The Signatures of Michael Roberts and Frank M. Roberts

We genealogists love finding our ancestors’ signatures, right? Of course we do.

Well, recently I found what I believe are the authentic signatures of both my great-great-great-grandfather, Michael Roberts, and his son, my great-great-grandfather, Michael Frank (a.k.a Frank Michael) Roberts. Let me set the stage with a brief introduction to these gentlemen.

Michael Roberts (1834–1895)

It was the winter of 1894 when Michael Roberts lost his wife. It had been almost 37 years since Michael wed the former Maria Magdalena Causin in the beautiful Roman Catholic church of St. Joseph in Detroit, Michigan on 12 May 1857.1 The details of how they met, and whether it was a happy marriage or not, have been lost to time, but it is known that Michael was a German immigrant, born in the village of Heßloch in the Rhenish Hesse region of the Grand Duchy of Hesse (commonly known as Hesse-Darmstadt) to Franz Ruppert and Catherine, née Schulmerich.2 In 1853, he immigrated to Detroit, Michigan with his parents, his 17-year-old brother, Arnold, and his 15-year-old sister, Catherine.3 Although there is no notation on the manifest to reflect this, the family believed that Catherine died at sea, as explained in the following letter (Figure 1), written by Michael’s sister, Mary Roberts Standfield, to his grandson, John Frank Roberts.4

Figure 1: Undated letter from Mary Roberts Standfield (1862–1946) to her nephew, John Frank (aka Frank) Roberts, stating in the final sentence that “The daughter Katherine died on the ocean coming over.”

The letter also confirms that the family’s original surname, Ruppert, was changed to Roberts upon settling in Detroit, and that Michael’s oldest brother, Johann Georg, or George, as he was known in the U.S., arrived in Detroit before the rest of his family, settling there in 1851.4

Following his marriage, Michael worked as a carpenter to support his family.5 Michael and Mary had eight children, of whom the oldest four have living descendants. The family data are summarized below (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Family group sheet for Michael and Mary Magdalene (née Causin) Ruppert/Roberts.

Michael Frank (aka Frank Michael) Roberts (1858–1930)

Although I have no photographs of Michael Roberts, his oldest son, Michael Frank (known in later life as Frank Michael), is the stalwart Victorian gentleman shown here (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Michael Frank (aka Frank Michael) Roberts, 1858–1930.

In that winter of 1894, when his mother died, Frank was a 35-year-old architect living in Buffalo, New York;7 married, with four children. Frank had married Mary Elizabeth Wagner back in their hometown of Detroit, but they relocated their family to Buffalo about nine years earlier, in 1885.8 Mary Elizabeth was home, raising their four sons: 15-year-old Harry, 10-year-old John, 7-year-old George, and 3-year-old Bert.9

And so it was that on 27 February 1894, Mary Magdalene Roberts died intestate (without having written a will) in Nankin Township, Michigan. Her husband, Michael, petitioned the court for administration of her estate (Figure 4).10

Figure 4: Michael Roberts’ petition for appointment as administrator of the estate of his late wife, Mary (née Causin) Roberts.

According to this petition, Mary Roberts was in possession of an estate valued at approximately $800, which would be the equivalent of about $25,396 in today’s dollars.11 Since she died without naming an executor to handle her financial affairs following her death, her husband had to formally request this authority from the court. The document identifies Mary’s heirs at law, who were her children and husband, as

  • Michael F. Roberts, son, 36 years old, resides in Buffalo, N.Y.
  • Catherine Hecker, daughter, 34 years old, resides in Nankin, Wayne Co., Mich.
  • Mary P. Stanfield [sic], “, 32 ” ” ” ” Detroit, Wayne Co., “
  • Anna Carlston [sic], “30 ” ” ” ” Nankin, Wayne Co., “
  • and your petitioner, husband of deceased, who resides in Nankin, Wayne County, Michigan.

These children were named in birth order, and their ages and places of residence are reasonably consistent with prior evidence. It’s worth noting that Mary’s and Anna’s married surnames were misspelled as “Stanfield,” rather than “Standfield,” and “Carlston,” rather than “Carlson,” which underscores the variability in surname spellings that exists in historical records.

The handwriting throughout the document is fairly uniform, and the formation of the M’s and the R’s where they appear in “Michael” and “Roberts” is consistent, suggesting that the document was written by a single person; namely, the notary public. However, the handwriting in the signature is distinctly different, which suggests that it was written by Michael Roberts himself (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Signature of my great-great-great-grandfather, Michael Roberts, underlined in red.

Included within that same probate packet is a second petition for administration of an estate, this time written by Frank M. Roberts (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Frank M. Roberts’ petition for appointment of his sister, Mary P. Stanfield [sic] as administrator de bonis non of their mother’s estate.

This petition similarly identifies the children of Michael and Mary Roberts, but goes on to state, “…that Michael Roberts, husband of said deceased and her survivor and administrator of said estate, has departed this life,” and therefore Frank M. Roberts requested that administration de bonis non of the estate be granted to his sister, Mary P. Standfield. Presumably it was a matter of convenience for Mary (or any of his sisters) to handle the estate rather than Frank, since they were still living in the Detroit area, but this is somewhat speculative. In any case, Frank’s distinctive signature included at the bottom of the document (Figure 7), in addition to his father’s signature, made this probate packet an exciting find for me.

Figure 7: Signature of my great-great-grandfather, Michael Frank (or Frank Michael) Roberts.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Sources

1 Roman Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s parish (Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, USA), “Marriages, 1835-1866”, 1857, no. 15 (?), marriage record for Michael Ruppert and Magdalena Causin, Burton Historical Collection microfilm no. 1286, reel 32A, Detroit Public Library, 5201 Woodward Ave, Detroit, Michigan, USA.

2 Roman Catholic Church (Heßloch, Kr. Worms, Hesse, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1715-1876,” 1834, unnumbered entries in chronological order, baptismal record for Michael Ruppert, 1 February 1834, FHL microfilm no. 948719.

3 Manifest, SS Wm Tell, arriving 4 March 1853, p 9, lines 49-51, and p 10, lines 1-2, Franz Rupard family; imaged as “New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 26 August 2021), citing National Archives microfilm publication M237, 1820-1897; List No. 146.

4 Mary Roberts Standfield (1862–1946), undated letter to her nephew, John Frank Roberts, Roberts family documents; privately held by Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts.

4 Manifest, SS Vancluse, arriving 30 May 1851, p 5, line 23, Geo. Rupert; imaged as “New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 24 August 2021), citing National Archives microfilm publication M237, 1820-1897; List no. 599.

6 1860 United States Federal Census, Wayne County, Michigan, population schedule, Detroit Ward 6, page 142, dwelling no. 1066, household no. 1148, Michael Roberts household; digital image, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com : 6 July 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 566 of 1,438 rolls; and

1870 United States Federal Census, Wayne County, Michigan, population schedule, Detroit Ward 6, page 476B, dwelling no. 998, household no. 1114, Michael Robert household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 6 July 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication M593, roll 713 of 1,761 rolls; and

1880 United States Federal Census, Wayne County, Michigan, population schedule, city of Detroit, Enumeration District 298, page 123A, dwelling no. 92, household no. 92, Michael Roberts family; database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 6 July 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 613 of 1,454 rolls.

7 The Sun and the Erie County Independent (Hamburg, New York), 22 Jul 1892, Page 7, Col. 7, “Frank M. Roberts, Architect and Superintendent,” advertisement; digital image, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com/ : 24 August 2021).

8 George Whitcomb, compiler, Buffalo City Directory (Buffalo: The Courier Company, 1885), p 751, Roberts, Frank; browsable images, New York Heritage Digital Collections (https://nyheritage.org/ : 24 August 2021), image 763 of 1076.

9 1900 United States Federal Census, Erie County, New York, population schedule, Buffalo Ward 23, Enumeration District 190, Sheet no. 5B, house no. 439, family no. 127, Frank M. Roberts household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 24 August 2021), citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm publication T623, 1854 rolls, no specific roll cited.

10 Wayne County Probate Court (Detroit, Wayne, Michigan), Probate packet no. 19856, Mary M. Roberts, died 27 February 1894; browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : 24 August 2021), “Probate estate packets, 1797-1901,” FHL Film no.967194, path: Wayne > Probate packets 1894 no 19805-19856 > images 975-984.

11 “Value of $800 from 1894 to 2021,” Inflation Calculator (https://www.in2013dollars.com/ : 24 August 2021).

Gaining Insights From DNA Painter

Like many of the genetic genealogists out there, I’ve come to love DNA Painter as a tool for getting the most out of my DNA test data. So, today I want to share how I use it to help me better understand my DNA matches.

In order to keep this post fairly short and sweet, I’m going to assume that anyone reading this will have some familiarity with the basic concepts in genetic genealogy. If you don’t, you might want to read about using your match list at Ancestry, or check out some of my advice for beginners, relating to DNA testing, or visit one of the many other blogs or Facebook groups out there that are geared toward genetic genealogy.

DNA Painter is a fantastic tool for many reasons, but I especially love it because it gives me one place to keep all my segment data from the various test companies (Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, and 23&Me) or third-party applications (GEDmatch) that provide it, visually identifying which segments were inherited from which ancestors. Why is this helpful? Here’s an example.

Let’s say I have a match at 23&Me who is entirely unknown to me. We’ll call him K.C. (All initials of living individuals have been changed in this post.) He has no information in his profile on 23&Me regarding where he lives, when he was born, or any surnames he’s researching. Half his ancestry is Northwestern European, and the other half is Ashkenazi Jewish, so we’re almost certainly related on the Northwestern European side. His breakdown within that category isn’t especially helpful; we’re both a mix of British & Irish, French & German, and Broadly Northwestern European in varying proportions, which represents my paternal side. I don’t know where he lives or when he was born, and his name is sufficiently common that standard internet search techniques (e.g. searching for death notices in which he’s named as a surviving relative, or searches of databases such as Ancestry and Newspapers) don’t offer any clues. He’s pretty much a mystery.

An examination of Relatives in Common offers some insights, however. 23&Me reports that K.C. and I have relatives in common, which include E.T., E.S., and K.M., and that we all share DNA overlap, which is typically an indication that a particular segment of DNA was passed down to each of us from a common ancestor. Unfortunately, the situation with the latter two matches is not much better than it is with K.C. There’s not much information to go on in their profiles, and I don’t know how I’m related to them. However, I do have one glimmer of hope that I can leverage: E.T. is my second cousin. In “View DNA Details” at the 23&Me site, I select, “Compare with More Relatives,” and take a closer look at Chromosome 7, where we all share DNA, using myself as the base comparison (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Relative positions of DNA segments on Chromosome 7 shared between me and five DNA matches.

In the diagram above, the underlying gray represents my paternal Chromosome 7. The purple segments are where my second cousin, E.T., shares DNA with me on that chromosome. As per the key, the orange segment represents shared DNA that I share with K.C., the yellow is shared DNA with E.S., and the blue is shared DNA with K.M. The areas where the colored regions stack on top of each other are areas of triangulation, where we all match each other, presumably because we share a common ancestor. But which ancestor might that be?

While my match list at 23&Me doesn’t provide any clues in that regard, my ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter does. My ancestral chromosome map represents a visual summary of all of my known DNA match data from any test company or third-party application which provides segment data. Each time I’m able to document a genealogical relationship between myself and a living relative whose DNA data are found at one of those websites, I can “paint” the segments of shared DNA onto my ancestral chromosome map, and assign those segments to the common ancestral couple from whom that DNA match and I both descend. The more complete I can make my map, the more useful it is at informing my understanding of unknown DNA matches.

Let’s take a look at my paternal Chromosome 7 on my map from DNA Painter (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Paternal Chromosome 7 in my ancestral chromosome map, courtesy of DNA Painter.

