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“Another Serious Accident”—Jacob Kobes Runs Out of Luck

Czech ancestry according to the 2000 U.S. census. Even today the state of Nebraska has the highest percentage of people claiming Czech ancestry. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Czech ancestry according to the 2000 U.S. census. Even today the state of Nebraska has the highest percentage of people claiming Czech ancestry. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. A better, zoomable map is here. It’s pretty easy to spot Saline County.

My grandfather Norman Vanek was of 100 percent Czech descent. All of his great-grandparents and some of his great-great grandparents were Czech immigrants. They came to America at different times between 1855 and 1883, the early arrivals settling first along the shore of Lake Michigan between Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, and Chicago, Illinois. In 1869 and 1870, those in Wisconsin and Illinois migrated to Saline County, in southeastern Nebraska, on land that was then just beyond the western terminus of the local railroad line. Later immigrants from Bohemia joined those already in Saline County, creating one of the most densely populated Czech settlements in America.

For all of these former Czech peasants, the fertile farmland of Saline County represented an opportunity to improve their lives. Most of them got by on 80 or 160 acres—small to average-sized farms in late 19th century Nebraska. While this was significantly better than the tiny plots they had owned or rented in Bohemia, most of Norm’s ancestors were far from the wealthiest people even in their own township. They struggled the iconic struggles of pioneers on the prairie: dugouts and sod houses, grasshopper plagues, heat waves and blizzards, and the perpetual risks of epidemic disease and farm accidents.

Jacob Kobes and his wife Marie Filipi stood apart from the rest of Norman’s ancestors. They overcame these challenges and prospered. Of course, even in America, the land of promise, success took good sense, a lot of hard work, and a little bit of luck. Jacob had all three, at least until his luck ran out one tragic day in 1895. Jacob’s is the next story in the series “You Died How?,” which looks at all the strange ways my ancestors died.

A Lucky Start

Let’s start with luck. Jacob was lucky to have survived infancy. His parents, Johann Kobes and Katerina Kwitek, came from peasant families in western Bohemia, not far from the German border. Johann had been born in the village of Havlovice and Katerina in the small town of Mrákov.

When their marriage was recorded August 9, 1826, in the Roman Catholic Church in Mrákov, Johann was listed as a chalupner, a German spelling of the Czech word chalupnik, meaning peasant cottager. Johann may have owned a garden plot or a few acres of his own, as well as a small cottage, but he also had to work as a day laborer, farmhand, or petty craftsman to make ends meet. He was still listed as a chalupner when his son Jacob was born on July 24, 1849, almost 23 years after the wedding. In short, while Johann and Katerina were not the poorest of the poor, they had little hope of upward mobility.

Johann and Katerina Kobes suffered more than their share of loss. According to parish records, the couple lost four of their eight children as infants or toddlers. Jacob was their only son to survive to adulthood. In fact, he was the third child to whom his parents had given the name Jacob. The other two Jacobs, born in 1829 and 1833, each died before reaching age two. Another older brother, Andreas, born in 1836, only reached two-and-a-half before he died. Our Jacob was the only boy in his family to reach age three, much less middle age. He survived the widespread childhood diseases that ravaged peasant families across Europe and probably killed four of his siblings. (Three of Jacob’s four sisters lived long lives; the fourth, Dorothea, born in 1842, died after only three short months of life.) Such a high rate of infant mortality was sadly typical in 19th century Europe, especially in families of peasants and the urban working class.

Jacob was also lucky to survive considering his mother’s age. It may have been something of a surprise when Katerina found out she was pregnant in late 1848. She was 40 years old and—at least as far as parish records tell us of her pregnancies—had not given birth in more than seven years.

On the Move

Jacob grew up in the village of Havlovice. He was almost an only child, since his three surviving sisters were so much older than him. As a little boy, he probably played with nieces and nephews as much as cousins. His older sisters Maria (b: 1827) and Anna (b: 1831) had married and begun having children Havlovice before Jacob was even born. Before he was too old, however, his family made the life-changing decision to leave their homeland for new and better opportunities in America.

In the mid 1850s, Maria (now Schleiss) and Anna (now Kovarik) and their families were the first to emigrate. They joined dozens of other Czech emigrant families that chose to settle in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Johann and Katerina soon brought Jacob and his sister Katherine (b: 1839) to join them. In 1860, we find Johann and Katerina on a farm in Kossuth Township, with just Jacob still at home. His sister Katherine had married Bohemian immigrant Jacob Hulec (pronounced Huletz) the preceding November.

At some point in the mid 1860s, the Kobes family followed the Lake Michigan shoreline south to Racine County, Wisconsin, south of Milwaukee. I haven’t found any primary-source records of them there, but the obituary of Jacob’s sister Katherine says she lived there for a time, and there is also evidence Jacob’s future wife Marie Filipi was there. Jacob married Marie, probably in Racine County, in about 1868. She was just 13 or 14 years old.

In 1867, Jacob’s sister Anna and brother-in-law Joseph Kovarik packed up and moved their family to Saline County, Nebraska. They were the family’s explorers, checking out the frontier of white settlement and giving prairie life a try. Joseph Kovarik claimed 80 acres under the 1862 Homestead Act and built a sod-roofed dugout for his family to live in.

