Scott Rohrer on Ancestral Migrations

We welcome a guest post today from S. Scott Rohrer, author of Wandering Souls: Protestant Migrations in America, 1630-1865. Popular literature and frontier studies stress that Americans moved west to farm or to seek a new beginning. In Wandering Souls, Rohrer argues that Protestant migrants in early America relocated in search of salvation, Christian community, reform, or all three. In this post, he discusses how reception of his new book helped draw him back to his own family’s religious migration story.–ellen

In the corner of our living room sits a stately 213-year-old secretary made of walnut, complete with secret compartments, cubbyholes, and four drawers massive enough to store the contents of a modern office. As a child, the desk’s craftsmanship, solidity, and age fascinated me. But it also intrigued me for another reason: it is a tangible part of our family’s history. My grandfather Josiah Rohrer, who lived in Germantown, outside of Philadelphia, would gather us around the desk and, in reverential tones, tell us about the desk’s history. My brothers and I listened carefully, stroking the old wood as he spoke. A Mennonite craftsman by the name of John Rohrer, who was Josiah’s great-grandfather, built the desk in 1797 when he was 17 and coming of age in Lancaster County, Pa. Since then the desk has been passed down from father to son, until it ended up in my hands in the late 1980s while I was living in Salisbury, N.C. I learned the desk’s history from my grandfather and from the wrinkled old piece of paper squirreled away in a cubbyhole that lists the names of the desk’s owners and the year they were born.

Lure and lore—both are part of family history’s irresistible attractions. For profound and deep-seated reasons, humans have long wanted to discover who their ancestors were and where they came from. The lure of family history can easily be seen by glancing at the burgeoning number of websites and organizations devoted to genealogy. County libraries routinely hold seminars on researching family history. Indeed, the legions of genealogists are growing by the day, spurred on by the Internet and the ease with which one can now read courthouse records and family documents online. The lore involves family stories passed down from generation to generation. When friends and colleagues learn that I am a social historian whose first book was on the Moravians, and that I am a descendant of German Mennonites, they enjoy telling me about their family histories and their efforts to uncover their family’s past. These investigations are almost always journeys of love.

As a “professional” historian, however, I have always kept my research interests separate from family ones. The usual academic considerations led to my second book—Wandering Souls: Protestant Migrations in America, 1630-1865. I wanted to understand how Protestantism influenced the movements of ordinary Americans in an earlier age.

It took a chance encounter with a genealogy site to bring me back to my roots, so to speak. In a posting that I stumbled upon one snowy night while Googling Wandering Souls, Gena Philibert Ortega notes how valuable my book could be to people researching their family histories:

I imagine, or maybe it’s me, that when we think of religious migration across the United States, we think of the Mormons. But there [were] other religious groups that migrated. This [book] can be helpful in genealogical research because it allows you to not only understand your ancestor’s religion but to understand the localities they may have ended up in.

Her insight is important. The interconnections between religion, family, and migration are crucial to my book. Indeed, although Chapter 4 deals explicitly with family and migration, the entire book could have been devoted to this theme. Religion and ethnicity defined my ancestors, and that connection most likely influenced their migratory patterns. My grandfather could get quite emotional when he talked about the persecution that Mennonites faced in early modern Europe; such persecution played a prominent role in the trans-Atlantic migration of Mennonites and many other Protestant and Catholic groups.

Religion played a major role in the wanderings of Americans within this country as well. People of faith migrated to points north, south, and west in the colonial and antebellum periods for all kinds of reasons. To escape religious persecution. To join like-minded believers. To rekindle their flagging faith in God. To become “reborn.”

Many sojourners traveled in family units. One common thread linking disparate journeys across the centuries was that family and religion often defined a migration, be it Puritan in 1635 or Inspirationist in 1860. Many times, these families were part of colorful sectarian groups with exotic customs that today fascinate their descendants and others. But not always. Religious migrants could be found among the state churches, too.

Wandering Souls covers a cross-section of these religious migrations, and does it from a variety of angles. Through a series of case studies, the book explains the many motives that spawned Protestant migrations in early America. In doing so it takes readers deep into the inner world of eight Protestant groups. Historians, it is to be hoped, will view Wandering Souls as an important contribution to migration studies and to understanding the development of the United States.

General readers, meanwhile, may find its attractions elsewhere. As the walnut desk and the posting on Gena’s Genealogy reveal, there is another side to my story. Families matter.

S. Scott Rohrer
Arlington, Virginia