Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving Day

Ah, Thanksgiving Day in Minnesota. You'd think I'd be spending the typical day doing the typical family dinner with the typical American family. Nope, not this day. Instead, my family stayed at home with sneezes and sniffles, watching Thanksgiving Day parades on TV. We were banned from the family dinner table, germs and all. Instead, my father-in-law went out of his way to actually deliver us dinner a la carte after the family had their feast. It was a win/win situation... they didn't get our sniffles, and we still got to eat without having to get out of our pajamas (gotta lov

e that man!).

I found enough energy to peel my butt off the couch, a box of Kleenex at my side, with extra wads tucked under my shirt sleeves (thanks Grandma Pat for that trick), and checked my email. I was waiting for news. Big news. News that could possibly change the course of my day and life.

I met Roger over a year ago, September 2005 to be exact. I didn't really "meet" meet him, instead I was given his name by the library in Cork City, Ireland. I rang him knowing his local historical society was going to be giving a talk about their native son of Cork, Jerome Collins, in just a few short days, unbeknownst to me prior to contacting the library. Roger is quite the character, he took charge of the conversation, knowing I was calling him long distance from Minnesota, and immediately set me straight that I was to call him Ronnie, that everyone he knew called him Ronnie, that's how it's always been and that is what I should call him too. He agreed to contact me after the meeting and let me know what took place, I wanted to see what the historical society knew about Jerome that I didn't and vice versa. He got my email address and we said goodbye before I could express my gratitude, Ronnie in Cork had made quite the impression with me... were all Irish this brash and brazen and to the point? An email arrived the next day, and 1 year later they still continue. Ronnie and I have become good friends. I managed to entice him to further his curiousity into the life of my ancestor, Jerome Collins, and in return, he has opened up avenues that would have never been possible had I never made that call. Together, we decided to write Jerome's story, starting out small.

Our first article appeared in The Archive, published in Cork. Through his connections, and having previously written an article about two of his uncles lost on the Ardmore, Ronnie and I were allowed to write Jerome's story. It was short, about 2,000 words. It was enough to get the word out that this native son of Ireland should not be forgotten for all the contributions he made to society and that of the world. This was our test, and we were able to work through the kinks to co-author this article despite the great pond of water that separated us.

Next came The Holly Bough, also published in Cork, a yearly Christmas paper put out specially by the Cork Evening Echo. Once again, we were given a 2,000 word limit. But with colorful pictures and a different focus on Jerome's life, the salivating was beginning in us to write more about Jerome, and people were finally taking notice of this long lost son of Ireland.

I myself, had made the headlines in conjuction with Jerome 6 times in just two weeks since October 28th of this year. TWO WEEKS. That's amazing. I can't even remember making the highschool newspaper. I appeared on RTE Radio 1's Seascapes website, along with their section in the Echo, plus a few other mentions and photos in the Echo; Ronnie was interviewed on Seascapes in honor of Jerome's 125th year of his death in the arctic. By this time, Ronnie was entrusted with all I knew about Jerome and the family skeletons in the closet. He could take the info and go off on his own sharing the story with the world, breaking all connections with me. But he didn't. And I knew he wouldn't. Ronnie and I, through our friendship, developed a working relationship for the greater good, to delve deaper into the Collins family roots, to find out what Jerome Collins was all about, and bring him back into the hearts of all Corkonians.

I had made contact with a publisher in Ireland. It was time to write Jerome's story, to let all of Cork and Ireland know about their forgotten hero. The publisher was intrigued, he wanted to know more. Could I write a book by myself? How could I tell my ancestors' story without ever having stepped foot on my ancestral soil of Ireland? How would I describe Cork in the 1840's, all the way through to present, having never lived there? There was only one way I could pull it off, and do honor to the Collins family name. Ask Ronnie. And ask I did. In fact, I begged, quite a few times. Ronnie was the native of Cork, Ronnie knew the history of Cork, he lived and breathed everything Irish. Everything was at his fingertips. For the greater good, for the forgotten hero of Ireland, for my GG Granduncle Jerome, he agreed to co-author Jerome's story with me. Ronnie was to meet with the publisher in person on Thanksgiving Day.