The map consists of a number of colored bars of varying lengths. Each bar represents a segment of DNA shared between me and a living DNA match. I’ve removed the names of the matches in most cases, although the colored bars that are relevant to this discussion are identified by black bars on the right, labelled with the pseudo-initials of the DNA match.

The key tells us that my ancestral map of my paternal Chromsosome 7 consists of DNA segments that can be traced to one of three ancestral couples: Wenzeslaus Meier and Anna Goetz (my great-great-grandparents), Katherine Walsh and John Frank Roberts (my great-grandparents), and Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson (my great-great-great-grandparents). Figure 2a shows a family tree, for reference.

Figure 2a: My family tree. Click image for larger view.

We know that my paternal copy of every autosome (Chromosomes 1-22) will contain DNA inherited from both my dad’s mother, Marie Boehringer, and my dad’s father, Harry Roberts. We can take this a step further. Any DNA which I inherited from my paternal grandmother, Marie Boehringer, must have been given to her by either her father, John Boehringer, or her mother, Anna Meier. Similarly, any DNA which I inherited from my paternal grandfather must have come from either his father, John Frank Roberts, or his mother, Katherine Walsh. So each and every one of my paternal autosomes could be said to be a mixture of Roberts, Walsh, Boehringer, and Meier DNA. Bear in mind that the same pattern would be true for the chromosomes I inherited from my mom; those chromosomes must represent the four surnames of her grandparents.)

Going back now to the chromosome map, the map gets further refined as I am able to identify DNA matches with whom I share more distant ancestry. As mentioned, there’s a green segment on the map that represents DNA inherited from my great-great-great-grandparents, Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson. They were the grandparents of Katherine Walsh, so it makes sense that this green segment of DNA would necessarily overlap with the royal blue DNA segment that I share with a Walsh/Roberts descendant. If it somehow overlapped with the light blue of the Meier/Goetz line, it would be an indication that I’d made some errors in assigning segments to ancestors. That green segment now helps me refine my understanding of my DNA in that region. When I only have the royal blue segment to consider, I know only that either John Frank Roberts or Katherine Walsh contributed that DNA. However, thanks to the additional data—that green segment—I know that the portion of the royal blue “Roberts/Walsh DNA” that overlaps with the green “Walsh/Hodgkinson DNA” in Figure 2 must have come from Katherine Walsh and not John Frank Roberts.

Now let’s see how this map can give me a starting point for understanding how I’m related to those unknown DNA matches, K.C., E.S., and K.M. As mentioned, E.T. is the only one of these DNA matches shown in Figure 1 to whom I know how I’m related; she’s my second cousin. So let’s start by focusing only on the segments of Chromosome 7 where I match her (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Relative positions of DNA segments on Chromosome 7 shared between me and E.T. as depicted by 23&Me.

Since there’s a lot going on, visually, in the ancestral chromosome map shown in Figure 2, I’ve marked with stars those three segments where E.T. matches me, so it’s a little easier to focus on them (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Paternal Chromosome 7 in my ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter, highlighting segments shared with second cousin E.T.

As you can see in Figures 1 and 3, there’s a break between the segments of DNA that I share with E.T., represented as that gray region disrupting the purple regions, that runs from (approximately) position 32,356,335 to position 55,601,336. This represents DNA that E.T. and I do not share. This break is highlighted in the zoomed-in, side-by-side comparison of the chromosome map from 23&Me with the ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Side-by-side comparison of chromosome maps from 23&Me, highlighting gap in shared DNA between me and my second cousin, E.T., with ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter.

Notice that the first half of that gap corresponds to that 13 cM segment of DNA, colored in green, that I share with I.N., whose common ancestors with me were Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson. So, this tells me that in the first part of the gap region where I don’t share DNA with E.T., I inherited my DNA from the Walsh line. That’s important, because when we go back to Figure 1, the first part of that gap is where I share DNA with those unknown DNA matches, K.C., E.S., and K.M. So this tells me that it’s very likely that the common ancestors from which all of us descend are from the Walsh/Hodgkinson line (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Conceptual representation of location of Walsh DNA (with segment data from DNA Painter) in comparison with unknown DNA matches from 23&Me.

Ta da!

At this point, you may be saying, “Who cares?!” But I think it’s incredibly cool and powerful that I can go from having no information at all about three of my DNA matches on 23&Me, to suddenly knowing that we must be related through some common ancestor of either Robert Walsh or Elizabeth Hodgkinson, even when I have no matches in the 23&Me database to cousins with whom Robert and Elizabeth are the most recent common ancestral couple. Thank you, DNA Painter!

Please note that DNA Painter also offers the option to paint segment data from unknown matches directly into one’s chromosome map, so I could have made this same observation about my relationship to K.C., E.S., and K.M. that way. However, my personal preference is to keep my chromosome map “clean” and not add segment data until I determine how the match is related to me. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much how we make these observations; the point is that we have the tools that make the observations possible. Going forward, I can write to these matches to see if they’ll give me further information about their family trees, I can look for clues in the family trees of additional shared matches, and I can play the long game and see what other matches are added to the test company databases over time that might shed some light on the situation. Ultimately, DNA matches can offer fantastic clues to help answer genealogical questions and identify unknown ancestors, so it’s worth taking the time to explore those matches.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

You Can’t Take It With You

Yesterday was a bittersweet day for me. We closed the sale of my parents’ home, the home they custom-built in 2004 with an in-law apartment for my Grandma, Helen Zielinski, so she could live with them after Grandpa died. There were a lot of memories in that home, although (mercifully) not so many as there would have been had they lived there all their married lives. Nonetheless, cleaning it out prior to the sale was an enormous task, and one that fell entirely to my husband and me, since my mother passed away last October, my Dad was unable to participate due to his own health concerns, and my only sibling was unable to travel due to the pandemic. Since Mom and Dad’s home was located in Western New York, it was a solid 440 miles away from where I live in Massachusetts, necessitating a dedicated trip and a week of vacation days to go back and deal with the clean-out. Fortunately, my husband still has family in that area as well, so my sisters-in-love, Kristi and Kerri, generously made time to help with the sorting, shredding, donating, unpacking, and repacking that go with the job.

If you’ve ever cleaned out a house before, you know how overwhelming the task can seem. Mom and Dad had a very large basement that was packed with furniture, antiques, holiday decorations, unused home furnishings, and family treasures, all carefully organized in plastic storage bins and cardboard boxes. Mom had all of the boxes neatly labelled regarding their contents, but she and Dad saved everything. Pretty much every greeting card ever received, every report card, college notebook, every drawing made by a grandchildit was all down in that basement, in rows of boxes stacked along the walls around the perimeter of the basement. It reminded me of that final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it wasn’t just Mom and Dad’s stuff. There were things in that basement from my grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of the family, as well as my Mom’s maternal uncle, Joseph “J” Zazycki, whom she cared for in his final years. Grandma and Grandpa Zielinski’s entire bedroom set was there, with bed, mattress and both dressers, along with Grandma’s sewing machine, which I have vivid memories of watching her use when I was a child. There were the paintings that used to hang in their living room, the glider that once stood in front of their garage, the photo album that Grandma made with all the photos from her honeymoon, and the lamps that I remembered from the spare bedroom where my sister and I shared a bed during sleepovers at Grammy and Grandpa’s house. There was the old greeting card box that Grandma repurposed for storing crayons so my sister and I could color pictures when we came to visit. Grandma was from the generation that wasted nothing, so the box included some of the free crayons given out by restaurants so small diners could color their paper menuscrayons that were not discarded after the meal, but carefully and lovingly preserved by Grandma. The smell from that box of crayons immediately took me back to Grandma’s kitchen table circa 1973. Love, care, and memories were packed into every box and every corner.

It wasn’t just the basement that needed going through. Although I’d moved some of their furniture and belongings out of the house when I moved Mom and Dad into an assisted living apartment near me, there were living areas that remained untouched, including Dad’s office. My mother was a first-rate bibliophile, and she had at least a thousand books, many of which were beautifully bound, gilt-edged, hardcover editions of literary classics that were precious to her, still filling the shelves on either side of the fireplace. I wish I could have kept all of it, but where? My own attic and basement are already full from the accumulation of treasures that accompanies years of raising children, and we don’t have as much storage space as my parents did. What does one do with all this stuff? As the old saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.” I had to get in touch with my inner Marie Kondo and make some hard choices.

Some things ended up being easier to let go of than others, like the school desks. My mother had gone to elementary school at Our Lady of Częstochowa in North Tonawanda, New York, and at some point in the 1970s when the school was modernizing, they sold off the old-fashioned student desks. My parents decided to purchase two pairs of the desks, and Dad painstakingly refinished the wood, painted the metal legs, and mounted them on wood runners, after which my parents displayed them in the family room of our home in Cincinnati when I was growing up. My sister and I used to sit at them and play “school” when we were little, but I can’t see where they’d fit into my home today. Similarly, my Great-Grandpa John Boehringer’s fishing tackle box didn’t even make the “donate” pile, as it was all full of rusted fishing hooks and lures that seemed like a bad case of tetanus waiting to happen.

As a family historian, I hoped to balance the need for getting the job done quickly and efficiently, with the need for careful preservation of the family history. I’m not sure I was entirely successful in that regard, and I may live to regret some of the things that were donated, discarded, or sold at the estate sale. I prioritized saving photographs and any documents with historical value, although I decided to let go some of the newspapers they saved over the years, such as the last issue of Buffalo’s newspaper, the Courier-Express that was printed in 1982. (Probably half the population of Buffalo has a copy in their basement.) I saved the oak porch swing that Dad made that used to hang in front of the rose trellis at their house on Patton Place, but I said goodbye to the old Cardinal phonograph that my parents bought when we lived in Cincinnati.

Mom and Dad’s Cardinal phonograph, circa 1920.

Our old Fisher-Price toys had to go, as did the cedar chest, but I saved the afghans made by my Mom and by Nana Boehringer, my mother’s journals, and my Dad’s flight log books from when he obtained his commercial pilot’s license in 1971. Many of the documents from my Dad’s youth, such as his old report cards, were charred by the house fire that largely destroyed my paternal grandparents’ home in 1978 while they were vacationing in Florida, and I discovered all the documentationinsurance records, building receiptsrelated to rebuilding that house after the fire, which had been carefully saved by my grandfather.

As I sifted through the ephemera of half a dozen lifetimes, I was struck not only by what people chose to save, but also by how these things were saved. The heart-shaped wreath of roses that adorned her father’s casket was preserved by my mother with such care that not a petal was lost. All of her school report cards were organized into neat little packets. Uncle J’s wallet, address book, check registers, and vital records were all boxed together with his collection of family photos. My Dad, on the other hand, had a whole pile of letters and postcards from family, stashed in the bottom of his duffel bag from Vietnam, buried underneath his boots and flight suit. His Air Force dress uniform, on the other hand, was hung neatly in a wardrobe box, with all of his medals and ribbons still attached to the coat. My paternal grandfather’s wallet was intact, with all his credit cards, driver’s license, and precisely $37 in cash, exactly as he left it when he passed away in 1996. The money is worth less now than it was then, thanks to inflation, and one wonders why it was never removed. The wallet was tucked safely within a steel lockbox that previously belonged to his father-in-law (Grandpa John Boehringer), which also contained stock certificates from the 1930s from companies which no longer exist, and property tax receipts dating back to the 1950s for my grandparents’ home on Grand Island.

Stock certificate from 1935 for 250 shares of stock in Lakeland Gold Limited, owned by my great-grandmother, Anna (née Meier) Boehringer.

Such careful preservation serves as a silent testimony to each person’s values and circumstances. We come to know and understand our loved ones better through the cherished things they left behind.