The 1929 book A History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska, compiled by Rose Rosicky, includes this photograph of the Kovarik brothers' dugout. There were two sets of Kovarik brothers in Saline County. All four men came from Havlovice. However, Rosicky's narrative states that "Joseph and Thomas Kovarik . . . built the first saloon and dance hall on their farm, which burned down in 1879. Their dug-out for many years remained as a memento of pioneer days." This is presumably a photograph of that dugout, perhaps taken in the 1880s or 1890s when it had become something of a historical artifact. Joseph Kovarik's wife was Anna Kobes, Jacob's sister. In fact, Homestead claims tell us that everyone in the Kobes and Filipi families initially lived in dugouts like this one for a couple years before they were able to buy enough lumber to build log cabins. Rosicky, Rose. A History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska. Omaha: Czech Historical Society of Nebraska and the National Printing Company, 1929, pp 70-97. Published online here.
The 1929 book A History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska, compiled by Rose Rosicky, includes this photograph of the “Kovarik brothers’ dugout.” There were two sets of Kovarik brothers in the same township near Crete and all four men had come from Havlovice, but I think we can be confident the above dugout belonged to Joseph and Thomas Kovarik. Joseph Kovarik’s wife was of course Jacob Kobes’s sister Anna. Rosicky’s narrative states that “Joseph and Thomas Kovarik[‘s] . . . dug-out for many years remained as a memento of pioneer days.” Moreover, the photo appears to match the description Joseph made of the dugout in his Homestead papers: “16 x 24 feet with sod roof with one door and window.” Rosicky also notes that Joseph and Thomas Kovarik “built the first saloon and dance hall on their farm,” though it “burned down in 1879.”

In fact, Homestead claims tell us that everyone in the Kobes and Filipi families initially lived in dugouts like this one for a couple years before they were able to buy enough lumber to build log cabins. The Filipis lived in their dugout for exactly two years. The Kovariks lived in theirs for at least five years and perhaps longer.

Rosicky, Rose. A History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska. Omaha: Czech Historical Society of Nebraska and the National Printing Company, 1929, pp 70-97. Published online here.


In 1869, the rest of the Kobes family followed Anna to Nebraska, with one exception. Jacob’s father Johann died around this time, probably in Wisconsin. There is a small chance he made it to Nebraska—a list of early Czech settlers published in the 1920s includes “John Kobes, Havlovice” as a pre-1870 settler and no other John Kobeses lived in the county as far as I can tell. However, Katerina called herself a widow on the Homestead claim she made in 1869 and John is absent from the 1870 census.

Without Johann, the 1869 migrant group included Jacob and his new wife Marie, Jacob’s mother Katerina, his other married sisters, and his new in-laws Frantisek and Josefina Filipi and the rest of their children. That summer, Jacob and Marie settled on 80 acres of land three miles southwest of the village of Wilber. Just like the Kovariks, they first constructed an iconic pioneer dugout. Jacob filed a Homestead claim for the land on September 25. Both Jacob’s mother Katerina (acting as an independent widow) and his father-in-law Frantisek Filipi claimed 80 adjacent acres the same September day. His brothers-in-law Fredrich Schleiss and Jacob Hulec and nephew Wenzel Schleiss each also made a nearby claim within the next six months. Collectively, Jacob’s extended family claimed 480 acres of excellent farmland and they paid a total of just $84 in filing fees to get it. Even though they all lived in sod-covered dugouts and would not hold the title to any of this land for another five years, the future looked far brighter than it ever would have in Bohemia.

"Jacob

 

Prospering

Jacob was twenty when he put in his Homestead claim. He was old enough to fend for himself. He had learned enough skills not just to survive but to thrive, including many that had probably been imparted by his late father. We know, for example, that Jacob had a knack for managing money. When men in the community gathered to create the new Czechoslovak cemetery in 1874, Jacob Kobes was chosen as one of two trustees. (Joseph Kobes, who sold the land for the cemetery and became president of the cemetery organization, was Jacob’s double 1st cousin. Their fathers were brothers and their mothers were sisters.)

Jacob was obviously ambitious and hard working. Consider what he accomplished in his first first five years on the land. According to his Homestead paperwork, he built two houses, first a 14 x 16 foot dugout and then a “good, comfortable” 16 x 18 foot log house, brought 55 acres of prairie land under cultivation, constructed “a stable, granary, and corn cribs, bored and tubed a well, and set out 2 acres of forest trees.” In spite of grasshopper plagues in 1874 and 1876 that destroyed the region’s entire corn crop and a serious flood of Turkey Creek in 1875 that may have inundated the Kobes land, the family prospered and Jacob was able to buy more land.

By 1880, Jacob had purchased an additional 160 acres of adjacent land for a total of 240 acres. (80 of those acres were the ones his mother had Homesteaded in 1869.) He had 120 acres under till and grew a surprisingly diverse range of crops (in order of acreage): wheat, corn, oats, barley, rye, and potatoes. He owned more poultry than any of my other Czech ancestors and had a decent number of cattle, pigs, and horses. To help him manage so many different things, Jacob had employed a total of 56 weeks worth of hired labor in 1879. The total value of his farm was more in line with the established farms owned by my old-stock American ancestors in Illinois than with any of my other Czech pioneer ancestors in Nebraska.

For Jacob, more land meant more profits with which to buy more land. By the early 1890s, he owned 400 acres (see pg. 31 of hyperlink). I believe he had inherited or purchased 160 acres after the death of his father-in-law Frantisek Filipi in a freak winter accident in 1886. At the time of Jacob’s own death in 1895, his estate totaled 480 acres.

