If your school experience was anything like mine, history class, or Social Studies, was often dry and boring. The teacher expected us to memorize a bunch of dates and places and events that did not appear to have any bearing on our lives. What did I care if Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492? We rarely heard about the men and women behind the dates and events, other than that some people were heroes or “good Guys”, like George Washington, and some people were not, like Benedict Arnold.
But history is so much more than dry collections of facts. It is the study of how people, often average citizens like you and I, shape events and how they and their families are shaped by them. Very often this happens by chance, rather than by heroics. Take, for example, Peter Keenan, Civil War hero. Peter was a major in the union Army. He was leading his men one foggy night down a narrow path in Chancellorsville Virginia. He came upon the confederate Cavalry, led by Stone Wall Jackson and startled them into firing blindly into the fog. As a result Stonewall Jackson was hit and killed by a bullet fired by his own men. Peter Keenan was also killed in this battle but he claims the victory for the kill, as it was his actions that set the fire fight in motion. The loss of Stonewall Jackson crippled the Confederate army and left a pall of defeat over them that was very difficult to shake. This has been seen by many historians as a turning point in the war. If not for this one event the Confederacy may well have won the war.
This is not to say that Peter was not a heroic man, but I am pretty sure he did not expect to run head long into or cause the death of Stonewall Jackson when he woke up that morning. He was one man, doing his job and being in the right/wrong place at the right time to alter an event. These are the things that make up history, the events and the people that shape them or are shaped by them.
To explore this a little more closely let’s look at Poland in the 1800-1900’s. Russia and Poland were long standing enemies, going back to the 16th and 17th centuries. When the royal rule began to falter in Poland in the early 17 hundred’s, Russia stepped in, stirring the polish citizens to succession. Further weakened, the royal house gave way and Russia, Austria and Prussia stepped in to take up the slack. Poland was divided among the three counties in a series of three partitions with a fourth taking place at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 1815, tsarist Russia received a greater part of the Duchy of Warsaw, replaced with the Kingdom of Poland. Russia dissolved the Kingdom and country of Poland, and persecuted the predominantly Catholic Poles.
The Polish national liberation uprising of 1794, led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, was cruelly suppressed, as were the subsequent insurrections of 1830-1831, 1846, 1848 and 1863-1864. Following the uprising of 1863-1864 many poles fled from the constant religious persecution and economic devastation. They longed to see their home land returned to them but knew the only way to survive and continue the fight was to emigrate. And so it was that millions of Polish immigrants, frequently registered as being from one of the three governing countries, came to live in the United States of America. Many were illiterate, unable to read of write, but determined to build a new and better life for themselves and for their families.
Among these came devote Catholics, Pawel Czolgosz (1/2/1843 Poland) and his wife Mary Nowak (1/13/1844-10/2/1883) and their children; Waldeck (1868), Frank (1870) Joseph (1872), arriving in 1873. Pawel/Paul settled his family in Alpena Michigan where he and Mary had several more children; Leon (1874), Cecelia (1876), Walter (1876), Jacob (1877), and John (1879). Paul worked as a laborer. He did not speak English, could not read or write and never learned to speak English.
With Paul and his family came other family members, his brother John Czolgosz and his family also settled in Alpena Michigan and remained close to Paul and his family, as did Brother Andrew Czolgosz who settled in Mettownship Plesque Island Michagan. Others of the Czolgosz family may also have immigrated to the U.S. as well as siblings of Mary Nowak. ( I have not traced the extended families for this article)
The Czolgosz lived within the immigrant Polish community, a fairly close knit group of near refugee status struggling to find their way in their adopted homeland. Mary Nowak Czolgosz died in Alpena Michigan on Oct. 2, 1883, leaving Paul alone to raise 15 year old Waldeck, 13 year old Frank, 11 year old Joseph, 9 year old Leon, 7 year old Cecelia, 6 year old Jacob and 4 year old John.
Paul moved his family to a farm in Orange, Cuyahoga Ohio, outside of Cleveland, and married a second time in 1887, to Catherine Metzfaltr. She and Paul had four children, , Charles Czolgosz (1888) and Atone (Tony) (1890), Michael Czolgosz (1880), Wiktaryia Czolgosz (1885). Neither Michael nor Victoria were living in the household in 1900.
It is probable that Paul and Mary, and Catherine after her, were bitter about events in Poland. Immigrants were not treated very well and poverty was a way of life for the Czolgosz family. The boys helped their father on the farm and learned to work hard and to take pride in their work, except for young Leon. Leon was reportedly an odd child. He did not make friends easily and preferred to keep his own company. He did not get along with his step-mother and often refused to take meals with her, preferring to eat alone in his room or in the barn. Catherine would later be recorded as saying he was not very bright, he was frail and often sickly. His father did not expect as much from him as from the other boys.
Waldeck, the eldest, having been born in Poland, had some memory of life before the move. He kept close ties with his uncle Frank Szolkowski, who Waldeck lived with from 1897-1898 in St. Paul Minnesota, and his brother in law ( Cecelia’s husband) Wladeslaw Bandowski. The three were known to discuss socialism, politics and to have very strong opinions. Leon often sat in on the discussions, taking in the conversation but saying very little. A neighbor who was part of the Czolgosz inner circle before they left the farm to move to Cleveland, reported being very happy when the family moved away as he thought they were too radical in their thinking and they often made him uncomfortable with their discussions.
