This past weekend I attended a three-day retreat for professional genealogists. The retreat provided a chance for professionals from around the country (including several industry leaders) to discuss anything and everything related to our field. Among many other things, we discussed ideas for working better with clients, ways to improve our businesses (from time management tools to marketing), opportunities for collaborating and subcontracting with other professional genealogists, the ever-changing roles of various national organizations, and the need for a national conversation about ethics and DNA testing.
The secluded setting and lack of a formal schedule encouraged discussions that were challenging, wide-ranging, and honest, but always respectful. Between sessions, we got to know each other on a more personal level. For the most part genealogists work in isolation. The retreat helped create the close professional social network many of us seek but which is hard to develop during the hustle and bustle of conferences. The relationships I formed over the weekend will no doubt be important to my professional life moving forward. Perhaps just as important, I can already see a few of them becoming personal friendships too.
Personal Family History
Like any self-respecting genealogist on a road trip, I had to find a connection to my own family history along the way. And I did. The retreat was held in rural Michigan. To get there from where I live in Minnesota, I had to drive through the Upper Peninsula and across the Mackinaw Bridge. On my way home, I decided to stop at Fort Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City. The current fort is a careful reconstruction based on archaeological findings. It is located on the south shore of the Straits of Mackinac, where the original fort sat from about 1715 until the 1780s when the British moved it to Mackinaw Island. Several of my French-Canadian ancestors engaged as voyageurs in the Pays d’en Haut. While most of them were sent to Grand Portage/Fort William or still farther north and west, some of them no doubt stopped at Michilimackinac on their way.
Perhaps most notably, I am a direct descendant of Olivier Morel, Sieur de LaDurantaye, who was the first French commandant at Michilimackinac. He was stationed near the mission of St. Ignace on the north side of the Straits of Mackinac from 1683 until 1690, years before Fort Michilimackinac was constructed on the south shore.
The fort’s history and my family history come together most closely in the reconstructed Sainte Anne Church, which is inside the fort’s palisade. In October 1746, a baby girl named Agathe was baptized in the original Sainte Anne’s at Michilimackinac. Her mother was “Marie Charlotte, a woman Savage baptized last year” and her father was an unknown Frenchman. However, evidence suggests that her father was probably fur trader and local rapscallion Charles Hamelin, who was based out of Sault Ste. Marie.
According to an inventory conducted after her husband’s death, Agathe Hameline married a French-Canadian voyageur named Joseph Normand in 1761 somewhere in the Illinois Country (perhaps at Fort St. Joseph in modern southwestern Michigan). Their first three children were baptized at Fort St. Joseph in August 1768, among them my ancestor Marie Josèphte Normand. In 1773, when Marie Josèphte was about eight or nine years old, the family moved east to the Province of Quebec, settling west of Montreal. The Normands remained in the east for the remainder of their lives. By the time Marie Josèphte’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren moved to Minnesota 1873, memory of their western ties and Native American ancestry seems to have been lost. At the very least it was obscured. Racial mixing carried a much different social meaning in late 19th century United States than it did during the French fur trade era.
If the part-Ojibwe girl baptized at Michilimackinac in 1746 was indeed the same Agathe who later married Joseph Normand (the case is strong but not definitive), then she is my 7x-great-grandmother. Visiting the reconstructed church on the very site of her baptism opened a window into a life—and a culture—generations removed from present experience. It is as close as a living descendant can come to being present in her story.
I recently led my mom (and the rest of my immediate family) on a fun day exploring family history in our own backyard. We toured of part of the region to which my mom never thought she had any special connection: the city of Minneapolis.
My mom always knew she had deep roots in Minnesota, especially to the city of St. Paul and its suburbs. She grew up in St. Paul. Her mother grew up there. Her maternal grandfather worked for years in the stockyards in South St. Paul. My mom also knew some her father’s French-Canadian ancestors had lived in St. Paul’s northern suburbs Little Canada and Centerville for generations, and she had an inkling a few of them had once been in St. Paul, too. (Indeed, one family was among the very first to stake claims in the future state capital in 1838, and in 1841 they donated half the land for the Catholic church that gave the city its name.)
