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Down paths of origin

DSC_4047When these islands were first settled by Europeans of Spanish, English and by extension Scottish, Welsh and Irish peoples, as well as of French and Dutch descent, they were limited in their numbers. They also moved about from island to island. The islands changed hands many times. St. Eustatius alone changed hands 22 times. And it had consequences with each change of regime. When one nation captured another island they would disperse the settlers of the other nation or take them as indentured servants to work elsewhere on plantations. In searching for your roots, after fourteen generations in the West Indies, you discover that you are descended from many of the original settlers coming from Europe to these islands. At least in my case it is so. Among my ancestors is an Edmond Kelly from Montserrat, a Mark Horton from Barbados, Charles and Peter Simmons who were listed as living on St. Thomas all the way back in 1656 and so on. Furthermore 14 generations would give you possibly thousands of ancestors unless there were many first cousin marriages which in my research was not the case in my line of descent.

Many of these ancestors were traced down with relative ease, even though it took up much of my spare time searching through archives and following instructions handed down through oral history. I also had a lot of help from a distant cousin, Gosta Simmons of Sweden, who was relentless in his ancestor quest on St. Thomas, St. Barth's, Saba and St. Kitts. He even hired in professional genealogists in The Hague to dig up the old bones of our mutual Simmons and Dinzey ancestors buried in the Dutch, Danish, British and Spanish archives. He shared his information with me. Regrettably he passed away last year of cancer in his homeland. He never published a book even though I often urged him to do so. He often told me that he got pleasure in the chase (the research) much more than he would get from the conquest (the publishing of a book).

For this story I will give information on one of the ancestors I had much difficulty in tracing which was Jean Valaen, listed as Jan Vallan living on St. Eustatius in 1688. Ben Vlaun used to tell me that the name originated in the Balkans and it meant foreigner, so that the name came from elsewhere in Europe. Ben and I were roots from the same original stock. The Vlaun's on St. Martin and the Vlaughn's on Saba are all descended from the same Jan Vallan or Jean Valaen listed as living on St. Eustatius in 1688. There are no more people on Saba carrying the name Vlaughn, though many people with other surnames share the same ancestry as I do.

Over the centuries there were many misspellings of the name, so when I am looking on sites on the internet like wie.was.wie.nl, I use key words like Flan, Flawn, Flaun, Vlan etc. My great grandmother was Sarah Elizabeth Vlaughn and I found her grandfather Jacob Vlaun listed as living on St. Martin after the great hurricane of 1819 signing a petition requesting aid from the Dutch government. In other documents the name is listed as Jacques Valaen.

Esau Valaen, probably a son of the person listed as Jan Vallan, is listed on the records of St. Eustatius as living there in 1699, 1715 and 1728. A Taby or "Saby" Valaen is on the population list of 1705. Jacob (or Jacques) Vallaen is listed in 1725, 1728 and listed as a widower in 1780. In the census held on Saba in 1728 we find the name written as Flan. There was an Elinor, Jacob, two John's and one Mary and in 1789 there is a John Vlaughn and a James Vaughan listed as living on Saba.

On St. Eustatius in 1787 there is a Peter Valaen listed who moved to St. Martin with other members of the future Vlaun family. Also Abraham Valane, with wife and 2 sons, Jacob Valane with wife, 6 sons and 1 daughter, and David Vlane with wife 1 son and 1 daughter. In 1788 there is a widow of Peter Valane and an Abraham Valane Jr, while just the year before the name is listed as Vlane, also in 1788 there is a David Valane and the widower Peter Valane. Also Jacob Valane with now 7 sons, David Valane with 2 sons, Peter Valane listed as bachelor and Abraham Valane Jr. In the census on St. Martin of December 1789 the name is now spelled as Vlaun and still remains so to this day. In that census there is a Peter Vlaun with 1 son, Jacob Vlaun with 7 sons, John Vlaun with 4 sons, Nicolas Vlaun with 2 sons, Abraham Vlaun, no sons, David Vlaun 2 sons and one Elizabeth Zagers-Vlaun who was over sixty years of age at the time of the census.

Nothing much changed in the next census taken on June 30th, 1791 on St. Martin. There are the following Vlaun's listed. As the sons carried on the name I only mention the number of sons. So in 1791 we have Peter Vlaun with 2 sons, Jacob Vlaun with 7 sons, John Vlaun with 3 sons, Nicholas Vlaun with 2 sons, and there is also a widow of Abraham Vlaun and a widow of Peter Vlaun.

