When my mom was a child in the 1950s, discussing family history with her elders provided the rare opportunity to be heard and not just seen by the adults in her traditional German and Polish Minnesota family. Even though she wasn’t typically encouraged to contribute to conversations, my mom enjoyed listening to the adult relatives who gathered in her life. She preferred this over playing with the other children because of the interesting tidbits of information they sometimes shared about their world and their families. These tidbits were a treat because the focus of most of her extended family was usually on farm work, being dutiful members of the Catholic Church community, and studying the playing cards in their hands during competitive games. Despite growing up near the rural communities of Union Hill and Lexington, where many of her ancestors settled when they moved to Minnesota, as a child my mom knew little about them and had only met one of her great grandparents, because they were all deceased by the time she was five years old.
Around fifth grade, my mom was given an assignment at her country school to document as many of her ancestors as possible. She had no choice but to speak up and initiate a conversation with the older people in her life. One of her grandmas told my mom that although she knew that her own mother’s parents came over from Europe, she didn’t know their names. This may have been because, if it occurred to her to ask what her grandparents’ names were, she didn’t dare because she was a child who was to be seen and not heard. She also said that my mom’s grandfather’s father’s father was unknown and that her grandfather’s father’s mother came to America from Europe. And my mom’s grandma said that nothing was really known about her mother-in-law’s family – which was my mom’s grandpa’s mother’s family. She was told that they were from way over in Henderson, MN, a small town about 12 miles away from the community of Union Hill, where my mom’s grandma and many of her German relatives lived and chose their spouses. And to further obscure her background, my mom was told that her grandpa’s mother only joined the Catholic Church when she got married. Despite the dead ends my mom’s grandma pointed out to my mom when she was young, she was still pleased about being able to imagine where some of her great great grandparents lived in Europe before coming to America. As a child, she was thrilled about all of the information she was able to gather for her school assignment because she had discovered the names of all eight of her great grandparents.
My mom carried her appreciation for this information into her adult life. She remained very interested in family history and knowing as many of her relatives as possible. With her computer-like brain, she stored every bit of known information about her family members. But, she imagined that she knew, for the most part, all that could be discovered about her ancestry. Then my mom acquired a new set of fact-finding skills when she returned to college in 1980 to finish her degree. She took a class at Mankato State University called Historical Geography. While taking that class, she became aware that historical land records were available for public viewing. She was taught how to read a description of land and determine where the location was. She was required to do a project for the class about one-square mile of her choice. She printed portions of maps from 1898, 1912, and 1929 of Derrynane Township in Le Sueur County, Minnesota, where some of her relatives had lived. While doing research for that project, she discovered that the Mankato State library also had Minnesota census records for 1895, 1900, and 1905, and that other records would become public 75 years after their creation. She found that census records contained a lot of vital information and potentially held many answers about ancestors. A lot of time was spent by her going through the historical microfilm that was available at MSU. She didn’t discover any previously unknown relatives, but was able to come up with more interesting details about her known relatives – like some family members stating that they came from Russia Poland while others called the area German Poland.
In 1995, my mom came upon a piece of her family’s history that she never expected to find. A second cousin who is a family historian contacted her, asking for information about my mom’s first cousins. She gave it to him and he then compiled all of the family history in a book and provided my mom with a copy. While looking through it, my mom became aware of names that would help fill in the blanks for some of her great great grandparents. There was an obituary for my mom’s great grandma – the one that my mom’s grandma said nothing was known about because she came from Henderson and wasn’t Catholic prior to getting married. The names of her parents were given as Mr. and Mrs, so without a first name listed for the mother, my mom still didn’t know her name, but it appeared that my mom’s family tree had branched out.
Nineteen years later, in 2014, my sister became friends with a genealogist. He was making a family fan chart as a gift for my sister’s birthday, and my mom provided to him all of the genealogy information she had, including the information she discovered from her second cousin in 1995. To help gather as much information as possible for my sister’s chart, my mom contacted her second cousin for the first time in 15 years to discuss a possible name for their great great grandfather that my mom’s grandma said was unknown when my mom was a child. He responded with a copy of their great grandfather’s baptismal record stating his mother’s name and father’s last name.
