Random Fact

Life isn’t always as random as we think . . .

26 May 1881. Seems like a somewhat random date, right? It’s actually very important—the day one set of great grandparents, Christian Meintzer Colorful and Sophia Gaertner My Favorite Photo, arrived in New York. It was before either Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty were in place.

I still don’t have arrival dates for:

  • Carl Moeller and Elfrieda Jonas
  • Nicholas and Elisabetha Jost
  • Christian Bruder and Catharine Cugel
  • John Haase and Elisabetha Nachtwey
  • Peter Harré and Elisabetha Boullie
  • Ignatz Schweiger
  • John Joseph Carmody and Elizabeth Alloway
  • Frank Kukler and Anna Plansky
  • Joseph Schmitt and Margaret Hildesheim
  • Patrick Nolan, and his parents John Nolan and Elizabeth Alpin (Halpin)
  • James Needham and Mary Elizabeth Renehan
  • Augusta Maud Varco and her parents, Robert & Jane
  • John Flynn (Augusta’s husband)

Just looking at the list makes me sad, and I would give almost anything to know those dates and arrival ports! I didn’t choose this 1881 date from all the random dates in my file simply because it’s when Christian and Sophia brought their large family to the USA from Le Havre on the French steamer, Labrador. I chose it because of another random event, 137 years later.

People who know me know that we cruise quite a bit. This past April, Carnival launched a new ship with a very short European season. The Carnival Horizon had just 5 cruises in the Mediterranean, with a transatlantic cruise (our first!) leaving May 9th from Barcelona. We booked that cruise shortly after it became available.

We spent 5 days circling the Iberian peninsula before heading west to Halifax—with 6 sea days in between! We’ve had 5 consecutive sea days before, so weren’t concerned when we left Vigo, Spain.

2018 05 20 atlantic crossing
Crossing the Atlantic, 20 May 2018. This may have been taken through a widow, adding the blur. Not all our sea days were this dreary . . .

I love sea days—looking at the horizon, watching the changes in the sea—regardless of whether it’s smooth or rough. At some point I usually think about my ancestors, wondering what their trips had been like, and how they felt, looking at the sea.

Some were like this: sunrise, 17 November 2018–different cruise, but still the Atlantic, farther south, parallel with the Carolinas

This particular cruise wasn’t really different, until about 3 days into the crossing. It suddenly dawned on me that I was sailing across the Atlantic at the same time of year as Christian and Sophia! I couldn’t believe in all the months of planning, I never connected those two random events.

While they, and we, all ended up in NYC (we docked 3 days before they did), our ocean voyages were vastly different:

  • 3 weeks (I think they left on 5 May, but I’m not finding that document right now) vs. 6 days
  • Steamship vs. diesel/marine fuel
  • Steerage vs. Ocean view stateroom (their passenger list didn’t distinguish between 3rd and 4th class–anything not 1st or 2nd class was “steerage”)
  • 1388 (160 1st class, 125 2nd, 653 3rd, 450 4th)¹ vs. 4000² passengers (they were listed as passengers 494-502 on the passenger list, so maybe 3rd class?)
  • 3200¹ vs. 133,500² gross tonnage
  • 7 children ages 19 to <1 vs. traveling without kids
  • Limited food choices vs. abundant eating options
  • we won’t even talk about the IMAX, water slides, or ropes course . . .

I still marvel that we unintentionally mimicked their trip. If we had wanted to do that, undoubtedly we would have run into problem trying to find a ship going where we wanted, when we needed it. Yet this one simply dropped into our laps.

Will I find those other emigration dates? Maybe. Maybe not. Will I ever be able to understand what all of them went through? Surely not. Nevertheless, I do feel different somehow as a result of that one trip.

So, coincidence? Random? I’m not so sure . . .


¹Norway-Heritage, Hands Across the Sea. http://www.norwayheritage.com/p_ship.asp?sh=labr1 click here; accessed 18 November 2018 (scroll down for images of the ship!).