By 1901 Waldeck was alone working the farm and the rest of the family had moved on to Cleveland. Cecelia Czolgosz (12/26/1875-11/15/1976) married Wladyslaw Bandowski (5/1866-Poland.Russia) in 1894. Wlad had immigrated in 1886. In 1900 they are living in Cleveland Ohio with no children of their own but Cecelia’s sister, 15 year old Wiktayia (Victoria Czolgosz) is living with them.
Events shape people and people shape events and that is what makes history. The events that shaped this family began in Poland with the occupation and dissolution of Poland and the persecution of the Catholic Poles by tsarist and later socialist Russia. Poverty and displacement added to the picture. The Czolgosts were hard working, God fearing Polish immigrants struggling to raise their children. They did not speak English, they could not read or write, but they worked very hard and they set a good example.
Leon Czolgosz did not follow his parent’s example. In fact, he came to embrace the ideologies of the very people who had displaced his family and dissolved his country. Leon, with time on his hands and largely supported by his family, took an interest in the works of Emma Goldman (born June 27, 1869, Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania, Russian Empire—died May 14, 1940, Toronto, Ontario, Canada) infamous Anarchist and author. When she spoke in Cleveland he was there, absorbing her every word. Following the lecture he approached her and introduced himself.
Shortly after that meeting Leon told his family he was going west on business and did not know when he would see them next. He traveled to Chicago and then to West Seneca NY, a suburb of Buffalo, where he took up residence under an assumed name. Leon was reported to have large sums of cash on him during this time, though he had not worked and did not appear to be employed. His brother Waldeck sent him money orders, also using his assumed alias. The rest of the family did not appear to know where he was.
On September 6, 1901 Leon Czolgosz stood in line waiting to meet and greet the president of the United States, William McKinley, in Buffalo NY. Leon held a hand gun concealed by a handkerchief draped over his hand, giving the appearance of a bandage. As the president reached to shake his hand Leon shot him twice.
Leon Czolgost was arrested. President McKinley had been shot twice but appeared to rally and was expected to make a full recovery. Unknown to his Doctors Gangrene had settled in his stomach wound. He died on September 14, 1901.
Leon had successfully assassinated the president of the United States of America. Leon refused his lawyer, refused to mount a defense, stating that he had done his duty and was glad he had done it. He professed to be a socialist and an anarchist, though Anarchistic societies did not claim him as a member. His family were quick to denounce his actions and distance themselves from him, all but his brother Waldeck and brother in law Wladeslaw. Paul Czolgosz traveled to Buffalo along with daughter Victoria, Waldeck and Wladeslaw. Paul was not allowed to see his son. He answered questions for the police and returned to Ohio. Waldeck and Wvlad remained in Buffalo and visited Leon every day. His trial was remarkably swift, taking place on September 23, 1901 and lasting only 2 days, 12 hours. He was sentenced to death via the electric chair and executed on October 29, 1901.
A weak, frail young man living a seemingly insignificant life, rising from an average immigrant family, and yet he irrevocably altered history. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was quickly sworn in as the President and wasted no time taking charge.
President McKinley, an often over looked president, was beloved by the people and was heralded as the last of the intellectual visionaries following the principles of the constitution and the founding Fathers. Under McKinley the US enjoyed a period of prosperity, peace and increased civil rights. He sought to use free trade and diplomacy to insure world peace and had built a successful trade alliance with Russia during the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The US was supplying all of the steal and rail cars for the projects. McKinley had arranged for a Pan American trade summit to establish trade agreements with South America. Agreements which would have increased the wealth and security of the US American People and offered the South American countries of Mexico, Panama, Cuba, Venezuela, etc. the means to build up the economic stability of their own countries, through innovations, new Technologies, scientific expansion and fair trade agreements.
McKinley believes in the green back economy. He wanted gold standards and held a deep mistrust of credit. McKinley was not an imperialist. He did not trust Great Britain and refused to follow their examples around the world. Following the Spanish American war he promptly released Cuba to its own governance and would have done the same for the Philippines, had he survived.
It has been speculated by historians that, had McKinley lived to serve out his term, there would have been no WWI, because his trade and economic expansion would have bred and sustained peaceful negotiations and strengthened the world economy. There would have been no stock market crash resulting in entrenched worldwide depression, because he would not have supported extended credit practices which led to the crash in the first place. Because there was no WWI and no great depression there would have been no WWII. If trade agreements had been made and nurtured there would be no need for the peoples of South America to flee their countries and seek refuge in the US. This is, of course, all speculation because he did not have a chance to realize his vision.
Theodore Roosevelt, well known for his slogan “speak softly and carry a big stick” was a Confederate sympathizer and an imperialist. He admired Great Britain and had relatives living in England in order to avoid standing trial for their participation in the Civil War. His first act as President was to cancel the Pan American trade summit. Where McKinley can be seen as an intellectual, embracing science and ingenuity, Teddy Roosevelt is often seen as a bull in a China shop. His approach was often heavy handed and his presentation clumsy and rushed. He embraced the idea of a credit based economy and cast aside the Green Back ideology, setting America on its course towards the great crash 1929.
When working on your own family history keep in mind that there real is no insignificant life and history really is what it’s all about. We are all shaped by the events around us, some more significantly than others, and we are also all shaping the events that play out. This is the thread of history; the tapestry of mankind is woven by this intricate interplay.