My parents are gradually cleaning out their basement. They’re offloading things from my childhood onto me and making the tough decisions about which of their own belongings they want to keep for sentimental reasons and which can go. They’ve also inherited stuff from multiple branches of the family, and I get to pick through most of it for things I think are interesting artifacts of family history.
One of the things my mom recently set aside to show me was a recipe hand-written by my great-grandmother Isabelle (Daly) Jordan. I have previously written about the persistence of ethnic culinary traditions in America using the examples of Isabelle’s grandparents William and Mary Reynolds and her husband Basil Jordan, all Irish-Americans who loved potatoes. Isabelle indeed cooked a lot of potatoes. But at the same time, she was as much a woman of twentieth century middle America as her Italian-American, Swedish-American, fill-in-the-blank-American neighbors, and she modernized her cooking accordingly…
…for better and for worse. Isabelle’s recipe is a mid-century classic. Have a look.
When your lead ingredients are corned beef and lemon jello, you know you’re in for a treat! Mix in mayonnaise, green peppers, olives, and hard-boiled eggs, let chill until firm, and you’ve cooked up the perfect space-age dinner for your family! Yum! It was probably supposed to look something like this.
But actually turned out more like this.
This recipe is now a little family treasure. Isabelle probably copied it out of a friend’s cookbook (perhaps this one) and we can suppose she made it for her family at least once.
A few years ago, my wife and I had a good laugh at a cookbook full of similar recipes that my grandmother Verla had once used. We 21st-century gourmands scoffed at the notion of suspending shrimp in jello and took pleasure in our culinary superiority. But I have no idea which of the recipes in the cookbook Verla actually prepared as food for her family on a regular basis. The fact that Isabelle took the time to hand copy this recipe for her own use makes it that much more special.
My wife and I are not alone among millennials ridiculing the culinary choices of our mid-twentieth century ancestors. For example, there are Pintrest boards dedicated to unearthing “Unfortunate Gelatin” and other “Unfortunate Food” from mid-century recipe books. A few brave people have been bold enough to test some of the worst recipes and report their findings to the world. Blogs like Mid-Century Menu, and Dr. Bobb’s Kitschen (whose authors gelatinized up something very similar to Isabelle’s recipe and produced the second photo above), make for excellent reading. (Neither my wife nor I like olives or hard-boiled eggs, so this is not a recipe we plan to try any time soon.)
The historian in me remains fascinated. Why would people—urban and rural alike—turn away from wholesome farm cooking in favor of high-tech “food products” like jello and TV dinners? Was the convenience and cultural capital really worth it? Regardless, I think the writers at Mid-Century Menu have it right. “Like it or not, these horrible recipes are part of the culinary evolution of our country. The pilgrims didn’t just come across the water on the Mayflower with their heads stuffed full of Asian fusion cuisine. It was a long, painful and sometimes disgusting road that lead to our current national gourmand status. Most people like to forget about it. I think we should embrace it. Yeah, at one point it was the height of fashion to have sour cream mixed with powered french onion soup mix at your party. Let’s acknowledge it and be proud.”
Recipes like Isabelle’s Corned Beef Salad are part of our shared American heritage. They were produced at a specific time and place and in a specific cultural context. By cooking these recipes for their families and sharing them with their friends, our ancestors were part and parcel of that history. If you inherited recipes or cookbooks that document it—or even better, if your family still makes salads suspended in jello—then you, like me, are the proud owner of a unique artifact of family history.
Stereotypes are often created in order to demean certain groups of people. There is usually a kernel of truth behind them, to be sure, but in serving their more sinister purpose most stereotypes blow that kernel out of proportion and/or unjustly link it to other unsavory characteristics. Eventually, though, some stereotypes become little more than a harmless joke.
Take the Irish and potatoes. Even before potato famine of the 1840s, the widespread reliance of Irish tenant farmers on potatoes became the source of a handful of derogatory nicknames and slang among the English. (Even the word Irish itself was used as a mocking adjective.) Worse nicknames welcomed the more than four million Irish refugees who migrated to America before, during, and after the potato famine, including several based on potatoes. These stereotypes were far from harmless. Violence and political repression faced Irish Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic, and they were often considered a different race of people altogether. (Unfortunately, little has changed. We still see almost rabid hatred applied not to those who abuse power and wealth, but rather to those who are poor and seeking refuge.) Stereotypes were a way of not-so-subtly reminding everyone about the existing power dynamic—the Irish were second-class citizens. Behind the name-calling was an implicit threat of something worse.