²Carnival.com. https://www.carnival.com/cruise-ships/compare-cruise-ships click here (then select “Horizon” and “compare” to see its stats); accessed 18 November 2018.

Another Language

What? It’s not all in English?

I speak English. But I’ve spent 3/4 of my life learning–or at least dabbling in–other languages, including:

  • a feeble attempt when I was a kid to learn French from some phonograph records we had around the house
  • Latin, as a study hall elective in 7th and 8th grade (thank you, Mr. Rash, it DID help with learning Spanish!)
  • Spanish–four years in high school, then two level 3 classes in college. I still periodically think to myself in Spanish
  • German–three semesters in college, so I would know something of the language for genealogy. One semester, Spanish & German were back-to-back, so my Spanish prof heard “Ja!” and “Danke!” and the German prof heard “Sí” and “Gracías.”
  • Italian–I have a MOOC class series that I need to find time for, but mostly I muddle through from the similarities with Spanish
  • Gaelic–from a MOOC class. It’s beautiful, but even more annoying than French! Definitely still a work in progress

With German and Alsatian (which is its own language, and I do have a book for it) ancestors, German and French get more of a workout than the others. Sometimes Latin pops up in older Catholic records.

Unfortunately, the foreign language documents I find are not just in another language, they are in script in that language, so I have to struggle with the handwriting, as well as the translation. Remember the Kreuzebra, records? (Mother’s Day) There was a first name I could not decipher–until records a couple of years (pages) later, when the first letter was written differently. Then I realized it was my own first name I couldn’t read! That was embarrassing–and humbling.

Occasionally I play quick and dirty, merely picking out the name(s) and date(s). Since I already know what kind of record it is, extracting that basic information seems like an easy answer. It’s not always the best choice, because I risk missing important information. So I’ve learned (forced myself?) to go slower, just in case. I also make a point now of transcribing the original language, so I have that retyped, and the translation typed to correspond with it. With handwriting, it’s difficult enough to get through once. I’ve learned that the more I look at it, the easier it gets, but if I take a break and come back to it the following year, I am starting all over again. So the transcription saves me from redoing my work.

I like to save the entire page, rather than just the entry I’m looking at. Frequently there is a “formula” to how the information is recorded in the record. While the word in my record might be smudged, sloppy, or somehow unreadable, that same word in the entries before or after may be clearer, helping me transcribe (and then translate) mine. The same person usually wrote all of them, so it helps in getting used to their handwriting style.

If I had any doubts about whether it was worth all that work, those were put to rest with my 5th great grandfather, Georg (no “e” in the German name) Amberg (1723-1807). He was the great-grandfather of Catharine Gaertner (In the Census) and great-great-grandfather of my great-grandmother (Catharine’s daughter), Sophia (My Favorite Photo). It was 2015, and my 2nd cousin once removed, Donna Bell, and I were tag-teaming our way through Georg’s death record from 21 Dec 1807.¹

She found the record and started the task, smartly deciding to type it up so each line of translation ended when the handwritten line ended. It made keeping track of where we were MUCH easier! I think we inserted underscores where there was a word we didn’t know. She “picked the easy fruit” (same as I would have), and batted it over to me. I pulled out more words (colored type is a blessing) and sent it back. We ping-ponged the translation, layering more words on, and it started to make more sense.

It also became clear that I did NOT want to have to decipher the handwriting again, so I needed a transcription (a copy of the original) as well as a translation. I opened a blank Word document and started typing the actual text, continuing Donna’s idea of stopping at the end of each handwritten line. Below the German I typed the translation we’d arrived at, lining the words up with those above.

One concern was not seeing some form of the word “sterben”–German for “die”–or “toten” (“kill”). Those are the words I most often see in death records. Even with the difficult handwriting, those word shapes are pretty identifiable–and they were not there. There was an unrecognizable word, long, starting with a “v”. I tried guesses in Google Translate. I pored over my German dictionaries (yes, two!). I pulled out If I Can, You Can Decipher Germanic Records by Edna M. Bentz, to unravel what the letters were. I looked at the other records that year, in case one was more readable than mine. Still no luck.

