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