Robert Vernon Estes was born on March 27, 1931 to Lucille Latta and Joseph Harry “Dode” Estes, my father’s brother and best friend.
Robert’s nickname was Bobby. He enrolled in the Army during the Korean conflict and was captured on November 30, 1950. He was held as a prisoner of war and died in Korea on January 31, 1951. The family was not notified.
His nickname was Bobby.
This isn’t the end of Bobby’s story, but the beginning.
Bobby is my uncle’s son. His father, Joseph “Dode” Harry Estes born September 13, 1904 in Claiborne Co., Tennessee and died December 9, 1994 in Fairfield, Wayne Co., Illinois.
Bobby has been a “missing” family member for years. His father, Dode, suffered from amnesia, probably from an automobile accident, and became lost to the family who believed he had died. With Dode’s absence, his sons also became lost to the family.
This week, I found Robert Vernon Estes. He is memorialized on FindAGrave, although his remains were never returned and he is not buried on American soil.
Bobby is listed at both Fold3.com and with the American Battle Monuments Commission, but some of that information was incorrect, such as his death date.
United States Korean War Battle Deaths
Name: Robert V Estes
Event Type: Death
Event Date: 30 Nov 1950 (captured on this date, he didn’t die until January 31, 1951)
Event Place: Korea
Citizenship Status: U.S. Citizen
Casualty Type Note: HOSTILE – Died while captured/interned
Military Service Branch: U S ARMY
Military Component Reserve (USAR, USNR, USAFR, USMCR, USCGR)
Military Rank: Private First Class
Service Number: 16312230
Birth Date: 1931
Residence Place: White (County), Indiana, United States
Source Reference: 7234
Newspapers.com hasn’t indexed the newspapers for Monticello, Indiana where his POW status, or death, would have been reported. MyHertiage hasn’t digitized the yearbook where he went to school either. However, FindAGrave has more, thanks to GraveHunter, including his regiment and division, which made it possible for me to track Bobby further.
Corporal Estes was a member of Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. He was taken Prisoner of War while fighting the enemy in North Korea on November 30, 1950 and died while a prisoner on January 31, 1951. His remains were not recovered. Corporal Estes was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Prisoner of War Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.
Bobby’s remains still have not been recovered or returned for burial, 67 years later.
I can’t help but wonder at the circumstances surrounding his death. Was he wounded as he was captured? Was he captured because he was wounded? Was he wounded or ill and left untreated? Or was it the unthinkable, unspeakable? Was he tortured to death?
The Korean War
The Korean War (1950-1953) began in June 1950 when the North Korean Communist army crossed the 38th parallel and invaded non-Communist South Korea. Armed with Soviet tanks, they quickly overran South Korea, executing every educated person who could, would or might lead a resistance against North Korea. The United States came to South Korea’s aid in a “police action” sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council.
The war lasted a miserable 3 years, with over 55,000 US men killed. The goal was to prevent a third world war. The American troops and people were frustrated with the lack of a decisive victory, unlike with WWI and WWII. Instead a divided Korea was established, with North Korea remaining a hostile dictatorship to this day.
The United States reported that North Korea mistreated prisoners of war. Soldiers were beaten, starved, put to forced labor, marched to death and summarily executed. War crimes were reported by both North and South Korea and document by photos of soldiers with piles of bodies. I can’t even look.
What Happened to Bobby?
From Wikipedia, we can surmise something of what was happening in Korea during the time Bobby was captured under the heading “China Intervenes.”
After consulting with Stalin, on 13 November, Mao appointed Zhou Enlai the overall commander and coordinator of the war effort, with Peng as field commander. On 25 November at the Korean western front, the PVA (Chinese People’s Volunteer Army) 13th Army Group attacked and overran the ROK (Republic of South Korea Army) II Corps at the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, and then inflicted heavy losses on the US 2nd Infantry Division on the UN forces’ right flank. The UN Command retreated; the U.S. Eighth Army’s retreat (the longest in US Army history) was made possible because of the Turkish Brigade’s successful, but very costly, rear-guard delaying action near Kunuri that slowed the PVA attack for two days (27–29 November). By 30 November, the PVA 13th Army Group managed to expel the U.S. Eighth Army from northwest Korea.
This is exactly when Bobby was captured, November 30th, so it would make sense that he was involved in the Battle of Ch’ongch’on River which was launched by General McArthur under the “Home by Christmas” offensive to expel the Chinese forces from the Korean peninsula and end the war. Not only did the war not end, no one came home by Christmas and Bobby still isn’t back.
This photo shows soldiers from the US 2nd Infantry Division in action near the Ch’ongch’on River on November 20th. This was Bobby’s unit just 10 days before his capture. For all we know, one of these men could be Bobby.
The terrain was rugged.
Soldiers from the Chinese 39th Corps pursue the US 25th Infantry Division. This wasn’t Bobby’s unit, but the pursuing Chinese probably didn’t look much different anyplace. Men chasing you, shooting guns is universally terrifying.
The Secret Report
A now declassified secret report states that on November 30, 1950, the day Bobby was captured, all records of the S-1 section were lost in the vicinity of Pugwon, Korea due to enemy action. This unit, Bobby’s, was known as the 9th “Manchu” infantry regiment. The secret report details the “defensive and rear-guard delaying action” that took place November 26-30 which followed an attack that had taken place November 12-25.
Extracted from the report:
On November 2nd, the unit was assigned to counterattack and destroy or hold the enemy that had broken through the Republic of Korea (now South Korea) lines and was advancing with no resistance.
On November 8th, the unit made contact with the enemy. On November 10th, tensions mounted and on the 11th, the unit celebrated Armistice Day “in its own special way firing a three-round concentration from all weapons at 1100 hours on appropriate enemy targets.”
The battled ensued until November 25th when the unit began the final push to crush the enemy and drive him across the Xaln River.
On November 25th, the 1st Battalion was attacked by the enemy and by 3 PM the following day, the entire 9th had been forced to withdraw and take up defensive positions across the Chongchon River.
On November 28th, they withdrew to Yongdam-Ni where a new defensive position was established. The 1st Battalion was attempting to withdraw from south of Pugwon.
Just before midnight, they fell under heavy enemy attack that completely cut them off until the early morning hours of November 27th when they fought their way free and reorganized in the vicinity of KuJang-Dong.
Under fire, on the 28th and 29th, the 9th reorganized in the vicinity of Kunu-Ri. As a result of the action from the late hours of the 25th to the 29th, the three battalions of the 9th had sustained over a 50% casualty rate, as a result leaving the 2nd and 3rd with less than 400 men each.
The 2nd was Bobby’s unit.
At approximately 8 PM on the 29th, a verbal order was received to attack and destroy the enemy roadblock on the Kunu-Ri-Sunchon Road. Combining the men left in each of the 2nd and 3rd into a reinforced company of approximately 400 men, the order was received and carried out during the remainder of November 29th and the early morning hours of November 30.
At 3:30 AM, the 2nd followed by the 3rd Battalion moved from the assembly area at Kunu-Ri to vicinity of the roadblock. At 6:30 AM, the 2nd Battalion on the right received enemy fire that increased in strength until 7 AM when enemy fire was coming from all sides. All vehicles withdrew. Although the fire continued for about 2 hours the unit held its position. The 3rd with a platoon of tanks contacted the enemy in the vicinity at approximately 7:15. The 9th advanced about 1000 yards through the roadblock until resistance of the enemy was such that farther progress forward was stopped.
The 9th completed a perimeter defense of the area and elements of the 2nd were allowed to pass through the roadblock. At 1:30 PM, with all available transport, the unit began to run the roadblock and engaged in a running fight while crossing it until 4 PM. However, enemy S/A fire was continuous and heavy along the entire 8 to 10 miles of the roadblock. The 2nd, on order, mounted all available transportation and engaged in a running fight with the enemy until reaching the vicinity of Sunchon at 4 PM. At 5:30 PM the group cleared the roadblock, taking fire on the rear and left flank, arriving in Sunchon area at 8 PM, proceeding to Hwange to set up a perimeter defense and reorganize.
Bobby clearly never made it to Sunchon. The report continues:
The regiment has suffered losses, heavy loses, in both men and equipment with what that undefined something that all great units have, the regiment wasn’t talking about the “downs” but what they would do the next time and hoping that time would be soon.
There was sadness, yes, but with that a grim determination that the enemy would pay, and pay the terrific price for what they had done. Instead of a defeated regiment the “Red” forces had succeeded in making a stronger, greater and inspired regiment of the 9th “Manchu” Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division.
Signed, Edwin J. Messinger, Colonel, Infantry Commanding
The map above shows the roadblocks, the route along which Bobby was captured.
The declassified report includes summary documents stating that the regiment’s many losses occurred during November 27-30 “when the Chinese troops attacked our positions in overwhelming numbers. A total of 1766 battle casualties were suffered, 37 killed, 370 wounded and 1359 missing in action.”
On November 30th, the unit had a total of 257 enlisted men, but they don’t say whether that count is before or after the offensive.
The 2nd reported 15 killed, 125 wounded and 191 missing. They had started out with 798 on November 1st, so one way or another, lost 41% of their men. Bobby was one of those 191 missing, many of whom would have become prisoners of war.
This horrific battle was later named “The Gauntlet.”
Lieutenant Colonel William Kelleher of the US 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment described the carnage at the Gauntlet:
“For the next 500 yards the road was temporarily impassable because of the numerous burning vehicles and the pile up of the dead men, coupled with the rush of the wounded from the ditches, struggling to get aboard anything that rolled…either there would be bodies in our way, or we would be almost borne down by wounded men who literally throw themselves upon us…I squeezed [a wounded ROK soldier] into our trailer. But as I put him aboard, other wounded men piled on the trailer in such number that the Jeep couldn’t pull ahead. It was necessary to beat them off.”
A summary written later stated that when the North Korean forces collapsed, the Chinese sent their units to establish the roadblock which would have isolated and surrounded the entire Eighth Army. The 2nd infantry didn’t know the strength of the roadblock and US intelligence mistakenly reported that an alternative escape on the road from Kunu-ri to Anju was also blocked by the Chinese. Therefore, the unit decided to withdraw through the valley and the attack on the roadblock began.
On that fateful morning, four tanks were initially sent down the road, but the Chinese held their fire. The length of the roadblock caught the infantry by surprise, as they were not aware that it has been extended by the Chinese the previous day. The Chinese lured the unit into the trap, and the road was soon filled with bodies and disabled vehicles. The sterility of the official (now declassified) report belies the horror of the men inescapably trapped and abandoned there.
Those who tried to take cover in the ditches were left behind by the convoy rushing south. Air cover provided some protection in the day, but not at night. The Chinese finally blocked the road entirely by destroying parts of the 2nd Infantry Division which immobilized artillery pieces, forcing the abandonment of the rest of the vehicles. The men that could retreated by hiking through the hills, but not everyone was able to escape. The men from the 2nd, trapped in place, continued to fight after the rest had left.
In one of the last acts of the battle, the retreating 23rd infantry fired off its entire stock of 3,206 artillery shells within 20 minutes, shocking the Chinese troops and preventing them from following the regiment. The last stragglers from the 2nd Infantry division, the few left alive, arrived at Sunchon on December 1st.
On this satellite map, you can see Kaechon (Turk) near where the battle started, Sunchon and Anju, a distance of about 25 miles.
By comparing the rivers, I can map the rough location of the roadblocks. However, given the map distances and the fact that the roadblocks were reported to be 8-10 miles long, the roadblock area was probably about a third of the distance between Kaechon and Sunchon.
I believe this this region is the area where Bobby was captured. It’s somehow ironic that today, I’m viewing far more information about where their son was on that fateful day than either of Bobby’s parents were ever able to do in their lifetime. The report wasn’t declassified until after both of Bobby’s parents had died.
By the next day, the Chinese had moved on, but Bobby was in the hands of the North Koreans. The horrific final chapter of Bobby’s inescapable death had begun.
Korean Concentration Camps
Bobby didn’t die for 2 months and 1 day, so he very clearly was in some kind of detainment facility. I discovered this list of Korean POW camps. Based on proximity and the early date, the only camps possible where Bobby was held would have been:
Camp 5, [old] Pyoktong, 1950-52—town name moved after war
The following holding points were in operation at that time as well:
The Valley at Sambakkol, mainly Nov 1950-Jan 1951 (near Pyongyang)
“Death Valley” at Pukchin-Tarigol, mainly Dec 1950-March 1953 (this site is believed to hold the remains of 350 US POWs)
“The Apex” camps at Chunggang-jin, Hanjang-ni, and An-dong, Nov 1950 to Oct 1951
Kanggye, used by POWs from the Chosin Reservoir, Dec 1950 to Mar 1951 (further east)
The official US POW/MIA page states that the majority of the men who died in these sites passed away during the winter of 1950-51 before food could be delivered reliably and shelter was haphazard at best. Temperatures in Korea in December and January range from 15-30 degrees. More than 7800 men were lost and remain unrecovered and about 5300 of those were lost in North Korea. This site shows a map with the locations of the various POW camps annotated.
This chills me to the bone.
Another soldier from Bobby’s unit captured in the same battle was sent to the Pukchin-Tarigol Camp Cluster, shown on the map below, about 30 miles north of Kaechon, where he starved to death on February 16, 1951, just two weeks after Bobby died.
Yet another soldier from the same unit captured at the same time died in the same prison camp four days before Bobby. There’s a reason it was called “Death Valley.” Those two soldiers were not listed on POW lists, were not among the remains returned in 1954 and were declared unrecoverable, but were found in a secondary burial site and returned in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Maybe there’s hope for Bobby yet.
I found the Pyoktong concentration camp location on the map as well, although the Korean War site says the town was moved after the war.
The notorious Pyoktong on the map today was located 60 or 70 miles north of Kaechon. Death Valley would have been closer to where Bobby was captured.
Exorbitant death rates in concentration camps probably account for the 900% (not a typo) discrepancy in the number of POWs that North Korea officially claimed to have held after the war, as compared to their own announcements and known South Korean captives during the war.
The original Pyoktong location is shown in the photo below on the south bank of the Yalu River that divides China and North Korea.
It’s reported that more than 2000 bodies are buried behind this location.
The 55 sets of remains (of over 7700+ still missing) that were recently returned by Korea only included one set with dogtags, and they weren’t Bobby’s. Given that Bobby was a POW for 2 months, they clearly had his tags. It’s unlikely that any of the remains repatriated are his.
Bobby’s Military Awards
I wondered if the awards that Bobby received posthumously might tell us more about his duty. Regardless, he deserves to be fully recognized for each one.
Combat Infantryman Badge – Awarded to infantrymen and special forces soldiers who fought in ground combat after December 6, 1941.
Prisoner of War Medal – Awarded to any person who was taken prisoner or held captive while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States
Korean Service Medal – Created November 1950 by President Harry Truman for participation in the Korean War.
United Nations Service Medal – An international military decoration established by the United Nations December 12, 1950 in recognition of the multi-national defense forces which participated in the Korean War. The back reads “For service in the defence (sic) of the principles of the charter of the United Nations.”
National Defense Service Medal – Established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, the medal is a “blanket campaign medal” awarded to service members who served honorably during a designated time period of which a “national emergency” had been declared during a time of war or conflict. This medal is awarded to men who served in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War or the War on Terrorism.
Korean Presidential Unit Citation – Award presented by the government of South Korea to any military unit of outstanding performance in defense of the Republic of Korea. In recognition of allied military service to South Korea during the Korean War, all US military departments were authorized the unit award for that period.
Republic of Korea War Service Medal – Military award of South Korea originally authorized in December of 1950 to honor those who participated in the counter assaults against North Korean aggression in June 1950. In 1951, South Korea authorized the award to “the brave and valiant members of the United Nations Command who have been, and are now, combatting the communist aggressor in Korea.”
Bobby’s mother, Lucille Latta Stockdale died on August 18, 1952 of a stroke at age 45. She only knew that Bobby was missing, not that he had died. Or did she, in her mother’s heart? She must have worried every single hour of single every one of those 625 days between his capture and her death.
As a mother, I can’t even begin to imagine how Lucille suffered. Surely she hoped for the best. And feared the worst. Every minute of every single hour
She probably jumped every time a phone rang or someone knocked at the door. She would have been constantly waiting for a good news call, or, for the dreaded telegram to arrive. Would it be Bobby’s voice on the other end of the line, or the men in military uniform at the door, bearing dreadful news?
It was never either.
Did the constant stress of his captivity lead to her stroke? It certainly didn’t help, that’s for sure.
I wonder when the family was finally notified? I knew that my uncle’s son had been killed in “the war,” but I never knew any details, including which war, when he died, nor even Bobby’s name.
My own father died when I was young, although he kept in touch with his brother as best he could until they were both lost to all of us.
As I processed this heartbreaking sequence of information: the battles, Bobby’s capture, his horrific time spent in Korea including those torturous last two months, his prolonged “absence” that was in fact the stillness of death, his mother’s demise and his father’s subsequent disappearance – the warmth of a revelation suddenly crept across me like sunshine emerging from the clouds after a devastating storm.
I had always known I was named “for” someone, but I had never known who that someone was. I knew positively it wasn’t anyone on my mother’s side. Mother said my father selected my first name and she chose my middle name. She seemed none too happy about that circumstance, but it was years too late when she and I had that discussion. My mother had ongoing issues with my father, but if she had known I was named for Bobby, and the circumstances, she would have told me with pride.
Now, I realize that I was named for Robert Vernon Estes, along with his nickname, Bobby, which my father bestowed upon me as well. I love my nickname, which I spell Bobbi, but I was never the least bit pleased with Roberta. I never understood. That’s all different now.
Robert, I’m busting-at-the-seams proud to be your namesake. I will stand in the stead of your parents until my death, still praying that we can bring you home soon, hoping that the least I can do is stand at your graveside as you are buried. It would be my honor.
Thank you for your service, your name and your ultimate sacrifice.
When MyHeritage first began autosomal DNA testing, I transferred my autosomal DNA test to MyHeritage (for free) and purchased a records subscription with little hope that a company out of Israel would have the focus or records to provide anything that an American company wouldn’t already have, or that I, as a decades long genealogist wouldn’t have already uncovered. But genealogists are desperate creatures and we’ll try anything once.
I’m happy to say, I was wrong.
The combination of my DNA and my tree, separately and together has provided a smorgasbord of new information. Of course, I view other people’s trees with the requisite grain of salt, or the entire lick, same as anyplace else. However, the MyHeritage record matches are golden, as are the DNA Smartmatches which combine DNA matches and trees with common ancestors. Just yummy!
At Rootstech 2018 when Gilad Japhet, MyHeritage’s CEO announced that they were digitizing yearbooks, I thought that was nice, but I don’t care about my own generation and yearbooks wouldn’t be relevant for my parents and grandparents.
My Mom graduated in 1940 and her parents were born in 1882 and 1888. Did yearbooks even exist as a “thing” back then? Even if they did, my mother’s family was from a small Brethren farming community in northern Indiana and my father’s family from a mountain community in Appalachia. I guarantee you there were no yearbooks in Claiborne County, Tennessee at that time. There were barely schools.
Well, guess what – I was wrong again.
I sure am glad I have that MyHeritage subscription.
Here’s the notification e-mail I received.
When I saw the year, 1966, I almost deleted this e-mail, but I’m so glad I didn’t. It seems that the 1966 Leesburg High School yearbook included historical photos which MyHeritage indexed as well.
Yearbooks, it turns out, aren’t just for high schools.
In 1900, the entire school in Oswego, Indiana turned out in front of the building for a photo. My grandfather, John Whitney Ferverda, was among the students and so were several of his siblings.
The Ferverda family was a significant contributor to the Oswego student population that year.
I didn’t know that my grandfather attended school at Oswego. They lived near Leesburg, so I assumed he attended school there. There’s that nasty word again. It appears that that Oswego children were considered Leesburg alumni? How’s that, when my grandfather turned 18 years old in 1900, so clearly graduating that year or the next?