Finally I tried reverse engineering. I looked up “die” to see my options. Google had a lot of choices–none of them close. Back to the paper dictionaries. BINGO! The mystery word was “Verscheiden ist”–passed away, or deceased. Persistence finally paid off.

Was it worth all the effort to translate the entire record? I think so. We now have a document showing what we believe the German to be, and how we think that translates to English. And I threw notes at the end to explain a bit of how we arrived at our conclusions. If someone has a question or concern, it’s a good starting point, and we don’t have to start from scratch. I’m pretty sure next time I will start with the transcription document, just to save myself time, later on.

Are there people who do translations for you? Yes. But I like the exercise of working through it myself. I learn so much more. I might send my final translation to a native-speaking person to see if I got it right, but if I’ve made it easier for them, they may be more likely to take the time to check my work.

Foreign language records? Bring them on!


¹http://archives.bas-rhin.fr/detail-document/ETAT-CIVIL-C273-P1-R179131#visio/page:ETAT-CIVIL-C273-P1-R179131-1277382 [you need to scroll down and hit “accepter” to accept the terms of service to see the record(s)]


Roses are red . . .

While I know three individuals with Valentine’s Day birthdays, my family tree doesn’t really have a lot of traffic on February 14th. Between births, deaths, and marriages for 5500+ people (granted, not everyone has dates for all 3, and some have none!), you would think there would be, but there’s only:

  • one birth–a married-in from Mike’s side
  • two deaths on my Meintzer side–a 2nd cousin, Arline Ehrhardt Jenkins Axtell, and Hans Adam Ensminger, a 1st cousin 8x removed (nephew of my 7th great-grandmother) and
  • 1 marriage–a 2nd cousin on my dad’s side, Allan Heerey and his wife Mary

I don’t really have particularly good stories for any of them, and don’t know of any romantic proposals taking place on Valentine’s Day. So I started thinking about aggregate data again, and wondered how many couples in my tree were married for 50 years or more.

Being married for a long period of time is more than simply not getting divorced. Granted, that helps immeasurably, but you also have to keep BOTH people alive. That’s a little harder, and less in our control than the other.

Unfortunately, my Family Tree Maker software failed to help me. While it can generate a Marriage Report, I cannot make changes or additions to the information it provides. I get the bride and groom, a marriage date, and the current status of their marriage. Number of years isn’t an option. The Custom Report is no help, either, While “age at death” is a calculated value available for everyone, “number of years married” is not. It’s a little more complicated, since you have to look at the marriage date, see if someone has died, and if both, see who died first. Then you can do the math. Looks like I’m going to have to go about this old-school, relying on my memory. So cousins, if I’ve missed someone, please let me know! This is based on how I happen to remember, so not ordered by length of the marriage.

First up on the list are Robert & Ardyth Meintzer Haws (Dad & Mom), clocking in with 63 years. Mom’s brother, Gail, and his sweetheart, Neva, celebrated their 70th last year, and are still going strong. Dad’s oldest brother, Henry, and his bride, Mary, were going strong for 62 years. His other brother, George (who happened to get married the exact same day as Gail & Neva!), celebrated a 50th anniversary with his “better half”, Marge, before his too-early death at age 77.

My grandparents (Invite to Dinner), though, do not make the list. Victoria died in 1955, just before her 46th anniversary, and Minnie died in 1958, shortly before her 45th anniversary. Nor do great-grandparents Christian and Sophia Gaertner Meintzer (My Favorite Photo & In the Census), who were married only 47 years when she died in 1913. But since she was a 2nd wife, maybe they get bonus points?

