A fascinating journey of discovery

I had a really fascinating experience last year that has turned into something of a journey of discovery. It’s still ongoing, and I’m sure it will affect my writing in years to come.

It started with family history. Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been interested in family history for some time. My sister is a professional genealogist who specializes in Czech records (she keeps a blog here), and I got started by helping her.

In the United States, the census records are only useful to about 1850. Before that, you have to get into land records, probates and wills, and local courthouse type stuff to really go anywhere. But in the Czech lands, the Catholic Church has kept meticulous parish records going back to the 15th and 16th centuries. They’re handwritten in old German and totally unindexed, but the books are all digitized and available online.

As I worked on this research with my sister, I started to wonder: how far back can we push these lines? What are the limits?

The Czech lands were part of the Holy Roman Empire, under the Austrian Habsbugs. In the 15th century, the Hussite Wars shook things up quite a bit, and that’s about as far back as the Catholic parish records go. But the noble genealogies were very well kept, and go back quite a bit further. If one of your lines connects to the nobility (which is very possible, given how many bastard children were running around), you can push back really far.

But past the 8th century, things start to get sketchy. Most of the nobility in Europe are descended from the barbarian tribes who invaded the Roman Empire: the Goths, the Franks, the Vandals, etc. Same thing with the Slavs and the Byzantine Empire, though the Byzantines held out much better than the Western Roman Empire (it was the Turks, not the barbarians, who eventually did them in).

The trouble is that when these barbarians took over, they tried to establish their legitimacy by fabricating genealogies. Plenty of royal European lines go back all the way to Adam and Eve, but how reliable is that really? As rulers of Christian lands, of course they would try to connect themselves to famous characters from the Bible.

The Dark Ages might not be as dark as we think they are, but in terms of records and record-keeping, they certainly are. The largest and most civilized empire in the world had just collapsed, with barbarians running amok in the countryside and the Persians threatening the last vestiges of the empire in the east. Very few historians have documented this era, and it was a huge dark spot in my own understanding of the world.

So I set out to study it. I scoured Wikipedia, subscribed to the Western Civ podcast, and listened to the entire History of Rome by Mike Duncan (excellent podcast, by the way). The Roman Empire had dominated Europe right up to the early middle ages, and I wanted to learn why it had fallen.

That led to a journey of discovery all in itself. Roman history is a fascinating subject in its own right, and the four or five centuries from the Punic Wars through the reign of Marcus Aurelius are very well documented. Rome faced a lot of challenges, and even a few existential threats, but for more than a thousand years they dominated the known world.

So why did they fall?

The more I studied about the Romans, the heavier this question weighed on me. I learned about Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, the crisis of the third century, and Constantine the Great—a period of Roman history that was much less familiar to me. And then things started to click.

My Czech ancestors were serfs. They emmigrated to Texas shortly after the last vestiges of serfdom were abolished in 1848. Under serfdom, they were little better than slaves. The land they lived and worked on was owned by the Hukvaldy Estate, and they were bound to it by feudal law.

When Diocletian became Augustus, the Roman Empire was reeling from half a dozen existential crises, including an economic collapse. The money was so worthless, most of the empire had resorted to a barter economy. Diocletian established a system of exchange where people could pay their taxes with trade goods rather than money. However, the only way for that system to work was 1) for everyone to take the profession of their parents, and 2) for no one to move without Imperial permission. Otherwise, you might have too many pig farmers in one province and not enough blacksmiths in another.

In other words, the system of feudal serfdom that my ancestors labored under had its roots in the reforms of Diocletian. But it went much deeper than just one man. Diocletian reforms were necessary because the Roman economy had collapsed, and the economy had collapsed because for more than a hundred years, the Empire had been in massive debt, and had serviced its debts by devaluing its currency.

Sound familiar?

The Roman Empire fell because of deficit spending, government debt, and currency devaluation over the course of several generations. In 1913, the United States established the Federal Reserve, beginning our own process of currency devaluation. Our national debt has doubled every eight years since 2000, when the stock market peaked as measured in gold. Right now, our debt-to-GDP is 104%. One hundred four percent.

