Through my life, I’ve been asked a lot about my last name. What is Mendes? Where is Mendes from? What are you? Mendes – what is that?
Sometimes people ask right away. Sometimes they wait until we know each other better. Not always, but often the person asking is looking for help in figuring out a category to put me in.
When I ran for office in 2015, I answered the question dozens of times. My typical answer was that my family doesn’t really know the history of my last name, and that I am a little bit of a lot of nationalities — just like Nashville.
Since then, I’ve learned more about my paternal grandfather. I’d like to share the story with you.
The official family story
Growing up, one thing was clear about the family name. There wasn’t a whole lot to know or discuss. My dad’s father was Pierre Monteil Mendes. He was French. He left my grandmother when my dad was an infant. Despite my grandmother’s best efforts, Pierre was never heard from again. That was the whole story.
My other three grandparents were much easier to figure out. My dad’s mother is Clare. She was raised in Preston, Minnesota, the county seat for Fillmore County. Her father ran the railroad station in Preston. Her family traces its roots to mid-1600s settlers from England (to Maryland) and the Netherlands (to New York). Her great grandfather, George Washington Dean, was in General Grant’s Army of the Tennessee during the Civil War. George, a Private in the 21st Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment, died from wounds sustained at the Battle of the Big Black River Bridge on May 17, 1863, in the Vicksburg campaign. Two generations earlier, another of Clare’s ancestors, John Dolson from Orange County, New York, was a Private in the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Army. Dolson’s unit saw action at the Battle of Trenton when Washington crossed the Delaware.
My mom’s parents spent their entire lives in Chicago. They were the children and grandchildren of European immigrants who settled there. Their ancestry was German, Irish, Swedish, and probably one or two more nationalities. The rich history from my other three grandparents always stood in contrast to the lack of information about Pierre Monteil Mendes.
My early research about Pierre
Before online ancestry research was readily available, I obtained a copy of my dad’s birth certificate. It says that his father Pierre was born in Brazil. That’s inconsistent with his being French because Brazil was a Portuguese colony. However, many Portuguese surnames have an ‘s’ at the end instead of a ‘z’ — so maybe that explained the name “Mendes”? But it wasn’t much of a clue to know the guy named Pierre was from Brazil.
Then, I was an early customer of Ancestry.com. (I think I got floppy disks when I first subscribed??) Over the years, more and more information has become available about Pierre. But not enough to tell a full story.
My grandmother Clare was a badass. She was a nurse and, by the time I was a kid in the 70s, she was running a large nursing home in Evanston, Illinois. Her nursing training was in the late 1930s.
Pierre and Clare lived in Minneapolis, but their marriage license is from Kansas City, Missouri. The marriage license was issued by Jackson County, Missouri, on Tuesday, December 5, 1939, and they were married in a civil ceremony the next day. Clare, born in 1916, was 23 years old. Pierre, born in 1910, was 29 years old.
My uncle Peter was born Pierre Rene Mendes in July 1941 in St. Paul. My dad was born in May 1943 in Lanesboro, Minnesota. According to family, Lanesboro had the only hospital in Clare’s home Fillmore county. With the stories of marital trouble, one imagines that she went home to have her second child.
A 1942 Minneapolis city directory says that Clare was working as a nurse at the University of Minnesota and that Pierre was a salesman for the Pittsburgh Coal Company.
After that, there is more evidence suggesting marital trouble. The 1944 directory has nurse Clare living at one address, and Pierre (now a language teacher) at another. Also, in Arizona death records, we see that “Baby Boy Mendes” was stillborn on January 6, 1944, to another woman at the Navajo Medical Center in Ft. Defiance, Arizona. The mother was from Northfield, Minnesota, near Minneapolis. Pierre Mendes (listed as being born in Seville, Spain) was the father. When I mentioned this to my mom, she confirmed that the rumor was that Pierre got another girl pregnant and then took off.
Later in 1944, Pierre enlisted. In fact, he enlisted on D-Day, June 6, 1994, at Ft. Snelling in Minneapolis. The enlistment papers confirm his 1910 date of birth and that he was a teacher. But he told the Army that he was born in Hawaii. Maybe this reflected discomfort with being a foreigner at a time of war? Interestingly, Hawaii has something of a Portuguese immigrant population and it is one of the few places in the United States where the last name “Mendes” is somewhat common. The war ended before Pierre was deployed and he was soon discharged from the military. Between the evidence of Brazil and then Hawaii, there was a period of time when I guessed the name was Portuguese — but the “Pierre” and the “Seville, Spain” data points never worked with that.
After the war, Pierre became a U.S. citizen in 1946. In that paperwork, Pierre said that he had been born in Sevilla, Andaluers, Spain. After this, his trail goes cold. The next information I have is that he died in 1967 after suffering a heart attack. He died at Brooke General Hospital at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. He’s buried at Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery.
With the exception of Pierre’s death records, I have never been able to find out anything about him before 1939 or after 1946. And the several paragraphs of information I have here took about 15 years to compile. As the years unfolded, I reached two conclusions. First, the mystery around Pierre Monteil Mendes was getting deeper. It was odd to have evidence of him being from France, Spain, Brazil, and Hawaii. It was very unlikely that all of it was true. And, second, between 1946 and his death in 1967, Pierre was living a low-profile life for one reason or another.
