An International Co-op Uncovering Drexel Family History

Isabella Sangaline with "Self-Portrait" by Francis Martin Drexel (oil on canvas, 1817) stored in The Drexel Collection. Photo credit: Jeff Fusco.

Isabella Sangaline with "Self-Portrait" by Francis Martin Drexel (oil on canvas, 1817) stored in The Drexel Collection. Photo credit: Jeff Fusco.

This is one of a regular series profiling the Drexel Co-op program, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019-2020.

When Drexel University began celebrating the centennial of its renowned co-op program last fall, there was a student on co-op researching Drexel — the family, that is.

Isabella Sangaline, a fifth-year dual history and sociology major with a minor in women’s and gender studies, spent six months as a research assistant in the Stadtarchiv (city archive) of Dornbirn, Austria, which has been the ancestral home of the Drexel family since the 15th century. Sangaline is the first Drexel student to complete a co-op with the city, which is a milestone in the partnership that the University has built with Dornbirn in the last decade.

During the research co-op, which was created and funded by the College of Arts and Sciences and its History Department, Sangaline investigated the history of the Drexel family and the time and place in which they lived, particularly during the lifetime of Francis Martin Drexel, the father of University founder Anthony J. Drexel. Francis Martin was the first Drexel to leave Dornbirn (after years of wandering around Europe to avoid conscription into Napoleon’s army and make a living as a painter) and come to the United States, where he started the American branch of the Drexel family and found fame and fortune not as an artist, but as a banker.

In this Q&A with DrexelNow, Sangaline discussed how the co-op came to be, what it was like sifting through archival documents written in archaic German and how the co-op influenced future senior thesis and post-graduation plans. 

Q: So I know that you had visited Dornbirn before going there on co-op. Can you talk about that?

A: I took the “HIST 125: The History of Drexel University” course with Dr. Scott Knowles [department head and professor in the Department of History], so I knew that the Drexel family was from Austria and knew a little bit about Francis Martin Drexel, but nothing in a lot of detail. The History Department sent out an advertisement for a trip to Dornbirn, and because I personally enjoyed the Drexel history course and I had never been to Austria before, I decided to go on the trip.

The trip in October 2018 was honestly amazing. We visited the Stadtmuseum (city museum) and Stadtarchiv (city archive), where we looked at some documents that mentioned the Drexel family and had the signature of Franz Josef Drexel (Francis Martin’s father). We also had discussions about the potential to use photographs for historical research, and how to also be critical of them. There were also little trips to nearby museums and cities in Vorarlberg, the state in which Dornbirn is located, as well as Gütle, a former industrial area in Dornbirn — walking around Gütle and learning about its industrial history was my favorite part, because I, personally, enjoy industrial history. We also attended a business class at the Vorarlberg University of Applied Sciences in Dornbirn, where we discussed with students the importance of workplace diversity.

From left to right: Dornbirn archivists Werner Matt and Philipp Wittwer with Isabella Sangaline examining a primary source document at the Dornbirn City Archives during the 2018 Drexel trip to Dornbirn. Photo credit: Roxzine Scott.

I greatly encourage other students to take this trip, and the Drexel history class, when it is offered in the future. What I remember the most is how delicious the food is in Vorarlberg, as well as how beautiful Vorarlberg is. I had such a great time.

Q: How did the idea of you doing the co-op in Austria come about? Had you studied abroad or completed an international co-op before?

A: Before I went on the trip, I knew that I wanted to do historical research for my next co-op, because my last two co-ops had both been working for nonprofits in Philadelphia. I initially began talking to professors to see if anyone needed or wanted a research assistant. On the final night of the trip, Dr. Knowles had approached me asking if I would be interested in coming back to Dornbirn for my co-op to do further research into the Drexel family, which he had discussed with Werner Matt, the Stadtarchiv director. I told him that I would be interested, and would do my best to learn German.

Once we returned to Drexel, Dr. Knowles and I immediately began putting the new plan for the co-op together, and then the co-op was approved. I was extremely excited and extremely nervous. I would be living alone in a country I was not very familiar with, and I did not know any German.

The only other time I had been abroad through Drexel was during my freshman year. I was in the Emerging Scholars Program and took a course called “Self, Society, World: Legacies of the Enlightenment,” which was on German philosophy and philosophers. After taking that class in the winter of 2015-16, I then participated in a week-long trip to Berlin. Part of why I wanted to go to Austria was so that I could experience something new and different while receiving the research experience that I wanted. I knew it was a unique opportunity that I simply could not turn down.

