Following in Frederick’s Footsteps

by Memoir Mentor on July 1, 2012

From time to time, I’ve mentioned my efforts to chronicle the story of my father’s family, the Parretts, who were the Parrotts prior to 1814.  I’ve worked on the project for many years, ignoring the advice I give my students about steering clear of large, multi-generation projects. I’ve kept plugging along, pushing through the frustrations and distractions that continually make me wonder whether I’ll ever publish my Parrett family history.

The Parretts have an interesting story, one that has not been told the way I’m telling it. That’s what keeps me going…that, and the worry that if I don’t tell the story, who will?

The Rhine of long ago

The story of my father’s family begins seven generations ago with an eighteenth century German immigrant named Frederick Parrott, who was likely Friedrich Parette or Paret in his youth. Frederick left the Rhineland for America during the mass exodus in the 1830s and eventually made a prosperous life for himself in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Frederick’s story makes a good beginning for a larger story that follows the next four generations who move ever westward until the end of America’s frontier period. I’ve had the good fortune to visit the various places where the Parrett story occurred after Frederick’s arrival in America. I’ve followed the migration path from Philadelphia, to Virginia, to Tennessee, to Ohio, and finally to Iowa, where my story ends. It was an exhilarating experience traveling America’s rural back roads in a rental car, a trip I did completely on my own—hence, the exhilaration.

Since then, I’ve had this wild dream of visiting the land of Frederick’s origins—the German Rhineland—and tracing his route down the Rhine River from Switzerland to The Netherlands, where he joined the masses of German emigrants heading for America. How fun would that be? Educational, too. Could I write it off as a business deduction? Hmmm.

Picture postcard perfect!

Dreams do come true now and then. This week my husband and I are boarding a plane for Basel, Switzerland, where Frederick likely began his trip down the Rhine. By next weekend, we will head to Basel’s vast harbor on the Rhine and board the Embla, one of Viking River Cruises’ new “longships” (advertised in “Masterpiece Theatre” commercials by a man who sounds like he’s right out of Downton Abbey). For the next eight days, we’ll sail down the Rhine, following Frederick’s path to Rotterdam. It’s ridiculous to think anything about my journey will remotely mirror my seventh great-grandfather’s experience. No doubt, he bartered all he had for a chance at a better life in America. He may have financed the journey by binding himself as a servant to a Pennsylvania benefactor after he arrived.

No, I won’t exactly be “walking in Frederick’s shoes.” (Stop your smirking!) Even if I did find a leaky, creaky old vessel and crowd into its bowels with hundreds of smelly fellow-travelers, the sights along the riverbanks have been destroyed and rebuilt countless times since Frederick made that journey nearly 300 years ago. A storyteller needs a good imagination. It’s something I work at. So, as I sail down the Rhine in my luxury stateroom, in my new traveling duds, glutted with all the gourmet food I can handle, I’ll be thinking of Frederick and trying to envision his journey in my mind’s eye. After all, if I don’t do it, who will?

I’ll keep you posted about my journey, so stay tuned in…

View from the Munster Cathedral in Basel, Switzerland





{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 nancy Peralta July 1, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Have a great fun trip walking in Frederick’s footsteps. Can’t wait to hear all about it on your blog when you return.

2 proarenee July 30, 2012 at 9:42 am


I attended your writing conference at the Southern California Jamboree and purchased “Breathe Life Into Your Life Story.” It was just what I needed. I am currently composing a lecture for BYU Family History Center Sunday classes on writing personal stories as part of my professional genealogist duties. My current problem is writers block trying to come up with a list of formats that could compose a life story. I know chronological, pivotal events, sequential scenes but could you add some more phrases or terms to my list??

3 W.H. Dean Olson August 19, 2012 at 9:25 am

Dawn—My book is a result of your tutelage. Several years ago, I bought several “how to” books to learn some creative writing skills that I might use in my retirement. “Breathe Life Into Your Life Story” was the best of all of them. When I retired and began writing, your book was on my desk and I used it frequently as a reference and reminder. The product is called The Life Line, published by Bookstand Publishing Company, Morgan Hill, CA (2012). The book was recommended and reviewed in “The Mindquest Review of Books” by Lightword Publishing: “The book goes beyond a family history about the author’s Olson, Miller, and Erickson families (1800-1945). Riveting stories passed down from each generation are masterfully revealed. The author’s characters and events spring to life . . .” May I send you a review copy?

You have my permission to use this post as a testimonial.

4 Memoir Mentor August 19, 2012 at 6:39 pm

You’re very kind, Dean, and I’m delighted you found our book helpful to you. It’s wonderful that you’ve completed your family history. Congratulations. It’s a great deal of work, isn’t it? I would very much enjoy reading it, especially since you say you’ve used fiction techniques to bring your ancestors to life. I am beginning to work on another version of my Breathe Life book, one that specifically focuses on writing family history (as opposed to personal history). While there are MANY books that instruct writers how to construct a memoir, I’ve found few that address the challenge of writing a compelling history about family members long gone–at least none that tackle the subject the way I’d like to do it. I’m constantly looking for examples of family histories that get beyond “Annabelle Proctor was born on ….”

5 W. H. Dean Olson August 23, 2012 at 12:53 pm

I am eager to have you read the book. I can’t find a physical mailing address on your website. Can you guide me or send the address to me at my email address?

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