So by 1790 the name was established on Saba and became Vlaughn, but in the records also spelled with variants and sometimes even Vlaun, while St. Martin settled in with the spelling of the name as Vlaun.

In my collection of old documents I have an original document of 1790 in which the possessions of Jacob Valaen (spelled as Jacques Valaen), were sold at public auction after his death. He had been widowed twice. The custom back then was to sell the possessions of the deceased at auction and the widow and orphans seems to have been given the first chance to purchase whatever, and after the auction the money was split up among the heirs. The document which I have is in remarkable good condition for 1790 and I found it in some old family papers.

As I mentioned earlier Ben Vlaun had concluded that the name came from the Balkans. However, I could only find the name in the "Sword of Valaen," which originated in the Baltics. To me that makes more sense as the "Courlanders" had been active in the Caribbean and even owned the island of Tobago. When that island was captured some of the Courlanders ended up in the Dutch colonies. Everywhere I went in the Baltic I bought books and one of those books entitled "The Baltic Pearls" (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) has the following information on the Courlanders which is of interest to this article.

Courland, always one of the most prosperous regions of Latvia, was at its peak known as the Duchy of Courland, i.e. it was equal to other major powers in Europe. The Sabile region has brought fame to Courland through its entry in the Guinness book of records as the most northerly wine-growing area on earth. Grapes have been grown there since the 16th century.

With its location next to the sea the climate of Courland is damp and the increased rainfall means that there are many rivers in this region. The Vikings travelled along the rivers Daugava and Dnepr to the Black Sea and from there to Byzantium. During the 6th-8th centuries the Scandinavians even had their own settlement in this area. By the end of the Viking period the Curonians had learnt to carry out raids on Swedish lands.

After the Christianization of the 13th century the German Order built the fortress at Ventspils and Kuldiga in order to strengthen its position. In the middle Ages the city of Kuldiga became the Order's administrative centre and a member of the Hanseatic League. When the Livonian branch of the German Order was liquidate4d in 1561, the independent Duchy of Courland, formally under the King of Poland, established itself on the ruins of former Livonia. And the last German grandmaster, Gotthard Kettler, became the first Duke of Courland. He wished to follow the example of Ducal Prussia in building up the state. For the first years the capital was at Kuldiga, but in 1574 it was transferred to Jelgava: at that time the present province of Semigallia also formed part of the Duchy.

Courland had its best years under the reign of Duke Jacob from 1642 to 1682. During Jacob's time new enterprises and factories were built and iron and copper mines were rented in Norway. The existence of ice-free harbours contributed to the prospering of trade. In Ventspils, which is still the largest seaport of Latvia, several shipbuilding companies worked at full capacity and soon the fleet exceeded that of France. Jacob travelled in France, Holland and England before becoming the Duke. He had the vision of making Courland similar to Holland. By the way, James I Stuart, King of England, happened to be his godfather and in France Louis XIV reigned at that time.

In the Baltic countries only Courland had its own colonies: in 1640 Jacob bought the island of Tobago near the South American coast, and in 1651 Andrew island in Gambia. The colonies supplied Courland with tobacco, tropical birds, bird feathers, cotton, cinnamon, sugar, indigo, cocoa and tortoise shells. Among the export items there was wood, glass, grains, beer, meat, fish, amber and the strong Sabile wine. Due to this economic growth new opportunities opened up to the local peasants: they could find a good job in a factory, in shipbuilding or in a colony. It is thought that the moving of 80 families from Courland to Tobago could have inspired Daniel Defoe to the writing of "Robinson Crusoe." I am convinced that among those 80 families from Courland was a Jacques Valaen the ancestor of the Vlauns in the Leeward Islands.

My great grandmother Sarah Elizabeth Vlaun (or Vlaughn) married to George Rodney Johnson is buried in the yard of their former home at Behind-The-Ridge. A previous owner which I pointed this out to promised to put a commemorative plaque to indicate where he had built a patio over the graves. But like so many other things people tell locals what they want to hear while moving bounds, disrespecting our dead and burying the little history and culture we have left underfoot in total disregard of what our feelings are about our ancestors and what their legacy means to us. So be it.

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