But as we’ve seen repeatedly among oppressed groups of people, the Irish found solidarity in the very things that made them stand out. They took pride in eating potatoes and in re-creating a sense of community at the local pub. Eventually—it took at least a century—descendants of Irish immigrants integrated into broader American society and no longer bore the brunt of nativist sentiment. Light skin certainly helped. (Some Americans, including many Irish immigrants and of some of their descendants, found other groups to fear and to hate.) Still, despite all the pressure to assimilate completely, certain aspects of the Irish cultural legacy lived on, including a diet rich in potatoes.
In the Irish part of my family, the potato stereotype held fast and true. If anything, it grew stronger in America. My mother has fond memories of her grandparents Basil and Isabelle (Daly) Jordan. They were both American-born, but they retained important aspects of their Irish heritage. According to my mother, Basil loved potatoes. “No meal is complete without a potato,” he always said. And he meant it. He might have a fried potato for breakfast, boiled potatoes with his lunch, and meat and potatoes for dinner. He once told my mom she looked too thin (she has never had this problem) and should eat more potatoes.
Isabelle’s family, too, had deep, tuberous roots in Ireland. In fact, what prompted me to write this post was a recent discovery about Isabelle’s maternal grandparents, William and Mary (Cramsie) Reynolds. I was working on an article about the Reynolds family for an upcoming issue of The Septs, the quarterly publication of the Irish Genealogical Society International, when I came across a sale notice for the Reynolds’ farm in The Derry Journal. It was January 1881, and the family was preparing to leave County Derry for America that spring. With only a trunk or two to carry their most necessary and valuable possessions, William and Mary had to sell not just the farm land but almost everything on the farm too: livestock, stored crops, farm implements, household furniture, and more. They ran a modest farm and, as Catholics, were in fact fortunate to own the land they cultivated. Among their modest possessions, one thing caught my eye. According to the sale notice, “The Crop consists of Three Stacks Oats, a large quantity of Hay and Straw, and about Twenty Tons of Potatoes, of a superior quality.” It was true! Here was proof that some of my Irish ancestors grew—and apparently subsisted on—tons and tons of potatoes and little else, even thirty-five years after the Great Hunger. Twenty tons of potatoes was more than enough to carry the family of two adults and five children through winter with some to spare.
A final point. It’s worth remembering that many of the foods we identify with certain ethnic groups reflect not just voluntary cultural choices, but choices imposed by poverty. Irish peasants ate mostly potatoes and milk because they could afford little else. When we ask, “why did the Irish eat so many potatoes?” our answers are partly to be found in English colonization and the confiscation of land by Protestants. Held in poverty, most Irish Catholics could afford nothing but the potatoes they grew on their small plots of rented land. William Reynolds’ parents Frederick James Reynolds and Mary Hasson were apparently quite poor. They had emigrated separately to America in 1848, arriving in Philadelphia with little more than the clothes on their backs. (Philadelphia was not a welcoming place for Irish immigrants in the 1840s. When and why Frederick and Mary Hasson Reynolds returned to Ireland and how they acquired land there are some of the questions raised in my article.)
Like the Irish and potatoes, African-American “soul food” reflects a history of oppression. “Soul food” developed from slave cooking in the American South and, after the Civil War, in rural and urban poverty throughout the U.S. While we take pride in all the creative ways the Irish found to cook potatoes and the genius of African-Americans to create “soul food” from scraps, we must remember that if given the choice most of these people would have preferred the varied diets, unusual flavors, and luxuries (like sugar, tea, coffee, and better cuts of meat) that were eaten by the upper classes.
When we think about our cultural inheritance from ancestors in such groups, we ought both to celebrate the perseverance and resourcefulness embodied by their cuisine and recognize the systems of power that limited their culinary (and nutritional) choices in the first place. It’s OK to be both proud and upset by the truth of your family history. So have a laugh when you find proof that the kernel of a now-harmless stereotype turns out to be true, but remember that such stereotypes usually have deeper, more sinister histories. Consider this fact not just when researching your own family’s immigrant ancestors but also when you look at your neighbors today.
