s research, census records say Ann had as many as five children, and probably not all of them with Clement.

Ann thought she was born about 1820 in Illinois. By Ann?s own account that she left, before her relationship with Clement, she had two sons, Sampson Crips and Jack English.

Craig hasn?t found any records for Sampson, but Jack English is in the census records for Hopkins County, Texas, as being born in 1839 or 1840 when Ann probably was 19 or 20 years old.

Jack English is recorded as being a mulatto while Ann is always described as black.

Some history records Ann as born free, but put back into slavery to be sold several times in Missouri. Some history records her as marrying Clement as a free woman while other history says Clement bought her, and moved with her to Kansas.

Clement is documented as the son of Auguste Chouteau, the wealthy founder of St. Louis, and an Osage Indian mother who apparently changed his name to the Osage version of it.

Whatever the truth and innuendos in all these accounts, I am thankful that my ancestors couldn?t be sold into slavery and more mindful of the pain of those who had ancestors who were.

Jerry Engler, who covers the county commission and writes agricultural stories for the Free Press, lives near the north end of Marion Reservoir.