Friday, April 11, 2014

The Swank journal and the clues (and miscues) it provides

Wow, I was on a tear there for a few days - life is busy and blogging isn't always easy to get to.  Hopefully at a slower pace I'll be able to put more time and effort into what I write.

Here is my great grandpa George Swank's sister Helen Elizabeth Swank Rathbun.  I got this picture with the group I mentioned in my last blog post and with those photos I got copies of her handwritten journal about her parents and siblings.  Given that her parents died so long ago (as compared to my other 2nd great grandparents) and that my grandma never knew them this journal represents some of the only information I have on the Swank family.

The journal appears to be broken into 3 separate journals, as though she kept starting over.  One of them is broken up with information from one page not following to the next (even though the copies clearly show this is the order she wrote them in).  In spite of this there is a lot of information that carries from one entry to the next that at first glimpse appears to be correct.  That said, there are clues in the diary that make it clear her facts aren't always correct.  One of the 3 journals lists it was written January 30th, 1938 which was 31 years after her mother's death and 37 years after her father's death.

All 3 journals list her father Peter Swank born of German parents at Strassbergh (sic) Germany June 17th, 1828 and Phoebe's birth to German and French parents at Rhine Polse Byron Germany August 19th, 1835.  My grandma's family history lists they were born at Alsace Lorraine France.  Upon digging around I found that "Strausbourg, Bas Rhin, Alsace" was under French control in 1828 (and is back under French control now) so Peter was most likely born in this area and actually French (I was told his name would have been Pierre then, not Peter).  I joined an Alsace Facebook group and was provided this website which looks to be an amazing resource for this region (although I don't find Peter at Strausbourg - will have to search surrounding towns):

Phoebe's birth location has been located (as previously mentioned) and other than a spelling error Helen appeared to have this correct.  

Peter's arrival here in America lists landing in Brooklyn NY in 1849 via sailboat.  It lists Phoebe arriving with her father in 1850 but doesn't say how they got here.  They are listed as arriving at Ellis Island and staying 3 days for inspections.  Ellis Island didn't exist until 1892 so this is an error but it's not hard to believe they were held for inspections somewhere.  Phoebe's father Joannes got a room at the "Megsker House" in Brookly and that's where Peter was staying.  They were both stone masons and worked together and that's how they became friends, leading to Peter and Phoebe meeting, eventually marrying May 15th, 1853.  They saw Joannes off on May 19th, 1853 and never saw anyone from either family again (in spite of continuing correspondence with them and even sending them money to visit, which was believed to have just been spent as they never came). 

I learned of Peter's family that he had a sister that died young of "inflammatory rheumatism" and a younger brother William that also came to NY but that Helen didn't remember ever meeting.  Other than mentioning that she never met any of her grandparents there is no further mention of Peter's parents.  Of Phoebe's family I learned that was the oldest, having a younger brother and sister.  Their names (and the name of Phoebe's mother) are never mentioned.  Helen wrote that her mother always said that my great grandpa George reminded her of her brother from Germany who she "loved dearly and was great pals with" and that whenever she got homesick this resemblance was a great comfort to her. 

Phoebe is said to have gotten a job at the Megsker House taking care of the wine cellar and being a waitress.  Later in life she was said to be in charge of the logging and timber sales when they cleared their land in Paris Twp.  

After Joannes left for home, Peter and Phoebe moved to Williamsburg NY and settled there in an apartment for 6 years, Peter working building bridge abutments.  They saved money and had their 1st daughter Fredericka here.  Of Fredericka, Helen writes "she was a small person when she grew up and resembled my mother's mother, my grandmother on her side of the family.  I can remember her beautiful hair, it was black as a raven and two big long braids that came down to her knees.  She was a very sad and unfortunate girl."  Fredericka was married twice, first to Fred Henry Fralick who was hired to help on the Swank farm when Peter was too busy to farm it and then to George Schantz.  Fred was known to be cruel to the farm animals but was very kind to the Swank children who begged their father to let him remain after a neighbor told him about the treatment of the animals.  Fred and Fredericka had a son Henry Fralick who married but never had children.  I'm not sure if they divorced or if Fred died but she remarried to George and had 6 children, 3 dying in infancy and 3 that made it to adulthood.  Only her daughter Mathilda has any living descendants, one I'm in contact with (because of a letter I wrote her now late mother).  Fredericka died in 1882 at the young age of 28.  It seems she had much sorrow and hardship in her life and that's probably what Helen meant by "sad and unfortunate."