Anna Smith’s life began, it seems, before her parents were quite ready for her. She was born January 11, 1873, probably at the home of her maternal grandparents in Big Blue township, Saline County, Nebraska. Exactly a year and a day later, her parents John Smith and Barbara Papik married in the nearby town of Crete. When Anna was born, her father John was still improving the farm he had claimed under the Homestead Act a few years earlier. It was just across the county line in Lancaster County. After the wedding, Barbara and little Anna moved onto the new farm with him.
Anna’s life had gotten off to an inauspicious start—at least if the moral authorities in the community had anything to say about her illegitimacy. I don’t personally believe in divine retribution for sin—especially not on a person who was the consequence not the cause—but as it would turn out, Anna’s adult life “was filled with more sorrow than with happiness” according to her obituary. She suffered from an illness that carried a deep societal stigma, and it ultimately led to a death that was both slow and painful. Anna is the next subject in the blog series You Died How?, which examines all the unusual ways my ancestors died.
A Vulgar Name?
Before we get into the details of Anna’s life and death, a quick note about her name. “Anna Smith” probably strikes you as an uber-generic English name. Our Anna Smith, however, was Czech. Her paternal grandfather was born in 1818 with the name Václav Fucík in the small village of Velká near Milevsko in what is now the region of South Bohemia in the Czech Republic. Václav and his wife Anna Němeček had at least five children between 1842 and 1858, including a son named Johan, Anna’s father.
In 1867, the Fucík family migrated to the United States. The manifest of the Bark Industrie, the ship that carried them across the Atlantic, recorded the German versions of their first names. Václav was written as Wenzel, for example, and František as Franz. Upon entering the United States, they changed names again. Václav became James. Johan became John. The surname Fucík became some version of Smith.
My family, like many, inherited the folktale about the family’s name being changed by officials at the port of entry. Whether it was officials in Baltimore or earlier Czech immigrants who had a grasp of English, someone suggested the Fucíks find a new surname. My hunch is that somebody pointed out how similar Fucík looks in writing to a particularly vulgar English word. (One irony of the name change, if indeed it was due to its similarity with “f***”, is that Johan Fucík/Smith’s official Certificate of Naturalization twice recorded the misspelled surname “Schidt”.)
According to a note written by John Fucík Smith’s granddaughter Emma Vanek Clark, the name Smith was assigned because John was a blacksmith. In fact, there is no evidence any of the men in the family were blacksmiths. The ship manifest records Václav as a farmer and eldest son Josef as, perhaps, a saddler. All four of the Fucík sons became farmers in America.
Whatever the reason, Václav Fucík became James Smith and the rest of the family followed suit. Ever since, all of Václav’s male-line descendants have carried the non-Slavic name Smith, including his granddaughter Anna.
A Life of Sorrow
Anna Smith grew up on her father’s homesteaded farm in Olive Branch Township, Lancaster County, Nebraska. We know very little about her early years, except that she must at a young age have been required to help her mother care for her many siblings. Eight more children blessed the Smith home, with Barbara giving birth every second or third year until 1892. Thankfully, all of them survived to adulthood. Anna’s parents did reasonably well on their farm, but they were never among the most prosperous families in the area.
Anna’s formal education was minimal. She attended some school alongside her younger siblings, but it appears her responsibilities at home limited her achievement. According to the 1900 census, Anna had not yet learned to speak English. Both of her parents and all of her siblings could. As long as she lived in the predominantly Czech area around the town of Crete, language would not be much of an issue. But that would not always be the case.
On June 4, 1892, Anna married Joseph Vanek. Joseph and his family were more recent arrivals than the Smiths. Joseph had been born in Bohemia in 1869 and had come to America with his parents and two brothers in 1883. Joseph’s teen years were spent on a farm several townships west of the Smiths. I presume the couple met either through mutual acquaintances or at Czech social gatherings in the primary market towns of Crete and Wilber. The wedding took place in Wilber with Anna’s uncles Joseph and Frank Smith serving as witnesses. After the celebration, the newlyweds moved onto 80 acres of farmland in western Saline County. Anna’s new home was more than 25 miles from the farm of her parents and siblings. At least most of their neighbors were still Czech.