Throughout these years, his family was growing. Marie gave birth to her first child, my great-great-grandfather Joseph, in November 1870, probably in the dugout they had built the year before. Daughter Anna followed in 1872. Unfortunately, Jacob and Marie then had to deal with the same sad loss Jacob’s parents had faced. In 1874 they buried their daughter Ema, who had lived only eight months. She was one of the first people buried in the new cemetery. Then son Adolf, born in 1876, died in early January 1878 aged 17 months. Thankfully, three more healthy children arrived after that: Adolph (1878), Albena (1880), and Emma (1882). Just like Jacob’s parents had done, he and Marie chose to name later children in honor of deceased older siblings.

“Another Serious Accident”

All thing considered, Jacob had been incredibly lucky. He survived infancy when half of his siblings did not. He survived a transatlantic voyage and repeated moves within the United States. He survived inhospitable prairie weather and the social stigma of living in a dugout. He overcame grasshopper plagues and floods and carried on despite losing two of his children. By the mid 1890s, he was a well known and “influential farmer” in Wilber. From the perspective of a Bohemian peasant boy, his landholdings and the financial security they represented would have been beyond belief. But his luck ran out in the winter of 1895.

It was the middle of February. It was cold. Nine days that month the temperature dropped below zero in nearby Lincoln. Jacob’s wife Marie was staying at the home of their daughter Anna—now the wife of John Somberg—in Crete, a town eleven miles north of Wilber. Anna had been sick and Marie had gone to care for her. On Tuesday, February 19, Jacob hitched two horses up to his “single seat, top buggy” and started out for Crete to fetch Marie. He made his way into Wilber and then turned north on the main road to Crete.  About two-and-a-half miles north of Wilber, the road crossed the tracks of the LincolnWymore line of the Burlington and Missouri Railroad. (You can trace Jacob’s course on this roughly contemporaneous plat map. Look for his property in section 20 and the railroad crossing in section 3.)

As one local newspaper reported, Jacob “had his head tied up well because of the cold, consequently he probably could not hear the approaching train. As he was crossing the tracks . . . the passenger train coming to Crete overtook him, struck the rear of the buggy, knocking it into splinters and pitching Mr. Kobes to the ground, killing him instantly. His horses were not injured and he himself received no wounds save where the side of his head struck the ground.”

I believe this reprint was published in the Wilber Republican in February 1985, whence my grandfather clipped it. However, the description--"two and a half miles this side of Wilber"--makes me believe the original story was probably published in the long-defunct Crete Democrat.
I believe this reprint was published in the Wilber Republican in February 1985, whence my grandfather clipped it. However, the description—”two and a half miles this side of Wilber”—makes me believe the original story was perhaps published in the long-defunct Crete Democrat.

The sudden and tragic death of Jacob Kobes at the age of 45 was undoubtedly hard on his family. And yet, compared to the consequences of some of the other unfortunate deaths we’ve examined in this series—take Dolphis Dupre, for example—Jacob’s family was going to be OK. His youngest child was 11. Even if the worst imaginable circumstances arose, he left enough property that its sale could keep the family secure for a while.

This small portrait that was displayed at Jacob's funeral is the only photograph of Jacob that I've seen. Some distant cousin may still have the original among their family photographs, but it might also be gone forever.

Jacob’s estate was apparently not legally dispersed until after 1900. Until then, it was de facto in possession of the widow Marie. Eventually, eldest son Joseph took ownership of the eastern 280 acres, including the land originally homesteaded by his grandmother Katerina Kwitek Kobes and grandfather Frank Filipi and half the land homesteaded by his father Jacob. Younger son Adolph got the western 200 acres, including the other half of Jacob’s original claim.

This small portrait at right was displayed at Jacob’s funeral (below). It is the only photograph of Jacob I’ve ever come across. Some distant cousin may still have the original among their family photographs, but it might be gone forever. That would be another unfortunate and unnecessary loss.

Lumir Kobes, Jacob's grandson, wrote that this was his grandfather's funeral. Lumir's daughter Vicky and I agree that this is Jacob's funeral, not the funeral of his maternal grandfather. (Vicky has a similar photograph of the commemorative display from Marie Filipi Kobes's funeral, and the two photographs passed down the generations together.)
Lumir Kobes, Jacob’s grandson, wrote that this photograph was from his grandfather’s funeral. Lumir’s daughter Vicky and I believe he meant the funeral of Jacob Kobes, not that of his maternal grandfather Lorenz Bernklau (who died at age 75). (Vicky also has a similar photograph of the commemorative display believed to be from Marie Filipi Kobes’s funeral. The two photographs passed down the generations together.)

Trains have always been dangerous. It’s difficult for them to stop and they can’t deviate from the course of the tracks. Jacob’s story reminds us that railroad workers were not the only ones who suffered injuries and deaths around railroads. Surprisingly, Jacob isn’t the only relative of mine to die being hit by a train. My 5x-great-grandfather James Daly lost a brother-in-law in very similar fashion. The administrator of Morgan Hussey’s Findagrave page quotes a story published in the McKean County Miner [Penn.], November 2, 1883:

“Mr. Morgan Hussey, of Keating township, met with a sudden death while walking on the track of the Philadelphia & Erie railroad, near Sterling Run, on Wednesday. He was visiting his daughter at that place, and for some purpose started out to walk down the track. He was a very old man, and quite deaf, and not hearing the express train which came upon him was killed instantly. Mr. Hussey had been a resident of this county nearly half a century and by hard work and economy had assumed a comfortable property. His funeral will take place here today from St. Elizabeth’s church.”

My takeaway is, never go near railroad tracks when you’re visiting your daughter!