Newly inspired by my sister’s genealogy project to discover more unknown ancestors, my mom enthusiastically dove into helping do research. She went through Scott County, Minnesota, death records and found the maiden name of a mother listed on the death record of my mom’s mysterious great grandma from Henderson. She wondered if that could be the Mrs. mentioned in her great grandma’s obituary. But the name did not seem characteristically German. It turned out to be a record error that sent my mom and my sister’s genealogist friend down the wrong path. But several months later, that friend continued to work on my mom’s ancestry because he was working on a fan chart for my mom and dad’s 50th Anniversary. Armed with the knowledge that the family lived in Henderson, by examining census records and with the ability to search European records online, he found an 1857 marriage record from Prussia and a ship’s passenger list with the names of a couple that seemed likely to be the parents of my mom’s great grandmother. But they were still presented with the challenge of proving the link between my mom’s great grandma and the couple.
In early 2015, my mom was using Google and entered the married name of the woman on the marriage record. Find a Grave placed her remains at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Henderson. The death was listed on the website as occurring in 1896, which seemed to my mom like it could be the right time frame, but St. Joseph’s was a Catholic cemetery. That didn’t fit with what my mom’s grandma said about her mother-in-law not being Catholic. My mom saw census records placing the couple in Henderson in 1895, so it made sense that they would be buried in Henderson. But my mom was shocked that the so-called non-Catholic great great grandparents that she had wondered about most of her life could be buried less than 15 minutes away from where she and my dad lived for almost 50 years – in a Catholic cemetery, of all places!
Determined to try to find solid proof that her great grandma was the daughter of the couple in the Catholic cemetery, my mom kept asking questions. My mom was working out at her local Curves and asked a lady that she met there, who volunteered at the Henderson Historical Society, if she recalled any information on the family. The lady said the name sounded familiar and that she would check for information. My mom then went on vacation, with little hope that the lady would discover anything because the German last name was so common in that part of Minnesota.
When she got back from her trip and went to Curves, there was a folder waiting for her that the historical society volunteer had left. It contained a St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery map and a list of people with the family name who were buried there. There was an alphabetical list of several people in one lot belonging to the couple in question and two other lots that belonged to their son and a daughter-in-law. The information in the folder provided significant clues but also raised more questions. My mom used census records to verify information and find new leads. Because it was the date on the gravestone, my mom looked in 1896 obituaries to find information about her likely great great grandma, but couldn’t find anything. The gravestone year of 1894 didn’t yield any record of her great great grandfather’s death either. She had noticed on the gravestone on the daughter-in-law’s lot that the couple’s son died in 1903 at the age of 28. My mom was curious to find out why he died so young, so she went through Sibley County courthouse death records. She looked through 1903 but couldn’t find him. But, while searching for his records, she serendipitously stumbled across the death of his father who also died in 1903 (not 1894, as it states on his gravestone). His father also wasn’t listed in the indexed book of death entries for some reason, so it was incredibly fortunate that my mom stumbled upon her great great grandpa’s death record while in search of his son who died young. With the known death date of her great great grandfather she was able to find his obituary in the Sibley County Independent newspaper on microfilm. There my mom read that he came to America from Germany in 1857 after getting married, and my mom’s great grandma was listed among his children. It also noted that he was a respected citizen of Henderson and a Civil War veteran.
Since my mom wasn’t finding any information revealing her great great grandmother’s maiden name to confirm that the couple listed on the marriage certificate and ship records were the parents of her great grandma, she talked to my sister’s friend about it. He said that if the son’s death record could be found, maybe it would have his mother’s maiden name. So he went through Minnesota records online and found a death record from Renville county – not Sibley county where his gravestone sits in the Henderson Catholic cemetery – and it said that he died because of suicide. And it listed his parents’ names, complete with the mother’s maiden name. It was a match to the names on the marriage record and1857 passenger list. Details of his obituary raised more questions for my mom because it seems that he could have possibly been murdered. Whatever the cause of my mom’s great great uncle’s unfortunate death in 1903, his early passing along with his wife’s decision to have a gravestone erected in Sibley county with his siblings and parents instead of in Renville county where he was living and died, allowed my mom 111 years later to confirm that her great great grandparents were indeed residents of Henderson, Minnesota, originally from Prussia. And along with that verified information came the names of some of my mom’s great great great grandparents, who were listed on the marriage record of the couple.