The answer is found in a Fort Wayne, Indiana newspaper article in 1917 stating that:
“The first real commencement exercises of the Leesburg High School were held last week in the Methodist Church. Leesburg adopted the four-year high school last year and not much attention was paid to the graduating class.”
There were only two graduates in 1917, Donald Ferverda, my grandfather’s brother, being the valedictorian.
I’ve researched in the local libraries in the area too, and either they don’t have these yearbooks, or I never thought to look. The great thing about these notifications is that you don’t have to know to look. Plus, I would have NEVER looked in 1966, for anything, in Leesburg. My family was long gone by then.
The family always said they were from Leesburg, probably because “Grandma Ferverda” moved to town in her later years, but the original family farm was actually probably closer to Oswego.
I know, from family members that the Ferverda family lived on the same road as the Old Salem Church of the Brethren, about a mile south of the church. Unfortunately, Google Street view doesn’t follow the length of this road.
In any case, wherever the farm was located on this couple mile stretch, it wasn’t far from Oswego – actually closer than to Leesburg.
But that wasn’t the only surprise.
Yearbooks aren’t just for students.
My grandfather, John Ferverda, married Edith Lore in 1908 and they settled down the road about 20 miles in Silver Lake, Indiana where John was the railroad station master.
My mother graduated from Silver Lake High School in 1940, and beginning in 1946, my grandfather became a trustee. Who knew!
These yearbook photos provide some wonderful mid-life photos of my grandfather – none of which I’ve ever seen before. It looks like the trustees had their pictures taken every year too. My grandfather would have been 64 in 1946 and 68 in 1950, so this gives me a 5 year span of pictures.
The next mystery is why his name is in capital letters when not all of the trustees were.
John Ferverda continued as a trustee through 1950 which included a larger photo page as well.
Of course, this now begs the question of whether there were yearbooks when my mother was attending school in Silver Lake. I doubt it, but I’d surely love to be wrong for the third time. It’s back to MyHeritage to look.
By June of 1919, my father, William Sterling Estes had already served more than two full years in the military. Born in either 1901 or 1902, he enlisted in May 1917 when he was either 14 or 15 years young. He was discharged as a Sergeant First Class in May of 1919 and re-enlisted the next day in the Army 10th Infantry. His re-enlistment papers tell us that he was a marksman, not mounted, no battles, no medals, no wounds, good condition, typhoid shots, paratyphoid and he was single.
Dad was stationed at Camp Custer, then named Fort Custer, near Battle Creek, Michigan for most of his time in the service. He was included in this human shield of 30,000 soldiers, the photo taken from the Camp Custer water tower in 1918.
WWI was coming to an end in the summer of 1919, thankfully.
Somehow, probably on leave, Dad met Virgie Houtz who lived in Dunkirk, Indiana. In the summer of 1919, Virgie was 16 years old and attended high school.
Dad was either turning 17 or 18 that October, but in one of his letters to Virgie, he told her he was turning 20. We know for a fact that wasn’t true. Not only is he not on the 1900 census, his sisters said that he was born in 1902 and several other pieces of documentation point to either 1901 or 1902 as his birth year. The 1910 census tells us that he was 8 years old in April. He was born on October 1st, so he would have turned 9 later than year, which means his birth year was 1901 if the census is accurate.
Dad and Virgie fell in love that summer. They were two starry-eyed young kids – except one of them had been toughened by being turned out on his own at age 12, then fending for himself until he was old enough to “age himself” appropriately so he could join the military. I’m guessing the Army was his best bet for regular meals.
Indeed, he was one handsome lad. He was also still a boy, and a boy who had been rejected and abandoned by both parents before he was even a teenager. Dad had completed only 8th grade, according to later census records, which would have been about the time he and his younger brother Joe hopped a train for Tennessee when his parents split and neither parent wanted the boys. Dad would further his education later, but in 1919, he wrote amazingly well, considering.
Ninety-nine years ago, almost exactly a century, as I sit here today light-years removed, my father was using a fountain pen and ink well to write letters to his sweetheart after he finished his duties on the military base including feeding the horses which were widely used in the war effort.
In total, 14 envelopes and 11 well-worn letters remain.
From these historical gems, we gain an intrusive glimpse into their young love, and as a side-note, we also get to peer into his life at Camp Custer.
Reading these letters felt almost invasive, like I was a peeping tom, peering into something intensely personal. However, when this bundle arrived roughly 8 decades after he penned each letter with lovesick yearning, years after both of their deaths, I was exceedingly grateful to Virgie’s daughter for sending them. I read them with much trepidation, unsure of exactly what each page would reveal.
In addition to the letters, Virgie’s daughter included several photos that Virgie had cherished all of those years.
This treasure trove was truly amazing, all things considered. All things? What are those “all things?”
This is an unbelievably bittersweet love story. I’ll let Virgie’s letters and photos tell their story of summer love.
Bill and Virgie
My father was obviously very smitten with Virgie. Smitten doesn’t quite do this justice. I think the phrase head-over-heels-in-love is a better description.
We have Dad’s letters to Virgie, but of course, we don’t know what her letters to him said – although we catch some glimpses of that as well, between the lines so to speak.
I am sharing some of his letters, but not all. As you might guess, if you remember being 15 or 16 and lovestruck, they say “I love you” in every single way possible over and over. I’ll spare you that. I’d also like to afford them some privacy, even in death.
The first letter is dated June 25th, 1919.
Dad opens by telling Virgie that it’s 7:05 AM, he had already fed the horses, ate his own breakfast and is taking a few minutes to write to her. He calls her “Blue Eyes” and asks why he has only received one letter from her. He says he has written 4 to her. This appears to have been a whirlwind romance that turned serious quickly. He jokes that if she keeps it up, meaning not writing, she may “be without a hubby,” so they are obviously discussing a permanent relationship – whirlwind or not.
At first I thought he meant he had written her 4 letters since she wrote one, but based on later exchanges, I think this was actually the beginning of the relationship and he had just left Dunkirk a few days earlier.
He says that since coming back to Battle Creek:
“The girls there don’t abount (sic) to a hill of beans.”
Yep, he’s hooked!
I’m guessing that Dad had been with his friend, James, because he says that James took the car home when he was discharged and therefore, Dad has “nothing to do.” James and the car may be how he met Virgie in the first place, since he seems to write as if she knows James.
If they get paid before the 4th of July, Sergeant Lynch and Dad are going to visit Dunkirk. They may live it up after they arrive and go to Redkey or Eaton, both crossroads towns not far from Dunkirk in the land of cornfields and soybeans.
I have to wonder whatever brought these soldiers to this remote country location 171 miles from Camp Custer in the first place.
Dunkirk isn’t close to much of anything and not on the way to anywhere.
Apparently Virgie called Dad “Buddy.” I never knew that was his nickname. Maybe it was only between them.
Dad appeared to be writing to Virgie every spare minute. The next letter is dated the following day.
Later in this letter, he tells Virgie that he showed her photo to the lady at the YWCA Hostess House who told him Virgie looked like a nice girl and he must think a lot of her. I’m sure Dad was showing Virgie’s photo to anyone who would look and listen, and probably a few unsuspecting people who wouldn’t.
He told the lady:
“Yes and I’ll tell the whole world I do.”
Ah, the achiness of fresh, new, overwhelming love.
But then, he said something very prescient.
“I will be true to you till death.”
If someone had told him that day that he would die as her husband, but would not marry her until 42 years later, he would have thought them crazy.
“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t sacrifice for you, even my life.”
Then, perhaps having gotten too close to the hole in his soul, he changed topics abruptly:
“The boys, we are arguing about the war, but I don’t know about their brains. Ha. Ha.”
Later the same day, he writes a second letter. For a man in service to write two letters to his intended in the same day – he had to be wonderfully, miserably lovesick.
In Dunkirk, I can see Virgie going to the post office every day to look for a letter – maybe multiple times every day. In the era of “general delivery,” mail wasn’t delivered to homes. Of course, that meant the entire town knew who received mail from whom. In Michigan, Dad probably lived for mail call, either elated or dejected, depending on what was waiting.
Look at the back of this envelope! Apparently he had proposed and she had said yes.
If you’re groaning at the syrupiness of this, I know, me too. Yet, I remember doing this same thing at about the same age.
I should probably explain at this point that he refers to himself as her husband often. They were clearly betrothed. If you’re laughing, remember that this was nearly a century ago when women often married as soon as they were old enough to reproduce. Tennessee, where his family was from was notorious for marriages that began at 15 or 16 and lasted a lifetime, whether they should have or not. Large families and poverty are powerful cement.
Soldiers in WWI received tetanus, typhoid and smallpox vaccines although experimentation with a flu vaccine followed the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918. Regardless, only Virgie would be allowed to touch his sore arm:)
In this letter, Dad asks Virgie about Fluffy, “their child.”
I do believe this is Fluffy. This man was no dummy. Way to her heart! If he’s asking about Fluffy in the letter, this photo would have been taken just a week or two prior.
Oh, and if a kitten alone doesn’t work, try a kitten and two ducks. Who can resist this? Seriously!
Fluffy is perched on his shoulder, eyeing the ducks I suspect or wondering how to get down.
“Your hubby sure does love you with all my heart and soul.”
He tells Virgie that he’s saving for July 4th, which appears to be when he plans to visit her in Dunkirk again. He rode horses in the afternoon and had “a sweet time” but wishes she was with him. That theme, of course, permeates all of his letters.
He is probably the only soldier at the Knights of Columbus Hall that is writing to a girlfriend instead of dancing. He tells her never to doubt his love.
“I stay awake at night thinking of you. You will be my wife soon. I am yours forever and ever.”
An empty envelope is all that remains of a June 30th letter. Did she love it to death, hide it from her parents maybe, or lose it somehow?
The 4th of July
The next letter follows on July 8th, and based on its contents, we know where he was over the 4th of July.
I can’t help but wonder what happened in Fort Wayne to cause him to leave so late and drive all night. Today, that same drive is about an hour and a half or two hours, max. At about 100 miles, that means they averaged about 15 miles an hour. Cars were a lot slower then than today, roads were in a lot worse condition and tires had to be patched regularly. The Model T which began to be manufactured in 1908 was the first affordable car and is probably what they were driving.
Not only did he manage to get back to camp late, which means he was technically AWOL, but he also seems to have had a case of tonsillitis severe enough to require surgery. This is a decade before the invention of antibiotics.
Dad goes on to say that $30 a month isn’t much to live on, which I would presume is his salary. He thinks it will cost them $25 a month for “light housekeeping” but he can get his groceries on base and his clothes from Uncle Sam.
“I sure want my baby dressed nice but we’ll try and get along somehow. Oh, I know, well just live on hugs and kisses.”
I remember being so in love I could have cared less about anything and everything except for that person. Apparently, I inherited that trait from my dear father.
Dad says he’s expecting Virgie to visit the 4th of the following month. He references an old girlfriend who he identifies as having a “hairlip.” Apparently, the old girlfriend referred to him as Billy when she was inquiring as to why he had not written to her. I’ve also never heard my dad called by what was probably his boyhood nickname.
I’m suspecting that Dad told Virgie about the other gal on purpose to “keep her interested” and so that Virgie wouldn’t think that there weren’t other gals pursuing him. He doesn’t say, but if the “hairlip gal” is who I think she is, her name is Martha. Dad told Virgie that he replied that his wife was there, on base, so there was “no chance now.” Ummm, that wasn’t exactly true either, but I don’t want to get ahead of the story. Just remember Martha.
Another empty envelope from July 29th, followed by a letter on August 5th that tugged at my heartstrings.
My father was apparently quite ill.
“I thought I was a goner.”
Why did he think Virgie might not love him anymore? My heart aches for him.
“You know I was going to come and see you this pay day and then I never herd (sic) from you and now I can’t come.”
“Have you been true to me?”
I’m not clear why they apparently need or want to wait two years to marry. Yes, he’s in the military, but other men marry while in service. Perhaps her father wouldn’t allow it until he got out, or until she was 18 or perhaps graduated from high school? The only two people who know the answer to that are together now, and not here to ask.
“I’ll be true to you.”
“For you I would die.”
Oh, my heart.
Then he says goodbye with:
“10,000 kisses and as many hugs.”
The next letter is mailed from the base hospital. If you’re keeping track, this is the third time in just over a month that Dad has been hospitalized.
He has been and remains very ill.
I wonder if he had meningitis or encephalitis introduced when they removed his tonsils. Maybe they shouldn’t have done that surgery while the tonsils were infected. He had been hospitalized at this point since about August 7th, two days after his last letter.
The next letter is dated August 20th, almost two weeks later, and he’s STILL in the hospital and hopes to get out in a couple weeks. Sadly, he mentions that Virgie is only writing him once a month. Uh oh!
He tells Virgie that he has a case of “phenomia fever.”
I can’t even imagine being a critically ill 16 or 17-year-old boy, claiming to be 20, trying to be grown up, alone, in the Army, and with my lady-love not writing. Talk about feeling frightened, alone and abandoned. Again.
First, he survived his family, then two years of military service during a war, and now something that kept him hospitalized for 3 weeks.
VIRGIE, FOR GOD’S SAKE, WRITE TO HIM!!!!!
The next letter is dated August 23rd. Virgie has apparently written, thank goodness!
He mentions his mother, Ollie Bolton Estes, in Franklin Park, Illinois. Apparently Ollie said that “Bessie is looking short,” whatever that means. He then goes on to mention that it has been “only 4 months since I busted up with her (Bessie) and Mama said she claims it’s all my fault.” I’m not quite sure how he could go with a gal in Franklin Park, Illinois and be in the service in Battle Creek, but then again, he’s going with a gal in Dunkirk, Indiana.
I’m making a mental note of a woman named Bessie in Illinois in April 1919, just in case that half-sibling DNA match arrives. However, given that 1919 is 99 years ago, I guess that match would have to be the half sibling’s child, grandchild or great-grandchild. Um, that might explain something I’ve been wondering about. I have a mystery match at MyHeritage of 383cM that is clearly on my father’s side, is about exactly perfect to be a grandchild of a half sibling, and hasn’t answered my messages, but I digress.
Why oh why does he use no one’s last name?
Dad vacillates between asking Virgie if she still wants him and then says he is “sure she is true.” This sounds like one terrified young man. I just want to hug his heart that longs to be loved.
“I will always do all that I can to make you happy and to help you.”
Dad then once-again switched abruptly to, “I am going horseback riding this afternoon.” He closes by saying he wishes she was there to ride with him, signs as “Hubby” and fills the rest of the page with Xs.
In the next letter, dated August 24th, I clearly sense an air of desperation. Note that he is still in the hospital.
“I shall love you the longest day I live and you can depend on me as your best friend in the world.”
“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you.”
What else is there to say? While in the hospital no less. What pain he must have been in to have to pen the next line.
“You know I’m nothing soft, so write plain what you think and I will thank you for it.”
This is killing me.
On August 30th, another letter on hospital stationery hints at answers. Apparently, high drama has occurred in the small down of Dunkirk, and someone told Virgie “something.” If this reminds you of Junior High School and 13-year-old girls, keep in mind how old these two were, and the naivety of the time.
Dad’s letter doesn’t tell us what Virgie said, but he replies:
“Don’t believe any thing like that for I never thought of saying such a thing. I came to see you because I loved you. I love you so much and you are the light of my life. There are lots of people in Dunkirk that would like to brake (sic) up our friendship but if it’s left up to me it will never be broken up.”
He goes on to expand on that thought in loverly fashion, and then says:
“I have been true to you since I began going with you and I have letter what can prove to you that I’ve stopped all of my correspondence with all other girls.”
A few paragraphs later he states:
“I think of you if I am idle on duty walking post at midnight or riding across the camps. You are the vision of my dreams and you always will be. Won’t you please believe in me forever and trust me.”
The next part is a bit confusing, and he is clearly flustered or exasperated, but he in essence says that he wants her to think of him when she is in specific “other company,” which means another boy.
He follows with:
“I am in camp waiting and saving for you and preparing for your future and think how much I love you. Then after you think it over and consider your love for them, if your love for me isn’t strong enough to resist other company, then you may go ahead but never with my consent. That last kiss I placed on your lips I placed it there to stay till I came back. It wasn’t placed there for other fellows to take off. If I ever have to give you up I don’t want to ever see another girl for my love is too strong for you. I have never asked for a release from our engagement for that has never entered my mind. I won’t want one if you will only be true to me and promise to believe in me. I have you a sapire (sic) ring for your engagement ring. I will bring it when I come to see you if you will only let me come and nobody else.”
He must feel terribly out of control, like he is at a severe disadvantage, remote, and unable to “compete” by being present. Yet, he somehow found the money for an engagement ring that I don’t think she ever saw.
Dad then asks when her school starts and tells her to study hard and hurry and graduate.
“I love you enough to die for you.”
“I’ll protect you till the end of time.”
Why would he invest this much effort if these feelings weren’t genuine?
He closes by telling Virgie that he’s now out of the hospital, although this 8-page letter appears to have been written in sections and probably over several days.
“Your Soldier Boy.”
My heart is screaming.
The next letter is dated September 4th and opens very differently. Instead of calling her by a pet name, he greets her with, “My Dearest Virgie” and proceeds to talk about when they went to pick strawberries, referring to that time nostalgically as “the good old days.” Something has changed.
He says he would like to visit her next month and then at Christmas. Unbeknownst to him, his life by Christmas would be very, very different.
By the end of the first page, departing dramatically from earlier letters, there are no professions of love. Instead, he asks if she ever thinks about him. At the end of page 2, he tells her he would like to kiss her and then closes by telling her one last time, and the only time in this letter, that he loves her.
“My love is yours.”
One final desperate try.
The tone has changed dramatically.
This is the last letter.
For more than 40 years.
However, this heart-wrenching picture taken outside her parents’ home with the message written in Virgie’s hand tells a different story.
“Thou Art Gone.”
She clearly grieved this loss, as did he.
I don’t exactly know what happened between them, or didn’t, but there are hints and I have some thoughts.
Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.
Martha Dodderer and Edna
My DNA confirmed half-sister, Edna, was born to Martha Dodderer on May 22, 1920. Martha, indeed, had a cleft palate which was at that time referred to as a hairlip. Edna told me that her mother met our father when she was a volunteer in the hospital or infirmary at Camp Custer.
Using a conception date calculator, and assuming that Edna was born after a normal gestation period, the most likely time of conception was August 21-28, with the possible dates ranging from August 18th to September 2nd. Right after the desperation letter and before that last letter. If we presume that he didn’t get out of the hospital until about August 30th, then the conception was closer to September 2nd, and probably before September 4th, the date of the letter in which the tone was significantly changed – like he had given up.
We have a desperately ill young man who thought he was dying – in the hospital three times, totaling 4 or more weeks in 2 months, the last time for 3 weeks – and far from any family to visit. During this time, he becomes increasingly desperate as his sweetheart is not writing to him and appears, at least to him, to be interested in someone else.
Martha, about 5 years older, took care of him in the hospital, was kind to him and perhaps commiserated with being rejected. One thing led to another, which led to Edna.
Dad didn’t marry Martha until 19 months later, in December of 1921. Their divorce was final three years later and the proceedings made it quite clear that their marriage probably should never have occurred at all.
He didn’t marry Martha in the fall of 1919 because he had already married someone else.
Yes, you read that right.
And it wasn’t Virgie.
I wonder what the engagement ring looked like.
Ilo Bailey and Lee Joseph
As if this story wasn’t complex enough, Martha apparently wasn’t the only person that my Dad had been seeing. On December 3, 1919 in Calhoun County, Michigan, he married Ilo Bailey under an assumed name. And yes, I’m positive it’s him.
Their child, unproven by DNA testing because Lee is deceased and had no children, was born on February 24, 1920. Again, using the conception calculator, the most likely time for Ilo to have become pregnant was May 29-June 2, with possible dates being May 23-June 7th.
