William Sterling Estes’ Court Martial and Escape; 3 Wives and 4 Aliases – 52 Ancestors #217

Oh yea, this cliff-hanger installment in the mystery series better known as “Dad’s Better-Than-Any-Soap-Opera Life” is a doosey!

I’ve been trying for years to piece my father’s life together, and slowly, the puzzle pieces fall into the place. However, it doesn’t feel like one puzzle, but a schizophrenic mixture of several puzzles that all have the same shaped pieces but different pictures on the front.

I’m chronically confused by his life, events and choices. Nonetheless, I persevere, because I really want to unearth the truth which, I hope, can serve to unlock some understanding of this man who passed from this earth when I was but a child.

I knew that my father had served in the military. Initially I thought it was once, then twice – once during WWI and WWII. Then, I discovered that it was twice during WWI, then a third enlistment was added. Tidbits about my father’s life tended to creep up on me like that – a slow drip of truth confounded by lots of obfuscation and drama.

I was confused – very confused, and to complicate matters even further, his service records burned in the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire in St. Louis Missouri. Then, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1991, his medical records from the veterans facility in Fort Wayne, Indiana were forwarded to the Dayton, Ohio Record Center for storage in 1960 and that all records prior to 1964 had been destroyed – and that they were sorry.

Not nearly as sorry as I was.

I guess high drama even followed him around AFTER his death in 1963. I remember hearing about the St. Louis fire, vaguely, but I had absolutely no inkling at the time how adversely it would affect my ability to unravel the life of my father years later.

When I did find out, I wrote letter after letter and tried to obtain what scraps I could. When I was mostly unsuccessful, I figured that was it. Finished. Done. That chapter forever closed. At least that’s what I had been told by all the government agencies and had accepted as truth.

I was wrong.

Twisted Twigs on Gnarled Branches

When Twisted Twigs on Gnarled Branches Genealogy ran a special for record retrieval and reconstruction, I figured that it couldn’t hurt and might be fruitful. They knew where to look, and how, and I didn’t.

A few weeks later, I received at least a few of my father’s records and while I was saddened by the contents, I wasn’t surprised. What I’d hoped for was some additional detail. There wasn’t nearly as much detail as I wanted, but at least there was something. Genealogists NEVER find “enough” details😊

Some tidbits solved long-standing puzzles. Some begged new questions – but all of it was interesting, including the fact that they had archived the original letter I’d written back in 1991, adding it to his file, when they clearly HAD this information and DIDN’T send it to me then. How startling to see my own handwriting in his file.

First, I sent Twisted Twigs all of the information that I had compiled. No use replowing the same field.

I’ll spare you the details of the paperwork flow, but the information Twisted Twigs received was that court martial records should be in the archives in College Park, MD and that the case number was 138991. Court martial records had not been stored in St. Louis!



Then, I felt queasy. My father had a court martial number.

A court martial number.

me and dad crop

This man, the father who held me in my childhood and left me far too soon.

The man I adored, and grieved, had been court martialed.

That was tough. Sickeningly tough. Nauseatingly tough.

The Army

My father also had two service numbers: 0900796 and 21585201, but he enlisted three times.

  • Service from August 24, 1917 to May 19, 1919
  • Service from May 20, 1919 – Nov. 26, 1921
  • Service at Fort Sheridan, Illinois

His third enlistment at Fort Sheridan began on January 8, 1927. He deserted on May 23rd of that same year, but he wasn’t discharged until October 31, 1938 – 11 years later?

That’s bizarre.

Why? What was going on?

What new origami puzzle is waiting to unfold?

First Enlistment

The first document in the Twisted Twigs document packet was the May 1919 discharge from my father’s initial enlistment.

Two items are of note.

First, he was in some kind of trouble, because he forfeited 2/3rds of his pay for one month.

Keep reading however, because under remarks, we see why:

  • AWOL Nov 11, 1918 (Thursday) to Nov. 20, 1918 (Saturday)
  • AWOL from Feb. 10, 1919 (Monday) to Feb. 12, 1919 (Wednesday)
  • AWOL from April 4 (Friday) or 11 (Friday,) 1919 (I can’s make out which date is correct) to April 13, 1919 (Sunday)

Hmmm, apparently, my father had a bit of an AWOL (absent without leave) problem.

Also of note, we discover the location of his original enlistment at Lafayette, Indiana. I already knew that he initially trained at Fort Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis after enlistment, but I was never positive where he had actually enlisted.

I do have signatures of my father, but I have another one here.

The great irony is that he immediately re-enlisted at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan the day after he was discharged.


Camp Custer still stands, although it was deserted and hollow a few years ago when I visited.

Camp Custer Battle Creek - Copy (2)

Perhaps that $60 re-enlistment bonus, especially after forfeiting 2/3rds of his pay might have had something to do with it. His actual monthly pay was a whopping $49, according to this document, of which he sacrificed $30?

Where the heck was he when he was AWOL? I expected those AWOL dates to be weekends, but there is no consistent pattern. I thought perhaps a relative had died back in Claiborne County, but I don’t see any evidence of that either.

Maybe he had met Virgie and was going back and forth to Indiana? Nope, not until the summer of 1919.

Perhaps my father’s drinking problem was escalating. That’s more likely.

Second Enlistment

My father’s second enlistment ended a bit differently. He was Honorably Discharged from Fort Leavenworth on November 26, 1921 when his term of service expired.

Aren’t the words “honorably discharged” and “Fort Leavenworth” oxymorons? Polar opposites?

This time, he requested travel pay back to Tazewell, TN, where his parents were from originally and where his father was living at that time.

But, based on other records, it doesn’t appear that he actually went to Tazewell. Instead, he went back to Battle Creek, Michigan where Camp Custer, also known as Fort Custer, where he had been serving before going to Leavenworth was located.

Ilo Bailey

What was happening in my father’s life during this time that might have had something to do with his decision to become AWOL?

Ilo Bailey, that appears to have been what happened.

On February 24, 1920, Ilo had a son, Lee Joseph Estes. Using a pregnancy calculator, Lee’s conception most probably occurred between May 26 and June 2, 1919. These dates of course presume a pregnancy of normal duration.

These dates may also explain why my father re-enlisted on May 20th, and they might also have something to do with his AWOL status in April. He may have been quite smitten with Ilo and wanted to stay in the vicinity.

On November 4th, 1919, he was AWOL and a month later, on December 3, 1919, he married Ilo in Battle Creek under an assumed name, Don Caroles who he claimed was from New Mexico.

When I initially discovered this marriage, I wondered why the alias. It seemed so bizarre. Now we know. He was AWOL. However, his mother’s name is listed as Mary Claxton. Margaret Claxton was his grandmother on his mother’s side. Even more interesting, Ilo’s mother is listed as Ollie Bolton, which was my father’s mother by her maiden name. I’m taking this as evidence that Ilo’s family did not approve of this marriage and the couple probably married without her family’s knowledge and/or consent.

This also makes me wonder if Ollie was somehow involved and may have gone along, posing as Ilo’s mother. Ilo, at 19, was surely old enough to sign for herself to marry. The problem was that Ilo wasn’t actually 19, she was 17, underage and pregnant, so perhaps Ollie was along as her “mother” to vouch for the fact that she was 19 and old enough to marry.

My father, aka Don Caroles, is listed as “in the service,” even though he’s AWOL. This could be a clear indication that he never intended to actually desert and still considered himself a soldier. As you’ll see in a bit, this may seem irrelevant or trivial, but it has important ramifications.

Otherwise, why would he make that declaration about being in the service? And why would he stay in the same town if he actually wanted to desert? People from Camp Custer were sure to see and recognize him there.

Interestingly enough, he’s also listed in the 1920 census, taken on January 14, 1920 where he as Don and Ilo, age 17, are living with her mother, Maud at 221 East Avenue North.

Here’s the property today.

The Battle Creek property tax system indicates that this home was built in 1920 and is a 5 room, two bedroom house, but was it built before or after he lived there? If he lived there, it was relatively new and that’s not likely given the circumstances.

If he was living in this house with his very pregnant bride and her family, it was cozy quarters indeed. Furthermore, given that they were living with her mother, it doesn’t appear that her family was estranged, at least not at this point. Perhaps he was helping to take care of her mother and her three siblings too.

Research reveals that Ilo’s father died on March 28, 1917, so her mother would have been left as a widow to raise the children alone. This puts the statement recorded in legal documents that “her people couldn’t” provide for her in a different light than meaning they wouldn’t care for Ilo. There’s a big difference between can’t and won’t.

It still doesn’t explain Ilo’s letter in March of 1921 to Dad stating that she had sacrificed the love of her family for him.

However, that’s not the only thing going on in his life, as if this wasn’t enough.

Martha Dodder

Dad had met Martha Dodder too.

We know from my half-sister Edna, daughter of Dad and Martha, that they met while he was hospitalized in the Camp Custer Hospital, shown below, with the attached YMCA building where families and volunteers came to comfort the ill or wounded soldiers.

Among other things, the YMCA provided soldiers with paper, envelopes and postage so they could write to their loved ones. My father’s letters to Virgie were written on YMCA stationery. It’s probably in this very building that he met Martha.

Dad was admitted to the hospital on or before August 7 and remained through August 30, 1919. His illness may have started with the flu epidemic, but it quickly morphed into something much worse and life threatening.

Image result for camp custer guard house photo

From his letters to a third girlfriend, Virgie, in Indiana, whom he met in June 1919, he literally thought he was going to die. He had previously proposed to Virgie, but her letters had dwindled to once a month while he was hospitalized, and he clearly knew that something was amiss in that relationship. In those letters, he had told her that he had broken it off with the previous girlfriend in Michigan, who would have (presumably) been Ilo.

His health deteriorated. From August 7th until at least August 30th he was hospitalized with either meningitis or encephalitis following a tonsillectomy.

My half-sister, Edna Estes, shown with her mother, Martha Dodder, below, was born on May 22, 1920.

The conception calculator (that’s getting a workout thanks to Dad) tells us that Edna was probably conceived between August 12, 1919 and August 29, 1919 but possibly as late as September 3rd.

He had broken up with Ilo, been ghosted by Virgie, had surgery, spent a month in the hospital, thought he was dying and clearly took comfort with Martha.

Surname Manipulation

If you’re wondering how Edna’s last name was Estes if he was married to Ilo at the time Edna was born, that too appears to be a clever construction of my father’s somewhat devious cunning. If nothing else, he was ingenious.

Purely guessing now, but given that at the time of Edna’s birth he was in the midst of being court martialed and was married to another woman with an infant 3 months old, he probably speculated that the judge might not look kindly on his leniency request if the judge knew that my father had indeed gotten two different women “in trouble” 3 months apart. Yep, that judge might, just might, view this behavior as a character flaw and decide to throw the book at him. And since the consequences of violating article 58 under which he was being court martialed were “up to and including death,” the outcome was incredibly important. So, Dad apparently successfully convinced Martha to protect him. I would like to have been a fly on that wall!

Edna’s original birth certificate, at the time she was born, listed her father as Edward Polushink and her name was listed as Edna Marie Polushink. No one in the family knew about this original birth certificate, nor had anyone ever heard the name Edward Polushink when the birth certificate was accidentally discovered after Martha’s passing.

After my father married Martha Dodder in 1921, they petitioned to have the birth certificate amended, and today, Edna’s birth certificate lists William Sterling Estes as her father which DNA testing of her granddaughter subsequently confirmed.

The dead give-away is that Edna’s birth certificate is listed in the official clerk’s book, not in the date order of the other birth records as babies were born, but on the date that the record was changed, in 1922. The clerk had a great deal of difficulty finding Edna’s birth record due to the out of order recording, which is also how that original record was discovered. The original was listed in the correct date location but was stricken through.


I just can’t keep events like these straight without a timeline, not to mention that timelines help me visualize more accurately and see “holes” in things, literally or figuratively.

  • October 1, 1901 or 1902 – William Sterling Estes is born based on census and family records. Could possibly be 1903 but less likely.
  • August 24, 1917 – First military enlistment – age 13 or 14, falsified age
  • October 1, 1917 – 14th or 15th birthday
  • October 1, 1918 – 15th or 16th birthday
  • First Enlistment AWOL Nov 11, 1918 (Thursday) to Nov. 20, 1918 (Saturday)
  • First Enlistment AWOL from Feb. 10, 1919 (Monday) to Feb. 12, 1919 (Wednesday)
  • First Enlistment AWOL from April 4 (Friday) or 11 (Friday,) 1919 to April 13, 1919 (Sunday).
  • May 19, 1919 – First enlistment complete, honorable discharge
  • May 20, 1919 – Enlisted for the second time at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan
  • May 26 – June 2, 1919 – Ilo Bailey’s son conceived
  • June 25, 1919 – First letter to Virgie whom he had recently met in Indiana, states he has broken up with the former girlfriend
  • June-August 1919 – Has proposed to Virgie. Is taking her an engagement ring when he gets out of hospital.
  • August 7 – 30, 1919 – Hospitalized, flu, pneumonia and eventually either meningitis or encephalitis, meets Martha Dodder who is a volunteer at the hospital
  • August 1919 – Virgie not writing back according to his letters which she kept
  • August 30, 1919 – Letter to Virgie with entirely different tone, understands that her lack of communication means the end, says goodbye, terribly saddened, but leaves the door open
  • August 12 – September 3, 1919 – Conception dates for Edna Estes, daughter with Martha Dodder
  • October 1, 1919 – 16th or 17th birthday
  • Second Enlistment AWOL – November 4, 1919
  • November 18, 1919 – Status changed from AWOL to desertion (this changed his legal status from Article 62 AWOL to Article 58 desertion)
  • December 3, 1919 – Marriage to Ilo Bailey in Battle Creek using assumed name of Don Caroles. Ilo is 6 months pregnant.
  • February 24, 1920 – Ilo’s son, Lee Joseph Estes born
  • April 7, 1920 – Arrested for desertion/AWOL in Battle Creek, confined to the guard house at Camp Custer
  • May 20, 1920 – Martha’s daughter, Edna Estes born as he is being court martialed. He is still married to Ilo.
  • May 20 through August, 1920 – Court Martial proceedings
  • August 1920 – Court Martial sentencing
  • August 1920 – November 1921 – Fort Leavenworth performing hard labor
  • October 1, 1920 – 17th or 18th birthday while in Leavenworth
  • March 22, 1921 – Ilo letter saying she is leaving the state with the baby and has sacrificed the love of her parents for him and their marriage was never legal. Perhaps this is why a line was at some time drawn through the marriage record in the clerk’s marriage book.
  • October 1, 1921 – 18th or 19th birthday while in Leavenworth
  • November 26, 1921 – Term of service ended, honorably discharged from Fort Leavenworth
  • December 12, 1921 – Marriage to Martha Dodder in Battle Creek, 2 weeks and 2 days after leaving Leavenworth
  • October 1, 1922 – 19th or 20th birthday, married to Martha and living in Battle Creek
  • September 5, 1923 – Martha files for divorce stating that he “loafs around doing nothing and she has to go out to work.” (Was he the original stay-at-home Dad?) Both are seeking a divorce and she alleges the legally required phrase of “extreme cruelty” in order to obtain a divorce in Michigan at that time.
  • October 1, 1923 – 20th or 21st birthday, in process of getting divorced from Martha
  • February 26, 1924 – Divorce from Martha final in Battle Creek
  • October 1, 1924 – 21st or 22nd birthday – who knows where the heck he is? His two children are living with their mothers and he isn’t living with or married to either mother anymore.

That’s a lot of ground to cover by your 21st or 22nd birthday. One heck of a lot!

But that’s not the half of it.

Court Martial

Reading your father’s court martial is brutal. I was torn between wanting to know and not wanting to look. This would be a lot easier if this history was a couple of generations removed, and much less personal.

For God’s sake, this is my FATHER. Half of me is from him, but hopefully not the AWOL half.

I need to read this and try to unravel what happened. Perhaps I can understand why.

The investigation, above, recommended that my father be court martialed, and that’s exactly what happened. He was to be charged with a violation of the 58th Article of War.

ART. 58. DESERTION.–Any person subject to military law who deserts or attempts to desert the service of the United States shall, if the offense be committed in time of war, suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct, and, if the offense be committed at any other time, any punishment, excepting death, that a court-martial may direct.



My father was messing around with an offense that could result in a death sentence? Where they stand you up against the wall and your fellow soldiers line up and shoot you point blank.

What the bloody hell was he thinking?

This document was followed by 22 typed legal pages of testimony, much of it having to do with the morning reports in barracks, shown below, and the process that soldiers used to obtain passes.

Camp Custer Battle Creek - Copy (3)

Clearly, my father did not obtain or attempt to obtain a pass. The court martial also includes details such as that there was nothing missing, meaning no equipment or clothes had been taken when he was not present for the morning report. In other words, he hadn’t stolen anything from the government and it goes as evidence to suggest that he wasn’t planning to desert. He was just a few months late returning, that’s all.


He apparently was cooperative and said little. He said nothing about disliking the service or military at any time, according to the testimony from various people.

During the proceedings, my father answered questions respectfully, with “Yes Sir” and “No Sir.”

Reading the transcripts of the trial, several tidbits were revealed.

Question to his commanding officer: Was the accused ever in trouble in the company?

A: Well I believe he would go downtown and stay late and that is about all.

Q: What is your opinion of his character?

A: He seemed to be a very good soldier.

That’s so sad. It’s also worth noting that he was a Sergeant at one point, but ultimately was discharged as a Private.

The police officer, Edward Abbey, who arrested my father was tipped off by two ex-soldiers who spotted him along with his (presumed) wife, baby and another female at the Majestic Theater in Battle Creek.

The officer waited until the movie was over, then stopped him on the way out, put his hand on him, and asked if he was a deserter. My father replied no, that he wasn’t, but the officer took him to the station to question him.

Based on the testimony, there is apparently a difference in the classification of someone who is absent without leave (Article 61) and a deserter (Article 58.) The primary difference between the two offences is “the intent to remain away permanently” or if the purpose is to shirk important duty, such as combat. If a person intends to return to “military control,” then they are AWOL and not a deserter – even if they are away for years. For the first 30 days, the unit attempts to locate the soldier and convince them to return to the unit.

Oh yea, one other tiny difference. AWOL doesn’t carry the death penalty as a possibility – so it would have been important to have him convicted as AWOL and not as having deserted. Much safer for his neck that way.

So my father was just late – really, really late.

Today, at the 30 day mark, the soldier becomes “a wanted person” and their status changes to deserter. At that time, the line in the sand may not have been as clear. Anyone AWOL for more than 30 days is tried by court martial.

Given this distinction, the several pages of testimony by various individuals regarding the fact that my father was wearing at least a partial uniform when arrested and never left the area provides evidence that he may have not actually intended to permanently desert. When I first read this document, that repeated testimony seemed unnecessary overkill, but now I understand why so much focus was placed on that seemingly trivial information.

In essence, desertion requires intent while being AWOL does not. Although being gone for 5 months indicates that he made the same bad decision to be AWOL for roughly 150 consecutive days. However, every day was a new decision while a deserter makes one decision, once, and carries it out. A deserter likely leaves the area immediately to minimize chances of being caught, and he didn’t do that either.

So either he really didn’t intend to actually desert, or he was incredibly short-sighted – to put it nicely.

At the police station, my father apparently freely admitted that he had “left the army without permission” which is technically AWOL and not desertion. He denied being a deserter. He obviously knew the technical difference.

At the time my father was apprehended, he was wearing civilian clothes that mostly covered up his military issued uniform. According to the arresting officer, “I noticed his uniform pants because his civilian pants had a three cornered hole in them. He had on a dark colored civilian coat.” He was not wearing military leggings which you can see in the following picture of him kissing Virgie.

Based on letters he had written to Virgie during the time when they were briefly engaged in the summer of 1919, he was trying to figure out how they could live on his soldier’s pay. He commented that he didn’t need non-military clothes because the Army would provide his clothing. I’m wondering if the reason he was wearing his military garb under other clothes is because he only had one civilian outfit (with a tear in the leg) and he needed the layers for warmth. Wearing military issue simply increases the odds that someone will notice and recognize you, which is the last thing you want if you are a deserter. Or AWOL.

These pieces don’t all add up. Had he always intended to go back “tomorrow?” Yet each tomorrow looked increasingly bleak in terms of the consequences?

He had never left Battle Creek during the 5 months he was AWOL, so clearly wasn’t trying very hard to hide. He had been driving a team for someone, meaning a team of horses. And he was wearing a uniform, or at least pieces of his uniform in the town beside the military base where he was AWOL from. I have to wonder at his thought process.

The night he was apprehended, the officer said that there was a woman at the station without the baby, and a woman at city hall with a baby. Ilo could simply have had her friend take care of the baby while she waited for him. Or, maybe, the two women waiting separately were pregnant Martha and Ilo with baby Lee. If that was the case, then incarceration might have sounded like the best of two bad options and much safer than the explosion that might have resulted had Martha and Ilo met.

Or perhaps, they had met and his goose was already cooked in more than one pot.

During the court martial proceedings, my father stated that he did not wish to make a statement or testify on his own behalf. There really wasn’t much he could say.

Counsel for defense closing argument:

“The defense wishes the court to take into consideration that the accused has a wife and a 2 or 3 month old baby with no means of support and the accused asks that the court show leniency.”

The Judge Advocate read that there were no previous convictions and read my father’s statement of service that omitted his prior service enlistment, which he brought to the attention of the judge.

Fortunately, the Judge Advocate took pity on him and the sentence was modified, the dishonorable discharge order suspended and the hard labor being reduced from 18 months to just 6.

Ahhh, it looks like Dad got a break and the judge remarked that he was not determined to be guilty of desertion, simply AWOL. Six months for AWOL versus 18 for desertion. Maybe those old Army clothes he was wearing, for whatever the reason, saved his skin.

Hard labor at that time meant exactly what it implied – working rock quarrys, building roads or laboring on docks. Or, perhaps, building state or government buildings, like the prisons themselves.

The next document is an amended sentence.

The original sentence was for 18 months of hard labor, but this document says 6 months. He had been granted the leniency he requested.

It appears that the Adjutant General has a significant amount of discretion. There’s a difference between this type of case and one of desertion under fire that jeopardizes the lives of other soldiers. While there appears to be no justification for the choice he made, it’s still not comparable to defecting to the enemy or risking the lives of others.

Still, the fact that he would have done something that even MIGHT result in his own death sentence boggles my mind.

BUT, my father actually DID serve more than six months, and the reason why will astound you!

More Confusion

Then, the most confusing document of all was dated the day of his sentencing:

Let’s take this apart piece by piece.

  • Born in New Mexico, October 1, 1898? We already know that he “modified” his birth year significantly to enlist in the service. He was born in either 1901 or 1902. But he was NOT born in New Mexico. Why did he say that? What don’t we know?
  • Raised in urban environment by parents. That’s not true either. He was raised on farms and his parents divorced.
  • Quit school at age of 16. Assuming he attended school until he enlisted in 1917, that means he would have quit school at the age of enlistment of 14 or 15.
  • Claims that he was in second year of Carlyle Indian School at the time.

I’m dumbstruck at this claim which is clearly patently false. Why would he make this up?

The Carlisle Indian School was a “boarding school” for Native American students with the intention of removing them from the “Native influences” of their family and community and mainstreaming their assimilation into the Europeanized version of American life by depriving them of their culture and language.

My father was quite dark and our family had an oral history of Native heritage, so I’m not surprised that he could pull this off.

As fate would have it, a few years ago I transcribed the entire list of Carlisle Indian School residents, including the list from the school itself and from the National Archives, neither of which are individually complete. There is no Estes on this list. There is also no Don Caroles or anything similar. For those interested, I wrote about the records here.

Other information includes:

  • He worked as a fireman on the Grand Trunk Railroad. If he did this, I don’t know when it would have been. Firemen on the railroads tended the fire for the running of a boiler to power the steam engine.
By Elsie esq. – Copied from en:Image:Boiler man.jpg. Original image from flickr, URL: [1] flickr image ID: 7708375_03dd1f7439.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3829347

His job in the Army was at one point listed as fireman as was the 1920 census entry, so this is at least believable. It may be the only remotely true statement made by him in this sentencing memorandum.

  • He was about 5 months before being apprehended. True.
  • He denies use of alcohol, drugs and civil offences.

Alcohol probably played a factor in this situation, one way or another. Either that, or he got himself so head-over-heels in trouble that he drank to drown those problems. Of course, then alcohol would have made the problems even worse. He had a drinking problem which I believe started as a child when he was fed alcohol by his parents to ease hunger pangs when the family had no food.

  • He was convicted of AWOL and escape and given a sentence of 18 months.

But wasn’t his sentence reduced to 6 months, from 18?




What escape?

  • Prisoner’s statement is that he had got a young girl into trouble and married her and as her people were unable to support her he went AWOL to do so.

So, he finally tells us why, or at least a sanitized version of why. Is it a reason or an excuse?

As sad as this sounds, it’s likely at least partially true, given the nature and commentary of the Ilo letter that she wrote as a form of “Dear John” letter a few months later while he was serving his time at Fort Leavenworth. Not that she didn’t have cause (think Martha Dodder), but it’s sad nonetheless that he was incarcerated in Leavenworth as a result of taking care of her (and his child) but she left him by leaving town while he was serving the sentence.

Keep in mind that in 1919, my father was all of 17 years old, possibly 18, had gotten himself into one whale of a mess, had no family to turn to and no resources to help. A 17-year-old with a wife who was reportedly estranged from her family because of him, and a newborn baby.

By the time this statement was taken, he also had a second child with Martha who was born on the day his court martial began. It’s unclear whether the two women knew about each other or each other’s children. Furthermore, Virgie, whom he proposed to in the summer of 1919 was long gone although I don’t think he every stopped loving her – given that he married her 42 years later in 1961.

In other words, in 1919, he was a hot mess.