Do any of you have crazy stories of railroad accidents from your families?

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Book Review: The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine T. Bettinger

Blaine Bettinger is well known among genealogists as the author of the popular blog The Genetic Genealogist. His blog posts offer advice about testing, provide a one-stop destination for important updates about the major testing companies, and sometimes feature examples of how DNA testing has been put to use to solve real genealogical puzzles. Now, in partnership with Family Tree Books, Bettinger has gathered all of his knowledge in one place.

s7981_new01The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy is as good a book as one could imagine for this market. Sure, some of its content will be out-of-date by next year, but it succeeds in every aspect Bettinger and the publisher could control. Everyone from beginners to professional genealogists will find value in it.

DNA testing is no longer new, but it remains the frontier of genealogy. In the early chapters, Bettinger summarizes the history of commercial DNA testing and introduces the different kinds of DNA (and DNA tests) that can be used to answer genealogical questions. Beginners will learn a lot from his simple explanations of Y-chromosome DNA, mitochondrial DNA, and autosomal DNA and how they can best be put to use. Later chapters, suited for more advanced genealogists, explore third-party tools that can help squeeze even more information out of each test as well as sophisticated ways of combining DNA results with traditional genealogical techniques to solve complex problems. Every chapter contains examples that illustrate the techniques Bettinger discusses.

I found most useful Bettinger’s clear understanding of the ethical questions raised by genetic genealogy. Chapter 3 focuses exclusively on ethical issues, but Bettinger does an excellent job weaving ethics into every chapter. What privacy can you expect from the companies handling your DNA? What should you expect from a professional genealogist with whom you have shared your raw DNA data? (What exactly is that data?) If you’re using other people’s DNA results to identify your own recent ancestor, does that mean someone could use your DNA to identify their ancestors? Bettinger walks readers through all of these and more.

I am a professional genealogist. Some of the my clients were adopted, orphaned, conceived in adultery, or otherwise don’t know their immediate genetic ancestry. Many of the ancestors we’re searching for are still alive. Sometimes genetic testing uncovers secrets some family members would rather have kept hidden. Bettinger does a superb job explaining the official Genetic Genealogy Standards, which address many of these issues, but he is also clear about their limitations. Each case in unique and people who choose to use DNA must understand the potential outcomes and ethical issues before they begin their search.

In a later chapter devoted solely to adoption and similar circumstances, Bettinger summarizes his position: “Although I personally believe that every individual has a fundamental and inalienable right to their genetic heritage, I understand that it does not translate into a fundamental and inalienable right to a relationship with that genetic heritage.” It’s a position I agree with entirely. Identifying your birth parents doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get to have a warm relationship with them. They may reject you entirely, which raises the question of whether you might regret searching at all. Even when genetic genealogy is used to answer questions farther back in time, you might uncover secrets your ancestors took to the grave. Will that affect how you view them and how you feel about your search? That’s up to you.

Overall, the book is an excellent guide. Key terms, techniques, and ethical considerations all get appropriate space. The writing is straightforward and concise. Graphics and charts are all easy to read and properly labeled in the text. And the whole book is colorful and interesting to look at. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about genetic genealogy.

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How Our Ancestors Voted

Our ancestors were just as political as we are today. The issues may have changed—do you care more about currency backed by silver or about immigration and terrorism?—but voting is as important as ever.  Since today is another monumental presidential election in the U.S., I thought I should write a short post about how genealogists can learn about the politics of our ancestors, using a few of my own relatives as examples.

The power of democracy

As the America nation expanded geographically during the 19th and 20th centuries, so too did the number of people who could vote. Through grassroots activism and the hard work of many individuals, earlier limits based on property, race, and gender gradually fell by the wayside. This ever-expanding democracy was one of the “pull”-factors that enticed millions of immigrants to the United States in the past two centuries. The immigration process can sometimes offer us our first tantalizing clues about our ancestors’ politics.

First of all, the date our ancestors left their homelands might suggest that they had a certain political affiliation in their native country. For example, 17th century migration from England to America happened in waves that were directly tied to changing political conditions in England: most notably the Separatist and Puritan migrations to New England between 1620 and 1640 and the Royalist “Cavaliers” who settled in Virginia during the English Civil War of 1642-51. Likewise, several German and Bohemian families in my ancestry left central Europe during the late 1840s and early 1850s, a time when political retribution was common after the failed revolutions of 1848. For people seeking a more liberal, democratic form of government, America was an obvious choice. If your ancestors were among these particular groups, you’ve got a good starting point for understanding how their political (and religious) beliefs fit into the context of their times.

I think it can also be suggestive to consider how long it took our immigrant ancestors to become U.S. citizens once they arrived. Some of them declared their intent to become a citizen within months after first setting foot on American soil. Others waited years, and some never even tried. Their haste (or not) in becoming a citizen gives us a clue to how engaged they were politically. Becoming a citizen meant earning the right to vote (if they were white and male, depending on the era). But just like today, some people were apathetic about participating.

My 4x-great-grandfather Abraham Pattison immigrated in May 1861, settling near Madison, Wisconsin. In October 1862, he declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen.
My 4x-great-grandfather Abraham Pattison immigrated in May 1861, settling near Madison, Wisconsin. Not long after, in October 1862, he declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen. He was eager to participate in American politics at a critical moment in American history. According to his son Henry, Abraham wanted to join the Union army but his wife implored him to stay home. In the end, they compromised. Abraham stayed in Madison, but he helped train and organize official recruits at Camp Randall before they left for the battlefronts.

