One of the things I love about the genealogical community is its generosity. Whether it’s time spent in indexing records, volunteering assistance in Facebook groups, or helping novice researchers at a Family History Center, many family historians are eager to share what they’ve learned and contribute their expertise in ways that benefit the community as a whole. It’s probably safe to say that anyone currently engaged in family history research has benefited from the assistance of others at some point, and I’m no exception. I was reminded of this recently, when I obtained the birth record of my great-great-great-grandmother, Catherine (née Grentzinger) Wagner. The acquisition of this document was relatively simple and straightforward, but this is only thanks to the years of research and generosity of a few individuals.
I became interested in genealogy in my mid-20s, around the time that my husband and I married. By that point, my aunt, Carol Fischer, had already been actively researching my Dad’s side of the family for at least 10 years. Since Aunt Carol was working on Dad’s side, I figured I’d start my research with my Mom’s Polish side. Polish research techniques also served me well in documenting my husband’s family, since all of his grandparents were of Polish ancestry. All this research kept me pretty busy, so it wasn’t until about 2006 that I started poking around in records on my Dad’s side, and serendipitously discovered the ancestral village of our Ruppert ancestors through indexed records at FamilySearch. Aunt Carol’s original intention was only to document our family back to the immigrant generation in each surname line, so from that point on, we arranged a loose collaboration in which I would try to determine our immigrant ancestors’ places of origin and trace the lines back to the Old Country, while she would continue her thorough documentation of more recent generations, locating living relatives throughout the U.S.
My great-great-great-grandmother, Catherine Wagner, was one of those immigrant ancestors whom I hoped to trace back into the Old Country, but there were some research obstacles that we needed to surmount. By October of 2012, according to my research notes, we still had not determined Catherine’s maiden name. What we knew from census records and from her death record was that Catherine was born circa 1830 in Germany or France, she married Henry Wagner circa 1855, they were the parents of two children, John and Mary Elizabeth, and that Catherine died 25 November 1875.1 The fact that her place of birth was recorded as “France” in the 1860 and 1870 censuses, and “Germany” in her death record from 1875, suggested that she was born somewhere in Alsace-Lorraine, a territory which belonged to France in the first part of the 19th century but was ceded to Germany in 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War. No marriage record had been discovered at that point for Catherine and Henry — I didn’t find that until just last year (see here for the story). Neither did we know specifically where Catherine was born.
Aunt Carol and I both realized that church records from the parish the Wagners attended in Detroit would be required for further research into this family. In particular, we hoped that the baptismal records for Catherine’s children, John and Mary Elizabeth, might indicate where their parents, Catherine and Henry, were born. Those baptismal records were also likely to mention Catherine’s maiden name. Although we could have written to the church in Detroit to request copies of those baptismal records, we had a substantial amount of research to do in Detroit church, cemetery, and newspaper records for both our Wagner and Roberts families. It seemed to make more sense to gather all the records at once during several days of onsite research in Detroit, or else hire a local professional researcher to obtain the records for us. Since both of us had other research we could do in records that were more readily available, we put the Detroit research on the back burner.
Fast forward to January 2015. At some point around this time, I chatted about my Detroit research interests with my friend and colleague, Valerie Koselka. Since Valerie lives in the Detroit metropolitan area, she kindly offered to do a little searching for me. Among the documents she was able to locate were the long-coveted baptismal records for Mary Elizabeth Wagner and her brother, John Wagner, who was baptized as Augustinus (see this post for more information). Thanks to Valerie’s generosity, we finally had evidence for Catherine Wagner’s maiden name and place of birth (Figures 1 and 2).