The most life-changing event in Anna’s life probably occurred a year or two before the wedding when she suffered her first seizure. It probably struck her while she was a teenager still living at home with her parents. Even today, epilepsy is a mysterious illness and seizures a startling thing to witness. In the 1890s, people knew far less about the disease and the social stigma was significantly greater. Anna’s illness, bouts of which apparently recurred quite frequently, affected her for the remainder of her life. It significantly limited the relationships she had with other people.
Epilepsy did not, however, limit Anna’s fertility. She was almost always pregnant, giving birth to 15 children in just over 20 years. Unfortunately, even her children were a source of sorrow. Anna and Joseph’s very first child, whose name is unknown, died in infancy. Their sixth child, too, spent a heartbreakingly short time on Earth. Seven more healthy children followed before their last two children also died in infancy. Without a strong social network, Anna’s children were her dearest companions. The deaths of so many of her children as infants put even more burden on Anna’s already distressed psyche.
Joseph and Anna had limited options, but they were always looking for ways to improve Anna’s outlook. In 1906, they decided to move. “Thinking that a change of surroundings might be of benefit to his wife’s health,” states Anna’s obituary, Joseph sold the farm in Saline County and bought another one about 70 miles southwest in Nuckolls County, Nebraska, near the Kansas border. The tradeoff for new scenery was that their new farm was well beyond the area of Czech settlement. With no one else around who spoke her language, Anna became extremely lonely. “She missed her parents, brothers, sisters, and people who spoke her language,” continues her obituary. “She was not able to go out much, but was always glad to have people see her.”
And then little James died. James Vanek, called Václav at home after his grandfather, was the couple’s eleventh child. He was born in about April 1908 at the new farm in Nuckolls County. Despite his stern look in the photograph below, he was apparently a sweet boy. His mother had grown quite fond of him before a neočekávaným neštěstím—an “unexpected calamity”—struck him dead in October 1912 at age four-and-a-half. Family lore says he died in a farming accident. Anna’s obituary made special note of James and the affect his death had on a woman who already had more than her share of sorrow. After mentioning the four children Anna lost in infancy, it reads, “and one boy, little James, was accidentally killed at the age of five. Mrs. Vanek seemed to grieve a great deal over the loss of this boy.”
A Long, Painful Death
After moving to Nuckolls County, Anna “continued in poor health until her death,” a span of more than a decade. For a woman who had already suffered so much, one would have hoped that her death, when it came, would be quick. Alas, Anna faced more than three months of misery before the end finally came.
In mid September 1920, Anna suffered another seizure. It was probably no different than the ones she had regularly experienced over the previous thirty years. This time, however, she was not able to get to a safe place. Her death certificate explains what happened, though it is difficult to read on account of the doctor’s handwriting and the number of lines he squeezed into a small space. What I can make out is that a week previous to the doctor’s first visit on September 18, Anna had a seizure that resulted in a “severe scald (burn of right side back and neck . . . .” One can imagine Anna cooking at her potbelly stove when she suddenly collapsed on top of it, severely burning one side of her body.
The doctor treated her burns but they eventually became infected. Day after day she suffered as her wounds tried to heal. The doctor’s notes read, “at least 10 days [illegible] infection until last 10 days [illegible] many burns [illegible] . . .” as the infection slowly spread. Finally, on November 19, 1920, her body gave up.
Anna was just 47 years old. She was survived by both of her parents and all eight of her siblings.
The obituary, which I have quoted several times above, was obviously written by her grieving husband Joseph. The writing expresses far more pathos than was typical for an obituary from this era. Reading it, one senses how much Joseph recognized Anna’s fortitude and how much he loved spending time with her despite the limitations of her illness. One also senses that Anna’s death was in many ways a relief, not least for Anna herself. No more violent seizures. No more shame or social anxiety. No more loneliness. Just peace.
It Could Have Been Worse
When I think about Anna’s life, I am reminded how lucky I am to be healthy, educated, and surrounded by loyal friends. Anna had none of these things. She didn’t so much live as persevere. I admire her for the care and devotion she put into the few relationships she did have. I have a lot of admiration for Joseph Vanek, too, for his strength in dealing with his wife’s illness. He was involved more than most fathers of his day in rearing his children. When Anna died, six children still lived at home with him. He never remarried. Anna was fortunate to have such a devoted husband and father.