When I first asked my mom and her brothers if we had any direct ties to Minneapolis—the western “twin” of the Twin Cities—they didn’t know. They didn’t think so. I was disappointed by that answer. I grew up in the western suburbs of the Twin Cities. When we went into “the city” for a concert or a baseball game or the farmer’s market, it was almost always to Minneapolis not St. Paul. My dad worked in one of the skyscrapers in downtown Minneapolis. When people from outside Minnesota asked me where I was from, I usually said Minneapolis. As I researched my mom’s family, I wanted to have some relationship to the city’s history. That’s where the action was when I was growing up. That’s where most of the action has been for a century and a half.
Since the 1850s, Minneapolis has been the beating heart of the regional economy. While St. Paul grew into a major city because it was the head of navigation on the Mississippi River and the state capital, Minneapolis grew even bigger because it had the Mississippi River’s only natural waterfall. St. Anthony Falls powered the city’s industries, transforming it into a global saw- and flour-milling superpower by 1880. Its mills processed grain from southern and western Minnesota and the Dakotas and timber from the vast north woods. (Recognizable brand names from this era of Minneapolis history include Pillsbury and Gold Medal Flour.) If my family’s collective memory was all we had to go on, then our family story remained peripheral to the story of Minneapolis. They lived in St. Paul and in the metropolitan area’s agricultural hinterland, but not in industrial Minneapolis.
However, as I researched our LaBelle ancestors (the surname my mom and uncles were born with), I discovered that, in fact, three generations had lived, worked, fell in love, and died in the heart of the Minneapolis Mill District over the course of more than thirty years.
What follows is, first, a narrative of my family’s ties to the St. Anthony Mill District of old Minneapolis, and second, a rundown of the LaBelle family history tour I recently led my family on.
Coming to Minneapolis
The story of the LaBelle migration to Minneapolis is long and complicated. I won’t detail it all here. It was a case of serial migration that lasted at least thirty years, from 1848 to 1878, and included three generations of migrants. The patriarchs were two brothers, Pierre (b: 1799) and Alarie Lebel (b: 1801). (The name had been spelled Lebel in Canada ever since Nicolas Lebel arrived in New France in 1654. LaBelle became the standard form in the U.S.) The migration started from a single spot—their family farms near Gentilly, Quebec—but it ended in towns across the northern United States. Descendants of Pierre and Alarie helped construct the final stretches of the transcontinental railroad in Wyoming, logged and sawed timber in northern Wisconsin, ran a saloon and grocery store in Bay City, Michigan, and became laborers and carpenters in Minneapolis, among many other things. One descendent named George LaBelle ran the largest automobile-based transportation company in the Twin Cities in the mid 1920s and in 1928 was a founding partner in the Allied Van Lines cooperative.
My direct ancestral line brought up the rear. Patriarch Alarie Lebel was already an old man—a 65-year-old widow—when he first came to the United States in 1866. It appears he was cared for in turn by his various children. He settled first with the family of his son Uldorique (Roderick) in Brown County, Wisconsin. That’s where some of Alarie’s nieces and nephews (Pierre’s children) had settled in the late 1840s. By 1880, ol’ man “Alarie” had moved to Bay City, Michigan, where his daughter Adeline and her husband Patrick Pelletier ran a grocery store. Only in 1881, when Alarie was 80 years old, does he show up in the Minneapolis city directory for the first time. By 1881, Minneapolis made the most sense for Alarie to be cared for by his children. In the preceding decade, his children Ovid, Noah, Philonese, Olive, and Roderick had all moved to the city.
Alarie’s eldest son Ovid Lebel (b: 1831) is my direct ancestor. It appears he was the last member of the family to leave Quebec. My hunch is that Ovid was in line to inherit the family farm in Gentilly. Word from relatives must have convinced him and his wife Rosalie Goudreau that they could do better in America. Or perhaps Ovid believed he needed help caring for Rosalie, who began showing symptoms of some sort of mental illness in the early 1870s. (More on this below). Ovid and family came to the United States between 1875 and 1877, settling first in Houghton County, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, and then trickling into Minneapolis during the summer and fall of 1878. Among the children Ovid and Rosalie brought with them was their sixteen-year-old son Ferdinand (b: 1862), my great-great-grandfather.