Lastly, he had survived a hospitalization in August that had very nearly taken his life and may have left him with some level of residual brain damage that exacerbated his poor decision making. Not to mention, the US was engaged in a war. Nope. No stress there.

  • Physical condition good.
  • Low-average intellect.

I wonder how they decided his intellect was low-average. He made very poor decisions, but he was not an intellectually impaired or stupid man by any means. Again, I wonder about brain damage from the August 1919 hospitalization.

  • Fair emotional stability.

I sure would like to know the criteria for this assessment. From the distance of 99 years, I’d say he was a train wreck!

  • Not recommended for the Battalion July 27, 1920, because of no desire for further military service.

But then, there’s that escape…

Escape? What Escape?

Just when I think my father is done surprising me, there’s more.

“While awaiting the results of trial, the prisoner escaped confinement on or about June 2nd.”




He escaped custody?

After his trial?

Inside a military base?

What on earth was he thinking?

How far did he get?

How long was he gone?

I was so stunned by the “escape” that I nearly missed the rest of the information on this page that tells us that he never served overseas. I had never seen evidence that he did, but it’s nice to have confirmation.

What does it mean that he’s “not recommended for the Battalion?”

In the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 4, No. 6 (Mar., 1914), pp. 918-920 (3 pages,) the difference between a Disciplinary Barracks and a prison is set forth. The barracks hopes to reform military offenders whose offences are only military in nature. To that end, for prisoners whose merit warrants, they are allowed the privilege of being assigned to a special unit (battalion) to receive military training for a portion of the time that would otherwise be devoted to hard labor. He did not qualify for that privilege. In part, that might have been because his term of service would expire while he was at Leavenworth, so he would have no time left to serve.

The last statement was:

  • Clemency is not recommended.

No kidding. He blew that opportunity with his escape attempt and his reduced sentence of 6 months was reinstated to the original 18. Someplace he had also lost his officer status. He had been granted clemency, and then he subsequently lost it by his bone-headed escape. He made his own bad situation, literally, three times worse. I don’t think this man was firing on all cylinders. I truly do wonder about the meningitis or encephalitis from 1919 having a detrimental effect on his logical decision making ability.

Was he suffering from a brain injury? He went from being “a good soldier” to this. The change is like Jekyll and Hyde. What happened?

Amazingly, they did not reduce his discharge to dishonorable.

Maybe there is more to this story that we don’t know – something like he went out drinking with his guard buddies. Maybe his escape wasn’t quite like it appears. But we’ll never know.

I can’t imagine any soldier that was both AWOL and having escaped being given an honorable discharge under any normal circumstances. There must have been some sort of extenuating circumstances.

But then again, this is my father and “normal” has never been a word associated with him or even one day of his life.

Fort Leavenworth

I’ve heard of Fort Leavenworth, but what is it really?

First, Fort Leavenworth is a military base, but it’s better known for the prison, or prisons, actually.

Two Fort Leavenworth prisons exist, the Federal Penitentiary and the military United States Disciplinary Barracks. That’s where my father was sent.

The original military prison building was built in 1877 with a second additional building, below, being completed about 1921. Inmates at this older facility were used in the construction of the second building and the Federal Prison by the same name which was located nearby and completed about the same time.

Perhaps now we know the “hard labor” to which my father was assigned. This mustard colored building with the barred windows may have been his home. Somehow very ironic to build your own prison. Did he live in the new one too?

The original Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) was Fort Leavenworth’s biggest and tallest building sitting on top of a hill at the corner of McPherson Avenue and Scott Avenue overlooking the Missouri River. The largest buildings of the original barracks (“The Castle”) were torn down in 2004.

You can see a photo of the original building and cells, here. Note the pile of rocks by the shed that would have been quarried by the inmates.

The old domed building was nicknamed “Little Top” in contrast to the domed federal prison 2 1⁄2 miles south which was nicknamed the “Big Top”. The walls and ten of the buildings in the original location remain and have been converted to other uses at the Fort.

The original prison was 12 acres and the walls were from 16 to 41 feet high. Given the timing of the construction of this facility, it’s certainly possible that he worked on this wall, or others similar.

In 2002, Gail Dillon of Airman magazine wrote:

A visitor would immediately notice the medieval ambiance of this institution – the well-worn native stone and brick walls constructed by long-forgotten inmates when ‘hard labor’ meant exactly that – have witnessed thousands of inmates’ prayers, curses, and pleas over the past 128 years” and that entering the facility was “like stepping back in time or suddenly being part of a kitschy movie set about a prison bust.”

Given that my father was sentenced in 1920, it’s quite likely that he helped build the complex above (mostly torn down in 2004), those prison walls, as well as the Federal Penitentiary below.

By Americasroof – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8727865

He was discharged from the Disciplinary Barracks on November 26th of 1921, two days after Thanksgiving, with travel money to return to Tazewell, TN. Of course, that doesn’t mean that’s where he went.

We already know that 16 days later, he married Martha Dodder in Battle Creek, Michigan. Maybe he hoped to start anew, with a clean slate, and raise his daughter.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Third Enlistment

And, because twice in the Army evidently wasn’t enough for him, he had to go for enlistment number 3, but not for another 5 years and two months.

Where was he for those 5 years?

We know that he married Martha Dodder in Battle Creek on December 12, 1921 and that in February 1924 their were divorce was final, so he was apparently living in Battle Creek during that time, “being lazy” according to Martha.

A subsequent report from a different source tells us that he stated that he joined the Army from Lafayette, Indiana in 1926. Given his disregard for the truth, it’s hard to know if there is any shred of validity given that I’ve have found no evidence of a 1926 enlistment.

The third enlistment document in the Twisted Twigs packet is from Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and it too is very confusing.

My father re-enlisted on January 8, 1927 at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, an induction and training center.

And yes, he did it AGAIN! He went AWOL again!

What was this man thinking? Was he even thinking?

The top clearly says “Supplemental pay roll of deserter William S. Estes, Private Company A, 2nd infantry.


It just kills me to see that word associated with my father.

Again, let’s dissect this information.

  • Deserted at Fort Sheridan May 23, 1927
  • Due US at date of desertion
  • Due US $17.53 for T fr Ft. Leavenworth Kansas to Fort Sheridan, Ill issued by Maj C.A. Meals May 14, 1927 on T/R 191,119 May 14, 1927
  • Reimburse Appn FD 700 P 5024 A 9-7
  • Due US clo lost RS $34.03 (clo apparently means clothing)
  • Due US C&E 20.74
  • Due US for clo overdrawn at date of desertion 41.40
  • Money value of clo drawn since enlistment 103.96
  • Sol having deserted within the 1st 6 mos of enlistment
  • Last paid to April 30, 1927 by Capt. Thomas B. Kennedy FD
  • No AWOL during current enlistment

What? Fort Leavenworth again! And he hadn’t even deserted yet when he was at Fort Leavenworth this time? Wouldn’t simply being AT (or anyplace near) Fort Leavenworth have been enough of a reminder that he would have sworn never to desert, be late or even sneeze again? You’d think so.

What do we have here? Did he just miss the home boys?

My heart sunk when I saw the mention of Fort Leavenworth. Based on what I think I’m reading, he traveled from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Sheridan on May the 14th. He then deserted on May 23rd. Or, conversely, he never made it to Fort Sheridan from Leavenworth.

Fort Leavenworth is the same location where he was sent for 18 months hard labor in 1919. You’d think that after one “visit” there, he would do absolutely everything in his power never to have to set foot anyplace near there again.

So he apparently enlisted on January 8th, got into some sort of trouble that was not AWOL, according to the last line, got sent back to Leavenworth for no more than 4 months where he had “resided” previously in 1921, returned to Fort Sheridan and then permanently deserted 9 days later on May 23rd.

He was either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid, one or the other. I’m betting he carried the “risk taker” mutation in the dopamine receptor DRD4.

This time, given his actions, there is no question that he intended desertion. Yet, somehow, in some way, his record was cleared and he received a military burial and a commendation certificate from President Kennedy, not to mention a military headstone.

How did that happen, given that NARA records indicate his discharge date from this third enlistment as October 31, 1938 was “other than honorable?”

This man is truly a conundrum and a contradiction of every expectation or assumption I’ve ever held.

Twisted Twigs, Again

I contacted the fine folks at Twisted Twigs again, and asked if there was any possibility of finding records of whatever happened at Fort Sheridan that resulted in him being sent to Fort Leavenworth again after his enlistment of January 8th. Obviously, he was in some kind of serious trouble right?

Well, as it turns out, maybe not.

Kathleen, at Twisted Twigs, tells me the following:

Fort Leavenworth was and still is also a working base, as well as a detention center. Soldiers passed through there without being headed for the prison, so he was probably just in transit from base to base.

She clearly didn’t understand my father!

Soldiers would receive their travel allowances in sequence rather than all at once. The payment mentioned there would be the money issued to him to travel from there to Fort Sheridan, and apparently he never made it to Fort Sheridan.

OK, so maybe he wasn’t sent to Fort Leavenworth from Fort Sheridan because he was in some kind of trouble. How ironic if he just happened to get assigned to Leavenworth for some task or duty, given the reason he spent almost 18 months there in 1920 and 1921. Still you would think if anything would have deterred him from deserting again, it would have been the vivid reminder of seeing those walls again. How much more “in your face” could a reminder be?

Was he just working on the outside, looking in, this time? Or is there still more to this story that we just don’t know? Again, Kathleen:

I’d say there are probably more records out there buried somewhere, but his peacetime service makes it a different type of search. A lot of peacetime paperwork was routinely destroyed, because it was perceived to be of little value once shipments were received or equipment was repaired. What survives most from those times are the higher level communications, rosters, and training records.

And of course, those records could have and probably did burn in 1973 in St. Louis.

I asked if we could find any records about his deserter status, and why he wasn’t discharged until 1938, which seemed really odd to me. Why wait until 1938 to give him the boot?

We did request the court martial from this time period as well, but it was not located. It doesn’t mean that it no longer exists, it means that at this moment in time its whereabouts are unknown, and it may in fact be destroyed.

He would not have been discharged without being present. Otherwise, the army had no authority to apprehend him as a deserter. Even if he was incarcerated by civilian authorities, the army maintained ‘control’ over him. It’s possible they simply took the paperwork to the prison and discharged him there since they had finally located him. This would have been part of his service record and was most likely lost in the fire.

The fire. Always that fire! Dang that fire!

The Conundrum

Why, then, if his final military enlistment ended with a less than honorable discharge did the family receive this document upon his death?

Envelope above which held the following document.

And the burial flag from his funeral service. As it turns out, given that he had two honorable discharges, even if he had one dishonorable discharge, he might still have qualified for the flag.

And why was a military tombstone sent when requested by the family in 2003 or 2004?

Would a deserter have received these things? It never in my wildest dreams occurred to me that his discharge was “less than honorable.” Why would I have ever suspected?

Not only that, the man was a proud veteran and very active in the Red Key, Indiana American Legion post, along with the Knightstown orphan’s home. To this day, I have his well-worn American Legion hat, threadbare in places, tie and pins.

Legion hat 2

My father is so confusing!

Kathleen again:

While he had a dishonorable discharge, he also had an honorable discharge on his record. In 2004, after the fire that destroyed so much information sometimes simple proof of service was enough to obtain a headstone, and by then nobody really looked terribly closely into fragmented seventy year old records when a vet’s family made a simple headstone request. If they presented the honorable discharge pay stub from 1921, it could conceivably have flown right through.

While I’m sure the family didn’t have a pay stub from 1921, there were other things. In the records sent by Virgie, I found his second honorable discharge. That would probably have sufficed. Obviously, something did.

William Estes honorable discharge 1921

Then, after my sister, Edna’s death, her granddaughter sent me a copy of his first Honorable Discharge that has been saved by Martha all those years.


And, the VA confirmed my father’s honorable discharges, never mentioning the third enlistment.

William Estes VA confirm of discharge

Given this documentation, you can understand why I was so shocked to discover the court martial, not to mention the third enlistment complete with dishonorable discharge. There weren’t any hints about either. I was utterly astounded, gobsmacked, not to mention heartbroken.

In spite of everything else, up until this point, I could still be proud of his military service to his country, and at such a tender age, but now that too is compromised.

Kathleen continued:

I’m not too surprised at either of those things occurring – it’s also possible that someone petitioned the Army to have his record polished up, and the commendation served as confirmation of that. Involve the right people high enough up in the food chain, and anything is possible.

Then I recalled what Aunt Margaret, his sister, said:

It was his second hitch in the service when he was in trouble that I had investigated for you after his death.

However, that letter from President Kennedy arrived within a couple weeks of his death, before Aunt Margaret had time to investigate and remedy anything. It may have simply been a “form letter” sent to the families of all deceased veterans, but that fact that Virgie received it suggests that the government themselves hadn’t put 2 and 2 together and figured out that he had a final less than honorable discharge from his third enlistment.

I’m betting neither Margaret nor Virgie knew about that third enlistment. If they did, they never breathed a word of it, and Margaret talked about everything.

My mother, who was permanently and thoroughly disgusted with my father mentioned something disdainfully about some issue being “fixed” as well, but I was never clear about what was “fixed” or why, nor did I realize how relevant that tidbit would be to me after anyone who might have known the answers was gone.

Mother’s comment about “fixing” might have been about his military record, but it also might have been about his divorce to Ellen not being final when he married Virgie – yet one more thing the women in his life had to fix and clean up. He left one messy trail.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line to all of this is that while he may not have been sent to Leavenworth as an inmate in early 1927 during the first few months of his third enlistment (or he may have, we’re not sure,) he clearly didn’t manage to get himself from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Sheridan between May 14th and 23rd. Or, he did make it back to Fort Sheridan and then deserted. Regardless, he was in a heap-o’-trouble. And he clearly, very, very clearly knew better and was already painfully aware of the consequences.

Either way, that was the last straw, so to speak, and when the military caught up with him again 11 years later in 1938, they simply dishonorably discharged him. I believe that soldiers were only sentenced to Leavenworth until the end of their enlistment, which is why he only served 17 of his 18 months in 1921.

Regardless of what happened, he was “less than honorably” discharged as the result of his third term of service. Do we have any idea, any idea at all what happened?

Next Stop – A New Alias and A New Disaster

By 1927, when he deserted from Fort Sheridan, my father had apparently learned the power of an alias and how to misbehave more successfully. This time, he didn’t stay in the same town, and he apparently didn’t wear any part of his uniform. In other words, he wasn’t just chronically AWOL, he flat out deserted with full intent.

This time, he became Paul Lamarr (LeMarr), an alias he would maintain for the next 15 years. Yes, 15 long years. How did he select that name anyway? It’s quite unique.

It’s amazing that I ever found him, but he did, inadvertently, leave a few bread crumbs and sleuths in this digital age found his trail. Amazingly, he kept his past buried for 91 years.

Just over two months after disappearing from Fort Sheridan, Illinois, on August 6, 1927, now 24 or 25 years old, Paul LaMarr wrote a bad check in Berrien County, Michigan, across Lake Michigan from Fort Sheridan. The legal proceedings also mention that he had used the alias of Art Thomas, although we don’t see that name again.

He began living as Paul LaMarr.

On that same day, Paul LaMarr married Cora Edmonds, a minor, whose mother and grandmother, both widows, were members of the celibate religious order (some would say cult) known as the House of David.

If your jaw just hit the floor, mine too. No, I can’t even begin to explain that dichotomy, so don’t ask.

The next chapter in my father’s never-ending life-long-drama, now (mostly) as Paul LaMarr, but also at least for a short while as Dr. Donald McCormack, had begun.

And….Yet ANOTHER Shoe Drops

Not only that, but Cora’s family lived in the same multi-family commune home as Bessie Boruff…someone who would one-day have a daughter named Violet, surnamed Miller, last name compliments of her step-father. I never met Violet, but my mother and sister (Edna) did and I knew that she existed – but our families lost track of each other more than half a century ago.

Was Violet my father’s child, my half sister? He, Bessie, Violet and Edna all believed so.

Violet Miller crop2

This grainy photo from the newspaper is all that I have.

I do believe we look at least somewhat alike when we were younger, but who knows if we actually do, or if I’m simply looking for the resemblance and wanting to see one. I know how easy that is to do, because I did it with my brother who was not my biological brother, Dave Estes. I’m not about to find and fall in love with a sibling again just to discover that they aren’t.

Roberta and Violet

In the collage below, Violet is at left, me center, Dad at right and two photos of Edna, my DNA-proven half sister, beneath. What do you think? You can see photos Ilo’s son Lee, here, but Lee had no children so there is no way to prove that he is my father’s child.

Dad Edna me Violet

In spite of what I think is a resemblance, Violet’s conception date, based on her birth date if she was a full term child suggests that Violet might have been conceived when my father’s whereabouts were conclusively known, meaning in jail having to do with that bad check – and not anyplace close to Bessie. There is about a 5 week discrepancy.

DNA testing would solve that mystery once and for all, but Violet, who married Elmer Bruce Golladay (originally Golliday) and then Orville Blevins, died in 2004. Yes, Violet had at least three children while married to Mr. Golliday, and yes, I would love to DNA test one of Violet’s descendants.

Truthfully, I keep hoping that one of them will test on their own and just show up on my DNA match list someplace. I’d have my answer without having to explain any of….well….this. If they match me, they get to own my father’s soap-operaesque tale too. If not, then they have a different mystery to solve.


When I think about trying to contact them, and yes, I have found at least two of Violet’s family members on Facebook, I struggle with how I would ever go about explaining this situation. Plus, an intrusion of this type may not be welcome news.

Merry Christmas, grandpa got run over by a court martial. Imagine if they are a veteran or lost a family member in service. Ummm…no.

They get to become aware of a very “colorful” character not far in their past, or conversely, one of their family members may not be who they think they are/were and either scenario may be unwelcome news they didn’t ask for. If they don’t seek answers by reaching out or DNA testing on their own, I’m very hesitant to intrude with what could well amount to distressful information.

Of course, if they have already tested and don’t match me, I’ll never know. So here’s hoping that maybe one day someone in Violet’s family will become interested in genealogy and google Violet’s name.

Hopefully, after they get over the same shock that I felt, they will contact me and we, together, can solve one more mystery in my father’s life.

If they are worried that the apple didn’t fall far from the parental tree – ironically – no. My father may have made boneheaded decisions about his own life, but the women who raised his children did an awesome job! He apparently had great taste in wives because their descendants are amazing people.

Sooo, maybe Santa will bring at least one of Violet’s children or grandchildren a DNA test for Christmas and they’ll just test!

Santa, can I arrange for a delivery?


Epilogue: As you might imagine, this article was very difficult to process and write. I debated for weeks about whether it should be published or not, and I published it with no small amount of reservation.

After publication, my German friend and faithful blog reader offered the following slightly edited commentary, which I found very comforting as well as enlightening. Thank you so much Chris.

Though I do not know much about your father, only your articles, I am quite confident of this conclusion: No brain damage required to explain his running away, no bad decision making. I rather fear that running away may have been the only decision he was possibly able to take at all. He had no other choice!

He ran away to military to escape his personal life, he ran away from military service, he ran away from wives and the responsibility for his babies. He ran away to alcohol to forget about himself for a while. He tried to run away from himself by changing his identity. And, as I remember from your other article, it seems that his final choice was to run away from his life.

Importantly, this does not imply that he did not at the same time truly love these women and children, including you! It was not them whom he was running away from, it was himself whom he tried to flee from.

Please feel hugged! Thank you for your openness to share these stories with us all! And let us all try to give other souls on this earth a place to stay and find peace, not to leave.


Lydia Brown’s 3 Daughters: Or Were They? Mitochondrial and Autosomal DNA to the Rescue – 52 Ancestors #218

There has long been speculation about what happened to Lydia Brown, the wife of William Crumley III, and when.

It doesn’t help a bit that William Crumley, her husband, was actually William Crumley the third, being named for both his father and grandfather.

William Crumley the second was born in 1767 or 1768 in Frederick County, Virginia. He married, but his wife’s name is unknown. We do, however, know that her mitochondrial DNA haplogroup is H2a1. Without any other moniker, H2a1 has in effect become her name, because I have nothing else to call her that identifies her individually.

We don’t know much about H2a1, only that she was having children by about 1786 and had her last child, Catherine Crumley was born in 1805, suggesting that H2a1 herself was born about 1766.

It was Catherine Crumley’s descendant who took the mitochondrial DNA test that provided us with H2a1. Ironic that we have her mitochondrial DNA and know her haplogroup, but not her name. Of course, we are presuming that indeed, she was William II’s only wife, meaning that her haplogroup applied to her eldest child, Susannah Crumley born about 1786 and the other 8 children born between Susannah and Catherine.

H2a1’s son, William Crumley III was born between 1785 and 1789. William would have inherited his mother’s mitochondrial DNA, H2a1, but he would not have passed it on to his children. Mitochondrial DNA is only passed on by females. William’s children would have inherited their mitochondrial DNA from his wife, their mother.

William III married Lydia Brown on October 1, 1807 in Greene County, Tennessee, where the family had moved by 1793. Lydia was the daughter of Jotham Brown and his wife Phoebe, whose surname is unknown, neighbors who lived close by.

As couples do, William III and Lydia set about starting a family right away, having their first child, the Reverend John Crumley in 1808 or 1809. John was followed by William Crumley the fourth in 1811 and Jotham Crumley in 1813. Sarah may have been a twin to Jotham, born in 1813 or she may have been born in 1815. Of course, there were no birth or death certificates back then.

In 1817, daughter Clarissa was born on April 10th.

That’s where the confusion starts.

Enter Elizabeth Johnson

Enter Elizabeth, known as Betsey, Johnson who married William Crumley in Greene County, TN on October 20, 1817.

Which William Crumley, you ask? Well, so have we, for years. In fact, it’s discussed at length, here.

Given Elizabeth’s age of approximately 17 years when she married (assuming she is who we think she is,) and the fact she was remembered as the cousin of Lydia Brown, we presumed that she married William Crumley III. William III at approximately age 35-40 was closer to her age than William II at approximate age 55 – and Lydia Brown was the wife of William III so it stood to reason that they family would know her cousins.

Seems logical, right?

Except, the next child born to William III and his wife, Lydia or Elizabeth, my ancestor, Phoebe Crumley was born on March 24th, 1818, not even 50 weeks after her sister, Clarissa had been born. Furthermore, Phoebe had been born in Claiborne County, Tennessee, near the border with Lee County, Virginia, not in Greene County where earlier children were born. Also of note, Lydia’s mother, Jotham Brown’s wife was named Phoebe.

It’s certainly possible that William Crumley III’s first wife, Lydia Brown had died and he had remarried quickly to Elizabeth Johnson, then moved to Claiborne County. Except, the dates don’t work well.

We know that Lydia Brown Crumley was alive on April 10, 1817 when Clarissa was born.

Phoebe’s mother, whoever she was, got pregnant in June of 1817, 4 months before Elizabeth Johnson married William Crumley.

Pregnancy as a motivator for marriage happens, but it seemed odd that a 34 year old man with a 2 month old child, whose wife had just died was impregnating a 17 year old girl.

I discussed all the pros and cons of the situation in the articles about Lydia Brown and Phoebe Crumley, but the only other alternative is that Elizabeth Johnson had married the elder William Crumley II. It seems even odder that a man of 50+ would be marrying a girl of 17. But that too happened. Or, maybe Elizabeth was actually older than we thought.

Furthermore, William Crumley II had no additional children after 1817, at least none that we know of, but William III did. Yes, it looked quite probable that Elizabeth Johnson married William Crumley III. Young wives tended to have children, regardless of the age of their husband – so the preponderance of circumstantial evidence pointed to Elizabeth marrying William Crumley III, or Jr. as he was called in Greene County. William Crumley II was referred to as William Sr.

This seemed like the most reasonable (at least tentative) conclusion, based on the evidence at hand.

The problem is that it was wrong.

DNA Upsets the Apple Cart

One of my cousins who descends from Clarissa (born in April 1817) through all females kindly tested her mitochondrial DNA years ago. My line, through Phoebe, the younger sister of Clarissa had tested too, and they matched exactly at the full sequence level. Furthermore, both of those women also matched a descendant of a daughter of Jotham Brown, confirming that those three women had a common ancestor.

This tells us that very likely Clarissa and Phoebe are full siblings. However, dates weren’t always recorded correctly and people simply forgot. Were those two girls’ births recorded in the correct order with the correct years?

I really wanted to test a descendant of the daughter, Melinda, born April 1, 1820. That child was unquestionably born after the 1817 marriage to the second wife, if she was a second wife.

Not long ago, as a result of the article about Lydia, a descendant of Melinda came forth and volunteered to test.

Believe me, those weeks spent waiting for DNA results seemed like an eternity.

Finally, the results were ready, and sure enough, Melinda’s descendant matches Clarissa’s descendant and Phoebe’s descendant at the full sequence level, exactly.

The proof doesn’t get any better than this.


One Final Hitch

I’d feel a lot better if there wasn’t one last rumor to contend with. The rumor that Elizabeth Johnson was Lydia Brown’s cousin.

Elizabeth Johnson had to be either the daughter of Zopher Johnson, or the daughter of Moses Johnson, both of Greene County, TN. Moses was either the brother or the son of Zopher Johnson. Those are the only candidate fathers for Elizabeth.

Let’s look at the various possible relationships.

Possibility #1 – Jotham Brown’s wife, Phoebe, is Zopher Johnson’s Daughter as is Elizabeth Johnson

I already discussed the possibility that Jotham Brown’s wife, Phoebe, was Zopher Johnson’s daughter, here.

In the scenario above, Elizabeth and Lydia would not have been cousins, but aunt/niece. Their mitochondrial DNA would have matched, but in the article about Jotham Brown’s wife, Phoebe, we dismissed the possibility that she was Zopher Johnson’s daughter, so Possibility #1 isn’t possible after all.

