There were some things I knew about Julia and Abraham already. I knew how taxing their trip to New Mexico must have been: the boat from Bremen to New York; the train from New York to St. Louis; the wagon road from St. Louis to Independence, Mo., through Kansas and on west. The trail rose slowly, at an agonizing pace, through the furrowed grasslands along the Arkansas River to Bent's Fort and then Trinidad, Colo., where it turned south along the sage-dotted foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, then climbed to the staggering basin of blue-green peaks and the ramshackle aggregation of red-earth buildings that was Santa Fe -- the low-slung governor's palace; the churches and convent and Army barracks; the burros and chickens and whores. I knew that Julia, who came from a settled world of gray skies and dark-wood interiors and timeworn cobblestones, must have found such a place bewildering, even threatening.
I knew that Julia was an elegant woman who brought art and culture to a place that had seen little of either. In his 1924 book Old Santa Fe, Ralph Emerson Twitchell, a New Mexico historian, described the "wondrous memories" of those who visited Staab mansion: "Unostentatious but magnificent in their simplicity were the contributions of Abraham and Mrs. Staab … to the social gaieties which shone with frequent brilliancy in the ancient city." I was aware that she was often unhealthy: In At the End of the Santa Fe Trail, a 1949 memoir by Sister Blandina Segale, the Santa Fe nun described accompanying a sickly Julia to a railroad depot in 1877, a thrilling journey that involved a narrow escape from a run-in with Billy the Kid.
And I knew that Abraham had helped fund the construction of Santa Fe's cathedral when the town's famous French Archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, ran out of money, and that in return, the archbishop had placed Hebrew letters in the entrance arch: Yahweh, the word for God. Julia had been friendly with Archbishop Lamy; they spoke French together, and he planted two willow trees in her yard. In 1956, the Pulitzer-prize winning historian Paul Horgan devoted a whole chapter of his book, The Centuries of Santa Fe, to a woman modeled on Julia. In that chapter, which is titled "The German Bride," he described the nightly formal dinners in the mansard-roofed home at a table set "with European china, cut glass, silver, lace, and linen"; visits from Rutherford Hayes and the Indian-war generals Miles, Sheridan and Sherman -- and of course the archbishop. Horgan described Julia as an exquisite and dignified creature in a rugged outpost starved for urbanity: "Her skin was white," Horgan wrote. "Her clothes were beautifully made in the highest of fashion. She animated them with something of the effect of a small girl dressed up playing queen. She could make everybody smile simply on meeting them. Wait till she played the piano for them, and then she would make them sigh, or even weep."
That was what I thought I knew, anyway. At the state archives in Santa Fe -- a boxy, windowless, soul-crushing kind of place, as most state archives are -- I discovered some things I didn't know. I found a slim folder on Abraham Staab, which advised me that he was 5-foot-2, with a "low" forehead and "straight" nose, but didn't tell me much of anything else. Near the disappointing Staab trove, however, I found a much thicker folder that held the papers of Flora Spiegelberg, a wife of one of the uncles who preceded Abraham to New Mexico. She wrote prolifically about her life, and in those pages, I learned that she, and not Julia, was the model for Paul Horgan's "German Bride." It was she who hobnobbed with Rutherford Hayes, she who played the piano so beautifully. The willow trees in the yard? The archbishop, she said, had planted them for her.
I also found another file -- a historical-review article from the 1960s about the construction of the Santa Fe cathedral. And that story, too, was rather different from what I had been told: The Hebrew inscription above the cathedral door, it said, was a common symbol in the cathedrals Lamy had visited in his youth in south-central France: churches that had not all, presumably, been funded by Jews. So the proud tale of my family's proud past was just that -- a conglomeration of contested memories and half-truths and self-congratulatory hokum handed on from one generation to the next. Not all that different, really, from a ghost story.