Proponents of eugenics for epileptics presumed that the cause of the disease was genetic. They believed they were “purifying” the gene pool and “improving” humanity by removing disease-causing genes. We now know that only in rare cases is epilepsy caused by a single underlying genetic mutation. Most of the time, its cause is more complicated. Sometimes, epilepsy is the result of an undiagnosed brain infection, stroke, or past head trauma. Usually, the cause is a complex of genetic factors and environmental stimuli. More than different 200 genes have been identified that are sometimes associated with epileptic seizures. How these genes interact with each other and with sensory inputs remains the cutting edge of research.
In short, the state-sponsored eugenics of the past was based in ignorance and its measures were extreme, like using a sledgehammer when a scalpel was called for. The collateral damage was immense. It remains perhaps the most striking American example of unnecessary government involvement in citizens’ private lives. The government forcibly prevented thousands of people from having children by destroying their God-given reproductive biology.
At the same time, the impulse behind eugenics doesn’t seem so bad; the goal to eliminate disease and improve human lives is nearly universal. And there have been some noted successes. For example, voluntary genetic testing has been used to discourage marriages between carriers of the recessive gene for Tay-Sachs disease, leading to a significant reduction in the occurrence of the child-killing disease among Ashkenazi Jews in North America.
The debate over the ethics of eugenics continues today. It is philosophical, political, and scientific. It lies at the heart of debates over pre-natal testing, abortion, and genetic engineering of humans and human organs. The lesson to take from last century’s eugenics programs is that we must move forward with caution, taking extra care not to ruin lives in an effort to save them. Anna Smith’s epilepsy was apparently not a case of simple genetic mutation. As far as I am aware, none of her descendants has since suffered from epilepsy. Preventing her from having children would not in any way have “improved” humanity. I, for one, am thankful she had children.
First, our genes are wildly mixed up. While different ethnic origins can sometimes be assigned to different DNA segments, this only tells you about the background population from which those genes derive. It cannot on its own identify when a particular person came from that country. The article linked above gives the example that someone with 39% British Isles ancestry might have a parent from England, or, as is actually the case, a bunch of really distant British ancestors up several different lines. If genes from those people happen to be inherited in sequence on a number of different chromosomes, it might appear that the genes originated as a single unit in the recent past rather than the reality that a bunch of different segments were inherited from many different people who ultimately came from the same population centuries ago (i.e., roots in New England).
The second issue is historical. National borders that exist today did not exist a few centuries ago. Migration has always taken place. Putting these two together, you can understand how someone of French extract—let’s call her Angelique—might have a mix of genes that appear to the test to be Scandinavian and Mediterranean (Italian) rather than Western European. For Angelique, the current French border obscures the deeper history of Roman occupation and the Viking settlement in Normandy. Even if everyone in Angelique’s document-able family tree spoke French and lived in northern France, Angelique’s genes suggest that she happened to inherit more genes derived from Roman and Viking fore-bearers than, say, Germanic (Frankish) ones.
Taking this example one step further, it’s impossible for commercial DNA tests like 23andMe or AncestryDNA to determine on their own (without documentary evidence of some kind) whether Angelique’s Mediterranean ancestry in fact came from an underlying Roman genetic pool or instead originated in a smaller population descended from, say, a troop of Italian craftspeople who intermarried with the local French population after migrating to France to help build a 14th-century castle. The history is simply too complex and the DNA too fragmented to tell the difference without serious scientific study of particular genes or without much larger pools of historical DNA to compare with.
In the end, population history and population genetics make something like 23andMe’s ancestry timeline an impossible endeavor. It may make good marketing, but it doesn’t make valid history.
As I kick off 2017, I am working on (and waiting on) quite a number of DNA projects. Here’s a rundown. I hope these provide some ideas about different ways you might be able to use DNA to answer your own genealogical questions.
A client and I are waiting on the AncestryDNA test results of her brother as we search for information about their biological grandparents. Their now-deceased father was left at an orphanage as a newborn. While the ethnicity breakdown is somewhat useful, what we’re really looking for are relatively close cousins on their paternal side.