Possibility #2 – Jotham Brown’s Wife, Phoebe, is the Daughter of Zopher Johnson and Elizabeth is Zopher’s Granddaughter Through Son Moses

In the above scenario, if Moses was the son of Zopher, these women would be first cousins, but the mitochondrial DNA lineage would be broken at Moses, so their mitochondrial DNA wouldn’t match.

Additionally, we dismissed the possibility that Phoebe is Zopher’s daughter, so Possibility #2 is not, for 2 different reasons. It’s possible that we’re wrong about Phoebe being Zopher’s daughter, but it’s NOT possible that we’re wrong about the mitochondrial DNA not matching in this scenario.

Furthermore Moses is believed to be the brother of Zopher, not his son.

Possibility #3 – Phoebe is Zopher’s Daughter, Moses is Zopher’s Brother and Elizabeth is Moses’s Daughter

The possibilities really aren’t endless, they just seem that way! 😊

In this third scenario where Moses and Zopher are brothers, not father and son, Elizabeth and Lydia would be 1st cousins once removed, but they would not share mitochondrial DNA unless Zopher and Moses had married sisters or women who also shared the same exact mitochondrial DNA.

The only scenario in which the mitochondrial DNA would be shared with cousins, assuming that Elizabeth Johnson and Lydia Brown were indeed cousins, is Possibility 1 where Jotham’s wife is Zopher’s daughter.

The evidence suggests that Phoebe Brown is not the daughter of Zopher Johnson, eliminating Possibility 3 as well.

Possibility #4 – Zopher Johnson’s Wife and Jotham Brown’s Wife Were Sisters

I’m going to presume here that the individual who recorded that Elizabeth Johnson and Lydia Brown were cousins meant first cousins, although it’s possible that cousin means further back and possibly not in the direct matrilineal line.

For Elizabeth Johnson’s mitochondrial DNA to match that of Lydia Brown’s exactly, they must both descend from the same common female ancestor in the direct matrilineal line.

How might that work, assuming Jotham’s wife is not Zopher’s daughter?

If the child of both Elizabeth Johnson and Lydia Brown had matching mitochondrial DNA, then the cousin lineage had to be through their mother’s matrilineal side.

This means that the wives of Zopher Johnson and Jotham Brown would have been sisters, or possible matrilineal cousins with no interweaving male generations.

Zopher Johnson and Jotham Brown were both found in Frederick Co., VA by 1782 where the tax list tells us that Zopher had 2 people in his household, indicating that he had not been married long.

Jotham Brown and Phebe, his wife are having children by 1761 in Virginia according to the 1850 census record of their oldest child.

These couples are probably at least 20 years different in age.

Unfortunately, we know very little about where Jotham originated. We know that Zopher’s parents were living in Northampton Co., PA in 1761 about the time he was born.

In order for Jotham’s wife, Phoebe to be the sibling of Zopher Johnson’s wife, they would have had to be living in the same location in roughly 1780, which was probably Frederick Co., VA.

Is it possible that the reason that Clarissa, Phoebe and Melinda’s mitochondrial DNA matches is because they actually do have two separate mothers who were cousins? Yes, it is.

Is there any evidence of that? No, not today.

However, this is the only alternate possibility that works at all.

Of course, the most reasonable scenario is that Lydia Brown didn’t die, and Clarissa, Phoebe and Melinda are all 3 her daughters. This evidence is strengthened of course by the fact that Phoebe is named after Lydia Brown’s mother.

What Other Tools are Available?

Unfortunately, Jotham Brown is 6 generations back from me. If Phoebe’s mother was Elizabeth Johnson instead of Lydia Brown, Zopher Johnson would be the same number of generations back in my tree as Jotham Brown.

The absence of Johnson autosomal matches in and of itself at that distance wouldn’t be remarkable for any particular individual, but with as many people from this line who have tested, it’s increasingly unlikely that I would match no one from the Johnson line.

At Ancestry, I added Zopher Johnson in my tree, as Jotham Brown’s wife, Phoebe’s father, creating a “honey-pot” of sorts for matches. I have no one that shares Zopher except for people who also have Phoebe listed as Phoebe Johnson. In other words, no one who descends from Zopher through any other line.

I have 27 people who I match through Jotham Brown through his other children, which I wouldn’t have as matches unless Jotham Brown was my ancestor as well.

At MyHeritage, I also added Zopher Johnson, but I have not had SmartMatches there either. Like at Ancestry, I do have Jotham Brown matches.

Several people match at Ancestry who has no chromosome browser. I have a Jotham Brown Circle at Ancestry with 45 members, of which I match 16.

Not all my matches are from Ancestry. Other matches are found at Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage and GedMatch which allow me to paint their segments on my DNAPainter profile, triangulating with others.


We have multiple pieces of evidence including three matching mitochondrial DNA tests for the sisters, children of William Crumley III, on the following timeline:

Crumley birth timeline

  • We’ve proven that Clarissa, Phebe and Melinda all share the exact same mitochondrial DNA. These births occurred both before and after the marriage of Elizabeth Johnson to one of the William Crumleys in 1817.
  • I have more than 30 matches to several of Jotham Brown’s descendants through multiple children other than through Lydia Brown, the wife of William Crumley III.
  • I don’t have any matches to Zopher Johnson through anyone except people who list Jotham Brown’s wife, Phebe, as the daughter of Zopher Johnson in their trees.
  • Jotham Brown’s wife’s name was Phebe, a rather unusual name, certainly suggesting that Lydia Brown was the mother of Phebe Crumley born in 1818.

I believe the combination of these factors confirms beyond any reasonable doubt that the mother of Phoebe Crumley born in 1818, as well as the younger children born to William Crumley III and his wife were all born to Lydia Brown, the first and only known wife of William Crumley III.

I believe that Elizabeth Johnson married William Crumley II, not William Crumley III based on this as well as new research evidence to be discussed in a future article.

Based on the cumulative evidence, Elizabeth Johnson did not marry William Crumley III and Lydia Brown, William Crumley III’s first wife did not die before the birth of either Phebe or Melinda Crumley.

Based on the fact that I have no autosomal DNA matches to Zopher Johnson’s descendants, I believe we’ve removed the possibility that Jotham Brown’s wife, Phebe is the daughter of Zopher, or the child of Zopher’s brother, Moses. In other words, there is no hint of a biological connection between the Johnson and Brown families upstream of Jotham Brown and his wife, Phoebe whose surname remains unknown.

As far as I’m concerned, we can put this question to bed, forever.


Thank you to the descendants of Clarissa, Phoebe and Melinda Crumley for mitochondrial DNA testing. We could never have solved this without you.

Thank you for descendants of Jotham Brown and Zopher Johnson for autosomal DNA testing.

Thank you to Stevie Hughes for her extensive research on the Zopher Johnson line.

If You Want to Test

If you want to test your mitochondrial DNA, click here and order the mtFull test.

If you want to test your autosomal DNA, click here and order the Family Finder test, or click here and order the MyHeritage test.

You can also order a Family Finder test and then transfer free to MyHeritage.


Standard Disclosure

This standard disclosure appears at the bottom of every article in compliance with the FTC Guidelines.

I provide Personalized DNA Reports for Y and mitochondrial DNA results for people who have tested through Family Tree DNA. I provide Quick Consults for DNA questions for people who have tested with any vendor. I would welcome the opportunity to provide one of these services for you.

Hot links are provided to Family Tree DNA, where appropriate.  If you wish to purchase one of their products, and you click through one of the links in an article to Family Tree DNA, or on the sidebar of this blog, I receive a small contribution if you make a purchase.  Clicking through the link does not affect the price you pay.  This affiliate relationship helps to keep this publication, with more than 900 articles about all aspects of genetic genealogy, free for everyone.

I do not accept sponsorship for this blog, nor do I write paid articles, nor do I accept contributions of any type from any vendor in order to review any product, etc.  In fact, I pay a premium price to prevent ads from appearing on this blog.

When reviewing products, in most cases, I pay the same price and order in the same way as any other consumer. If not, I state very clearly in the article any special consideration received.  In other words, you are reading my opinions as a long-time consumer and consultant in the genetic genealogy field.

I will never link to a product about which I have reservations or qualms, either about the product or about the company offering the product.  I only recommend products that I use myself and bring value to the genetic genealogy community.  If you wonder why there aren’t more links, that’s why and that’s my commitment to you.

Thank you for your readership, your ongoing support and for purchasing through the affiliate link if you are interested in making a purchase at Family Tree DNA, or one of the affiliate links below:

Affiliate links are limited to:

Jacob Lentz’s Signatures: Cursive and Genetic – 52 Ancestors #216

What is a signature anyway?

A signature is defined as a mark or something that personally identifies an individual. A form of undeniable self-identification.

Of course, that’s exactly why I seek my ancestors’ signatures, both their handwriting and their genetic signature.

Jacob Lentz was born in Germany in 1783 and died in 1870 in Ohio.

Most documents of that timeframe contained only facsimiles of actual signatures. Original deeds indicate that the document was signed, but when recorded in deed books at the courthouse, the clerk only transcribed the signature. The person recorded the physical deed that they had in their hand, and then took it home with them. Therefore, the deed book doesn’t hold the original signature – the original deed does. I was crestfallen years ago when I discovered that fact. ☹

Hence, the actual physical signature of an ancestor is rare indeed.

Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to find not one, but two actual signatures of Jacob Lentz – plus part of his genetic signature as well.

Jacob’s Handwritten Signatures

When Jacob Lenz, later Lentz in the US, petitioned to leave Germany in 1817, he signed the petition document.

The original document is in the “Weinstadt City Archive”, which kindly gave permission for the reproduction and was graciously retrieved by my distant cousin, Niclas Witt. Thank you very much to both!

Here’s Jacob’s actual signature.

The story of Jacob’s life and immigration, and what a story it is, is recorded here, here, here and here.

Jacob’s life has a missing decade or so, after he completed his indentured servitude about 1820 or 1821 in Pennsylvania and before he arrived in Montgomery County, Ohio about 1830. In Ohio, he purchased land and began creating records. That’s where I found him initially.

Jacob’s youngest child, Mary Lentz, was born in May or June of 1829, before leaving Pennsylvania. She married in Montgomery County, Ohio on December 19, 1848 to Henry Overlease. That marriage document contains the signature of her father, Jacob Lentz.

This signature is slightly different than the German one from 31 years earlier, but it’s still clearly our Jacob, as the document states that the parents have signed. It looks like he’s also incorporated the “t” into the name now as well.

Jacob Lentz’s Genetic Signatures

As I was celebrating the discovery of not one, but two versions of Jacob’s written signature, I realized that I carry part of Jacob’s genetic signature too, as do others of his descendants. I just never thought of it quite like that before.

His genetic signature is every bit as personal, and even better because it’s in me, not lost to time.

There are three types of DNA that can provide genetic signatures of our ancestors; mitochondrial, Y DNA and autosomal.

Mitochondrial DNA

Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mothers to all genders of their children, but only their daughters pass it on. Therefore, it’s primarily unchanged, generation to generation.

Being a male, Jacob couldn’t pass his mitochondrial DNA on to his descendants, so we have to discover Jacob’s mitochondrial DNA by testing someone else who descends from his mother’s direct matrilineal line through all females but can be a male in the current generation.

Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to discover Jacob’s mitochondrial DNA that he inherited from his matrilineal line, meaning his mother’s mother’s mother’s line.

However, we only identified his parents a few months ago. Most of Jacob’s family didn’t immigrate, so perhaps eventually the right person will test who descends from his mother, or her matrilineal line, through all women to the current generation.

Jacob’s matrilineal line is as follows, beginning with his mother:

  • Jacob’s mother – Maria Margaretha Gribler born May 4, 1749 and died July 5, 1823 in Beutelsbach, married Jakob Lenz November 3, 1772.
  • Her mother, Katharina Nopp born April 23, 1707 and died November 27, 1764 in Beutelsbach, married Johann Georg Gribler on October 26, 1745.
  • Agnes Back/Beck born November 26, 1673 in Aichelberg, Germany, died February 10, 1752 in Beutelsbach and married Johann Georg Nopp from Beutelsbach.
  • Margaretha, surname unknown, from Magstadt who married Dionysus Beck who lived in Aichelberg, Germany.

If you descend from any of these women, or their female siblings through all females to the current generation, I have a DNA testing scholarship for mitochondrial DNA at Family Tree DNA for you! I’ll throw an autosomal Family Finder test in too!

If you’d like a read a quick article about how mitochondrial, Y DNA and autosomal DNA work and are inherited, click here.


On the other hand, Jacob did contribute his Y DNA to his sons. Lentz male descendants, presuming no adoptions, carry Jacob’s Y DNA signature as their own.

We are very fortunate to have Jacob Lentz’s Y DNA signature, thanks to two male Lentz cousins. I wrote about how unique the Lentz Y DNA is, and that we’ve determined that our Lentz line descends from the Yamnaya culture in Russia some 3500 years ago. How did we do that? We match one of the ancient burials. Jacob’s haplogroup is R-BY39280 which is a shorthand way of telling us about his clan.

On the Big Y Tree, at Family Tree DNA, we can see that on our BY39280 branch, we have people whose distant ancestors were found in two locations, France and Germany. On the next upstream branch, KMS67, the parent of BY39280, we find people with that haplogroup in Switzerland and Greece.

Our ancestors are amazingly interesting.

Autosomal DNA

Jacob shares his Y and mitochondrial DNA, probably exactly, with other relatives, since both Y and mitochondrial DNA is passed intact from generation to generation, except for an occasional mutation.

However, Jacob’s autosomal DNA was the result of a precise combination of half of his mother’s and half of his father’s autosomal DNA. No one on this earth had the exact combination of DNA as Jacob. Therefore, Jacob’s autosomal DNA identifies him uniquely.

Unfortunately, Jacob isn’t alive to test, and no, I’m not digging him up – so we are left to piece together Jacob’s genetic signature from the pieces distributed among his descendants.

I realized that by utilizing DNAPainter, which allows me to track my own segments by ancestor, I have reconstructed a small portion of Jacob’s autosomal DNA.

Now, there’s a hitch, of course.

Given that there are no testers that descend from the ancestors of either Jacob or his wife, Fredericka Ruhle, at least not that I know of, I can’t sort out which of these segments are actually Jacob’s and which are Fredericka’s.

In the chart above, the tester and my mother match each other on the same segments, but without testers who descend from the parents of Jacob and Fredericka, through other children and also match on that same segment, we can’t tell which of those common segments came from Jacob and which from Fredericka. If my mother and the tester matched a tester from Jacob’s siblings, then we would know that their common segment descended through Jacob’s line, for example.

Painting Jacob’s Genetic Signature

The segments in pink below show DNA that I inherited from either Jacob or Fredericka. I match 8 other cousins who descend from Jacob Lentz and Fredericka Ruhle on some portion of my DNA – and in many cases, three or more descendants of Jacob/Fredericka match on the same exact segment, meaning they are triangulated.

As you can see, I inherited a significant portion of my maternal chromosome 3 from Jacob or Fredericka, as did my cousins. I also inherited portions of chromosomes 7, 9, 18 and 22 from Jacob or Fredericka as well. While I was initially surprised to see such a big piece of chromosome three descending from Jacob/Fredericka, Jacob Lentz and Fredericka Ruhle aren’t really that distantly removed – being my great-great-great-grandparents, or 5 generations back in time.

Based on the DNAPainter calculations, these segments represent about 2.4% of my DNA segments on my maternal side. The expected amount, if the DNA actually was passed in exactly half (which seldom happens,) would be approximately 3.125% for each Jacob and Fredericka, or 6.25% combined. That means I probably carry more of Jacob/Fredericka’s DNA that can eventually be identified by new cousin matches!

Of course, my cousins may well share segments of Jacob’s DNA with each other that I don’t, so those segments won’t be shown on my DNAPainter graph.

However, if we were to create a DNAPainter chart for Jacob/Fredericka themseves, and their descendants were to map their shared segments to that chart, we could eventually recreate a significant amount of Jacob’s genetic signature through the combined efforts of his descendants – like reassembling a big puzzle where we all possess different pieces of the puzzle.

Portions of Jacob’s genetic signature are in each of his descendants, at least for several generations! Reassembling Jacob would be he ultimate scavenger hunt.

What fun!


You can order Y and mitochondrial DNA tests from Family Tree DNA here, the only company offering these tests.

You can order autosomal tests from either Family Tree DNA or MyHeritage by clicking on those names in this sentence. You’ll need segment information that isn’t available at Ancestry, so I recommend testing with one of these two companies.

23andMe and Gedmatch also provide segment information. Some people who test at both 23andMe and Ancestry upload to GedMatch, so be sure to check there as well.

You can transfer your autosomal DNA files from one company to the other, with instructions for Family Tree DNA here and MyHeritage here, including how to transfer from Ancestry here.

You can learn how to use DNA Painter here, here and here.

Whose genetic signatures can you identify?


Standard Disclosure

This standard disclosure appears at the bottom of every article in compliance with the FTC Guidelines.

I provide Personalized DNA Reports for Y and mitochondrial DNA results for people who have tested through Family Tree DNA. I provide Quick Consults for DNA questions for people who have tested with any vendor. I would welcome the opportunity to provide one of these services for you.

Hot links are provided to Family Tree DNA, where appropriate. If you wish to purchase one of their products, and you click through one of the links in an article to Family Tree DNA, or on the sidebar of this blog, I receive a small contribution if you make a purchase. Clicking through the link does not affect the price you pay. This affiliate relationship helps to keep this publication, with more than 900 articles about all aspects of genetic genealogy, free for everyone.

I do not accept sponsorship for this blog, nor do I write paid articles, nor do I accept contributions of any type from any vendor in order to review any product, etc. In fact, I pay a premium price to prevent ads from appearing on this blog.

When reviewing products, in most cases, I pay the same price and order in the same way as any other consumer. If not, I state very clearly in the article any special consideration received. In other words, you are reading my opinions as a long-time consumer and consultant in the genetic genealogy field.

I will never link to a product about which I have reservations or qualms, either about the product or about the company offering the product. I only recommend products that I use myself and bring value to the genetic genealogy community. If you wonder why there aren’t more links, that’s why and that’s my commitment to you.

Thank you for your readership, your ongoing support and for purchasing through the affiliate link if you are interested in making a purchase at Family Tree DNA, or one of the affiliate links below:

Affiliate links are limited to:

Dorothea Catharina Wolflin (1755-?), Despair in the Abyss of the High Sea – 52 Ancestors #215

In 1816, most German women who were 61 years old would have been playing with grandchildren in the sunshine. Not Dorothea.

Of course, nothing had ever been “normal” in Dorothea’s life, not the entire time she had lived in Beutelsbach, on the banks of the Rems river, in the vineyard region of Wuerttemberg, Germany.

As a child, her father, Johann Ludwig Wolflin had been “taken away” for 15 years to serve in the military. Her mother, Dorothea Heubach, worked in the vineyards to support Dorothea while waiting those long years for her father’s return. They married the year he returned and Dorothea’s only sibling was born two years later, in 1772, dying the next year.

Dorothea married Johann Friedrich Breuning in 1780 and after they had three children, he died in 1786, the youngest of their 3 children being just 5 days shy of her first birthday. That baby would perish in 1790, just a few months before Dorothea’s mother’s death. Another of Dorothea’s 3 children had died in 1783.

In 1787, Dorothea remarried to Johann Adam Ruhle, the man she would spend the rest of her life with, at least as far as we know.

It seemed like Dorothea’s life calmed down and was settling into the familiar rhythmic pattern of village life after her marriage to Adam, and for a while, it did.

Between 1788 and 1800, Dorothea and Adam had 6 children. Three lived past childhood, 3 did not. As sad as that is, it was also normal in that time and place.

Although Dorothea’s father had been absent during her entire childhood, not of his own choosing, mind you, he also lived 15 years longer than Dorothea’s mother. Not that those early years could ever be replaced, but one had to make the best of things and it was surely a comfort to Dorothy having her father’s presence in her life as she, and he, aged.

Dorothea would celebrate her 60th birthday 10 days after her father, Johann Ludwig Wolflin passed away on July 31st, 1805. Probably not a terribly joyful birthday.

It was very unusual for someone to have no siblings in a German village, but that was Dorothea’s situation. With no siblings and no parents, Dorothea might have felt a bit like she didn’t fit in.

Dorothea was different, and perhaps it was because of that very fact that in another 11 years, in 1816, Dorothea was willing to take the risk of her life.

Dorothea wasn’t afraid of challenges, that’s for sure.


The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia would render devastating consequences around the world in 1816 as the smoke and ash blocked the warming rays of the sun. However, at that time, no one in Germany knew about a volcanic eruption in Indonesia, and even if they did, they wouldn’t have associated cause and effect.

By 1816, known as “the year without a summer,” Dorothea was 61 years old. Her daughter, Fredericka had married Jakob Lenz in 1808 and had blessed Dorothea with 5 grandchildren, of which one had died in 1814.

The rest of Dorothea Catharina’s children lived with her and husband, Johann Adam Ruhle, a vinedresser. 1816 was brutal – and the 4th year in a row that the vineyards hadn’t produced. But 1816 was the worst by far. The grapes didn’t ripen and neither did the rest of the crops. Food was in short supply and rioting broke out in many parts of Germany for basic foods, such as wheat and flour.

No one was interested in waiting for a repeat performance in 1817, so many families prepared to leave over the winter months.

In February, Dorothea Catharina’s husband, Adam, and her son-in-law, Jacob Lenz petitioned for permission to emigrate.

If someone wanted to emigrate, they needed official permission from the Kingdom of Württemberg, insuring that all debts had been paid to creditors. Therefore, the applicant either had to wait a certain amount of time so debtors could report a bill, or the applicant had to find a guarantor.

Permission to emigrate was published in the years 1816 to 1820 in the “Royal Württemberg State and Government Gazette.” If the person wishing to emigrate could not provide a guarantor, the “Government Gazette” contained up to three calls to potential creditors to file their claims. Otherwise, the creditor could turn to the guarantor.

Permission was obtained for Johann Adam Ruhle to immigrate and in February, the family sold their possessions, paid off any outstanding debt, and departed.

Only one of Dorothea’s children remained behind – Johann Ludwig Ruhle. A single man, for whatever reason, he chose to stay in Beutelsbach. He would have waved goodbye to his entire family; parents, three siblings and four nieces and nephews as the wagon pulled away from the vineyards. Why he stayed and where he lived between then and his marriage in 1830 is unknown.

Immigration – Why and Why Now?

German’s were emigrating by the thousands, and not just to the United States.

A man named Friedrich List was commissioned by the Württemberg government to ask citizens on the docks in Heilbronn about the reasons for their emigration. He recorded his interview with Johann Adam Rühle on April 30, 1817.

Adam provided the following commentary about the reason for his decision: “Just look at the tax papers and you will find our own complaints.”

Other men from Beutelsbach who were also interviewed mentioned governmental corruption and deprivation as motivations as well.

Other reasons for immigration are set forth in a letter from Frederick Rapp (who had immigrated to the US and set up a German colony of religious Rappites) to Joseph Leobold explaining why a German might want to immigrate. Frederick said, “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.” This would have rung true for Dorothea whose own father was forcibly absent for the first 15 years of her life – and she had sons.

Furthermore, the ban on immigration that had been in effect in the Kingdom of Wurttemberg since 1807 was lifted in 1816.

It appears that a combination of crop failure and high taxes combined with the allure of available land in America and opportunity for all was the shiny object that lured the Lenz (Lentz) and Ruhle (Reuhl) family down the rivers through Germany to Amsterdam, and onto a ship sailing for the promised land.

Except, that wasn’t what actually happened at all.

The Rhine to Amsterdam

In an obscure article by Dr. W. Weintraud titled “Schicksale wurttembergischer Auswanderer im Jahre 1817″ (“Fates of Wurttemberg Emigrants in 1817”) about the Zee Ploeg shipwreck survivors, he tells us on page 16 that:

The emigrants from Wurttemberg boarded rafts in the town of Heilbronn in Germany and traveled on those on the rivers Neckar and Rhine to the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, they spent weeks to find a shipping company willing to take them onboard to the United States.

Heilbronn isn’t far from Beutelsbach, but I wonder why they didn’t board boats or barges on the Neckar at either Remseck or Bad Cannstatt, both of which were closer.

The family group traveled up the rivers to intersect with the Rhine at Mannheim and down the Rhine to Rotterdam, through bucolic castle country of the middle Rhine Valley.

By Alice F.A. Mutton Karl A. Sinnhuber (Enc. Britannica) – Rhine River History and Maps Rhine river, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49873

The immigrants must have enjoyed the beautiful German countryside, places they had never seen before and would never see again. They were sailing in May, and spring would have been unfurling green leaves like tendrilled fingers and colorful spring flowers.

For the Germans, the Rhine was a one way ticket out.

The trip would have been chilly in the spring time, but beautiful nonetheless and their hearts would have been joyful and filled with hope.

The Middle Rhine is chocked full of castles on vistas overlooking the river and vineyards perched on hillsides which would have made them feel right at home.

They were leaving Germany, so this float trip through some of the most beautiful country in the world was somehow a fitting goodbye that would leave them with memories of the best that Germany had to offer.

In 2017, I traced the route that Dorothea and family would have taken. I wondered what they thought as they passed the castles representing thousands of years of German history. Had they even heard of these locations and did they have an appreciation for the beauty, or were their sights so firmly planted on their distant destination that they didn’t notice their surroundings as they floated towards the ocean?

By Alexander Hoernigk – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47815374

As the group of immigrants floated closer to the sea, the land flattened out and became low and floodprone.

The Rhine intersected the Ijssel where the barge would turn towards Amsterdam. On the horizon, windmills became visible to manage waterflow and drainage canals appeared in the distance.

As they sailed further into the spring time, tulips and daffodils began to bloom in the flat Dutch countryside, beside the canals. This land was dramatically different from Germany and would have looked like an entirely different world. Vistas of beauty opened before their eyes on every horizon.