Over the years of research, I made friends with one of my dad’s cousins who lives in Wisconsin. While going through some old family photos, he ran across a wedding announcement from the Preston newspaper, and a few photos and honeymoon postcards, from when Pierre and Clare got married. Here’s the clipping:
The newspaper clipping is from December 1939 and confirmed that Clare had already graduated from nursing school and was working for the “University.” There are also tidbits that contradict other information. The announcement said that Senor Pierre Mendes was from Colombia, South America, and that the two had been married the previous Tuesday at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. The church’s web site today tells us that “Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was founded in 1931 by a small group of Mexican immigrants from the local community.” In any event, we know from other records that Clare and Pierre got married in a civil ceremony in Kansas City on December 6, 1939.
The wedding announcement also tells us that Pierre attended the University of Wisconsin. More about that later.
The announcement also tells us that the newlyweds will take an “extended wedding trip to Mexico City.” My dad’s cousin send me several postcards that Clare sent to her parents and siblings from Mexico City. There is also a picture of Pierre from 1940. This is the only known photo of Pierre:
Back to the University of Wisconsin…I know that some universities keep academic records more or less forever. I reached out to the University of Wisconsin for any records about Pierre Monteil Mendes from the late 1930s. The university got back to me. They had no record of Pierre Monteil Mendes. However, there was a Pedro Montiel Mendez who attended in the fall of 1938. They sent his transcript.
Things started to make more sense…
What’s Pedro’s story?
Armed with the name “Pedro Montiel Mendez,” new investigation paths opened.
First of all, Pedro did really poorly at University of Wisconsin. In one semester, he earned three Fs and a D. He was dropped from the school in February 1939. The transcript also tells us that Pedro’s secondary education was at St. Anthony’s Apostolic School in San Antonio, Texas. The same place where Pierre later died and was buried.
The transcript provided a home address in Madison, Wisconsin – 317 Huntington Court. This address was confirmed by the 1939 Madison city directory. Pedro M Mendez, student, was listed at the Huntington Court address. The surprise was that Pedro is shown in the directory as married to Mildred L. Mendez. That’s not my grandma!
Moving beyond the transcript, I quickly found that Pedro married Mildred L. Crowley in 1931. They had two children in the mid-1930s. In their marriage license, Pedro is shown as being born in 1907, which is three years older than Pierre is supposed to have been.
Most notably, while Pedro Montiel Mendez left these multiple bread crumbs in the 1930s, his trail goes cold after the 1939 Madison city directory. I cannot find any information about Pedro after that. Mildred moved on, got re-married, and moved with her two children to a different part of the country.
Pedro shows up in a few publicly-available family trees on Ancestry.com. In each, he’s a dead end after 1939. Each agrees that he was born in Mexico. There is conflicting information in these other family trees about where in Mexico. I think the most compelling evidence is that he was from Mexico City. That evidence suggests that Pedro entered the U.S. at Laredo in 1929 at age 22. When entering, he reported having been in the U.S. previously from 1926 to 1928. The handwritten signature on the border crossing document appears similar to the signature on the 1931 marriage license with Mildred.
In late 2017, I had my DNA tested by a commercial provider. Approximately 73% of my DNA was reported as British & Irish, French & German, Scandinavian, and Broadly Northwestern European. This matches what one would expect from my other three grandparents.
That should mean that the remaining approximate quarter of my DNA should be attributable to my fourth grandparent. According to 23andme.com, the last quarter of my DNA is just more than a third “Native American” and nearly all the rest is European.
The bottom line from 23andme.com is to describe my DNA as 90% “European” and 9.2% “East Asian & Native American.” The rest was 0.2% “Broadly Sub-Saharan African” and 0.6% “Unassigned.”
What does this all mean?
To start, I believe that Pedro is Pierre. Pedro leaves a trail until 1939, but not after that. Pierre first appears in 1939. Pedro’s middle and last names are Montiel Mendez. Pierre’s are Monteil Mendes. Pedro went to high school in San Antonio. Pierre is buried there. Pedro may have been born in Mexico City. Pierre honeymooned there. Pedro attended the University of Wisconsin in late 1938. Pierre is reported in late 1939 as having attended the same school.
Once you blend in the serial marriages and children, and the mystery around whether Pierre was from France, Spain, Colombia, Brazil, or Hawaii, it seems clear that Pedro is Pierre. So I’ve declared my personal quest to figure out the origin of my surname over. It’s figured out.
That would make my grandfather Pedro Montiel Mendez, born in Mexico, in the early 1900s.
It feels weird to have an answer to the question now. Saying that I don’t know the history of my name isn’t true any more. But I haven’t gotten used to saying, “It’s from my grandfather, Pedro Mendez, who I believe was born in Mexico City.” I mean, that’s a factually correct statement, but it stumbles into how race works in America.
Pierre, the story went, was from France. Although perhaps silly and naive given the contradictory evidence that has piled up over the years, I was raised with our family self-identifying as white people of European descent.
Now that I have learned what I have learned, I’m not going to hide the history of the name most likely being from Mexico. As for 9+% of my DNA being reported as native to the Americas (and presumably from south of the U.S. border), I’m not going hide that either. But while I’m not going to hide or deny the reported DNA results, I also am not going to claim or co-opt a cultural Latino heritage that I wasn’t raised with and that I have not ever participated in.
I am super-proud of my badass grandmother Clare. Whether she was completely in the dark or knew everything, by mid-1944, she was a 28 year old nurse with a 3 year old and 1 year old. She struck out to make a life for herself in Chicago and made it work. Good for her.
Thanks for listening to my story. I’ll leave you with this undated photo of Clare. I believe it is from the 1930s.