Eight Surnames of My Own

Not so recently, genealogy blogger James Scobbie wrote a post which created quite a buzz in the Facebook genealogy world.[1] He proposed that each of us should know or learn the eight surnames of our great-grandparents, and be able to recite them with ease, since this is a manageable amount of family history for anyone to carry around in his or her own head. Moreover, these surnames convey a more complete picture of who we are—insofar as our identity is determined by the people we come from—than does our surname alone, or even our surname plus mother’s maiden name.

I really liked this idea, and I find myself thinking about it still, long after the buzz has died down. I grew up with a surname, Roberts, that created misconceptions about my family’s origins. The surname is typically British, but in fact, my Roberts forebears were German immigrants with the surname Ruppert, who changed the name to Roberts upon settling in Detroit in the 1850s. Back then, German Catholic immigrants were among the groups targeted by the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” party, so I’m sure it made sense for my Ruppert ancestors to keep their heads down and assimilate as quickly as possible.[2] Despite this German heritage, which was repeated on Dad’s maternal side of the family (Meier/Boehringer), I didn’t grow up with any German traditions. I always believed that was because Dad’s family settled in America much earlier than Mom’s did, but as I look at their immigration dates more closely (Figure 1), I don’t think that explanation is entirely satisfactory.

Figure 1: Timeline for immigration to North America in my family.Timeline for Immigration to North America in my family

As evident from the table, my German ancestors Anna Goetz and Wenzeslaus Meier both arrived in the U.S. around the same time that my Polish ancestors Andrew Klaus and Mary Łącka arrived from Galicia, and just a few years before my Polish ancestors John Zazycki and Veronica Grzesiak arrived from the Russian Empire. Perhaps my German ancestors were simply less sentimental? More likely, anti-German sentiment during World Wars I and II played a role.[3] The result was a loss of German traditions and culture in my family, even despite my mother’s best efforts to give equal time to those traditions by teaching my sister and me to sing “O Tannenbaum” in German along with all the Polish Christmas carols. Even the favorite recipes were lost, for the most part. I have just one of Nana Boehringer’s recipes, for her bread dumplings, but I’ve had to try to recreate her famous fruit kaffee kuchen for myself, based on Dad’s fond recollections.

And so it was mostly the Polish traditions, songs, and foods from Mom’s side of the family that became part of my cultural identity. It could not possibly be Christmas without celebrating Wigilia on Christmas Eve, breaking the opłatek with my family, and feeling the love, peace and contentment that overflowed as we wished each other health, happiness, and all good things. Easter meant Święconka breakfast with ham, kiełbasa, hard-boiled eggs, and Grandma’s placek, with its plump raisins and butter-crumb topping. Spending time at Grandma and Grandpa Zielinski’s house meant visiting with Grandma in the kitchen while hearing Grandpa playing “Góralu, czy ci nie żal,” on the piano in the living room, or listening to the Sunday afternoon polka fest on the radio. The Polish-American traditions were so close to my heart that it felt problematic to have a surname which conveyed no hint of this heritage. Whenever conversations would turn to ethnic traditions and I would enthusiastically mention the Polish customs in my family, people would raise their eyebrows and say, “Roberts? That’s not Polish!”

This dual Polish-German ethnicity comprises the bulk of my eight surnames, but there’s one additional ethnic component that was largely glossed over as I was growing up. I think I was already an adult by the time I realized that my great-grandmother, Katherine Walsh Roberts, was actually born in Canada. I was dimly aware that her ancestry was a mixture of English, Irish and Scottish, but I’d somehow supposed that they were all 19th-century immigrants to Canada. It wasn’t until 2006 that I discovered that Great-Grandma Roberts’ lineage included not only 19th century immigrants to Canada, but also United Empire Loyalists with roots deep in the American colonies. The knowledge of that ancestry seems to have been buried in the family history, perhaps when my great-great-grandfather Henry Walsh decided to move his family back over the Canadian border, to Buffalo, New York.

If little remains of German cultural identity in my family, even less remains of English, Irish or Scottish ethnic identity. Such is the nature of assimilation, I suppose, and the day may come when that Polish ethnic identity which has always been so important to me, is just a distant memory for my descendants, buried as deeply as our ancestral English, Irish and Scottish origins. When my Polish grandparents passed away, the Polish language disappeared from my family as well—an inestimable loss, since shared language is the most fundamental characteristic of a culture. My son Daniel studied the Polish language at the University of Buffalo and even at Jagiellonian University during a summer program in Kraków, so perhaps his efforts will aid in preserving Polish heritage for future generations of my family. Yet I can’t help but wonder what eight surnames will be included in the lists of my great-great-grandchildren, assuming I have any, and what ethnic traditions they’ll celebrate. I won’t be here to meet them, of course. By then, I hope to be “hanging out” in the next life with all those ancestors who are presently my “brick walls” in the family tree, finally getting answers to all my questions.