Parties and issues

It is often quite difficult to know who our ancestors voted for or why. (Indeed, the secrecy of the ballot is one of its key features.) But sometimes you’ll stumble across a document that provides clear answers about their political opinions. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have ancestors in some of the few places for which voter rolls have been digitized. But even if you can’t find your ancestors in those records, you’ll probably still be able to learn something about their politics.

Abel Dunham (1819-1899) and his wife Rachel Harding (1816-1886)
Abel Dunham (1819-1899) and his first wife Rachel Harding (1816-1886). Photo shared on Ancestry.com by user RDunham35.

Some of our ancestors were outspoken about particular issues, and their views were recorded in newspapers or county histories. For example, one of my ancestors, Abel Dunham (1819-1899), was an outspoken abolitionist. His staunch Republicanism is noted in every county history sketch about Abel or one of his children. One sketch (of two) in Past and Present of Pike County, Illinois, reads in part:

Mr. Dunham was a prominent abolitionist, doing everything in his power to suppress slavery, and when the Republican Party was organized to prevent its further extension he became one of its stalwart advocates. Later he was again connected with a party of reform—the prohibitionist, for he was an earnest advocate of the cause of temperance and in fact his influence was ever given on the side of progress and improvement and for the amelioration of the hard conditions of human life.

Similarly, searching through newspapers I came across an article that helped me and my wife understand the political sentiments of her great-great-grandfather Erhardt Lenhardt (1844-1929). Lenhardt was a well-to-do immigrant brewer in Litchfield, Minnesota. Amidst the heated debates about currency leading up to the presidential election of 1896, Lenhardt was noted in the St. Paul Globe as one of the “influential Democrats” who had thrown their support behind Republican nominee William McKinley and the policy of “sound money.” It was an unusual position; most Democrats supported “free silver” that year. Indeed, “free silver” was the primary campaign issue for Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan.

Why did Erhardt Lenhardt cross party lines with his support? As it turns out, Lenhardt had invested $15,000 in a municipal bond from the state treasury department in 1895. He had a lot to lose if the value of the state’s fixed interest payments were reduced by inflation. Thus, the picture comes into focus. As a businessman and investor—more specifically as a lender—Lenhardt risked losing money on his investment if a flood of new (silver-backed) currency entered the economy and depreciated the value of each dollar he was supposed to be repaid by the state. That was enough for him to overlook other Democratic policies he might have supported and Republican policies he may not have liked.

The St. Paul Globe, October 5, 1896, pg. 8.
The Saint Paul Globe, October 5, 1896, pg. 8.

Political legacies

Political affiliations often pass from one generation to the next (although I’m sure we all know of counterexamples). One line on my Irish side voted Democratic for several generations, even as the party itself gradually moved from the right to the left on many issues. Abraham Pattison’s son Henry ran as a Democrat for Wisconsin state assembly from Pepin and Buffalo Counties in 1914. (He lost badly, receiving less than 15% of the vote.) As something of a consolation, two years later a Democratic senator named him postmaster for the city of Durand.

Some of Henry’s children and grandchildren were even more involved in the Democratic party. Henry’s grandson Basil Jordan (1902-1983), my great-grandfather, worked in St. Paul Union Stockyards in South St. Paul, Minnesota. He helped organize a labor union there. My grandmother remembers him hosting clandestine meetings at their house in St. Paul when she was a little girl. (The Twin Cities were a hot spot of labor activity during the 1930s, and the stakes were high.) Basil wasn’t a socialist or a Communist, just an everyday working-class Democrat who supported organized labor.

Francis "Fal" Pattison with Vice President Hubert Humphrey
Photo courtesy Mary Ann Pattison.

Basil’s brother Tom Jordan was raised by his grandparents Henry and Kate Pattison. As an adult, Tom was an active Democrat. He owned and operated the Prindle Inn in Durand, Wisconsin, and he sometimes invited Democratic politicians, including President Kennedy, to stay there. Finally, here is a picture of Henry Pattison’s youngest son Francis “Fal” Pattison with sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey. I don’t know the story behind the photo, but the political affinity fits with what we know about the Pattison family.

Most of our relatives weren’t influential enough to be photographed with national political figures. Others, like journalists and judges, were ostensibly obligated to be keep their political views private. To give a final example using yet another Pattison, Henry and Kate’s son George Leo “Judge Lee” Pattison, spent 32 years as an elected judge in Buffalo County, Wisconsin. His job demanded impartiality, and George was proud of his track record. Though from a staunchly Democratic family, he was first appointed by a Republican governor. Perhaps most suggestive of his impartiality, he never had a decision overturned by the state supreme court.

To sum up this post, celebrate the fact that we live in a democracy and that you have the right to vote. Then get out and find the compelling political stories in your family’s past. What issues mattered to your ancestors? Did any of them run for or hold elected offices? Can you figure out for whom they voted and why? It’s a fascinating search, and it’s less trivial than it first appears. I think it helps inform the present. Most of us have ancestors with a wide range of political beliefs. (On my dad’s side are relatives who have been Republicans for as long as the Pattisons have been Democrats.) Just like today, it is more useful to try to understand why these people valued what they valued than to dismiss them out of hand for belonging to a particular political party.

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Faith, Slavery, and Murder: The Life and Death of Burgess Nelson

Our next victim in the “You Died How?” series is Burgess Nelson. He was my 6x-great-grandfather. The story of his life can be seen as a parable of religious life in the early years of the American Republic. The story of his death has a lot to teach us about the importance of a family’s legacy and about the reliability of certain kinds of genealogical records.