I sat down at the computer, put the box of Kleenex down on my desk and opened up my email. One by one the emails came, but I didn't need to know about the latest sale at Old Navy or JCPenney. I was waiting for word on how Ronnie's meeting went with the publisher. Why would I want to write a book and have it published in Ireland, you ask? Why not. It's where part of me came from, and it's only natural I give back to Cork what Cork gave to me.
Ronnie's email arrived. I read it, blah blah blah, something about ear infections, Happy Thanksgiving Day wishes to my family, yadda yadda, and then... the meeting.... "We're on" he writes. We're on!!!!!!!

I ran outside to my husband, grabbed the phone and called our parents, all the while my husband is wondering what I'm doing with a trail of Kleenex falling out of my sleeves. I announce to the family that I am about to begin a new journey, and for reasons other than wanting to put a buck or two in my pocket, I was going to publish my ancestor's story. Ronnie was going to co-author it with me, and for the first time since 1884, everything about Jerome J. Collins was going to come to light for the entire world to see. All the hundreds and hundreds of hours of research I had done was going to be compiled. Ronnie's knowledge of Ireland was going to be put to the test. Together we were going to combine our resources, our research, and our respect for one man, and tell his story as best we could. I could think of no better way to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. I was thankful for all my roots, Norwegian, Swedish, and Irish. And I was thankful for that good friend across the big, big pond over in Cork who cared enough to help me.

Let the journey begin.


Before Jerome Collins came to America, he was a Civil Engineer and over saw the erection of the North Gate Bridge in Cork City. It was later replaced in the 1960's by the Griffith Bridge, the River Lee running under just as she did 142 years ago when the cast iron structure was a distinguished presence known throughout the city.

Meet Jerome...

WHEN I was twelve years old,
I was asked by my history teacher to write a "cultural report", basically a paper on where my ancestors came from. So I did. I asked my parents about my heritage and found that I was 1/2 Norwegian, 1/4 Irish, and 1/4 Swedish. As luck would have it, our Norwegian side was already researched and documented quite well, it was traced all the way back to 1600 in Norway! I was able to find out good info about our Irish and Swedish side, however I couldn't trace it back very far. Either way, I got an "A" on my paper, my teacher commenting he wish he knew as much about his family as I did mine. That was the spark that lit the flame which still burns inside me today. Thanks Mr. Sjoberg!!!!!!!

IN college I was going to study abroad in Ireland for a few semesters, so my mother's aunt, a very stoic Irish Catholic Nun (red hair to boot!) sent me some very interesting info about our Irish side of the family. She had hoped I could trace our heritage while I was studying in Ireland. Unfortunately, my father had health problems, and passed in 1989; I stayed home and as a result, I didn't want to leave mom alone. I was only 19, my dad passed when he was 47. The documents that "Aunty Sister" gave me were put away, occasionally I'd bring them out, but I didn't understand the notes that were made on the papers. There was an uncle that had discovered some ocean currents that went to the north pole, there was also a Congressional Gold Medal in my GG Grandfather's obituary mentioned, there was mention of the Paris Conservatory and a musical background in piano and a love for poetry. So many odd notes were written, so many things that didn't make sense. So I put the papers away and they didn't come back out until 1996.

I GOT curious. Where was this Congressional Gold Medal, who in the family now had it? Why was it awarded? Who went to the north pole? Did the fact that I was also a pianist and had a talent for poetry mean it was in my genes? Thank God for the internet. When I was twelve all I had was a telephone and a library. I was older now. I had access to computers and the World Wide Web. Yahoo was the biggest search engine that I knew of, along with AOL. I didn't find anything on the net until 1998 when I moved back home to live with mom. That's when things started happening.