A Hard Life Along the Riverfront
The LaBelles needed work and Minneapolis needed workers. Upon arriving in the city, Ovid’s family moved straight into the heart of the mill district on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Ovid and the couple’s older sons found plenty of work as day laborers. The family couldn’t afford much for living quarters. In fact, the LaBelles’ first residence in Minneapolis was the oldest house in the city. Ovid’s 1913 obituary states quite clearly (in French) that “35 years ago he resided in the Godfrey House, the first house constructed in Minneapolis.”
Nowadays, the Ard Godfrey House is preserved as a museum, a memorial to the earliest Euro-American settlement at St. Anthony Falls. In 1848, prominent early Minnesota businessman Franklin Steele hired Ard Godfrey to build the first dam and commercial sawmill at the falls. Godfrey used some of the fresh-sawed lumber to build a small but surprisingly spacious five-bedroom home for his family. The house stood on the east side of the river in what would be incorporated as the city of St. Anthony in 1855. Godfrey sold the house in 1853 in order to move across the river to Minneapolis. There he built a home and mill just below Minnehaha Falls. (St. Anthony and Minneapolis merged in 1872.)
When the LaBelles arrived in the late 1870s, the Godfrey house remained in its original location near the riverfront. By then the dense St. Anthony mill district had been built around it. Nobody yet cared that the house was historic. It was simply old and probably a little rundown. It certainly was not in a desirable location. The area was noisy and dirty. On the same block could be found two iron foundries, a machine shop, and a warehouse, according to an 1885 Sanborn insurance map. Yet the fact that the home had five bedrooms and was close to so many industrial jobs made it a suitable boarding house. Newly arrived immigrants piled in family upon family.
When the 1880 census was taken, 28 people from six families were enumerated at the one and only address on the 100 block of Prince Street (site of the Godfrey House):
Ovid and Rose “Label” and five children
Oliver and Mary Juneau with three children
Ovid and Rose’s son Edward Label with his wife Josephine and three children
Ovid and Rose’s son Alfred Label with his wife Adele and one child
Joseph and Caroline “Belajah” [Belanger?] with two children
“Joashem” [Joachim] and Adeline “Turvil” with two children. Joachim Duteau dit Tourville was Ovid LaBelle’s maternal uncle, the younger brother of his deceased mother Genevieve.
All of the adults in the house had been born in French Canada. The adult males were all recorded as laborers. Since city directory listings for 1879 and 1880 suggest Ovid and Edward LaBelle had not moved from their original address in the city and since we know the Godfrey House was on the 100 block of Prince Street, the most logical conclusion is that these 28 people were all living in the Godfrey House in 1880. Each family probably rented a single room in the house while sharing use of the kitchen wing.
Another resident of the Godfrey House around this time was Zephirin Poisson (b: 1853), a French-Canadian man who also hailed from Gentilly. In America, he usually went by the name Frank Fish. His address in the 1879 Minneapolis city directory—Prince St. near 2nd Ave. SE—is identical to the address given for Ovid, Edward and Noah LaBelle. Zephirin’s first wife, Delia Tourville (b: abt 1849), was a daughter of Joachim and Adeline. Delia died in 1882, and in 1883 Zephirin married his second wife, Ovid and Rosalie LaBelle’s daughter Olivine (b: 1867). The LaBelles, Tourvilles, and Poissons obviously knew one another going back to Gentilly, but I suspect Zephirin and Olivine first noticed one another while they both lived at the Godfrey House in 1879. In any case, when Zephirin and Delia moved out of the Godfrey House later that year, they moved just a couple blocks east, to 419 Southeast 2nd Street, where they resided with several other members of the LaBelle family: Louis, Noah, and their families, as well as patriarch Alarie when he arrived in Minneapolis in late 1880 or early 1881.
The LaBelles were obviously poor. Ovid’s next residence near the corner of Polk and Winter Streets, where he lived continuously (with one exception) from 1881 to 1896, was first recorded without a street address simply as “near the junction of the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railroad.” Old city maps show that the house was literally in the middle of a railroad junction. Several other listings mention that Ovid lived “in the rear of building” at that address, which likewise suggests poverty. The railroad junction still exists, but the street grid has long since been removed for safety. Polk St. and Winter St. no longer intersect.