Here are a few additional photos of some of my favorite finds:

Small change purse containing pocket watches and rings belonging to my great-grandfather, John Boehringer. I checked with my Aunt Carol, who’s pretty sure that the rings are costume jewelry, since Nana Boehringer’s real engagement and wedding bands were stolen in a burglary in the 1950s.
Undated photograph of my great-grandmother, Veronica (née Grzesiak) Zazycki and her daughter, Antonette (née Zazycki) Topolski.
I’m pretty sure this is a photo of my grandmother’s brother, Roman Zazycki (1902-1926). Uncle Roman was the twin brother of Uncle Bolesław (“Ben”) Zazycki, but he died young, after injuring his leg in a factory accident and subsequently developing tuberculosis in the bone of that same leg. I’d never seen a photo of him before, but from this photo, I’d say that he and Uncle Ben were identical twins, rather than fraternal!
Undated photo (circa 1950s) of my mother, her cousin Fred Zazycki, and Uncle J (the “horse”).
Oldest known photo of my great-great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth (née Wagner) Roberts, circa 1880s. This photo wasn’t in my parents’ things, but was given to me by my Aunt Carol while we were in town. This version was downloaded from MyHeritage after being uploaded there for enhancement and cleanup.

It’s going to take me quite a while to sort through all the boxes of photos, papers and sentimental artifacts which I brought home from New York. Nothing is promised, but I hope to live long enough to organize the photos and documents in such a way that my kids will have a cohesive family history collection to preserve and pass on, or to dispose of as they see fit. Although family history is my passion, I don’t know if any of my kids will eventually take up the torch, and I know first-hand how material goods can quickly become burdensome if they were precious only to someone else. In the end, our greatest legacy is the love we show to our families, and the memories we make with them. The “stuff” is secondary; yet within those collections, there are stories waiting to be told.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz, 2021

Till We Meet Again

My mother and her music have always been with me. As a very small child, one of my favorite things to do was “rock-a-mama.” The term itself was an evolution of the phrase, “Rock with Mama,” which Mom would say to me as an invitation to climb up into her lap in the rocking chair. She would snuggle me in her arms and rock with me and sing to me, and all would become right with the world. I remember being five or six years old, far too big to comfortably fit on her lap anymore, yet squeezing myself in there and somehow making it work, because “rock-a-mama” still felt like the thing to do when I was sad or hurt or tired.

I remember my maternal grandparents singing to me and rocking me as well. One of my earliest memories was of a night spent sitting in the dark in the living room at my grandparents’ house on Fredericka Street in North Tonawanda, rocking first with Grandma, and then with Grandpa, as they sat in two rocking chairs, side by side. I remember looking out over their shoulders at the street lights outside, feeling safe and warm and loved as we rocked together.

The songs they sang were a vehicle for transmitting family culture from one generation to the next. They told the story of who we were, where we came from, and what we valued. Grandma always said she couldn’t sing, so she didn’t sing to me as often as Mom did. But I remember Grandma singing “Immaculate Mary” in both English and Polish, and “You Are My Sunshine,” as well as Elvis Presley’s “For the Heart,” with the words, “Treat me nice, treat me good, treat me like you really should. ‘Cause I’m not made of wood, and I don’t have a wooden heart,” which seemed to be an early lesson in interpersonal relations. My mother had a lovely alto voice, and her repertoire was considerably more varied. Some favorites stood out, though: “Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellen Bogan by the Sea,” “Tammy,” “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo Ral,” “Dear Hearts and Gentle People,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Mockingbird Hill,” and Doris Day’s, “Till We Meet Again.” Interspersed with these were Catholic hymns, including Marian favorites like, “Sing of Mary, Pure and Lowly,” “Salve Regina,” and “Bring Flowers of the Fairest,” as well as the occasional Polish folk song like, “Góralu, czy ci nie żal,” which tells the story of a Polish highlander who must leave his beloved homeland in order to earn his living.

Even beyond rock-a-mama, Mom filled my childhood with song. On rainy days, she’d sing, “Pitter Patter on the Windowpane,” and when I was scared of a thunderstorm, she’d sing, “Who’s Afraid of Thunder?” If Mom had to drive in heavy city traffic, or if she got lost, she’d sing, “Blessed be God Forever.” That song, with its refrain, “Whenever we’re together, in warm or stormy weather, oh we can’t go wrong if we sing our song; Blessed be God forever!” was her way of whistling in the dark.

Mom would also playfully adapt songs for other purposes. When it was time for bed, she used to have us “march” to our bedrooms while singing “Marsz, marsz, Dąbrowski, Z ziemi włoskiej do Polski. Za twoim przewodem Złączym się z narodem.” It was decades before I realized that these were the words to the Polish national anthem, and not just a bedtime song. She rewrote “Bringing in the Sheaves” in a similar fashion, changing, “Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, we will go rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,” to “Marching along, marching along! Mommy, Anne Shell and Julie, marching along.”

When I was about 6 years old, living in Cincinnati, my parents decided that piano lessons were a priority for us girls. Money was a little tight, and there were certainly other things that they could have spent money on, such as a formal dining table and chairs to fill the big empty space that was our formal dining room. Nonetheless, they bought a beautiful cherry upright piano so my sister and I could each start lessons. Mom would also play sometimes in the evenings, having kept all her old piano books from when she herself was a girl taking lessons. I wasn’t an especially enthusiastic piano student, but Mom was always encouraging. There was one Easter morning when I went to search the house for my basket full of chocolate treats, and discovered that “the Easter Bunny” had hidden it inside a rather obvious “house of cards” made from piano lesson books. Mom observed that the Easter Bunny must be trying to tell me that I should practice more.

When I was about nine, Mom decided that I should learn to sing harmony. She was very fond of the “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” and had a piano arrangement that included vocal harmonies, which she tried to teach me. I remember being very frustrated because the line of harmony didn’t sound right to me, accustomed as I was to always singing melody. Then one day it finally clicked, and I learned to hear the harmonies in my head. As a teenager, I would sing with my mother and sister, returning to our old repertoire of rock-a-mama songs, Broadway show tunes, and music from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, adding in harmonies as we sat and rocked on the porch swing in front of the rose trellis on summer evenings.

Music had a place in times of distress as well as in those happier times. Our last December in Cincinnati, in 1978, was a hectic one. Dad’s work required him to relocate, so he had put in a request for the Buffalo, New York office, which was approved. He had to be in the new office in January, so we were in the middle of selling our house and packing, amid Christmas preparations, and I was also in the hospital for several days before Christmas, following minor surgery on my arm. The night after the surgery, I was in so much pain that I couldn’t sleep. Mom stayed by my bed in the hospital all night long, singing the Advent carol, “O Come, Divine Messiah” over and over again.

In her late 30s, Mom developed a progressive, debilitating, metabolic bone disorder for which the doctors could never seem to find an entirely adequate diagnosis, despite consultations with the best medical minds at the Mayo Clinic, Toronto General, Washington University Hospital in St. Louis, and more recently, at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Despite her chronic pain and the frustration of disability, music could still brighten Mom’s day. She loved to listen when my sister and I would play the piano or sing, and when I started dating Bruce (whom I eventually married), she would encourage him to bring his guitar whenever he came over for dinner.

Mom’s music was there as I married and raised my own family. The cherished tradition of rock-a-mama was shared with a new generation, and “O Come, Divine Messiah” became my go-to song through all their ear infections, teething pains, bouts of croup, and other childhood ailments, whether it was Advent or not. Mom loved being a Grandma, and made it a priority to be part of her grandchildren’s lives despite the many miles which separated our family. She was always happy to celebrate each grandchild’s unique talents, interests, and achievements, often through little songs of congratulations which she would sing to them over the phone.

In more recent years, after surgeries in 2016, 2017, and 2019, I found myself singing by Mom’s bedside in the hospital, just as she had done for me so many years ago. Over the past year, when I was with her almost daily, Mom would often ask me to bring her printed copies of the lyrics to songs that were stuck in her head. Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” was one of those songs, and on many occasions, she would ask me to sing that with her. I will also cherish the memory of the evening that Bruce and I spent with her and Dad a couple weeks before she passed, when we played a YouTube game in which they had to guess the theme songs from TV shows of the 50s and 60s. The game brought back so many memories for them both, and although Mom generally hated computers and modern technology, she loved the fact that theme songs from her favorite shows like Petticoat Junction, Maverick, and Sugarfoot could be played again on YouTube.

In her final illness, when Mom was home on hospice, there was music as well. Interspersed with stories and tears and rosaries and parting words, two generations sang her those “rock-a-mama” songs that she once sang to us. We sang those songs that brought her comfort: “On Eagle’s Wings,” “I Am the Bread of Life,” and, “Be Not Afraid.” And we sang, “O Come, Divine Messiah.”

My darling mother has gone home to be with our Lord, but I am so blessed to have had her as my Mom. She taught me by example what it means to be a daughter, wife, mother, and friend. She was my teacher, cheerleader, confidante, and ally. She knew the song in my heart, and sang it back to me whenever I forgot how it goes. For Mom, our Divine Messiah has finally come, and that day has arrived “when hope shall sing its triumph, and sadness flee away.” Until we meet again, rest in peace, Mama.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2020

Featured image: The author with her mother, Elaine Zielinski Roberts, circa 1970, photographer unknown. Image colorized by Lorraine Kulig.

Grandma Helen’s Letter: How Family Stories Measure Up

My mother’s been holding out on me. For many years, she’s maintained that she’s really not interested in family history. And I can accept that. Although it’s difficult for me to empathize, I do understand intellectually that there are some people who just aren’t enthralled at the prospect of digging up documents pertaining to long-gone generations of the family, and Mom is one of those people. However, while helping to sort and reorganize accumulated papers in her desk recently, I discovered a folder, neatly marked “Genealogy Information.” What?! Curiosity piqued, I sifted through the contents of the folder, and  discovered that most of it was merely stuff I’d given to her over the years, hard copies of emails I’d written to my parents as I made new family history discoveries. However, some of it was pure genealogical gold, including a bridal picture of my great-grandaunt, Wanda, an envelope of prayer cards from family funerals, and—best of all—a letter written by my grandmother, Helen Zielinski, in 1977.

The letter was addressed to my parents, my sister, and me. At that time, my family was living in Cincinnati, Ohio, while Grandma and Grandpa still lived in North Tonawanda, New York. The letter was dated 4 December, and the first page is delightfully chatty. Grandma noted that she’d call on Friday, thanked Mom for some photos Mom recently sent, expressed concern that my other Grandma, Marie Roberts, had been in the hospital, and offered to send Christmas cookies in case my mother did not have time to bake. The next pages, however, are even better: Grandma provided brief biographical information about each of her parents and Grandpa’s parents, as well as some other interesting tidbits of family history.

This part of the letter was written in order to help my sister with a family history project she was doing in school. At that time, my sister was in 4th grade and I was in 3rd grade, and she was working on a “Roots” project, which (sadly) I was not also required to do when I got to 4th grade. The project was aimed at helping the students discover their family history, so it was necessary for them to interview their elders and ask about previous generations of the family, as well as any family traditions or ethnic customs that were still practiced. I remember when this project was taking place, and I knew that Grandma had contributed a great deal of information. It made sense that Mom would have saved this letter; however, I’d never actually seen it or read it previously.

It’s clear that Grandma really enjoyed helping with the project, and she wrote about how she spoke with two of her cousins, Carrie Baginski and Arthur Gray, to help her fill in the blanks. It was really fascinating for me to read this information, recorded in Grandma’s own handwriting. It was especially interesting to see how this information measured up against the documentary paper trail that I’ve been gathering over the years since then. Here, then, is Grandma’s original information, recalled and recorded by her at the age of 57, in collaboration with information from some of her cousins, compared with “the rest of the story.”

