Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Getting to know Margaret Robitzer

Having recently discovered Margaret Robitzer's maiden name, I did exactly the same thing that has led me to so many other discoveries in recent years - I joined a mailing list. This time it was for Alsace-Lorraine, the area I suspected Margaret had come from. Searching Ancestry.com had led me to Margaret's death certificate from 1914, which gave me two additional bits of info - the names of her parents, Jacob Robitzer and Catherine (last name unknown), and her immigration record, showing she arrived in New York in 1852 aboard the ship Caspian. Armed with all this info, I asked the mailing list if they could help me get more info on Margaret's family.

They came through in SPADES.

Within a matter of hours, I had information on her parents (whose names were actually Johann Robitzer and Catherine Robitzer, and yes, they were related - first cousins), as well as several generations of her ancestors, all hailing from the town of Uttwiller in Bas-Rhin, Alsace-Lorraine, France. I couldn't believe it! The only hitch was, with all the info they were sending me, they didn't tell me exactly where the info came from. And being the stickler for details that I am, I had to find the source of all this goodness.

I went back to Google and started searching for Robitzer, Uttwiller, and Alsace-Lorraine. I eventually found my way to a site all in French (which I was able to translate thanks to my Chrome browser) that housed all kinds of records from the Bas-Rhin area! After poking around the site for a few minutes, I discovered census records from the 1830s-1880s, as well as digitized copies of the original civil birth, marriage, and death records covering decades, beautifully organized and easily searchable by year, with a huge index for everything. The scans were amazing, the handwriting was clear and legible, and because the town was so small (population about 250), there were usually only half a dozen births, marriages, or deaths any given year, so searching year after year after year was very easy. I have to say, this region is, in my opinion, the gold standard of genealogy record websites. Everyone needs to organize their documents in exactly this way.

So now, after a few days of searching these records, I've been able to put together the immediate family Margaret left behind when she left France in 1852. There are a lot of Robitzers and connected families in these records, so reassembling her family in Uttwiller (and probably in the surround villages as well) is going to take some time (which I don't mind at all!). Here's what I've put together so far.

Quick side note - some of the given names will be French and some German. I would assume that all the names would have been German originally, given that whenever their names are listed for them in the documents, the names are in their French forms, but when they signed their own names, they signed the German forms of the names. I haven't yet found showing the exact German forms of everyone's names, so for now I'll just use the French versions that I have found.

Johannes Robitzer, son of Philipp Jacob Robitzer and Barbara Lickel, married his first cousin Anne Catherine Robitzer, daughter of Johann Heinrich Robitzer and Margaretha Mühlheim in 1815. They eventually became the parents of 9 children, though two of them died in childhood, Anne Catherine at age 4 and Jean Michel at age 10. The surviving children were Jean, Jean Henry, Jacques, Catherine (named after her older sister, who died a year before she was born), Jean Michel (named after his older brother, who died three years before he was born), Margaret, and George. Johannes was listed as a day laborer when he and Anne Catherine got married in 1815, though by the birth of their first child he was listed as a farmer, so he seems to have established himself pretty quickly. His wife was the daughter of a teacher, though what he taught and where I don't yet know.

Johannes and Anne Catherine lost two children in 1826, Anne Catherine in August and Jean Michel just 3 months later. Because my ancestor Margaret wasn't born until 1831, she never got to meet these older siblings. Anne Catherine passed away in 1844, a few months shy of her 50th birthday, leaving Johannes to raise the four kids still at home by himself. From what I've seen so far, he never remarried. Margaret is not listed in the 1851 census, so I'm not sure where she was, as she didn't arrive in New York until 1852. The other children gradually moved out until only Michel was left (I'm not sure if it was the same house and Michel took over as head of the family, or if Johannes moved in with his son). I don't know if the other kids immigrated or stayed in the area, but I'm glad at least Michel was there for him. The last record I have of Johannes is the 1866 census, showing him at 81 years old living with his son Michel, Michel's wife Marie, and their son Michel.

