Elmer Nesteby Family Christmas Card cropped for Facebook

What’s up with “dit” names?

Anyone doing French-Canadian genealogy eventually runs across “dit” (pronounced “dee”) names. Meaning “called,”  the “dit” name functioned like an alias or a second surname. It could be used together with the regular surname or as a substitute. Sometimes the “dit” name was not necessary and was left out of certain records. Not all French-Canadian individuals or families had a “dit” name. So where did “dit” names come from? How were they chosen? A cousin of mine recently asked me me about the origin of a specific “dit” name, that of Francois Forcier dit Nadeau (1740-1800). I thought I would share my findings with all of you, since they help answer the broader questions posed above.

Francois Forcier dit Nadeau's name cropped from the parish record of his 1761 marriage.
Francois Forcier dit Nadeau’s name cropped from the parish record of his 1761 marriage to Agathe Hebert. Source: “Québec, registres paroissiaux catholiques, 1621-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G993-Z96D?cc=1321742&wc=9RLD-DPG%3A21947601%2C21947602%2C21947603 : 16 July 2014), Saint-Michel-d’Yamaska > Saint-Michel-d’Yamaska > Baptêmes, mariages, sépultures 1727-1775 > image 216 of 368; nos paroisses de Église Catholique, Quebec (Catholic Church parishes, Quebec).

In general, “dit” names became common in French Canada as a way to help distinguish different branches of the same family. The founding population of French Canada numbered only about 20,000 settled immigrants during the French period, and due to the colony’s early gender imbalance, only about half of those individuals left behind descendants. All of our French-Canadian heritage thus goes back to the same 10,000 or so founders. That may sound like a lot, but it’s actually not that many families, only a few thousand. As the years progressed, the population expanded rapidly from this small founding stock. A few of the original settlers already had 5,000 to 10,000 married descendants by the year 1800! As you can imagine, some families had dozens of people alive at the same time who shared the same handful of common given names: Joseph, Francois, Jacques, Pierre, Louis, Jean, and Jean-Baptiste; Marie, Marguerite, Magdaleine, Louise, Josephte, and Francoise. This was the case with the Forcier family.

The Forcier family in Quebec goes back to a single couple, Pierre Forcier and Marguerite Girard, who married in about 1670. Pierre and Marguerite settled on a farm in the parish of St-Francois du Lac, a few miles inland from the south shore of the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Trois-Rivieres. Pierre and Marguerite had four surviving children, including two sons, Joseph-Antoine and Jacques. These two men each fathered four sons of their own who left descendants. As the family grew through several generations, many younger Forciers moved into the neighboring parish of Yamaska. Within three or four generations, by the 1730s and 1740s, the Forcier families of St-Francois du Lac and Yamaska faced the dilemma of how to keep everyone straight without each person needing to recount his or her full lineage. “Dit” names were one solution.

How did a person choose a new “dit” name? In our case, why Nadeau? Historically, “dit” names had many sources. Some were nicknames given to soldiers. Some were descriptive. Jean Lehay dit Hibernois, for example, was an Irishman taken captive in upstate New York during King William’s War. After marrying and settling down in New France, he was given the “dit” name Hibernois, “the Irishman,” a name many of his descendants continued to carry. Sometimes the “dit” name derived from the mother’s family. One branch of the Petit family carried the “dit” name Gobin. The founding couple of this line was Francois Petit and Jeanne Gobin.

Francois Forcier dit Nadeau appears to have chosen (or been given) the “dit” name Nadeau in honor of Olivier-Francois Nadeau, his godfather and uncle-through-marriage. Francois Forcier was born and baptized June 13, 1740, and Francois Nadeau was listed as his godfather. Marguerite Forcier, Francois Forcier’s aunt, was his female sponsor. Two years later, on April 3, 1742, Olivier-Francois Nadeau married Marguerite Forcier.

Baptism record of Francois Forcier with Francois Nadeau's name highlighted.
Baptism record of Francois Forcier, 13 Jun 1740 at St-Michel d’Yamaska. I have highlighted the two places his parrain (godfather) Francois Nadeau is named.
Source: “Québec, registres paroissiaux catholiques, 1621-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L993-Z98D?cc=1321742&wc=9RLD-DPG%3A21947601%2C21947602%2C21947603 : 16 July 2014), Saint-Michel-d’Yamaska > Saint-Michel-d’Yamaska > Baptêmes, mariages, sépultures 1727-1775 > image 71 of 368; nos paroisses de Église Catholique, Quebec (Catholic Church parishes, Quebec).

The Forciers ended up with three distinct “dit” names: Nadeau, Gaucher, and Mette. (I haven’t researched the origins of the other two “dit” names, but gaucher means left-handed.) Most of Francois’s descendants continued to use the “dit” name Nadeau (though it’s not included on every record). The three “dit” names helped keep different branches straight. Unfortunately, as the families grew even more, even these three extra names could not  provide enough variety to sort out all the problems of identity within the Forcier families of Yamaska. Take, for example, this excellent research case in which the author tried to identify which Pierre Forcier from Yamaska was the one who ended up working for the American Fur Company in La Pointe, Wisconsin, in the 1830s.