On Joseph Zielinski (My Great-Grandfather):

Starting off with her father-in-law, Joseph Zielinski, Grandma wrote, “Born in Poland in 1892—lived with his parents on a farm in a village called ‘Sochaczew’ near Warsaw. He arrived in New York City in 1914. He left Poland because he would have had to serve in the Russian Army. Joseph had one brother named Frank who was killed in World War II in America. Joseph died at age 80 in August 1973.”[1]

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 3

Analysis: Grandma was spot-on about Joseph’s birth year in 1892, in spite of census records, a World War II draft registration, and the record from his second marriage, which would all argue that Joseph was born between 1893-1894. Joseph’s birth record confirms that he was born 10 October 1892; however, he was born in the village of Mistrzewice, not in the town of Sochaczew. Mistrzewice is located in Sochaczew County, and the Zieliński family’s deeper roots lie in the parish of Sochaczew itself, since Joseph’s grandfather, Michał Archanioł Zieliński, was born in the village of Bibiampol and baptized in Sochaczew. Therefore it’s actually true, in one sense, that the Zieliński family was “from” Sochaczew, although it would have been more accurate (and would have saved me some time in searching!) if the family history had mentioned Mistrzewice as their more recent place of origin.

It may very well be that Joseph left Poland so he would not have to join the Russian army. Exactly how he managed to avoid the conscription that was mandatory in Russia at that time is unclear, but his World War I draft registration does not indicate any prior service in the Russian army. In contrast, the World War I draft card for Joseph’s brother, Frank, states that he served three years in the Russian infantry. Taken together, these facts seem to confirm the family story that Joseph was able to slip out of the Russian Empire before they could force him into service. It’s also true that Joseph’s brother, Frank, was killed in the war. However, he was killed in World War I, not II. It seems likely that Grandma merely made a recording error when she wrote that Frank was killed in World War II, since the oral family tradition always referenced World War I.

Grandma’s wording does not make it clear if she was aware of other siblings that Joseph and Frank might have had, and one might suspect that she would have identified those siblings by name if she could have. I know now that Joseph and Frank had eight additional siblings—five brothers and three sisters. Five of these siblings (three younger brothers and two younger sisters) were still alive when Joseph left Poland for the U.S., and he arrived in 1912—not 1914. All in all, Grandma was pretty accurate in the information she provided.

On Genevieve Zielinski (My Great-Grandmother):

Next, regarding her mother-in-law, Grandma wrote, “Maiden name—Klaus. Born in 1898 in North Tonawanda, N.Y. Married Joseph Zielinski in 1915. They had five children, John (born Oct. 18, 1916), Frank, Helen, Stanley, and Irene. Genevieve died at age 44 in the year 1942.”

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 4

Analysis: Grandma was pretty close with Genevieve’s birth year, but Genowefa Klaus was, in fact, born 28 September 1897 in Buffalo, New York, rather than in North Tonawanda. She married Joseph Zielinski on 6 October 1915 at the church of Our Lady of Częstochowa in North Tonawanda, and of course, the names of their children (my grandfather and his siblings) are accurate. She died on 6 May 1942 at the age of 44, so once again, Grandma did pretty well.

On Mary Klaus (My Great-Great-Grandmother):

Things start to get a little bumpy with Grandma’s next report about her husband’s grandmother. Regarding Mary Klaus, Genevieve Zielinski’s mother, Grandma wrote, “Maiden name—Olszanowicz. Arrived in Texas from Poland. She and her husband had eight (in N.T.) children, Anna, Joe, Pauline, Eddy, Genevieve, Walter, Helen and Rudolf. Anna is still alive, living in Chicago. Mary died in N. Tonawanda at age 65.”

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 5

Analysis: Oh, Grandma. Would that I had never heard that story about Texas. I spent so much time trying to find any possible shred of evidence for our family’s sojourn there. And it wasn’t just you, Grandma. Cousin Julia Ziomek reported that same story, in even greater detail. I wrote about it most recently here, but also here, here, and here. The truth, as near as I can figure, is that the entire story was a fabrication created to avoid embarrassing questions about the circumstances surrounding the births of Mary’s two oldest sons, Joseph and John, who were born out of wedlock in Buffalo, New York, prior to Mary’s marriage to her first husband, Andrew Klaus. Mary’s maiden name was not Olszanowicz, either—it was Łącka. Olszanowicz was the name of her second husband, whom she married after Andrew’s death. That marriage did not last long—only three months, reportedly—which may explain why poor Walter Olszanowicz was so easily forgotten, although his name was still recalled in association with Mary. In total, Mary Klaus had 11 children. In addition to Joseph and John, her children with Andrew included Zofia (who died in infancy), Anna, Pauline, Bolesław (who also died in infancy), Genevieve, Edward, Walter, Rudolf, and Helen. Grandma was right, Anna (née Klaus) Gworek Matysak was still alive in 1977 when this letter was written. However, Mary (née Łącka) Klaus Olszanowicz was quite a bit older than most U.S. records would indicate, and she was actually 75, not 65, when she died in 1942.

On John Zazycki (my great-grandfather):

Grandma wrote the following about her father, John Zazycki: “Born in Warsaw, Poland 1866. Came to the United States and went to Alaska to seek employment. While in Poland he served in the Russian Cavalry and got his apprenticeship as a blacksmith. He died in 1924 at age 58. John’s forefathers were named Zazycki because they lived behind a creek. Za—behind, zekom—creek.”

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 6

Analysis: As often happened with immigrants, John Zazycki approximated his birthplace to a nearby large city, rather than citing the small village where he was actually born. I now know that John was born 5 March 1866 in the village of Bronisławy, which was located in Sochaczew County in the Warsaw gubernia, or province of the Russian Empire. So in that sense, Grandma’s information that her father was born in Warsaw in 1866 was correct, if not especially precise, since Bronisławy is about 50 miles west of the city of Warsaw. I have not been able to confirm any Russian military service for John, although it’s quite likely that he did serve, since such service was compulsory. Similarly, John died in 1924 at the age of 58, exactly as Grandma reported, and we have documentary evidence that John was apprenticed to a master blacksmith, Józef Gruberski, who was also his brother-in-law. Even Grandma’s Polish surname etymology is approximately correct, although I’ve read that it should be “za rzeka” (“beyond the river”). That leaves the final statement, that John initially went to Alaska to seek employment prior to his arrival in Buffalo, New York.

It turns out that this is a difficult claim to fact-check. John’s naturalization papers state that he arrived in the U.S. on 15 January 1895, and that he resided in the U.S. continuously for 5 years prior to his petition for naturalization in Buffalo on 12 July 1900. Alaska was a U.S. territory, so presumably, John could have traveled to Alaska following his arrival in New York and still count that time toward his 5-year-residency requirement for naturalization. If he did go to Alaska, he was not there for long, and documenting him there, without knowing a specific location, is akin to chasing down my Klaus family in Texas. And we all know how that ended.

On Veronica Zazycki (My Great-Grandmother):

I’ve written previously about some of the interesting statements made by Grandma about her mother, Veronica Zazycki. Grandma wrote, “Maiden name—Grzesiak. Born in the year 1876 in the village ‘Poznan’ near Warsaw. Her parents owned a grain mill. She had a sister Josephine and two brothers—Walter and Thaddeus. They lived near the church and parish house and Veronika’s mother sewed all the vestments for the priest. Veronika’s mother died when Josephine was born so at age 18 she came to America in year 1894. She found employment working in the kitchen of a restaurant. The people could not speak Polish and Veronika could not speak English so they used sign language and called her Mary. She saved her money and sent it to her two brothers so they could come to America. In the meantime, Walter (her brother) married a Polish actress named Wanda and she did not want to leave her career, so he left without her. They say she died of a broken heart.

Veronika married John Zazycki and they had twin boys as their first born, Benjamin and Roman. Wanda was next, then came Leon, Antoinette, Joseph, Angela, and last but not least, their beautiful baby daughter Helen who is sitting here writing ‘Roots.’

Veronika was a seamstress who supported her family after her husband died. She lived to age 62 and was killed in an automobile accident in 1938. Helen’s birthday is Nov. 30th, 1920.”

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 8

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 9

Analysis: Veronica (née Grzesiak) Zazycki was born 27 December 1876 in the village of Kowalewo-Opactwo. The village is about 50 miles east of Poznań, but “Poznań near Warsaw” doesn’t make a lot of sense since Poznań and Warsaw are nearly 200 miles apart. Nonetheless, the reference to Warsaw is interesting in light of the fact that members of the Grzesiak family were living in Warsaw in the years after Veronica moved to the U.S. Her passenger manifest informs us that Veronica arrived in Baltimore in March 1898, and in June 1898, her sister Konstancja married Julian Cieniewski in Warsaw, while her brother Walter married Kazimiera Olczak in Warsaw two months later. These facts underscore two more points—first, that Walter’s wife was not named Wanda, but rather Kazimiera; and second, that Veronica had additional siblings besides Walter, Thaddeus and Josephine. Polish birth records from Kowalewo-Opactwo revealed two more Grzesiak sisters, Pelagia and Konstancja, whose existence was not known to Grandma.

The part about the grain mill, and the proximity of the family home to the church, was something I wrote about in a previous post, as there may be some evidence for that. The part about Veronica’s mother dying when Josephine was born is utterly false, however, as Veronica’s mother, Marianna (née Krawczyńska) Grzesiak, did not die until 1904, several years after most of her children were settled in America. Grandma was a bit off on the timing of Veronica’s immigration, since Veronica did not immigrate in 1894, at the age of 18, but rather in March of 1898, at the age of 21. I have not been able to document the story about Veronica working in the kitchen of a restaurant and being called Mary. However, it always struck me as a bit strange that they would call her Mary when Veronica is a not a name that is unusual or difficult to pronounce in English.

I have a hunch that this part of the story may have something to do with another Mary whom I discovered through my research, Mary Staszak. When Veronica immigrated, her passenger manifest reported that she was headed to her “brother-in-law” in Buffalo, Michael Staszak. Further research revealed that Michael was not Veronica’s brother-in-law at all. Nonetheless, Michael’s wife, Marianna (née Derda) Staszak, was from the same village as Veronica and they traveled together on the ship, although they were recorded on different pages of the ship’s manifest. Research in records from Poland has not revealed any obvious way in which Veronica Grzesiak and Mary Staszak were related. My guess is that they were merely good friends, or at best, distant cousins. But the association between the name Mary, and this story from Veronica’s early days in the U.S., strikes me as something more than coincidental.

The next part about Walter and his actress wife is probably accurate. Walter and Kazimieria (née Olczak) Grzesiak did meet and marry in Warsaw, and I wrote about their story previously. At this point, I think she probably was an actress when they met. However, she did not die of a broken heart, nor did she remain in Poland while Walter came to the U.S. alone. In fact, she came to the U.S. in 1900, along with Walter’s sister, Josephine, and the Grzesiak patriarch himself, Józef, father of Walter, Veronica, Thaddeus and Josephine. Kazimiera was still in Buffalo and married to Walter in 1905 when the New York State census was conducted, but they were separated by 1910, and subsequent newspaper articles from 1912 indicate that Kazimiera had left Walter for another man.

The final part of the story, in which Grandma recounts her siblings’ names is, of course, accurate. However, Grandma’s mother died in 1940, not 1938, at the age of 63. The last line is also interesting to me. Grandma’s birth date of record was, indeed, 30 November 1920. However, we always “knew” her birthday was November 25th, and that’s the day we celebrated it. The story was that Grandma was born on Thanksgiving Day, so the registry office was closed. The midwife could not get in to report the birth immediately, and there were penalties for delays in reporting. So, when she finally visited the office on the 30th to report Grandma’s birth, she simply told them that the baby had been born that day. A quick check of a 1920 calendar confirms that Thanksgiving fell on 25 November that year, so I believe that this story is accurate, although I have no way of proving it to be so.

The last page of the letter includes some miscellaneous information about the family. Grandma wrote, “Genevieve Zielinski embroidered the picture in 1940 and gave it to Helen and John in 1941 when we got married. Dad thinks that the name Zielinski was given to the people because they came from Green County. Green is ‘Zielone,’ County would be ‘Miasto.’ Don’t know of any living relatives. I am giving you all the information I could gather after 7 phone calls on Friday. Seems like names and dates were not important. I am happy to give my Granddaughters the enclosed pictures. Perhaps you would want to mention the fact that Daddy’s parents plus John, Frank and Helen went for a visit to Poland in 1921 and stayed for 3 months.”