On they traveled.

As spring burst into full bloom in April and May, it must have seemed like Mother Nature herself was blessing their journey.

After arriving on the coast of the Netherlands, probably in May, the trip was delayed week to week and then month to month, until at last, in July, the group found a ship in Amsterdam on which to book their passage and prepared to leave port.


Amsterdam was a hub of maritime activity, even though sailing from Amsterdam meant sailing around barrier islands in the sea. Why didn’t they sail out of Rotterdam, a closer and more accessible port? That answer is forever lost to time.

Today, Amsterdam houses the museum of the East India Trading Company with a reconstructed ship that would have been similar to the ship that Dorothea Catharina and her family boarded to set sail for Philadelphia.

I visited Amsterdam, knowing that my ancestor Govert Van Oy (Vannoy) along with his wife and children set sail from here in 1664 for New Netherlands. However in the summer of 2017, I didn’t yet know that Dorothea Catharina’s family, consisting of 4 of my ancestors set sail from this very same location exactly 200 years ago. In fact, they were in Amsterdam, probably on this very quay, waiting to sail 200 years and 2 days before I stood there, in complete ignorance, in 2017.

Sometimes synchronicity is simply amazing. I like to think Dorothea might have had a hand in this!

The Zee Ploeg

The ship on which they booked passage was named the Zee Ploeg, also spelled Zee Ploug and was 136 feet long, 32 feet wide and 16 feet high. Of course, that 16 feet was without masts. The masts were a LOT taller.

This drawing is of a similar ship. No actual drawing of the Zee Ploeg exists today.

Touring the reproduction ship at the Amsterdam West India Company Headquarters Museum was quite interesting.

I looked up!

Nope, I could never be a sailor.

This reproduction ship was 157 feet long, so 21 feet longer than the Zee Ploeg, and those masts are 183 feet tall. Reaching the crow’s nest was accomplished by climbing the rope ladders. Nope. Just no.

Let’s go inside.

I had never really thought about bathroom facilities. This lid opens directly over the ocean. There was one “toilet” per side of the ship. The captain and officers had their own.

Crates and barrels with food and water were stored below deck, along with the passengers.

Wealthy passengers had boxes that resembled small bunk beds, but our family, according to Jacob Lentz’s later letter, in essence had the cheap seats. Cheap seats weren’t beds at all, but hammocks where you simply pulled the side fabric over you for a blanket. I wonder how many people slept in each hammock.

Here, my friend Yvette Hoitink, Dutch genealogist extraordinaire, and I are practicing. Getting in and out of the hammock required far more grace than I possess. All I can say is that it’s a good thing there isn’t movie evidence, because it would be a comedy, trust me!

Setting Sail

On July the 7th, 1817, finally, the Zee Ploeg set sail from Amsterdam.

Four days later, they were skirting the island of Texel, where the ship had to pass in a channel between Texel and either the island to the south or Vlieland to the north in order to enter the Atlantic ocean.

From Amsterdam to the southern point of Texel is about 65 miles, but the nautical route wasn’t as direct. In this wonderful article, the author visited the Jutters Museum and provides photos of dioramas as well as several old maps that show the location of the West India docks in Amsterdam and the water “roadway,” as they were called at the time, to Texel where the ships would resupply, taking on their last fresh water for the voyage.


When the emigrants arrived in Texel, foul weather ensued and continued until August 5th, nearly a month. They spent the month riding out the bad weather on the ship at Texel, waiting for the storms and wind to abate.

You can see Amsterdam in orange and the island of Texel near the top on the old maritime map below. This map was actually created with north to right, but I’ve rotated it to reflect the actual geography.

In this contemporary satellite view, you can see the treacherous waterways between the island and the mainland (in green) that require a highly qualified pilot or Captain, in the terms of 1817, to navigate.

All of the green area between the island and the mainland are shallows that used to be land not long ago.

I stood on the island of Vlieland looking at Texel to the south, exactly 200 years later, to the day, that they were anchored in this very location. Of course, I had no idea the significance at the time. What I did know is that another ancestor of mine, Govert Van Oy had died en route to New Netherlands in 1664 at age 39 and was buried on the island of Texel.

Texel is the island in the distance. The weather was much better the day I stood on these sands staring across the channel.

However, the grim reaper reached out for me there too. I was felled by a cobblestone, broke my femur, messed up my knee in such a way that I have a permanent souvenir, and suffered from blood clots in my leg. I think those islands have it in for my family – although the Island of Vlieland possesses a sorceresses’ hypnotic, alluring charm – beckoning one to return.

Ironically, the letters in the sand created by specially cast tires for the tour bus are poetry that translates roughly as:

What makes the deepest impression
Will be touched by the water
Let no man disturb
The sea will have the last word

Each year a tire poetry contest is held, but the 2017 winning poem seemed particularly prescient for Dorothea 200 years earlier.

The Most Difficult Ancestor

This is the point where I have to tell you how difficult this article was to write. Where I get to explain that I have nightmares about what Dorothea endured. Where I confess that I almost couldn’t write this one. That I feel compelled to provide you with a PTSD trigger warning. No movie could be more dramatic. You may forget to breathe. You may wish you hadn’t read this when you’re done.

You’ve been warned.

I also get to reveal that I think Dorothea survived, but I’m not positive. What I am positive of is that not everyone in the family did.

This is the wrench-your-heart-right-out-of-your-chest-through-your-throat ancestor story. A Halloween nightmare come true.

As if Dorothea’s life hadn’t already been difficult enough before leaving Beutelsbach; the worst, by an immeasurable degree was yet to come. The indescribable terror of what lay ahead made Beutelsbach with all the death, burials and challenges look like an ice cream social on a balmy sun-kissed Sunday afternoon.

The storm clouds were gathering, figuratively and literally, and they would unleash in an unimaginable, eternal, hell-fire torrent of terror.

But first, let’s take a look at what we know already.

Jacob’s Letter

Dorothea’s daughter, Frederika Ruhle/Reuhl had married Jacob Lenz (spelled Lentz in America.) They, of course, were passengers on this ship as well. Jacob Lentz and Frederika’s grandchildren documented the story that Jacob told them about the journey.

Jacob’s grandson, George William Lentz, born in 1867 in Indiana recorded what his father, Johann Adam Lentz, reportedly born in 1819 in Shippensburg, PA, told him about his parent’s trip.

George William reportedly wrote the story for his son, Roscoe, born in 1891. By process of elimination, we know that this story, styled as a tribute to Jacob Lentz, was recorded for posterity sometime between 1891 and 1946 when George William died. Thank goodness it was! There was also a slightly different second documented story. Each story provided a few details that the other didn’t.

In essence, Jacob said that he along with his wife, Frederica, 3 or 4 children (depending on which letter) and his wife’s sister immigrated.

One of Jacob and Fredericka’s daughters, Elizabeth Lentz, died during the passage. We know she left with the family, because the children’s citizenship rights were preserved in the immigration document where they were specifically named.

According to William George’s letter, the entire family became shipwrecked on the western coast of Norway where they were “brought to a disappointment in life that they were never able to find words to express. Six months later, they found a captain that would transport them to America, stipulating that they would sell themselves as indentured servants upon their arrival to pay for their passage.” The only caveat was that the family would not be separated.

The rest of the tribute letter deals with Jacob’s later life after arrival.

Jacob’s grandson, George William Lentz was clearly recording what his father had told him. Johann Adam Lentz, named after his grandfather Johann Adam Ruhle, was born seven months after Jacob and Frederica arrived, apparently while they were indentured, and died in 1906. Finding Johann Adam Lentz’s baptism record would shed light on a more precise location where they were indentured.

In 1867, when Jacob’s grandson, George William Lentz was born in New Paris, Indiana, Frederica Ruhle Lentz had already passed away and Jacob Lentz was an old man of 84 years, living peacefully in Montgomery County, Ohio, on a farm a few miles outside of Dayton. Jacob died in 1870, three years later.

I expect that Jacob never met grandson, George William, and if he did, George William would never have remembered, because he was 3 years old when Jacob died in another state 190 miles distant over dirt roads that would have been traversed in a wagon, if at all. That’s a nontrivial trip of between 9 and 20 days, depending on how difficult the travel. In other words, George William certainly didn’t personally remember Jacob telling stories about his journey to America.

What George William wrote is what Jacob Lentz had told William George’s father Adam, and what Adam conveyed to him.

Given what I’ve recently discovered, it’s entirely possible that Jacob Lentz couldn’t bring himself to even think about 1817 and 1818, let alone talk about those events.

However, there was one piece of information not recorded in the tribute document that surfaced from another cousin, descended from another child of Jacob Lentz, and that was the place name of Bergen. Bergen is a city in Norway, on the coast, but far north of where they were supposed to be. Bergen is just about the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. What would the Zee Ploeg have been doing up there?

But more important, who could make up something that specific? An out-of-the-way off-the-beaten-path place name that I’d never heard of before, tucked in a Norwegian fjord? Was there perhaps some grain of truth in the shipwreck story after all?

Nah, couldn’t be.


My friend and cousin, Tom made the discovery that broke through this brick wall. Not only did he discover that Fredericka’s surname was Ruhle, he then used that information to unravel the location where they lived in Germany. Then, as the icing on the cake, he found documentation of their shipwreck in, you guessed it, Bergen, Norway.

It was Tom that found the ship’s name, the Zee Ploeg, translated as the Sea Plow.

This experience as it was unfolding was intensely surreal. Bergen, Norway, a shipwreck, a list of survivors and deaths of people in a hospital. Was this Jacob’s ship? Was he really shipwrecked? Was that story actually true?

The Lawsuit

The dates fit and we found mention of a Jacob Lentz filing a lawsuit in Bergen against the captain. Jacob and another passenger filed to request that the Captain, who was accused of negligence and attempted murder refund the price of their passage to the immigrants so that they could purchase tickets on to America.

Apparently, there was indeed a lawsuit, 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

From a publication by Dr. Karl J. R. Arndt titled “George Rapp’s Harmonists and the Beginnings of Norwegian Migration to America,” we discover a letter from one passenger to his brother describing the shipwreck.

“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 bought about great sickness so that over 200 souls died.”

In other words, the Captain intentionally starved his passengers…slowly…to death.

After reading that, my stomached tightened into a knot and I had to take a walk to deal with the intense overwashing emotions as the horrific ugly truth sunk in.




My ancestors.

No Justice

The suit filed in Bergen asked that the Captain be required to refund the immigrants’ money so that they could book other passage, but Captain Manzelman maintained that refunds were the responsibility of the shipping company. Under cover of darkness, he stowed away on a ship and left Norway for the Netherlands to escape being held accountable for his actions.

Jacob Lentz’s story indicates that the Captain was put to death, but that didn’t happen. Perhaps that’s what Manzelman deserved and what Jacob wanted. After all, Jacob’s own daughter, Elizabeth, was one of those that died. Elizabeth was Dorothea Catharina’s granddaughter. The entire family, along with the other passengers, probably despised the Captain. He was lucky that they didn’t simply take matters into their own hands and dispense their own brand of high seas justice. Who could have blamed them!

We already knew that Jacob and Fredericka’s daughter, Elizabeth, had died, but the fact that the rest of the family had survived belied the severity and terror of what actually happened.

Furthermore, from Jacob’s letter, we didn’t know how many family members were included in that journey. There were several more than were initially recorded.

Why did Jacob say nothing about them?

Who Was Traveling?

In the Ruhle/Lenz family group from Beutelsbach, we have the following documented immediate family members.

Name Birth Death Comment
Johann Adam Ruhle – Fredericka’s father January 30, 1764, Schnait After October 7, 1818 Survived the voyage to Bergen, in Bergen records after Noah’s Ark tragedy, not in Bergen church death records
Dorothea Katharina Wolflin (Ruhle) – Fredericka’s mother August 10, 1755, Beutelsbach Either January 14, 1818 or after October 7, 1818 Survived to Bergen, not in Bergen church death records, may have drown on January 14th or may have left Bergen in October 1818
Jacob Christian Breuning – Fredericka’s half-brother June 8,1783, Beutelsbach After August 1818 Left Bergen August 1818
Johann Georg Ruhle – Fredericka’s full brother April 25, 1794, Beutelsbach After October 7, 1818 Survived the voyage to Bergen, in Bergen records after Noah’s Ark tragedy, not in Bergen church death records
Katharina Koch – Johann Georg Ruhle’s fiancé/wife February 27, 1793 After October 7, 1818 Survived the voyage to Bergen, in Bergen records after Noah’s Ark tragedy, not in Bergen church death records
Friederika Ruhle (Lenz/Lentz) – Dorothea and Adam’s daughter March 3, 1788, Beutelsbach March 22, 1863, Montgomery Co., Ohio Survived to America
Jacob Lenz (Lentz) – Fredericka’s husband May 15, 1783, Beutelsbach April 10, 1870, Montgomery Co., Ohio Survived to America
Jacob Franklin Lentz – Fredericka and Jacob’s son November 28, 1806, Beutelsbach March 23, 1887, Dayton, Ohio Survived to America, married Sophia Schweitzer
Fredericka “Fanny” Lentz (Brusman) – Fredericka and Jacob’s daugther July 3, 1809, Beutelsbach October 9, 1897, Montgomery Co., Ohio Survived to America, married Daniel Brusman
Elizabeth Katharina Lentz – Fredericka and Jacob’s daughter March 28, 1813, Beutelsbach Between September 5 and October 17, 1817 Died at sea on way to Bergen
Maria Barbara Lentz – Fredericka and Jacob’s daughter August 22, 1816, Beutelsbach November 9, 1899, Elkhart Co., Indiana Survived to America, married Henry Yost

The Zee Ploeg

This beautiful model of the Zee Ploeg was lovingly crafted by model builder Knut Hanselmann. The model can be admired in the church at Herdla. Photo by Håkon Andersen / Askøy Church Joint Council. My gratitude to both men as well as the church and Christian Rieber who commissioned the model. You can read more here.

Bergen City Archives

The Bergen City archives tells us that the ship, Zee Ploeg, carried approximately 560 German immigrants who were sailing for Philadelphia when they became stranded in Norway after their ship lost a mast and floundered in the North Sea.

How, in Heaven’s name, did they ever fit 560 people in a ship that was 126 feet long by 32 feet wide at the widest point – in addition to supplies, food and their possessions? How did the passengers even lay down, at all?

In Bergen, a committee consisting of the magistrate’s president, a councilor, the police chief, the city physicist and three citizen representatives was appointed to carry out the onerous task of looking after the refugees. Most were housed on the ship Noah Ark which was tethered to the Zee Ploeg in a harbor north of Bergen as they waited. There was no housing to accommodate that many people. The committee received supplies, housing and medical assistance from local people as well as from the Norwegian royalty. Keep in mind that Norway too had suffered from the crop failures associated with 1816, plus a recent war in which they were defeated and given to Sweden, as a spoil of war.

In the summer of 1818, about 80 stranded Germans who could obtain or had funds remaining departed, but the remainder of the 250-270 poor people were sent to America on the ship, Prima, departing on October 7th.

The Bergen City Archives possesses the negotiation protocol that the committee utilized in an unbound booklet of 107 pages. It contains a summary of the committee’s many meetings and discussions. There are also two lists of emigrants, namely those who went on with “Captain Fischer’s Ship” (probably Susanna Catharina) and secondly the Prima on October 7, 1818. It is possible that this protocol has not yet been used in the research around this event, as Professor Semmingen never mentions this document.

I am not yet in receipt of a translated (or untranslated) copy of this second list from the October sailing. That list will, I hope, resolve the question of whether Dorothea Catharina Wolflin Reuhle survived.

The Letter

I have been extremely fortunate to have the assistance of my German friend, Chris, who has been able to unearth several research sources due to the fact that German is his Native language and he has at least a rudimentary understanding of Norwegian.

I am ever so grateful.

Chris found a letter, written by a German survivor in Bergen to his family back home.

The next part of this story about the actual voyage itself is best told in the author’s own words, translated from German which I’ve included as a footnote for reference.

Chris was unsure of some words (in italics) in modern language. Chris’s comments to the original in [italics].

English Letter Translation

Unfortunate ride of the Dutch frigate d`Zeeploeg

Bergen in Norway, February 23, 1818.

I made a promise to you in Amsterdam last year to give you some report from North America both on the country’s customs, as well as on the life and destinies of the German expatriates, and about my sea voyage. But I cannot fulfill this promise, because the Lord has decided to cross my plans to come to America. I want to describe to you as much as possible our misfortune, but I do not know exactly where to start, and from where to take the colors to faithfully design our misfortune and the misery of the passengers. For the unfortunate accident which came over us on this journey by the loss of our masts was terrible in every case. For 28 days we were in mortal fear, no rescue seemed possible, death and destruction threatened us on all sides, and despair had almost seized the emigrants on the high seas, if religion and hope had not been the support, on which our self-preservation would have been founded.

After 2 months of rest, I left the port of Amsterdam on the evening of July 7, 1817 at 7 o’clock with several families from Wurttemberg, Mr Heinrich Diezel, merchant from Lahr in the Breisgau, and equipped with the best recommendation letters from Amsterdam to Philadelphia, with the plan to board the frigate d’Zeeploeg in Texel, and to start the voyage to America. However, the tide prevented us from leaving the road, and so it took until 12 o`clock until we were able to make our way. On July 11 in the evening at half past ten we happily arrived there. I was greeted by the ship`s captain H. E. Manzelmann with all humanity and hospitality.

Our ship personnel consisted of the captain, the main steersman, the subordinate steersman, the ship surgeon, 3 passengers in the cabin, 30 seamen, and many passengers, men and women, all from the state of Wurttemberg.

The wind was always unfavorable to us, although the anchors were hoisted several times. But as soon as the sails unfolded, storms and adverse winds overtook us and the anchors had to fall again. The sky always seemed unfavorable to us, and so it lasted until the 5th August, when we left the dockyard in Texel in the afternoon at 4 o’clock, with the favor of a good wind from North-East. We arrived at the water mouth at 5 o’clock, when our ship was brought in instant danger through a crooked direction. The residents of Den Helder already started to bring their small boats from the shore to the water to help us, when we were suddenly rescued and brought to anchor by a clever turn of our ship. But we did not stay long in this embarrassing situation, for at six o’clock we happily sailed around the dangerous places, which filled us with horror, and with full sails we passed through the night, happily facing our destinies.

We were already in view of the English coast on 9 August, and no obstacle seemed to be in our way anymore to reach the channel. But the wind from South-West, which soon became stormy, forced us to retreat on the 10th at 1 o’clock in the morning. And so we maneuvered through the Northern Sea to the left and to the right, fighting with the elements. The result of our 17-day voyage was, therefore, that we had to anchor on the evening of the 16th in the North Sea, at the mouth of the Texel and on the 17th at 6 o’clock in the morning we anchored at the dockyard in Texel, and did not know, when we would be able to leave the dock again, since we first had to fill our food supplies. However, on 24 August, at 3 o’clock in the morning, the anchors were again hoisted to leave the dock, after we were provided with provisions at 9 o’clock in the evening of the 23rd by two ships. A favorable north-east wind filled our sails, and at 6:30 we had already passed the most dangerous places of the estuary. A heavenly sky had a beneficial effect on the minds of the emigrants, everyone was in a happy mood and seemed revived, and with a calm heart we confidently faced towards a better future. But alas, only too soon we were interrupted again in our course, because on the morning of the 26th at 11 o’clock the wind turned south again, so that we could not enter the canal, but rather had to sail around the whole of England. On the morning of the 27th at 8 o`clock we saw the coast of Norway, and on the 29th the coast of Scotland. The Arcadian Islands offered us a beautiful sight. Until then we still had good weather.

On 31 August we sailed with a favorable wind into the ocean, but it lasted scarcely 24 hours, when we were attacked by contrary winds and heavy storms, continuously raging until 4 September, when the storm turned into a terrible hurricane. It is impossible to describe how our heavy ship was thrown high into the air by the waves, and thrown back into the abyss of the sea. People fell overboard from the all-too-strong movement, and drowned. But the horror was still ahead of us: On the evening of 5 September at 5:30 pm the “Kleverbaum” mast broke. With great difficulty the sailors barely had it fixed again when, at 6 o’clock, the great mast with the pram masts went overboard. Caused by strong winds and the high sea flooding the ship. We all tried as hard as we could to cut the ropes to get rid of the broken ship masts. Now we were glad to have kept at least one mast, but at 6:30 pm the foremast broke and at 7 o’clock the bowsprit. So we found ourselves in the absence of anything that otherwise would have provided the ship with its stability. The sea broke the cabin windows from the back, so that the water came streaming in, but the damage was soon repaired.

Now we drifted without masts in the high sea, on all sides over 300 miles from the firm land. At 2 o’clock in the night, boats and sloops (which were mounted on the roof) broke loose and we were forced to throw them overboard, along with the barrels of water, bacon and meat. The cannons, having been loosened by the vigorous movements of the ship, also rolled across the deck and destroyed the hatchways, so that now the water also flew down to the passengers. The water stood three to four feet high in the emigrants` beds. We all believed that this would be our last night, and it was a misery to watch one sailor carried the other on his back into the cabin to lay him down and then go back to work, because almost all the sailors were blessed. One had broken his arm, the other one a leg, and the third one had crushed his feet by a water barrel rolling over it. Only five sailors remained able to work, which is why we had to jump in to work as well. I was just on the deck, when the high sea struck the ship, and we all lay in the water. I am only still alive today, because I was holding fast to a rope, otherwise the sea would have washed me away. Two sailors and six passengers lost their lives, so we always had death occurring in front of our eyes. The captain and the helmsmen, who were also blessing, and the sailors all gave up their hope. On the 10th we put up a piece of wood, which had to serve us as a mast to at least have a sail and to steer with it, God willing, to the solid land.

On 13 September we made the first emergency shot, but no one on the high seas came to our aid; drearily we had to continue steering. By 11:15 pm we got to see the island of Ferro [Faroe Islands?]. We made several shots early in the morning, but in vain. With no pilots on board we were not allowed to sail ashore. We also could not row towards the shore, because we did not have any small boats left. We had lost everything, everything. Here we finally hoped to enter the harbor. No, no! A new storm from the southwest hurled us back into a cliff-top sea, and so we drifted along for another 14 days, until the 29th of September, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when we got to view the northernmost coast of Norway. The wind was favorable to us to sail along the coast. We kept firing our canons, but nobody came to help us. A cup of water was on sale on our ships for 4-5 Dutch Stbr. [some kind of currency], the emigrants received two pounds of bread for an entire week since we had lost the masts until, thank God, on 4 October, we were seen by a fisherman, who came towards us, and piloted us in between the Norwegian mountains. In the evening, at 9 o’clock, we came to anchor between mighty high mountains at Seillanger, 10 miles from Bergen in Norway. Here we had to hold quarantine for 8 days, because the Norwegian government was afraid we could bring an infectious disease into the country. But on the 8th day we were freed from quarantine and we headed towards the city, where we anchored on 13 October in the night at half past eleven, in Sandviken, fifteen minutes from Bergen. The ship’s staff was sick, both sailors and passengers. I had to endure a serious illness as well, and probably would have been robbed away by death, if not the upright German family of Captain Christian Petersen, native of Hamburg, had accepted and fed me. I had to stay in bed for two months, but now I am pretty well again. Truly, Germany has good people! I am staying happily with this family now. They offer with German cordiality everything they can contribute to make my stay pleasant.

Because I do not know how to describe our misfortune faithfully and dreadfully enough, I note only the following points, which were most terrible.

1) The unfortunate coincidence of our ship losing its masts was in any case terrible.

2) To hear the terrible shouting, while the poles were being cut off, in the cabin of the wounded sailors, on the roof of captain and helmsmen. Below the deck, screams of anguish of the poor passengers, to whom the water had already penetrated 3-4 feet high into the ship, and terrible was the whizzing of the high seas, which towered up high above us.

3) The starvation of the poor passengers, which killed many small children (because you were not able to get any food from the storage room because of the huge storm. For four to five days we received nothing to eat or drink.

4) Upon our arrival in Bergen, the passengers were transferred to another boat without masts, which was tied to the frigate Zeeploeg. A dreadful storm from the northwest raged on January 14, forcing the boat off the frigate, driving the unfortunate passengers towards the sea. I was just on the “Aark Noa” (the small boat) to visit the new rooms of the emigrants, when the boat started to drift away. Big boats and sloops were sent to us, but too late to save us all. The ship came to a cliff, whereupon it failed; I jumped for life or death 8-10 feet across towards a small boat approaching us, which was already half full of water, approaching us, and succeeded with this dreadful leap. Of the 200 passengers on board, 75 drowned. Eight days later, 20 more died of terror; the rest were all sick.

On the journey from Amsterdam to Bergen died: 150 passengers.

Washed away with the high seas aboard: 6 passengers and 2 sailors

Injured on the “Aark Noa” in Bergen: 95 passengers

                                                                  In total: 251 passengers

Just take a minute and breathe.

Zee Ploeg Timeline

I have constructed a timeline based on the above letter as well as other sources such as the Rappite letter.