And that’s just our sovereign debt. Our household debt is north of $12 trillion, or another 73% of our GDP. The largest portion of that is student loans, which cannot be resolved through bankruptcy.

Seven out of ten Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.

Half of Americans would have to beg, borrow, or steal if slapped with an unexpected $400 expense.

Twenty percent of American households do not have a single person that is working.

Fully one-third of America is in debt collections, meaning that they have an unpaid debt more than 180 days past due.

Is it any wonder that the middle class is shrinking? We’re following the same path that Rome followed, except where they merely walked, we’re running headlong. With our modern communications, the pace of life is so fast that I suspect we’re completing the cycle in a fraction of the time.

And then you realize that what passes for money these days isn’t “money” at all, but government paper backed by government debt. What happens when we default? What happens when the credit markets freeze up and contagion spreads across the global economy? What happens when you wake up one morning, only to find that all the ATMs are down, the banks are all closed, and everyone’s accounts are all frozen?

So what started as an interest in family history took me down a rabbit hole where I learned all about how Rome fell, and how we’re following in the footsteps of Rome. It led to a keen interest in monetary policy and our global monetary system. It also gave me a new hobby: coin hunting.

The Romans devalued their currency by melting down the old gold and silver coins, and minting new ones mixed with copper. Over time, the melt value of the coins went down, and that’s exactly what’s happening to our US currency now.

Before 1965, dimes and quarters were made from 90% silver. After, they were made from copper with a thin nickel coating. Nickels have always been made from a 75/25 copper-nickel alloy, however, and pennies were all 95% copper until 1982. Right now, the melt value of a US penny is actually 1.8¢. At the height of the “jobless recovery” it was closer to 4¢.

Now, it’s illegal to melt down pennies because they are currently legal tender. However, as the currency continues to inflate, the penny will become even more worthless, eventually reaching the point where it doesn’t make sense to make anymore. Right now, the material cost alone of each zinc penny is 70% of the face value. Canada has already discontinued minting pennies, and we aren’t far behind.

I started dabbling in copper hoarding. But as I went through lots of pennies, I started coming across some really old ones. Which got me to wondering if maybe the numismatic value of some of these coins eventually might be more than their melt value. After all, when everyone’s melted down their copper pennies, a complete collection of Lincoln cents is going to be something special.

So I started building a collection of Lincoln cents. Then I got into state quarters, first as a cool Christmas gift for one of my nephews, then for myself. Then I got into Jefferson nickels, and started finding silver.

Right now, I have a complete set of Lincoln Memorial cents. They’re all from circulation, and some of them are pretty beat up, but there are a few really nice ones in there too. My wheat cents collection is much less complete, but the coolest piece is a 1909 VDB in very fine condition, with all the wheat berries still showing. That’s a $10-$15 penny that I found in a normal coin roll.

It’s a fun hobby, and it comes around full circle to what got me started down this rabbit hole in the first place. Each one of these coins is a small piece of history. That 1909 VDB is more than a hundred years old. I’ve got coins that my parents and grandparents would have used, and a penny for every year of my father’s and mother’s lives. With a bit of luck and a lot of patience, I’ll be able to find a penny for every year of my grandparents’ lives as well.

So yeah, it’s been a fascinating journey of discovery, and it’s still ongoing too. I just got started with Roosevelt dimes, and I’m catching up on Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, which is just as interesting as his History of Rome. Turns out that the French Revolution also happened because of deficit spending and a runaway government debt. Surprise, surprise.

Life is a giant rabbit hole when you’re curious about everything!

A little family history

Holy crap, it’s been a long time since the last blog post. I wish I could say that things got busy, but the truth is that things just got disorganized. We’ll see how quickly I can put things back in order.

I spent most of last week either working a landscaping job or doing family history. Until now, I haven’t really blogged much about family history, but it’s something I’ve been working on fairly consistently for the past six months. My ultimate goal is to find all my first generation immigrant ancestors, which may well take a lifetime, but I’m off to a decent start:

JV fanThe fan chart shows six generations, starting with me at generation zero. I’ve outlined with a sharpie where all the lines hop the pond. My paternal grandfather’s side (blue) is all from the Czech lands, under the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My paternal grandmother’s side (green) goes way, way back to colonial America, with most of the lines still needing to be researched.