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 10

The picture that Grandma referenced (below) is now a cherished family heirloom, of course, belonging to my mother. When Grandma Genevieve stitched that picture in the year before she died, she was a patient in the sanatorium, suffering from tuberculosis.IMG_5037 (2)

As for the remaining statements, Grandpa’s theory about the origin of the Zieliński surname is pretty much in line with accepted etymology in that the surname derives in some form from the Polish word for “green.” The lack of (close) living relatives from Poland which Grandma mentioned was always a disappointment to me, but ultimately I’ve been able to connect with distant cousins there who were identified through deeper research. The “enclosed pictures” which she mentioned were unfortunately separated from this letter, although I’m certain that my mother still has them, somewhere. And finally, the comment about Grandpa’s family trip back to Poland in 1921 has since been well documented, and I was even able to discover the reason for the trip—the death of the last surviving Zieliński sibling in Poland, Władysław, who died on 23 March 1921, leaving their elderly mother alone to manage the family farm.

So now we’ve come full circle. The family history stories that Grandma recorded in her letter got me started on my path to discover the past, but they are no longer my only source of information. After years of research, I understand which parts of the stories are accurate and which are not, and I even had the opportunity to share with Grandma some of my findings about her family before she passed in 2015. I’m now nearly the age that Grandma was when she wrote that letter, and I’ve taken on her role of story teller, helping a new generation to know a bit about our family’s origins, identifying the patriarchs and matriarchs whose DNA we carry. I only hope that my stories may be as inspirational as hers.

Source:

[1] Helen Zazycki Zielinski, North Tonawanda, New York, to the Roberts family, Cincinnati, Ohio, letter, 4 December 1977, privately held by Julie Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2020

 

 

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

Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance

As a former Air National Guard fighter pilot, my Dad has always viewed life from a distinctly military perspective, which extended to our family life long after he separated from the military. As a family, we formulated our “POA” (Plan of Attack), and when it was Dad’s turn to cook supper we’d often have “S.O.S” (“s**t on a shingle,” otherwise known as creamed chipped beef on toast).  We learned not to have our “heads up and locked”—that is, to be disengaged or inattentive, a reference to a potentially catastrophic situation in which an aircraft’s landing gear fails to descend when needed. Most importantly, we were taught to remember the 5 P’s: Prior planning prevents poor performance. Life may be full of surprises, but fortune favors those who anticipate and plan for disaster.

I was reminded of this recently while interviewing Dad as part of my ongoing project to record some of his stories for the family history. I asked him to recount the scariest incident that he experienced while flying. Surprisingly, it was not the time when he had to eject from his burning aircraft over the South China Sea. No, it happened during the summer of 1969 after his return home from Vietnam, while on a routine training mission at Niagara Falls Air National Guard base. By that point in his career, Dad was an experienced pilot, having logged close to 1,000 flight hours in the F-100C Super Sabre jet fighter aircraft. However, continued training was essential for maintaining proficiency. On the day of this incident, Dad was supposed to fly as wingman to Norm Culbertson. The flight protocol involved a 15-second spacing between the take-offs of their aircraft. Norm’s takeoff proceeded normally, but the same was not true for Dad. Almost immediately after take-off and just as soon as the wheels were up, Dad’s aircraft suffered a complete electrical failure. At first, Dad thought it was just the radio, but he quickly realized that the problem extended to all of his electrical systems. By that point, he was about 500 feet off the ground, and trying to power up to 400 knots to rejoin Norm and get in position on his wing. Dad knew he needed to land immediately, and he needed help from Norm to do that.

As Dad pulled up on Norm’s wing, he had to communicate the problem with his aircraft to Norm, without a radio. The Air Force employed “HEFOE” hand signals for just such emergencies as this, to indicate that a pilot was having trouble with his hydraulics, engine, fuel, oxygen, or electrical systems in addition to his radio. Dad caught Norm’s attention visually and gave the signal for electrical failure, and both pilots proceeded to implement the protocol to achieve a safe landing under these circumstances. Since the problem occurred immediately after take-off, with full fuel tanks, Dad’s plane was too heavy to land. The added weight of the fuel increases the stall speed of the aircraft, which in turn increases the minimum landing speed and stopping distance for the aircraft, necessitating a longer runway than what was available. The practical solution to this was to lighten the aircraft by jettisoning both 335-gallon fuel tanks, so Norm led Dad out into a wide, 5-mile circle over Lake Ontario before heading back to the base. Lacking an electrical system, Dad had to jettison the tanks using a manual release, but he was able to accomplish this successfully.

Dad remarked that prior to this incident, he never appreciated just how much a pilot depends on his electrical systems when flying. With the electrical gone, Dad lacked a number of key flight instruments, leaving him with only the throttle for altering power to the engine, the control stick for changing the direction of the plane, and the pitot-static indicators (airspeed indicator, vertical velocity indicator, altimeter, and machmeter). Just prior to the electrical failure, Dad had the airplane trimmed for a speed of 400 knots – that is, optimized in such a way that the center control stick was very sensitive to a light touch, and fine adjustments in attitude could be made with just the fingertips. With the electrical systems gone, Dad needed to use all his strength to steer the aircraft, holding the stick with both hands. Moreover, the summer day was hazy, with visibility restricted to about a mile. Flying in the haze means that a pilot lacks any visual reference to his position in the sky, so it’s impossible for him to know if he is inverted or not.

Inversion—flying upside down—can be a serious problem for pilots. Dad recalled an incident with the pilot who was ranked first in his class at Combat Crew Training School at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico, and who was later stationed in Tuy Hoa with Dad. One day, this pilot tried to make a TACAN GCA (Tactical Air Navigation Ground-Controlled Approach) in bad weather. He had his gear down and was getting ready to land, but instead he crashed into the ocean and perished. Crash investigators later surmised that he must have gotten vertigo in the clouds and was inverted as he attempted to land.

The memory of this incident was on Dad’s mind as he flew in the haze with no instruments. Dad reasoned that if he just stayed on Norm’s wing in fingertip formation, matching Norm’s plane’s attitude and rate of turn visually and copying everything he did, he’d be all right. They completed their circle over the lake, and Norm led him back to the airfield. Once they were within a couple miles of the runway, Norm broke off, leaving Dad to land on his own. However, Dad knew that a successful landing under these circumstances would be very difficult.

The lack of an attitude indicator was a problem for landing in addition to flying, since pilots depend on these even for normal landings in good weather. Moreover, fighter jets typically require faster landing speeds than other aircraft. A typical landing speed in the F-100C (which lacked the trailing-edge wing flaps featured on later models to help reduce the required landing speed) is 185 knots, with additional speed required as the weight of the plane increased. If a pilot had to land immediately after takeoff, the lowest possible approach speed was 205 knots. To accommodate these high-speed landings, the F-100C had some special systems built in, which included a speed brake, anti-skid system, and tailhook. Unfortunately, all of these features were dependent on the plane’s electrical system. Not only was Dad going to land “hot,” but if he tried to brake prematurely, he’d blow out the tires. He still had his drag chute which could be deployed manually to slow the plane, but it could not be deployed until the plane’s speed was less than 185 knots since it was designed to tear away at higher speeds.

As Dad came in for the landing, he needed to use an alternate release mechanism for the landing gear, since normally that, too, was controlled electrically. The gear doors were designed so that the aerodynamic loads on them pull the gear down in the absence of hydraulics. However, Dad had to hope that this system was operating normally, because the confirmation lights indicating the gear was down were electrical, so he had no way of knowing if the landing gear were actually in place. To his relief, Dad’s aircraft touched down on the tarmac, but stopping it was still another matter. More than half the runway had disappeared behind him by the time he was able to deploy the drag chute at 185 knots. He ran out of runway and had gone onto the overrun before his aircraft finally came to a halt. Dad was drenched with sweat by that point, but he was alive.

Exiting the aircraft offered a welcome bit of comic relief after such a stressful landing. Normally after landing, the pilot taxis the airplane back to the parking space near the hanger and then the flight crew hangs a ladder on the aircraft’s canopy rail so that the pilot can exit the plane. Since Dad’s plane was in the overrun, there was no ladder available for him to get out of the plane. Some members of the flight crew had arrived to assist him, however, and they offered Dad the option of exiting the aircraft by climbing onto the shoulders of a particularly tall crew member nicknamed “Stretch” Johnson, rather than waiting for the ladder to arrive. Unfortunately, as Dad climbed out of the cockpit onto Stretch’s shoulders, the D-ring on the parachute on Dad’s back snagged the rail of the canopy and deployed the parachute, covering both men in a mass of silk as Dad stumbled to the ground.

When I was growing up, my Dad always seemed invincible. Unflappable under pressure, he could be counted on to be stay calm and keep his sense of humor in any crisis. I often think that experiences like this one are what shaped that quality in him. At so many points in the story, things might have ended differently had he made one false move, but his training, preparation and carefully memorized protocols carried him through. That, and maybe his guardian angel. After all, Dad also used to tell us, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2019

The military photo shown here is from the private collection of Harry W. Roberts, Jr. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Where Were Your Ancestors in 1857?

Genealogists often think in terms of family timelines, tracing one particular family line through many generations. However, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to examine my family tree in cross section. That is, what was happening in each of my family lines in the year 1857? I chose that year because I wrote recently about my 3x-great-grandparents’s marriage in Roding, Bavaria in 1857, and that got me wondering what my other ancestors were doing in that same year, and where they were living around the world. It turns out this is a pretty useful (and fun!) exercise. I gained new insights into each family group, and it also served to point out deficiencies in my research, and families that I’ve neglected, that I should perhaps plan to spend more time on in 2018. Here, then, is a summary of my ancestral couples who were alive at that time. Although the map in the featured image is not “clickable,” you can use this link to explore that map in greater depth, if you’d like.

Maternal grandfather’s line

In 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents, Michał Zieliński and Antonia (née Ciećwierz) Zielińska, were living in the village of Mistrzewice in Sochaczew County in what was at that time the Królestwo Polskie or Kingdom of Poland, which officially had some autonomy, but was in reality a puppet state of the Russian Empire. They’d been married about four years, although I don’t know the precise date of their marriage because 19th century records for Mistrzewice prior to 1859 were largely destroyed. Michał and Antonina had one daughter, Zofia, who was about 2, and Michał supported his family as a gospodarz, a farmer who owned his own land.1

Meanwhile, in the nearby village of Budy Stare, Sochaczew County, my 3x-great-grandparents Roch Kalota and Agata (née Kurowska) Kalota welcomed their (probably) oldest daughter, my great-great-grandmother, Marianna Kalota, who was born circa 1857. Again, the destruction of records has been a problem for researching this line, but available records tell us that Roch Kalota, too, was a farmer.2

In the south of Poland in 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents on my Klaus line had not yet married. Jakub Klaus was the son of Wawrzyniec (Lawrence) Klaus and Anna Żala or Żola. He was a young man already 27 years of age, but he did not marry his wife, Franciszka, until 1860.Franciszka Liguz was the daughter of Wawrzyniec Liguz and Małgorzata Warzecha, age 21 in 1857. Both Franciszka and her husband-to-be, Jakub, lived in the village of Maniów in Dąbrowa County in the Galicia region of the Austrian Empire, and Jakub was described as a famulus, or servant.

Still further south in what is now Poland, my 3x-great-grandparents Jakub Łącki and Anna Ptaszkiewicz were 4 years away from their eventual wedding date.4 In 1857, Jakub was a 22-year-old shoemaker from the village of Kołaczyce in Jasło County in the Austrian Empire, and Anna was the 23-year-old daughter of a shoemaker from the same village.