  • February 12, 1817 – permission to emigrate granted
  • March 30, 1817 – scheduled boarding
  • April 30, 1817 – Heilbron, Germany, barge being loaded at the inn, the Krane
  • May 7, 1817 – approximate arrival in Amsterdam based on the letter referring to departing “after 2 months of rest”
  • May 25th – left Amsterdam (per the Rapp letter,) where Johannes Hasert died and was buried on the island of Holder (probably Den Helder, across the channel from Texel)

  • July 7th – left Amsterdam, per the above survivor letter
  • July 11th – Texel, boarded the Zee Ploeg, waited for good winds and no storms
  • August 5th – left Texel, nearly capsized
  • August 9th – saw the English coast
  • August 16th – back in Texel again due to storm
  • August 17th – at the docks in Texel to replenish food supplies
  • August 24th – food supplies replenished, left Texel again
  • August 26th – high winds forced ship to sail around England
  • August 27th – saw coast of Norway
  • August 29th – saw coast of Scotland, Orkadian Islands

  • August 31st – favorable winds for 24 hours
  • September 1-4 – heavy storms, continuously raging
  • September 4 – hurricane
  • September 5 – 5:30 PM – “Kleverbaum” mast broke

                        6 PM – great mast with pram masts went overboard

                        6:30 PM – foremast broke

                        7 PM – bowsprit broke, now adrift 300 miles out to sea

  • September 6 – 2 AM – boats, sloops and barrels broke loose, had to be thrown overboard, 2 sailors and 6 passengers dead, cannons rolled across deck and crashed through the hatchway
  • September 10 – raised piece of wood for mast.
  • September 13 – emergency shots fired, saw Ferro Island (Faroe Islands?)

  • September 27 – had been adrift for 14 days (letter above)
  • September 29 – saw the coast of Norway
  • October 4 – Seillanger (Skjellanger, on the north of Holsnoy near Herdla) – 10 miles from Bergen, fisherman piloting us, quarantine for 8 days (note, Zee Ploeg Norwegian wiki page says this was on September 25th)

  • October 10, 1817 – list of survivors created after docking in Bergen
  • October 13 – freed from quarantine after 8 days to be towed into Bergen, anchoring in Sandviken 15 minutes from Bergen

Note – wiki page says the ship was anchored as Elsesro. Elsesro is in the same bay and very near Sandviken.

  • November 13 – Bergen records indicate they were quarantined for another 30 days after arriving in Elsesro

  • January 14th – Noah Ark was tethered to ship Zea Ploeg when a storm forced the small ship off of the Zee Ploeg into the sea. Of 200 passengers on board, 75 drown.
  • January 22 – 20 more passengers died from terror and the rest were ill

Take a Break

I feel like I just need to take some time here to gather myself and recover a bit before even trying to evaluate this letter and what it tells us.

I can’t even begin to imagine the raw terror, day and night, for a month, drifting at sea. Knowing every minute that it might very well be your last. Watching your loved ones suffer terribly.

And die.

And die.

And die.

The fact that you survived the last minute, the last hour or the last day had no bearing on the probability that you would survive the next minute, hour or day – or at all. Most ships in this predicament didn’t. This scenario played out hundreds if not thousands of times with ships full of passengers that DIDN’T survive. This is what they endured as their ships were ripped apart, board by board, by an angry, malevolent sea.

It took me days to mentally ”process” this letter, knowing that FOUR of my ancestors were on this ship. Not one, not two, not three, but four.

The information varies somewhat with various sources, both in terms of total number of passengers as well as the total number of deaths.

How many people were involved?


Totals from the passenger letter:

  • Amsterdam to Bergen – 150 died
  • Washed away at sea – 6 passengers, 2 sailors
  • January 14, Ark Noah – 75 drown
  • January 24, Died of terror – 20
  • Total Dead – 251 passengers, 2 sailors
  • If you add 80 people who left Bergen in August of 1818 and 270 that left in October 1818, the total number of passengers is 601 plus any that went back to Germany and several orphans who were adopted and stayed in Bergen. Twelve surnames are reported among the Germans who remained permanently in Bergen, although those may have been children who were not included in the original passenger count. Bergen sources indicate that as many as 100 Germans returned to Germany, although I don’t know how that number was arrived at. It could have been an assumption to account for a discrepancy in the number of passengers who left Bergen, the number known dead from church records, and reports of very few who died on the ship before shipwrecking.

Total number of passengers and death totals from other sources vary:

From the Rapp letter:

  • 500 passengers out of Amsterdam
  • 200 deaths on way to Bergen
  • 100 went back to Germany
  • Several stayed in Bergen (orphans were placed in homes and adopted)
  • All 30 infants born at sea died
  • Passengers on Susanna Constant Bergen to Philadelphia in August 1818 – Rapp letter says 80 wealthy passengers paid their way, but also that 107 arrived in Philadelphia.
  • These combined equal about 758 passengers total, if you add the 270 passengers who also left on the ship Prima in October and the people buried in Bergen.

From the Bergen city site:

  • 24 people were buried at the new graveyard, Fredens Bolig, which was built on Stølen. The last of these tombs was removed in 1968 and the graveyard later converted into a park. The area is located at Krohnengen School and is still called “Graven”.

  • 41 people died and were buried at St. Mary’s Church, according to parish records

  • 80 left on Susanna Catherina
  • 270 left in October on Prima
  • There is no mention of anyone returning to Germany, nor of the orphans who remained in Bergen.

From the Zee Ploeg Wiki site:

  • 560 immigrants, 21 man crew plus captain
  • 10 passengers died of food shortage before arriving in Bergen
  • 16 died after ship was towed to Bergen but before passengers allowed to leave ship
  • 24 additional died in the hospital in Bergen
  • 80 left on ship Susanna Catherina
  • 273 left on ship Prima
  • 100 returned to Germany
  • List of 41 dead and buried in St. Mary’s Church (unclear if the 24 or 16 above are included in this number, although 24+16=40)

Where is Our Family?

From scattered piecemeal documents, we discover that Johann Adam Ruhle survived, in part because there is a hospital record for him in 1818, after the treacherous January Noah Ark ship catastrophe. I have been unable to find him in America, although he isn’t listed in the burials in Bergen.

Adam Ruhle is listed as being in the hospital in August of 1818:

  • Adam Ruhle fra Do. til nu Han og Søn 2 Børn Except Spiise for 6 Uger Hele Tiden
  • Adam Ruhle from Do. until now he and son
  • 2 Children Except Spiise for 6 Weeks all the time

The archive document states that Adam Rühle and his two sons had been in the Bergen hospital. This old document presented challenges to translate, and not just the words, but the meaning.

My Norwegian friend translated this passage as meaning that Adam and his two children received support from October 1817 until “now” meaning August of 1818. It appeared that Adam and one son had been at the hospital the whole time period and they received food except for 6 weeks. That means he would not have been on the Noah’s Ark. In other words, being in the hospital probably saved his life.

The original hospital building is gone but was located where the yellow building stands today.

In a second entry, Johan Georg Ruhle with wife both began receiving support from December 14th. Johann until May 24th, but his wife until now, “August.” Both had been at the hospital for two months, sometime between December 14th and May 24th, 1818.

There is no mention of Adam’s wife! So, either Dorothea isn’t ill, or she isn’t there. Perhaps the reason that they didn’t receive food at the hospital for a 5-week period is because Dorothea was bringing food to them. But how and from where?

We know that Dorothea’s son, Johann George Ruhle survived at least until May 24th, as did his wife, because they bury their baby May 27th, 1818. They apparently left, because they aren’t listed in the burials. Presumably, they both survived the crossing in the fall of 1818, although I have been unable to find them in America.

We know that Jacob, Fredericka and three of their 4 children survived, because they lived to tell about it in America, and I was able to identify those family members in Ohio after 1830. We know that daughter, Elizabeth, perished during the journey to Bergen because the list of survivors compiled in October shows only 3 children with Jacob Lenz and we know that 4 left Germany. Furthermore, Jacob’s own account tells us that daughter Elizabeth died “on the sea.”

That must have broken his heart.

Where is Dorothea?

Everyone is accounted for one way or another except Dorothea Katharina.

Where is Dorothea?

What happened to her?

One possible hint is found in the article by Weintraud where he provides information, as follows:

This list was compiled on 10-13 October 1817 of 424 passengers (including women and children), who started the voyage on the Zee Ploeg. The label “F” stands for “wife” and the number behind that for the number of children.

From Chris:

In case you wonder about the number “424 passengers”: It is stated earlier, on book page 17, that this list does not include the ship passengers who died before 10 October 1817. Furthermore, the list does not include orphan children of parents who had died before. Hence, in summary this is not a complete list of all Zee Ploeg passengers, but only the ones, who were adults and survived until 10 October 1817.

Hence, for example Adam “Rijle”/Rühle boarded with his wife and three children (“F, 3”).

That little one letter, “F” means that Dorothea survived, at least until October 10-13. This also tells us that the three “children” that were with them, meaning adult children, survived as well. Her son Jacob Christian Breuning, her son Johann George Ruhle and daughter Johanna Margaretha Ruhle, the sister of Fredericka referred to in Jacob’s letter. If Johanna Margaretha had died, Jacob would surely have said so, given that he mentioned that Elizabeth died and stated that Fredericka’s sister accompanied them.

Dorothea isn’t on the list of burials at St. Mary’s Church during the time that the immigrants were in Bergen, so her funeral wasn’t in the German church in Bergen, and she wasn’t buried in the cemetery.

What we don’t know is whether Dorothea drown on January 14th, her body being swept out to sea. It’s possible because the hospital states “except spouse.” So, Dorothea arrived, but she is not hospitalized with Adam Ruhle. She is also not recorded as having died and being buried.

So, she either drown in the Noah’s Ark accident, or she wasn’t ill and left Bergen in October.

If she did survive the January 14th accident, we don’t know if Dorothea survived the next leg of the journey after leaving Bergen, because the family is not home free just yet!

One additional piece of information that may be relevant for Dorothea and Adam is a final note stating that 28 immigrants weren’t sold as indentured servants in America, because no one was interested in them. Dorothea was a traumatized woman approaching 64 years old, so she may have been considered not worth “purchasing” for any amount of money.

Maybe, just maybe, that is what finally saved her. Although she surely would have accompanied her indentured family. What else could she have done?

Dorothea’s Son, Jacob Christian Breuning

The letter tells us that:

Before the “Susanna Catharina” left on 13 August 1818, a thank-you letter was written and addressed to the King of Norway, the Norwegian government and the Norwegian nation, who all had supported the emigrants during their stay for more than a year This letter was signed by Joseph Viedler, Adam Kuhl, Johannes Noedlinger, Christopher Ehemann, Jacob Christian Breuning, Leonhard Boss and Christian Fritz Ilg.

I was quite surprised to find Dorothea’s son listed here, because this implies one of two things. Either he had money to pay his own way, and was willing to leave his family behind, or he was a celebate Rappite. He was born in 1783, so 35 years old, and unmarried – which could mean that he had accumulated his own money, especially if he lived at home with his parents. The fact that he was unmarried could also mean he believed in the Rappite religion.

Regardless, he apparently left in August and presumably landed in Philadelphia with the rest of the passengers. From that point forward, his trail goes cold. Of course, if he was and remained Rappite, he has no descendants.

A Rappite Connection?

I have often wondered if there is a Rappite connection. In several letters written by members of Rapp’s colony, Harmonie, located in Indiana, 17 adults, by name, and a total of 29 people are mentioned as being part of the stranded Bergen passengers who were Rappite followers. A total of 60 people were reported to want to have their passage paid from Bergen to Philadelphia with the goal being to join the Rappites. I’m presuming that number is adults only, since children had no choice in the matter.

The letters mention one David Lenz, from Schnaith, who was already in Harmonie in 1816. Furthermore, although not referenced by name, 5 families from Schnaith are explicitly mentioned.

Furthermore, at least 15 of those adults were on the ship, Susanna Catharina that sailed in August from Bergen. In the Bergen records, the passengers on that ship were referred to as the wealthier passengers, but Rapp’s followers weren’t wealthy, they were simply going to be redeemed by Rapp when they arrived. However, Rapp’s funds became tied up in various ways, and either those passengers became stuck on the ship until they were ransomed by Rapp, or they were sold into indentured servitude. Rapp was able to redeem at least some of the passengers, which is why we know who they were.

At least 13 adult Rappite followers, plus children, sailed on the Susanna Catharina in August. There may have been more whose names aren’t included in the article, George Rapp’s Harmonists and the Beginnings of the Norwegian Migration to America by Karl Arndt.


Chris discovered a list of Separatists from both Beutelsbach and Schnait.

The list of Beutelsbach Separatists can be viewed here and Schnait here. Not all of the Separatists immigrated, only the ones noted in Germany by “Auswanderung.” By copying and pasting these links into the Chrome browser and translating, information is available in English.

The page indicates that from about 1680 to 1820, thousands of people separated from the church in Württemberg (until 1803 Duchy, then Electorate, since 1806 Kingdom) for religious reasons. Hence, they were called separatists. Since membership in the Lutheran church and regular attendance at the services and sacrament were compulsory, the separatists were interrogated and punished.

The names and biographical data of the Wurttemberg separatists and their co-thinkers in other dominions were collected from the files. The life data in brackets were determined by recalculation and should indicate the approximate age of the person.

Fundamental to the theme is the book by Eberhard Fritz: Radical Pietism in Württemberg. Religious ideals in conflict with social realities. Epfendorf 2003.

The source references refer to the following archives:

  • HStAS = Main State Archive Stuttgart
  • LB = State Archive Ludwigsburg
  • LKA = State Church Archive Stuttgart

I copied the Beutelsbach and Schnait families to an Excel spreadsheet, with the English translation, as follows:

I added color coding.

  • Yellow = immigrated in 1817. This may or may not have been on the Zee Ploeg, but 5 families were mentioned as being Rappites from Schnait, and there are 5 Separatist families listed as having left in 1817. Four are from Beutelsbach, but the two Lenz men could well have been born in Schnait. The villages are neighbors. Note that the Beutelsbach family page indicates that Ignaz Dobler immigrated to Russia.
  • Green = immigrated some other time. It’s worth noting that Jacob Hoffman and Margaretha Schillinger seem to be ringleaders, and both immigrated in 1818, along with Johann George Schwerdt, all going to Indiana. Both Jacob and Margaretha were on the Zee Ploeg and survived.
  • Red = Lentz or Lenz related family. Of these, two immigrated in 1817 from Beutelsbach, one went to Harmony, but we don’t know when and two went to Harmonie in 1804.

A more legible version of the above chart is available in the pdf file, Zee Ploeg Beutelsbach Schnait Families.

It’s evident from the number of red boxes that the Lenz family was heavily influenced by the Separatist movement. Even though Adam Ruhle and his wife weren’t listed as such, given that their daughter had married Jacob Lenz, and they lived in the same small village, the Ruhle family had clearly been exposed to this theology.

Who were these people?

  • Daniel Lenz born October 19, 1758 in Beutelsbach was the son of Daniel Lenz and Magdalena Kuhnle, the son of Daniel Lenz and Anna Katharina Lang, the son of Hans Lenz and Barbara Sing, an ancestor of the Jacob Lenz who married Dorothea Katharina’s daughter. Daniel Lenz Married Katharina Grotz born May 9, 1760 in Schnait and who is listed as having died in America. Translated, that means she left Schnait. Four of their children, Anna Maria born in 1788, Christina Magdalena born in 1791, Johannes born in 1794 and Daniel born in 1802 are also listed as having died in America. Therefore, if Daniel was on the Zee Ploeg, he would have departed with a wife and 4 children. There was a Daniel with 3 children who arrived. It’s certainly possible that one child died on the ship.
  • Johannes Lenz born in 1794 is likely the son of Daniel, above. There was a Johannes on the Zee Ploeg.
  • Gottfried Lenz, unmarried, was born September 4, 1782, the son of Adam Lenz born in 1740 in Beutelshach and Elizabetha Lenz born in 1736 in Schnait. Adam was the son of Johann Adam Lenz and Maria Katharina Bauer who was the son of Johann Georg Lenz and Sibilla Muller, who was an ancestor of Jacob Lenz who married Dorothea Katharina’s daughter. Elisabetha Lenz was the daughter of Hansjorg Lenz, of Schnait and Anna Barbara Kipler. Gottfried left for America in March of 1817, shortly after his last parent died, and nothing more of him is known. However his Lenz roots in both Beutelsbach and Schnait run deep. There is no Gottfried on the Zee Ploeg unless he is traveling as a member of another family.
  • Elisabetha Lenz born October 24, 1749 married Israel Stark in 1782. Their children were Johanna Margaretha born in 1788, Israel born in 1784 and immigrated in 1804 to Harmonie. Christian Stark, born in 1752 and who immigrated in 1804 to Harmonie was likely the brother of Israel and brother-in-law of Elizabetha. According to the Family Book, Elisabetha’s parents were Johann Jakob Lenz and Elisabetha Schmidin who married in 1756 in Beutelsbach. Johann Jakob’s parents were Hans Jakob Lenz and Anna Christina Jetzle, who was the son of Johann Georg Lenz and Anna Marit Vetterlin, the son of Georg Lenz who died in Beutelsbach and Barbara Kettler. There is a Johanna Stark listed on the Zee Ploeg.
  • I can’t tell who Johannes Lenz born in 1790 was. There is second Johannes Lenz on the Zee Ploeg.

The Separatists were not only Rappites, but anyone who separated from the traditional church. One has to wonder if people, both at home and onboard ship wondered if God indeed was punishing those who had left the church.

The Lenz family in Schnait seems to be full of rabble rousers, along with the Stark family perhaps. Given the circumstances, and their misbehaving ways, the rest of the community might well have been glad to see them depart. Dorothea Catharina Wolflin and her husband, Johann Adam Ruhle didn’t seem to be either Rappite or Separatist, nor was their daughter, Fredericka and her husband, Jacob Lenz, but they were, nonetheless, on that same ship.

Given the age of Dorothea’s two the adult sons, their unmarried state, and the fact that the Rappites were celibate, I wonder if the family was perhaps split in their beliefs. In America, after arriving in Ohio in 1829 or 1820, Jacob and Fredericka Lentz had become Brethren someplace along the way although not all of their children practiced the Brethren faith. Their eldest son, Jacob, did not and was Lutheran.

Dorothea’s son, Jacob Christian Breuning, born in 1783, so age 34, was single and left in August on the ship with the Rappites.

However, the Rappite theory doesn’t apply to Johann George Ruhle, born in 1794, who was age 23 and single. What do we know about Johann George Ruhle?

If he was a Rappite when he left Germany, he wasn’t by June.

Dorothea’s Son, Johann George Ruhle

We have multiple pieces of evidence that Johann George Ruhle survived, at least long enough to leave Bergen.

First, he’s listed as one of the children with Adam and Dorothea. Second, he is recorded as being in the hospital, by name.

Third, in a surprise twist of fate, a child by the name of Joseph Ruhle died on May the 27th and was buried the 31st.

That baby can’t belong to Dorothea and Adam, the only married Ruhle couple on the ship. Dorothea was 63 years old. The only other possibility is their son, Johann George Ruhle, but he isn’t married.

Or is he?

He wasn’t when he left Beutelsbach a year earlier.

We needed the baby’s baptism record.

Tom excavated the entry that states the child was baptized on February 27th, 1818.

Between Tom and Chris, the following information was pieced together.

“Son of Johann Georg Rühle og [and] Catharina Kochin, married in Bergen, Germans on the way to America.”

Adam Ruhle is one of godparents.

So, who was Catharina Kochin?

Sure enough, Tom found a marriage entry for Johann George Ruhle in Mariakirken parish as was the baptism.

The marriage took place on Feb. 8, 1818 and Johann George Ruhle is age 25.

“Johann Georg Rühle, vintner (vinedresser) from Wurttemberg. He plans to go to America. Catharina Kochin from Beutelsbach in Wurttemberg. [Witnesses] Gallus Stoll, butcher, Johann Melchior Fiedler [undecipherable], [married] in the church”

This Johann Melchior Fiedler could be identical or related to the “Johann Fidler,” who on January 8th filed suit together with Jacob Lentz against the ship’s captain.

Two things come to mind. They were married just two weeks after the terrible event of the Noah’s Ark breaking loose from the Zee Ploeg, drowning 75 people. Maybe they weren’t on that ship, or maybe that accident convinced them they should marry now and not wait until they arrived in America. Either way, they were both incredibly lucky to be alive.

Perhaps the baby wasn’t as fortunate. Born just 13 days later, the child could have been at least somewhat premature. He did live for 3 months, but weeks of his mother being starved and any other sort of health compromise could have contributed to or caused his death.

Dorothea’s son was married, and her grandchild was baptized in the Cross Church right around the corner from the hospital.

Little Joseph’s funeral was at St. Mary’s Church, a few blocks away.

The baby’s death was one more sadness and grief for our family on top of the rest.

For Dorothea, she didn’t just lose one grandchild, Elizabeth, who would have only been about three and a half and was buried at sea. A few weeks later, she lost her grandson by her son, born in Bergen – and that was AFTER managing to keep the baby’s pregnant mother alive and nourished for those miserable weeks on the sea.

I have to wonder if Dorothea gave some of her own food to her soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Katharina, in order to save that baby. The baby who died anyway.

Who was Katharina Koch anyway?

Katharina Koch

The marriage record tells us that Katharina is from Beutelsbach, so she was clearly traveling with this group. An unmarried female would not have been traveling alone, even if she was 24 years old. She is not listed on the October survivor’s list by her own name, so she clearly was traveling with another family

Checking back with the Family Book, we discover a candidate to be Katharina.

This Katharina was born in 1793, so just a few months younger than Johann George Ruhle.

And look at who her mother is – one Anna Maria Ruhle, daughter of Michael Ruhle from Schnait and Anna Maria Vollmer. Michael would have been born no later than 1734, and possibly quite a bit earlier. We already know from Johann Adam Ruhle’s ancestry that a Michael Ruhle born in 1716 was born and died in Schnait and was married to Anna Barbara Lenz. These two families were quite intertwined.

Katherina Koch’s father had died in 1808, leaving her mother with children yet at home, including Katharina who would have been 15 when her father died.

Katharina’s mother died just three years after Katharina left for America.

As it turns out, Katharina Koch had an illegitimate child on January 16, 1815. The child died that same year. A second illegitimate child was born to her on September 22, 1816 and also died before year end. Katharina had certainly endured her fair share of heartbreak. In Bergen, her third child died.

A father was not listed in the birth record for either of her first two children. Tom indicates that a father would only be noted if he were present for the baptism and acknowledged that he was the father of the child.

Was Johann George Ruhle the father of her first two children? I’m guessing probably not, or he would have been present. Whatever the reason the father was absent, Katharina assuredly suffered from that humiliating situation, followed by the deaths of both children.

1816 was the year of drought, so it’s possible that her she was malnourished during that time, then starved at sea during her third pregnancy.

Regardless of the reason, by the time that her extended family was pondering leaving Beutelsbach, she had buried two babies in two years, had no husband and leaving for a new opportunity probably sounded like a fine idea to Katharina. We’ll never know if she left because she was romantically involved with Johann George Ruhle in Beutelsbach, or whether they became involved while traveling up the Rhine. If their son born in February was born full term, she would have gotten pregnant sometime between June 2nd and June 10th while the family was searching in Amsterdam for a ship to transport them to America.

Perhaps Johann George Ruhle and Katharina Koch had already decided to marry before leaving or in route. Perhaps by the time she discovered she was pregnant, the oceangoing portion of the trip was already underway and it was too late to marry. In fact, marriage was probably the last thing on her mind. Death would have been front and center – every single minute of every single day. Johann George was likely her only comfort and she was probably entirely convinced that both she and her unborn child would die in his arms. The fact that she actually managed to carry that baby to at least near-term is utterly amazing – considering what that young woman went through.

The Next Journey

Having said goodbye to their friends in Bergen, and certainly not without some amount of trepidation at boarding another ship, on October 7th, 1818, the 273 remaining German passengers climbed aboard the ship Prima, captained by Jacob Woxvold, and set sail for yet the fifth time for America.

The ship’s original goal was Philadelphia, but once again, Mother Nature got in the way, and they arrived in Baltimore on January 1, according to Jacob Lentz’s letter.

On May 4th, 1819, a few months after the Prima’s arrival earlier that year in January, another Harmonite letter tells of yet another near catastrophe. These ships carrying Jacob and Fredericka seem jinxed. I can only imagine their unrelenting, horrific fear as they were once again 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.

No, no, not again!

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. Semmingsen discussed the voyage of the Prima:

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 2 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.”

This account is interesting, especially in light of the following article dated January 20, 1818 from the Brooklyn, New York, Long Island Star, page 3.

In retrospect, it‘s difficult to discern if this article is actually suggesting that the ship docked on Long Island in New York, the area near where the Hamptons are located today, or if it is actually reflecting the region still known as Hampton Roads which is in the North Carolina/Virginia region of the Chesapeake.

If the ship arrived on the 5th instant, that means the ship arrived on January 5th in that vicinity.

On the map below, Hampton Roads, or at least the area considered such today, is shown with the red pin.

The ship did not arrive at the original destination of Philadelphia, but instead docked in Baltimore. The article was reported in the Long Island paper, further north yet.

Given the commentary about their reception in Baltimore, and that “a committee was appointed by the citizens,” I wonder if there are any newspaper accounts or perhaps court notes in Baltimore that would provide additional information. I would surely love to find the indentured servant auction notes as they would provide us with the next chapter in Dorothea’s life – if she was still alive. And if not, her death would be confirmed and we could follow her family forward.

This view of Baltimore, painted just a few years before the family arrived probably looked quite similar to the landscape that greeted them – and terra firma had never looked better!

What Happened to Dorothea?

I sure wish I knew the answer to that question.

The last we truly know of Dorothea was on October 10th or 13th in Bergen where she, as Adam’s wife, was listed as present. She is absent on the hospital list, but not listed in the burial records.

The passenger letter indicates that several people drown on the Noah’s Ark, but Professor Simmingen in her paper states that all of the Germans were housed in the city before that time. However, it’s also speculated that Semmingen did not utilize the 107-page protocol from the Bergen City archives, as that document is never mentioned. It may have not yet been discovered at the time she wrote her article.

I find it extremely difficult to believe that the letter-writer would or could make up something as outrageous as the Noah’s Ark tragedy out of thin air. Perhaps both versions of the story are true, and the Germans had been removed temporarily in December into the city of Bergen while the Noah’s Ark was being tethered to the Zee Ploeg, with the accident happening in January as stated. The letter writer did state that he was “just on the Aark Noa to visit the new rooms of the immigrants” that had been created for the German families. It seems logical that the Zee Ploeg was uninhabitable by that point in time, given the extent of the damage incurred, and that in December of 1818, the ship was sold for scrap.

