Sunday, April 6, 2014

My worst brick wall - Peter and Phoebe Swank

As a general rule genealogy has been a relatively easy thing for me to do - frustration has been minimal except when it comes to my families that came from Germany.  I have 4 lines that I trace back to Germany and I've only broken down one of those walls (that's a post that I haven't written yet but inspired my wanting to do a blog as I love sharing that story).  The other 2 I have a rough idea where they came from but this one - good grief.

I have referenced my grandma's handwritten family notes for several blogs now - it's 4 pages in her neat and small print (she had amazing handwriting) and this is all she wrote of her dad George Swanks 's parents:
So there it was - my only "concrete" evidence of where they came from and it conflicted with all the census and death records I could find.  Peter was a farmer in Paris Township, Kent Co MI for all census records - that much I knew for sure.  Their birthdates are on their headstone.  The 1870 census lists them as being from "Berne Switzerland", in 1880 Germany, his death record lists "Holland" and her death certificate lists Germany - both death records are missing parents.

Then I got my hands on another letter my grandma wrote, this one to her half-brother's son and daughter in law (the daughter in law I still correspond with).  It made mention of cousins of my grandma that I didn't know of:
An interesting tidbit - my great grandfather George married a woman 27 years his junior and had his last child at age 66.  His brother William married a woman 22 years his junior.  I started looking into this family and the brother my grandma references (Adam) married a woman 23 years his junior and had his last child at age 57.  

I set out on a mission to figure out who these people were and see if I could find living people.  I looked up "Omar" in the phone book (it's actually Omer) and called the number I found.  To my surprise Pat answered.  She'd never married and was willing to meet with me.  When I talked to her she was 79 years old and took me at my word that I was who I said I was and let me visit her home.  She was so incredibly nice to me.  She asked if I'd like to "see some pictures" (duh!) - it was one of the main reasons I was there.  She slid a few pictures across the table at me and smiled:

 These were her grandma and grandpa Swank, my 2nd great grandparents.  The 2 paintings she had the originals of, in the original gilded frames (they were huge - at least 3 feet tall) and had made these copies for me before my visit.  I took pictures of the originals that were framed but the files corrupted so I don't have them anymore.  The other 2 photos of Phoebe and a photo of her aunt Helen Elizabeth Rathbun she said she had borrowed from my grandma a few weeks prior to her death (so she could make copies) and after reading her obituary she wasn't sure how to reach anyone.  Nobody in my family knew who she was (even my grandma notes in that letter it'd been 65+ years since they'd seen each other).

Because of my curiosity and out of the blue phone call she gave me the photos "to keep them with family".  Her late brother Omer never married but her late sister Irene had children and grandchildren.   She was nice enough to return the originals to the family they came from even though none of us ever knew they existed.  In addition to these photos she gave me a handwritten family history that was written by her aunt Helen Elizabeth that talks about her parents' journey to America, their marriage in NY and their life in general (they had children in NY, Canada and MI).  I will save that for the next post and the information in it is conflicting at times but it definitely gave me a guide and assured me that they came from Germany, not France. The journal didn't mention much in the way of family for Peter but it did mention that Phoebe came here with her father Johannes Siegler to New York City in 1850.  He was a stone mason by trade (so was Peter) and the journal said he got TB by "inhaling stone dust".  Apparently he thought coming here would bring him health.  The journal lists that he returned to Germany May 19th, 1853 and died there "2 years later".

In addition to Helen Elizabeth's notes there were notes by a relative who had traveled to Germany to research the family and had written that Johannes was the son of Henricus Siegler and Elizabeth Valerius.  Nobody knows who wrote those notes or visited Germany but a German researcher in California I was working with posted on an ancestry message board and got a response with this little known website:
 http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pick/erdorf.txt  which gave us the name of the town Phoebe's family originated from - Erdorf, in the Rhineland-Palatinate. 

 My researcher knew to post on the particular board he did because of the city listed in Phoebe's obituary.  This late researcher who compiled records over there broke 1/2 of this German wall down by posting his work.  I now have the names of Phoebe's parents, grandparents and great grandparents (but still don't know who her mom was). 

 This was one of my best lessons in genealogy - turn over all rocks - make those phone calls, send those letters.  Compile all the records you can find.  Eventually the smallest detail will lead you to something.  Without stumbling on Phoebe's obituary (which took me years to find after finding the journal) and combining that with information from the journal I'd probably still not have a clue where in Germany her family came from.  This of course all hinged on Thomas Pick and his dedication to publishing the records he'd found and on a mystery relative scribbling a note with Joannes' parents names on the journal.
  Now if only I could get Peter to cooperate!

Grand Rapids Press June 8, 1907

Grand Rapids Press August 11, 1894




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