I TOOK another look at my GG Grandfather's obituary. I read a bit more slowly. In there it stated his brother Jerome sailed on the Greely Relief Expedition to the north pole. So I went to the library, and found every book on the expedition. I could find no mention of Jerome Collins. I was getting frustrated. Why would I hit a brick wall so suddenly? Then it happened. I was searching for Jerome Collins on the internet, and I found the name with a sketch of his image on the US Naval Historical website. Could this be our guy? It was! Upon further research I was able to confirm that Jerome J. Collins was actually a member of the Jeannette Arctic Expedition to the north pole in 1879, and that the Greely Relief Expedition was sent after the Jeannette had been out of sight for quite some time. Doors were opening, questions were being answered, but with each question answered, it posed at least 10 more new questions. One thing I learned right away, don't believe everything you read. In this case, my GG Grandfather's obit had been embellished, but why would the family mention the Greely instead of the Jeannette? I was about to find out.

THE Jeannette was formally the Pandora owned by Sir Allen Young, a bark-rigged steamer yacht purchased by James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald who had hopes of making headlines at the north pole. Pandora would have been more appropriate, the Jeannette had bad luck before she even set sail from San Francisco Harbor in July of 1879. She didn't even make it to the pole, instead just a few months after setting her sails, she was thrust into the ice pack by the Lieutenant DeLong, in hopes of letting the flow take her north. Soon she was trapped for almost 2 years. The crew of over 30 men finally had to escape to the ice, sledging over the jagged ice packs where they finally took to the water and made for land. Three boats in all were in the Laptev Sea above Northern Siberia, only two made it to the Lena Delta, the 3rd presumably lost in a gale, never to be found again. (Later, pieces of the Jeannette had reached the coast of Greenland, thus enhancing the theory that Jerome had discovered the "ocean currents" mentioned in his brother Daniel's obit). That boat of Jerome Collins, who was the New York Herald correspondent forced to sign on as a seaman while leaving the harbor to the pole, was alongside DeLong as they landed on the Lena Delta. The other boat made it to safety and found natives and food. DeLong refused to go any further, and insisted he wait for help as he guarded not only the sick men, but his precious log books. Two men were allowed to walk and seek help, Jerome volunteered to go, but was forced to stay behind by DeLong, never mind the fact that he was the largest and healthiest man in the small party.

HELP came, but it was too late. DeLong and his men died, including Jerome, due to starvation and exposure to the harsh arctic elements. DeLong's last entry in his guarded journal read, "Mr. Collins dying", October 30th, 1881. Jerome Collins had died while under suspension for a trivial offense, that which was never lifted by DeLong before their death, and that which was never lifted after a formal Congressional Inquiry into the mistreatment of Jerome while on board the Jeannette from 1879-1881. Even in death to this day Jerome Collins is still under arrest.

HIS brother Daniel, my GG Grandfather, and brother Bernard, did all they could to lift the charges, but a decision was never made. Daniel treasured the Congressional Gold Medal which was awarded to Jerome posthumously, and when he died just 6 short years later, it disappeared, never to be seen by his descendants again. If I died, would I want the world to know about my failed attempts to vindicate my own dead brother? Would I ask that any reference be published alongside my name in the papers to the tragic Jeannette Arctic Expedition? Maybe, maybe not. But the Collins family was full of honor and had roots that ran deep into the heart of Ireland. Their instinct to fight for Jerome's honor wasn't just a publicity stunt, it was their heritage, their way, and their blood which made them stand up for what was right.

HOWEVER it happened, the fight was given up after Daniel's death in 1900. No mention of this expedition was ever verbally passed on down to me along with the heartache and pain it must have caused the family knowing that a cherished son of Ireland perished in northern Siberia at the expense of making headlines for a playboy newspaper man with hopes of selling the next million dollar headline. So it comes to this. 2006. My research, my journey, my fight, and the flame that my history teacher lit in my heart when I was twelve years old to find my roots. Just because I'm 1/4 Irish doesn't mean I won't give it 100% to clear my Great-Great Granduncle Jerome J. Collins name of the trivial charges. If anything, I'll be giving 200%.