I am hopeful that one day, we’ll perhaps be able to locate Dorothea and maybe even Johann Adam Ruhle in the 1820 census. However, it’s likely that the entire family was indentured at that time, although if we could figure out who they were indentured to, our family is likely listed with them.

Barring indenture purchase records surfacing, or perhaps a baptism record of Johann Adam Lentz (Lenz), presumably someplace near Shippensburg, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania about August 30, 1819, it’s unlikely that we’ll reveal where the Ruhle and Lentz families spent the next decade – meaning of course that we won’t discover what happened to Dorothea.

Shippensburg spans the counties of Cumberland and Franklin County, Pennsylvania. As much as I hate to replow fields, I need to review the records in both counties for Reuhl/Ruhle/Ruhl as well as Breuning records on the off chance that Dorothea’s oldest son had second thoughts about Rappite life.

Additionally, Fredericka’s sister, Johanna Margaretha Ruhle, if she survived, would have been the right age to marry by 1820. If they were in Shippensburg at that time, a trace might be left, if not of Dorothea directly, then perhaps through her children.

Jacob Lentz and Fredericka had a child in Pennsylvania in 1829, and according to a newspaper article about their eldest son, moved to Montgomery County, Ohio in 1829. They are not found in the census in 1830 and could have been in transit or living with another family while they got established.

By 1830, Dorothea, if still living would have been 75 years old. Not impossible that she would be living, of course, but also not terribly likely either. If living, she would likely have been residing with a child.

Dorothea simply dissolves into the mists of time.

Regardless of how or where Dorothea died, she truly lived a remarkable life and survived an unprecedented tragedy. Actually, multiple tragedies.

I was blessed to trace Dorothea’s steps, in person, in Bergen, and narrated that journey from the perspective of Dorothea’s son-in-law, Jacob Lentz.

One thing is for certain, Dorothea was not the typical peasant girl from the tiny village of Beutelsbach. Forged, iron to steel, Dorothea survived against all odds.


Footnote of passenger letter transcription in German, courtesy of Chris:

Transcription of letter from a Zee Ploeg passenger in Bergen back to Germany (in: “Zeitung für die elegante Welt”, 15/16 May 1818, pp. 740-742 and 745-748):

Unglückliche Fahrt der holländischen Fregatte d`Zeeploeg

                                                                                 Bergen in Norwegen, den 23. Februar 1818.

Das Versprechen, welches ich Ihnen in Amsterdam v. J. [vorigen Jahres] gab, aus Nordamerika Ihnen einige Berichte sowohl über die dasige Landessitte, als auch von dem Leben und Schicksale der deutschen Auswand`rer, und über meine Seereise zu geben, kann ich nicht in Erfüllung bringen, denn dem Höchsten hat`s – gefallen, meinem Plane, nach Amerika zu kommen, entgegen zu seyn. Ich will Ihnen hiernach so viel als möglich unser Unglück beschreiben, nur weiß ich nicht recht, wo anfangen, und wo die Farben hernehmen, um unser Unglück und den Jammer des Passagiers treulich genug entwerfen zu können. Denn der unglückliche Zufall, welcher uns auf dieser Reise durch das Verlieren unserer Masten überfiel, war in jedem Falle schrecklich; 28 Tage lang schwebten wir in Todesangst umher, keine Rettung schien uns mehr möglich, Tod und Verderben drohte uns auf allen Seiten, und Verzweiflung hätte beinahe auf der hohen See die Auswand`rer ergriffen, wenn nicht Religion und Hoffnung die Stütze gewesen wären, worauf sich unsere Selbsterhaltung gegründet hätte.

            Nach 2 Monat langen Rasttagen verließ ich den 10. Juli 1817 Abends 7 Uhr mit einigen württembergischen Familien, Hrn. Heinrich Diezel, Kaufmann von Lahr im Breisgau, und mit den besten Zeugnissen von Amsterdam nach Philadelphia ausgerüstet, den Hafen von Amsterdam, um uns im Texel and Bord der Fregatte d`Zeeploeg zu begeben, und damit die Reise nach Amerika anzutreten, allein die Ebbe hinderte uns, die Rhede zu verlassen, und so konnten wir uns erst Nachts 12 Uhr flott machen. Den 11. Abends 10 ½ Uhr trafen wir auch glücklich da ein. Die Aufnahme, welche mir der Schiffskapitän H.E. Manzelmann wiederfahren ließ, war mit aller Humanität und Gastfreiheit verbunden.

            Unser Schiffspersonale bestand aus dem Kapitän, dem Obersteuermanne, dem Untersteuermanne, dem Schiffschirurgen, 3 Passagieren in der Kajütte, 30 Schiffsmatrosen, und vielen Passagieren, männlichen und weiblichen Geschlechts, alle aus dem Württembergischen.

            Der Wind war uns immer ungünstig, zwar wurden einigemal die Anker gelichtet, aber kaum hatten sich die Segel entfaltet, als uns Sturm und widrige Winde überfielen und die Anker wieder fallen mußten, der Himmel schien uns immer ungünstig, und so dauerte es bis den 5. August. Nachmittags 4 Uhr verließen wird unter Begünstigung eines guten Nordostwindes die Rhede im Texel, um 5 Uhr waren wir an der Mündung, wo unser Schiff durch eine schiefe Richtung in augenblickliche Gefahr zu stranden gerieth, die Bewohner des Helders waren schon beschäftigt, die am Ufer sich befindenden Kähne auf`s Wasser zu bringen, um uns damit zu Hülfe zu eilen, als wir plötzlich durch eine geschickte Wendung gerettet und vor Anker gebracht wurden; wir blieben jedoch nicht lange in dieser peinlichen Lage, denn um 6 Uhr passirten wir glücklich die gefährlichen Stellen, welche wirklich Grausen und Schrecken erregen, und mit gefüllten Segeln steuerten wir die Nacht durch, unserer Bestimmung glücklich entgegen.

Den 9. Aug. waren wir schon im Angesichte der englischen Küste, und kein Hinderniß schien uns mehr im Wege zu seyn, den Kanal zu erreichen, allein der Südwestwind, welcher bald in Sturm ausartete, nöthigte uns den 10. Morgens 1 Uhr zum Rückzug, und so lavirten wir, mit den Elementen kämpfend, auf eine angstvolle Weise die Nordsee links und rechts durch. Die Resultate unserer 17tägigen Seereise waren also, daß wir den 16. Abends in der Nordsee, vor der Mündung des Texels, die Anker werfen mußten, und den 17. Morgens 6 Uhr wieder auf der Rhede vom Texel vor Anker lagen, und nicht voraussehen konnten, wenn [wann] wir die Station wiederverlassen könnten, indem wir uns frisch verproviantieren mußten. Jedoch am 24. Aug. Morgens 3 Uhr wurden die Anker neuerdings gelichtet, um die Rhede zu verlassen, nachdem wir den 23. Abends 9 Uhr durch 2 Lichterschiffe mit Proviant verstärkt wurden. Ein günstiger Nordost[wind] füllte unsere Segel, und um 6 ½ Uhr hatten wir schon die gefährlichsten Stellen der Mündung passirt, ein heit`rer Himmel wirkte wohlthätig auf die Gemüther der Emigranten, alles war froher Laune, ein jeder schien neu belebt, und mit ruhigem Herzen sahen wir getrost einer bessern Zukunft entgegen, allein nur zu bald wurden wir in unserm Laufe unterbrochen, denn am 26. Morgens 11 Uhr drehte sich der Wind wieder nach Süden hin, so daß wir in den Kanal nicht eingehen konnten, sondern um ganz England herum segeln mußten. Den 27. Morgens 8 Uhr bekamen wir die Küste von Norwegen zu Gesicht, und den 29. jene von Schottland. Die arkadischen Inseln boten uns einen schönen Anblick dar. Bis dahin hatten wir noch immer gutes Wetter.

                        [here end of first part]

Den 31. August segelten wir mit einem günstigen Winde in`s Weltmeer, aber dieser uns günstige Wind dauerte kaum 24 Stunden, als wir von conträrem Winde und schwerem Sturme überfallen wurden, wlecher bis den 4. Immer schrecklich wüthete, da artete der Sturm zu einem fürchterlichen Orkane aus; nicht zu beschreiben ist`s, wie unser schweres Schiff von den Wellen Thürme hoch in die Luft, und wieder bis in den Abgrund des Meeres geschleudert wurde; Leute fielen von der allzustarken Bewegung über Bord, und ertranken, aber welcher Schrecken stand uns noch bevor, den 5. August Abends halb 6 Uhr brach der Kleverbaum. Mit aller Mühe hatten die Matrosen diesen kaum fertig, als um 6 Uhr der große Mast mit dem Pram-Maste vom zu starken Winde und der hohen See, die überschlug, über Bord fielen. Ein jeder bemühte sich nun, so gut er konnte, mit dem Abhauen des Tauwerks, um glücklich die Masten vom Schiffe los zu werden. Nun waren wir noch froh, einen Mast behalten zu haben, aber halb 7 Uhr brach auch der Fockmast und um 7 Uhr der Bogspriet, und so fanden wir uns nun ohne alles, was dem Schiffe sonst seine Haltung gibt. Die See schlug von hinten die Kajütten-Fenster entzwei, so daß das Wasser stromweise bei uns einlief, welches jedoch bald wieder gestillt wurde.

Nun trieben wir ohne Masten in der hohen See, auf allen Seiten über 300 Meilen vom festen Lande entfernt. Um 2 Uhr in der Nacht brachen Bote und Schaluppen los, (die auf dem Verdecke angebracht waren) man sah` sich gezwungen, diese, nebst den Wasserfässern, Speck- und Fleischtonnen über Bord zu werfen. Die Kanonen von der allzuheftigen Bewegung des Schiffes los geworden, rollten nun auch über`s Verdeck, und schlugen die Lucken entzwei, so daß das Wasser nun auch zu den Passagiers herunterschoß. Drei bis vier Fuß hoch stand das Wasser in den Betten der Emigratnen, wir glaubten alle, daß diese unsere letzte Nacht seyn würde, und es war ein Elend anzusehen, wie ein Matrose den andern auf dem Rücken in die Kajütte trug, ihn niederlegt, und dann wieder zur Arbeit ging, denn beinahe alle Matrosen waren blessirt, einer hatte den Arm, der andere ein Bein gebrochen, dem hatte ein Wasserfaß, das über`s Verdeck rollte, die Füße gequetsche, nur noch 5 zur Arbeit taugliche Matrosen hatten wir, deswegen mußten wir mit arbeiten. Ich war gerade auf dem Verdecke, als die hohe See das Schiff niederschlug, und wir alle im Wasser lagen, nur weil ich mich gewaltig an einem Taue fest hielt, blieb ich noch am Leben, sonst hätte mich die See mit weggespült. Zwei Matrosen und sechs Passagiere verloren dabei das Leben, und so hatten wir immer den Tod vor Augen. Der Kapitän und die Steuerleute, welche auch blessirt waren, und die Matrosen gaben alle Hoffnung auf. Den 10. Setzten wir ein Stück Holz auf, welches uns zum Maste dienen mußte, um doch wenigstens ein Segel zu haben und langsam dem festen Lande, so Gott wollte, zuzusteuern.

            Den 13. Septbr. [September] thaten wir den ersten Nothschuß, aber Niemand auf der hohen See kam uns zu Hülfe; trostlos mußten wir weiter steuern. Bis Abends 11 ¾ Uhr bekamen wir die Insel von Ferro [Färöan Islands?] zu Gesicht. Wir thaten des andern Morgens früh mehrere Schüsse, aber vergebens. Ohne einen Lootsmann am Schiffe zu haben durften wir nicht einlaufen. An`s Land konnten wir nicht fahren, denn wir hatten keine kleinen Fahrzeuge mehr; alles, alles hatten wir verloren. Hier hofften wir endlich in den Hafen einzulaufen. Doch nein! Ein neuer Sturm von Südwest schleuderte uns zurück in ein klippenvolles Meer, und so trieben wir noch 14 Tage umher, bis wird den 29. Sept. Nachmittags 2 Uhr die nördlichste Küste von Norwegen erblickten. Der Wind war uns günstig, um längst der Küste vorbeizusegeln; wir thaten immer Schüsse, aber Niemand kam zu uns. Der Schoppen Wasser wurde auf unserm Schiffe für 4-5 Stbr. Holländisch [some kind of currency] verkauft, 2 Pfund Brot bekamen die Emigranten für die Woche, seitdem wir die Masten verloren hatten, bis wir, Gott Dank, den 4. October, einen Fischer erblickten, welcher auf uns zufuhr, und uns zwischen die Gebirge von Norwegen einlotsete, und des Abends 9 Uhr zwischen mächtig hohen Gebirgen an Seillanger, 10 Meilen von Bergen in Norwegen, vor Anker brachte. Hier mußten wir 8 Tage Quarantaine halten, weil die norwegische Regierung befürchtete, wir würden eine ansteckende Krankheit in`s Land bringen, jedoch den 8. Tag wurden wir von der Quarantaine befreit und bogsierten der Stadt zu, wo wir den 13. Oct. In der Nacht halb 12 Uhr in Sandwigen [probably Sandviken], 1 Viertelstunde von Bergen, die Anker warfen. Das Schiffspersonal ist krank, sowohl Matrosen als Passagiers, auch ich habe schon eine schwere Krankheit ausstehen müssen, und wäre wahrscheinlich ein Raub des Todes geworden, wenn nicht die rechtschaffene deutsche Familie des Kapitän Christ. Petersen, von Hamburg gebürtig, sich meiner angenommen und mich verpflegt hätte; 2 Monate mußte ich das Bett hüten, jedoch befinde ich mich jetzt ziemlich wohl. Wahrlich, Deutschland hat gute Menschen! Bei dieser Familie befinde ich mich jetzt glücklich. Sie bieten mit deutscher Herzlichkeit alles auf, was sie dazu beitragen können, um mir den Aufenthalt angenehm zu machen. Diese Familie muß man lieben, als ein echtes Bild biederherziger Vorältern.

            Weil ich nicht recht weiß, unser Unglück treulich und fürchterlich genug zu schildern, so bemerke ich blos nachstehende Punkte, welche am schrecklichsten waren.

            1) Der unglückliche Zufall unseres Mastenverlierens war in jedem Falle schrecklich.

            2) Hörte man das fürchterliche Geschrei während des Abhauens der Masten, in der Kajütte von den blessirten Matrosen, auf dem Verdecke von Kapitän und Steuerleuten. Unter dem Verdecke das Angstgeschrei der armen Passagiers, zu denen das Wasser schon 3-4 Fuß hoch in`s Schiff gedrungen war, und schrecklich war das Zischen der hohen See, welche Thürme hoch über uns her schlug.

            3) Das Hungern der armen Passagiers (weil man wegen des allzugroßen Sturmes keinen Proviant aus dem Raume holen konnte), woran sehr viele kleine Kinder starben. In 4-5 Tagen bekamen wir nichts zu essen noch zu trinken.

            4) Bei unserm Ankommen in Bergen wurden die Passagiers auf ein anderes Fahrzeug auch ohne Masten, welches an der Fregatte Zeeploeg festgebunden war, verlegt. Ein fürchterlicher Sturm wüthete den 14. Januar aus Nordwest, welcher das Fahrzeug von der Fregatte fortriß, und so die unglücklichen Passagiers nach der See zu hintrieb. Ich war gerade auf der „Aark Noa“ (so nannte man das kleine Fahrzeug), um das neue Quartier der Emigranten zu besuchen, als wir forttrieben. Große Bote und Schaluppen wurden uns nachgesandt, allein zu spät uns alle zu retten. Das Schiff kam auf eine Klippe, woran es scheiterte; ich selbst that einen Sprung auf Leben oder Tod nach einem kleinen Fahrzeuge schon halb voll Wasser, welches sich uns näherte, 8-10 Fuß weit in die See, um mich zu retten, und dieser gräßliche Sprung gelang mir. Von 200 Passagiers, die gerade am Bord waren, ertranken 75. Acht Tage nachher starben 20 vor Schrecken; die übrigen waren alle krank.

            Auf der Reise von Amsterdam bis Bergen starben: 150 Passagiers.

            Mit der hohen See von Bord weggespült: 6 Passagiers und 2 Matr. [Matrosen]

            Verunglückt mit der „Aark Noa“ in Bergen: 95 Passagiers_________________

                                                                                       251 Passagiers

Dorothea Catharina Wolflin (1755 – after 1817), Peasant Life in Beutelsbach – 52 Ancestors #214

Dorothea Catharina Wolflin’s life started out normal enough – just like any other baby in the German village of Beutelsbach, Germany in 1755.

The daughter of Johann Ludwig Wolfin or Wolflin and Dorothea Heubach, Dorothea Catharina was born on August 10th and baptized in the local church. According to the customs of the time, she was probably called by her middle name, Catharina, at least within the family.

This translation is courtesy of my friend and cousin, Tom. Note that the minister went back and noted years later on her birth entry that she emigrated.

August 1755

Child: Dorothea Catharina, emigrated

Mother: Dorothea Heubach(in), former citizen and vinedresser in Endersbach, surviving legitimate daughter of Jerg Heubach?

Joh. Ludwig Wolflin, son of the late Martin Wolflin, Chevallier?

Godparents: Jacob Rühle, farrier here; Anna Catharina, Georg Leonhard Rehmüller, citizen and butcher and Anna Maria, wife of Georg Friedrich ?, citizen and butcher.

Hmmm, that’s really odd to list an occupation for a female. Dorothea’s mother was a vinedresser, meaning that she worked in the vineyards. I don’t recall ever seeing that before.

In addition to the actual baptism records, the Beutelsbach church book maintained family pages.

Tom translated this page, as follows:

Family Page Beutelsbach

Page 599

Johann Adam Rühle, born in Schnait, the 30th of Jan 1764, Father is Michael Rühle, citizen and joiner (carpenter) in Schnait; Mother is Barbara nee Lenz(in). Has been trained and brought up in Schnait.  ? 4 years served in Schnait.

Married 5 June 1787 with

Dorothea Catharina, born 18 August 1755. Father Joh. Ludwig Wölfle, page 757. Mother Dorothea nee Heubach(in). See page 116.  Was previously married with Georg Friedrich Brauning, vinedresser and from this marriage, 3 children were born, with 2 now living:

Jacob Christian, born 8 June 1783

Johanna Dorothea, born 5 Nov 1785; Died 25 Jan 1790.

Liberi? 2nd Marriage (From Dorothea Catharina’s )

14 March 1788 Fridrica, had an illegitimate child Jacob Fried. Lenz, born 25 Nov 1806.

3 June 1790 Johann Ludwig

5 Mar 1793 Johanna Dorothea; died 8 Mar 1793

25 Apr 1794 Johann Georg

20 Mar 1797 Catarina Margareta +

20 Jan 1800 Johanna Margaretha

Ah, But There’s a Hitch

Vorehelich geboren. War vorher verheiratet mit Georg Friedrich Breuning, Weingärtner. Hat in dieser Ehe 3 Kinder geboren, davon noch 2 am Leben.
Wanderte 1817 nach Nordamerika aus

On the Beutelsbach Heritage page, Dorothea’s entry says that she was born before her parents were married.

Premarital born. Was married before with Georg Friedrich Breuning, vinedresser. Has born in this marriage 3 children, of it another to 2 still alive.

Emigrated in 1817 to North America

There’s More to That Story

Dorothea’s father, Johann Ludwig Wolflin was taken away as a soldier in 1755, and he served for 15 years. He returned in 1770 and the couple was married on May 4, 1770. Two years later, Dorothea’s only sibling, a brother, Johann George Wolflin was born and died the following year, in 1773.

Dorothea’s mother, Dorothea Heubach, would have raised her daughter, Dorothea, alone, although I do wonder how Dorothea’s mother managed to do that. Dorothea Heubach’s parents lived in Endersbach, so who was she living with in Beutelsbach while pregnant, when Dorothea was born and during the 15 years she was waiting on Dorothea’s father to return? Normally, I would have though Dorothea and her daughter would have lived with her parents, but if that were the case, then Dorothea would have been born and baptized in Endersbach and the reference to Dorothea Heubach would not have said “former citizen” of Endersbach, although Endersbach was only a mile or so away.

Dorothea couldn’t have lived with Adam’s parents, because they had already died. We know little about her parents, but she is listed as a former resident of Endersbach, so unlikely that she was living with them.

Of course, this situation explains Dorothea Heubach’s occupation noted as a vinedresser. She worked, but who cared for little Dorothea while her mother was in the fields and vineyards?

Dorothea Wolflin’s First Marriage

On September 19, 1780, Dorothea Catharina Wolflin married Georg Friedrich Breuning, born May 24, 1752.

The heritage page, through a German/English translator, says the following about Georg Friedrich: “He had been trained and raised here, but always remained with his parents for some time with the retired court clerk Reinhardtin.”

With George Friedrich Breuning, Dorothea Wolflin had three children:

  • Johanna Elisabetha Breuning born January 27, 1781 and died two years later, in 1783.
  • Jakob Christian Breuning born June 8, 1783. He would subsequently emigrate with his mother and step-father to America in 1817.
  • Johanna Dorothea Breuning born November 5, 1785 and died January 5, 1790.

Dorothea was having a tough time. Her husband, Georg Friedrich Breuning died on October 31, 1786.

In January 1790, Dorothea’s 4 year old daughter died in January and on September 1, 1790, her mother died.

By the end of 1790, Dorothea, then 35 years old had born 3 children, buried 2 children, her husband and her mother.

Deaths in 1783 and 1786 and two in 1790.

Dorothea was due for some good luck.

Remarriage – A Second Start

On June 5, 1787, eight months after her husband’s death, Dorothea remarried to Johann Adam Ruhle, a man 9 years her junior. Yes, her junior. She was 32 and he was 23.

The age difference is somewhat startling. It’s very unusual for the male to be that much younger than the female. I surely wonder at the motivation for both people. It could have been love, or it could have been pragmatic expedience. Or, maybe it was something else. Did Dorothea have money? Did he? An inheritance? Never fear – the Germans had methodologies developed to insure protection, fairness and equity.

Second Marriages and Property Inventories

I learned a lot about second marriages in Germany in the late 1700s thanks to Dorothea and Adam. To begin with, I didn’t realize there was anything to learn. I know that sounds somehwhat ridiculous, but we don’t know what we don’t know. I thought they just went down to the church and got married. Not so fast!

From the paper, Household Debt in the Seventeenth-Century Wurttemberg: Evidence from Personal Inventories by Sheilagh Ogilvie, Markus Kupker and Janine Maegraith published in July 2011, I learned that the “peasant economy” of rural Wurttemberg was not as backwards or laissez-faire as one might think. This article examined death, marriage and remarriage inventories. I didn’t know there were marriage inventories.

The authors studied a small German village, Wildberg, who had about 1000 inhabitants in 1600. The population rose to about 1400 by the mid 1670s, but again reduced to 1200 by 1700. Residents in Wildberg paid taxes (of course) and owned land, which I didn’t think was possible for peasants. Land ownership, other than gardens, declined from about 70% to 50% in 1614 and 1629, but rose again to about 60% by 1700. Wildberg, about 40 miles distant, probably wasn’t too different from Beutelsbach.

In Wildberg, most inhabitants were somehow engaged in farming with about 40% of the residents also engaged in weaving after 1580, with spinning being the mainstay of the female inhabitants. Weaving, dyeing and exporting of hand-made worsted were controlled by regional rural-urban guilds which maintained entry barriers, fixed wages and prices, and excluded women, migrants, Jews, laborers and many others. The courts, councils and assemblies closely monitored and administered settlements, marriage, migration, inheritance, land transactions, prices, wages – that is to say pretty much all financial transactions.

While the Beutelsbach economy revolved around winegrowing, with residents working in the vineyards, everything else would have applied to Beutelsbach as well.

Given that women were excluded above, it’s surprising that Wurttemberg had a partible inheritance system in which spouses retained rights over property brought into a marriage and daughters inherited equally with sons. Death inventories were mandated from 1551. From 1610, widowhood, marriage and remarriage inventories were compulsory, as well as in other special circumstances such as crime, indebtedness, desertion, etc.

Inventories were created by specially appointed community officials to value estates, typically with actual recorded prices or values in that community. Properly drawn and executed documents were critical to avoiding inheritance conflicts. Many records indicate who originally paid for a specific item, especially in the case of a marriage or remarriage.

If there’s one thing German’s love, it’s orderliness and records. I love my German ancestors. I wish I had inherited that orderliness trait. I didn’t:(

According to Wurttemberg law, a person or couple was not legally obliged to be inventoried if they:

  • Left a will
  • Agreed to marital community of property
  • Obtained the district court’s approval
  • Drew up a private inventory
  • Had only one heir
  • Obtained agreement from all heirs

This group of exempted individuals included high status families such as royalty, bureaucrats and clergymen. Truly destitute people who had nothing more than the clothes they were wearing were also not inventoried. A fee had to be paid and not only could they not pay the inventory fee, there was no point, so they were simply administratively ignored.

Of course, administrative negligence or corruption at the time or loss of documents since can prevent us from obtaining those inventories today. Inventories were generally considered desirable because they served to protect the interest of the individuals involved, from each other and from future debtors that might attempt to retroactively establish a claim. However, never-married individuals were seldom inventoried at marriage and often if they had never been married, were not inventoried at death either.

These inventories, when available and legible are goldmines and apparently were relatively common. In the nearby village of Laichingen between 1766 and 1799, 94% of remarriages had inventories, 87% of the spouses of the one of remarrying individuals had inventories, 31% of the widowers had inventories and 57% of the widows.