Ovid’s wife Rosalie Goudreau LaBelle also moved to the house by the railroad junction in late 1880 or early 1881. However, her stay was much shorter. Rosalie suffered from some kind of mental illness. She was diagnosed with dementia, though I suspect modern doctors would call it something else. Since the early 1870s, she had been a difficult person to live with. She sometimes broke out in “sudden passion[s]” and “threaten[ed] others with injury.” Barely a year after they settled in Minneapolis, in December 1879, the family sought to have Rosalie committed to the state and placed in an insane asylum. She was committed by the probate judge but remained at home with her family until 1883. On June 29, 1883, she was sent to the Minnesota Asylum for the Insane in St. Peter.
Doctor’s notes tell us that she did ok there in the following years. A note from August 1884 says she was “very pleasant and quiet . . . contented and apparently happy.” A year later she was described as “slightly more irritable” but by 1886 and ’87 she was “fat and hearty” and “fat and happy.” From a modern perspective of mental health, perhaps the most telling indication of her well-being at the asylum was the statement made in 1884 that she “is very quiet but this may in part be due to the fact that no one in the hall can talk French to her.” Social isolation could not have helped her state of mind.
After four years, three months and two days in the asylum, Rosalie was released from the hospital and returned to Minneapolis to live with her family. Her condition had “improved” but she was not fully “recovered.” The final notes, from October 1, 1887, read, “seems pretty well received by friends on trial today,” which I take to mean that her friends and family were happy to see her again when she appeared in court to be evaluated for potential release.
The old St. Anthony section of Minneapolis transformed around the LaBelles in their first decade in the city. Between 1880 and 1886 three of the most iconic parts of the St. Anthony skyline were constructed.
First, in 1877, the year before my branch of the LaBelle family moved in, the area’s French Catholics had purchased a twenty-year-old Greek Revival church from the First Universalist Society of St. Anthony and renamed it Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. The church was located a little more than a block west of the Godfrey House on Prince Street and became the LaBelles’ parish church as soon as they arrived. Between 1880 and 1883, the French Catholics significantly reshaped the structure, “adding a transept, apse and front bell tower with three steeples,” according to Wikipedia. It looks much the same today as it did in 1883.
Second, in 1880, a few blocks to the east of the church and directly across the street from the LaBelles who lived at 419 S.E. 2nd Street , construction began on the world’s largest flour mill. Opened in July 1881, the Pillsbury A-Mill remained the world’s largest flour mill for more than 40 years. I try to imagine the awe the LaBelles must have felt as they watched the six-story behemoth rise from the shoreline. I wonder whether they participated in the intricate dance of workers, machinery, and railcars that took place every day as tons of grain were shipped in and thousands of barrels and sacks of flour were shipped out of the mill. I envision conversations they had about how different their lives were in Minneapolis than they had been on that small farm in Gentilly.
Finally, the most eye-catching structure on the St. Anthony riverfront was built right next to the Godfrey House in 1886. In 1885, Minneapolis boosters organized an industrial exposition fair to be held the following year. Minneapolis had just lost out to St. Paul as the permanent home of the Minnesota State Fair, and Minneapolitans wanted to show off the industrial power of their city. A mostly vacant square between the Godfrey House and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church was chosen as the site of the new Industrial Exposition Building. The building was completed in August 1886, and the initial 40-day fair attracted almost 500,000 visitors. The building later hosted the 1892 Republican National Convention. However, like so many showpiece buildings constructed for big events rather than long-term functionality, the exposition building struggled to find a purpose after the fair exhibitors left in 1893. The Exposition Building was torn down in 1940. (Wikipedia)
At the start of 1887, the St. Anthony skyline was rather impressive. The LaBelles no longer resided in the Godfrey House, but most of them still lived in St. Anthony, within a few blocks of their original landing spot. They continued to attend Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
Life and Death
Rosalie returned from the asylum to the LaBelle household in the fall of 1887. She had missed the wedding of her daughter Olivine in 1883 and son Cyrille in 1886, but she returned in time to see three more of her children tie the knot. Daughter Celina married Edward Wilson ca.1889, son Ferdinand wed Rosalie Roy in 1891, and daughter Ermine married Victor Langlois in 1892.