It's kind of a somber thought, picturing Johannes with a large family that gradually gets smaller and smaller as children pass away, then his wife, then children move away until it's just him and third youngest child, a daughter-in-law, and a grandson. Hopefully some of his other kids either stayed nearby or at least kept in contact with him.

While I was reviewing all of this information for this blog post, I realized something. When my ancestor John Gibson died in 1914, his daughter Annie Condon was the informant for the information given on the death certificate. Where the certificate asks for parents' names, Annie said she didn't know. Also, it's interesting that she gave her father's birthplace as England, instead of Canada (where both she and her father were born). Annie was John's only daughter and second child, and she was born less than 10 years after John's parents had died. Yet, unless she purposely gave false information, she apparently didn't know these basic facts about her own father. The only reason for this that I know of is he didn't tell his kids about his family. I have to wonder why he didn't tell his kids about his family. Was there a falling out? Did something happen? I don't know if I'll ever know for sure.

Comparing that to Margaret's family, it seems obvious that she did the opposite. Her obituary states when she came over to America, and that she left from Alsace Lorraine. Her death certificate, with info given by her daughter Annie Clara McClelland, gives her parents' names (the father's name was slightly off, but pretty close coming from someone who had never met their own grandfather). She passed down at least some of her history to her children. Whatever drove her to leave her native land, she didn't leave her immediate posterity in the dark as to where she came from like John Gibson did.

This is a picture of Margaret, the only one I know of in existence. When I first received a copy of it, the information on the picture was all I knew of her. A few years later, I'd added a first name, but not much more. But now, I feel like I can look at this picture and say to her "I know you. Your name was Margaret Robitzer. You came from a big family of 9 kids. You lost your mom when you were only 13. You left home at 21 and never saw that family again. You married and had an ever bigger family of your own. And most of all, you told your children where you were from. You didn't leave the father and siblings back in France out of your story. And now that I know you and them, I will make sure that your story is never forgotten again."

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Persistence Pays Off Again!

One of my brick walls for the last decade or so has been finding the maiden name of Margaret, my 4th-great-grandmother on my paternal grandmother's side. She was the wife of George Waechter, and was an immigrant from Germany, Prussia, or France (depending on the record you're looking at).

Just under three years ago, while researching my Beilstein side (the family George and Margaret's daughter Amelia married into), I found that George and Margaret had a daughter named Annie Clara Waechter who did a very remarkable thing - despite being born just 10 years after the end of the Civil War, she lived until 1967. In addition to having lived from the age of the telegraph and steam engine until the days of the space race and color television, she also did something that makes her one of my genealogical heroines - she filled out a Form SS-5 and applied for a Social Security Number. This is a fantastic thing because, unlike death certificates, which are usually completed by surviving spouses or children, the SS-5 was filled out by the applicant themselves. This means that the information on her parents' names, including the mother's maiden name, came directly from her. While this still leaves room for error (as it's not coming from her mother herself), this is about as close to the original source as I've been able find. So I filled out my FOIA request and included the requisite check of $27 (thank you SSA), and waited for a response.

And waited.

And waited.

After only six months, my check was finally cashed. So I waited a bit longer.

And waited.

And waited.

I went in and out of remembering that this request was still out there somewhere, and hoped against hope that the record might someday come. I tried looking up numbers to call or addresses to write to, but each time I made contact I was told to wait for them to get back to me. Which they never did.

So eventually I got busy with other things like having a third child, going back to school, and job hunting, and my quest for Margaret's maiden name got pushed aside. Until this past January when a blog post from The Legal Genealogist Judy Russell came along. She went over what you can expect to find in the SS-5 and gave some tips on how to obtain it.

I decided to ask Judy on Google+ if there wasn't something I could do to finally get my hands on that SS-5 without forking over another $27. She recommended I contact the public affairs office of my area's representative (senators are over too big an area, and the request might get lost) and have them lean on the SSA a little, which might get my request fulfilled. So I looked him up and did so. Within a couple hours I got a privacy release form, basically saying "tell us who you are, what you're looking for, and give us permission to go look for it for you". I was told that his office would be in touch with me in 30 days or less. So I set my calendar and started watching the mailbox.

