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How I’m Not Really Related To Ben Franklin (But It Turns Out I’m Swiss!)

Jon (Benny Lava) Perry

It’s genealogy time in the bachelor cave.  It came up in conversation a month ago with Jeff, one of the main dudes at my office.  After a heated discussion on Nietzsche (not really) we somehow got into world travel or genealogy where I learned that, as a result of his genealogical research on Ancestry.com, Jeff would be traveling next year to a small town in the Czech Republic with his dad to see where their ancestors had lived.  Awesome!  Jeff raved about how easy it was to track family information on the site.  I mentioned how much I’ve wanted to do genealogical research to, among other things, discover my alleged family connection to Benjamin Franklin, rock star of the American Revolution and all-around genius-type.  My brothers and I grew up with the fairly unverifiable legend that Franklin is a shirttail relative.  And nailing my genealogy is on my lengthy bucket list (see the list here).  To my surprise, Jeff, wrote down his account name and password and graciously offered to let me use his account for the remaining weeks that were paid up on the site.  Going online, I took a crack at my family’s information and was surprised by what I found.

My mom’s genealogy is fairly sorted.  We have 2 large red genealogy volumes of the Hinkle side of the family that follow Lutheran missionaries from Germany to America in the 1600s and continue up through the twentieth century.  Also, a couple years back I sat down with my grandma and taped an oral history, learning a great deal about the Gottschalls in the process.  So, I started researching my dad’s side which is less known to most of the family and from where come stories of a Chippewa (aka Ojibwe/Anishinaabe) Indian chief as well as the aforementioned Ben Franklin.  Right away I hit a dead end with my dad’s dad’s branch, the Perrys, the branch with the chief, though I was able to see a 1920 census document from Chicago with names of relatives scrawled out in that old timey handwriting.

James & Amos Van Gundy. No clue who's who. Put online by a relative I don't know.

Instead, I had much better luck tracking through my dad’s mom’s side of the family.  The Van Gundys.  Amazingly, within a few hours I’d gotten as far back as the 1500s in Switzerland (not actually Van Gundys, but several lines of their ancestors).  It was incredible!  500 years!  I had no clue we had Swiss blood.  From both sides of my family I’d known about a few of our German lines, as well as Chippewa, Cherokee, likely Welsh and Dutch, but not about the Swiss.  I feel like slicing up some Swiss cheese with my Swiss Army knife and chomping down some Swiss chocolate while listening to yodeling and alpenhorn music as I ski the alps near those mountain goats and cows with the bells.  (Needs more cowbell!)  Besides all the Swiss family Robinson (there were no Robinsons), I found a few branches from the Alsace-Lorraine region of Germany.  The region has changed hands numerous times between France & Germany over the centuries.  So, through all this, we may even have French ancestry.  French!  Do the French make good Swiss chocolate?   Oui.

In the records I saw an alternate spelling for Van Gundy as Von Gundy and Von indicates nobility, but that could just be a misspelling, so I iced my excitement (especially since I’d come to a dead end on that line).  I discovered indirect relatives born in China about 200 years ago, but they had Western names and I suspect they might have been family of missionaries or statesmen or merchants or whatever weird job put Europeans in China back then.  There was one direct family line with 3 or 4 brothers who fought in the American Revolution after coming over from Switzerland.  Pretty cool.

Great-Great Grandpa Winston Van Gundy

After I’d done all this research, I spoke to my dad about what I’d found and was told that he’d learned from great-grandma Van Gundy, shortly before she died, that the Ben Franklin connection was more indirect and roundabout than we’d grown up believing.  It turns out that my great-grandma’s sister’s daughter married a Franklin and the connection is through that.  Disappointing.  I’d hoped there was some genius Franklin gene floating around that was stuck in my head just waiting to pop out and usefully manifest itself in the near future, but no.  I also learned from my dad that through marriage we’re related to a wrestler called Wild Red Berry, who wrestled in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.  I even found video footage of his wrestling matches on Youtube.  That was kind of cool and weird.  Weirder still, in the 90s we lived in the same small Kansas town this where this guy had served as mayor and head of the parks department.  My brother Chris even played little league baseball in a field named after him.  We’d had no idea.

Researching my ancestors made me really feel connected to them (I mean, besides the genetic disorders).  I may not learn much about them, but I’ll see names, dates of birth and death, places and even an occasional story or 2.  I’d like to go through each name (there are a few hundred so far) and Google to see what stories I can scrounge.  I’ve found a few already.  I want to discover what they were like.  I’ve seen photos of now dead great-great-grandparents I never met put up online by relatives I don’t know.  What can I learn about these people who lived scores or hundreds of years ago?  They each had their unique characteristics.  Their lives had meaning and in a way, when I think about, talk about, or research them, they kind of live again, if only for me.

I may not be directly related to Ben Franklin, but I have many interesting people in my family history, many still living.  I’ll have to harass more of them for stories.  They may not be famous, but they’re still pretty nifty.  I got a few new leads from my dad, so I’ll have to track those down.  I still have mom’s side to fully discover and that should be interesting (I need to read those big red Hinkle books).  Besides, family legend has it that great-grandpa Seitz left Germany and came to America just before WWI leaving behind a family castle along the Rhine River.  Oh, and there are 2 NBA basketball coaches named Van Gundy and maybe we’re cousins.  There’s enough to keep me busy for awhile.  Perhaps one day I’ll take an exploratory trip to Switzerland and see if I can round up some swell Swiss family tales.  Maybe buy an alpenhorn.  And lots of Swiss chocolate.

The secret word is alpenhorn

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    3 Responses to “How I’m Not Really Related To Ben Franklin (But It Turns Out I’m Swiss!)”

    • admin:

      There’s supposed to be a Perry family castle in Wales, too, but I didn’t want to say anything. 2 castle overkill, you know.

    • Jay:

      I see the strong family resemblance… short tie, badly tucked in shirt, highwater pants… we’re relatives!!!

    • admin:

      Haha! Speak for yourself, Dilbert!