Let’s start with a quick summary of Burgess Nelson’s life, as many of his descendants first encounter it. The following excerpt comes from the 1882 History of Mercer and Henderson Counties [Illinois], one of those massive county histories written in seemingly every county in the country during the late 19th century. The book includes a short sketch of George Cronkite Nelson, Burgess Nelson’s grandson through his son Elisha. It reads, in part:

Burgess R. Nelson, father of Elisha Nelson, lived in Maryland all his life. He was a minister of the Methodist Episcopal faith. He was a successful financier; a proprietor and director in a bank corporation. He lived to the extreme age of ninety-eight years, and then was murdered for his money [emphasis added]. He was a man that was highly respected for his good qualities and high integrity. He frequently visited his son, Elisha, in Ohio, making the entire distance to and from on horseback. He served in the Revolutionary War.

Some of these details turn out to be true. As we shall see, Burgess was a minister and he was involved at least peripherally in banking.  Some of the other “facts” were a complete fabrication. There is no evidence, for example, that Burgess Nelson served during the Revolution. Most importantly for us, he was not murdered. In the rest of this post, we’ll take a closer look at Burgess’s life as well as his death. As it turns out, the truth of his death might be stranger than the fiction.

“The Reverend gentleman”

From the moment of Burgess Nelson’s birth, his life embodied the national religious rejuvenation that scholars call the Second Great Awakening.  According to his gravestone, he was born January 1, 1764, probably in modern Carroll County, Maryland (which was then part of Frederick County). As it happened, Frederick County was also the birthplace of American Methodism. A few years before Burgess was born there, an itinerant preacher named Robert Strawbridge had come to the county from Northern Ireland and begun to attract converts. The first sermons took place in his little log cabin home in Sam’s Creek, Maryland, but he was soon a well-known preacher throughout the mid-Atlantic. Strawbridge set up the first Methodist societies in Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Perhaps Burgess’s parents were among Strawbridge’s early converts (though who exactly his parents were is uncertain). Perhaps Burgess himself became a convert after hearing a sermon by Francis Asbury, who arrived in the Mid-Atlantic from England in 1771 as an official delegate of John Wesley. Whatever the case, Burgess grew up near the heart of the growing Methodist movement. He came of age alongside the religion. He was 20 years old when the Methodist Episcopal Church was formally founded at a conference in Baltimore in December 1784, with Asbury at its head.

However he was introduced to Methodism, Burgess was obviously quite taken by the promises of the faith. He was ordained a Methodist minister—definitely by 1801 but probably long before that—and he remained active in the church for the rest of his life.

Methodism appealed to many Americans because of its focus on the faith experience of each individual. Whatever one’s station in life, God offered hope of salvation. As American political democracy gradually expanded during the early 19th century, so too did faiths like Methodism, which were underpinned by similar democratic ideals. Burgess Nelson believed in these things, and he spread the Word to anyone who would listen. He preached to rich and poor, white and black, free and enslaved, even to members of secret societies. In April 1824, for example, a Frederick County Freemason Lodge “voted the ‘Rev. Burgess Nelson a set of silver tea spoons with the letters B. N. engraved on the upper side in the usual place for initials, with the square and compasses under said initials and the name of the Lodge on the under side.’ . . . (The Rev. gentleman had officiated for the Lodge at the funeral of a visiting Brother; John Holmes, of Lodge No. 1*, Ohio.)” (source)

Photograph of Rev. John Baptist Snowden included in his autobiography, published in 1900 by his son.
Photograph of Rev. John Baptist Snowden included in his autobiography, published in 1900 by his son.

A few years before that incident, Nelson had preached a sermon at a church in Elk Ridge, Maryland, southwest of Baltimore. Listening intently in the audience that day was a 19-year-old slave named John Baptist Snowden, who remembered the sermon as a turning point in his religious development.

The Rev. Mr. Griffith made another appointment to preach in the same church in a few weeks, but failed to get there to fill the appointment, and the Rev. Burgess Nelson preached in his place. He took his text from the prophecy of Daniel 12:2: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

The sermon was preached in the month of April, 1820. The earnest words of the preacher as they came, prompted by a loving heart, moulded (sic) by a keen intellect, warmed by the fire of Jesus’ love, and a consciousness of their great importance flowing in a continuous stream of sacred eloquence, sent conviction of sin and guilt to my heart. At the close of the service I returned home with a heavy heart and a troubled mind. But I managed to conceal my convictions and moved around as if nothing was wrong. In the evening I fed the cattle and did my other work as if all was well with my soul. I appeared calm without, but there was a mighty raging of the troubled waters in my poor sin-smitten soul.

After dark I went some distance from the house, knelt down and prayed as best I could. This done, I felt somewhat relieved and returned to the house still troubled. Monday morning I arose and went about my work as usual, but with very different feelings. I was sent to the woods to cut wood. After cutting down one tree, the burden of sin was so heavy that I put down my axe and said, “If my owner come or not, I was going to seek the Lord.” I went some two or three hundred yards from my work and fell on my knees and prayed earnestly to the Lord to pardon my sins and convert my soul. I had not prayed very long before God, for Christ’s sake, pardoned my sins and set my soul at liberty and put a new song in my mouth.

I cried, “Glory to God! Praise the Lord for what He has done for me.”