Then yesterday, a miracle happened - the SS-5 arrived! I was almost too excited to open it, afraid that somehow that maiden name wouldn't be there. But it was!

I now have a document giving me the maiden name of my ancestor - Margaret Robitzer! Margaret is a special ancestor for me, as she is the source of my very own mitochondrial DNA, and that of my siblings and cousins from my mom's sister. One of my cousins on that side is pregnant with a baby girl right now, and that baby girl is the only person among my branch of Margaret's descendants who will receive that DNA and be capable of passing it on (no pressure, kiddo!). It's awesome to me - literally awe-some - to be able to trace that DNA from its most recent recipient in 2016 back to its earliest known source in 1830 to somewhere between France and Germany in the Robitzer family.

The moral of the story: never give up hope. Keep pushing for that record that you know is out there, and eventually it will find its way to you. No matter how thick that brick wall seems, a way through may just show up in your mailbox years after you'd given up on ever finding it.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Why I blog

There are many reasons to blog about your family history. I'd like to share my top five reasons why I do this blog.

5. Blogging about my research helps me track where I've looked, what I've found, and what I still need to look for. With so many ancestors in my tree, and so much data in my files, there's no way to remember every search I've made and every nugget I've found. Keeping up this blog helps me recall my biggest (and sometimes smallest) discoveries and when I made them.

4. The writing process helps me think about and analyze my findings. When you're in the middle of the research, you sometimes overlook an important clue, or forget to look for a certain record. Writing out the story of an ancestor or documenting my research on a specific topic helps me take a bird's eye view to the subject. I can then see where I still need to fill some gaps, look for more data, or wrap up that particular search and move on to the next one.

3. Blogging is basically laying cousin bait, as Lisa Louise Cooke puts it. Writing a blog puts my family history information out on Google for everyone in the world to see. Someone researching the same family lines or geographic locations can find my blog, and get in touch with me. This has happened lots of times. I've been contacted by people with information on Montana orphanages, talked to a relative of my great-great-grandfather Samuel Joseph's third wife Julianna Kublick, and connected with a descendant of my great-grandfather Jim Harris's last wife Ruth Young. I never would have found them, nor they me, without my blog.

2. Writing a blog is a fun and (hopefully) entertaining way to share my family's history with my non-genealogist family. A cousin of mine once told me he read a blog post I posted a link to on Facebook, and ended up spending the afternoon reading more of my old posts about our ancestors. Not everyone gets to (or wants to) play Sherlock Holmes, but everyone loves a good story.

1. The number one reason I blog is simple - everyone's story deserves to be told. When I was a missionary in Japan back in 1997, my greatest desire was to help someone in a way that would be worth remembering. As I got into genealogy, I learned that everyone in our family, past and present, has a story, and they are all worth remembering - even (and I'd say especially) those ancestors who were the farmers and day laborers that didn't get noticed by society much. Through my blog, I can share their stories and help them be remembered. Their lives weren't perfect; some were pretty rough characters, some had lives filled with heartache and loss, and others I just simply don't have a clue as to who they really were. But their stories are part of my story, and maybe through telling their stories, I will weave a story of my own worth remembering.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Nearly Wordless Wednesday - My ancestral hometowns

After blogging about my Gibson ancestors' hometown, I thought it'd be fun to browse Google Earth and mark the locations of other ancestral hometowns I've discovered in my research. Here they are!
Gross-Bieberau, Germany - My 3rd-great-grandfather Jacob Beilstein was born here in 1851.

Evanger, Norway - My 3rd-great-grandfather Johannes Sjursen Bergstad was born here in 1832.

Paris, France - My 9th-great-grandmother, Claude Demise, was born here in 1650. Other ancestors were born here as well.

Kepa Kikolska, Poland - My 3rd-great-grandfather Ludwig Heinrich Joseph was born here in 1836.
Reischewo, Poland - My 3rd-great-grandmother Justine Witt (Ludwig's wife) was born here in 1842.