Maternal grandmother’s line

Heading further north again in Poland, back into Sochaczew County in Russian Poland, my 2x-great-grandparents Ignacy and Antonina (née Naciążek) Zarzycki were about 8 years into their marriage, raising their family in the village of Bronisławy. By 1857, they had three children for whom birth records have been discovered, Marianna,5 Paulina,and Tomasz.7 Ignacy was a land-owning farmer who was born in the nearby village of Szwarocin,8 but his wife Antonina’s place of birth remains a mystery.

Moving west now, in 1857 my 3x-great-grandparents Stanisław and Jadwiga (née Dąbrowska) Grzesiak were living in Kowalewo Opactwo, a village that was located in Słupca County at the far western edge of the Russian Empire, within walking distance of the border with Prussia. Ages 51 and 41, respectively, they were already parents to 12 of their 13 children. Stanisław was usually described as a shepherd or a tenant farmer.9

In the nearby town of Zagórów, my 3x-great-grandmother, Wiktoria (née Dębowska) Krawczyńska was living as a 53-year-old widow, having lost her husband Antoni Krawczyński 10 years earlier.10 Antoni had been a shoemaker, and he and Wiktoria were the parents of 8 children, of whom 4 died in infancy. By 1857, the surviving children ranged in age from 27 to 14 — the youngest being my great-great-grandmother, Marianna Krawczyńska.

Paternal grandfather’s line

Meanwhile, in Detroit, Michigan, my 3x-great-grandparents Michael Ruppert and Maria Magdalena Causin were newlyweds in 1857, having married on 12 May of that year.11 Michael had immigrated to the U.S. just four years earlier, at the age of 19, with his parents and siblings.12 The Rupperts were from the village of Heßloch in the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt, or what is now Alzey-Worms district in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany.13 Michael was a carpenter, and he and his family had already begun to use the surname Roberts.14 His wife Maria Magdalena Causin/Casin/Curzon is a bit of a mystery, and will likely be the subject of future blog post, because she doesn’t show up in the records until her marriage in 1857, and her parents’ names are not on her marriage or death records.

In 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents Henry and Catherine (née Grentzinger) Wagner and were also living in Detroit, had been married for 2 years and were parents to their first child, John Wagner.15 Henry was a teamster who had arrived in Detroit about 3 years previously along with his parents and siblings, all immigrants from the village of Roßdorf in the Electorate of Hesse, a state within the German Confederation.16  This was a first marriage for Henry, but a second marriage for Catherine, since she was a young widow after the death of her first husband, Victor Dellinger or Dalmgher.17 In addition to burying her husband some time between 1850-1855, it appears that both of Catherine’s children from that first marriage 18 also died young, since they were not mentioned in the 1860 census in the household of Henry and Catherine Wagner. Catherine herself was an immigrant from Steinsoultz, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, who came to Detroit with her parents and siblings some time between 1830 and 1834.

Across the border and some 225 miles to the east, my 3x-great-grandparents Robert and Elizabeth (née Hodgkinson) Walsh made their home in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. In 1857, Elizabeth Walsh was a 39-year-old mother of 5, pregnant with her 6th child, Ellen, who was born in December of that year.19 Elizabeth was the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of United Empire Loyalists, so her family were among the first settlers in St. Catharines. Her husband, Robert Walsh, was a 49-year-old tailor from Ireland whose family origins have proven to be more elusive than his wife’s.

Also living in St. Catharines were my 3x-great-grandparents, Robert and Catherine Dodds. In 1857, Robert was a 40-year-old immigrant from England, usually described as a laborer or farm laborer. Nothing is known about Robert’s family of origin. He married his wife, Catherine, circa 1840, and by 1857 they were the parents of three daughters and three sons.20 Catherine’s origins, and even her maiden name, are unclear. There is evidence that she was born circa 1818 in Martintown, Glengarry, Ontario to parents who were Scottish immigrants or of Scottish extraction, but no birth record or marriage record has yet been discovered for her.

Paternal grandmother’s line

Jacob and Catherine (née Rogg or Rock) Böhringer, my 3x-great-grandparents, were German immigrants from the Black Forest, having lived in the village of Gündelwangen in the Grand Duchy of Baden21 prior to their migration to Buffalo, New York in 1848.22 By 1857, Catherine and Jacob had already buried three of their seven children, including oldest daughter Maria Bertha, who was born in Germany and apparently died on the voyage to America. Jacob was a joiner or a cabinet maker.23

In 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents Joseph Murre and Walburga Maurer were still about 5 years away from their eventual wedding date. They were born and married in Bavaria, Germany, although I have yet to discover their specific place of origin. I don’t know the names of the parents of either Joseph or Walburga. Joseph was a woodworker who was employed in a planing mill in Buffalo, New York in 1870 24 and was later listed as a carpenter in the Buffalo city directory in 1890. He and Walburga arrived in New York on 3 April 1869 with their children Maria, Anna and Johann.25

In October 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents Johann Meier and Anna Maria Urban were married in the parish church in Roding, Bavaria.26 Their first child, Johann Evangelista Meier, was born out of wedlock two years previously although the father was named on the baptismal record with a note that the child was subsequently legitimized. Johann and Anna Maria would go on to have a total of 10 children, 3 of whom migrated to Buffalo, New York.

In 1857, my 4x-great-grandparents, Ulrich Götz or Goetz and Josephine Zinger, were living somewhere in Bavaria and raising their 4-year-old son, Carl Götz, who was my 3x-great-grandfather. Almost nothing is known of this family, including where they lived in Bavaria or the names of Carl’s siblings. Carl grew up to be the second husband of a much older wife, Julia Anna Bäumler, who was already 19 in 1857. Julia had at least one child from a previous relationship, a son, John George Bäumler, who was born in 1858. Julia and Carl married in Bavaria circa 1875, a development which may or may not have influenced John Bäumler’s decision to emigrate from Bavaria to Buffalo, New York in 1876.28 Julia gave birth to her only child with Carl, Anna Götz (my great-great-grandmother), in 1877, and the Götz family eventually followed John Bäumler to Buffalo in 1883. Julia Götz’s death record states that she was born in “Schlattine, Bavaria,” which suggests the village of Schlattein in Neustadt an der Waldnaab, Bavaria, but further research is needed to confirm this location.

So there you have it: a summary of where my ancestors were in the world, and in their lives, in the year 1857. But what about your ancestors? Where were they living, and what were they doing? Is there a more interesting year for your family than 1857? Choose a different year, and tell me your ancestors’ stories!

Selected Sources:

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Mistrzewicach, Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne, Metryki.genealodzy.pl, 1875, Małżeństwa, #2, record for Zofia Zielińska and Piotr Malinowski, accessed on 10 November 2017.

2 Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Mlodzieszynie, Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne, Metryki.genealodzy.pl, Księga zgonów 1889-1901, 1895, #59, death record for Wojciech Kalota, accessed on 10 November 2017.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Mary Magdalene parish (Szczucin, Dąbrowa, Małopolskie, Poland), Księgi metrykalne, 1786-1988, Akta małżeństw 1786-1988, Maniów, 1860, 16 September, marriage record for Jacobus Klaus and Francisca Liguz, Family History Library film # 1958428 Items 7-8.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Anne’s Parish (Kołaczyce, Jasło, Podkarpackie, Poland), Śluby, 1826-1889, Stare Kopie, 1861, #11, marriage record for Jacobus Łącki and Anna Ptaszkiewicz.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), Księga urodzeń 1845-1854, 1850, #48, baptismal record for Maryanna Zarzycka.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), Księga urodzeń 1845-1854, 1853, #60, baptismal record for Paulina Zarzycka.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), Księga urodzeń, 1855-1862, 1856, #48, baptismal record for Tomasz Zarzecki.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), 1828, #34, baptismal record for Ignacy Zarzycki.

Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. słupecki), 1832, marriages, #14, record for Stanisław Grzesiak and Jadwiga Dąbrowska, Szukajwarchiwach, http://www.szukajwarchiwach.pl/, accessed 17 November 2017.

10 Roman Catholic Church, Zagórów parish (Zagórów (Słupca), Poznań, Poland), Kopie księg metrykalnych, 1808-1947, 1843, #137, death record for Antoni Krawczyński.; FHL film #2162134, Item 1, Akta zgonów 1844-1849.

11 Roman Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s parish (Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, USA), “Marriages”, 1857, #15, marriage record for Michael Ruppert and Magdalena Causin.

12 New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (index and image), record for Franz, Catherine, Michael, Arnold, and Catherine Rupard, S.S. William Tell, arrived 4 March 1853, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 123; Line: 51; List Number: 146, accessed 17 November 2017.

13 Roman Catholic Church (Heßloch (Kr. Worms), Hesse, Germany), Kirchenbuch, 1715-1876, 1834, baptismal record for Michael Ruppert, FHL film #948719.

14 1860 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, p. 142, Michael Roberts and Frank Roberts households, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

15 Michigan, County Marriages, 1820-1940, database, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, FamilySearch, (https://familysearch.org), database with images, 1855, #11, record for Henry Wagner and Catherine Dellinger, accessed 17 November 2017.

16 New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image and transcription), record for Henry, Cath., August, Johnny, Gertrude, and Marianne WagnerS.S. Erbpring Luidrich August, arrived 29 September 1853 in New York,  Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 132; Line: 12; List Number: 1010,  http://ancestry.com/, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

17 Michigan, County Marriages, 1820-1940,  (images and transcriptions), Wayne County, marriage certificates, 1842-1848, v. B, #1733, marriage record for Victor Dellinger and Catherine Grenzinger, 3 February 1846,  FamilySearch, https://familysearch.org, accessed 17 November 2017.

18 1850 U.S. Federal Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, page 156B and 157, Victor Dalmgher household, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.  

19 Census of 1861, database, Library and Archives Canada, St. Catharines, Lincoln, Canada West (Ontario), Robert Walsh household, item number 2721097, accessed 17 November 2017.

 20 Census of 1861, database, Library and Archives Canada, Grantham, Lincoln, Canada West (Ontario), Library and Archives Canada, Robert Dodds household, Item number 1884852, accessed 17 November 2017.

21 Roman Catholic Church, Gündelwangen parish (Gündelwangen, Waldshut, Freiburg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany), Kirchenbuchduplikat, 1810-1869, 1847, baptisms, #4, record for Maria Bertha Rogg, p. 165, with addendum on page 171, Family History Library film #1055226.

22 Passenger and Immigration Lists, 1820-1850,  record for Jacob Behringer, Catherine, and Marie Behringer, S.S. Admiral, arrived 4 November 1848 in New York, http://ancestry.com/, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

23 1860 United States Federal Census (population schedule), 7th Ward Buffalo, Erie, New York, p. 77, Jacob Barringer household, http://familysearch.org, accessed 17 November 2017.

24 1860 United States Federal Census (population schedule), 7th Ward Buffalo, Erie, New York, p. 73, Joseph Murri household, http://familysearch.org, accessed 17 November 2017.

25 Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image and transcription), record for Joseph, Walburga, Anna, Marie, and Johann Muri, S.S. Hansa, arrived 3 April 1869 in New York,  Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 308; Line: 38; List Number: 292. http://ancestry.com/, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

26 BZAR, Roman Catholic Church, St. Pancrus parish (Roding, Cham, Oberpfalz, Germany), Marriage record for Johann Maier and Anna M. Urban, 27 October 1857, Vol. 27, page 3 MF 573.