“Dit” names in the USA

Photo or drawing of Jean Baptiste Forcier
Portrait or drawing of Jean Baptiste Forcier, cropped from image with his wife and daughter, uploaded by Ancestry.com user NettyeLaP 25 Jan 2014.

When French-Canadians emigrated to the United States, they typically stopped using a “dit” name. They almost always reverted to using just a single surname. Be aware, though, your French-Canadian immigrant ancestors might have chosen either their traditional surname or their “dit” name as their permanent surname in the United States.

Francois Forcier dit Nadeau’s grandson Jean-Baptiste Forcier dit Nadeau (pictured at right) chose to drop Nadeau in the United States. He became simply Jean Baptiste Forcier. But Olivier Pichet dit Dupre and his brothers all chose to keep the “dit” name Dupre instead of Pichet. Likewise, Joseph Petit dit Gobin became Joseph Gobin.

If you’re struggling to find the connection between your ancestor in the United States and his or her family of origin in Quebec, plug the surname you know into this search bar to find associated “dit” names. You can also review a list of name variations and “dit” names here. This might be the breakthrough you need.

Elmer Nesteby Family Christmas Card cropped for Facebook

“More Sorrow than Happiness:” The Life and Death of Anna Smith

John Smith and Barbara Papik, possibly a wedding photograph from 1874, or more likely from the 1880s. Photograph by “The Traveling Art Company,” about which I can find absolutely zero information.

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?

Anna Němeček, 1890s?
Anna Němeček, ca. 1890

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.Copy of ship manifest from Bark Industrie, which arrived in Baltimore from Bremen Jun 17, 1867, showing the Fucik family. From National Archives microfilm.

John Fucik/Smith's name written as "Schidt" on his Certificate of Naturalization.
John Fucik/Smith’s name written as “John Schidt” on his Certificate of Naturalization, May 14, 1874, in Saline County, Nebraska. In his Homestead paperwork, John had to write an addendum stating that he was the same man who had been recorded under several different names on various attached documents—John and Johan; Smith, Schmidt, and Schidt.

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.

Vanek family photograph, 1908.
This picture was probably taken in early 1908, not 1909. Their next child James was born in about April 1908, and it appears Anna was quite pregnant when this photograph was taken. This dating would match the ages of the other little kids too, including my great-grandfather Lloyd who would have been about three and a half.

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.”

Younger Vanek children, 1911.
Younger Vanek children, 1911. Standing: Lloyd, Emma, and Albena. Seated: James and Mary Jane.

Václav (James) Vanek obituary from Wilberske Lisky, 30 Oct 1912, pg. 4.
Václav (James) Vanek obituary from Wilberské listy, 30 Oct 1912, pg. 4. Nebraska Newspapers: http://nebnewspapers.unl.edu. Note that nearly all of the children had both Czech names and English ones. Until I found this obituary, no one in my family knew that my great-grandfather Lloyd was called Ladislav in Czech.

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.

Cause of death section from Anna Vanek's obituary.
Cause of death section from Anna Vanek’s obituary. It is quite difficult to read.
Needless to say, Joseph and Anna Vanek were not wealthy. All Joseph could afford was this cement slab.

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.

Joseph Vanek with his and Anna's youngest children, Mary and Herman, ca. 1915.
Joseph Vanek with his and Anna’s youngest children, Mary and Herman, ca. 1915. I adore this photograph. It looks like Joseph loved being a dad.

Anna was fortunate from another perspective, too. Had she been born a generation or two later, in the 1890s, 1900s or 1910s, the state or federal government might have sterilized her against her will. Epileptics were commonly included in eugenics legislation that became widespread during the 1910s and 1920s. (Nebraska passed a number of eugenic sterilization laws, but none of them applied to epileptics.) Some states did not go quite as far as forced sterilization, but they nonetheless prevented epileptics from marrying and having children. If Anna had been sterilized or prevented from marrying, her ten surviving children never would have been born and her many hundreds of descendants would not be here today.

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.

Children of Joseph and Anna Smith Vanek, 1911.
Children of Joseph and Anna Smith Vanek, 1911. Only Herman, born 23 Apr 1911, is missing. Of the ten who reached adulthood, all but Herman had children of their own.
Elmer Nesteby Family Christmas Card cropped for Facebook

Real-life DNA Testing, 2017

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 FamilyTreeDNAthe most detailed one—to give us the clearest picture right from the start.
  • Angelique Gobin Gervais was born around 1830 in the Red River Settlement and lived to be about 95 years old. At her death in 1925, people believed she was even older, about 105 or 106. This photograph of her was originally posted on Ancestry.com by another decedent. We must always be wary of judging race by appearance alone, but Angelique’s facial appearance at least suggested the possibility of Native American ancestry.

    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.

Elmer Nesteby Family Christmas Card cropped for Facebook

František Filipi and the Perils of Winter

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.