Rosshaupt, Bohemia (now Rozvadov, Czech Republic) - My 2nd-great-grandmother Maria Zitzmann was born here in 1876
Uljanowka, Ukraine - My great-grandmother Augusta Joseph was born here in 1892. Her grandparents, Ludwig and Justine Joseph, moved here around 1865 from their native Poland.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I am from Gortnagullion, Drumkeeran, Fermanagh

This is my first ever blog post that's not really about people; it's about a place. That specific place is the townland of Gortnagullion, in the civil parish of Drumkeeran, in County Fermanagh, Ireland. This is where my ancestors Henry and Ann Gibson were living when their first two children were born, and presumably where they were living when they left Ireland and immigrated to New Brunswick, Canada.

Map of Ireland in Google Earth

County Fermanagh (pronounced fer-MAN-uh) is in Northern Ireland, two counties south of the tip-top of Ireland (Londonderry and Tyrone are above it). County Fermanagh is circled in black in the map above. Finding this out was really interesting, as Henry and Ann's son John married Catherine Cain, whose father was from County Tyrone. The Gibsons and Cains wouldn't have exactly been neighbors in Ireland, but they wouldn't have been that far apart either. I wonder if that shared point of origin played into their getting married?

According to IrishTimes.com, English and Scottish settlers moved into County Fermanagh in the early 1600s. I have to wonder if that's when my Gibson line moved to Ireland. The Gibson name isn't a native Irish surname, and when I looked at my grandpa's Y-DNA results at the 12-marker level, for those matches that list country of origin, most of them are in England. Interesting to think about, but because of the lack of records, ultimately unknowable one way or the other.

Civil Parishes of County Fermanagh

The civil parish of Drumkeeran is the northernmost in the County (it's number 10 on the map above). It was originally part of Magheraculmoney parish (#18 above) but according to one website was split off around 1770.

I'm still trying to find more info on Gortnagullion itself, as it seems it's not longer extant as a town or townland. The nearest settlement seems to be Drumskinny. I'll keep researching to find out what I can about Gortnagullion.

It still amazes me that I have a place in Ireland that I can point to on a map and say "the Gibsons originated here!" I'm looking forward to learning all I can about my ancestral homeland, and hopefully seeing it in person one day.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Ireland bound! Well, eventually

Ireland, I am coming home
I can see your rolling fields of green
And fences made of stone
I am reaching out, won't you take my hand?
I'm coming home, Ireland
"Ireland" by Garth Brooks

I've made a lot of discoveries in the last 16 years of genealogy research, but few as important to me as the one I made last week.

When I finally confirmed that Henry and Ann Gibson were John Gibson's parents, I went back to the County Fermanagh mailing list and asked for help in finding info on them in their (allegedly) native town of Pettigo. One of the suggestions that came back was to search the archives of the mailing list, as someone may have written about them already. So I did, and here's what I found:

Baptism records for two children of Henry - son William from wife Jane born in 1844, and another child with wife Ann born in 1845. This was hugely exciting for several reasons:
1. My Henry and Ann had a son named William, born in Ireland in 1844, listed with them on the 1851 New Brunswick census.
2. Henry and Ann had a daughter named Ann Jane listed with them in that same 1851 census.
3. The baptism records list the townland of residence for Henry and Ann - Gortnagullion in County Fermanagh, just a few miles east of Pettigo.

The confluence of names, ages, residences, and birthplaces all fits. I am convinced that these baptism records are my family! I have been searching and searching for this information for 16 years, and now that I finally have it, I can only think of one thing...

I'm going to Ireland!!!

Well, eventually. Probably not until sometime in 2017, giving me time to plot, plan, and most importantly, afford the trip. I've said for years that I wanted to postpone a vacation to Ireland until I knew where my people were from, so I could visit the place. But for now, even just knowing the name of village where they last lived before leaving Ireland, and the possibility that I'll be the first of their descendants to visit it since they left in 1846, is staggering and exciting. As Garth Brooks memorably sang, Ireland, I'm coming home!