A Trip Across America: Many Lands, Many Peoples
The United States is a country of varied landscapes populated by many different peoples. The first article in this series explored how migration has been an important part of the American experience, including that of the Hagenbuch family. Now, in the second part, we will discover different regions within the county, the people who inhabit these, and their connections to our family.
After leaving Pennsylvania in 2008, I spent nearly nine years living in California with my wife Sara. For those who arrived there in the mid-19th century, California was a promised land. The state’s temperate climate and rich natural resources were a dream for many and led to much prosperity. Today, there are descendants of Andreas Hagenbuch (b. 1711, d. 1785) living in both northern and southern California.
The state is also one of contrasting landscapes. On May 31st, we left behind the San Francisco Bay and crossed the awe-inspiring Sierra Nevada Mountains. Later that day after rounding Lake Tahoe and its alpine villages, we descended into the desert scrub of Nevada.
America is a country defined by race and space, or so it has been suggested by the filmmaker Ken Burns. Nowhere is that space more apparent than in Nevada. At some point in my life, I fell in love with the state’s unforgiving terrain. While crossing US-50, dubbed “The Loneliest Highway in America”, we found ourselves in a dry, treeless landscape with the road stretched out to the horizon. Towns were few and far between. Yet, people do live here.
Upon entering Utah, we found ourselves at the Bonneville Salt Flats which so humbled the Donner-Reed Party in 1846. What took them five grueling days to cross, we were able to traverse in an hour inside the comfort of our air-conditioned “Kia-stoga wagon.” We reached the Great Salt Lake and Salt Lake City shortly thereafter.
Heading into southern Utah and Colorado, the terrain slowly filled with red rocks and eroded canyons. The settlers who arrived here in the 1800s struggled to survive. However, at places like Mesa Verde, the native Pueblo people and their ancestors have been thriving for over 1000 years.
Colorado, like California, is full of dynamic landscapes. In the middle of the state, we ascended the Rocky Mountains to a height of nearly 11,000 feet at Wolf Creek Pass on the Continental Divide. Those who settled here were a hearty bunch, and Hagenbuchs can be found living in the state today.
To the east, the Rockies give way to rolling prairies. In Fort Collins, a former military outpost, we met Olivia Claxton, who is my first cousin once removed. After enjoying dinner together, Sara and I headed north to Wyoming and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Though now used for grazing cattle, this land was once home to millions of bison and diverse groups of American Indians.
We drove across South Dakota and stopped to visit Sara’s aunt and uncle near Rapid City. Anne and David Rossing were a pleasure to talk to, exhibiting the pleasant hospitality that mid-westerners are known for. One fascinating thing we learned is that the entire state of South Dakota has about the same population as the city of San Francisco!
Turning south, we followed the Missouri River. Slowly the grasslands of the Great Plains gave way to the fertile farms of Iowa. We eventually met up with the mighty Mississippi River at the town of Hannibal, Missouri and stopped in Saint Louis, the gateway to the West.
Our journey now took us deep into the American South. Following the Mississippi, we passed through cities such as Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, and Baton Rouge. Along the way, we met those who live there today, as well as saw evidence of the regions earlier inhabitants – the mound building Mississippian people.
At the Mississippi Delta we explored New Orleans and its synthesis of different cultures: French, English, African, and more. We hiked along bayous filled with exotic palmetto and cypress trees before reaching the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.
Near Pensacola, Florida we visited with my first cousin Melanie (Huffman) Claxton, her husband Ralph, and her daughter Caroline. There we carried on the Hagenbuch family tradition of making homemade grape-nut ice cream together. Melanie and I share Homer and Irene (Faus) Hagenbuch as grandparents. As described in an earlier article, one of Irene’s favorite treats was grape-nut ice cream!
The South is hot and humid, especially when compared to coastal California. However, it is also a place filled with beautiful architecture and rich landscapes. Crossing the panhandle of Florida, we arrived in St. Augustine which has the distinction of being the oldest continuously occupied European settlement within the United States. In the city, we met Sara’s uncle and aunt, Frank and Jean Tkacz.
Heading up the East Coast, we traveled through Georgia and the Carolinas. In Savannah and Charleston, we explored cities filled with southern charm and strolled down streets lined with old oak trees draped in Spanish moss. When we crossed Lake Marion, I found myself thinking of Jacob Hagenbuch (b. 1704), whose homestead was established nearby along the Congaree River. Jacob was likely the first Hagenbuch to set foot in the Americas after arriving from Switzerland in 1734. He was almost certainly a distant relative of my ancestor Andreas Hagenbuch.
Finally, on June 27th we arrived in Pennsylvania with its green hills and rolling farmland. Having spent 28 days on the road, it felt good to be reunited with family and friends. These were people we had left behind nearly a decade before and had only seen periodically in the time since then. Yet, the homecoming was bittersweet too, marking the end of our travels through America’s beautiful landscapes and many different peoples.
The last part in this series will examine specific points of interest throughout the trip, discussing their connection to American history and the Hagenbuch family.