Here, then, are my Eight Surnames, representing ancestors who may have originated in Poland, Germany, and Canada, but whose descendants are now as thoroughly American as apple pie.

  • Zielinski
  • Klaus
  • Zazycki
  • Grzesiak
  • Roberts
  • Walsh
  • Boehringer
  • Meier

What are your Eight Surnames, and what’s their story?

Sources

[1] James M. Scobbie, “The Theory of Eight Surnames,” Noisybrain (https://noisybrain.wordpress.com : 16 October 2019), posted 28 December 2018.

[2] “Know Nothing,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org : 16 October 2019)

[3] Siegel, Robert, and Art Silverman, “During World War I, U.S. Government Propaganda Erased German Culture,” All Things Considered, NPR, broadcast 7 April 2017 (https://www.npr.org : 16 October 2019).

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2019

Party Like It’s 1899!

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of leveraging social media for genealogy, and Facebook genealogy groups hold a special place in my heart. One group that is very informative, and also just plain fun, is the group “GAA (Genealogy Addicts Anonymous)” where Admin Claudia D’Souza recently posted the following question to the members of the group: “Imagine you wake up and you are in the year 1899! Who are you going to visit, & what are you going to find out?” I had quite a bit of fun thinking about that question, so here’s my game plan for my hypothetical time travel to July 24th, 1899. I’ve also created an interactive map of the places I’ll be visiting on my journey.

My Paternal Grandfather’s Family

I’ll begin my travels in my hometown of Buffalo, New York, where I’ll visit the home of Charles and Nellie DeVere at 1567 Niagara Street. I’ll want to meet Nellie’s mom, 81-year-old Elizabeth (née Hodgkinson) Walsh, who was living with Charles and Nellie per the 1900 census. Elizabeth, whose photos appears in Figure 1, is my 3x-great-grandmother, so I’ll be anxious to see if she can tell me where in Ireland her late husband Robert Walsh was from and what his parents’ names were. While I’m interviewing her, I’ll be sure to ask about her mother’s maiden name as well, since Elizabeth’s mother is known to family historians only as Christiana Hodgkinson. There are rumors that she may have been a Laraway, but this is still unproven. Anything else that she can tell me about Christiana’s family—where they came from, her parents’ and siblings’ names—will be a bonus, since she’s nearly a complete mystery to me.

Elizabeth was 14 years old when her grandfather, John Hodgkinson, died, so she probably knew him and may be able to tell me something about his family. I know that John Hodgkinson was a United Empire Loyalist who served in Butler’s Rangers during the American Revolution. He married his second wife—my 5x-great-grandmother, Sarah Spencer—after the death of his first wife, Mary Moore, but the timeline is not clear to me. What year did Mary die, and what year did he marry Sarah? Were there other children from his first marriage besides Samuel Hodgkinson, who was baptized in Schaghticoke, New York in 1776? I wonder if his marriage to Sarah a happy one, or merely a marriage of convenience, since young Samuel needed a mother, and since John was already acquainted with Sarah’s family, having served with her father, Robert Spencer, in Butler’s Rangers.

After my delightful visit with Elizabeth Walsh, I’ll take the street car that runs down Niagara Street to travel about 2.5 miles north to 73 Evelyn Street in Buffalo, the home of my 2x-great-grandparents, Henry and Martha (née Dodds) Walsh, to meet them and their children, including 16-year-old Katherine Elizabeth Walsh, who will be my great-grandmother.