Both of these pregnancy events, Ilo and Martha, skirt the timeframe of the letters from Dad to Virgie. Ilo before and Martha after. The letters to Virgie began in late June and ended two months later in late August, with the last one of a much different tone being dated September 4th. In other words, he may well not have been cheating on Virgie. These two relationships appear to bracket their brief engagement.
If Ilo got pregnant about the end of May or beginning of June, she would have been hunting for my father in August to tell him of her plight. It took him 4 months after that to marry her. I suspect strongly that he sincerely loved Virgie and not only had he “lost” Virgie, he had found a family he didn’t exactly anticipate. That marriage, however, didn’t last long.
In a letter from Ilo to Dad 15 months later dated March 22, 1921, Ilo states that she is leaving for Kentucky, their marriage “is illegal anyway” and “it’s in the hands of an attorney now.” Apparently, by December 12, 1921, he was unmarried because he married Martha Dodderer, Edna’s mother.
But that may not be all either.
Dad’s letters to Virgie are increasingly desperate and heart-wrenching. I’m left with the impression that both Virgie and my Dad were just too young and emotionally unprepared to withstand such a trying situation, even without complications of health, war and distance.
But there might have been more in play as well.
It’s very unusual for a healthy young man to become deathly ill for more than three weeks. It’s simply not normal. It wasn’t during the deadly flu epidemic which had hit Camp Custer hard in October of 1918 and it wasn’t during the winter, but the middle of summer. Reading historical documents from that time period, the first step of suspected flu on base was indeed to isolate the patient, but if he had the flu, he would have said so instead of “pneumonia fever.”
Dad was hospitalized for the second time right after he had a tonsillectomy. His third hospitalization was for three weeks. He mentioned that his head ached terribly, he had a high fever and was dizzy. I have to wonder if he contracted either meningitis or encephalitis during his surgery that caused some level of residual brain damage, impairing his executive function ability which regulates decision making. Executive function is the filter that keeps you from jumping out of the car and slapping the person silly who cuts you off in traffic. In other words, road rage results from the lack of executive function.
My father’s first stent in the service was not marked by any known disciplinary action and he was a Sergeant when he re-enlisted in May of 1919. Everything was fine right up until it wasn’t, and then it went to “hell in a handbasket,” as my Mom would have said, right after his illness.
Beginning right after his last letters to Virgie, his behavior changed dramatically. It’s as if there was an invisible line in the sand. Here’s a brief timeline.
April 1919 – Breaks up with Bessie, according to letter to Virgie, possibly in Franklin Park, Illinois
May 20, 1919 – Dad re-enlists in the Army at Fort Custer
Late May or early June 1919 – Ilo gets pregnant in Battle Creek
Mid/late June 1919 – Dad meets Virgie
June 25, 1919 – first letter to Virgie
July 9, 1919 – in hospital for tonsillectomy
August 5, 1919 – just released from hospital, but “I thought I was a goner.”
August 7, 1919 – hospitalized again for 3 weeks
August 30, 1919 – letters to Virgie increasingly desperate, out of hospital
September 4, 1919 – last letter to Virgie, very different tone
Late August or early September 1919 – Martha gets pregnant in Battle Creek
November 4, 1919 – Dad is AWOL and remains AWOL until April 1920
December 3, 1919 – Dad marries Ilo in Calhoun County, Michigan under an assumed name
April 1920 – Dad arrested for being AWOL and sent to Leavenworth
March 1921 – Dad released from Leavenworth, returns to Camp Custer
March 1921 – Ilo letter to Dad saying she has left and they are getting divorced, letter found in possession of Martha Dodderer at her death
August 8-11, 1921 – AWOL again
August-October 1921 – I think he was back in Leavenworth
November 1921 – discharged from service
December 1921 – married Martha Dodderer in Calhoun County, Michigan
February 1924 – divorced from Martha Dodderer
This also may have been about the time Dad started drinking heavily. Then again, being quite ill, having two separate women pregnant, losing the one you love who is not one of the two pregnant women, and being AWOL at the same time will do that to you.
What a mess he got himself into with absolutely no good way out.
I keep hearing the refrain, “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.”
By then, it was simply too late.
Fast Forward to 1960
We’re going to fast forward through several decades and failed relationships. In hindsight, it feels to me like Dad never got over Virgie and continued to make decisions that lacked in judgement – each new situation weighed down by the quickly accumulating baggage of the past.
In the mid-1940s and again in the 1950s, he was involved with two women at the same time, one of which was my mother. As late as 1960, we have a photo of Dad in Fort Wayne, in his “other” wife, Ellen’s living room, provided by my “half-brother,” David Estes, who turned out not to be my Dad’s biological child.
Dad had a penchant for just showing up and hunting people down after absences of many years. In spite of his prolonged absences, he was an extremely likeable guy, and it was very difficult to remain angry with him – at least initially, according to Edna and others. Edna told me that she hadn’t seen him in literally 3 or 4 decades when he appeared at her house about 1960, wearing a suit and looking quite dapper. The photo below was taken that day with Edna’s children.
This wasn’t long after the period when he was practicing medicine in Tennessee and elsewhere. If your mouth just dropped open, welcome to my world. That’s a story for future article, and it’s a humdinger. My father was anything but boring.
About the same time that this photo was taken, Dad decided to stop by Virgie’s parents’ house in Dunkirk to see if he could find Vergie. He must have been on a search-and-recover binge that year.
Keep in mind that he had last been there 40 or 41 years earlier. Virgie’s father had died, Virgie had married, raised her kids and divorced, and just happened to be living with her mother in the same house where she resided back in 1919.
What are the chances, right?
Virgie had never remarried. She squirrelled away Dad’s pictures and letters that entire time – 4 decades. If Dad thought 2 years was a long time, 40 years is forever.
On April 24, 1961, Virgie and Dad married in Rome, Georgia. No, I don’t know why Georgia, but knowing Dad, I’m sure there’s a story there someplace.
He may or may not have been officially divorced from Ellen at that time. Mom mentioned that Virgie had to “fix” something in that regard, having to do with a divorce not being final in Florida. I found a corresponding envelope with no letter dated October 17, 1961 from the law firm Jopling, Darby and Duncan in Lake City, Florida. The official story was that the waiting period was somehow “messed up,” or that the lawyers got the divorce petition filed a day late. I have been unable to find any divorce record in Florida. Maybe I should check other Lake City (Columbia County) legal records. Maybe there’s more that I don’t know. Hmmm….
Regardless, he and Virgie lived the next two years and 4 months happily in the little house with Grandma. They had such a short time to make up for 42 irrecoverable years. Virgie loved Dad and adored him, at the same time aware of his foibles. I hope Dad found the love, security and acceptance he desperately craved.
Dad died on August 27, 1963, with Vergie at his bedside. He had promised Virgie all those years ago to love her until his death, and he did exactly that, just as he had sworn. I believe that Virgie was indeed his true love, his soul mate. I’m so glad he found his way back to Dunkirk and to Virgie.
I know this isn’t your typical love story happy ending, but I think those last two fleeting years were as happy as either Dad or Vergie ever were, except, of course, for those few days during that long-ago lost summer of 1919.
Ah, the glorious summer of 1970. As adults, we can look back at our lives and specific forks in the road stand out and define themselves as life-altering, even if we didn’t realize it at the time.
That was the summer of 1970 for me.
Sometimes our life course needs to be altered and we don’t even know it. Call it Fate. Call in Divine intervention. Call it whatever you will.
A test and a trip redirected my life forever.
There was no turning back.
During the school year, students throughout the country took a test to qualify for studying abroad. The highest scorers were offered the opportunity to travel to Europe during the summer and study overseas.
That trip wasn’t free, but it was quite reasonable, comparatively, at $1200.
For our family, any amount over about $10 was a lot of money, and anything over $100 meant it wasn’t going to happen. A hundred dollars was more than an entire week’s wages for my mother. Minimum wage was all of $1.45 an hour and I don’t think she made $2 as a bookkeeper.
I tested anyway at the encouragement of my French teacher. The possibility seemed remote, and the entire class was testing so it was much easier to simply test than suffer the embarrassment of explaining why I wasn’t.
The days turned into weeks, and I had all but forgotten about the test when a letter arrived at home.
Yes, I was one of the selected students, and so was one of my classmates, Kim.
We were overjoyed, but, BUT, how was I ever going to afford the trip?
Studying abroad was expensive, even though these trips were designed specifically with “students” of working-class families in mind. There’s a difference between working-class and single-mother-with-deceased-father finances. We lived in daily fear of something breaking, because we knew we couldn’t afford to fix anything.
The Collège du Léman in Versoix, Switzerland (and other universities) filled their empty summer dorms with foreign high school students in the hope that they could recruit them as students later. Of course living abroad promised amazing adventures, trips to picturesque cities we had only heard about and days complete with castles and romance – the stuff movies were made of.
The trip accommodations were a bit more humble than those fantasies – traveling by train or bus and staying in youth hostels.
Still, a trip like that would be the adventure of a lifetime. And far beyond the reach of Mom and me financially.
My father had been dead for 7 years and my mother worked every overtime minute possible, along with side jobs. We both wore hand-me-down clothes and what garments I could make, I did. I sewed for both of us.
Our car ran on a wink and a prayer and some days, didn’t run at all. We used a lightbulb in the winter under the hood to keep the engine warm so that the battery wouldn’t have to work so hard, or would work at all – because everything on that car was old. I remember the day a bicycle beat our old clunker across an intersection. Mom cried.
A breakdown of any kind of anything required money we didn’t have. We ate out ONLY once a year, when I was promoted from one grade to the next. That’s just how life was. I had never known anything different.
Mother was distraught. She wanted to provide me with this opportunity, but how would she pay for the trip? My grandparents were dead too – there was no one to help.
I wasn’t yet old enough to work, but I would be later in the year and the following summer. I already babysat, had for years, and performed other jobs available “for cash” for those too young to actually have a “real job.”
My mother was one determined lady.
Mom visited the bank on her lunch hour and arranged for a $1500 loan, $1200 for the trip and $300 for spending money for the summer. Her employer where she had worked since I was an infant co-signed. Our agreement was that she would initially pay for the loan by working overtime, or getting a second job, and I would take over the payments as soon as possible. I would also pay her back, which I somehow seemed to be doing for the rest of her life😊
That not only seemed fair, I was ecstatic and incredibly grateful. I was afraid to even dream that the trip might be a possibility. I still remember jumping up and down, our arms locked together when we received the news that her loan was approved. She must have worried about how she would pay that bill too, in addition to everything else, but she never let on.
I saw the words in the brochure; London, Amsterdam, Geneva and Paris. I savored the words, “Study French at the Collège du Léman, outside Geneva.” I looked in the encyclopedias at school to see where those places were located. That was long before the days of google or any home resources. I devoured the history of those locations.
Our French teacher began to prepare us for our “grande aventure.” Never in my wildest dreams could I have comprehended even at a rudimentary level what awaited.
My world was about to change, and the one to which I would return would look entirely different from the world I left. My life upended, turned upside-down.
My pictures from the trip have been badly water damaged, plus the ravages of almost 50 years. Many are out of focus, and their colors have faded.
Not to mention, I did a bad thing and wrote on the backs in ink, which transferred to the photo behind the picture. At least I DID write something, because I would be lost without those memory joggers today.
I recently scanned the few that have survived and will attempt to crop judiciously as I share this wonderful journey to the land of my ancestors. The photos may be damaged, but my memories, more of events and people than places, remain crystal clear.
My mother saved my letters that I wrote home during that trip, which I inherited in her “Suitcase of Life” when she passed away. They were like a time capsule from the past, hearing a younger me speak. Some are amazingly prescient, and some are quite cringe-worthy. I’ll be excerpting from them. You’ve been warned!
If there’s anything I take away from those letters, in general, it’s that growth is much like an internal tug-of-war. I’m both enchanted and horrified as I read those letters today.
Grab a cup of tea and come along!
New York City
The flight departed from New York City. My mother discovered that the cost of the flight from Indiana to New York City was not included in the package and was quite steep. My great-aunt who lived in upstate New York volunteered to pay for that part of the trip if we would stop and visit for a few days on the way to New York. Visiting with Aunt Eloise was an added bonus.
We were Hoosiers, not the least bit familiar with New York City traffic and my mother, bless her heart, drove straight into the heart of the city to the hotel and, a couple days later, to the airport. I’m amazed that we didn’t die. She didn’t realize what she had gotten herself into, but the only way out was through, and she wasn’t letting anything stop her now. That was before the days of GPS, navigation or even Google maps. We navigated with accordion folded maps, squinting as the car moved.
While we were in New York, we ascended the top of the Empire State building, visited the United Nations building and of course, boarded a ferry to view the welcoming Statue of Liberty. Iconic New York. For me, it was a wonderful sendoff. For her, the first vacation she had taken since my birth. One of her girlfriends came along to split the cost. We had a great time!
From the minute I discovered that I was actually going to be able to go, I had sought every possible opportunity to earn money. I had saved my babysitting pay and cleaned houses to purchase fabric from the remnant bin to make my clothes for the trip. I made Mom a new dress for New York City, shown below at some NYC landmark.
While Mom was thrilled to be visiting New York City, she was understandably reluctant to put me on the plane to England. I think she had some last minute remorse. I didn’t look back – although had I realized the traffic nightmare my Mom faced leaving New York, I would have been worried. I was far safer airborne than her.
I had never been on a plane before, and I was flying alone. I would meet the rest of the students in Stansted Airport, 42 miles outside of London, the following morning. We would meet up with the counselors later in the day, in London.
I fell asleep, literally, flying into the future.
I don’t know what I expected, but I guarantee you, this wasn’t it.
DO YOU KNOW THEY DRIVE ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD????
Holy moley, we lost a mirror on the bus – and I’m sitting on THAT SIDE. The bus driver looks irritated, but nothing more.
BUSSES ARE TOO BIG FOR THIS ROAD!!! WHAT ARE THEY THINKING???
The roads are miniscule!
I can’t look!!!
Slams eyes…waits to die.
Ok, I’m peeking, and I see quaint cottages with beautiful flower gardens, much like these buildings today.
Not soon enough, we arrived in London, in one piece but shaken.
Other than the 2 students from my school, I had never met the other students, of course, since we lived all over America. Soon we were chattering like magpies and quickly became acquainted. Two hours later, you’d have thought we were one big family on vacation together.
In spite of flying all night, no one wanted to sleep. After all, we were in LONDON, home of pop music, hip fashion and a cosmopolitan flavor we had never been exposed to before.
My first letter home was written on July 20th, on toilet paper. Yes, toilet paper. The toilet paper there was very “different” from Charminesque TP as we know it today. Think of see-through thin, non-absorbent and crispy. Kind of like super-crunchy tissue paper. Not at all comfy to use as TP, but made great stationery.
Toilet paper was one of my least favorite things about Europe. However, air mail was expensive, toilet paper was very lightweight and free, so I wrote on UNUSED TP regularly.
Here’s proof – the first paragraph of a letter.
Excerpts of my letter to Mom continued:
“We toured London on foot today. My feet and ankles are all swollen, but I had fun. Went back out tonight. Haven’t seen hide nor hair of the chaperones.”
Of course, it never occurred to me that if my feet and ankles were swollen, I should stay home and put my feet up. HA! That wasn’t about to happen. I’m sure that chaperone part made my Mom feel just wonderful. At least we were together as a group.
Wide-eyed, we walked until our legs gave out, then rode the subways everyplace, drinking in the heady cosmopolitan ambience.
We visited Big Ben, of course, and the Queen’s residence, Buckingham Palace with its massive gold gates.
Little did I know that the Queen is my cousin – albeit very distant, but a cousin just the same. I’m suspecting she wouldn’t have welcomed a visit from a poor but extremely starry-eyed and enthusiastic American student who is her 18th cousin 3 times removed and hadn’t the foggiest idea how to curtsy. How to behave in the presence of royalty wasn’t a concept I was familiar with.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the pomp and circumstance involved with the changing of the guards at Kensington Palace.
My cousin, the Queen, is a horsewoman herself, shown below, riding in the center.
We tried our best to distract those guards, somewhat of a local sport, since they were reported to be unflappable, of course setting themselves up as targets. We were quite unsuccessful – they were oblivious to our amateurish shenanigans. We, however, giggled uncontrollably with the sheer headiness of being in London combined with what to us was brazen misbehavior.
Ohhh, that guard was so cute and so was his horse.
I had no understanding of city gates, or even a comprehension of what medieval actually meant. Why would there be a gate or a wall??? Who needed to be kept out, or in, and why?
I had never seen castles and fountains or formal gardens. I lived in heartland Indiana, land of soybeans, barns and cornfields, not castles that functioned as fortresses towering over lakes in major cities, harkening back to the days of Lords and Ladies, Queens and Kings – many of whom were my family – albeit entirely unknown to me at the time.
This park and pond is located in the center of London, with Buckingham Palace in the distance.
Little did I know that my ancestors, yes MY ANCESTORS, are buried in Westminster Abbey. In fact, several repose there, including King Edward who died in 1307. My roots in London, and in fact, all of England run deep. Very deep. My ancestors’ DNA litters the English soil.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but my fascination with architecture, history and medieval buildings had been born, although my photography skills were abysmal.
That was long before the days of digital cameras and cell phones where you can see the photo you’ve just taken. These pictures were developed after returning home months later. You just crossed your fingers, clicked and hoped for the best. In fact, I rationed my film, so many photos allowed per day or location.
Next, we visited the massive Parliament buildings that overlooked the Thames River. Decades later, I would learn that the Thames was a central theme in the history of my ancestors, the ultra-rich, the abysmally poor and refugees alike.
I fed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. During my last trip, a few years ago, we were informed that the pigeons had all been exterminated via poison, victims of “progress.”
London was the fashion center of the world. Just ask any teenage girl on that trip! Londoners had clothes so wild we Americans had never even imagined them. What seems old-fashioned and tame now was radical at the time.
Carnaby Street was so MOD! And look at those shoes in the window – to die for! Actually, I think they are back in style again.
Little did I know that Henry Bolton, a poor child who lived in the oldest part of the city near the docks in the shadow of London Bridge was my ancestor. He was born in what was then the ghetto about 1760, along with his brother, Conrad.
Little did I know that my German 1709ers had stayed, albeit somewhat unwillingly, as refugees, in London in 1709 in a make-shift tent city at St. Katherine’s Wharf on the Thames River. I would visit them there some 43 years later.
Little did I know that my Estes ancestors, whose surname I carried then and still carry, originated along the White Cliffs of Dover, but I wouldn’t visit that location until decades later. I had no idea at that time that Estes was English. I had never thought about genealogy, as hard as that is now to believe.
I would know none of that until much, much later.
In the summer of 1970 in London, I was captivated by the atmosphere so vastly different than anything I had ever experienced. Even the language sounded entirely different. As they say – two countries divided by a common tongue.
I wrote to mother:
“We’ve seen a lot of neat things and a lot of different customs too. I can’t begin to describe it“.
This would only be the first of many times on this journey that I found myself without words.
And then, not that I was conflicted or anything:
“London is OK but I like home better. But I’m not homesick. However, I would like to be there.”
Two days later, in a sleep-deprived brain fog, we climbed aboard a train and slept all the way to the coast as the train rumbled through the English countryside, occasionally bouncing our heads against the windows we were using for pillows.
We departed England by crossing the English Channel, boarding the ferry at Harwich for a 125-mile crossing. I can’t tell you much about the English Channel, because, well, I was distracted.
I met Robin.
I met Robin on the misty rain-drizzled upper deck of the ferry boat, the St. George, sailing between England and the Netherlands on a rough 6-hour crossing. I had never been on a ship before, or on the sea for that matter, and I told mother:
“I’m not seasick, but I feel drunk.”
Truth be told, I had no idea at that time what being drunk felt like either.
A little later:
“I’m starting to like this. I met a Dutch boy.”