From NY they moved to St. Catherine's Canada and Peter worked for a man named "Jenkins" building railroad bridges.  The land was so low and swampy they all got sick with typhoid fever that Peter couldn't work.  A year later "Jenkins" moved them to "Branchton" (believed Brampton) in Ontario Canada where Peter continued his trade and Phoebe helped run the hotel that "Mrs. Jenkins" ran.  Peter built a 3 room stone cottage across from the hotel and they planted a row of pear trees behind it.  It mentions that they moved into this place and had a "curly headed" baby boy named William (named after William Jenkins) and that it was September of 1860.  It was mentioned that they already had 3 girls at this time and I have Fredericka, her sister Mary (Hale) and a sister Elizabeth who died in 1870 at the age of 9 so the number of children lines up but 1860 may be off if Elizabeth was born in 1861.  Peter helped to build a brewery in Berlin, Ontario Canada and a church at Galt, Ontario Canada (where his youngest daughter Vina (McDonald) ended up moving to in adulthood before purchasing the farm land in Paris Twp in 1866.  Apparently the men he worked with were discussing the war in America and how land was cheap and work was plenty which is what got him to leave Canada.  Helen mentions that she took her mother back to Canada to visit with 94 year old Mrs. Jenkins in 1897 and that Phoebe had a "grand visit". 

The farm in Paris Twp was 40 acres known as the "Sharps Farm".  It mentions that they settled here with 3 children but all records I can find list that they had their son Adam in 1864 so the earlier son named William I assume must have passed away while in Canada (as he's not in the 1870 census with them).  They moved into a building that the sheep had been living in, cleaning it out and making it their home.  The land was full of timber so they made money logging and then farming while Peter worked building buildings in Grand Rapids.  He walked to and from the job sites daily, carrying the families groceries home with him on his back.  It was said that he got paid every two weeks and could "cover a good sized table top with silver dollars".  Pat relayed this story to me before I had read the journal, having heard it from her father Adam.  

Mention is made of the birth of her brother William Swank, November 9th, 1867.  I can't find a birth record for any of the Swank children except the youngest Vina, in spite of the fact that 5 were born after births started being recorded in 1867.  William lists 11/29/1868 on his marriage license to Clara and his headstone says 1871 but given that he's 3 years old in the 1870 census I believe Helen got the correct date here.  It is further complicated by another entry that references that he was born November 9th, 1866, specifically mentioning it was the "same year" as when they bought the farm.  

Helen's sister Rozetta's birth is noted February 12th, 1869 and that she was a "sweet little girl, small and delicate" and reminded Phoebe of a rose so that's what she called her.  This was a bad year for their household as the neighbor children brought home scarlet fever and all of their children caught it.  Phoebe nursed Rose back from the brink of death but she was blind in one eye as a result of
 it.  Rose was the 2nd wife of Burton Vosburgh and died June 6th, 1954 at Charlotte, Eaton County MI and is buried next to Helen and her husband Charles Rathbun at Oak Grove Cemetery in Grand Rapids.  Her grave and that of Charles are unmarked.  The picture of the 3 women came from Patricia as well - Rose is on the left, her niece Mona Hale (daughter of Mary Swank Hale) is on the right.  The middle woman isn't identified but she looks an awful lot like Rose and my guess is that it's Mary Swank Hale (although she was 9 years older than rose so perhaps it's the youngest daughter Vina).

The man on the left here is Adam Schwenk, Pat's father.  No mention of his birth is made except an entry on the back of the journal from Helen that says "brother Adam Swank is 74 on Monday, February 13th 1939.  We are all very well thanks to the good Lord"  She says "we" because she references her own birth ("Saturday Feb 11 - 1939 a very cold day. I am 65 years young today and am hail and hearty Helen E Rathbun") and the birth of her husband Charles ("Monday, Feb 18 - 1929. Mr. Chas B Rathbun is 69 years young today a fine day gone to City to see Vina __unreadable__ .") prior to Adam's.  Adam died September 5th, 1955 at Grand Rapids and is buried at Resurrection Cemetery in Wyoming MI.  His obituary lists his age as 71 when he was in fact 90 or 91.  The journal mentions that when Adam was 5 his sisters Fredericka and Mary were watching him while she worked and Adam got out the door and fell face first into a fire.  The burns were said to have been "so severe that he never was as large or strong as the rest of the children (William and George) when grown up.

So there you have it - interesting tidbits and conflicting information learned by the writings of my great grandfather's sister.  She had a stillborn baby boy October 26th, 1910 and never had any other children so I'm very lucky that this diary made it to a sibling or a niece or nephew and eventually to Patricia who was kind enough to share it with me.  I have the journal scanned in .pdf format so if anyone is interested in it please send me an email and I'll gladly send you a copy.

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