271900 United States Federal Census (population schedule), Buffalo, Erie, New York, E.D. 107, Sheet 16B, Charles Goetz household, https://.ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

28 1900 United States Federal Census (population schedule), Gainesville, Wyoming, New York, E.D. 122, Sheet 9A, John Baumler household, https://.ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

Why My Name Wasn’t Changed at Ellis Island (And Neither Was Yours)

One of the most persistent myths in American culture is that our family surnames were changed at Ellis Island.  Just how ingrained is this myth?  Well, when my younger two children were in 5th grade, their school included an Ellis Island simulation as part of a learning module on immigration.  After learning about the “great American melting pot,” the economic and social factors that prompted immigration, and some of the contributions and impact that immigrants had on American society, the students capped off the unit with an Ellis Island Day immigration simulation. Prior to the simulation, students were assigned names and identities (hypothetical, not historical) of various”immigrants” from the late 19th century. They created costumes that would have been typical for their assigned immigrants and when Ellis Island Day came, these “immigrants” were “processed” by teachers and parent volunteers posing as immigration officials.  Processing stations included mock health inspections and checking of documents, and at one station, parent volunteers were instructed to inform some of the “immigrants” that their names were “too foreign-sounding” so, “we’ll call you Mary Smith from now on.”

Although I applaud the idea of an immigration learning module and think that the Ellis Island Day simulation is a fun way for the kids to experience what the process might have been like, I found this particular element of the simulation to be appalling since it reinforces the very myth that so many of us genealogists have tried to dispel. When I attempted to explain this to the teacher, and then to the school administration, I was told, “You’re arguing with History.”

Really?

One of my favorite articles that debunks the Ellis Island Name Change myth is this one,1 and one of my favorite passages from that article is this:

The idea that names were changed at Ellis Island raises lots of questions. For instance, if names were changed, what happened to the paperwork? And if inspectors were charged with changing names, why are there no records of this? Where are the lists of approved names? Where are the first hand accounts, of inspectors and immigrants? If immigrants had name changes forced upon them, why did they not simply change their name back when they entered the country? Or, if they could not, where is paperwork describing the roles of Federal officials charged with making sure that names were not changed back?

It underscores the lack of thought that goes into the knee-jerk assertion about those name changes.  The myth of Ellis Island is so easily accepted that most people don’t bother to consider the implications, but if one takes a moment to do that, the myth quickly falls apart.

So what really happened?  How did we end up with so many distorted, truncated, or translated versions of our immigrant ancestors’ surnames?  Here’s one example from my own family history.

My maiden name, Roberts, was originally Ruppert.  My immigrant ancestors were the family of Franz and Catherina Elisabeth (née Schulmerich) Ruppert, who were married in the little village of Heßloch in 1830, in what was at the time the Grand Duchy of Hesse, colloquially known as Hesse-Darmstadt (Figure 1):

Figure 1:  Marriage record from the Roman Catholic parish in Heßloch for Franciscus Ruppert and Catharina Elisabetha Schulmerich, 15 January 1830.2  Translation: “On the 15th day of January is married Franz Ruppert, young man, legitimate son of the late spouses Franz Ruppert and Margaretha née Kron — with the young woman Catharina Elisabeth Schulmerich of Hillesheim, legitimate daughter of Georg Schulmerich and the late Anna Margaretha née Appelmann, in the presence of witnesses Gerhard Kron and Sebastian Eckert, blessed by Fr. [illegible]”franz-ruppert-catharina-e-schulmerich-1830

The Ruppert family included their three sons, Johann Georg, Michael, and Arnold, as well as daughter Catherina Susannah.  Michael was my great-great-great-grandfather.  In 1851, Georg traveled to the U.S.,3 followed by the rest of the family in 1853.4 Their passenger manifest is shown below (Figures 2a and 2b).

Figure 2a:  Passenger manifest from the William Tell, arriving on 4 March 1853, showing parents Franz and Catherine and son Michael Ruppert.ruppert-manifest-crop-and-marked-first-page

Figure 2b:  Passenger manifest from the William Tell, arriving on 4 March 1853, showing Franz and Catherine Ruppert’s children, Arnold and Catherine Ruppert.second-page-of-ruppert-manifest-marked-cropped

 

To me, the name looks like it’s written as “Rupert,” although the transcriber at Ancestry indexed it as “Rupard.”  The ages of the family members agree well with their ages based on their baptismal records from Germany.  The manifest is not especially informative, which is typical for earlier manifests like this, mentioning only that their place of origin was Württemberg, their destination was the United States, and Franz’s occupation was a brewer.

One might argue that my family surname clearly wasn’t changed at Ellis Island because in the case of my Rupperts, they didn’t enter the U.S. through Ellis Island at all. The Ellis Island inspection station didn’t open until 1892, and its predecessor, Castle Garden, did not open until 1855. In the first half of the 19th century, when the Rupperts came over, immigrants merely landed at docks around South Street in Manhattan. However, I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of people who purport that their family names were changed at “Ellis Island” probably have no idea at which port or on what date their immigrant ancestors actually arrived in the U.S. When it comes to the myth, the main idea seems to be that the name change resulted from something the immigrants were told by someone in an official capacity when they entered the U.S.

So, my ancestors were Ruppert in Germany, and a reasonable misspelling thereof was recorded on their passenger manifest.  What happened in the U.S.?

By 1860, the family had settled in Detroit, Michigan and had already begun using the name Roberts, as evident from the 1860 U.S. Census (Figure 3).5

Figure 3: Excerpt from the 1860 U.S. Census for Detroit, Michigan, showing the Michael Roberts and Frank Roberts households.roberts-fam-1860-census

The first part of the Roberts family is the family of Michael and Mary (also known as Maria Magdalena) Roberts, with their children Michael and Catherine.  Below them are the elder Michael’s parents, Frank and Catherine. The younger Michael, also known as Michael Frank, also known as Frank Michael, was my great-great-grandfather.

As anyone who has ever done genealogy for more than five minutes can tell you, names were pretty fluid up until, say, the 1930s. So in 1870, the family surname was recorded as Robert (Figure 4).6

Figure 4: Excerpt from the 1870 U.S. Census for Detroit, Michigan, showing the Michael Robert and Franz Robert households.roberts-fams-1870-census

In this census, we see that Michael “Robert” was still employed as a carpenter and that two more children had been born to the family, daughters Paulina and Anna and a son, Heinrich. Michael’s wife Mary’s name appears here as Magdalena. Michael’s parents, Frank and Catherine Robert were still living nearby, and the fact that their name was also recorded as “Robert” and not “Roberts” suggests that this was a version of the surname that the family was collectively trying out at that time, rather than simply a recording error on the part of the census-taker. Frank was also recorded as Franz once again.

By 1880, Franz and Catherine were living on Prospect Street and were continuing to use the surname Robert, although Franz was recorded as Frank once again, as shown in Figure 5.7

Figure 5: Excerpt from the 1880 U.S. Census for Detroit, Michigan, showing Frank Robert family.1880-u-s-census-frank-roberts-household-crop

Frank, God bless him, was still a laborer at age 72, while Catherine continued to keep house. The 1890 census cannot be consulted to see what name they were using at that time, since most of the returns were destroyed in a fire.  Catherine passed away in 1892 at the age of 84, and her funeral card was preserved in the family (Figure 6).8 At that time she was “Roberts” again.

Figure 6:  Funeral prayer card for Catharine (née Schulmerich) Roberts.death-card-for-catherine-schulmerich-roberts-001

As for her widower husband, Frank, by the 1900 census, enumerated a year before his death, he had come full circle and was listed under the name Fran(t)z Ruppert once again (Figure 7).9 At that time he was living with his daughter, Mary, and her husband, Robert Standfield. This final use of the Ruppert surname doesn’t reflect a lasting change, however, as subsequent generations of the family have continued to use Roberts.

Figure 7:  Excerpt from the 1900 U.S. Census for Detroit, Michigan, showing Frantz Ruppert in the Robert Standfield household.1901-census-crop

One might ask why the Ruppert family felt compelled to change their surname upon immigration to the U.S.? The answer might lie in the political situation at that time.  During the mid 1850s in the U.S., precisely when Franz and Catherine brought their family to America, the American Party, also known as the “Know Nothing movement” was gaining in popularity on the U.S. political scene.  This movement arose as reaction against immigrants, mostly Irish and German Catholics, such as Franz and Catherine Ruppert’s family.  Know Nothings believed that these immigrants would subvert traditional American values and ultimately make the U.S. subservient to the Pope.10

Of course, one could also just ask Aunt Mary Roberts Standfield for her version of the story, recorded in a letter to my great-grandfather (Figure 8).11

Figure 8:  Letter from Mary Roberts Standfield to J. Frank Roberts, unknown date.letter-from-mary-roberts-standfield-to-john-frank-roberts

So there you have it. It was the immigrants themselves, or their descendants, who initiated these name changes. Those poor, maligned Ellis Island officials were almost always blameless. Misspellings may have occurred on passenger manifests, but they were nothing more significant than that. So if you have a story in your family about your name being changed at Ellis Island, dig a little deeper and see what you find.

Sources:

Sutton, Philip,”Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was),” New York Public Library Blogs, 2 July 2013, accessed February 18, 2017.

Roman Catholic Church (Heßloch {Kr. Worms}, Hesse, Germany), Kirchenbuch, 1715-1876, marriage record for Franciscus Ruppert and Cath. Elisabetha Schulmerich, 15 January 1830, Family History Library microfilm # 948719.

3 New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image), Geo Rupert, S.S. Vancluse, 30 May 1851, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (images), Franz Rupert family, S.S. William Tell, 4 March 1853, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

5 1860 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, p. 142, Michael Roberts and Frank Roberts households,  http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

6 1870 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, p. 126, Michael Robert and Franz Robert households,  http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

7 1880 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, E.D. 306, Sheet B, Frank Robert household,  http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

Carol Roberts Fischer funeral home prayer card for Catharine Roberts, 1892; privately held by Carol Roberts Fischer, Hamburg, New York, USA, 2017

9 1900 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, E.D 126, Sheet 16B, Robert Standfield household, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

10 “Know Nothing,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org, accessed February 2017.

11 Mary Roberts Standfield (Detroit, Michigan, USA) to “Frank” (Mary’s grand-nephew, John Frank Roberts), letter, unknown date; after 1901; privately held by Carol Roberts Fischer, Hamburg, New York, USA, 2017.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

Lessons From My Father

“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

— Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London. c. early 1930’s 1

Being a military fighter jet pilot has been such an integral part of my Dad’s life experience that it affects everything he does, did, or ever will do, including the way he parented. My father, Harry W. Roberts, Jr., was sent to Vietnam as the youngest pilot in the 136th Tactical Fighter Squadron just 10 days before I was born, and I didn’t meet him until I was a year old. Dad’s homecoming from the war was something of an adjustment for all of us. Mom jokes that he had no experience with babies or small children, and somehow expected us, his daughters, aged 1 and 2, to shake his hand gravely and say, “How do you do, Father, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”  As an Air Force veteran, Dad was all about order and discipline. My bed had to be made with the sheets pulled so smoothly that one could bounce a quarter off of it.  I was often told to “shape up or ship out,” and “straighten up and fly right” because “prior planning prevents poor performance.” Hard work, competence, and results were valued and expected.  Dad had little patience with people who “didn’t have their s–t together.”

Although I always knew that Dad loved me, he was never comfortable with verbal or physical displays of affection. In all my years of childhood, I can think of maybe two occassions when he kissed me on the forehead after tucking me into bed at night. And my mother tells the story of a time when when my sister and I were about 3 and 4, and she was waiting with us in a checkout line at the grocery store. The gentleman next to her commented on what cute little girls we were, dressed in our matching outfits. He then turned to us and said, “I’ll bet your Daddy calls you his little princesses, doesn’t he?” We smiled and replied happily, “No, he calls us maggots!”  Although I don’t remember that particular incident, I do know that it was some time before I realized that “maggot” was not generally accepted as a term of endearment. It seemed affectionate to me, because Daddy always had a hint of a smile when he told us to, “Line up, maggots!”

Dad used to explain that in the Air Force they insisted on discipline because it could save one’s life. In an emergency, there often wasn’t time to think or reason. One had to rely on practiced behaviors and memorized protocols in order to survive. A prime example of this was the time when the engine seized on Dad’s F-100 Super Sabre and Dad had to bail out over the South China Sea. Although I’d heard the story many times when I was growing up, I had a chance to sit down with Dad this past weekend and take notes while he told it again. He also allowed me to scan the transcript of the radio conversation that occurred between him, the control tower, and his flight lead, Lt. Col. Sydney Johnson. (Thanks, Dad!)