Tall, older and handsome, Robin bought me my first beer on that ferry – AFTER I wrote that part about feeling drunk, just for the record. However, I didn’t mention that “beer” detail to mother. Nosiree…
Robin was just a month shy of 19, a merchant marine, and handsome – that cute guard on the horse from Kensington Palace quickly faded from memory.
Of course, teenage girls have a boy-memory-half-life of about 30 minutes on a good day anyway.
Here’s a picture of Robin when he married, five years later, and no, not to me. Our relationship took a decidedly different turn.
Robin and Joan, his lovely wife, and I are friends today, but on that rainy summer day in 1970, Robin hadn’t yet met Joan and he was enjoying “holiday,” on leave from officer’s school in the Dutch Merchant Marines.
Robin and I chatted during the crossing…OK, so we might have flirted a tiny little bit, but Robin was absolutely a perfect gentleman. A few hours later, I watched Robin ride away on his motor scooter as my group waited together to depart for parts unknown. Robin looked up and waved goodbye from the parking lot as we stood on the ship’s deck, watching over the railing. Robin and I had exchanged addresses and promised to faithfully write as penpals. It never occurred to me that I might actually SEE Robin again someday, nor that he would actually write to me, beginning while I was in Europe.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I exchanged addresses with the best of intentions over the years, then and now – but the absolutely amazing thing is that we actually DID write – for decades. I suspect, in retrospect, that part of our sustained friendship was due to the fact that Robin was sequestered for weeks and months at a time onboard ship. So he wrote, to me, to my Mom and to his wife after he met Joan. Robin was a wonderful penpal. I loved receiving his letters where he waxed philosophic about his dreams and aspirations, detailed his career advancements, and sometimes, regaled us with his stories of adventures in port. Like the time the taxi somehow wound up in the canal…but I digress.
A year later, Robin visited America and stayed with Mom and me. Looking back now, it’s funny, because Mom gave Robin her room and slept on the couch like a watchdog in the living room which separated her bedroom and mine. Robin and I were just friends, but we had several adventures and mis-adventures which included swimming, meeting a few officers and Robin managing to get his rental car stuck in a cornfield (without me along,) adventures we never told mother about – EVER. Just the memories bring a smile to my face today.
Decades later Robin would celebrate his 50th birthday by visiting his “American Mom” once again. It’s a good thing Robin returned when he did, because Mom didn’t have much longer.
Last year, my husband and I met Robin and Joan in Amsterdam, and this summer, we’ll see Robin again to celebrate his retirement after he rides a Harley across America.
Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to make a lifelong friend on a ferry in the English Channel.
I have three vivid memories of the Netherlands.
I lost my camera. If you’re wondering how I have the photos of London, I didn’t lose the film. It was tucked safely in my suitcase. But the camera was gone, and along with it the film in the camera at the time, including the photos from the ferry, a few of Robin and many from Holland as well. I was heartbroken, not to mention a new camera was not in my budget, but I purchased one nonetheless.
The Netherlands is the cleanest country I have every visited. I recall vividly the “housewives” sweeping and then scrubbing the sidewalk in front of their house EVERY SINGLE MORNING about 5AM. Needless to say, I was shocked and very curious. They were equally as shocked that we NEVER swept and scrubbed our sidewalks. Nor were we up at 5 AM unless there was absolutely no other choice.
In Amsterdam, there was no drinking age. My student friends and I decided to purchase Heineken beer. We didn’t sit at the bar in the hotel, because somehow we just knew that we surely would get “caught,” so we took the beer back to our room, crawled in bed and drank it. Then we decided to write letters home, laughing the entire time. Everything was suddenly funny!
No, I don’t know why we thought writing letters was somehow a good idea.
However, when I returned home, my mother pulled out that letter, written all cattywampus across the page and asked me if I cared to explain myself.
From that letter:
“Last night, my roommate had a beer and got drunk, sick and giggly. My other roommate and I died laughing. I felt sorry for her though.”
And then, in an effort to redeem myself:
“I really miss church.”
Let me translate, “I feel really guilty about this, but I’m having the time of my life.” (And I’m going to be hell on wheels when I come home…just saying’!)
In the Netherlands, I discovered my lifelong love of beer.
Little did I know that my Vannoy ancestors had stayed in Amsterdam before departing for the New World. Little did I know that Govert Van Oy died in route in 1664 and was buried on the island of Texel.
Little did I know that Govert was baptized in the church in Venlo, above, where I would one day visit. Or that my Andreissen ancestors who married into the Vannoy line in New Netherlands had lived in Leeuwarden along with my Ferwerda ancestors who immigrated 200 years later.
Little did I know that one day I would return to the Dutch island of Vlieland where my ancestors lived on the part of the island washed away by the sea in 1736, and that 47 years in the future I would stand at the end of that island and stare, transfixed, across the channel to the island of Trexel where Govert Van Oy was buried.
Little did I know.
William Brewster, my Pilgrim ancestor from England lived in Leiden in the Netherlands as a refugee before embarking for Plymouth.
The Pilgrims, in 1970, were only impersonal figures in history books and not at all connected to me.
Little did I know that my mother’s Ferwerda grandfather had been born in the Netherlands. While my English ancestors had left England long ago, my mother’s family had immigrated just over 100 years earlier, in 1868. How quickly our history is lost – just three generations and that epic journey was already erased from family memory.
My time in Amsterdam in 1970 was quite limited. In a whirlwind bus tour, we saw where Rembrandt was buried and where Anne Frank lived. My heart was saddened to learn about Anne Frank’s story, and that there was no happy ending. I had heard about the Holocaust, but seeing Anne Frank’s house where she hid and was ultimately betrayed for myself was my first up front and personal introduction to the evils wrought by an insane dictator that sanctioned brutal acts of discrimination while the populace stood idly by, hoping it wouldn’t affect them.
Our student group stayed in private homes outside of Amsterdam, a few with each family.
“I’m in Holland now, in a tourist home where no English is spoken at all. Groovy huh?! The woman who lives here smiles a lot, so I know she’s friendly. Our bus driver was so funny. We couldn’t understand a word but we communicated OK. It’s funny how far away you have to travel to find out what a big grin will do for you. I think you’ll be surprised how much I’ve learned about life in general since I’ve been gone. I know it’s odd to say, but I can see all of us kids growing up in a hurry. It’s odd to watch yourself growing up.”
“I’m not homesick, but it’s a good feeling to know you have a home waiting but you can still be free for awhile. Give Snowy (our rescued cat) a kiss for me and chirp at Babe (our rescued parakeet) for me.”
After a busy final day in the Netherlands, we boarded a train for the next chapter of our journey.
To mother, just in case she was wondering about that Amsterdam letter:
“My writing is jolty because the train is. I’m tired, but the train is too noisy to sleep. I didn’t much care for the tour in Amsterdam, because we didn’t get to get out of the bus much, and the tour consisted of them constantly saying “there are two hippies on the right.” I think the boat from England to Holland was my favorite part. I’m lonesome. I feel like a misfit here.”
Never write home when you’re tired.
Most of the train trip was at night, so we missed the scenery, changing trains in the middle of the night and awakening in the train station in Geneva in the morning.
Again, to mother:
“It’s early morning now, and we’re coming into the mountains. They are really beautiful in the sunrise.”
We shuffled our tired bodies to a local train and arrived just a few minutes later in Versoix, Switzerland, a tiny village about 7 km away, on the shores of Lake Geneva which is also known as Lac Léman.
Our destination, of course, was the college in Versoix, our new home.
I still couldn’t believe I was actually going to be living in Switzerland, LIVING there.
My state of mind and the tone of my letters immediately changed:
“We’re in Geneva now. Had the best meal when we got here, although the train ride was 13 hours and they didn’t feed us. Got my first taste of French on the train. There were these 4 guys in the service…”
The full-time students were gone from the college for the summer, and we took up residence in the modern dorms, shown below, each student adopting a bed and dresser. We didn’t realize or care that our attendance was a way for the school to keep the teachers and staff employed year round, and perhaps a small source of revenue as well.
Our teachers spoke French and no English, which was very frustrating. We tested to be assigned to a class based on our fluency.
Our group included 4 chaperones from the US, but two of them, a male and female were very interested in each other and none of the 4 were interested in us. They eventually disappeared “to attend to business,” which left us with little if any oversight, which pleased us immensely. I’m not positive what they were actually doing, but according to the student speculative grapevine, the couple had eloped. Imagine our disappointment when they showed up sans wedding rings. We were perhaps a little too young to understand the nature of their relationship.
What they were doing mattered not one iota to me, I was very busy falling in love with Switzerland.
The campus was small, quaint and hypnotically beautiful in a way only European villages can be, with a villa and a courtyard for all to enjoy. Villa Portena was a typical European “home” and served as the campus social center where we gathered and ate most of our meals. Europeans don’t have the same concept of “old” as Americans. Three hundred years there is not yet old, perhaps nicely broken in and comfortable with a lovely patina. 800 or 900 years, that’s approaching old. The enclosed grounds were lovely with freshly manicured gardens, artistic wrought iron fencing and circular benches built around trees. Lovely for reading and studying.
Every morning we walked to the local bakery a block or so away to purchase a French baguette, butter and some kind of fresh jam. We ate it, sitting outside on the rock walls by pulling chunks off – the crusty outside and the soft center – my mouth is watering just remembering.
Our dorm was entirely female, with many pajama parties in the common area. My friend, Kim, from my home town, is in the middle in blue.
Did I mention that there was no drinking age anyplace in Europe? Wine was simply served as a part of meals and no one thought anything of it. We sampled the local wares – food, bread, cheese, wine and hard liquor. No one seemed to care. We had pajama parties almost every night. Life was good!
For the most part, we were responsible for ourselves. We thought we were quite grown up, but we didn’t realize that in many ways that we couldn’t yet conceive, we did grow up that summer. Growing up is a process, not an event. In our case, the process was accelerated by the lack of adult supervision which means we had to depend on ourselves. And truthfully, we were amazingly well-behaved.
The college was just three or four blocks uphill from Lake Geneva. This contemporary photo shows Versoix, a tiny village, from out on Lake Geneva.
The Versoix waterfront sported a couple of restaurants along the marina, and a night club type of pub. Our walks to the lake shore often culminated in drinks and long talks about our aspirations for the future looking out dreamily over the lake. Life in America seemed far away and nothing was impossible – after all – we had managed to travel to and were living in Switzerland. What could be impossible after that miracle?
The trip to Switzerland allowed me to dream dreams that I would never have considered even remotely feasible before. Every great achievement in life begins with a dream, no matter how seemingly impractical. After all, I was living proof of a miracle every day in Switzerland, so there was no limit to what dreaming might achieve. Flights of fancy didn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.
Our dorms might have been segregated by gender, but there was a boy’s dorm. We quickly made friends with international students from all over the world, our bond being that we were all strangers together. This young man was a member of a royal family, complete with his own security detail. Apparently, they didn’t think that American girls were terribly dangerous, because we walked to the waterfront almost everyday and enjoyed talking, eating and soaking up the lusciousness of Switzerland. His security detail remained distant, but ever-present.
Indiana was far away, another time, another place, and I was entirely disconnected. I had been homesick before, but in Switzerland, I never wanted to go back.
About this time, another student became memorable as well for an entirely different reason.
One of the female students was blind and a specific chaperone was supposed to be a personal aid to the blind student.
Unfortunately, that chaperone wasn’t terribly interested in that aspect of her job, for which she was being paid extra and may have been the only reason she was along.
As students, we had a lot of individual freedom. Mostly, we ranged in small groups as we explored our new home away from home, branching out to ride the train into Geneva and further. However, we were required to let people know where we were going, and to be back by curfew. Kim and I managed to miss curfew.
We were busted, and the chaperone who was supposed to be attending to the blind student is the person we found waiting for us. Let’s just say it wasn’t pleasant. That chaperone was never pleasant, in her best moments. Our punishment was to be the guide for the blind student.
In retrospect, I feel terribly sorry for the blind girl – but at the time, everyone was unhappy. Kim and I both, for obvious reasons, and the blind student because I’m sure she felt more than a little betrayed by the counselor, vulnerable and afraid. She wasn’t very friendly and she assuredly did NOT like us, or at least didn’t like me.
However, if the chaperone thought that assigning us guide duty would slow Kim and I down, she was sorely mistaken.
We introduced the blind student to worlds she never knew existed – and while the counselor couldn’t have cared less, the blind girl was not entirely too pleased about that turn of events. We were told we had to take her with us, and so we did – everyplace, much to the blind student’s chagrin! As irritating as she was, we felt sorry for her.
Our EuroRail Pass was our ticket to the world, including Geneva, just a few miles around the lake. Geneva, a multi-cultural center with amazing entertainment and night life was quickly becoming a favorite. Nothing was lacking. The summer stretched out before us endlessly.
Geneva was beautiful with the fountain in Lake Geneva called Jet d’Eau visible from every vantage. Everything and everyplace was stunning. Swans graced the lake, gliding by, people were friendly and a smile was your ticket to anything.
I was in love – and it wasn’t with a boy, but with Switzerland itself – with or without our blind unwilling protege. I couldn’t drink enough of this dew.
Of course, our entire purpose for being in Switzerland was what would today be called immersive French, the language, the culture and the history.
We attended our classes at the college every day, but we weren’t the most well-behaved or attentive students. After all, the city, the lake, the waterfront establishments and the beaches called – and we heard that call loud and clear. Imagine our shock when we discovered that topless beaches in Switzerland and in fact, in many places in Europe were simply “normal” there.
From my letter to mother:
“We took our placement tests today. Classes start tomorrow. Dinners are formal here, with wine. There’s nothing else to drink. We have to dress and my two dresses are dirty. I’m doing laundry in the sink, which has no plug. Our room looks like the United Nations flags with clothes hung all over to dry. I hope Snowy doesn’t forget me. Did you call my boyfriend? Did his song sell in Nashville? I’m not getting letters from him very often The bathing suits here are vulgar. Mine is considered here like a one piece with sleeves and tights would be at home. One lady wasn’t wearing at a top, at all. I was shocked. I’m enjoying Geneva much more than London and Amsterdam, put together. I love the campus. Makes everything worth it.”
“Nothing else to drink”…please. I’m sure she knew better.
We were supposed to be focused on French, and we were while in class, but outside of class, we were distracted by everything else. Let’s just say we were having an immersive cultural experience.
I struggled with the class. To mother:
“My French is really improving but I get so frustrated in class. I can’t answer questions because I miss one or two words. I feel really dumb. I want to get into an easier class, but they won’t let me. I may have to buy an iron for my clothes if I can figure out what to ask for. Plus, they don’t let us lock our dorm rooms and someone broke in my room. I think they were looking for money, but I had mine on me so I’m fine. My roommates are gone on an optional trip to Rome and I would have been alone in my room tonight. It scared me so I’m bunking in with someone in another room. I’m getting homesick and feel like I don’t belong. I should be at home instead of here spending money we don’t even have. When I feel down, I want to go home. Before I came over here, home was just a word and a place to me. Humans are so ignorant they don’t know a good thing until they are without it. The cost of the trip is worth it if I get nothing else out of it.”
If anyone doesn’t think that teenage girls have mood swings, have another think.
The next day, I wrote to my mother that I disliked my French teacher because she kept us late in class, making us late for lunch. Then I promptly told her that I wasn’t homesick, that most of the people are very nice and the scenery is awesomely beautiful and I wished I could share it with her.
Suffice it to say, the only time we spoke French was when we couldn’t communicate with another person in English. In other words, it was only French by necessity. That was, until I met the Prince. He spoke no English and I didn’t speak his language, so we were both very motivated to learn French quickly😊
All of a sudden, my French teacher and I got along MUCH better and French became much easier too. A little motivation does wonders!
Problem = Opportunity
Monsieur Francis Clivaz, the owner of the college, had a problem. He had somehow overbooked the facility.
A very large group of Japanese students arrived, unexpectedly, and there weren’t enough dorms to accommodate everyone. The college wasn’t just overbooked, it was double booked.
We were already jam packed, and there just wasn’t room. I was furious at this unwelcome interruption, just when we had settled in and gotten comfortable.
Monsieur Clivaz called us all into his office, including our chaperones. A hush fell over the fidgeting, restless students. We loved it there and a sense of foreboding crept over the group. This couldn’t be good.
He explained the overbooking situation. He chastised us for not being more focused on speaking French. We just knew we were being sent home. Some began to cry.
However, Monsieur Clivaz was a clever man, and he provided us with an opportunity to redeem our sorry selves.
His brother owned a resort in the tiny sleepy alpine village of Montana, today a part of Crans-Montana, a world class ski resort community. Montana occupied less than 2 square miles and was not heavily developed at that time. Montana in this contemporary photo is every bit as stunning as it was then.
Seeing this photo caused the memories to come rushing back in an avalanche.
Monsieur Clivaz made us a deal. If we would solemnly PROMISE not to speak anything but French, he would send us, with a bus, driver, our teacher, and our chaperones, to Montana for the duration of the summer.
Cheering erupted. We couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We were saved. We didn’t have to go home in shame, not that he had ever actually threatened that.
All of the students at the college went to Montana and the Japanese students stayed in Versoix.
Let me tell you, we got the better end of that deal, although I loved in in Versoix and initially felt extremely cheated! But, that was before we arrived in Montana.
We packed our things and boarded the bus. Mail would be delivered once weekly from Geneva, along with anything else we wanted. Monsieur Clivaz was very generous and agreed to show us the countryside as part of our education. Field trips abounded. No more being left behind when the rest of the group went to Rome on an optional trip.
Montana was about a 4 or 5-hour ride from Versoix, through the utterly breathtaking Alps.
My memory of that trip, aside from the heart-stopping scenery in every direction, was the utter terror of navigating switchbacks in a bus. Those roads were made for mules, then small cars, not busses.
I remembered the bus ride from the airport in England. That was child’s play by comparison. Training wheels. This was nail-biting white-knuckle serious. Straight down on one side and straight up the other. An error didn’t mean a missing mirror, it meant plunging over the edge of the road to sure and certain death. How many busses are down there anyway?
I tried not to think about death. In some places, the bus actually had to stop and inch around the hairpins using both lanes, occasionally backing up and hitching. The rear of the bus was hanging over the cliff edge. I wasn’t Catholic, but you could tell the Catholics because they kept crossing themselves. I started crossing myself too. It couldn’t hurt! You’ve heard of foxhole religion? This was bus Catholicism.
As we climbed through the mountains, small chalets dotted the countryside along the road which ran alongside the stream that trickled through the center of the valley.
The houses became increasingly distant from each other, and the granite walls of the mountains began towering overhead.
Waterfalls cascaded free-falling down the sides of mountains, and glaciers were evident in the distance. We could see snow on the upper peaks which were drawing increasingly close.
We continued our slow climb in our lumbering bus until we reached Montana at about 5000 feet above sea level, almost 3800 feet above Versoix. The temperature had dropped dramatically, and it was chilly.
Montana occupies one the highest peaks of the Alps, affording an utterly stunning view of the surrounding lakes and mountains. Taking the ski lift to the top of the mountains provided a birds-eye view from, literally, the top of the world. We had died and ascended Heaven.
Click on this link and view the photos, including some of the 360 views and videos. Heart-stopping is the only word that comes to mind.
My world-view was expanding minute by minute.
Zermatt, gateway to the Matterhorn was visible about 25 miles in the distance, across the roof of our neighbor building.
We settled in to our new home, wowed by the scenery that was taken for granted by all those who lived or worked there. Like cornfields and soybeans were at home.
I had never seen mountains before driving to New York and arriving in Europe, and I couldn’t believe my eyes to discover glaciers in the distance outside my bedroom window, above. New York’s mountains were baby mountains compared to these.
“I’m in Montana now and it’s really beautiful. The most beautiful of all the places – of all the places I’ve ever seen. You’d love it here. You wouldn’t be able to help it. It’s about 2/3rds way up a really tall mountain with skiing on the top.”