Their oldest daughter, Sophie (married to Edward Kranz) was married for 54 years, and her daughter, Anna, was married to Walter Schultz just shy of 65 years. Anna was a huge help to me with family information and stories, and one of the times I visited her, she gave me a ceramic ornament given as a favor at their 60th Anniversary party. I think of her every Christmas, hanging it on the tree. Anna’s son, Walter, and his wife, Connie, were married at least 66 years when Connie died in 2014. That’s 3 generations! Many of Sophie & Ed’s other children also had long marriages:

  • son Emil and Evelyn: 51 years
  • daughter Lillie and Richard Jahn: 38 years
  • daughter Coila and Harry Frohn: 47+ years
  • daughter Mary Ella and Martin Reeg: almost 59 years
  • son Julius and Elsie: 57 years
  • daughter Louisa and Walter Ehrhardt: 60 years
  • daughter Minnie and Ed Ladendorf: 54 years
  • daughter Emma and Joe Poc: 41 years
  • daughter Martha and Louis Kanitsch: 39 years

Yes, some of them don’t quite make the 50 year cut-off, but it’s still a pretty impressive run for one family!

From my dad’s side, [Grand] Uncle Sylvester Schweiger and Aunt Stacia were married for 55 years, their daughter Marita married to Harry Nash for almost 60. And my dad’s cousin, Fred Schweiger and wife, Nancy just celebrated number 60.

Edward and Clara Duckart Goessl (Longevity) had another 2 years beyond the newspaper clipping in that post–with Clara spending another 25 years more, as a widow!

On the not-related-to-me side, Mike’s grandparents, Francis Charles Kukler and Elizabeth Gertrude Nolan, got married in 1919. They had 52 years together before Frank passed away. Not bad, given that they were 28 years old when they married!

Elizabeth Gertrude Nolan and Francis Charles Kukler, 11 June 1919, the day after her 28th birthday. She had 7 children and lived to age 95!

And Mike’s Uncle Bob and Aunt Gloria are still going strong with 58 years under their belts.

So, is there a “long marriage gene”? Probably not, though looking at Aunt Sophie’s line, it almost makes you wonder! A lot of it is luck. Having good genes and a long life is a huge help. So is the ability to resist strangling your spouse–not always an easy urge to control! But it’s reassuring to know that sometimes we beat the odds on both of those.


In the Census

If I had a nickel for every census page I’ve looked at, I could probably afford this obsession hobby. I have lots of interesting census stories involving:

  • butchered surnames (“House” for “Haas,” “Brothers” for “Bruder,” and “Gukler” for “Kukler” are just the tip of the iceberg)
  • butchered first names–and the people who alternate between first and middle name, throwing in a random nickname just to keep it interesting
  • illegible handwriting
  • faded ink
  • people who aged less–or more–than ten years between census enumerations
  • children suddenly missing in a later census–did they die? marry? move? hire out? alien abduction?
  • children who never make it on a census–they are born and then die between census years, so you don’t even know to look for them
  • the occasional person/family who manages to show up TWICE in the census!

But the census with the most surprises and raising the most questions was a French census. Well, technically, three of them. It was fall of 2015, and my 2nd cousin once removed, Donna Bell, had contacted me to nail down some genealogy details as she was preparing to write her book of family stories. She had questions about our common ancestor, Sophia Gaertner, who you met in My Favorite Photo.

Sophia (my mom’s grandmother) was born out of wedlock. This wasn’t news, as my Mom’s parents had commented on it when she was younger, and we had birth records from Alsace documenting no father’s name. Sophia’s mother was Catharine (yes, with an “a”), but Donna wanted to find Catharine’s parents. Murphy’s Law, two Catharine Gaertners were born in Lorentzen, Bas-Rhin, within 4 months of each other! Generally, one sees the father’s name on the birth record, leading you to the marriage record for the couple, which will list the parents of the bride and groom. But . . . no father, no marriage, no parents, outta luck.

Enter the census records. The Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin has a wonderful site, where they have digitized many of the Civil Registrations, the Tables Décennales (10-year index to the registrations), and some of the parish register books. What I didn’t realize was they also had several years of census records (listes nominatives de population). Their census was taken every 5 years, not 10, though some of the years are AWOL for Lorentzen. Fortunately the 1836 census (before Sophia’s 1842 birth) was available, as well as 1851 and 1856.