Figure 1: Four generations of the Walsh family. Image retouched by Jordan Sakal. On the far left, Elizabeth (née Hodgkinson) Walsh (1818-1907). On the far right, her son Henry Walsh (1847-1907). Next to Henry is his oldest daughter, Marion (née Walsh) Frank (1878-1954), and next to her is her daughter, Alice Marion Frank.

walsh-4-generation-photo

In 1899, Henry is a 52-year-old teamster who has been living in Buffalo for the past 12 years, having moved his family there from St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1887. He and Martha are the parents of 9 children, including baby Gladys Mildred Walsh, who was just born in April. I’m sure they’ll also want to tell me about their first grandchild, Alice Marion Frank, who was born in March of 1899 to their oldest daughter, Marion, and her husband, George W. Frank. Martha Walsh is a busy 40-year-old mother and homemaker, so I’ll offer to help her in the kitchen while she tells me about her mother, Catherine Dodds, who died in 1872 when Martha was just 13. Can she tell me Catherine’s maiden name? Was it Grant, or Irving, since both of those names have been recorded, or something else? Was one of those names the name of a previous husband she may have had prior to her marriage to Robert Dodds? What can she tell me about Catherine’s parents? Were they Scottish immigrants to Glengarry, Ontario who arrived in the early 19th century, or was their Scotch ancestry more distant, originating with Scottish highlanders who settled first in upstate New York in the mid-18th century, only arriving in Canada after the Revolutionary War?

It may be that Martha is unable to answer my questions, so I’ll take a train to St. Catharines to pay a visit to her father, Robert Dodds, my 3x-great-grandfather. In 1899, Robert is living on Niagara Street with his daughter, Hannah Carty, and her husband James. In addition to asking him about his late wife, I’ll be eager to ask him about his own family history. Where in England was he born, exactly? Documentary and DNA evidence suggest the region around Northumberland and Durham, but solid evidence has been slim. When did he come to Canada? How and where did he meet his wife Catherine, and where and when did they marry? Who were his parents? Did he have siblings, and did any of them come to Canada, or did they remain in England? When my visit with Robert is finished, I’ll head back to Buffalo to meet my great-great-grandparents, Michael Frank (generally known by this time as Frank Michael) Roberts and Mary Elizabeth (née Wagner) Roberts and their family (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Frank M. Roberts (1858–1930) and Mary E. (née Wagner) Roberts (1860–1946) with their four sons, unknown date. From left to right, John Frank Roberts, Frank M. Roberts, George A. Roberts, Mary E. Roberts, Harry Michael Roberts, Bert Fred Roberts.Roberts family portrait

In 1899, Frank Roberts was a 41-year-old architect, artist, and the father of four sons, living at 439 Vermont Street. According to a biography published in the Buffalo Artists’ Directory in 1926, Frank trained under Gordon Lloyd, an architect of some prominence in the Detroit area where Frank was born. He and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Wagner, were the children of immigrants from Germany and Alsace, and I know a fair amount about their family histories, with the exception of Frank’s mother’s ancestry. Frank’s mother was Mary Magdalena (née Causin, Casin or Curzon) Roberts, and she remains a mystery to me. She was born in Buffalo, New York circa 1832 to parents who were most likely Alsatian, but their names were not recorded on her marriage or death records, nor have I been able to find a promising match for a baptismal record in the records from St. Louis Church, which was the only Roman Catholic parish in Buffalo at that time. So I’ll be eager to ask Frank all about her. Did she have siblings? What prompted her move to Detroit, where she was married in 1857? Were her parents already deceased by that point? How did she meet her husband, Michael Ruppert or Roberts, a German immigrant from Heßloch in the Alzey-Worms district of the Rhineland-Palatinate?

When my interview with Frank is finished, I’ll have more questions for Mary Roberts, my 2x-great-grandmother, and 16-year-old John, who will be my great-grandfather. I’m curious about Mary’s maternal grandparents, Peter and Elizabeth Grentzinger, who immigrated to Detroit from the village of Steinsoultz in the Haut-Rhin department of Alsace. Where and when did Peter die? There is evidence that Elizabeth Grentzinger remarried Henry Diegel after Peter’s death, but curiously, her grave marker states only that she was the wife of Peter Grentzinger, never mentioning the second husband who paid for the grave. If Mary seems open to discussing it, I may delicately inquire as to whether her mother, Catherine (née Grentzinger) Wagner, ever spoke of her first husband, Victor Dellinger or Dalmgher. Catherine and Victor had two children, John and Elizabeth, born circa 1847 and 1849, who must have died along with their father before Catherine’s second marriage to Henry Wagner in 1855. I’ll finish my time in the Roberts home by asking young John if he happens to know a nice girl named Katherine Walsh from Evelyn Street. I think she might be just his type.