My great-great-grandfather Ferdinand took a different occupational path from most of his siblings. After his brothers toiled all day as laborers packing bags of flour into railcars at the Pillsbury Mill or as lumbermen guiding river-borne logs into the city’s sawmills, they could stop by the saloons of Adolph Eisler or Solomon Robitshek and find Ferdinand behind the bar. Ferdinand worked as a bartender in Minneapolis for at least a dozen years and perhaps as many as twenty years. It was at one of these establishments (or a nearby restaurant) that he met his future bride.
Rosalie Roy, or Rose King as she sometimes anglicized her name, grew up on a farm in Corcoran Township, twenty miles northwest of Minneapolis. Rose moved to Minneapolis to find work when she reached adulthood. A family story passed down the generations says she met Ferdinand at the restaurant where she worked. Perhaps the story confused which half of the couple worked in food service or maybe they both did. Perhaps they even worked at the same establishment. Unfortunately, Rose never appears in the city directory as an independent young woman, so the family story is all we have to go on.
I like to think Ferdinand and Rose hit it off because they could each tell stories about the challenges of living with mentally ill parents. Family stories passed down the generations tell us that Rose’s mother Desange (Bolduc) Roy wept every time an animal was killed on the farm. We may sympathize with her desire not to harm animals, but such feelings did not make for a very good 19th-century farm wife. Rose’s father Elzear, we are told, went “religious crazy.” His religious fanaticism got so bad that his wife and children eventually drove him out of the house. He disappears from records after 1880. I think I have identified him in Minneapolis in 1888 and in Copley near Bemidji in 1900, in each case working as a teamster. But I can’t be 100% certain the records are for the same Elzear. In any case, Rose could match Ferdinand for stories about how crazy her home life was growing up.
Ferdinand and Rose’s wedding (and probably Ermine and Victor Langlois’s too) took place at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. Their first five children were baptized there during the 1890s.
Ovid LaBelle watched his family grow exponentially during the 1880s and 1890s, but along with marriage and birth often comes death. At least a dozen LaBelle children in Ovid’s extended family died young during the 1880s and 1890s, including Ferdinand and Rose’s daughter Delima. Ovid’s father Alarie Lebel, patriarch of the family, died in September 1890, age 89. After decades of living with his various children, Alarie’s final year was spent in a Minneapolis “inmate home for the aged.”
More surprising was the death of Ovid’s wife. Almost as suddenly as she had returned, Rosalie (Goudreau) LaBelle died. I was incredibly fortunate to find Rosalie’s death in the parish register of Our Lady of Lourdes (on microfilm at the Minnesota Genealogical Society). The books containing the parish’s death registers before 1910 are lost. However, a single sheet of paper—two facing pages—survives from one of the older books, containing the last few deaths of 1892 and most of 1893. Rosalie’s death was first one recorded in 1893. (Two other LaBelle relatives are listed on the second line of each page: Emma Bazinet, daughter of Calixte Bazinet and Olive Lebel [Ovid’s sister], and Dolphis, son of Joseph Lebel and Anne ??? [Ovid’s nephew Joseph and his wife Eleanora, per cemetery records]).
Considering how valuable property along the riverfront was, it makes sense that Our Lady of Lourdes did not have its own cemetery. Most if not all of the LaBelles who died in Minneapolis were buried in St. Anthony’s Cemetery. The cemetery is located on the 2700 block of Central Avenue, two-and-a-half miles north of the St. Anthony Falls riverfront. It was the primary burial ground for Catholics of many nationalities who lived in the old St. Anthony part of Minneapolis. Remarkably, none of the LaBelles buried at St. Anthony’s Cemetery has a gravestone, They were apparently too poor to afford such luxuries. Perhaps the graves once had wooden crosses, but if they did they have long since disappeared.
Two events obscured all of this Minneapolis family history from later generations. First, in late 1899 or early 1900, my great-great grandparents Ferdinand and Rose LaBelle decided to return to their agricultural roots. They left Minneapolis behind to purchase a small farm near Centerville. That farm is where my great-grandfather Alfred LaBelle was raised and where the family linked up with other French-Canadian families that had been in Centerville for several generations. Al had been born in Minneapolis. His baptism is recorded in the parish register of Our Lady of Lourdes. But Al was just an infant when his parents moved to Centerville, and it seems he never knew exactly where he had been born.
