Young Writers Dig Into Stories About Their Famous Forebears

  • An engraving of William Slade. (Courtesy Vermont Historical Society)

Age 16, Newbury, Vt.
Monday, February 05, 2018

Young Writers Project is an independent nonprofit based in Burlington that engages middle and high school students from anywhere in the world to write, to express themselves with confidence and clarity, and to connect with authentic audiences. YWP publishes local writing every week in this newspaper; through YWP’s website, youngwritersproject.org, and monthly digital magazine, The Voice; before live audiences; and with other media partners, including vtdigger.org and vpr.net. YWP is supported by this newspaper and foundations, businesses and individuals who recognize the power and value of writing.

This week’s prompt: Ancestor. Who is one of your most interesting relatives? Famous or infamous? Well-known or unknown? Go digging for a good family story.

Dirk Willems

My name is William Douglas (not William Willems, fortunately), but my mom’s name is Emily Willems, and the ancestor that I’m writing about was named Dirk Willems.

My mom has told me about this before, but I didn’t actually know the whole story until I researched it. Basically, all my family members on my mom’s side of the family, going back hundreds of years, were Mennonites, which are Protestants called Anabaptists. Anabaptists believed that only people who knew what they were doing should get baptized, as opposed to other Protestants who believed that everybody should be baptized at birth.

In the Netherlands in the 1500s (specifically around 1569), the government stance was to support that of non-Anabaptists, and Anabaptists were extremely persecuted. Dirk was, of course, an Anabaptist and was imprisoned for his beliefs. He eventually managed to escape the prison (which used to be a palace) using a rope made of knotted rags. He successfully made it out, but a guard saw him on the way. Dirk ran away over a frozen pond, and the guard followed him. Dirk, having lived on the meager prison rations, was light enough not to break through the ice, but the guard fell through. Instead of just continuing to run, Dirk turned around and saved the guard’s life by pulling him from the ice. Tragically, he was repaid by being burned at the stake anyway, making him into a martyr who's still celebrated by Anabaptists today.

Read the complete story at https://youngwritersproject.org/node/20469

William Slade

My family is full of William Slades. The earliest one I know about lived in 1700. The latest one is my great-great-uncle Bill who is in his 90s now. There was also one who was the headmaster of my school Thetford Academy, around 1900. The one I’m writing about, however, is one I never met, but who, I think, had an interesting life.

William Slade was a member of one of the first graduating classes from Middlebury College. Many of my other ancestors followed in his footsteps and also went to Middlebury College, including my mom. William Slade was the Secretary of State of Vermont from 1815 to 1823, a member of the United States House of Representatives from Vermont from 1831 to 1843, and Governor of Vermont from 1844 to 1846.

He was a Whig. The Whigs were members of a political party that opposed the Democrats in the mid-1800s. They felt the legislature should be stronger in relation to the president. William Slade was also a judge and a lawyer and a clerk in the United States State Department.

I recently studied slavery at school. The thing that I find most interesting about William Slade is that he gave the first speech against slavery in Congress. He said, “But what do the petitioners ask? ... Why, sir, simply that measures may be taken to put an end to slavery here, and especially that here, where the flag of freedom floats over the Capitol of this great Republic, and where the authority of that Republic is supreme, the trade in human flesh may be abolished. … And, sir, it shall move onward, and onward, and onward, until every kindred and tongue and people under Heaven shall acknowledge and glory in great truth that ‘ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL.’”

William Slade didn’t quit after his time as governor of Vermont. He co-founded the Board of National Popular Education, and while he worked there, he helped place female teachers in schools in the western part of the United States. His portrait still hangs in the Vermont Statehouse today.

William Slade did a lot for his community, his state, and his country. I think the most terrific thing he did, though, is to give the speech in Congress against slavery. From time to time, as I was growing up, I heard about this speech, but it wasn’t until I studied slavery in school that I realized how important it really was. I am proud to be related to him.

Read the complete story at https://youngwritersproject.org/node/20480

Augustus Downing Daily

My great-great-great grandfather, Augustus Downing Daily, grew up an orphan. His family died when he was young of yellow fever. He and his twin brother were the only family members to survive.

Legend has it he and his twin were very close. When they were 16, the Civil War started. He and his twin escaped from the orphanage, lied about their age and joined the army. At some point they got separated, never to see each other again. My great-great-great grandfather fought at many battles, eventually ending his military career as part of Sherman's March to the sea.

When the war was over, he eventually found himself in Corinth, N.Y., ironic because I now live in Corinth, Vt. There he met my great-great-great grandmother and was a pioneer in the undertaking business.

Throughout his life he stayed an active part of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans club. He traveled all over the country to attend meetings. As part of the Grand Army of the Republic he was scheduled to meet President McKinley. This unfortunately never happened as the president was assassinated a few days before the meeting.

We will never know if his deep commitment to the Grand Army of the Republic was because he was secretly looking for his twin or because he felt a deep connection to his time in the army. We have never found out what happened to his twin. He could have been one of the many casualties of the war, or, if he survived, started a family. There could be a whole branch of the Daily family living somewhere else in the world.

Read the complete story at https://youngwritersproject.org/node/20468