Although Frank Roberts’s parents are both deceased by 1899, Mary’s father, Carl Heinrich (“Henry”) Wagner, is still living in Detroit with her brother, John, and his family at 270 Beaubien Street. I’ll take a train to Detroit to visit him next. Since I already know quite a bit about his ancestry, what I’ll want to learn from 3x-great-Grandpa Henry is what it was like to come to the U.S. as a young man of 24 in 1853. What was it like, growing up in the small German village of Roßdorf? What were his parents like as individuals? How about his late wife, Catherine? After our chat is finished, I’ll head back to Buffalo to visit my paternal grandmother’s family, starting with the family of my great-great-grandparents, Wenzeslaus and Anna (née Goetz or Götz) Meier.

My Paternal Grandmother’s Family

In 1899, Wenzel and Anna Meier are living in a two-family home at 225 Mills Street with their three daughters, 4-year-old Anna (who will be my great-grandmother), 2-year-old Julia, and baby Marie, who was just born in May. They don’t know it yet but they will eventually add 10 more children to their family. Wenzel is a 28-year-old German immigrant from the village of Obertrübenbach in Bavaria, who has been living in Buffalo for nine years and works as a butcher. His parents are still alive in Germany, so I’ll ask how they’re doing, and if he’s had any recent correspondence with them. I’ll also ask about his siblings back in Germany—Anna Maria, Franz Xavier, and Eduard—whose fates are unknown to me. Wenzel’s wife, 22-year-old Anna, is busy with the children, but her parents, Carl and Julianna (née Baeumler or Bäumler) Goetz, occupy the second home in the dwelling, so I seek them out.

Figure 3: Three generations of the Baeumler/Goetz/Meier family circa 1903. Image retouched by Lesley Utley. Front row, left to right, Julianna (née Bäumler) Götz (1838-1905); her grandchildren, Anna Meier, Julia Meier, Marie Meier, and Frances Meier; her husband, Carl Götz (1853-1933). Back row, Wenzeslaus Meier (1871-1942) and Anna (née Götz) Meier (1877-1949), holding baby Margaret Meier.Meier 3 generation portrait retouched

Carl Goetz is a 46-year-old German immigrant from the village of Leuchtenberg in Bavaria. He and his wife, 62-year-old Margaretha Juliane (known as Julianna or Julia), came to Buffalo in 1883, following in the footsteps of Julianna’s son, John Baeumler, who was already settled here. John’s birth record states that he was illegitimate, born to the unmarried Julianna Baeumler, but it’s interesting to note that after his birth, Julianna married her first husband, Johann Gottfried Baeumler, who happened to share a surname with her. Johann Gottfried was a 64-year-old widower when he married 27-year-old Julianna in 1864 in the village of Plößberg in Bavaria. Were they distant relatives? And was Johann the father of John Baeumler? Johann and Julianna had been married for just three years when he died in 1867. Julianna lived as a widow, raising her son alone, until her marriage to Carl in 1875, when she was 38 and he was 22. In an era and culture in which marriages were contracted for more practical reasons than romantic love, such marriages as Julianna’s may not be unusual, and for that matter, it may be true that their marriage was a love match. But I will be interested to observe the dynamic between Carl and Julianna. I hope they have found some measure of happiness and contentment together.

The last family to visit on my Dad’s side will be the family of my great-grandfather, John Sigismund Boehringer. In 1899, Anna (née Murre or Muri) Boehringer is a 33-year-old widow and mother of four children, living at 555 Sherman Street in Buffalo. Her oldest son, Edward, is just 13, and the youngest, John—who will be my great-grandfather—is seven. John was not quite three years old when his father, John G. Boehringer, passed away in November 1894. Anna works as a tailor, but it’s been difficult to provide for her family. John will always remember days in his childhood when they were so hungry that they trapped and ate sparrows for food. I’ve made some headway with researching John G. Boehringer’s family—I know, for example, that he was born in Buffalo in 1861 to Jacob and Catherine (née Rogg or Rock) Boehringer, German immigrants from the region around Lenzkirch in the Black Forest—so I’m confident that further progress simply requires time and effort. However, research into Anna Boehringer’s family has been more difficult.

Figure 4: John G. and Anna (née Murre) Boehringer on their wedding day, 29 April 1885, Buffalo, New York.John G Boehringer and Anna Murre wedding

Anna Murre was born in Bavaria in 1865, the second child of Joseph and Walburga (née Maurer) Murre. She immigrated to Buffalo with her parents and two siblings in 1869, but so far U.S. records, including church records, have offered no evidence of specific place of origin. Where was she born, and what can she tell me about her parents and grandparents?

Having finished with my paternal side of the family, I’ll visit my maternal relatives in my next post.  Stay tuned!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2019