My dad and I are awaiting his AncestryDNA results, which he sent in before Christmas. I have spent years building out my family tree. It was a difficult “loss” when I found out my dad was not my biological father and that his ancestors were not also my ancestors, at least not genetically. (I’ve written elsewhere about how I have embraced having three full branches on my family tree.) So I’m excited to see the results for a family that, as it turned out, my own DNA couldn’t tell me anything about. My dad’s family tree is pretty interesting. The top half—his father’s ancestors—were all of Czech origin, but their surnames suggest a mix of Slavic, German (Bernklau, Fitzthum), and even Italian (Filipi) ancestry. The bottom half—his mother’s ancestors—were a muddled mix of people who traced their roots back through the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic. Before the branches converged in Illinois and Nebraska, they were English settlers in New Jersey, German and Scots-Irish settlers in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Swedes from the New Sweden colony, Quakers around Philadelphia, and a mix of English, Scottish, Welsh, and French Huguenot settlers in colonial Maryland.
Sometime in the next couple weeks, I will be sitting down with my 91-year-old maternal grandmother to talk about her family history. I am hoping I can convince her to take a DNA test. (I won’t force her if she’s uncomfortable with the idea.) It’s always good to test the oldest people in your family if you can. My grandmother’s ancestry is fully Irish. Her fore-bearers came from all corners of the island: Mayo, Kerry, Laois, Wicklow, and Derry, plus a couple lines whose specific origin in Ireland I am still researching. I am hoping the cousin matches will help me prove a couple relationships here in the U.S. and back in Ireland.
Last week I met with my wife’s uncle. While we were researching my wife’s maternal family a couple years ago, we discovered that her great-grandfather Edward Van Loy had been born out-of-wedlock in the city of Leiden in the Netherlands. The document recording the marriage of Edward’s mother Theresia Gedaan to Alphonsus Van Loy includes a section in which Alphonsus agreed to recognize Edward and his sister Seraphina (who had also been born before the marriage) as his own children. My wife’s uncle agreed to take a Y-chromosome test to see if we can identify a probable surname for Edward’s biological father (or, less likely, confirm that Alphonsus Van Loy was in fact the father). We ordered the 111-marker test from FamilyTreeDNA—the most detailed one—to give us the clearest picture right from the start.
Documentary evidence leads to the conclusion that one of my ancestors was a Native American woman who lived near the Red River of the North around 1800. She was possibly a member of either the Ojibwe or Assiboine tribe. I’m too many generations removed from her for Native American DNA to appear in my ethnicity chart. Her genes simply did not survive eight generations of random genetic recombination. I descend from the woman’s mixed-blood daughter Louise Godon and granddaughter Angelique Gobin. Unfortunately, the next person in the line between us is a man. In hopes of proving the Native American connection, I have reached out to a couple cousins who descend from Angelique or Louise through entirely female lines. I am encouraging them to take a mitochondrial DNA test. If everything is as expected, their mitochondrial DNA should come from one of the distinctive Native American haplogroups.
I will provide some short updates as results come in.
Here in the Upper Midwest, the weather is about to turn frigid. It’s four degrees Fahrenheit as I write this and forecast to hover around zero all week. It happens every year, but it’s still a notable event when the Arctic air finally arrives. The bitter cold forces everyone to change behavior. More time reading under a blanket or sitting by the fireplace, less time outside. It takes longer to go anywhere for the simple fact that one needs to put on so many layers of clothing before stepping into subzero temperatures. (You know this to be especially true if you have young children.)
With the onset of frigid weather, I thought I would write a short post about my 4x-great-grandfather František “Frank” Filipi, who had a dreadful relationship with winter. Indeed, it killed him. The story of Frank’s suffering and ultimately his death at the hands of Old Man Winter is the fourth installment in the GeneaLOGIC blog series “You Died How?”.
Meet Frank (again)
We’ve already met Frank. He was a minor character—in the role of father-in-law—in the story of my great-great-great-grandfather Jacob Kobes, who died in his own winter accident in 1895. In that story, we learned that Frank Filipi’s family lived in Racine County, Wisconsin in the 1860s and moved with the Kobeses to Saline County, Nebraska, in 1869 to acquire land under the 1862 Homestead Act.
Frank was born in about 1821, possibly in the village of Ceská Trebová in eastern Bohemia. Records about him are scarce. He declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen in 1856 in Racine County, Wisconsin, and then claimed land in Nebraska in 1869. Aside from Homestead records (which include copies of some of his immigration documents), the Filipi family has been almost impossible to track down. The family is missing from both the 1860 and 1870 censuses. I honestly believe Frank may have been trying to conceal his identity whenever he could. Perhaps he was still paranoid about reprisals from his possible involvement in one of the failed revolutions in Europe in 1848. I plan to write a separate blog post about all the missing and misleading records about Frank and his family.