Looking at 1836¹, I found 2 Gaertner families, Charles and Daniel (each married to a Catharine), but only Charles had a daughter Catharine (later determined not mine) residing there. Daniel had 2 sons: Jacques (18) and Pierre (12). Later research DID confirm Charles and Daniel were brothers, but that didn’t nail down which family MY Catharine belonged to.

Moving on to the 1851 census², there wasn’t a Catharine in either household, but I did find Sophia in the household of Daniel with a Pierre and a Jacques. But the ages for the two boys didn’t make sense. Pierre was 26, but Jacques was only 13! What?? That was younger than he was fifteen years prior. I was focused, however, on the Sophia/Catharine issue, so pushed that anomaly out of my mind. Eventually, though, it crept back in, so I searched for the birth records for the boys. The census had their age, so it was a pretty easy task. Sure enough, there they were. As expected, Pierre was Daniel & Catharine’s son, however Jacques was NOT Pierre’s brother, but his nephew. He had no father listed, and Catharine (the daughter) was his mother. The 1856 census is consistent with that conclusion³.

Of course, I could have saved myself some time if I’d only translated what was in the census to begin with! The 1851 and 1856 census pages had “petit fils” in the column for Jacques or Pierre (petite filles for Sophia). We all know petite means “small,” right? I assumed it had something to do with their ages. WRONG! That’s what I get for studying Spanish in high school and college. Uncle Google told me this morning, when I finally looked it up, it means grandson/granddaughter. Excuse me while I bang my head against the wall for a bit . . .

So did these census records actually “change” anything? Not really. Sophia is still fatherless, and it’s unlikely that will ever be resolved. On the other hand, they’ve changed so much because now:

  • Catharine’s brothers need research
  • Sophia’s brothers (half brothers?) also need research
  • some of the scenarios explaining the circumstances of Sophia’s birth probably no longer apply

Regardless of what century one is in, people behave pretty much the same, and there are a finite number of ways a young woman ends up pregnant without a husband. But three times? There must be more to that story, though I have no idea what it is. And I’m certainly not about to judge Catharine or her choices. One thing is certain; I am eternally grateful she chose to give birth to Sophia. I wouldn’t be here, otherwise, along with another 600+ people (conservatively)! That’s a lot of doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, engineers, computer programmers, business people, pilots, and service men and women the world would have done without. And if you start to consider the number of people each of those descendants has interacted with, the impact is staggering.

So, thank you, Catharine Gaertner, even though I’ve still never actually found you in the census!


¹http://archives.bas-rhin.fr/detail-document/REC-POP-C273-R4188#visio/page:REC-POP-C273-P1-R4188-37462  [you need to scroll down and hit “accepter” to accept the terms of service to see the census record(s)]

² http://archives.bas-rhin.fr/detail-document/REC-POP-C273-R4191#visio/page:REC-POP-C273-P1-R4191-37476


My Favorite Photo

I’m going to have to cheat on this one

Choose one favorite photo? That’s not happening. But I will limit myself to posting only  one!

One of my favorite photos is actually two: my four children taken 8 years apart. The first one was at my daughter’s wedding and was taken by her cousin, Ben. Their ages ranged from 11 to 20. Despite the wedding dress and tuxes, it’s a laid-back photo of them just hanging out with each other. The second one, eight years later, was taken by the official photographer. They are all gown up, and not quite as casual, but it’s still not the prim and proper pose my mother and sister would prefer. My daughter is to the side with a wonderful expression on her face as if to say, “See what I have to put up with!”

What I love about those pictures is that I see my kids in them–the REAL kids, not stiff models. Their personalities show through. You can see that, regardless of whatever squabbling they engage in, they care about each other and will be there for each other.

Another favorite photo is one of my dad, in his 80s, up on the roof to blow leaves off the roof and out of the gutters . . . connected to his oxygen concentrator. Yes, seriously, he was up there on oxygen for his COPD. Granted, it was probably better than if he’d been up there without oxygen. That could have been dangerous, if he’d gotten out of breath. But just seeing his determination not to let the COPD dictate his life is inspiring.