Figure 1: Extract from baptismal record for Augustinus Wagner, born 3 May 1856 in Detroit.2
Figure 2: Extract from baptismal record for Maria Wagner, born 10 July 1860 in Detroit.3
Catherine’s place of birth was recorded on one document as “Oberelsau,” (i.e. Oberelsaß, the German term for Upper Alsace, or Haut-Rhin) and on the other it appeared to be “Heinsalz, Alsatiae.” I couldn’t find any village called “Heinsalz” that was in Haut-Rhin, but I didn’t search too hard at that point, choosing instead to focus on the other key bit of information revealed by this record: Catherine’s maiden name. The birth records revealed that her maiden name was Granzinger, which immediately reminded me of the 1870 census, in which Henry and Catherine Wagner’s household included a laborer named Peter Grenzinger (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Extract of 1870 census showing Henry Wagner household.4
Although I’d wondered previously if Peter might be some relation to Catherine since he was also reported as born in France, there was no real evidence for that prior to the discovery of this baptismal record. Now, suddenly, he was almost certainly a relative, and quite possibly a brother. Immediately, I was hot on the trail of a Peter Grenzinger, born circa 1832 in France, who immigrated to Detroit. As expected, I found various spellings of the Grenzinger/Grentzinger/Granzinger/Grantzinger surname, and as I sifted through the possible matches in online records, I discovered the Find-A-Grave memorial for Elizabeth Eckert Granzinger, “wife of Peter.”5 According to her grave marker, Elizabeth was born in 1800, which would make her the right age to be the mother of Catherine and Peter (both born circa 1830). Moreover, her husband, Peter, shared a given name with Catherine Wagner’s putative brother, which was highly suggestive as well. Could this, then, be the grave of my 4x-great-grandmother?
As I dug deeper into the records at Ancestry, I discovered a family tree posted by a woman named Constance (Connie) Keavney, which brought all the pieces of the puzzle together.6 It included the family group of Peter Grentzinger, born 6 April 1802 in Steinsoultz, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France, and Elizabeth (née Eckerd) Grentzinger, born 21 July 1801 in Steinsoultz. They were the parents of three children: Marie Anne Grentzinger, born 6 December 1824; Catherine Grentzinger, born 8 January 1828; and Peter Grentzinger, born 15 March 1830. The dates of birth were very consistent with the dates of birth for my newly-discovered Detroit Grentzingers, and the names matched perfectly with existing evidence, confirming my hypotheses about the relationships. On closer inspection, the village of “Heinsalz” mentioned on the baptismal record was clearly “Steinsoultz,” too. In Connie’s tree, Peter Grentzinger’s family disappeared from the records in Alsace. She did not know that they immigrated to Detroit, Michigan, until I contacted her and shared my research with her. Her own branch of the Grentzinger family was descended from Francis Joseph Grentzinger, the older brother of Peter (Sr.) Grentzinger. Francis Joseph married Madelaine Hänlin in Steinsoultz and they immigrated with their children to Irondequoit, New York.
Connecting with a new cousin is usually a thrill for us genealogists, and Connie has been a delightful person to get to know. In a bizarre twist of fate, I realized as we chatted that I was already acquainted with her son Chris and his family, having met them several years earlier on a camping retreat attended by both Chris’s family and mine. (Little did we know we were 5th cousins once removed!) Connie did her research into the Grentzinger family decades ago, in microfilmed records for Steinsoultz available from the LDS (Mormon) Family History Library and through onsite research at Saint-Nicolas church in Steinsoultz, so she was unable to share images of her documents with me. However, in recent years these records have been made available online through the Departmental Archive of Haut-Rhin.
This brings us full circle, to the baptismal record for Catherine Grentzinger which I recently located with ease using the date of birth Connie provided in her family tree (Figure 4).6
Figure 4: Birth record of Catharine Grentzinger, born 8 January 1828 in Steinsoultz, Haut-Rhin, France.6
The record is in French, which I studied in high school, so I was able to translate most of it despite the rustiness of French language skills. However, credit goes to Monika Deimann-Clemens of the Genealogy Translations Facebook group for her assistance in deciphering the parts that confounded me. The translation is as follows:
“In the year one thousand eight hundred twenty-eight, on the eighth day of January at four o’clock in the evening, before Us, Jean Walburger, mayor and officer of the civil state commune of Steinsoultz, canton of Hirsingue, Department of Haut-Rhin, appeared Pierre Grentzinger, having twenty-six years of age, farmer and resident of this commune, and presented to Us a child of the female sex, born this day at eight o’clock in the morning, daughter of the declarant and of Elisabeth Eckerd, age twenty-seven years and his wife, and to whom he declared that he wanted to give the name Catharine. These statements and presentations were made in the presence of Jean Keppÿ, age thirty-five years, farmer and resident of this commune, and Pierre Mißlin, age forty-four years, farmer and resident of this commune; and the father and witnesses have signed with us the present Birth Record, after it was read to them.”