A month before, I had been sweltering in the heat of a Midwest summer. Now, I was in Alpine glory where we needed jackets and snow was still very much in evidence at the higher elevations. In the photo above, I was hiking in the mountain pass.
Just outside our hotel, the bases of ski lifts and gondolas were anchored, shown by the red lines in the map above. Since skiing was out of season by this time, but some snow remained, the area was deserted of tourists. It was our lucky day, as we had free and immediate access to lifts. We could walk anyplace in the village, and the restaurants and nightclubs were very welcoming. Especially one particular nightclub, but I digress.
Montana and nearby towns were sleepy, partially trapped in an earlier time, and supplies were often transported by the slow plodding of horse-drawn wagons that weaved between people walking on the street. Watering troughs made of hollow trees served both horses and people. While this was a ski area in the winter, the townspeople clearly lived here as evidenced by a school, grocery and church. Everyone lived for Oktoberfest.
We were true to our word and spoke only French. Our teacher decided we might learn better in an outdoor setting, and our lessons often took place on the bus on the way to a new destination.
We absorbed culture in Zermatt, Chamonix and Mont Blanc, about 70 miles and 2 hours distant, in addition to countless meadows, mountaintops and picnics packed by the hotel or picked up impromptu at the grocery.
We hiked in the snow.
And in mountain meadows. Yes, despite my fear of heights, I was in the gondola with the camera.
I came to love Edelweiss and mountain meadow flowers. I plucked and pressed a few in my Bible.
“Kim and I walked up a mountain today. We found a gorgeous meadow with the remains of a little swiss house in it. We walked and walked and finally got to a spot where you can look down and see the whole valley. It must be a good 2 or 3 miles down. We found really cool rocks and wild mountain flowers. Tomorrow we are going to the top of the mountain for a picnic lunch.”
We literally lived with our teacher and we loved everything about French, history and Switzerland. Sometimes, we couldn’t find the right words, so we talked with our hands. Our friend the Prince, below, didn’t speak English so French and hand-speak was our only option.
This is the one and only photo I have of myself from this entire trip.
If you notice on the map below, the dividing line for the Canton of Bern, a primarily German speaking region of Switzerland on the north side of the Alps begins not far from Montana. French was spoken on the south side of that dividing line. To see stunning photos from the top of the mountain, click here.
Canton of Bern
Little did I know at the time that my mother’s paternal grandmother Miller’s line was originally found in Schwarzenmatt, about as far across the mountains to the north as Zermatt is to the south.
You can’t see Schwarzenmatt from Montana (at least I don’t think), because the peaks of the Alps are in the way. As the crow flies, I was perhaps 25 miles distant from what may be the oldest location of an actual known ancestor’s home in a Swiss village. No wonder I felt like I had come home. I literally had.
Little did I know that my links to the Alps were genuine and real – an ancestral memory perhaps. Heinrich Muller, in his son Johann Michael Muller’s 1684 marriage record is stated to be from Schwarzenmatt, in the district of Bern, and the Muller home is known to have been in the family from before 1615 until the late 1800s when it was sold to a son-in-law. It remains in that family today.
Dreams, Dates, Drama and Grief
I spent my days consumed by all things French, immersed in possibilities, thinking about how different my life might be than what I had always assumed it would be. My French teacher told me I had a very large French vocabulary and hoped I would “do something” with it someday, maybe as an interpreter. No longer was “getting married” my priority. Life had so much more to offer. Georgetown University in Washington DC, far from my home town, had a foreign language and diplomatic services degree I needed to consider.
I began to dream. Young people can’t dream of a world they don’t know exists.
I grieved when the day came to leave Montana. I knew the discotheques well, the people, and I even had a real date – or at least I tried, with a young man named Francois from Italy. Our common language was French and flirting, although to be perfectly clear, I did NOT kiss on the first date. Do Italian boys kiss on first dates? (Yes, Italian boys kiss whenever possible.) No one explained THIS aspect of the culture.
My next letter home reflected conflicted feelings about this date and my boyfriend at home. Like most girls that age, I felt that this “affected my whole life.” By the time I came home, I knew that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life with the boyfriend back home and had to figure out how to explain that to him.
The date in Montana was challenging with the blind girl in tow. Yep, she was still somehow my responsibility. She wasn’t amused either, I assure you, and told the slacker chaperone that she had heard things “unzippering.” Never mind that we were in public the entire time, and the unzippering was jackets and my purse as my newfound beau and I exchanged addresses. Yes, we were penpals for a year or so, right up until he proposed marriage by writing a letter to my mother, twice in a row. That ended that.
Montana wasn’t without drama. Kim’s purse was stolen with her passport, all of her money, and replacing it was going to take “a long time.” Overseas calls were expensive, but she called her grandparents, in tears, to ask for help. I told my mother I thought I was having an appendicitis attack but didn’t want to spend the money to go to the doctor. I’m surprised I didn’t give her a coronary. By the time she received the letter, called Monsieur Clivaz who in turn called our hotel in Montana, I was fine and had forgotten entirely about the episode. Poor Mom was always working with at least 10 day old information.
Our adventures in the area surrounding Montana included Zermatt, visible over the horizon and Mt. Blanc, shown below, the highest mountain in Europe. Literally, in that time and place, the zenith of the world – also the watershed line between Italy and France.
I had just begun the climb to my own summit, but I had inadvertently stumbled across one of many personal watershed lines.
As the summer drew to an end, I grieved as I left Montana – the tears silently rolling down my cheeks as my beloved mountains slipped away into the distance, but never from my heart. As unhappy as I was to be displaced from Versoix to Montana, I was exponentially more aggrieved to leave. My heart was broken. I loved that place in a way I didn’t know I could love any place on earth.
I would write my last letter home to mother, fundamentally changed. I asked her advice on how to break the news “gently to Tony,” the boyfriend, that I was not returning as the person who left, in spite of the fact that he had faithfully written and waited. That old adage about having nothing to do with you, and everything to do with me was true. I knew he would never understand. He didn’t.
He returned the most expensive gift I had purchased for anyone, including mother and myself, a ring, in pieces.
I also knew, in some fundamental unspoken way that I had changed and in ways mother wouldn’t understand either. She didn’t.
Nor in ways I yet understood myself. An internal metamorphosis that would take a lifetime to complete had been set in motion. I looked like the same person, but I wasn’t at all.
We returned to Versoix for a few nights to regroup and repack at the Collège du Léman. Spending time back there made me realize just how the world had expanded in the weeks since we left.
Kim received her replacement paperwork in the nick of time. Our flight was out of Paris a few days later. Monsieur Clivaz had to assist several students with various crisis, such as not having enough money for the French airport tax on the trip home.
Our unexpected time away from the school drained our personal coffers, so he extended loans to anyone who needed them. After one final trip to the bakery, one final walk to the lakeshore and one final pajama party, the next morning we said our goodbyes to our many international friends, Monsieur Clivaz and our teacher, who we now loved, and silently boarded the train for Paris.
I looked longingly back at my beloved Switzerland and ached for a final look at the Alps.
Little did I know.
I loved Switzerland. I fell in love, passionately with the Alps. Paris was supposed to be the high point of our trip, saved for last.
I enjoyed Paris, but I had already left my heart behind.
Still, Paris beckoned with a mystical allure too. Paris is an ancient city full of history.
In our short time there, we visited the Eiffel Tower, of course. Ironically, it’s one of the “new” attractions built in 1887, but it’s also one of the first things that tourists see.
I didn’t climb the 704 steps to the top, but I wish I had, because the panorama of Paris, shown above is stunning and shows many of the historical locations. Neither the ride up nor the steps was free and cash was in very short supply by this time. I had only taken about $300 for the entire summer’s spending money, and it was already depleted.
The Arc de Triomphe, also known as La Place de l’Etoile is standard tourist fare.
We lodged at a youth hostel, the Maison de Mines which still exists as a dorm in the winter and a youth hostel in the summer. Bathrooms were community, and each floor had one. At that time, air conditioning didn’t exist in Europe, but I didn’t miss it because we didn’t have air in the US either.
However, Paris was exceedingly HOT when we were there, and the open windows provided exactly no ventilation because the air was not moving at all. Let’s just say the city didn’t smell inviting either.
By this time, we were all quite sick of the chaperone who was supposed to be caring for the blind student, and she couldn’t do much to make us miserable anymore. She could punish us exactly how?
The chaperone had washed out her underwear by hand and had made the mistake of hanging it in the community dorm room to dry.
Innovative students that we were, we used coat hangers to suspend her rather matronly underwear outside her room from the window ledge to dry from the windows, hanging over the sidewalk, flapping like large white prayer flags. Not only could she not see it from within her room, everyone else could see it outside.
We laughed until we cried. She didn’t.
I’m sorry, I still have no remorse for that prank.
This hospital dome was the view from my window, well, when not staring at the counselor’s underwear.
Paris is a beautiful city. History permeates every step, every building and perhaps unknown to the Parisians, every person too.
The Seine River runs through the city center, and not surprisingly, the earliest settlement was established here on an island mid-river, Ile de la Cite.
Today, barges and tourist boats traverse the waterway while the rest of Paris watches from the many bridges, each of which has it’s own personality and story.
I loved the right and left banks of the river, La Rive Gauche and La Rive Droit, populated by artists and students, sitting alongside the river. Paris is a city for walking, and walk we did – plus walking was free. I sat alone in the beer gardens amid the hustle bustle energy of the city. I strolled along the Seine, longing nostalgically for the peace and quiet of the Alps. At the same time, I anticipated and hesitantly embraced a future that would unfold fundamentally differently from the trajectory I previously expected, and would assuredly have lived without this experience. There was no “going back,” and returning home was going to be challenging.
For a teenage girl, I did a lot of deep thinking and soul searching while surrounded by the avant-garde atmosphere of the Paris left bank sidewalks full of inspiration and street vendors, accompanied by the ghosts of my distant past. All of that in combination encourages thinking far, far outside any restructive box.
Little did I know.
There was one moment, standing on a bridge near city center that literally took my breath away. Stopped me dead, cold in my tracks as I looked up from my walking and ruminating.
Notre Dame. I took the above photo in 1970, but here’s one from almost the same location on the bridge named Pont de la Tournelle.
I wasn’t Catholic. I didn’t even know that I was looking at Notre Dame. But I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt that I needed to go inside that building. I found my way to Notre Dame, bought and lit a candle, even though I had no idea that I was participating in an age-old Catholic ritual.
I was overwrought by emotion. Perhaps part was due to the amazing experience I had just lived over the past several months – even though I had yet to assimilate all that it would eventually mean to me. I’m sure part was due to being homesick.
But perhaps not all.
Little did I know that my ancestor, Jacques “dit Beaumont” Bonnevie, an Acadian man who was born about 1660 was noted as “a native of Paris” on a historical document.
Little did I know what his life would have been like, what he saw, and that he was very probably baptized in Notre Dame Cathedral on the historic Ile de la Cite.
He probably stood very near this location, viewing Notre Dame 300 years earlier.
Little did I know that I was walking in his footsteps, and that I had returned home to his church.
Little did I know I would return again, and again. Called back…summoned by those ancient whispers.
Little Did I Know
I left Indiana full of naïve enchantment, and I returned with a brand-spanking-new world-view, crafted from an expanded consciousness.
I understood that we, me, the US was part of a much larger world that I could not be truly comprehended without experiencing it directly. There’s a massive difference between reading about something and experiencing it personally. Experiences indelibly shape us, and at that age, who we become.
I understood that the way “we” do things is one way, but not the only way, and not always the “right” way. There can be multiple right ways, and someone doesn’t always have to be “wrong.”
I understood that there are many perspectives, and all need to be considered with an open mind. Mine wasn’t. The culture in which I had grown up had already shaped me and my opinions. I had to rethink “me.”
I understood that many cultures embrace different religions, and everyone who embraces a different set of religious values is not going directly to hell. That was a tough realization for the Baptist girl from Bible Belt Indiana.
I understood that prejudice of all kinds, meaning relative to economic conditions, race, gender, religion and more had fomented all forms of hatred, and no love, throughout history, in many if not most of the very places I walked. Bombs had dropped, cities burned and millions died, over and over again – often in the name of or under the guise of religion.
Anne Frank’s poignant story never left my soul. Last year, on the shores of the Danube in Budapest, a memorial in the form of shoes that Jewish people were forced to step out of on the bank of the river before they were shot, their bodies falling into the water to be whisked away like so much rubbish, reminded me once again of the demons of prejudice. I understood that I had to fight those fundamental evils with every ounce of my being.
I understood that good people come in all shapes, sizes, colors, nationalities, religions and speak any number of different languages.
I understood the same thing about bad people, and that they masquerade as good people, often hiding behind an agenda they believe you will embrace.
I understood that the world looks very different when you are raised with blinders, not because of willful ignorance, but because the people raising you have no other point of reference. Blinders beget blinders, ignorance begets ignorance, but humans, thankfully, can learn and change.
I understood that “because that’s how things have always been done” is not a good reason. In fact, it’s a very bad reason. I learned to think for myself “outside the box.” That was very difficult for my mother after I returned home.
I understood that opportunity is often disruptive, and it only comes knocking if you are willing to function outside of the environment in which you are comfortable. That’s exactly what happened to me.
I understood that I was forever changed, remolded, and it would murder my newly liberated soul to re-conform to the constraints that had previously bound me.
I understood that education was transformative in unimaginable ways and would be my ticket “out.”
I understood that mental ties that bind us are far stronger than physical ones, and infinitely more difficult to break.
I understood that once you comprehend, you’ve lost your excuse for ignorance.
I understood that my path into the unknown was mine for claiming and that if I didn’t choose that path, wherever it would lead, the light I was supposed to shine from my own personal summit would forever be lost. I would have to leap with no net.
I understood fear. In spades.
I understood what it meant to be truly alone.
I also was beginning to understand both tenacity and commitment. That, I got from my mother. Examples, both good and bad, never leave us as we are always leading by example.
I understood that to not leap meant that I would condemn myself to a life of darkness, understanding every single day that I had actively forsaken the light. Worse yet, I would be able to see that mountain I had declined to climb while others would claim the summit.
I came to understand that I could not ignore the nagging hand of fate. I tried, for years. That was slow torture, a fate worse than death. I decade later, I chose the difficult, rockstrewn path and never looked back again.
And so, in those golden summer days of 1970 began a slow transformative epiphany.
I could not be silent.
I could not conform.
Little did I know how much that summer changed my life – every molecule of my being. I left a caterpillar and returned emerging from my cocoon.
On that alpine vista, I knew that I had to walk that frightening, uncertain path into an unknown future to places no one on my family had ever been. No one could, or would, accompany me. It was my own personal watershed.
I was terrified, because I knew that path would lead me away from the home and people where I was raised – and I had no idea what would happen to me or where it led. I knew they would never understand why and many would be critical, or worse. I hoped that at least a few of them would love me anyway, or maybe because of my courage.
I felt an iron-clad bond across generations with my ancestors who left as frightened immigrants and arrived as refugees, embarking on an uncertain, perilous journey from which they would never return.
I prayed that someone, on the other side of that chasm, would understand.
I am tied to my ancestors in ways I didn’t then understand, them to me, and us to the future. Some part of them had awakened in me.
There was no turning back.
There was no going “home,” not that home had moved or changed. I had.
I returned, forever metamorphized, a refugee of my former self, tossed into the swirling vortex where everything you thought you knew and believed is stripped away. A solitary swimmer, navigating upstream into the future, against the current, towards some undefined misty summit in the distance.
This was not the journey I thought I was taking. I was only a student, going to Europe for the summer.
The dawning of enlightenment begins in darkness.
Little did I know.
How small my world had been, or how big the world really is.
One of the comments I hear regularly is that I’m lucky to be involved with genetic genealogy and the opportunities it offers. I agree, I am very fortunate, but luck, per se, has little to do with it. Luck is buying the winning lottery ticket. I haven’t managed to do that yet, although I’m still trying.
In the mean time, while I waited for Lady Luck to smile on me, I prepared, just in case I’m never “lucky.”
Everyone needs at least one really great teacher in their life. I was fortunate to have three, the first of which was Mrs. Alsup, followed by my step-father, Dean Long, who told me that “Luck favors the prepared and elbow grease,” and then with Joe Caruso.
Mrs. Inez Alsup was my English teacher in high school who taught me an extremely valuable lesson, one I really didn’t understand that I had learned or the depth of its value until nearly 25 years later.
I’ll add that she was a black woman, but in saying that, I also want to say that to me, she was just Mrs. Alsup and black or white mattered not one iota. I never thought of her in those terms. It’s just that looking back, I realize what a pioneer she really was and have a much greater respect for what she had to overcome to achieve what she did. It was from the depths of those experiences that she spoke to me.
She was a black woman, born in 1938 in the deep south, in Georgia, who obtained both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, became a teacher, then an administrator and assistant principal before retiring.
But Mrs. Alsup was tough, really tough. She was tougher on me than on anyone else and I felt she was extremely unfair.
As an adult, I fully understand why, and I appreciate it beyond expression. But I wasn’t an adult back then.
Mrs. Alsup saw my potential, and she comprehended something I didn’t. Women, in that day and age, had to be better to be equal. They had to excel, and excellence had to be absolutely unquestionable. Good wasn’t good enough.
On top of being a female, I was a mixed race female, and she understood all too well what that meant. I did not. Consequently, I was extremely unhappy with Mrs. Alsup.
“Next Time, Earn It”
Mrs. Alsup refused to give me an A that I fully believed I deserved. I was one-thirty-second of a point away from that A.
One. Thirty. Second. Of. A. Point.
Using math to average and round up, I could fully justify why I should have that A, but Mrs. Alsup was completely unswayed. Other teachers do this as standard practice, I argued. She patiently heard me out, and then she looked at me, dead straight in the eye, leaning forward over her desk until her face was just inches from mine, squinted her eyes at me and said, or rather kind of hissed, “Next time, earn it.”
I was furious, utterly furious. Mrs. Alsup was entirely unfazed as I stormed out of that room with an attitude and a half.
I did earn it, damn it, I did!
But, I really hadn’t. I had been almost good enough. Not good enough. Not better. Just almost. Not quite. Almost isn’t good enough.
But guess what…the next semester, and the next, I earned that A, and then I earned an A+ followed by what was called an A5, which was a 5 point A, as compared to a “regular” 4 point A.
Mrs. Alsup was right – if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, completely and unquestionably. I learned to be undeniable and it served me very well from that time forward in my life, but it wasn’t until I met Joe Caruso that I fully internalized the lesson Mrs. Alsup had taught me.
Until I truly understood the value of undeniability, and could put words to the phenomenon, I was unable to leverage it effectively.
Joe Caruso, founder of Caruso Leadership Institute, is a cancer survivor (as a teenager) with a high school education. Yet, he consults with and to America’s largest corporations. Joe is an unprecedented teacher and leader and he does not know the meaning of the word “can’t.” If you ever have the opportunity to hear Joe speak, just do it.
In 1997, I attended a seminar, (quite by accident actually), taught by Joe which turned out to be a clarifying, life-changing event. You can download, for free, Joe Caruso’s Success Strategies, one of which is to “Be Undeniable.” Indeed. Joe’s Success Strategies poster has remained on the wall by my desk through three moves and more than two decades.
Yes, I’m lucky, fortunate and blessed to have had Inez Alsup, my step-father AND Joe Caruso enter my life at the moments I needed a lesson.
On that fateful day that I was infuriated by Mrs. Alsup, I learned what it meant to be undeniable, although at that time I didn’t understand undeniability as a strategy.
A year later, I put that lesson to use when I attended a school board meeting, refusing to be excluded from a college prep class because the school wasn’t going to “waste the seat on a girl who’s just going to get married anyway.” They were going to “give it to a boy who would make something of himself.” I made my case and refused to leave. I obtained that seat in the class. I didn’t realize at the time that I had internalized Mrs. Alsup’s lesson.
