Saturday, April 23, 2011

Diging Up Ancestors at the FHL

I gave myself a reward for finishing the reviewing of the page proofs and creating of the index for my new Crash Course in Genealogy. It involved working on the opposite ends of our family tree. The first segment was to spend several days in the Napa Valley taking care of our two Nashville based grandsons – Noah who is almost 4 and Simon who is almost a year old while my son and daughter-in-law attended a wedding and enjoyed a couple of “date nights.”  Now that we have attended to the 21st century descendants, it is time to turn to 19th century ancestors.

I am in the midst of a research week at the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. The week has already been a great success because of a breakthrough I had on Friday. My wife has a great-grandmother who immigrated at age nine in 1867 with her family. The Castle Garden, predecessor of Ellis Island, record for the family said:
Country: Germany
Port of Departure: Bremen & Southhampton
Province of Last Residence: Prussia
Destination: United States
Some of you have already realized that Germany did not exist in 1867 and that emigration records from Bremen were generally retained only three years. 

I have been aware of this record for a long time. Until recently the next information I had on the family was the 1880 census when they were living in Elgin in northern Illinois west of Chicago—an area where the parents lived the rest of their lives. This record said everyone in the family was born in Prussia. That information was not specific enough to be useful as Prussia was often bigger than Germany is now.

I did uncover more information serendipitously when we visited the Kane County courthouse to get a copy of the record of the marriage between the great-grandmother and Denise’s great-grandfather. In that process we discovered a marriage for the great-great-grandmother as well. At the time we were unaware that her first husband had died and she had remarried in the 1890s -- about a quarter century after her arrival in Illinois. On this record she listed the names of her parents and her birthplace. This sounds great but the birthplace was “[illegible] Fehn, Germany.” There are at least 34 parishes in Germany that end in “fehn.” Fortunately, all of them are in the northwest part of the country.

Several months ago I finally found the 1870 census record for this family. This enumeration was taken about three years after their arrival in the US and they were living in central Illinois several counties away from Kane County. Of course their surname was misreported by the census taker thus making the information very difficult to find -- especially when we did not know where they lived at that time. The father’s name went from “Abba SCHEPKER” at Castle Garden to “Ubbo SCHIPKER” in 1870 to “Herman SHEPKA” in 1880.

The 1870 census is important when researching German Americans who had immigrated by that time as Germany became a completely unified country only in the following year. The family members were listed as having been born in Hanover which was consistent with the general area where the parish names ending in “fehn” are concentrated. This still was not enough to place their boots on the ground in a specific location in Europe.

The brick wall began to crumble recently when I discovered a pedigree from a genealogist in Germany posted on the Internet. It included a married couple that seemed to match the parents Denise’s great-great-grandmother listed on her application for her remarriage in the 1890s. Note that this information was not on the certificate of marriage but only on backup documentation.

When I found a community genealogy book for Timmel, Germany, it seemed to validate the pedigree I had found online. However, the couple that seemed to match our information about the great-great-great-grandparents, ended with their marriage in 1822. These newlyweds must have settled elsewhere other than Timmel. The prospective daughter was not born for 22 more years. How could it be determined whether this was the ancestor who would live in Illinois? 

The birthplace of the potential father was listed in the Timmel genealogy. It is about 40 kilometers from Timmel or about a day’s walk 2 centuries ago. However, no children attributed to him were christened in his birth parish. An international consultant at the FHL suggested that I had no recourse but to go through the parish records of the 34 parishes until I found the daughter or eliminated all of the parishes as possible locations. Have you ever tried to read early 19th century handwritten records written in Gothic script and probably recorded by at least three dozen different scribes? Not a pleasant prospect. 

It was time to get another opinion. Enter Baerbel Johnson, a German expert consultant at the FHL. I asked her to look at the illegible birthplace from the Illinois marriage application and give me her gut reaction as to which of the 34 parishes should be my starting point. She quickly zeroed in on one but warned that the library may not have church records for that parish. As subsequent events soon proved, she was right on both counts.

The “fehn” she instinctively picked turned out to be Berumerfehn. Among the 34 it was the one that was geographically closest to the parish in which the father in the Timmel genealogy was said to have been born and in which I had previously failed to find the immigrant ancestor. Also there are no microfilmed church records for Berumerfehn at FHL. However, all was not lost. I quickly found a community genealogy, for the nearby town of Hage, in which the entire immigrant family was listed. By the way, papa’s name was listed in the Familienchronik der Kirchengemeinde Hage as Ubbo Herrmann SCHEEPKER. As a bonus for 21st century eyes and brains these community genealogies are typeset in normal fonts!

As a result Denise has been able to add at least two more generations past her two immigrant great-great-grandparents. On some lines a total of six generations have been added. I’m having fun at the FHL.

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