The clarity with which Dad remembers that day never ceases to amaze me. It was December 18, 1968. He and 3 other pilots were headed north from their base in Tuy Hoa on a mission to bomb strategic enemy military targets. Shortly after he took off, he noticed an odd smell inside the cockpit. That in and of itself wasn’t grounds to abort the mission, because sometimes that would happen when the mechanics would change the jet engine oil. However, it was enough to prompt Dad to pay close attention to all the gauges from that time on. The flight continued, and they refueled mid-air without incident, but Dad’s sense that something wasn’t quite right persisted. When they were about 10 minutes from the target, Dad decided to light the afterburner, reasoning that if something bad were about to happen, he’d rather not have it occur when they were right above the target.

Hitting the afterburner is like stepping on the accelerator on a car, and as soon as Dad did that, the plane’s oil pressure plummeted. Dad radioed the rest of the flight and informed them of the situation. Lt. Col. Johnson maneuvered his plane underneath Dad’s and visually inspected the underside of Dad’s F-100. What he saw wasn’t good — bullet holes, with oil pouring out of them. It was later surmised that some Viet Cong sitting offshore in a fishing boat got in a lucky hit with an automatic machine gun as Dad was taking off that morning, causing damage minor enough to be overlooked immediately, but ultimately significant enough to endanger Dad’s life. Lt. Col. Johnson and Dad pulled away from the other two aircraft in the mission at that point. The plan was for the other two pilots to continue to the target while Lt. Col. Johnson escorted Dad back south, where Dad would attempt to land at the base in Da Nang.

There were a couple problems with this plan. First, time was not on their side. The flight manual, which Dad had to memorize as part of his pilot training, stated that once oil pressure is lost, the pilot has between 6-22 minutes before the engine seizes. There was a good chance that they would not make it back to Da Nang. I personally would have been freaking out at this point, but this is where Dad’s military training kicked in and he was able to perform mechanically and methodically all the necessary procedures that would maximize his chances of landing the plane successfully. The first step was to set the power at 89%, which was the optimized power level that had been determined for that aircraft under these circumstances. Next, he jettisoned all his ordnance and external fuel tanks to make the plane as light as possible, minimize drag, and maximize flying time. Unfortunately, when he hit the “jettison all” button, the left drop fuel tank didn’t disengage completely, and was swaying precariously under the wing. Dad knew that would cause some problems on landing, but there wasn’t much he could do about it at that point.

As the minutes ticked by, Dad disconnected his g-suit from the aircraft and tidied up the cockpit, stowing unnecessary gear. He didn’t want any loose objects to come flying out of the cockpit with him in case he had to eject, since they had the potential to hit him or damage his parachute.  However, he knew that luck would play a role as well. A member of his squadron, Capt. Joseph A. “Jake” L’Huillier, had lost his life just a few months earlier after his seat got tangled up with his parachute after ejection from his disabled aircrft.

Exactly 22 minutes after he lost his oil pressure, the jet’s engine started to seize, causing flames to erupt from the tail and nose of the aircraft. Shortly after that the engine stopped completely, while the plane continued to burn. At this point, Dad still had some control of the aircraft, thanks to the Ram Air Turbine (RAT), a device that pops up in the slipstream of the airplane and powers the hydraulics for the flight controls in an emergency, so he could still move the stick.  There was only small comfort in this, however.  The RAT utilizes ram pressure, caused by the speed of the aircraft, but once landing commences and the aircraft’s speed decreases, the RAT is no longer operative and the stick becomes frozen. Partly because of this factor, no one had ever landed an F-100 with a seized engine successfully. Between that, and the dangling fuel tank under the left wing, Dad realized that landing would have been extremely challenging. Under the circumstances, the growing realization that ejection was unavoidable came as something of a relief.

Established protocol for ejecting from the aircraft specifies that the plane should be at an elevation of approximately 10,000-14,000 feet at the time of ejection, and a speed of 250 knots.  Dad spotted two U.S. Navy ships in the distance, so he headed for them in the hope that one of them might pick him up. Immediately prior to ejection, Dad deployed the speed brakes so that the plane would go straight down and not hit anything.  When he reached the specified speed and altitude parameters, he ejected from the cockpit.

In the following transcript, Dad is Litter 54 (Lit 54), Lt. Col. Sydney Johnson is Litter 53 (Lit 53), LC is the Local Control tower in Da Nang, and Pedro is the search-and-rescue helicopter dispatched from the base in Da Nang.2harry-roberts-plane-crash-transcript-p-1

Dad recalled that the rationale for heading to the sea was that it was much easier for him to be found and rescued by friendly forces that way, rather than bailing out over the jungle and risking being found by the Viet Cong first.  At this point in the transcript, it’s clear that the intent was still for Dad to land the plane.  However, things changed very quickly.harry-roberts-plane-crash-transcript-p-2

Within that same minute, 7:48 am, as the cockpit filled up with smoke, the decision was made to forego the landing attempt and bail out. Note that there appear to be two errors in the second page of the transcript (above).  Dad’s final line is “And here goes.”  The two quotes after that, which are attributed to Dad, are clearly from Lt. Col. Johnson.  harry-roberts-plane-crash-transcript-p-3

In reading this, I never fail to be impressed by the calm, cool, professionalism of all the servicemen involved.  For my family, this was a day that could have meant disaster.  For the USAF Air Traffic Control staff in Da Nang, it was just another Wednesday in Vietnam. Notice how they’re anxious for the rescue helicopter, Pedro, and Lt. Col. Johnson to find some other channel for communication, so they don’t tie up the current radio frequency?  Although the transcript mentions that “The pickup was made approximately 0830 GMT on 282.8,” it neglects to explain that Dad wasn’t out of the woods once he’d bailed out of his plane. There were still some remaining hazards to negotiate.

Things got off to a good start with the ejection. The seat of the aircraft was designed with a “seat-man separator” function which is intended to ensure that the pilot is clear of the seat before his chute opens. There is a manual override that can be utilized in case this function fails, but by the time Dad had the presence of mind to assess the need for it, he was already separated  from the seat and his parachute was successfully deployed. Although Dad was relieved to discover this, he had some new concerns to address. His parachute was equipped with a quick release system underneath a durable cover.  The cover was intended to prevent unintentional triggering of the quick release, and Dad realized that the cover on the left side had blown off during the ejection, exposing the mechanism.  As a precaution, Dad grabbed onto the left side riser lines of the parachute to be sure that they were secure, and gripped them tightly for the duration of his fall.

The next problem was that the parachute’s design was trapping air, causing him to oscillate back and forth under the chute rather violently, like the clapper in a bell.  To remedy this, there were four lines that were identified with red tape that could be cut to stop the oscillation by opening up two panels in the parachute canopy.  Dad’s G-suit was equipped with a switchblade knife with a special hook on the end designed for cutting these cords. Needless to say, cutting cords on the parachute which was the only thing standing between him and death took some resolve, and he checked several times to be sure he was cutting the right cords. However, the nauseating effect of the oscillation was enough to persuade him of the necessity of doing it.

The time between ejection and touching down in the South China Sea was perhaps the longest 15 minutes of Dad’s life.  It seemed to take forever to fall to earth, to the point that Dad wondered if he were caught in some kind of updraft. He was concerned about disconnecting his parachute as he hit the water. This was necessary to ensure that it didn’t drag him down, or act as a sail, catching the breeze and carrying him over the water at whatever rate the wind was blowing.  However, he obviously didn’t want to release the parachute prematurely. After falling for what seemed like a long time, he decided to drop his oxygen mask as a test, and was astonished when he couldn’t even see it hit the water. He was still far too high up. A few more minutes passed and he decided to try again, this time dropping his clipboard. Again, Dad couldn’t even see the splash it made. He resolved to look straight ahead and not think too much about the seemingly slow pace of his descent. He decided that he would release his parachute only when he felt his feet hit the water.

During all this time, Dad’s flight lead, Sydney Johnson, was continuing to monitor his descent. Dad knew Sydney pretty well, and knew that he was an avid videographer. Dad correctly guessed that Sydney was filming the whole episode, flying with the stick between his knees so his hands were free to hold the video camera. Unfortunately, each time Sydney flew past at 500 knots, Dad’s fragile parachute would shudder, threatening collapse. Although Dad smiles when he tells the story now, it’s easy to see how alarming that would have been at the time.

As Dad continued to fall, he prepared for his eventual landing in the water. His survival kit, which was attached to his parachute, contained a raft on a 20-foot lanyard. He inflated the raft, along with his LPUs (Life Preservers Underarm). When Dad’s feet finally made contact with the ocean, he released his parachute which immediately blew away. Still attached to his raft by the lanyard, he swam over to it, climbed inside, and waited for rescue. Overhead he could see the Search-and-Rescue helicopter Pedro, an Army UH-1 helicopter, and the forward air controllor‘s plane, along with Sydney Johnson in his F-100, still filming. (When asked why there were so many aircraft, Dad quipped, “It was a slow day for the war.”) He knew he wouldn’t be in the water long, but while he was waiting, Dad began to rummage through his survival kit to see what was in there.  He found a saw, which he discarded, and then found some shark repellent tablets, which had already gotten wet and were getting dye everywhere. In those days, shark repellent consisted mainly of a potent dye that turned the water so inky black that the sharks became confused. Dad threw that into the water as well. Finally he found what appeared to be a cellophane-wrapped Rice Krispy bar left over from World War II. He took one bite, but then Pedro began lowering a rescue strop (also known as a “horse collar”) to get Dad out of the water.

During Sea Survival School, Dad had been taught how to be rescued by a helicopter. It wasn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Helicopters can generate a static charge of up to 25,000 volts while flying, which could be transmitted to the rescuee via the horse collar. Therefore it was important to be ground the horse collar by alllowing it to contact the water first before touching it, to prevent the delivery of a nasty electric shock. Dad had also been instructed to keep his flight helmet on in case of water rescue. This particular instruction didn’t make sense to Dad until he hit his head on the underside of the helicopter as they attempted to reel him in. When he was finally on board the helicopter, the chief master sargeant took a long look at Dad’s lips and fingers, which were stained blue from handling first the shark repellent and then the Rice Krispy bar. Eventually he asked, “If you don’t mind my asking, Lieutenant, how cold was that water?  We’ve picked up guys out of the Arctic who looked better than you!”

One might think that Dad would have earned a little downtime after all of this. However, he was back in the cockpit of a new plane the next day, and Dad would remind us of this fact whenever we were tempted to dwell on some small failure or tragedy. In addition to learning to get back up into that cockpit, Dad learned to be cool under pressure, and to keep his wits about him in a crisis.  Although it wasn’t his choice to go to Vietnam, he opted to make the best of a bad situation, turning what would have been a compulsory draft into the Army into an opportunity to learn to fly with the Air National Guard. He sacrificed his own needs and desires and served his country with honor and integrity, working hard amid stress and danger to earn his paycheck to support his family back home. He also managed to keep his sharp sense of humor through it all. Perhaps his military experience made him a sterner, less effusive father than he might otherwise have been. It’s impossible to know what might have been, but I’m proud to be his daughter. I love you, “Daddy Ramjet.”

pict0036

Sources:

1 English, Dave, Great Aviation Quotes: Safety, Dave English: Aviation Nerd Bon Vivant, http://www.daveenglish.com, accessed 8 February 2017.

2 V.F. Gardner, Major, USAF, Chief, Flight Facilities, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, USA to Lt. Harry W. Roberts, Jr., Tape Transcript, Litter 54, 18 Dec 1968, Vietnam Memorabilia; privately held by Harry W. Roberts, Jr.

The military photos shown here are from the private collection of Harry W. Roberts, Jr. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017