Some two decades later, Joe Caruso would verbalize this golden rule of opportunity and made me realize the important life lesson that Mrs. Alsup had taught – far more important, at least to me, than the English class or the grade itself.
I wish I could personally thank Mrs. Alsup, but she passed away in 2010. My Dad’s gone too, but I can still thank Joe Caruso. In their honor, I would like to convey these very simple messages:
Luck favors the prepared and elbow grease. (Thanks Dad.)
Earn it. (Thanks Mrs. Alsup.)
Be undeniable. (Thanks Joe Caruso.)
And in case you’re wondering just how this applies to genetic genealogy, this is exactly the strategy I used to make the risky move of switching careers in the early/mid 2000s to genetic genealogy which was at that time a brand new field. It’s not luck, it’s thanks to Mrs. Alsup, Dad, Joe and a whole lot of continuing elbow grease. 😊
However, I am still buying lottery tickets. It never hurts to be both prepared AND lucky. Fingers crossed!
Philip Jacob Miller was a Brethren man, also called Dunkers because their faith called for fully immersing, or dunking, those being baptized. Baptism took place as adults, not as infants, with the belief that one could only adhere to the tenets of the church if one was old enough to comprehend the teachings. Hence, converts were rebaptized, invalidating infant baptisms performed in other Protestant sects, causing the Brethren to sometimes be referred to by the derogatory term, “rebaptizers” by their Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed contemporaries. The Brethren were perceived as fanatical and sometimes seditious in their beliefs, but they found strength and comfort among their Brethren families and communities. This history explains the tight-knit sect that became both accustomed and immune to public outrage and pressure from outside of the Brethren church. Pressure to confirm from inside the Brethren church was another matter.
Philip Jacob’s father, Michael Muller/Miller, was Brethren as were his children, grandchildren and on down through a total of 5 generations until the first non-Brethren emerged in my line. John Whitney Ferverda, my grandfather, was raised Brethren, married a Lutheran woman and their compromise was the Methodist church. Philip Jacob was probably rolling over in his grave, wherever that is.
Brethren adhere to the “three negatives.” According to “A Centennial Statement,” published in 1981 by the Brethren Church:
Obedience to Christ is the center of Brethren life. This conviction has led the Brethren historically to practice non-conformity, non-resistance, and non-swearing.
In non-conformity, Brethren have sought to follow the way of Christ in contrast to the way of the world.
In non-resistance, Brethren have renounced the Christian’s use of violence in combating evil, striving, as far as possible, to be reconciled to all persons.
In non-swearing, Brethren have sought to lead such trustworthy Christian lives that oath-taking becomes unnecessary.
Every Brethren believer must live in a way that exhibits to the world the truth and love of Christ.
Historically, this means that Brethren did not believe in any particpation in government, to the point that they would not obtain a marriage license and those who did were shunned.
For instance, on February 14, 1776, Alexander Mack Jr., the son of the founder of the Brethren faith writes in a letter that he is shunning his daughter, Sarah, because “she married outside of the brotherhood” and secondly “because the marriage was performed with a license and third because her husband had not quite completed his apprenticeship.”
Brethren seldom registered deeds and often did not file wills. Worse yet, at least for the genealogist, they didn’t keep church records of births, baptisms, marriages or deaths.
Tracking Brethren families is difficult because of these beliefs. Sometimes tax lists, land surveys and purchases from or sales to non-Brethren community members are the only documents that confirm where our Brethren families were living at a given time, at least before the census began. You might escape a death record, but not even Brethren could escape the tax man.
If a Brethren was called to court, or wanted to become naturalized, they would not take an oath, but asked to be allowed to “affirm” instead. Hence, the Brethren men from Maryland traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where they were allowed affirmations as opposed to “swearing an oath.” Several Brethren men, including the minister Nicholas Martin, Philip Jacob Miller, Michael Miller, Jacob Stutzman and Stephen Ulrich made that journey for naturalization in either 1762 or 1767, or both.
Some Brethren felt that they had betrayed their faith by becoming naturalized, even under those circumstances, as minister Nicholas Martin reported to Alexander Mack Jr. in a letter in 1772 about Stephen Ulrich’s remorse and feelings of estrangement within the Brethren community.
The Brethren were peaceloving pietists. In essence, they would not participate in violence. They would literally not defend their families in a time of danger or warfare because violence was fundamentally opposed within their religion.
This wasn’t just a conceptual belief, as there are many examples over the years of Indian raids and families who died, and allowed their children to die rather than to defend themselves. I can’t imagine a faith so strong that someone would let a family member, particularly a child, be injured, tortured and perish.
I have to marvel at the people who lived by these beliefs. I respect them for the strength of their convictions, but I would never last.
Therefore, understanding that Philip Jacob Miller was indeed a devout member of this church, in a strong Brethren community where his entire extended family was Brethren as well, it never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that Philip Jacob Miller was a Revolutionary War Patriot.
That’s about as “un-Brethren” as you can get, especially for a man who went all the way to Philadelphia to avoid taking an oath in Maryland, not once, but twice.
I published the story of Philip Jacob Miller and there are surely some hints that, as I read back over the article, now seem obvious. Cousin Marian, a former DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) chapter rep sent me an e-mail and told me that several people had joined the DAR based on Philip Jacob Miller’s service. Imagine my shock!
Marian discovered that Philip Jacob Miller’s service was based on the 1783 tax list. I had found that list previously, but I didn’t realize the significance, especially when combined with other information.
The Maryland State Archives indicate that the tax list was bound into a book with the title of “Copy of Assessors Certificates of Valuation of Property in Washington County in Pursuance of the Act of Assembly for Raising the Supplies for the year 1783.” (Underscore mine.) The important part, relative to Philip Jacob Miller’s Revolutionary War service are those underlined words. In other words, these taxes, at least in part, went to fund the Revolutionary War effort.
The tax list shows several Miller men on page 46 and 47, including Philip Jacob Miller, his brother John and his son, Daniel.
Please note that you can click to enlarge any image.
From the article about Philip Jacob Miller, I’ve excerpted the portions relevant to his Revolutionary War service, and added information, as follows:
The Revolutionary War
Philip Jacob Miller lived through the Revolutionary War in Washington County, Maryland, taken from Frederick County in 1776. This would have been Philip Jacob’s third war in 30 years, or fourth war in 40 years, depending on how you were counting.
Floyd Mason, in his book, “The Michael Miller and Susanna Bechtol Family Record,” tells us what he discovered about the Brethren in Frederick County during the Revolutionary War.
During the Revolution, the colonists held their national conventions and appointed certain committees of local leaders to carry out local responsibilities. In PA and MD, the main committee was the Committee of Observation who had the responsibility for raising funds to promote the war, select its leaders and furnish themselves with one committee member for each 100 families. This committee had full power to act as it saw fit, answered to no one and there was no appeal of their decisions.
The militia groups were called Associations, later called Militia Companies. The Committee of Observation made lists of those not participating, whether Loyalist or members of the “Peace churches,” and they were called non-enrollers or Non-Associators.
The war issues divided the people’s loyalty. About one third favored the revolution, one third were Loyalists or Tories who favored the English and one third were neutral or did not believe in this manner of settling the issues. This threw the Quakers, Mennonites and Dunkers (Brethren) in with the Tories or Loyalists and in opposition to the efforts of the Committee of Observation, at least as the committee saw it.
The churches were bringing discipline to bear on members who did not follow the historic peace teachings of the church. Annual Conferences were held each year and members were asked to remain true to the Church’s nonviolent principles, to refrain from participating in the war, to not voluntarily pay the War taxes and not to allow their sons to participate in the war. This caused a lot of problems for the church members who wanted to be loyal to the church, loyal to the Loyalists who had brought them to the new country and loyal to the new government which was emerging.
As the war wore on and it looked as if the patriot’s efforts might lose, emotions raged. Non-Associators found themselves having to pay double and triple taxes. Their barns were burned, livestock stolen or slaughtered and their crops destroyed. They were often beaten and “tarred and feathered.” Church members came to the aid of those who endured the losses.
Some members chose not to pay the war taxes or participate in the war activities and chose to wait until the authorities came and presented their papers to have taxes forced from them. This was in compliance with the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference Action. The Committee of Observation provided that non-Associators could take as much of their possessions with them as they could and then they would seize the property and remaining possessions and sell them to fill their war chests.
During this time, the Revolutionary War was taking place and the Brethren were known as non-Associators, those who would take an oath of loyalty, but would not belong to a militia unit nor fight. Many non-Brethren residents suspected them of secretly being allied with the Tories and resented their refusal to protect themselves and others. Laws of the time allowed for the confiscation of property of anyone thought to be disloyal. Records of this type of event have survived in the oral and written histories of some of the Brethren families, in particular some who migrated on down into the Shenandoah Valley. Perhaps others thought it wise to move on about this time as well.
Taken from several sources, these are some of the names of non-Associators and others who were processed by the Committee of Observance that are descendants of Johann Michael Mueller (Jr., Philip Jacob Miller’s father) who died in 1771.
Samuel Garber who may have married one of Michael Miller’s daughters, and their sons Martin and Samuel Garber
Jacob Good, Michael Miller’s step-daughter’s husband
John Rife, Michael Miller’s step-daughter’s husband
David Miller, the son of Philip Jacob Miller
Michael Wine, married Susannah, the daughter of Lodowich Miller, son of Michael Miller
Jacob Miller, son of Lodowich Miller
Abraham Miller, relationship uncertain
Another source lists Elder Daniel Miller, stated as Lodowick’s son, as being fined 4.5 pounds.
Susannah Miller Wine told her children and grandchildren that Michael Wine, Jacob Miller, Martin Garber and Samuel Garber had their property confiscated by the authorities for remaining true to the non-violent principles of their church.
Lodowich Miller’s family group removed to Rockingham County, VA about 1782 or 1783.
We know that in 1783, Philip Jacob Miller, John Miller and Lodowick Miller were signing deeds back and forth in Frederick County. These activities may well have been in preparation for Lodowick’s departure. He was not on the 1783 tax list, and at least part of his land was clearly in Washington County, so he was apparently gone by that time.
William Thomas, on the Brethren Rootsweb list in 2011 tells us:
I have a copy of the 1776 non-enrollers list for Washington County, MD, that lists “Dunkars & Menonist” fines. The list includes Abraham Miller, David Miller, and David Miller son of Philip. It goes on to list an appraisal of guns (whatever that means) in 1777 and includes a Henry Miller.
Point being there were several Miller’s in Washington County, some of who were Dunkers or Mennonites, a name common to both denominations.
If you move to the 1776 non-enroller list for Frederick County, MD, you have even more Millers. You have Jacob Miller, Jacob Miller s/o Adam, Abraham Miller, Peter Miller, Stephen Miller, Solomon Miller, Robert Miller, Henry Miller, Philip Miller, David Miller and Daniel Miller, all fined, and implying a Dunker/Mennonite/Quaker religious affiliation.
Washington County, Maryland was formed in September 1776 from the portion of Frederick County where Philip Jacob Miller lived. Note that while David Miller, son of Philip is listed, Philip Jacob is not listed but he could be listed as Philip, although we’ll see on the 1783 list that another Philip Miller is also residing in the area. So, Philip on the tax list could be another Philip, Jacob could be the Jacob Miller who left for Virginia, and Philip Jacob’s name could be legitimately absent from the “Dunkars and Menonist” list.
There is other evidence that Philip Jacob Miller did participate at some level. Men 16-60 were required to participate in the local militia. Philip Jacob was born between 1722 and 1727, so he would have been about 50 years old in 1776, clearly not 60 where he would be exempt until 1782 at the very earliest.
From the book, “Colonial Soldiers of the South, 1732-1774” by Murtie June Clark:
Capt. John White’s Company Maryland Militia, 6 days, undated:
Note that there were multiple Michael and Jacob Millers in the area, and not all of them appear to be Brethren. This alone is not conclusive.
List of Militia 1732-1763 now before the Committee of Accounts lists John White’s militia as from Frederick County as well as that of Jonathan Hager.
Capt. Jonathan Hager’s Company, Maryland Militia 6 days service, undated:
John Miller Jr.
Jacob Miller Jr.
Philip Jacob Miller
Jacob Miller (son of Conrad)
Perhaps Philip Jacob Miller was trying, rather unsuccessfully it seems, to find a middle ground.
It’s difficult to understand how to interpret this information that seems to be conflicting. To try to resolve or better understand the situation, I turned to the 1790 census where I found 2 Philips in Washington County, 5 Jacobs, 7 Johns and an Abraham in both Washington and Frederick County. Unfortunately, the 1790 census did not add clarity.
One thing we do know is that Philip Jacob Miller always used both names. A second Jacob Miller, also Brethren, also found early in Frederick County, Maryland, moved to Virginia about this time and then later to the Brethren community in Montgomery County, Ohio where Philip Jacob Miller’s sons, Daniel and David settled. This Jacob Miller has been proven to be unrelated on the Michael Miller line via Y DNA testing through the Miller-Brethren DNA Project.
We can tell based on Philip Jacob Miller’s land records that he did indeed pay his taxes. In the 1750s, he had a 290 acre tract and a 50 acre tract surveyed.
The 1783 tax list provides us with the following information:
Philip Jacob Miller owned “sundry tracts” meaning more than one, which included:
Acres of wood – 98
Acres of meadow – 14
Acres of arable – 55
Total #acres – 167
Value – 250
Value of improvements – 110
Horses – 2
Black Cattle – 4
Value of livestock – 21
Value other property – 3
Total amount of property – 384
We don’t know what happened to the total of 340 acres that Philip Jacob had surveyed in the 1750s, but it’s entirely possible that he sold or gave portions to other Brethren, in particular, his children. We haven’t found deeds. It’s also possible that some of the land lay in Frederick County, the part that did not become Washington, although given the locations that we know, I don’t think that’s likely.
We also know that in 1796, when Philip Jacob sold his land to move to Kentucky, he sold 290 acres which is consistent with his survey.
While I can’t confirm exactly how and when Philip Jacob Miller obtained and disposed of land, one thing is clear. Philip Jacob Miller did not lose his land that he purchased from his father in 1751 and had surveyed in 1755. He sold the largest portion of that land in 1796. I don’t know why the 1783 tax list shows less land, unless he gave some of it to his children, who gave it back when they left, not long after this tax list was prepared. In fact, perhaps this 1783 forced payment of taxes to support the war was the last straw that convinced his sons, Daniel and David to move to Bedford County, Pennsylvania.
His son, “Daniel Miller of Philip” is shown on the 1783 list as well with no land, but a David Miller has 142 acres. Since there is only one David Miller, he isn’t listed by noting his father.
Hagerstown, Maryland fell into Washington County in 1776, so we know that the militia list that showed Philip Jacob Miller in Capt. Jonathan Hager’s Company with 6 days service in Frederick County was prior to the county split in 1776. While Philip Jacob may have served for 6 days, that unit was never called to duty, so he never had to make that decision.
The 1783 Washington County tax list is clearly to raise funds for supplies to support the war effort. Philip Jacob is listed and obviously paid the tax, because he did not lose his land. Not only that, he had paid previous taxes as well, because he owned land in 1783 and he sold his original land surveyed in 1755, 41 years later, in 1796.
Philip Jacob is never found listed on the non-Associator’s lists of those who protested silently by refusing to participate unless either the “Philip” or “Jacob,” listed separately, is actually Philip Jacob. We know from the 1783 tax list, combined with other information, that there is another Phillip Miller and another Jacob Miller in the county at that time.
While Philip Jacob Miller may have broken with the Brethren at least somewhat on the topic of war, taxes and resulting land confiscation, he traveled all the way to Philadelphia with his elderly father and other Brethren in 1767 to be naturalized – a location where they were allowed to affirm and did not have to swear an oath. He also traveled there in 1762 to witness Nicholas Martin’s naturalization. He obviously took his Brethren faith seriously.
It appears that Philip Jacob Miller may well have walked somewhat of a tightrope, trying to preserve what he had worked so hard to accumulate for the future, for his family, and for his descendants while not acting in opposition to his religion. He wanted to leave his children in the best circumstances possible. At the age of between 70 and 75 in 1796, he sold his 192 acres of land and underwent a treacherous journey cross country and down the Ohio river to settle on yet another frontier on the Ohio River bordering Kentucky and Ohio where he bought 2000 acres of land that he left to his heirs.
Honoring Philip Jacob Miller’s Service
Philip Jacob Miller might well be appalled by this article and my recognition of him as a Revolutionary War Patriot – but he’s dead and can’t protest now. I want his legacy, his truth, to live. Brethren did not call attention to themselves and led very humble lives. His great-grandson’s gravestone was ordered “without too much polish,” in an effort to respect the Brethren way of life.
Honoring Philip Jacob for anything would be embarrassing, and assuredly, to honor him for his military service, no matter how reluctantly he served, would be mortifying to the man – especially if he really didn’t intentionally serve and tried not to. I’m sure he had a great deal of remorse about however he served and it probably panged his Brethren conscience for the rest of his life. It was clearly a slippery slope to find just the right balance of “service” that would fulfill the requirement well enough to prevent the confiscation of his land and farm, yet not alienate the Brethren community entirely.
I wouldn’t be quite so sure that Philip “served” at all if the only evidence was the 1783 tax list, because many other Brethren men are listed there including Nicholas Martin, the minister. All men who owned land would have been on that list of taxes owed, which is not the same as taxes paid. The only question remaining would be if they paid the bill or allowed their land to be confiscated. Given the Brethren directive, I’d guess that we he waited until the very last minute possible before paying, literally staring confiscation in the eye. Perhaps that much resistance was enough to preserve his membership within the church.
However, the 1783 tax list and the fact that he paid those taxes, combined with the earlier list of Hager’s men who served in the militia for 6 days is quite convincing, even without Philip Jacob’s apparent absence on the list of non-enrollers.
I can’t exactly put this bronze marker on Philip Jacob Miller’s grave since his burial location is either on an island that washed away in the Ohio River, or an unmarked grave in the Twelve Mile Regular Baptist Church Island Cemetery, depending on which version of the story you like.
So, I’ll just say thank you Philip Jacob Miller, for your service despite the tough decisions you had to make in the turmoil and uncertainty of the time in which you lived, your practical nature and your love for your family. The rights you and others secured for your descendants continue to protect Americans today, almost 250 years later.
My Mom always used to say that “good things come to those who wait.” That always irritated me, because waiting was something I did, and still do, very poorly.
These past few months, I’ve gotten a lot of practice in waiting, but my friend who was visiting Salt Lake City for a conference did me a HUGE favor and put me out of my wait-induced misery by retrieving an obscure German journal article for me, solving the a huge mystery in the life of Johann Adam Ruhle (Reuhl). Literally, a life and death matter – did he live or did he die.
This is my friend Jen, at the Family History Library – smiling in spite of being incredibly sleep deprived, in class all day and in the library in the evening. What a good sport. I can’t thank you enough, Jen!!!
This is some story – one WHALE of a story, pardon the pun. And no, his name was not Jonas.
Life Begins in Schnait and Beutelsbach
We all start out in life the same way, wet, cold and complaining loudly about that combination of factors.
Johann Adam Ruhle was born January 30, 1764 in the village of Schnait in Wurttemberg, Germany to Michael Ruhle and Barbara Lenz.
Schnait is an ancient village, first mentioned in 1238 as Snait. Today, there is a museum in Schnait with some photos of the beautiful vineyard region.
Schnait is just down the road, literally, a mile or so from Beutelsbach where the Lentz (Lenz) family lived, or at least part of the Lenz family lived. After all, Johann Adam’s mother was a Lenz (which is also alternatively spelled Lentz) and she was living in Schnait, so perhaps the Lenz family lived all along the ancient road between the two villages.
The village of Schnait today is still relatively small, but has expanded some from the old center along the road. It’s surrounded by the beautifully symmetrical wine fields, where the men of both Beutelsbach and Schnait worked, for generations.