Only one census record definitively shows Frank and his family. In 1880, we find Frank and his wife Josephine in Wilber Precinct (as townships are called in some Nebraska counties), Saline County, Nebraska, one household away from the family of their daughter Marie Filipi Kobes and her husband Jacob. Frank and Josephine Filipi were both approaching sixty years old (though other records suggest Josephine was a bit younger than that). Three children still lived at home with them: 16-year-old Joseph, 12-year-old Ludwig, and 9-year-old Emma.
The agricultural schedule tells us that Frank owned 80 acres of land, with 60 acres under till. The variety of crops the Filipis grew was mostly unexceptional: wheat, corn, oats, rye, and potatoes. The Filipis stood out somewhat from their neighbors in that they had produced in 1879 not just milk, like all the other farmers, but 25 lbs. of cheese. They also harvested a small grove of peach trees.
The most notable thing about Frank, however, comes from the population schedule. Column 15, under the heading Health, asked, “Is the person . . . sick or temporarily disabled, as to be unable to attend to ordinary business or duties? If so, what is the sickness or disability?” Next to Frank Filipi’s name, the census enumerator wrote “Toes & Fingers frozen off.”
Well that’s gruesome. One can imagine a dozen scenarios in which a farmer in Wisconsin or Nebraska might have succumbed to frostbite. Had he been caught in a surprise blizzard and been unable to find his way back to the house? Or had he merely been careless while traveling one winter day, failing to realize the damage the cold was inflicting upon his body until too late? As with many genealogical questions, we may never know. We can speculate that Frank’s lack of toes may have played a role in his even more gruesome death a few years later.
A Gruesome End
March 1886 was cold and snowy throughout Nebraska. The weather summary for March printed in the Annual Report of the State Board of Agriculture, reads, “The most striking feature of the month of March has been the unprecedented snow fall of 25.3 inches, the normal amount for March being 4.6 inches. . . . The precipitation, the number of days of precipitation, and the proportion of cloudy days have been correspondingly large.” Likewise, “The temperature has been about five degrees below normal, being the coldest March, except that of 1881, for the past nine years.”
The total of 25.3 inches was an average of observations made across the state, but mostly in southeastern Nebraska, where Frank lived. In fact, we can make an educated guess at how much snow fell in Wilber. Both Crete, eleven miles north of Wilber, and De Witt, seven miles south, had weather stations. Crete recorded 2.39 inches of precipitation that month, while De Witt reported 1.8 inches. Assuming most of that precipitation fell as snow and using a ratio of about 8:1 (typical of wet spring snow), we can calculate that Wilber saw between 15 and 20 inches of snow in March 1886.
Into this world of snowdrifts, daytime thaws, and nighttime freezes, walked Frank Filipi and his missing toes. It was the middle of the month, still a couple weeks before the weather finally warmed up for good. Perhaps it was Sunday, March 14, and Frank and family were strolling through Wilber with their fellow churchgoers. Maybe it was Tuesday the 16th, as Frank made a quick run into town for supplies of some sort. For whatever reason, Frank was walking the business blocks in the village of Wilber on foot. All it took was on misstep. He slipped on a patch of ice, flew into the air in a classic winter pose, fell into the opening of a basement entry to one of the businesses, and broke his neck.
The only report I’ve found of his death was a succinct summary printed in the Omaha Daily Bee on Wednesday, March 17 (above), which is short on both details and empathy. No doubt Frank’s family missed him and were shocked by his sudden death. If there is a silver lining, it’s that Frank was already 65 years old. He hadn’t been all that much use around the farm since he lost his fingers or toes. Recall that his disability was recorded under the heading “unable to attend to ordinary business or duties.” All his children were grown. By 1886, Frank was far more dependent on other people than anyone was on him.
Let Frank’s tragic death serve as a reminder to all of us in advance of the cold and snow. Be careful out there. And if you see someone having trouble getting around on an icy day this winter, give them a hand. If snow and ice are treacherous for you, they’re even more annoying and dangerous for people in wheelchairs, visually impaired people with white canes, and others, like Frank, whose lack of toes was probably not evident but whose lack of balance might have been.
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’s 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.
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 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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.