Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I Wonder What They Were Thinking

I frequently walk my dog up to the cemetery - and in the back at the top of the hill is the old section. It gets me thinking, and not just about my physical mortality.

A little history: Valdese, NC was founded by a group of Waldensians from the Italian Alps in 1893. The Waldensians were a religious group founded in the 12th century (I think), by a man named Peter Waldo. Actually people werent too strict about names back then, so his last name changed from time to time. The Latinized version of his name was Valdese. This movement existed in central Europe, and had very radical ideas for the time - namely that the Bible should be written in the spoken language of the people, and they did not recognize the authority of the Pope. In other words, they were protestants, tho they didn't know it. For centuries they were persecuted.

Skip to 1870 or so, when the King of Italy decides he's going to stop hunting these people down and killing them. They're mountain people (and you know how they are) and they've managed to survive for centuries - but after the active persecutions stops, the population explodes. There's not enough land. So some way, some how, some leaders began to organize groups to settle in different countries. Some went to South America, but in 1893 a group came to Burke County, North Carolina, a few miles east of Morganton, and established a community.

In the cemetery, you see a lot of graves of people born in the 1860s - that makes them the right age to start out on an adventure like this, late 20s, early 30s, when they'd be at their strongest. There are lots of gaves with people born in the late 1890s - the first generation born in America. The oldest grave I've seen was of a woman born in 1832 - she would have been in her 60s by the time she came over. The original settlers each have a small plaque by their headstone.

They came from the Italian Alps, up near France, but I don't think they spoke Italian, or French either for that matter. There's lots of languages floating around Europe that most people in the USA aren't aware of. They certainly didn't speak English.

They had names like Guigou, Martinat, Tron, Pascal, Grill, Bounous, Ribet, Parise, Pons, Roderet, Jacumin, Garrou, Micol, Meytre, Bigotto, Refour, Vinay and many others. They built a big church on what is now Main Street, and affiliated themselves with the Presbyterians. It's not easy starting a colony of sorts, but they managed and the town still exists.

But I wonder what they thought was going to happen to them, or if they cared. Did they think they were going to keep their culture & their language? Did they think they were going to raise their children the way they were raised back in the old country? They did not immigrate a family at a time, they came over as a group, and built a community as a group. Did they think they would not be assimilated, that the surrounding culture would not overrun it? Did they not realize that they'd just jumped in to the great "melting pot" of late 19th century America?

Well, the Waldensian culture no longer exists here. It's not forgotten - there are reminders all over town. There are signs, there is a museum, the large church, a "Trail of Faith" exhibition consisting of several buildings and structures that represent important events in Waldensian history. There are lots of people around with the names, direct descendants of the founders. There are a couple of festivals during the year. There's a play that's performed every year by the community theater. There's a mural on a wall. Some of their original buildings & houses still exist. There's the street names in town. But the culture that the original settlers brought with them in 1893 and lived with on a daily basis is long gone. It's not forgotten, but it's gone. No one speaks the language anymore.

I just wonder if the original people who came over realized that was going to happen.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this very much

linlah said...

That's interesting history and now I'm wondering too.

Heather said...

Very interesting. I would have to say that they thought there ways would prevail, since nobody knows what the new ways are till they come.

Great post!

Patti Anne said...

I think they knew things would be different, but after centuries of persecution, I don't think they cared. The Waldensians here are still a tight-knit bunch. We're just excluded from them and don't see it. But, I bet neither of us could be buried in that cemetery. Ritchie's not a Waldensian name.

A Valdese Blogger said...

Grace: Thank you!

linlah: I assume the came for a better life, but I'm not sure they realized what it would be.

Heather: I tend to agree with that. I doubt they were thinking that far ahead.

Patti Anne: Maybe we could become an honorary Waldensian.