The church records for Schnait still exist, according to the FamilySearch site, although they apparently have not been translated and indexed at Ancestry or at FamilySearch. Baptisms begin in 1562, marriages in 1574 and death records in 1616. Once these records become available online, the possibility of reaching back another 200 years, or more, is dangling like a ripe fruit. Darn, another episode of waiting without an end in sight!!!
Fortunately, Beutelsbach, where Johann Adam Reuhl had the foresight to marry and live is a bit different.
The heritage book page tells us, among other things (using an automated German to English translator) that Johann Adam Reuhle:
Has been trained to Schnait and has been drawn up. If 4 years have served in Schnait. Occupation: Vinedresser
Johann Adam Reuhle was a vinedresser, or one who tends the vines in the vineyards. Many if not most of the men in Schnait and Beutelsbach worked in the beautiful vineyards that surrounded both villages, located just a couple miles apart. I think these fields would make a beautiful quilt!
It’s likely that these families had tended these same vineyards, father’s teaching sons the vinedresser craft, for more generations than anyone could remember – and far more than are recorded in the oldest church books.
This satellite closeup shows the fields, just outside the village, which are probably some of the exact same vineyards, and perhaps even the same vines, that Johann Adam, who we’ll call Adam, his middle name, as his family would have done, tended.
Marriage and Instant Parenthood
Johann Adam Reuhle married Dorothea Katharina Wolflin on June 5, 1787 in the Lutheran Church in Beutelsbach. Dorothea Katharina was born on August 10, 1755 in Beutelsbach to Johann Ludwig Wolflin and Dorothea Heubach.
This marriage was a bit unusual, in that Adam was of typical marriage age, 23, but Katharina was almost 9 years older than Adam, aged 32 when they married.
Katharina was a widow whose first husband had died on October 31, 1786. She had two living children when he died, the baby having her first birthday just 6 days after her father died. Widows didn’t wait long to remarry, because their very survival depended on forging an alliance and a new family unit. Adam and Katharina didn’t “court” long, because they married less than 9 months after her previous husband died. Nine months was probably plenty long enough. After all, Beutelsbach was a small village and everyone knew everyone else, so they had probably known each other since they were children.
However, when Adam married Katharina, he instantly became a parent. Her children, aged 4 and 1 when they married, were young enough that they would never have known any other father.
The next several years were normal for this family. They began the rhythmic ebb and flow of childbirth, springtimes sewing crops and preparing vines, summer tending fields, fall harvests with winemaking and food preservation, and then winter survival.
Their first child, Fridrica Ruhle, arrived and was baptized on March 14, 1788, literally 9 months and 9 days after their wedding. The young couple must have been joyful.
Fredericka was my ancestor, so obviously their firstborn child survived.
On January 5, 1790, Katharina’s daughter from her first marriage died and was buried. Katharina would have been 3 or 4 months pregnant at the time. The visage of the pregnant mother burying her child in the dead of winter is heartbreaking.
In 1790, a son, Johann Ludwig Ruhle, was born on June 3rd. He too survived, married and spent his life working the vineyards as a vinedresser in Beutelsbach. He died of a stroke in 1847 when he was 57 years old. Johann Ludwig had one son, Johann Ludwig Ruhle that was born in 1846 in Beutelsbach and died in 1893 in Stuttgart.
On March 5, 1793, Johanna Dorothea Ruhle was born, but she died just 3 days later and was probably buried in the churchyard. She was named after Katharina’s daughter who had died in 1790.
On April 25, 1794, Johann Georg Ruhle joined the family. He too lived, at least long enough to leave Germany.
On March 20, 1797, Catharine Margaretha Ruhle was born, but she too joined her sister in the cemetery on October 23, 1797, just 3 days beyond her 7 month birthday. There is no cause of death given, but I always wonder when I see these infant deaths.
The last child in the family, Johanna Margaretha Ruhle, named after the sister that died in 1797 was born on January 20, 1800.
There were no further deaths in the family, at least not among their children.
However, the climate was not cooperating. The world was undergoing what came to be known as a mini ice age. The problem is, of course, that once the grape vines are damaged or die, there is no quick recovery. If the vines fail to produce, an entire year is lost – both economically and in terms of food production as well. In 1816, crops failed in the fields.
After massive crop failures followed by riots for food, many people didn’t want to wait for a repeat performance the following year and applied to leave Germany.
Permission to Leave
Johann Adam Ruhle and his family arranged to immigrate to America, settling their debts and selling everything they had to pay for passage.
I don’t know if they were thrilled or terrified. Maybe they weren’t either, but just felt it was something they had little choice to do if they wanted to survive.
Leaving Germany wasn’t just a matter of packing up. Germans are extremely orderly people. There was a process that had to be followed to insure, among other things, that those who were leaving did not leave unpaid debts or unfinished business, had permission to leave, and understood there was no coming back.
By this time, Adam’s oldest daughter, Fredericka, had married to Jacob Lenz, also spelled Lentz. You can read about Jacob here and here. Jacob could have been related to Fredericka’s Lenz grandmother, and most likely was, but we don’t know if or how – and won’t until those Schnait records become available.
We find the legal notifications for emigration for Jacob Lentz and Johann Adam Reuhle side by side.
This book, “Königlich-Württembergisches Staats- und Regierungsblatt: vom Jahr … 1817,” in English, the “Royal Württemberg State and Official Gazette: by the year… 1817,” copied at Google, contains the actual German records of who was authorized to leave.
The following named persons have received the gracious permission to emigrate to America, namely:…….followed by the names.
Listed beside Jacob Lenz we find Johann Adam Ruhle, his father-in-law.
It also states:
Jung Jakob Lenz unter Vertretung des Alt Jakob Lenz.
Johann Adam Ruhle unter Vertretung des schumachers, Wilhelm Schweizer.
Young Jakob Lenz under representation of the old Jakob Lenz.
Johann Adam Rühle under representation of the shoemakers, Wilhelm Swiss.
Typically only the male head of household was recorded, with the assumption that his wife and children, if any, would be traveling with him.
The emigrants would make their way to the sea, typically down the Rhine River to the port of Rotterdam where they would arrange for their passage, pay their way, and board the ship for America. Transatlantic crossings during that time generally took 6-8 weeks, depending on the winds and weather. Some took as few as 3, and some took considerably longer, especially if the ship encountered trouble of some sort. All were risky.
And of course, some, a few, never made it at all.
This decision to leave could not have been easy for Johann Adam Reuhle to make, especially not at age 53 years of age with his wife being 62. The rule of thumb was that you would lose one child per family in a crossing. Sanitation was poor, at best and often the food was rotten. Disease was rampant.
The local pastor in Beutelsbach took special care to record who immigrated, including the date and year in many cases. I am so grateful to that unknown man.
Based on the church records, we know that the following family members left together. Conversely, perhaps the saddest part was that of Adam’s children, a son, and only one son, did not join the rest of the family. That must have been one sad farewell.
From the church records:
Johann Adam Reuhle and wife Dorothea Katharina Wolfin went to America.
Johann Georg Ruhle born April 25, 1794 in Beutelsbach and went to America with his parents.
Johanna Margaretha Ruhle born January 20, 1800 in Beutelsbach and went to America with her parents.
Jacob Christian Breuming (Dorothea Katharina’s child from her first marriage) born June 8, 1783 in Beutelsbach, went to America on Feb. 12, 1817.
Johanna Fredericka Reuhle born March 14, 1788 in Beutelsbach, married Jakob Lenz May 25, 1808, went to America.
Jacob Lenz, born March 15, 1783 in Beutelsbach, went to America.
Jacob Frederick (Ruhle) Lenz, son of Fredericka and Jacob, born November 28, 1806 in Beutelsbach, went to America.
Fredericka Lenz, daughter of Fredericka and Jacob, born July 13, 1809 Beutelsback, went to America.
Elizabeth Katharina Lentz, daughter of Fredericka and Jacob, born March 28, 1814 in Beutelsbach, went to America (reportedly died during the voyage.)
Maria Barbara Lenz, daughter of Fredericka and Jacob, born August 22, 1816 in Beutelsbach, went to America.
Thanks to the minister, we have the actual date they left Beutelsbach, February 12th, 1817. The weather would have been cold, hovering around freezing or below – perhaps significantly below. There was probably snow in the vineyards, blanketing the vines as they slept. Adam wouldn’t be there to welcome them after their slumber in the spring, for the first time in his life. The family probably huddled on the horse-drawn wagon for warmth as they passed the vineyards for the last time. The boat on the Rems River that would connect with the Neckar that would converge with the Rhine which would take them to the seaport of Rotterdam awaited. A long, permanent journey began. Did they look back?
If everything went according to plan, the family group should step off the ship in America in June or later that same summer. But that’s not at all what happened.
In total, 11 people from 3 generations left for America. Not everyone would arrive, and not one of them arrived quite in the way they expected. In fact, I’d wager that every single one of them regretted their choice. But by the time regret set in, it was much, MUCH too late.
The family information handed down in the Jacob Lentz family tells us that, “Elizabeth died on the ocean, and Barbery was a baby when they left.”
I managed to track Jacob Lentz and Fredericka’s children, except for Elizabeth, so it must be presumed that the oral history was accurate, because everyone else was accounted for. Elizabeth was buried at sea.
The oral history also tells us that Fredericka’s sister came along on the voyage from Germany. It doesn’t mention that Fredericka’s entire family immigrated, with the exception of one brother who stayed behind. Perhaps that was because Fredericka’s family didn’t survive?
Did they survive?
From this point forward, this story becomes a bit surreal. If it’s surreal from the distance of 300 years, exactly, this month, as I sit here safely and write, it must have seemed like they were living in an incomprehensible nightmare at the time. The fact that at least some of them escaped alive is nothing short of a miracle.
Thankfully, Jacob Lentz’s family members recorded some of the history as reported by Jacob. His story was recorded separately by two different lines and partially by a third. Some of the information, in Ohio, was accurate, and some was not.
The early history in one version stated that Jacob had been shipwrecked on the way to the US and another family line stated that they were in a hospital in Bergen, Norway and spent nearly a year there. Neither of these seems plausible.
You might note that ships typically departed from Holland, sailed south catching the Atlantic gulf stream, an ocean current that took them past the Caribbean islands where the ships would stop for fresh water and supplies. Then they would carry on north with the trade winds along the Atlantic seaboard. Norway is notably north of Holland and no place on this projected path.
That story seemed far too fanciful to be true. It sounded more like a tall tale that grandpa might tell his awestruck grandchildren sitting at his feet.
Truthfully, I figured that since some of the later information from the 1860s and 1870s was incorrect, that this early information in the 18-teens was likely incorrect as well. Besides that, Norway was just so unlikely – so I initially discounted this part of the story.
As it turns out, the story was true, and what a story it was.
This “Tribute to Jacob Lentz” was written by his grandson as told to him by Jacob. I try to hear Jacob’s voice, as he would have told this story to his grandchildren by the fireplace on cold winter evenings, to be recalled and preserved for posterity decades later. I have combined the nearly identical first two versions, with differences in parenthesis.
Finally all arrangements were completed and bidding farewell to all their relations he and his family with his wife’s sister began their journey in 1817 (the words “in 1817” are omitted in the second version) to the land of his dreams. Thus they left Wuertemburg, Germany to return no more.
Ships were very different then than what they are now, and as their finances were limited. They did not have the best accommodations that were furnished to the more favored, even in that early day. But they were willing to endure the hardships of an ocean voyage that they might come to the land about which they had heard so much. Strange as it may seem to us now, they were to spend about 3 months on the ocean before landing on American soil (the words “on American soil” are omitted from the second version). But now comes a very strange and trying part of their experience.
They experienced much of the ocean storm and the time seemed long. As the time came that they could reasonably expect to end their journey and set foot on the new world, everyone was making preparation to quit their ocean home.
But many days passed by and no land came in sight. Everyone became restless and there were many misgivings. They sought explanations from the captain of the ship but his explanations were not satisfactory. One part of their diet was a large kettle of soup or hash of which they all partook. Some actions on the part of the captain as he was about where this food was being prepared at a certain time aroused suspicions of those in charge of preparing the food and instead of serving this food it caused the arrest of the captain of the ship.
A sample of the food was preserved and found to contain poison enough to kill many more than were on board this vessel. The captain’s purpose was to poison the crew and turn the ship over to pirates. He was later executed for this.
The ship without a captain wandered around in the northern waters for some time and finally landed (shipwrecked) way up on (the western coast of) Norway where they have six months of day and six months of night; thus were your (my) early ancestors brought to a disappointment in life that they were never able to find words to express. Landing in Norway where conditions were very unfavorable and where but few people live, instead of in America. Their money all gone, strangers in a strange land, unable to speak the language, without (a) home (and) friends or prospects (“or prospects” omitted from second copy), a sad condition.
Fishing and weaving were the only things in sight and this they did, thus managing to get along for a few months. It was not possible for them to save anything out of the meager rewards for their work, but they still kept their steadfast purpose, to finally in some way reach America. (Second copy says, “It was not possible for them to kept their steadfast purpose, to finally in some way, reach America.”)
After 6 months of weary waiting in that northern climate, an opportunity came their way. A certain ship was to leave their port for the new world and proposed to enter (so they entered) into a contract, stipulating that they should be bound out to services to anyone that would pay their passage and food expense. The time of service was to be determined by the bidding of interested employers after landing in America. They would be indentured servants. (Previous sentence not in second copy.) It was stipulated that the family was not to be separated.
With this contract they set sail the second time for the land beyond the sea, not knowing what would befall them or how they would be dealt with in the future (rest of sentence not in second copy) that was veiled with clouds that seemed to be very dark. All they knew was to commit their all into the hands of the overruling Providence “That doeth all things well, patiently labor, and wait for the future to unroll whatever was in store for them.”
(The passage was $30 each for mother and father and $15 each for Jacob and Fredericka. Elizabeth died on the ocean and Barberry was a baby.)
They landed in New York on the 1st day of January 1819 (rest of sentence omitted in second copy) some 18 months or more after leaving Germany.
Separately, another family line said that Jacob and family wound up in Bergen, Norway and that they were in the hospital there for several weeks.
Truthfully, I discounted the hospital part, figuring there were no such things at that time, and I questioned the Bergen information. However, who would just pull the town of Bergen, Norway out of their hat? That was so specific that it seemed there might be grains of truth hidden there.
The Story Was True
My cousin and friend, Tom, a retired German genealogist, was enthralled by this story too, and kicked into overdrive. Thankfully, he had a few tricks up his sleeve, and he was able to confirm that the shipwreck had actually happened by googling in German and found documents in the Norwegian archives.
He found a list of burials for the Germans from the ship Zee Ploeg that died during or after arrival in Bergen and were buried in the churchyard. That list included 3 people from Beutelsback and 4 from Schnait, but none of our names were among those listed.
According to Wikipedia: The Zee Ploeg (Sea Plow) was a Dutch emigrant ship which sank off Bergen in the autumn of 1817 on its way from Amsterdam to Philadelphia with around 560 emigrants from Württemberg onboard. The passengers were farmers and craftsmen who were members of a religious movement (separatists) inspired by Württembergeren Johann George Rapp (1757-1847). He had established the society “Harmony” in Pennsylvania in 1805.
Even though the Wikipedia page says that the ship sank, it didn’t, but was disabled when its masts broke.
The year 1816 had been difficult, with poor harvests and a very cold winter. At this time over seventeen thousand emigrated from Wurttemberg.
The Zee Ploeg was 136 feet long, 32 feet wide and almost 16 feet tall, with 3 masts. A trial voyage was conducted In September 1815 to Suriname with Jan Poul Manzelmann as captain and they returned on July 4, 1816.
On behalf of the Handelshuis Zwichler & Company, the ship was authorized to leave with 560 emigrants to the United States.
Boarding was scheduled for March, 30 1817, but was first carried out a month later, but didn’t sail until late in August from Amsterdam with Hendrich Christopher Manzelmann from Lübeck as Captain with his 21-man crew. The ship had to return after 11 to 12 days due to the storm in the English Channel, and a minor casualty. At the next attempt the Captain went up North to High North Scotland, but fell again in a storm. This time the masts broke and the ship ended after a time by Skjellanger, northwest of Bergen, on September 25. The ship was towed to the port of Bergen on September 29, and was anchored.
Before the accident 100 passengers died of famine and disease, including all of the thirty who were born aboard. The passengers were not allowed to disembark due to concerns about contagious disease, and while the ship lay at anchor at Sandvik Flaket, a marine channel in the far north of Norway, an additional sixteen died.
How did they ever fit 560 people on a ship 136 by 32? I’m sure there was an area below deck, but still, that wouldn’t have doubled the space.
The ship was then towed to Elsesro, near Bergen, shown below in a painting about 1807, and a few days later, towed on to Bergen where the passengers were finally allowed to disembark. Truthfully, I’m amazed that any of them ever set foot on a ship again.
Documentation sometimes comes from the strangest places.
Bishop Claus Pavels (1769-1822) expressed concern about how the penniless town of Bergen would be able to accept these refugees. Many of the sick were eventually lodged in a farm in Kong Oscars gate 22 (St. Jorgen’s Hospital, now the Leprosy Museum, shown below), which was at that time a military hospital.
Another 40 passengers died, bringing the total to 156 deaths of 560 who began the journey – 28% had died, if you don’t count all the children who were born and died. If you do, the death rate is approaching one third of the passengers.
Who, among our family members died?
In October 1817, the Norwegian government compiled one of two lists of the names of the surviving passengers. This list was published in an article by Dr. W. Weintraud.
It was this article by Weintraud that I spent so many months attempting to obtain. I tried the Norwegian archives. I tried Germany. I tried locations in the US that claimed to have copies of the journal, all to no avail, until Jennifer found it for me in Salt Lake City.
All I can say is bless Jennifer for finding this book, because our answers are buried here.
In the Jacob Lentz Tribute, Jacob stated that his daughter Elizabeth died at sea. But did she die at sea during the shipwreck, or perhaps on the next part of their journey – because yes, they eventually set out once again for America.
These people were determined, with an unflappable iron will.
This page shows the portion of the list of survivors from the Zee Ploeg that includes L and R.
Lintz, Jacob, vintner, wife, 3 children.
Rijle (Ruhle), Adam, vintner, wife, 3 children.
On the previous page, I found:
Christian Breming, baker, (2)
Jacob Lentz is listed with his wife, Fredericka Reuhle. We already know they both survived along with three of their children. They had left with four children, so indeed, little Elizabeth just 2 years old, was one of the deaths who would have been buried at sea before arriving in Bergen. I can’t even bear to think of the sorrow her death would have entailed as the crew threw the newly dead for that day overboard, as her grief-stricken and probably terribly ill parents, grandparents and siblings looked on.
Did Elizabeth die of starvation?
Adam Ruhle and his wife, Katharine, both survived, along with the 3 children in their care. They left Germany with Johann George Reuhl, born in 1794 and Margaretha Reuhl born in 1800, along with Katharina’s son from her first marriage, Christian Breuning, born in 1783. There is no record in Beutelsbach that Christian Breuning had married, although he was 33 and should probably have been married by that time. It’s likely that he is the third person listed as a child because he is unmarried with his parents.
A Christian Breming, baker, is listed with no wife and 2 individuals. Given the 3 children noted with Adam, I suspect this is someone else, but we’ll likely never know for sure. If this Christian the baker is Katharina’s son, it’s likely that his wife perished as well. It would be highly unusual for a man to leave for a foreign country with 2 small children without a wife.
It seems a miracle that on a ship where nearly one third of the people died, 10 of 11 of our family members survived.
In Norway Jacob and Fredericka Lentz, according to the letter, worked, fishing and weaving fishing nets, until they could arrange passage again, except the second time, they had no funds and had to agree to become indentured servants upon arrival to pay for their passage.
We don’t know what happened to the Reuhl/Ruhle family, but there is no reason to believe that they didn’t accompany Jacob and Fredericka Lentz on to America. Even though they were in their 50s and 60s, they too would have been indentured to pay their passage. They may not have lived long enough to work off that amount of money.