Snowden’s description of his conversion—an inspirational sermon followed by an ecstatic personal experience of God’s grace—was typical of the Second Great Awakening. (The famous camp meetings from this era were gatherings of individuals experiencing ecstatic moments in the presence of others.)

In April 1823, exactly three years after hearing Nelson’s sermon, Snowden, “the uneducated slave boy,” gave a trial sermon at the Methodist’s Quarterly Conference and earned a license to preach on behalf of the church. A few years after that, he bought his own freedom and became a Methodist circuit rider. Once free, he moved to Westminster in modern Carroll County. He met his wife there and called the city home for the rest of his life. We can only speculate that he chose to go to Westminster to be near Burgess Nelson, who lived nearby.

Snowden’s experience demonstrates the power preachers like Burgess Nelson had to change the shape of American religion in the early 19th century. Nelson and hundreds of other preachers, ministers, circuit riders, and laypeople of faith helped grow Methodism into the largest religious denomination in the United States by 1820.

"Methodist Churches: 1850" compiled data from the 1850 U.S. Federal Census. (Source of this digital map)
“Methodist Churches: 1850.” (Source of this digital map. Original map from Gaustad and Barlow.) Several regions dense with Methodists were evident in 1850. The map suggests that Methodist adherents sometimes migrated with like-minded people. Burgess Nelson’s son Elisha, for example, moved to eastern Ohio in the 1810s and then to western Illinois in the 1840s. As we see from the map, he was among coreligionists.

A crisis of conscience

The first serious crisis for the Methodist Episcopal Church was the same crisis that later tore apart the whole nation: the question of slavery. Indeed, the division of the church into Northern and Southern branches, which took place in 1844, was viewed as a bad omen for the nation as a whole. The same crisis of conscience affected Burgess Nelson personally. He was a slave owner. In 1820, the same year he preached to Snowden, Nelson owned three slaves according to the U.S. census. Two free blacks also lived with the family.

American Methodists had struggled with the existence of slavery since the very beginning. During a 1780 conference in Baltimore, Francis Asbury demanded that Maryland preachers promise to free their slaves. He later sent anti-slavery petitions with circuit riders in Virginia. Ultimately, however, anti-slavery agitation by Asbury and other religious figures failed to change the minds of enough Southern legislators (many of whom were slave owners). Ratification in 1789 of the new U.S. Constitution, with its provisions for the continuation of the slave trade and extra voting power for slave owners, ended all practical debate on the matter. Slaves were property even if their souls could be saved.

By the 1830s, religious revivalism had stoked the spirits of Americans from upstate New York to backwoods Tennessee. In the North, widespread religious fervor was one of the driving forces behind the growing Abolitionist movement. More and more people were coming to believe that slavery went against the teachings of the Bible. It was morally wrong to hold another human soul in bondage, they believed, especially in the violent manner of the American South, where whippings, rape, and other forms of abuse were common. To degrade and dehumanize another person in this way was the exact opposite of raising him or her up to the grace of the Lord. To support their argument, abolitionists publicized stories told by slaves themselves.

Every slave had stories like John Baptist Snowden (though his were not published until decades after the Civil War). He could speak of his grandmother, “brought to this country by the men-stealers who tore her away from her native land.” He knew his father “was a good husband and kind father” even though he was enslaved on a plantation seven miles away from John and his mother. He “came to see her and the children several times each week, walking the seven miles after working hard all day.” But that meant that “We children did not see much of father during the week, as it was late before he got home at night, and had to leave long before it was time for us to get up in the morning.” Snowden passed into the possession of five different owners by the time he was 13 years old. He had to beg his third owner not to sell him to slave trader who would tear him away from his family and take him south.

In the South, the Bible played a central role in the public defense of slavery, which also emerged more vocally during the 1830s. Slavery was a positive good, argued people like South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, and the Bible said as much.

Maryland was, quite literally, in the middle of the conflict. It was a slave state, but one made up mostly of exhausted tobacco plantations. The real money was to be made on the cotton frontier south and west. The most direct consequence was that tens of thousands of Maryland slaves were sold south, their owners pocketing the cash. A more subtle consequence was that, since slavery’s economic value was diminishing in the East, it was easier for some slave owners in states like Maryland and Virginia to consider a time when the institution might end altogether. Some Maryland slave owners voluntarily emancipated their slaves.

In May 1836, the slavery issue which had lain dormant beneath Methodism for decades erupted at the General Conference in Cincinnati. When two abolitionist members lectured in the city during the Conference, a number of Conference officials formally censured them. Leading the anti-abolition charge was Marylander Stephen G. Roszel from the Baltimore Conference. Following his direction, the General Conference condemned the abolitionist speakers and supported an official decree (proposed by Roszel) to suppress “modern abolitionism” wherever such “agitation” occurred. The 1836 conflict set the stage for the denomination’s North-South division in 1844.

Once again, it’s uncanny how closely Burgess Nelson’s religious journey mirrored the national one. For Burgess, the issue was personal. It was a crisis of his own conscience. He encountered enslaved people on a regular basis as both an owner and a preacher. He understood them as spiritual beings, just as capable of salvation as their white masters. As the issue came to the fore nationally, the lines of argument sharpened on both sides—helping to frame the debate in his own mind. The obvious brutality of slavery was set against the psychological defenses of the institution that had been ingrained in white slave owners like him since birth. Moreover, Burgess knew as well as anyone that religious leaders like him were supposed to embody moral authority. But which side was in the right?