The inventory document was structured into five sections.

The introduction includes the location, date and personal details of the individual or individuals involved, their offspring, any other heirs, parents and former spouses.

In the second section, real estate, including buildings, gardens, fields, pastures, woods and fishing waters was listed.

A third section included moveable goods, including those worth only one Heller, the smallest unit of currency, in specific categories such as cash, ornaments, jewelry, silver, men’s and women’s clothing, books, bedding, household linen, household vessels of different types, furniture, general household goods, farm and craft tools, animals, food, grain, business wares and anything else not falling into the above categories.

The fourth section included debts and financial assets. Debts were not allowed to be incurred without the prior approval of the village or town council as well as district-level bureaucrats. These individuals monitored the behavior of villagers to assure that they didn’t borrow excessively and controlled them by penalties. Repeat offenders could be declared “mundtot,” a now obsolete 17th century word meaning legally incapable, dead in the eyes of the law, or civilly dead. Basically, they were declared incompetent.

Furthermore, these community “courts” could veto any loan secured by property. Not only that, but fees had to be paid in order to apply for permission to obtain a loan. It’s no wonder that Germans wanted to emigrate.

Despite all of that bureaucratic red tape, roughly 25% of people with inventories had some type of debt, but one third had assets as well. The debt rate of widows was much higher.

The fifth and final section of the inventory balanced the debts against the assets, divided the proceeds among heirs (although did not necessarily distribute the assets) and recorded the signatures of the involved parties.

Inventory of Dorothea Catharina Wolflin Breuning and Johann Adam Ruhle

However, I knew none of this when my distant cousin, Niclas Witt, stumbled across the marital inventory of Dorothea and Adam in the archives of Weinstadt. Niclas has graciously allowed me to include the images. My thanks to Niclas for finding this document and copying it for me. Cousins are so cool!!!

Tom and Chris struggled mightily with translating these pages. They did successfully translate some words. Personally, I look at these crinkled pages, 231 years old, and revel in the thought that Dorothea and her beau joyfully listed their belongings in anticipation of their upcoming wedding – even if we can’t read many of the words today. They listed items, reviewed the lists after they were compiled, then they and their families signed those lists. I’m sure the young couple smiled at each other – one step closer to their wedding day. Maybe the entire group celebrated with a glass of wine.

Perhaps the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for me today is the fact that there are signatures at the end of the document.

This document is very old and fragile, and the script is in many places undecipherable.

Johann Adam Ruhle’s inventory starts on the page above.

Next, on the above page, his land property (house and vineyards) is listed.

On the above pages, men’s clothes and so forth.

The list of Johann Adam Rühle`s property ends, above, on the left page.

Starting on the right page, Dorothea Catharina Wolflin Breuning`s property is listed, again with subheaders for different property classes.

On page 138, on the right side, we have a partial translation.

Tom and Chris translate documents by first attempting to decipher the letters individually. That text is shown at left, below. Then they attempt to figure out the actual German words. That text is shown at right, below. Then, I used a German to English translator to list the English equivalent in parenthesis. As you might imagine from these results, Chris and Tom were both very frustrated. (I felt really, really bad. They are such good guys.)

This was an extremely difficult document.

“Hierauf nun folgt des Weibs                       Hieraus (from this)
Leibeigen und bestehet in                         Beibringen (teach)
Häußern und [gebau ?]                                  gebaud

die […] von einer                                              helstt in von Einen
Behaußung Scheunen
und Keller bei der […]                                    Eigel
[…][…] 11 ½ […]                                                 rüthen
garttens vorbei, neben
dem […][…]                                                         Weng, und
[…] [zinnßt?] […]                                              lenschler zümstt
… 600 […]                                                           Stistts Pflug (plow)

Acker [?]
[Jelly Eiselfeld“ ?!]                                           Zelly Lizelfeld
[…][…][…]                                                            27 rüthen eine
[…] neben                                                           Ereschdobel neben (next)
Johannes […] und                                             Johannes Schuh in und
Bernhard Schwegler […]   150 […]
vor die blum                         4 […] 30 […]“

Page 139, left side

„acker                                                                   Acken

[…] hinter […]                                                     Zelly Ginter verhneb
[…][…] einen                                                      3 rüthen einen
[…], zwischen adam                                     döbelen zwischen Adam (? between Adam)
Haffner und alt Ludwig
[Schwaden?] [zinnßt?] […] 125…              Schmaden zümsst
vor die blum                   9…30

[…] hinter […][…][…] neben                         Zelly hinter den (? behind the)
[…][…]                                                                   ½ luth? und Schlut. neben
wittib und den […]                                           Joseph Hüebschneider
zinnßten                             15 […]             wittib und den …zümstt… (widow and the…)

Viertel […][…]                                                    14 & ½ rüthen
[…] neben                                                           schlath neben
Jacob […]                                                             Jacob Vollmer
und Johannes Eckert
eigen                               45 […]
194 […] 30 […]“

Page 139, right side


1 viertel […] in                                   23 rüthen
der Wein[…] zwischen
Hannß Jerg Haffner                         Häffner
und Jacob Hellerich
eigen                       50 […]

[…] ½ […] in                                         ?rüthen 5 & ½ rüthen in

Der Wein[…] neben
Daniel Lenzen und dem
[…][…]                            160 […]


1 Viertel im […]                                 Stemeng…r
neben Hannß Jerg […]
und Michael […]
zinnßten                     140 […]

Die […][…][…]
15 […][…][…]             350 […]“      15 & ½ rüthen in Saug….

Page 140, left side


Zwischen mathes […]                      friderich
[…] und
Jacob […]                         100 […]   Vollmer

Die […] von 1 Viertel                       helsttin
17 ½ […] in Bartenbach                    rüthen
neben Jacob Randern                 (next Jacob Randern)

und […][…]                                             Hanss Jerg Bretung (Breuning?)
gibt […]                                                    derkelleri verkelleri.
[…]                             60 […]               bodenrin.

Chris provided some general guidance, below.


und das Ihrige […] rubriquen […] […]
[…], und zwar

= men`s clothes
weibskleider  = women`s clothes
bettgewand = sleeping clothes
Leinwand = linnen
[…]geschirr  = some sort of tableware/dishes
Eißernes = “iron things”

[right side]

Blechgeschirr = tin dishes
Goltennes = golden [?]
Schneidwerck = cutlery
[…] und […]geschirr
Gemeiner […]       – “gemeiner” here in the meaning of “normal/usual”
Führ und Bauerngeschirr  = In this case, “Geschirr” is most likely the other meaning in German for this word: harness for horses, cattle etc.
Vieh  = Cattle
[..] […]

allerlei Vorrath = all kinds of storage/stock

On the right hand side of this page, at the bottom, below a statement indicating something in the sense of “this list is complete and nothing is missing,- 13 Febr 1788”, there are several signatures:

The married couple
Adam Rühle
Dorothea Rühlerin
der Kinde Pfleger (guardian of the child)
Bernhard Breuning (probably Dorothea’s deceased husband’s brother Jacob Bernhard Breuning, guardian of the surviving children)

Father of the woman/wife
Johann Ludwig Wolflin (Dorothea’s father)

I’m so grateful to have found this inventory and for Chris and Tom struggling to translate the old script. We may not have every word, but I can savor the essence. It looks like they had harnesses and bedding and the normal things one would expect to find. And Dorothea had a plow. What woman wouldn’t want a plow:) And what man wouldn’t want to marry a woman with a plow!

The fact that this document exists also begs the question of what other documents might exist as well. Hmmm…..

Beginning a New Family

Johann Adam Ruhle, called Adam, became an instant father given that when they married, two of Dorothea’s children were living. At the age of 23, Adam became the father of a 5 year old and a 3 year old.

It didn’t take long for the young couple to begin a family of their own, with my ancestor, daughter Fredericka arriving in March of 1788.

  • Johanna Frederika Ruhle was born March 14, 1788 and died in 1866 near Dayton in Montgomery County, Ohio.
  • Johann Ludwig Ruhle was born June 3, 1790 and died April 17, 1847 in Beutelsbach. He was a vine tender in the vineyards and died of a stroke. His first wife was Sabine Mayerle with whom he had no children. His second wife was Maria Magdalena Vollner with whom he had one child, Johann Ludwig Ruhle, born in 1846 in Beutelsbach and died in 1893 in Stuttgart.
  • Johanna Dorothea Ruhle was born March 5, 1793 and died three days later.
  • Johann Georg Ruhle was born April 25, 1794 and died sometime after emigrating to America.
  • Catharina Margaretha Ruhle was born March 20, 1797 and died October 23, 1797, just 3 days past 7 months of age.
  • Johanna Margareta Ruhle was born January 20, 1800 and died sometime after emigrating to America.

Winds of Change

In 1800, when Dorothea was having her last child, she was 45 years old and her first child, born in 1781, would have been 19 years old and could have already blessed her with grandchildren, had that daughter lived.

Dorothea had buried 5 of her 9 children, 4 remained living.

Her eldest living child was Jakob Christian Breuning, age 17 and still living at home. He would have been learning a trade, probably something related to the vineyards that grew on the hillsides surrounding the village.

Dorothea’s next oldest, Fredericka, not quite 12 years old probably helped a lot with her new baby sister. Fredericka would already have been quite experienced because the new baby, Johanna Margaretha, made 5 younger siblings for Fredericka, although Fredericka had stood by the graveside as two were buried in the churchyard.

By 1800, Dorothea and Adam were the quintessential German village couple, working the vineyards, going to church on Sunday, welcoming babies and burying about half that they welcomed. They went about their lives simply; plowing the earth, growing food, harvesting grapes, tending to family and village affairs.

Dorothea, at 45, by any measure had already achieved a good age. Many, especially women, weren’t fortunate enough to live that long. Dorothea would have hoped to survive long enough to see her children marry and begin families of their own, but 45 is late to have a final child.

Dorothea’s life would have revolved around the never-ending cycle of the sun, the seasons and the grapes in the vineyard. Life was centered around their livelihood, family and the church, of course, which was as important socially as it was religiously. Church attendance was mandated by the government, so it’s not likely they would have missed services often.

Dorothea’s father, who had been absent the first 15 years of her life serving as a conscripted soldier was still living. Dorothea’s mother had died in 1790, but in 1800, Johann Ludwig Wolflin was a ripe old age of 68. He surely doted on Dorothea, his only living child, and her children. His only other child, Dorothea’s brother, Johann Georg Wolflin, born in 1772, died at 16 months of age, a few days after Christmas in 1773. Dorothea and her family were all he had left, and vice versa.

Photo provided by Martin Goll

On July 31, 1805, perhaps on a hot summer day, Dorothea walked outside the church that overlooked the hillside vineyards and stood in the little cemetery as her father was lowered into his final resting place, probably beside her mother and her brother. She may also have wandered over to visit the 4 small graves of her own children, and maybe her grandparents as well, although her father’s parents had both died before she was born. Her father had joined them now. Perhaps she whispered softly, asking the grandparents she had never met to welcome their son.

Now, Dorothea was alone in a village full of people.

Dorothea’s last close family ties, other than her husband and children, were gone, buried in the churchyard. Now, she couldn’t talk to them anymore in person, but she would pass by their graves in silent greeting every Sunday morning. Was that comforting to Dorothea, or painful?

Births, deaths, christenings, sermons, field work, trimming vines, picking grapes, pressing wine, breakfast, lunch, dinner, bedtime, then birthing more babies. The rhythmic cycle of birth, life and death in the bucolic village of Beutelsbach.

As Dorothea turned to walk the few steps to her home, after saying goodbye to her father one last time, she perhaps lifted her face to the sun and asked the Lord what was in store. She herself was 50. How long would it be before her children stepped through the doorway of that same church and stood by her graveside?

The answer was, “never.” They would never stand by her grave in this cemetery.

Dorothea couldn’t possibly have anticipated on that midsummer day in 1805 what the future held – that the most adventurous chapter of her life wouldn’t begin for another 11 years.

Change may have been coming, but it was only a scant scent on the distant winds that melancholy July day in our sun-kissed vineyard hamlet.

A foreshadowing of events yet to come.

John Whitney Ferverda: Morse Code, Telegraphs and Trains – 52 Ancestors #213

My Grandfather, John Whitney Ferverda (1882-1962) worked for the railroad for several years. In fact, it was the railroad that was responsible for John meeting my grandmother, Edith Barbara Lore.

Born in 1882 and trained as a teacher, John Ferverda instead went to work for the Big Four railroad in 1904 as a station agent and telegraph operator in Silver Lake, Indiana, near where his family lived. By 1907, John had accepted a position in Rushville, Indiana as station agent where he would meet Edith who was destined to become his wife – and my grandmother.

A station agent, especially in smaller stations, was responsible for everything. People, cargo, schedules and especially telegraph communications known as telegraphy which kept everyone on time and safe.

On their marriage application on November 16, 1908, John lists his occupation as a telegraph operator.

In January 1910, Edith and John returned to Silver Lake where he became the station agent. They purchased the house next door to the depot.

John’s brother, Roscoe Ferverda bought the house across the street and he too eventually became the station agent after my grandfather resigned the position. In the 1930 census, Roscoe was the station agent at Silver Lake.

In 1913, based on newspaper articles, it appears that John was assigned to Markleville, just north of Rushville, perhaps only temporarily.

He was back in Silver Lake before 1915 when, according to the November 13th edition of the Fort Wayne, Indiana newspaper, another agent was sent as a relief agent for “John at the Big 4” while he had surgery on his eye in Cincinnati. Hmmm, I didn’t know my grandfather had surgery on his eyes. I wonder why. Photos in later years show a droopy eyelid. I also wonder if either the condition or the surgery had anything to do with what happened in January 1916.

John was apparently back at work by November 27th, when the newspaper announced that the stork had left a baby boy at the home of ” John Ferverda, our genial agent at the Big Four station” and his wife.

On January 8, 1916, the Rushville Republican newspaper carried an article stating that John Ferverda, “the Big Four Agent at Silver Lake,” had resigned his position with the railroad and had purchased a hardware store with a partner.

The History of Kosciusko County, Indiana, published in 1919, provides us with a little more information about John Ferverda.

Having mastered the art of telegraphy, he entered the service of the Big Four Railway as an operator, was assigned at different stations along that system and remained in that service about 10 years.

The Big 4 Railroad

I had never heard of The Big 4 before, and as it turns out, there are two Big 4s, also written as Big Four. The one that interests us is the railroad company that operated across Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

This map shows the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway (Big Four) drawn on the New York Central system as of 1918.

In 1906, the Big 4 was acquired by the New York Central Railway which operated it independently until 1930. In 1968, the line was incorporated into Penn Central and later into Conrail, CSX and Norfolk Southern.

Telegraph Operator

How or why John Ferverda learned to operate a telegraph machine is lost to history. The local history book indicated that he lived at home until he was 22. John attended a teacher’s academy, was credentialed to teach, but never did. In 1904, he would have been 22 and finished with his classes.

Given that the article in the Kosciusko County History book states clearly that he had mastered the art of telegraphy, then entered the Big Four Railroad service as an operator, we know that he didn’t learn on the job. This causes me to wonder where he practiced, given that his parents were Brethren, lived in the country, and assuredly did not have electricity in their home.

One cannot learn Morse code, the “language” of the telegraph without practicing and becoming proficient. Proficiency using Morse code is measured by either words per minute or characters per minute, and a telegraph operator for a railroad had to be proficient and speedy, which means he had to have practiced regularly using a unit to both send and receive.

I’ve been curious for some time – what, exactly, did a telegraph operator for a railroad do? How did they communicate before the remote areas were entirely wired for electricity? According to my mother, their house didn’t have electricity initially, so the depot next door probably didn’t either. John worked at this profession for a dozen years, a significant amount of his life.

I wanted to know more. Genealogists always want to know more!

By the time I came along, telegraph operators were either obsolete, or at least I had never come across one. The Big Four was gone, and my grandfather died before I could ask him any questions at all.

My mother wasn’t born until 1922, several years after John had resigned the position, so she wouldn’t have been able to answer many questions either.

However, I do have a secret weapon resource at my disposal.

My husband, Jim.

No, Jim didn’t know my grandfather, but Jim is a super bright geeky “radio guy,” meaning an amateur radio operator, known colloquially as a “ham,” and has been for about 50 years. Literally since he was a kid. He was licensed by the FCC to operate a radio before he was old enough to drive! And, he’s proficient at Morse code. Sends, receives and understands it. Plus, he’s a history buff. My lucky day!

If you have a question about radio, or anything to do with radio or electronics, just ask Jim, because if he doesn’t know the answer, guaranteed, he’ll find it for you. And he’ll enjoy it to boot.

Jim and the ARRL

Jim (call sign K8JK) just happens to be the Michigan section manager for the ARRL, the American Radio Relay League, headquartered in Newington, CT.

Recently, Jim attended training at the ARRL headquarters and invited me along. While Newington, in and of itself, unless you’re a “ham” isn’t any sort of Mecca, I like to support his endeavors AND I’m a ham myself, just barely.

I am also extremely interested in genealogy and history, which I know comes as a shock to my readers, and when I discovered that I had ancestors that settled within an hour’s drive, I was all in. Oh yea!

Each day I dropped Jim off at ARRL headquarters, and at the end of the day, picked him up again.

On the last day, the class attendees really did get to go to “ham Mecca” and entered the sacred ground of the small house located in front of the current ARRL building. That initial house had been the location purchased by the founder of the ARRL, Hiram Percy Maxim, whose “rig” has been preserved with its original call sign of W1AW.

The building includes several operator booths, along with antique radios and telegraph keys. Each class attendee was able to spend time transmitting in the original W1AW “ham shack” as a guest operator.

Now you know where this is going, right?

Amateur radio operators still use Morse code at times to communicate, and telegraph keys were created and used for exactly that purpose – in train stations and depots. My grandfather clearly knew how to use this equipment and did daily for a dozen years. I’d still love to know why he decided to take up telegraphy, because aside from trains, I don’t know why or who else in northern Indiana would have a need for a telegraph operator. Perhaps he saw an opportunity and embraced it.

Thank goodness he did, or I wouldn’t be here. So you could say I’m in eternal debt to Morse code for my very existence.

Who knew?

Questions – So Many Questions

I really enjoyed visiting the museum in the W1AW building – and peppered Jim with questions.

What is that?

How does it work?

Which one of these keys, the device used by telegraph operators to transmit Morse code, would have been used by the railroads?

Between 1904 and 1916?

How about on the Big 4 Lines?

How did the keys work?

What is that lever?

How do these connectors work?

What’s this?

Why is there air?

Morse Code, Telegraphs and Why There’s Air

Jim very graciously agreed to explain all this, in technical terms, but not too technical. Just technical enough. I get the idea somehow that he made the offer in self-defense, because by that time, I was digging through his boxes of “sacred antique stuff” (also referred to as “junk”) hoping to find an old telegraph key that might have been used in a Big 4 depot.

I allowed myself to be shooed out of his office when he offered up the article:)

Jim’s guest article begins here:

Hi, my name is Jim Kvochick (K8JK), or Mr. Estes as I’m called at genealogy and DNA conferences. My lovely wife, who is also a ham operator (K8RJE), has asked me to explain what life was like for a telegraph operator when her grandfather, John Ferverda, was working for the Big 4 Railroad in Indiana between 1904 and 1916. It’s hard to believe that was a century ago. Morse code was invented in 1836 by Samuel Morse and is still used in various formats today. In many ways, Morse code as a language is universal and timeless.

Ever since the beginnings of time, people have been trying to communicate over distances greater than the human voice could reach. Early attempts included the use of smoke signals, signal fires, waving flags, and the moving arms of semaphores, shown below.

Mirrors were also used to flash the image of the sun to distant observers.

Railroads had a need for communications as well and clearly their requirement extended beyond the range of visual communications. Early attempts involved a method for attaching hand written messages called “train orders” on a large hook extending from the station. As the train slowly approached the train depot, the conductor on the moving train would reach out to grab the incoming messages, and “hook” the messages or mail destined for that location. If the conductor missed, the station operator had to run alongside the moving train with the messages on a long pole, reaching towards the conductor.

Train orders advised the locomotive engineer of changes in schedule, planned stops, or any other details needed to complete their run. Harnessing electricity was a welcome innovation but adapting that technology to long distances was challenging.

Utilizing electricity, wires were stretched from one point to another and an electric current was either allowed to flow through the wires or broken by a switch called a telegraph key. The key below dates from about 1900.

By Hp.Baumeler – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61723472

The electric current was first used to make marks on a paper tape and later, it was used activate a “sounder” which made clicking sounds. The short and long times between the clicks could be decoded into letters from the alphabet.

By Sanjay Acharya – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15733842

The round discs on the sounder key above are electromagnets and the sounder portion is the spring lever with the tab on the left, shown with the red arrow. The lever gets pulled up against the large metal bar to its right, between the sounder and the electromagnets and makes an audible click when the two pieces of metal touch.

By the early 1900’s most train stops utilized mechanical sounder devices and trained the station operators on sending and receiving Morse code.

The schematic shown above is the design of a typical station telegraph, like what would have been on John’s desk.

This revolutionary discovery allowed people to communicate instantly over distances that had required days or weeks for horse or train-carried messages.

Telegraph stations were set up along railroads first because the right-of-way had already been cleared and it was easy to set up poles to carry the telegraph wires, although unexpected challenges arose. For example, while curved train tracks weren’t problematic, it took several failed attempts before learning that poles located on curves needed to be braced or they fell over due to the weight of the wires. Copper wires stretched, steel wires rusted and broke. Eventually, through trial and error, the right combination was achieved of braced poles and copper coated steel wire.

Railroad dispatchers sent messages via telegraph to control the movement of trains and the wires also began to carry messages telling of news events and business transactions.

Of course, this also meant that the telegraph operator knew everything within the community, and in particular, was the first to receive messages deemed important enough to be telegraphed to the recipient.

It has been said that the “electric telegraph” was the most significant invention of the 19th century. At the very end of the 19th century, it became possible to communicate by telegraph without using wires. This ‘wireless’ telegraph system paved the way for all of today’s complex wireless communications systems.

Although telephone communication began in the 1880’s within a local geography and expanded into long distances beginning in the 1890’s; telegraph signaling held the advantage due to lower costs and minimal infrastructure required. Radio communications was beginning to come into popular usage, but the cost per unit was too prohibitive to deploy widely. To further reduce the cost of installing the telegraph system, only a single wire was used, with reference to an earth ground to complete the circuit.

Many of the stops along the train tracks did not have electric power, so to successfully operate the telegraph stations at that time required the use of batteries.

Batteries in the 1900’s were large open jars containing electrodes and acid, requirimg constant attention by the station operator. Remember too that in many cases there was no commercial power available to charge these batteries. John Ferverda would most likely start out each day with a check of the battery condition and perform the required maintenance to keep his telegraph station running.

Early batteries used highly toxic chemicals which were stored in the station agent’s office. These batteries and their chemicals including sulfuric acid, zinc and copper, created toxic gasses which were eventually vented outside the agent’s office. Perhaps it’s a good thing that John Ferverda only worked as a station agent for a dozen years.

Early telegraph operators would have used the American Morse code, a predecessor to the more widely used International Morse code of today. While the American version relied heavily on the specific timing between the dots and dashes, the International version was far more forgiving, in trade for making some of the letters and numbers slightly longer.

There were numerous styles and variants of older telegraph keys and many are still being used by amateur radio operators today.

Telegraph key collection at the ARRL W1AW building

Most likely John Ferverda used a variant that looked similar to the model below from the ARRL collection.

The telegraph operator was still in demand and used for information at depots or stations well past the 1950’s. Although many train lines experimented with two-way voice radio during the 1930’s, a truly practical solution wasn’t installed in volume until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Today, radio and satellite communication dominate tracking and routing our modern railways.

The humble telegraph paved the way for the wireless communications that all phone “operators” today utilize – those small electronic boxes that we carry in our pockets and love. John Ferverda was a very, very early adopter of the predecessors to cell phones of today.

Oh, and by the way, if anyone happens to run across the telegraph key from the station in Silver Lake or Rushville, Indiana, or any of the Big 4 depots in that region, perhaps at an auction or antique mall, please let me know because I’ve love to surprise my wife. (Shamelessly added to this article by said wife.)


My thanks to the ARRL for their hospitality and to Jim Kvochick for explaining the history of telegraphy and why there’s air, or least why there’s Morse code.

And seriously, if you do run across a telegraph key from the early 1900s in Northern Indiana, I really do want one and would be forever grateful. I sure wish I had John Ferverda’s original equipment.

What’s the history of radio or railroads in your family?

Troll Houses and Salt Boxes – 52 Ancestors #212

Just when I thought I wasn’t going to have an article ready for this weekend, my ancestors came to my rescue. Well, my ancestors with the assistance of two very generous friends, Jennifer Zinck and Keith Wilson, lured by a troll. Yes, a troll!

I’ve been on the road again, and it just so happened that this past week, I was in Connecticut. As luck would have it, about three years ago, a brick wall fell when I discovered that Nabby Hill (married name) was actually Nabby Hall (birth name), and that Nabby was a nickname for Abigail. I knew she was born in Connecticut from the census, but connecting the dots between her parents, Gershom Hall (c1770->1840) and Dorcas Richardson (1769-c1840) to Nabby was a long, complex story.

Nabby’s parents’ stories aren’t quite ready for prime time, in part because I had been unable to complete their research in Mansfield, Connecticut where they lived before they migrated to Vermont sometime after the birth of their last child in 1797.

Identifying Gershom and Dorcas opened the door to several generations of ancestors, including Mayflower and Plymouth Colony lines.

While my trip to Connecticut this past week only scratched the surface of that entire group, it was an incredible experience that I’d like to share with you as an example of how old deed and property records can be a goldmine! Or, in this case, a troll house.


I have proof!!!

Preparing to Visit

In order to maximize my short time in Connecticut, I prepared a summary, in two formats.