During this time, while the German families were stranded in Bergen, some Norwegian families of a similar religious persuasion (Rappites) began to consider emigration as well, and were soundly discouraged from that line of thinking. A Norwegian government official said about a visit when he went to speak with Norwegians considering the possibility: “I advised them against the thought. I recounted the misfortunes the Germany emigrants had been exposed to and explained that the easy and inactive life the emigrants were leading at the moment – it was perhaps this which had misled these peasants – would come to an end as soon as the season allowed us to send them back to their homeland.” The Norwegians did immigrate beginning in the 1820s, despite being soundly discouraged from doing so.
As badly as the Norwegians wanted to the Germans to depart, and as badly as the Germans wanted the same, there were several barriers.
The Germans from Wurttemberg could not go back. That was one of the stipulations of leaving Germany. The Duke of Wurttemberg had officially warned his subjects before departing that the door operated only in one direction. Other parts of Germany did allow a return, but only after posting a bond, something few of these people could do. Ultimately, around 100 Germans returned to Germany.
The stranded Germans also couldn’t stay in Bergen where they were unable to support themselves and unwelcome, so finding a way to America was their only option. Life must have seemed very bleak at that time for Jacob and Fredericka, with no good options. And bleaker yet for Fredericka’ parents, who were aging. I wonder if they second-guessed their decision to leave.
After a few months many of the passengers departed for Philadelphia. Around 80 of the people who still had money rented the ship “Susanne Cathrine” which sailed August 13, 1818. Clearly Jacob the Lentz/Ruhle family didn’t have money, because they weren’t on that ship.
The rest, 273 Germans, departed on the ship “Prima” of Larvik, owned by H. Falkenberg and Captained by Jacob Woxvold. Prima was hired by the Norwegian government, and arrived after a redirect to Baltimore in January 1819. Some of the passengers filed lawsuit afterwards against Captain Mantzelmann of the Zee Ploeg to recover freight and other costs.
I would surely love to know the outcome of those lawsuits, and if the Lentz (Lenz), Reuhl or Breuming families were involved.
Who Was Johann George Rapp?
Have we perhaps discovered the reason behind the Reuhle and Lentz family emigration? Was religion behind this exodus, rather than weather or economic conditions?
In the article titled, “George Rapp’s Harmonists and the beginnings of Norwegian Migration to America,” Karl Arndt tells us more about George Rapp, his son Frederick and his religious sect called the Harmonists and also known as Rappites. At the time of the sailing, George and Frederick Rapp had established the town of New Harmony, Indiana, land on the frontier of a newly formed state. The Rapps recruited heavily in Wurttemberg, holding out the lure of free land from the government and paid passage for those who would come and settle.
For Germans who spent their entire lives, for generations, tending vines on someone else’s lands, the allure of owning their own land was irresistible. In addition, the Rapps ordered a large selection of grape vines and fruit trees. The families who came along knew just how to tend those vines. In one of the letters to Germany, the Rapps stated:
There are no poor people here who must suffer need or who could not feed themselves. Much less would they have to worry that their sons would be taken away as soldiers, the laws of the land here are exactly the opposite of a monarchy. Everyone has the freedom to express himself freely. Also complete freedom of conscience is introduced in all America so that every person according to the conviction of his own conscience can perform unhindered his Divine service.
Those are powerful words to families who have just suffered famine in Germany in 1816.
In order to encourage immigration and migration to New Harmony, Indiana, the Harmonites invested in money to pay passage for many Germans, several of whom disappeared after they disembarked here in the US after their passage was paid. The Harmonites continued to try. Initially, about 150 people of the nearly 600 who embarked on the Sea Plow were believed to be Harmonites. About 60 wanted to take them up on their offer of paid passage from Norway after the shipwreck. In the end, about 15 wound up in New Harmony, Indiana. Not a very good investment for the Harmonites. The supreme irony is that the Harmonites eventually said of these Germans that, “they are too wild for our community.”
Of course, “wild” is very much a matter of perspective. I’m betting the Germans liked beer, wine and not celibacy. In fact, beer and wine and not conducive to celibacy.
There was one that detrimental factor that many people just couldn’t get past, relative to the Harmonites or Rappites as they were known. As Arndt stated, “George Rapp’s most effective substitute of self-disciplined celibacy lacked the essential mass appeal.” I do wonder, if George Rapp was celibate, how was his son Frederick Rapp was born. But, I digress.
The Harmonites had trouble recruiting and keeping people. Few want to commit to a life of celibacy. Eventually they were so successful with that there was no one left in future generations to perpetuate their cause. Recruiting for a celibate religion is a difficult task indeed.
It’s very doubtful that Jacob Lenz and Fredericka were Harmonites. It’s very clear from looking at the births of their children that they were not celibate. They are also not noted by name, nor are her parents or siblings, in any Harmonite correspondence.
Fortunately, some of the Harmonite letters still exist and contain valuable information about what happened.
On February 24, 1818 Christian Friedrich Schnable wrote from Bergen stating that the emigrants had already sacrificed their worldly estate and they found themselves in a land where they could not remain. He states:
“On September 5th, we lost all masts, also we were very badly treated by our disloyal captain. He did not give us the food which he was obligated to give us according to contract. This brought about great sickness so that over 200 souls died.”
Based on this verbiage, we know that the time from mast break in the Atlantic after the Captain tried to poison the passengers to docking in Bergen was 24 days.
The reconstructed timeline looks like this:
February 12, 1817 – leave Beutelsbach
March 1817 – anticipate boarding ship
Late April 1817 – board ship
Late August – leave Amsterdam
Return 10-11 days later after severe English Channel storm and a minor casualty
Sail again, storm near Scotland, Captain tries to poison passengers
September 5 – mast(s) breaks
Flounder at sea after captain arrested
September 25 – run around at Skjellanged
September 29 – towed to Bergen where allowed to disembark
October 1817 – list of living and dead compiled
We know that a total of 353 Germans sailed for America in 1818, and we know that between 560 and 600 people sailed initially in 1817 on the Sea Plow, so the difference would indeed be between 207 and 247 people. Starving and watching others die of starvation intentionally at the hands of the cruel captain must have been a horrific ordeal.
And then…the mast or all masts broke.
Ironically, while viewed initially as a tragedy, the broken mast was eventually what saved them – because the captain could no longer control the ship and they drifted into the Norwegian shore.
On To America
In the summer of 1818, 80 of the more well-to-do passengers chartered the ship Susannah Catharina and arrived in Philadelphia two months later, on October 23rd.
Arndt tells us that once in port, the Germans were not allowed to go ashore unless they could prove they would not be a public burden. “Since most of them could not show proof, they were sold or had to permit themselves to be sold at public auction.” The Harmonite offer of redemption was only valid of course for those who would follow their ways and join them in New Harmony. Even so, the Harmonites had problems converting “Indiana” money and debts into something a ship captain from Europe docked in Philadelphia would accept as payment to allow the passengers with unpaid passage to depart.
Arndt reported that Rapp had suggested that the passengers with unpaid passage be indentured with a special clause stating that the liberated person should be free again within 6 to 9 months in return for the repayment of the money for their passage. This would buy Rapp time to deal with his monetary conversion issues and not obligate the passengers after their debt was paid. Typical indentures lasted roughly 5-7 years. Jacob Lentz’s story indicates their indenture was for 3+ years.
Clearly Jacob and Fredericka were not on the ship Susanna Catharina, as they didn’t have any money and they report their arrival in January of 1819, but Rapp’s suggestion for the October passengers, still on board that ship in mid-November, may well have applied to the next group that arrived in January as well. It’s known that the ship Susanna Catharina was still anchored in the harbor well into the spring of 1819, likely with Germans still aboard who could not pay their passage and who were waiting for Rapp to redeem them.
Furthermore, the information above regarding a reduced period of indenture correlates with another part of the Jacob Lentz tribute story, as follows:
A certain ship was to leave their port for the new world and proposed to enter (so they entered) into a contract, stipulating that they should be bound out to services to anyone that would pay their passage and food expense. The time of service was to be determined by the bidding of interested employers after landing in America. They would be indentured servants. (Previous sentence not in second copy.) It was stipulated that the family was not to be separated.
With this contract they set sail the second time for the land beyond the sea, not knowing what would befall them or how they would be dealt with in the future (rest of sentence not in second copy) that was veiled with clouds that seemed to be very dark. All they knew was to commit their all into the hands of the overruling Providence “That doeth all things well, patiently labor, and wait for the future to unroll whatever was in store for them.”
(The passage was $30 each for mother and father and $15 each for Jacob and Fredericka. Elizabeth died on the ocean and Barbery was a baby.)
They landed in New York on the 1st day of January 1819 (rest of sentence omitted in second copy) some 18 months or more after leaving Germany. Very soon after landing advertisements were sent out giving contract notice, description of the family, amount of money to be paid and setting the date when they would be bound out to the one that would pay the money for the least period of service.
The momentous day soon came. They were placed on a platform before the crowd, the contract read, the amount of money to be paid was stated and the bidding began. Of course anyone had the privilege to talk with them beforehand. The bidding was in time of service. One bidder would offer to pay their fare for 10 years services, another for nine, another for 8, another for 7, and so the bidding continued until finally their service was declared to the successful bidder for 3 years and 6 months. They went with him to his home at Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, wondering, wondering, wondering what it all meant to them.
They worked with a will and did their best to please their employer so he would have no just cause to hold them for service longer than the specified time.
They soon found that their employer and his wife were very good people asking reasonable work and supplying them with a comfortable home and an abundance of food. Contrasting this kindness with what they had to meet in the two preceding years, they were content and the future looked brighter to them, as they were now sure that in a few years of time they would be free to start life over again in this land where they had longed (long hoped) to be.
After they had worked about 8 months their employer invited them into his parlor one morning and kindly explained to them that according to customary wages, they had earned enough to pay their fare across the ocean and that was all he wanted, that he appreciated very much their faithful service. There were at the liberty to do for themselves and to work for who or where they would and their wages would be theirs to do with as they wished.
Freeing them of over two and a half years of service was so unthought-of on their part that they could never thank those people enough for their great kindness. So he often told it to his children and asked them to tell it to their children – that they might know and appreciate this kindness that was shown to them at the time it meant so much.
The great irony here is that there is no record of who this kind family was. Had Jacob mentioned the name of that family, I might be able to find their descendants, learn more about Jacob’s first decade in the US, and I just might be able to find Johann Adam Ruhle/Reuhl.
Was the Ruhle/ Reuhl family indentured as well?
The Ship Prima
The last ship to leave Norway with the shipwrecked Germans was the Prima. On May 4th, 1819, a few months after the Prima’s arrival earlier that year in January, another Harmonite letter tells of the near catastrophy. These ships carrying our family seem jinxed. I can only imagine their utter terror as they once again were endangered on the sea, seemingly sure to perish.
This letter reports that the group passed through a violent hurricane that threatened to capsize their ship.
We find additional information about this journey in a paper written by Ingrid Semmingsen titled “Haugeans, Rappites and the Immigration of 1825,” published in “Norwegian-American Studies, Volume 29” in 1983. This immigration is referring to the Norwegian immigration to the US.
Semmingsen states that aboard the Zee Ploeg were:
About 500 emigrants – all from Wurttemberg, petty farmers and craftsmen who had resolved after the unusually severe winter of 1816 to leave for America. 1816 was the year “when summer never came.” Some of the immigrants, probably about 150, called themselves separatists. They were religious dissenters and political malcontents who stoutly resisted any attempts by the Norwegian authorities to induce them to return to Germany. They maintained they would be subject to persecution there. They were followers of Johann George Rapp, gone to America in 1803.
Some of the Germans had paid all or part of the passage due the Dutch shipping company and they brought legal action against the skipper in an attempt to regain their money. Several of the emigrants still had some funds left, but most of them were poor. A certain percentage were “nonpaying passengers” who had entered into an agreement with the skipper that they would raise the necessary funds on arrival in America by enlisting as indentured servants or laborers.
The whole group of emigrants was in miserable condition after floundering in the North Sea storm for nearly 2 months, during which time a number of them had perished. As a result, there were orphans among them and some 40 of the passenger were so feeble that they were sent to a hospital.
Fortunately the Norwegian doctor who was put in charge of them found nothing contagious. Nevertheless some deaths did occur after arrival in Bergen.
As events would have it, the entire group had to spend the whole winter in Bergen. The sailing season was past and the city authorities in cooperation with the Norwegian government had to take measures to provide them with housing and other necessities. The years 1817-1818 were the worst Norway had to endure after gaining independence in 1814. Crown Prince Carl Johann who would become king in 1818 even gave assistance from his own private funds. Finances were desperate and political unrest was smoldering.
Even under more normal circumstances, it would have been a formidable task for a city with fewer than 15,000 inhabitants to improvise charitable organizations to assume responsibility for 500 practically helpless foreigners, many of them political refugees. In 1817 it must have seemed an event of catastrophic proportions. Not until the summer and fall of 1818 did the immigrants leave Bergen. The first group left in August and docked in Philadelphia in late October and the second on the vessel Prima did not arrive in Baltimore until shortly after New Year’s, 1819.
Semmingsen goes on to say a few pages later that:
The Norwegian government had advanced 1,300 pounds toward their transportation which it hoped would be refunded when the ship reached an American port. The full cost of transportation ran to 2,200 pounds and the difference was arranged for by a naturalized German in Kristiana named Grunning. More is known about this second crossing.
One of the crew of the Prima, presumably one of the officers if not the captain himself, wrote an account of the journey which was published in a Norwegian newspaper in 1826. He reported that there were two Catholic families among the passengers and the rest were Lutherans.
The people were described as religiously-minded, virtuous, and, considering their social class, well-bred. All of them had prayer books. Every morning and evening they prayed to God in a solemn and touching manner and sang hymns in clear, pure voices.
Before retiring they entertained themselves with song, dance, music, and games. On occasion they also passed the cup of friendship among themselves.
Skipper Woxland chose the southern route. This was undoubtedly wise considering the lateness of the season when he set sail. He took the Prima south to the coast of Portugal so as to utilize the trade winds, and it paid off “With the never-failing dominance of this wind” they reached the West Indies, but there they ran into trouble. They had to fight a raging storm, the shipowner reported to the government, and they had to dock in Baltimore instead of in Philadelphia, which was their real destination.
But according to the report the ship, crew, and passengers were well received. A committee was appointed by the citizens, which consisted partly of fellow-countrymen of the newcomers. They brought food aboard the ship and also raised money to help defray travel expenses.
Furthermore, arrangements were made to secure employment or land for the emigrants. Everything was managed “in the best of order” to everyone’s satisfaction.
Only the leave-taking with the skipper and the crew was a sad experience for the emigrants. Many of them had learned to speak Norwegian during the long stay in Bergen, and they promised that they would never forget dear Norway or “the kindly disposed citizens of Bergen.”
Not all the passengers were as favorably impressed by their reception in America as this report would imply — at least not four persons who were bound for Harmony and who, a few months later, sent a letter from Philadelphia to “Dearly beloved brothers and sisters in God’s congregation in Bergen.”
To be sure, they praised the skipper and crew who, with God’s help, exerted themselves to the uttermost in order to save ship and passengers when a “terrible storm” almost caused the ship to capsize; but they were dissatisfied with Harmony, which had not “given orders to redeem us.” They also had encountered trouble with getting their passage paid for, and they were forced to seek release from paying the big bill “charged against us for the care we received in Bergen.” Clearly, the emigrants also had to work as indentured servants. “Then we were sold for the passage money: one down south, another up north; only four of us are here together, the others are scattered.”
However, they continue, “America is a good country. Poor people live better here than the wealthy ones in Bergen and Germany. Wages are good. While we are in service, we are given good food and clothing and we have many free periods. We hope that we will soon earn our freedom and then be gathered together as one congregation.
Apparently, there was indeed a lawsuit filed against the Zee Ploeg Captain in Norway, although the outcome is questionable. The Jacob Lentz tribute says that the Captain was hung.
According to this information from the Norwegian archives website, and auto-translated, it looks like the Captain may have been in jail and the suit may have been dismissed. However, look who filed the suit.
Carl O Gram Gjesdal mention proceedings against Zee Plogs captain in jail in the new year 1818. The occasion will, according to Gjesdal, have been that two passengers, Jacob Lentz and John Fiedler, had appealed to the authorities and received a licence to ‘ on ustemplet paper for the person in question under the law that let make the cases that they find themselves occasioned that grow toward the bemeldte captain, kapt. Poul Jan Manzelmann ‘. Do you know where this thing is located? It should have been accusations of drunkenness, poor seamanship, embezzlement, brutality, abuse, and murderer tampering attempts. He was also of some of the responsibility for that small children died during the crossing due to malnutrition. It was difficult with the evidence, and DOM’s formulation, according to have been Gjesdal,: ‘ the captain should replace them to citanterne for erholdt forlite provisions after unwilling men’s discretion … By the way he should as far as compensation is concerned, is considered to be free. Iøvrig rejected the case. ‘ Mvh Arnfrid
This lawsuit tells us a couple very interesting things. First, Jacob, according to the earlier discussion, would have been one of the passengers that originally paid his way and that of his family.
Second, this begs the question of why Jacob would have been the one to file the suit. Was it burning anger over his daughter’s death? Or had Jacob assumed something of a leadership position among the immigrants? Why Jacob?
Arrival and Indenture
In America, I lose the trail of the Reuhl/Ruhle family completely, but Jacob and Fredericka Lentz and their remaining three children were indentured to a family, supposedly in Shippensburg, PA, for 8 months. They reportedly stayed in Pennsylvania for the next decade or so, became Brethren at some point, and in 1828 or 1829 moved to Montgomery County, Ohio. I have not been able to confirm this. In fact, I can’t find Jacob and Fredericka until their daughter, Mary’s birth in Ohio in 1829. There is no sign of Adam Ruhle in Ohio, but by 1829, he would have been 65 years old, and his wife 74.
I have not had any success finding Johann Adam Ruhle or family members after arrival. He would have been 56 years old in 1820, the first possible census where he could have appeared, and his wife would have been 65. They could well have been indentured at that time. If they weren’t, who knows how their surname would have been recorded, or where.
Adam’s son, Johann George Ruhle/Reuhl, would have been 26 and would only have been individually recorded in the census if he were not indentured and were a head of household. The sister, Johanna Margaretha at age 20 could have already married, and if not, she would be listed with her parents or the people to whom she was indentured.
Did Adam and his wife survive the second crossing? Did they somehow stay in Norway? What happened to their son and daughter?
Ironically, the one person I might have found is Christian Brining who is recorded as dying in 1829 in Hagerstown, Maryland. However, he is also shown has having had a son in 1810 and one in 1811 in Wurttemberg, so this might not be our man. However, that does match the 2 individuals on the survivor list. This Christian was naturalized in Maryland and arrived between 1818 and 1821.
There is so much we just don’t know.
Without knowing what happened to Adam’s son, Johann George Reuhl, it’s almost impossible to discover the Reuhl Y DNA. The Reuhl son, Johann Ludwig, who stayed behind in Beutelsbach Germany appears to have had one son, also named Johann Ludwig, who died in Stuttgart in1893, and we lose that line there.
Checking the Germany DNA project at Family Tree DNA, there are no Reuhl males of any similar spelling.
In one last ditch effort, I checked my mother’s Family Finder matches to see if she has anyone with a Reuhl or similar surname. She didn’t.
I tried Ancestry. Nothing.
I even tried Genforum and the Rootweb lists and boards, hoping for Reuhl. Nada.
One problem of course, is knowing how the name might be spelled. It isn’t even spelled the consistently in German church records, so Heaven only knows how it was spelled in the US. Reuhl, Ruhle, Reuhle, Rule or maybe something else.
So, if you find a Johann Adam or Johann George of about the right age with a surname that sounds something like Reuhl, or if your ancestor married a Johanna Margaretha Reuhl or similar, please, PLEASE let me know.