On my mom’s side, there are only three lines that go back to colonial America, and those are the ones I’ve been focused on. Joseph Moroni Wight goes back to Massachusetts and the Pilgrims, and has been fairly well documented back to the early 1600s. Nancy Jane Rose’s father was cursed by a Mormon apostle, which is just about the only thing we know about him. He’s a brick wall, but her mom’s side goes all the way back just like J.M. Wight.

The other line is Archibald Benjamin Stephenson, which has some colorful history including a brief stint with the Strangites. Unlike all my other Mormon lines, this one has not been thoroughly researched. I’m trying to find out why that is, and to push back further if possible.

My ultimate goal is to specialize in early American research, from the original colonies to the pre-Civil War era. With family history, you really have to be a jack of all trades and a master of one. I’ve got a pretty good grasp of the basics, but I still have a lot of work to do before I develop any sort of mastery.

Of course, my work with family history isn’t going to replace or supersede my writing. If anything, it’s feeding into it. There are tons of interesting family stories I’m uncovering through this research, which makes for excellent writing material. For example, my 6th great uncle Lyman Wight once looked a murderous mob in the eyes and said: “shoot, and be damned.” I’m definitely working that into Gunslinger to the Stars.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. There’s a chance I may branch into historical fiction as I get more involved in family history. For now, all of the story ideas gnawing at my head are science fiction, but who knows what will happen in the future?

I’ll leave you with a little something from the Austrian connection in my family history: Roses of the South by Johann Strauss.

Giving Thanks

If there is any national holiday that is routinely overlooked, it is Thanksgiving. In our intensely consumer-driven society, Christmas looms ever greater, bringing with it the pseudo-holidays like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Each year, the jingles of commercialism threaten to drown out the message of gratitude which Thanksgiving celebrates.

So with that in mind, I intend to keep a proper Thanksgiving this year, and every year. It is a time for food, a time for family, and above all else a time to ponder on all the good things in our lives, and to give thanks for them.

According to tradition, the first Thanksgiving feast was made by the pilgrims in 1621, after their first good harvest in the New World. They had come to America seeking religious freedom, which had been denied them in Europe. Instead, they found a foreboding wilderness whose native inhabitants had been all but wiped out by the plague. There were no hospitals, no grocery stores, no internet—no one except an English-speaking indian named Squanto to help them, and no way to send for help across the wide, dark Atlantic.

It was a struggle just to survive. Many of them died. Those who lived saw the hand of Providence in their survival, and after a bounteous harvest ensured that they would have food for the winter, they dedicated a feast to acknowledging that Providence that had saved them.

In a lot of ways, the pilgrims are to America what the pioneers are to the Mormons. And interestingly enough, I have direct ancestors among the pilgrims as well as the Mormon pioneers. So for me, it’s more than just a nice story: it’s a part of my family history that makes me who I am. And I suspect the same is true for many other readers of this blog.

So in the spirit of that first Thanksgiving feast, here are the things that I am especially thankful for this year:

  • I am thankful for my near and extended family. Tolstoy was wrong when he said that all happy families are alike: every family has their own quirks, even the ones that hold together. I wouldn’t give up my family’s quirks for anything.
  • I am thankful to live in a free country, where my rights to life, liberty, and property are respected and honored. I am also thankful for the brave men and women of our armed forces who sacrifice so much to keep it free.
  • I am thankful for the opportunity to pursue a career as an author, and for the flexibility and control that indie publishing provides. I have no one but myself to blame for my failures, but my successes are all my own. Even after four years, it’s still exhilarating.
  • I am thankful for my readers, who have made and continue to make this publishing journey possible. I am thankful for all that they do that supports me, from buying and reading my books to sharing with friends, posting reviews, sending me fan mail, and connecting in a hundred other little ways that together make this whole thing worthwhile. Seriously, you guys are awesome. The only thing I could ask is to have more of you!