Left to right: Werner Matt, Isabella Sangaline and Scott Knowles. Photo credit: Dornbirn City Archives.

Q: Can you talk about what you did on co-op? How did you research the Drexel family and Dornbirn — and were the documents in German?

A: Most of my days were me sitting in the city archive doing research. I had a set of questions and gaps in known information that I needed to fill. The main focus was understanding what Francis Martin’s life was like in Europe and why he was traveling so much when he was younger, as well as understanding the family history. What was their socio-economic status and what did they do for a living?

I began with secondary resources about Francis Martin that were available to me via the University databases to give me an idea of what is already known. Then, I began looking at secondary sources that were only available to me in Vorarlberg. I checked out 20-30 books, most of which were in German, from the Vorarlberger Landesbibliothek (Vorarlberg State Library). These were books that discussed Dornbirn and Vorarlberg history that was relevant to the time period in which I was looking into. Francis Martin was in Dornbirn and Europe from 1792–1817, before he came to America, so that was what I was focusing on. This was an interesting period for Dornbirn, as well, with Napoleon and pre-industrialization. I had to build up my contextual knowledge of the region since Francis Martin did not exist in a void.

When dealing with the books that were in German, I did have to translate them to English. I did this through taking some German classes while I was in Dornbirn and by scanning the pages I was interested in, converting them to a text document and running the text document through Google Translate. It was a very rough translation, but I could then understand at least something from the books and build a good base of knowledge.

The main primary source documents I had for the Drexel family in Dornbirn were division of estate documents. When a person in Vorarlberg died, their property was divided equally amongst all heirs. I have six of these documents for: Jakob Drexel (Francis Martin’s great-grandfather), Franz Xaver Drexel (Francis Martin’s paternal grandfather), Maria Barbara Drexel (paternal aunt of Francis Martin), Maria Barbara Wilhelm (maternal aunt of Francis Martin ), Johann Thomas Wilhelm (Francis Martin’s maternal grandfather) and Susanna Herberger (Francis Martin’s maternal grandmother). These documents were handwritten inventories (in Old German) of the deceased. For me to begin to understand them, a city archives volunteer, Hildegard Oprießnig-Luger, first transcribed the documents for me. I then sat down with one of the archivists, Harald Rhomberg, to help me understand the documents. The spelling and terms are in dialect and inconsistent, so it was a long process for me to understand them.

Left to right: Scott Knowles, Isabella Sangaline and Hildegard Oprießnig and Bruno Oprießnig, volunteers who helped transcribe old documents for Sangaline's co-op. Photo credit: Dornbirn City Archives.

Other useful documents were two tax documents that listed the taxable property owned by Franz Josef Drexel (Francis Martin’s father). One was from 1794, when Vorarlberg was controlled by Austria, and the other was from 1808, when Vorarlberg was controlled by the Napoleonic state of Bavaria. I learned a lot about the Drexel family and Francis Martin himself. It helped that I found a letter that he wrote to his children describing his time in Europe. The letter and resources confirmed that Napoleon and Bavaria had major, devastating effects on the Drexel family, and was why Francis Martin traveled around Switzerland for a large portion of his life in Europe. Specifically, Francis Martin was avoiding being drafted into Napoleon’s army. We also know that his father was both a merchant and an innkeeper. As a merchant, he was likely involved in the pre-industrialization that was occurring in Dornbirn. 

Q: What did you learn about yourself during co-op — does this relate to your post-graduation plans? Did this co-op researching the Drexel family change how you think about the University?

A: The main takeaway for me was how much I enjoyed doing this research. I genuinely enjoyed being there for six months. I never thought that I would be able to experience anything like this. I am extremely grateful to those who were able to make it happen and support this co-op.

After returning from Austria, I began writing my senior thesis using the research I did over there. My thesis looks at how the early life of Francis Martin Drexel affected and related to his transition into banking.

Post-graduation, I hope to go to graduate school for history. I have applied to PhD programs in the United States and master’s programs in Europe. Long term, I would like to enter academia — be a professor and conduct research. This co-op confirmed that it would be a good fit for me career-wise, so I am taking my shot with it.

In terms of how I think of and view Drexel University, this co-op did not change my views. Rather, it added substance and understanding to them.

About the Drexel Co-op program: Nearly all eligible undergraduate students at Drexel University participate in the co-op program, balancing full-time classes and up to three different, six-month-long work experiences during their time at Drexel. Students can choose from hundreds of employers across the country and globally — plus endless possibilities through self-arranged opportunities.