This copy of Frank Filipi’s declaration of intention was included among his Homestead paperwork. Only U.S. citizens could claim land under the Homestead Act. Note that even within this single document, both his first name and surname are spelled several different ways.

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.

Frank Filipi family in the 1880 census. Wilber Precinct, Saline County, Nebraska, page 1. (Downloaded from Ancestry.com.)

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.

Omaha Daily Bee, March 17, 1886, pg. 4, column 5, under “Nebraska Jottings.”


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.

Elmer Nesteby Family Christmas Card cropped for Facebook

An Extra Branch on the Ol’ Family Tree

Welcome to the GeneaLOGIC blog. Here you’ll find posts about genetic genealogy, stories from my own family and some of my clients (with their permission, of course), insights about lesser-known archives and documents, ideas for your own research, and more.

Tree with three branches
Having three branches on your family tree can feel a little crowded. How does that third branch fit with the other two?

For my first post, I thought I would write about what it’s been like to be a genealogist with three branches on my family tree. If you’ve read the About page on this site, you know that two years ago my parents told me they had used a sperm donor to conceive me. In this post, I’m not going to write about my personal response to the news so much as my “genealogical” reaction. They’re related but distinct in my mind. Had I lost an entire branch of my family tree? Had I gained a branch? After years of researching both my mom’s and dad’s families, where did my family tree stand now that my true biological origins had been revealed?

One of the reasons my parents hadn’t told me they earlier that they had used a donor was precisely because I had become such a genealogy hound. “How were we to know we would get the genealogy kid?” my dad asked with exasperation during that first, most difficult conversation about the subject. And I get it. My obsessive hobby put them in a tough spot. Not only did I love my dad and my grandparents, but I was also quite attached to many of his — our — distant ancestors. Telling me they had used a sperm donor would, in a way, sever me from all of those people. My parents feared that my reaction would be much worse than it was.

To be sure, I have had to face that I am not biologically related to my dad’s family. I still mourn the loss a little bit, and not just for my dad himself. I lost biological relationships to early settlers in the New Sweden colony and to a rogue-ish New England heretic named Jonathan Singletary who upon his exile reinvented himself as the New Jersey miller Jonathan Dunham. I lost ties to Methodist preachers like Reverend Burgess Nelson, Revolutionary War veteran and Appalachian circuit rider Rezin Simpson, and abolitionist Illinois minister Abel Dunham. I no longer share genes with Palatine refugees who were part of the very first large-scale German immigration to America in 1709-10 or with Czech villagers who fled political retribution after the failed 1848 uprisings in Europe.

And yet, these families are in many ways my cultural legacy. Though I grew up in liberal Yankee-German-Scandinavian Minnesota, my closest family relationships besides my parents were with my grandparents in Nebraska. They were inheritors of a rural, more conservative midlands culture with roots farther east in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. My grandma said “warsh” and “garsh.” She had no rhythm but still taught me how to polka. I attended a family reunion or two on my great-uncle’s big Nebraska farm (which he still operates). My grandfather was 100% Czech in ancestry. He took me to Czech Days in Wilber, Nebraska — self-proclaimed Czech capital of the U.S.A. He also took me flying over Nebraska’s endless cornfields in his Piper Colt. Together as a family, we drove a short distance to the Platte River in the early spring to watch the magical sandhill crane migration.

For all of these reasons, I still consider my dad’s family to be a full branch of my family tree. Even if I’m not biologically his son, I wouldn’t be here if he and my mom hadn’t decided to use a donor. My birth depended entirely on his (and my mom’s) desire to have me. There’s no sense in abandoning him or the impact his more distant family had on me as both a person and a genealogist.

All of that said, genealogist John was also excited by the news. Everybody has two main branches on their family tree. How many people get to have three?! I got to research an entirely new branch. (The hard part was figuring out where it fits in relation to the other two — but that’s the personal side of the story which I’ll leave for another time.)

At first glance, the donor’s ancestry wasn’t as exciting or diverse as my dad’s family. It’s almost entirely German Catholics who settled in central Minnesota during the late 19th century. I haven’t come across as many unexpected stories as I had found my dad’s side (suicides, accidents, stark moral decisions about slavery, etc.). One non-German line found its way into the tree, and it’s pretty neat. It goes back to New York Loyalists who chose to remain in the United States after the Revolution when some of their relatives moved to Canada. Further up that line are several families who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay colony during the 1640s to work in John Winthrop, Jr.’s iron works. They were among the earliest dedicated industrial workers in America (though calling it “industrial” a bit misleading, since their work looked nothing like the later factory system we’re used to). Even further back, my biological father descends from Alice Boleyn, aunt of the beheaded English Queen Anne Boleyn and one-time caretaker of both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.

In summary, I have three full branches of my family tree, and I am fond of each of them in a different way. Each leaf on each branch represents a fascinating individual story. Together, they tell a fairly comprehensive history of America north of the 39th parallel. Perhaps most importantly, without any single person on any of the three branches, I would not be here today. Every family tree is quirky. In my case, I needed a third branch.