A few months after discovering her great great grandparents, the genealogist friend told my mom about Minnesota Wills and Probates that were available online. My mom pored through 176 pages to examine her great great grandma’s probate and found that she designated $100 for Catholic Masses to be said for the repose of her soul, with $50 of it being paid to a priest in Belle Plaine, MN and $50 to a Franciscan priest in Jordan, MN. She left $100 to a Catholic orphanage in New York City. When she died in 1898, (not 1896, like it says on her gravestone for some reason) that was a significant amount of money. She also requested that $8 be paid to a priest for the celebration of Masses for each of her parents’ souls. My mom’s great grandmother’s family wasn’t just buried in Henderson’s Catholic cemetery; according to the probate, her mother was very, very Catholic. Her parents were buried by Father Jansen, a Catholic priest in Henderson who also performed the wedding of one of her sisters. So, it is reasonable to assume that my mom’s great grandma was already Catholic when she got married in Union Hill. It is possible that my mom’s grandma was simply wrong in her belief that her mother-in-law converted to the Catholic Church when she married and that nothing could be known about her non-Catholic family from Henderson, or maybe there were other reasons for making such a statement to my mom when she was young. My mom recently ran into a cousin and they started talking about ancestors. He mentioned to my mom that he had been told by his dad that their grandpa’s mother didn’t come from a Catholic family. It is a mystery as to why their grandparents communicated such a thing to family members, when evidence indicates otherwise . . . but my mom will surely continue to ask questions and I have no doubt that she’ll eventually find the answers.
My mom belongs to that small percentage from our fast-paced modern population that recognizes the importance of investigating and preserving family history. The reasons for doing genealogical research vary for these people: curiosity to know more about people in family photographs; a desire to discover the actual truth behind oral family history; the challenge of filling in blanks and making it all fit – like in a crossword puzzle; the thrill of discovering a person who has been long forgotten by time and giving them a place of permanence on a family tree. . . A lot of people enjoy studying history simply because it is stable. Our actions today can’t change what has happened in the past. Only a view of the past can be distorted by obstructions caused by buried information or misinformation that is passed along. History misrepresented is merely fiction. Though misrepresentations can provide good entertainment, a good historian has the necessary tools to cut through the unfounded layers and see the truth that has always been there. Whatever the motivation of family historians, I believe that the deceased who are recognized and those who are living benefit from genealogical pursuits.
I thought it was my mom’s family tree that I’ve been watching grow over the years, but it is actually my mom, the genealogist, who has been growing. The family history hasn’t been changing; access to it has. My mom has discovered how to successfully use new tools to cut through the obstructions to her ancestors’ information. Though many people make it something they call an indulgent hobby, genealogical research is no trivial pastime. I’ve often heard my mom apologize for the amount of time she spends talking about it and searching for answers to her questions about her ancestors. She’s currently perusing Henderson land records and other documents with the hope of learning more about her family. There’s no need for her to apologize to me. I appreciate that she is bold enough to ask questions that eventually lead to answers about her ancestors. I believe that family history provides the context we need to know why we are where we are – not only geographically, but psychologically as well. I believe that the genealogical information that contributes to the foundation on which we find ourselves can also help launch us in a new direction if we are dissatisfied by where the steps of our ancestors have landed us. Because of my mom’s efforts to ask questions about her family and her willingness to share her discoveries, I have a much deeper understanding of who I am and where I want my own life to go.
My mom will be turning seventy years old. Some questions that she dared ask her elders sixty years ago are now just starting to be answered. Discoveries about her family throughout her life have demonstrated that patience is vital when it comes to genealogical research. Being persistent in asking a lot of questions until the real answer is found is also important. And having smart genealogist friends – and a whole lot of serendipity – definitely helps, too!
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© 2016 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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