This document made an impression on me for several reasons beside the fact that it was the birth record of my 3x-great-grandmother (which makes it inherently cool). First, it’s the first document I’ve discovered for my family to date that was recorded in French, rather than Polish, Russian, Latin, German, or English. Despite this, the style in which it was written was very familiar to me because it followed the format prescribed by the Napoleonic Civil Code, which was used in the Duchy of Warsaw and the Kingdom of Poland (i.e. Congress Poland or Russian Poland). This document was also signed by my 4x-great-grandfather, Pierre/Peter Grentzinger (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Extract from birth record of Catharine Grentzinger, 8 January 1828, showing signature of her father, Pierre Grentzinger.
I always get a special thrill when I find a document that my ancestor signed with his own hand — especially when the signature is of an ancestor for whom I have no photographs. Even though I may only be looking at a digital image of the document, it’s still amazing to see that unique piece of personal history.
I find tremendous satisfaction in building a family tree on a solid foundation of documentation, but genealogy research is hardly a solitary pursuit. It’s only because of the research done by Aunt Carol and Connie, and the gift of time and talent given by Valerie, that I have the pleasure of discovering the Grentzinger family through the records of Steinsoultz for myself. For me, it’s a gift to be able to peer into my family’s past, but if I can see a long way back into the mists of time, it’s only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.
1 1860 United States Federal Census (population schedule), Detroit (Third Ward), Wayne, Michigan, page 173, Henry Wagner household, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : 30 October 2017) original data from NARA microfilm publication NARA Series M653, roll Roll 565; and
1870 United States Federal Census (population schedule), Detroit (Ward 6), Wayne, Michigan, Catharine Wagner in Henry Wagner household, Ancestry (subscription database, https://www.ancestry.com : 26 August 2018) Roll: M593_713; Page: 333A; Image: 232072; Family History Library Film: 552212; and
Michigan, Death Records, 1867-1950, database with images, record for Catherine Wagner, died 25 November 1875, 6th Ward Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, Ancestry (subscription database, https://search.ancestry.com : 26 August 2018).
2 Roman Catholic Church, Old St. Mary’s Parish (Greektown, Detroit, Michigan), Baptisms, 1856, #116, p. 219, record for Augustinus Wagner. “[Record number] 116, [date of baptism] 4 Maji, [date of birth] 3 Maji, [child’s name] Augustinus, [father and place of birth] Henricus Wagner Roßdorf ChurHessen, [mother and place of birth] Catharina Grenzinger, Steinsolz, Alsatiae, [[godparents] Augustinus Wagner et Gertrudis Wagner, [residence] Detroit, [minister] P. Beranek.”
3 Roman Catholic Church, Old St. Mary’s Parish (Greektown, Detroit, Michigan), Baptisms, 1860, #148, p. 359, record for Maria Wagner. “[Record number] 148, [date of baptism] Julii 15, [date of birth] Julii 10, [child’s name] Maria, [father and place of birth] Henricus Wagner Roßen ChurHessen, [mother and place of birth] Cath. Granzinger, Oberelsau [Oberelsass], [[godparents] August Wagner Maria Wagner, [residence] Detroit, [minister] P. Nagel.”
4 1870 United States Federal Census, ibid.
5 Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 27 August 2018), memorial page for Elizabeth Eckert Granzinger (1800–5 Aug 1854), Find A Grave Memorial no. 108389561, citing Assumption Grotto Cemetery, Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, USA; maintained by Jackson County Genealogical Society – Michigan (contributor 47614392) .
“Our Beloved Mother
Wife of Peter Granzinger
Born in the Year 1800
Died Aug 5 1854
Aged 54 years.”
6 Officier de l’état civil (Steinsoultz, Altkirch, Haut-Rhin, France), Naissances, 1797-1862, 1828, #1, birth record for Catharine Grentzinger, 8 January 1828, accessed as browsable images, Archives départementales du Haut-Rhin, (www.archives.haut-rhin.fr : 27 August 2018), Steinsoultz > Naissances, 1797-1862 > image 194 out of 391.
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2018