The photo I settled on, though, is one of my great-grandparents, Christian Meintzer and Sophia Gaertner. They are standing in front of their farmhouse on what is now Riverwoods Road, Deerfield, Illinois. The house was still there in the 1980s, but has since then been torn down. The photo was taken some time between 1881, when they emigrated from Dehlingen, Bas-Rhin, Alsace (then under German rule), and 1913, when Sophia died. Sophia was Christian’s 2nd wife. His first wife, Elisabetha Wiedmann, had died in 1865, along with their son, Christian, Jr. With 3 children to raise, he married Sophia in 1866 and had 5 children with her while in Alsace.  Elisabetha’s other son, Heinrich, died before they emigrated, as did Christian and Sophia’s oldest girl, Christina.

Christian Meintzer and Sophia Gaertner in front of their farmhouse on Riverwoods Road, Deerfield.

The end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 put Alsace under German rule. When their first son, Jacob, was born in 1876, Christian realized his son would be required to serve in the German military–an idea he didn’t like. So in 1881, he packed up his wife and 6 children, and headed to the northern Chicago suburbs. Other relatives has settled there thirty years earlier, so it was good to have a few familiar faces in a strange land. Christian & Sophia went on (fortunately!) to have three more children in the US, the last one being my grandfather. Thank goodness they didn’t stop earlier . . .

The original of this photo is black and white. My 2nd cousin once removed, Mark Halvorsen, put the color on this image. While I’m not a huge fan of colorizing photos or movies (don’t get me started on the colorization of It’s a Wonderful Life!), Mark does a really nice job of being subtle with the tinting. He doesn’t get too intense, so the added color serves to help differentiate the various elements.

Sophia was born out of wedlock in 1842¹. We have found no records of who her father was, and likely never will. When another 2nd cousin once removed, Donna Gabl Bell, was working on her book of family stories, she wanted the few trees she DID have to be accurate. She also wanted to fill in more of Sophia’s back story. Donna and I tag-teamed our way through the Bas-Rhin archives, confirming Sophia’s birth and trying to determine her grandparents. We learned from the census records² she was raised by her grandparents–along with her two older brothers, also born out of wedlock³. Her marriage record³ told us her mom, Catherine, was living in Paris, and we even found Catherine’s declaration to remain French. When the Germans annexed Alsace, you had a choice: remain French (which required you to move OUT of Alsace), or become a German citizen. Even though Catherine wasn’t living in Alsace, she was apparently still considered to be a resident, so had to do the paperwork.

Sophia did not have an easy life. She married into a ready-made family, added to it quickly, and then was uprooted from all her friends. I’ve been told the letter in her left hand was a letter from Alsace, though I’m not even sure if she was literate. She never went back and we never knew she had any brothers until Donna and I dug deeper. I think this is the only photo I’ve seen (both in black and white and colored  versions) of Sophia, which is part of the reason I like it. I’m glad we have it to remember her by.

photo credit: color added by Mark Halvorsen

¹”États-civil”, database, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin (archives.bas-rhin.fr), Lorentzen, naissance [birth] 1842, p. 7, no. 20, Sophia GAERTNER, 17 Aout [August] 1842. “fille naturelle”.

²1851 Census of France, canton Sarre-Union, arrondissement de Sauverne, Bas-Rhin, Lorentzen, p. 8. no. 193, family 45, Sophie Gaertner; accessed 12 January 2018. age 8; digital image, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin, (archives.bas-rhin.fr).

³”États-civil”, database, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin (archives.bas-rhin.fr), Lorentzen, naissance [birth] 1837, p. 6, no. 14, Jacques GAERTNER, 14 Decembre [December] 1837. “fil naturel”.     and

“États-civil”, database, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin (archives.bas-rhin.fr), Lorentzen, naissance [birth] 1839, p. 6, no. 16, Pierre GAERTNER, 14 Septembre [September] 1839. “fil naturel”.