Second, in March 1913 Ferdinand’s father Ovid LaBelle moved from Minneapolis into the Centerville home of another of his sons to live out the remainder of his life. He died two months later. Though Ovid had spent most of the previous 35 years in Minneapolis, he died and was buried in Centerville. Ferdinand and Rose are also buried there. To anyone taking just a cursory look back at this family line, it appeared they had always lived in Centerville.
Retracing Their Steps
Two weeks ago, I took my wife, daughter, and parents on a fun day exploring all of this history. Here’s a rundown of what we did, beginning with with two images for reference.
Tour of the Pillsbury A Mill.
We started the day with a 90-minute guided tour of the Pillsbury A Mill led by staff from the Minnesota Historical Society. Located less than two blocks east of the Godfrey House’s original location, the Pillsbury A Mill was the largest flour mill in the world when it was constructed in 1881. It held the title for decades thereafter. The 1881 city directory lists several LaBelles, including patriarch Alarie, at 419 2nd Street SE, across the street from the magnificent new mill. The mill has recently been remodeled into artist lofts. It was an A+ tour, and it looks like an amazing place to live.
Lunch at Pracna.
Pracna is the oldest bar still in operation in Minneapolis. It opened for business in 1890, which means Ovid, Ferdinand and/or Rose Roy might have dined there. In fact, considering they coexisted for so many years in the same neighborhood, I am confident one or more of my ancestors had a drink at Pracna more than a century ago. In the 1905 photograph snip below, it appears Pracna was build right next to the Godfrey House. However, Pracna sits on Main Street, while the Godfrey House is half a block back on Prince Street. Ferdinand never worked at Pracna, but since he spent about 20 years as a Minneapolis bartender, I had a drink in his honor. (I ordered a Hamm’s, the most historic local brew on the menu. It was first brewed in St. Paul in 1865.)
Tour of the Ard Godfrey House.
The Godfrey House is still standing after 168 years, though it has been moved three times in order to preserve it. It now sits in Chute Square, about a block from its original location. The Woman’s Club of Minneapolis owns the house today, and it is open for guided tours on summer weekend afternoons. As I described above, through sheer genealogical fortune, I believe I identified all of the boarders in the Godfrey House in 1880. Though I wasn’t looking for answers about the Godfrey House, since the records about my own family paint a fairly clear picture that they were there, I knew I could help the Woman’s Club fill in the story of the house. When we visited, I donated copies of the documents that link the LaBelles to the house. I also included a copy of an 1885 Sanborn Insurance map and a few parish records from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church that help show how both the LaBelles and the house fit into the greater community during the 1880s.
Attempted visit of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.
We tried to visit Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, but our timing was poor. Saturday afternoon around 2:00 is prime wedding time at a Catholic church, and we chose not to saunter down the aisle in our shorts and t-shirts admiring the architecture in the middle of their ceremony. A plaque outside the church says it is located near the spot where Franco-Belgian Father Louis Hennepin became the first European to see the falls of the Mississippi in 1680. Father Hennepin named the falls St. Anthony after his patron saint Saint Anthony of Padua.
Drive past the former Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged.
Now remodeled as an apartment complex, the former Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged was where Ovid LaBelle spent his final years, excepting the last two months when he moved to Centerville. The Home was both yet another legacy of the family’s poverty and a reminder of how much private charities helped out in an era before Social Security. (Location)
St. Anthony’s Cemetery.
To restate what I wrote above, land along the Mississippi River shore was prime real estate, so most churches in old St. Anthony did not have their own cemeteries. LaBelle patriarch Alarie died in 1890 and was buried there. Ovid’s wife Rosalie Goudreau LaBelle died in 1893, and I have to believe she was buried there too. Ferdinand and Rose LaBelle lost an infant daughter named Melina later in 1893. She was also buried there. In fact, more than 15 LaBelles were buried in the cemetery during the 1880s and 1890s. Astonishingly, NONE of them have a headstone or a marked grave of any kind. The families must simply have been too poor to afford them. The only evidence for their presence at St. Anthony’s comes from the cemetery’s register of burials, which ocassionally matches up with surviving parish records from Our Lady of Lourdes.
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.
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 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?
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.