We’ll never know completely what went on inside his head. But we do know the outcome. On March 10, 1836 (just two months before the contentious General Conference in Cincinnati), now the owner of two slaves, Burgess Nelson signed a deed that legally established his plan to free them. His slave Elizabeth Ann, then about 15 years of age, he would free on April 1, 1840. His slave John, about nine years old, was “to be free on the 1st day of April, 1852.”

Burgess Nelson deed to free his two slaves. Report of Manumissions, Frederick County, March 10, 1836, Henry Schley: Burgess Nelson will free Negro Elizabeth Ann in 1840 and John in 1852 [Frederick County]. Maryland Manuscripts collection, item 3124. http://digital.lib.umd.edu/image?pid=umd:89361
Burgess Nelson deed to free slaves Elizabeth Ann and John. Report of Manumissions, Frederick County, March 10, 1836, Henry Schley: Burgess Nelson will free Negro Elizabeth Ann in 1840 and John in 1852 [Frederick County]. Maryland Manuscripts collection, item 3124. http://digital.lib.umd.edu/image?pid=umd:89361
I’m not really here to lay judgement on Burgess, either praise or condemnation. On the one hand, Burgess was a Southern slave owner who voluntarily emancipated his slaves 25 years before the Civil War. He didn’t offer immediate manumission, but the deed was a promise to his slaves that they would be free for most of their adult lives. From another perspective, Burgess had known the arguments against slavery since his earliest days as a Methodist minister; this was too little too late. And since he was about 72 years old when he drew up the contract, it was likely that John’s emancipation would come after his owner’s death.

A legacy to protect

This brings us at last to Burgess Nelson’s death. Revisiting the 1882 description submitted by his grandson George C. Nelson for the local county history, we recall that Burgess was supposedly involved in banking and “was murdered for his money” at the “extreme age of ninety-eight years.”

Burgess was involved in banking, at least as an investor. In 1829, he was listed as a capital subscriber to the Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Bank of Frederick County. It’s possible he was a co-director to that bank’s predecessor. (More research is needed here…)

But Burgess was not murdered for his money. When George Nelson submitted his account to the editors of the county history, he  covered up the truth of his grandfather’s death. Just like the fabrication of Burgess’s Revolutionary War service, George was embellishing his own pedigree and protecting his family’s legacy. The murder George invented allowed him to put the blame on someone else, when in truth Burgess Nelson killed himself.

Burgess Nelson suicide reported in The Baltimore Sun, April 3, 1852, pg. 4.
Burgess Nelson suicide reported in The Sun, Baltimore, Maryland, April 3, 1852, pg. 4.

 

New York Daily Times, April 5, 1852, pg. 2.
New York Daily Times, April 5, 1852, pg. 2.
burgess-nelson-suicide-Gettysburg Republican-Compiler, April 5, 1852, pg. 3.
The Republican-Compiler, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, April 5, 1852, pg. 3.
The Religious Recorder, Syracuse, New York, April 15, 1852.
The Religious Recorder, Syracuse, New York, April 15, 1852.

The report of his suicide was first published in the Catoctin Whig and/or the Frederick Citizen. The Baltimore Sun ran it a few days later and papers all over the country picked it up from there. The death of the “aged divine” was reported everywhere from New York City to New Orleans. Each report was slightly different (and sometimes contradictory in detail). None of the accounts says why he killed himself.

But look at the date. Burgess Nelson hanged himself on Thursday, April 1, 1852, the very same day he was supposed to emancipate his slave John. The timing is strongly suggestive of a connection.

One might propose, for example, that Burgess Nelson was a sad, lonely old man, who chose to live only long enough to see his last slave freed. (This won’t be the last time we encounter lonely old men committing suicide in the “You Died How?” series.)

Alternatively, freeing John may have caused the 88-year-old minister to confront once and for all the greatest moral dilemma of his life. In this final judgment, as it were, perhaps he fell into a bout of severe self-loathing and depression and killed himself out of guilt, shame, or fear of eternal damnation for having owned other human beings. Maybe he was ruminating on the prophesy in Daniel 12:2 that had caused John Baptist Snowden so much anxiety: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

For now, all we have to go on are the 1836 manumission deed and these newspaper reports that give the same date for both events. The rest is pure speculation. We don’t even know if John was actually freed that day. For all we know he had died prematurely or been freed ahead of schedule.

The moral dilemma of slavery weighed heavily upon the consciences of our 19th-century forefathers, people like Burgess Nelson. It ought to weigh on our shoulders too. I hope to find out what became of Elizabeth Ann and John, the two slaves whose names we know. We have a duty, I believe, to help recover the family histories of slaves who once belonged to our ancestors. It was our ancestors, after all, who obliterated that history in the first place by stealing husbands from wives and children from parents for their own economic gain.

Burgess Nelson headstone in Deer Park Cemetery in Smallwood, Carroll County, Maryland. He and his wife Sarah were originally buried in the Nelson family burial ground in Warfieldsburg, Carroll County, Maryland. The stones were moved to Deer Park Cemetery in 1949 after the original graveyard had been destroyed. Photo uploaded to Findagrave.com by user Tommy "Roger" Sparks Jr., April 10, 2009.
Burgess Nelson headstone in Deer Park Cemetery in Smallwood, Carroll County, Maryland. He and his wife Sarah were originally buried in the Nelson family burial ground in Warfieldsburg, Carroll County, Maryland. The stones were moved to Deer Park Cemetery in 1949 after the original graveyard was destroyed. Photo uploaded to Findagrave.com by user Tommy “Roger” Sparks Jr., April 10, 2009.