  • By ancestor including birth, death, burial location, church, places lived between birth and death, parents, a link to FindAGrave and my online tree. These are quick reference sheets, 2 or 3 pages max each.
  • By location, meaning that for each location, I included all ancestors born there, lived and died there, churches, burial location, home location, etc. This summary would guide my time in the two Connecticut towns, Mansfield and Willington.

Before I arrived in Connecticut, my friends Jennifer and Keith had surprised me by copying and analyzing the deeds from the town of Mansfield. That was the first location my ancestors settled inland from Cape Cod where they had lived until the later 1600s into the early 1700s. A few of my ancestors then moved another 10 miles up the road to Willington, Connecticut about 1727 where they died and are buried. Both towns are in Tolland County.

Towns are different in Connecticut than in other states further west. In Connecticut, an entire county consists of towns which aren’t just a central settlement, but include rural, forest and farm areas as well. Elsewhere, a town would be much smaller and the surrounding area would either be a township or simply fall into the county outside of the town.

In Connecticut, all records are kept in the town clerk’s office, not the county seat. The down side is that you have to know where to look by town, while a county-wide index makes it much easier to search in general. With town records, you can easily miss something if you don’t know exactly which town’s records to review.

The great news is that each town tends to have a library, often a historical/genealogical society and sometimes a town historian.

I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am for all of these organizations and individuals. The historian and societies are entirely volunteer organizations, and without them, much of the transcribed, published and indexed town information and histories wouldn’t exist and would be lost forever.

Mansfield, Connecticut

Gershom Hall’s great-grandfather was William Hall, born in Yarmouth, Massachusetts on June 8, 1651 and who died In Mansfield, originally called Ponde Place, on June 11, 1727. He’s buried in the Old Mansfield Center Cemetery on land he originally owned and traded for other land in order that his original land could be utilized for the local “burying ground.” The original cemetery was only a quarter acre, right in the center of town, but has expanded significantly today.

Here I am with William’s stone on the land he once owned. I can’t even begin to explain the thrill of standing where he stood and visiting his gravesite in person.

In 1696, William Hall arrived “from Plymouth,” [MA] and acquired town land in 1703 by charter. As with many of the early settlers, he bought and sold land, leaving a respectable legacy to his heirs who passed the land to their heirs, often for generations.

Keith discovered work of an earlier researcher who had analyzed the various William Hall deeds and discovered that part of the land William sold to son Theophilus Hall was subsequently sold to Lemuel Barrows; 55 acres and a dwelling. The location noted in 1758 is shown at the intersection of Spring Hill Road and Dunhamtown or Mansfield City Road. By the way, towns change their road names, sometimes more than once.

We know that this property had a “dwelling” in 1747 and we know where the dwelling was located in 1758. What we don’t know, for sure, is whether or not the structure located there today incorporates the original home, or even part of the original.

Regardless, I love to visit the property of my ancestors.

Jennifer, Keith and I set out on a grand adventure to find this location.

We found the house, right where the 1758 notation indicated.

Jennifer started mumbling something about trolls and I was confused, until we turned the corner. Was I EVER amazed at what we discovered next.

I mean, whoever would have thought to look UNDER there for ancestors?!!

Hmmm, maybe that helps to explain this…

Where’s my spare DNA kit when I need one??? What does troll DNA look like anyway?

Willington, Connecticut

The following day goes down in history as starting out as one of the most frustrating days EVER. I won’t go into all of the details, because it would sound like a solo whine-fest, but suffice it to say that without Jennifer and her husband helping me for more than an hour on the phone as I tried to navigate massive road closures that encompassed nearly all of downtown Hartford due to a marathon and associated festivities, I would still be stuck in that mess days later! Of course, I didn’t discover the road closures until after I was already downtown and trapped.

I’m incredibly grateful and I hope I didn’t sound as grouchy as I felt.

After being unable to reach the Connecticut State Archives, I gave up entirely and decided to go to Willington, even though it was raining. In fact, it has rained so much in Connecticut recently that the ground squishes up around your shoes everyplace you walk and mildew is a cash crop.

Willington is less than an hour away from Hartford. I hadn’t prepared at all for this on-the-ground Willington journey that day, because I didn’t expect to have the opportunity to visit. I was headed to the archives, not the cemetery! The last thing Jennifer did, after explaining how to get OUT of Hartford, was to give me the actual physical address of the Olde East Cemetery in Willington.

I figured I didn’t really NEED that address, because the old town cemeteries are always in or near the center of town. I entered the address in the GPS so that I would have at least exit reminders, even though the route was straightforward, or so I thought.

Wow, was I ever wrong.

The rain continued its cold grey countenance as I drove eastward. Many expressway exits were closed due to the challenges in downtown Hartford, and I was simply glad to get on any road out of dodge. Plus, I now had an available day that I didn’t anticipate. How would I spend it wisely?

The dreary rain matched my mood. I was frustrated, dejected and so disappointed. But there has to be some lemonade in here someplace – and I was going to find it.

After exiting where the GPS instructed for Willington and driving several more miles, I found Old Cemetery Road, and it looked nothing like I expected – nor was it in the center of anything. In fact, Old Cemetery Road was a dirt road up a hill.

Willington should have been named Hillington. This looks more like Appalachia than Connecticut – or at least what I thought Connecticut looked like.

Was I lost, again? I was just sure that I had made a mistake. Nope, the cemetery was up the hill to the right, past the swamp.

While I have no ancestors with stones that remain today, there are large gaps in the older front section where stones clearly stood at one time and unmarked graves remain today. Not to mention this was the only cemetery when the town was founded in 1727, and for a long time thereafter.

I honored my ancestors, said their names out loud and talked to them, even though I don’t know exactly where they are buried. Rest assured, they are here someplace, probably in the front near the other stones belonging to people who died about the same time. At least after those hours of frustration, the cemetery was soothing and peaceful. I felt the stress melting away as my ancestors welcomed me.

The rain continued.

Seeing nothing that remotely resembled a town, I decided to find the library and ask for help. Love those librarians who set me up with a fold-out map that included a road index.

Using that map, I located the historic district, the common green, the church and then set off to find the land of Amos Richardson.

Amos was the great-grandfather of Nabby Hall on her mother, Dorcas Richardson’s side. Amos was born August 10, 1698 in Woburn, Massachusetts and died on April 16, 1777 in Willington.

Mark Palmer, the town historian mentioned the following in correspondence a few years ago:

Amos and Abigail Richardson lived off current Polster Road, slightly to the east of where John Watson lived (site of the present-day saltbox.) The time period is sometime from 1725/6 to 1735/6.

I made an important discovery about locating Connecticut farmsteads. Just drive until you see the old rock walls. Whether the original structure remains today, or not, all farms originally had rock fences, and all structures had rock foundations. Those old rock structures have such personality today, holding their centuries-old secrets and memories of those ancestors who stacked the rocks and traversed the dirt roads.

Polster Road isn’t exactly close to the center of the town itself. Miles away, it is very hilly, remote and wooded. After navigating several hills and S curves, I noticed a sign for a one lane bridge ahead. After clearing a sharp curve, into view popped this utterly amazing “salt box” home across the meadow from the river.

Look at the side. I do believe they have a “troll house” underneath too, although I bet they don’t know that’s what it is😊

While this is apparently not the actual Amos Richardson home place, his land, according to Mark, who had not reviewed the deeds at that time, was just east and then subsequently just northwest of this property. Amos’s home was probably similar to this amazing salt box historic treasure.

The raindrops slowed to a drizzle and the sun shyly peeked out from time to time as I was taking my last photos with my phone, happily trotting up and down the road.

It’s really, really difficult to remain upset at not being able to visit the archives when you make wonderful discoveries like this. These aren’t the only photos taken that day, nor the only properties, but I’m saving the rest for the articles about these ancestors.

I do hope these photos and process that I used will entice you to do deed work and search for properties of your own ancestors. Google maps today can overlap older, historic maps and neighbor’s deeds along with landmarks help locate your ancestor’s lands. Sometimes, I need to bring the deeds to current owners, or at least until contemporary addresses came into being, in order to find the property.

Don’t let the fact that you don’t live locally and can’t visit deter your search.

You don’t have to visit in person, although that’s always wonderful. I’ll clearly never be able to visit all of my ancestors’ lands, but I can visit virtually with Google map street view and it’s free. Except for the cemetery up the dirt road. Google cars don’t traverse gravel or dirt roads, or roads without center lines. They also aren’t allowed in some countries overseas,

When I returned to the hotel at the end of the day, I stepped out of the car and was greeted by this stunning double rainbow. It’s like Amos and my other Willington ancestors were apologizing for having to make me so miserable so that I would leave Hartford and visit Willington instead. Or maybe they were just thanking me in the only way they can for remembering them.

My heartfelt thanks to Jennifer Zinck, professional genealogist extraordinaire who writes at Ancestor Central and Keith Wilson, past president of the Mansfield Historical Society for their generosity in making this a wonderful trip and helping me find my very own troll house.

Jacob Lentz Speaks: Rescue From the Death Ship – 52 Ancestors #211

Granddaughter, can you feel me beside you here today?

Can you sense my presence?

Can you hear me as I tell you my story about the death ship – the Zee Ploeg?

Have you come back for me?

Bless you, child.



You can hear my whispers on the cool Nordic winds that whip through your hair. It’s not the wind. It’s the breath of time and the power of memory.

It’s me.

I am standing with you as you look out over the fjord where my life, and that of my wife and her parents unfolded in unimaginable tragedy.

I tried, oh how I tried to tell you the story.

It was there, right there, in the North Sea.

Can you feel me near you?

I am here with you.

Your mother was born half a century after I died. She never knew my name, nor did her father.

But you do.

You found me, and then found my truth.

I am so relieved that someone is interested in my life, although I passed over some 147 years ago this past spring.

My name is Jacob Lenz, or at least that’s how it was spelled in Germany.

The original document is in the “Weinstadt city archive”, which kindly gave permission for the reproduction. Document was graciously retrieved by Niclas Witt.

You can see that’s how I signed my immigration papers before I left my home village of Beutelsbach, but I’m getting ahead of my own story.

In Ohio, where I settled in 1829 or 30 after a long, long journey of 12 or 13 years, it was spelled Lentz, because that’s how it sounds. Since that’s what’s on my tombstone in the Happy Corners Cemetery, that’s how you spell it today of course.

In Ohio, I bought land that I had only dared to dream of in Germany, near the cemetery where you first found me, but that’s not where I began my life. It was an incredibly difficult journey. We nearly didn’t make it. In fact, not all of us did.

Life Began in Germany

I was born in the small town of Beutelsbach, Germany on May 15th in the year of our Lord 1783.

The old Hans Lenz family home stood for a long time after I left.

My birth was recorded in the local church records and I grew up there, a good Lutheran boy.

You can see the church in the middle of the village, even today, surrounded by those beautiful vineyards.

I began working in the vineyards as soon as I was old enough, just as my ancestors for time immemorial had done – trimming the vines, harvesting the grapes and making wine.

I don’t remember ever not being in the vineyards. From the time I was first able to toddle, I went with my parents each morning and all of the village residents, most of whom were family, were working there too. I grew up in those vineyards among the grapes.

It was a good life as a vinedresser, well, until it wasn’t anymore. The wars and devastation took a terrible toll.

And then, those dreadful years descended upon us like a plague of locusts. One would think God himself was angry. The crops failed and finally, in 1816, summer never arrived. At all.

There were no grapes, nor any other food. No crops. Some of our neighbors thought that the Biblical end of times was upon us. Hunger was our constant companion. So was the fear of death. We suffered.

Can you imagine how terrible it is to witness the hunger of your wife, children and parents and be unable to do anything to ease their suffering? Oh, the ache in my heart was far worse than the pain in my belly.

Finally, the King of Wuerttemberg lifted the restrictions on emigration because there were too many hungry people in Germany. Maybe some would leave, reducing the number of people who sought relief and who pathetically begged for food when there was none to be had.

I turned 33 years old the 15th of May in 1816 although I was far too worried about the unrelenting cold weather to remember by birthday. Crops in the vineyard had already failed for the past three years, and 1816 promised to be even worse.

I had married Frederica Ruhle in our little village church more than a decade before. Our oldest son, Jacob Franklin turned 10 in November of that year with no summer, but there was no celebration. By the time November rolled around, everyone knew something was terribly wrong and that there would be no food to survive the winter.

Worse yet, on a cold day in August, yes, a cold day in August – August 22nd, 1816, Frederica gave birth to our daughter Barbara. I’ll never forget, because there wasn’t enough food for the children we already had, yet God blessed us with another.

What was a father to do?

As our plight became increasingly desperate, I realized that the sun would never arrive and we would descend into the winter darkness with the crops never maturing. Tragedy would follow as starvation came knocking at our doors. Riots over the small amount of food available, even flour, were already occurring in the cities. Desperation abounded. The grim reaper was waiting like a gleeful vulture.

I looked over the mountains and down the rivers, and although I was afraid, I knew that America would be our Salvation.



Some of the Separatists in the neighbor village, Schnait, had already left a year or two before and wrote letters home encouraging us to join them. Maybe we should follow. Maybe they were right. It seems that God has smiled upon their countenance, but not ours.

In February of 1817, with no bread in the house, I no longer had to dream. I was done with dreaming and praying, seemingly to no avail, so I acted.

In order to receive permission to emigrate, Wuerttemberg citizens had to pay all of their debts and advertise publicly for any unpaid debts. I paid everyone, although we had to sell almost everything, but we received permission to emigrate and I knew we must leave very soon – before someone changed their mind and before what few provisions we had were exhausted. The horrible demon breath of starvation was hot upon our necks.

To America

We weren’t traveling to America alone.

Frederica’s parents, Johann Adam Ruhle and Dorothea Katharina Wolfin joined us. They were old by then. Dorothea Katherina – we called her Katharina – was about 62 and Adam was 53. Everyone had been suffering for the past 4 years, but 1816 was the worst. Knowing the future was bleak and uncertain, we took our family with us. We could care for them in America. We couldn’t even provide for ourselves in Germany.

Besides, Frederica’s two brothers, Jacob Christian Breuning, 34, and Johann George Ruhle, 23, who had never married were leaving with us too, as well as her sister, Johanna Margaretha Ruhle, age 17, and many hands makes light work. We would own land in America.


Land of our very own and we would work it together as a family! We would grow grapes! I could smell that earthy soil as I stood, eternally hungry, in Germany. Yes, yes, America was the answer!

A large group of people, 75 or more, was leaving together from Beutelsbach and Schnait, most of us related one way or another. After all, our families had lived there forever and you could see from one side of the village to the other. You could even see the next village and walk there easily, about a mile or maybe 20 minutes – if you didn’t stop at anyone’s house along the way to talk. Of course, that seldom happened.

The vineyards grew on the hillsides behind the houses, and people from both villages walked to the vineyards everyday to tend the vines and grapes.

But the spring of 1817 was different.

Before the green sprouts of spring leaves emerged, or should have, Frederica and I, we packed our few belongings, gathered our four children together and said our goodbyes all around, knowing it was the last time we would ever see our German family members. It was heartbreaking.

Perhaps some of them would follow us to America. We were hopeful. We told them we would write and the minister could read them our letters.

Of course, what we didn’t know is that not all of us would make it to America. The price of passage would be death for many.

What would we have done had we known?

I don’t know.


The village of Beutelsbach grew up beside the river, Rems, between the river and the mountains long before written records. We floated down the Rems to the Neckar River to Heilbronn, where we met up with other immigrants. A large barge would be loaded with emigrant families and whatever they were taking along, which wasn’t much, I assure you. Space was very limited and we had sold everything except for a few clothes.

In the village of Heilbronn, we stayed at the inn named Zum Kranen, The Crane, while the barge was loaded, by crane, with immigrants and our meager possessions for the trip to Amsterdam.

On April 30th, as we tried to wait patiently, a commissioner, Friedrich List arrived and asked us why we were leaving Germany. (1) Adam Ruhle, my father-in-law, an outspoken man, probably uttered more than he should have:

“You just have to look at the tax documents and you will find out by yourselves [the reasons for] our complaints. From a land property of 6 Morgen [according to Wikipedia, a Morgen in Wurttemberg was about 3500 square meters = 37700 square feet] I had to pay 279 Gulden taxes in 3 years. The king`s tax amounts to almost nothing, but the local taxes is exorbitant. If you complain about it, the district mayor does not respond. The citizens are not allowed to look at things.”

Another man from our village, Georg Friedrich Hähnle, had assets remaining of 1000 Gulden and he said:

“The forestry district does not even give greenery to the citizens, and there is also a shortage on dung. If all citizens were able to seel, then half of all citizens would emigrate. The head forester does not either give out wood. Hence people have to take it by theirselves, which is punished immoderately. If one would like to talk about everything [meaning: about all complaints], one would not be finished today.”

And another, Johann Georg Dentler, said:

“The forester treats us despotically. Two years ago, we had to collect the wood, without being allowed to take even a single stick home with us. There is no vine since four years, which has ruined the [lives of the] vintners.”

And yet another, Daniel Gaup:

“The taxes are unbearable and the worst is the sculduggery. Since half a year, a complaint against the district mayor has been filed to the authorities, and the plaintiff would have emigrated as well, if he were not to wait out the outcome of his complaint.

This citizen`s name is Hansgeprg Hammer and he has a property of 8000 Gulden. I have taken with me a letter from him to a good friend in America, in which he writes that he will emigrate next year. Besides him, many more citizens are willing to emigrate due to the bad governance. One is able to find everything [all complaints] in a protocol that has been sent to the authorities. We are at least 25 citizens, who emigrate because of these reasons. I could tell you a lot more, if only there would be the time for it.”

The commissioner asked, “Why didn`t you complain to the district office?”

“We are put off filing complaints; complainers are held captive in eternity. It is a lost try right from the start.”

And then he asked further, “Why didn`t you complain at the higher authorities?”

“A poor man like me cannot go that far to file a complaint to the high authorities. I am not influential enough for that. The other citizens will lose lots of money through their complaints and they do not know yet, how the matter will end. The costs already amount to over 2000 Gulden.”

The commissioner: “What are the complaints?”

“They are about various sculduggeries of the district mayor and several complaints against the forester and the bailiff.”

The commissioner wrote those words in a book and left. I couldn’t wait to climb onto that barge and get underway, because I was afraid we would not be allowed to leave. Complaining in Germany wasn’t safe!

The Neckar and Rhine

We floated down the Neckar and Rhine rivers on barges towards the sea as the winter ice slowly melted.

We passed villages and castles and more hillside vineyards – sights like we had never seen before.

You’ve seen these sights yourself Granddaughter, those same castles. The Rhine was our highway to America.

The land flattened as we approached Amsterdam and windmills appeared on the horizon.

The vineyards and Germany were behind us and there was no going back now.


We were supposed to sail for America from Amsterdam on March 30th, but our departure was delayed, first by one thing, and then by another.

Once in Amsterdam, after many false starts, we contracted with a sea captain for passage. The contact for our voyage stated that the captain, 21 sailors and 400 passengers would sail for Philadelphia. By the time everyone was crammed into the ship, more than 565 passengers were on board, with supplies for only 400.

I was proud that I was able to pay our way, although it took every penny and we were packed into the bottom of the ship, Zee Ploeg (Sea Plow), like sausages, all passengers together in a space smaller than our home in Germany. Still, we knew that life would be better once we landed in America so we didn’t mind the discomfort.

We had hope, something that no longer existed in Germany.

Others who immigrated to America earlier had written letters back home describing the bountiful harvests and freedoms there, and we knew that God would deliver us., although he seemed to be testing our will.

But that was all in the past. We were sailing to America now!


At first, we were delayed leaving the port of Amsterdam because of bad weather but we were able to live on the ship. Lord knows, there was no money to rent a room. In fact, there was no money left at all.

At last, after a few weeks, on May 25th we departed with one Captain Manzelman at the helm, a man I never trusted. He seemed mean, but we needed him and after all, a ship is a ship. A deal is a deal, and we had already paid.

At long last, we sailed into the sea, but then had to stop for several weeks, a month or more, on the island of Texel near the Netherlands. More foul weather. Perhaps it was an omen, but a man died and had to be buried. Yet another storm was brewing.

We had already used much of our ration of food allotted each person for the journey, and the captain’s mood became sourer and fouler with each passing day. That man is the devil incarnate – mark my words.

We took on more supplies and water in Texel, and a few weeks later, finally set sail again as soon as the winds abated. But it was only the lull before the next storm.

Pummeled by another storm, we had to return to Texel, again. Everyone, passengers and crew alike, avoided the captain who seemed angry that we existed. We felt like he wanted us dead, and truth be known, he did, as we would soon discover.

Finally, finally, on the last day of August we set forth again into the Atlantic, expecting to be in America in just a few weeks.

Our spirits soared!

America, here we come!!!

Forsaken by God

Less than one day into the Atlantic, the wrath of God descended upon us in an angry torrent. A terrible hurricane tossed our ship like a cork in the sea. The massive waves first threw the Zee Ploeg ship skyward into the air, then as we descended into the abyss, crashed over us like deafening thunder. People, passengers and crew alike were drown and swept overboard. Our food was washed into the sea as well, and what wasn’t, was ruined. The water casks crashed through the deck into the passenger hold, below, as did the cannons.

We prayed to the Lord to save us, for food and for fresh water, but day by day, we drifted with none in the unceasing storms. Dying little by little, inch by inch. I can’t even think of that horror. It haunted my waking hours and my dreams until the day I died. I could barely speak of it and Frederica could not.

In the darkest of nights in the worst of gales, we heard a monstrous thunderous crashing, then splintering. The mast twisted, shrieking amidst the squalling of the storm and broke in two, like a mere twig. We knew we were doomed, never expecting to see the light of day. We clutched each other as the water rose in the bowels of the ship and awaited our fate. Frederica hugged the baby to her breast. We held each other as tightly as we could and prayed. We would die as a family.

By some miracle, that ship stayed afloat.

A day or two later, more damage to the ship – the bowsprit snapped too. The sea broke the windows in the ship, and water poured in from every hole.

My God, my God, what have we done to deserve this?

Then, our young Elizabeth, just four and a half years old, died. Wet and ice cold, we huddled together for warmth below deck, starving – with no food or water. The stench of death and sewage enveloped us. We no longer knew whether to pray for life or death. Death seemed more humane.

To make matters worse, the captain tried to poison what little food we had. The men, starving or not, well, we had to take matters into our own hands. We were a captainless, rudderless mass of starving humanity adrift on the angry sea. Completely forsaken or at least forgotten by God. Why? Why?

Oh God, why?

A couple weeks later, we drifted by the Faroe Islands and tried to gain their attention with a shot, but that was not to be and we drifted on, devoid of all hope, starving and utterly forlorn.

Death became our constant companion.

Two Months Later – Norway

At the end of September, after being adrift for nearly two months – I don’t rightly recall the day as they all ran together by then, we thankfully, thankfully, shipwrecked into the shore of Norway near an island called Herdla.

You know the place. I saw you there today, standing at the monument honoring the passengers on the Zee Ploeg.

Lakes, salt, sun, universe, eternity and heaven – the symbols on the monument..

I was with you Granddaughter, as you came back to see me. My heart swelled with pride.

See the islands behind you – that’s where the Zee Ploeg came to rest, rocking back and forth, teetering precariously on the rocky island near the Skjellanger lighthouse.

“Please God, we beseech of you, do not let us break free and wash out to sea again.”

We gave thanks because we were sure that the people ashore would help us as soon as they could see us through the fog. In the name of all humanity, how could they ignore or refuse our great suffering?

Herdla was a small island, maybe a mile long and a quarter or half a mile wide. Fishermen in boats kindly brought us food, but the sight of the dead and nearly-dead on the death-ship, reaching out, screaming in an unknown language and desperately begging frightened the local people. We must have appeared mad, and indeed, we were crazed with hunger and thirst.

They didn’t know what to do with us, whether we were just starving or also carrying some plague that would kill them too. There were so many dead. Some we buried at sea as we could, but when the sea was too rough, our dead family members simply remained with us below deck amid the stench.

Perhaps the people on Herdla wondered if we were even of this world. We looked like the walking dead.

They were kind enough to allow us to bury some of our deceased in the churchyard. I hope they said prayers over their bodies and for the souls of our relatives.

We were dying every day now. Entire families perishing, one by one.

The wailing never stopped. The screams and moans of unimaginable night terrors, except it was real and there was no escape. The only escape was death itself.


The men in Herdla sent an emergency message to Bergen, the capital of Norway, further down the fjord. What were they to do with a ship full of starving, sick castaways?

We didn’t know anything about Norway. In fact, we weren’t supposed to be anyplace close to Norway. Driven by the storm, after the mast and bowsprit broke, we could neither navigate nor control the ship, nor did we know exactly where we were.

Fortunately for us, the Norwegian people, at least near the sea, were at least somewhat familiar with Germans. Hanseatic League German merchants had been trading with Norwegians for hundreds of years. A few people spoke a little German and all people living by the sea understood a shipwreck and hunger.

Norway itself was struggling. The country had been gifted to the Swedes by the Danes just three years before, and many of the bureaucrats in charge had little experience.

We were devastated, crushed, when they decided that we could not remain in Herdla and in fact, we could not come ashore at all. It appeared that our incredible relief at being washed up on the island and being discovered was premature.

Overwrought, we were trapped on the ship in our misery which deepened day by day.


The Zee Ploeg was towed to a shipyard north of Bergen, called Elsesro, where we were quarantined on the ship in this bay, right beside the buildings with the red roofs, for 30 days.

This is how Elsesro looked in 1814. It’s still recognizable today – even the red roof buildings

I stood beside you as you stood witness at Elsesro overlooking the sea, where the Zee Ploeg was tied, feeling our sadness across two centuries. Palpable, you can still touch our grief, and through it, you touch us.

The disabled Zee Ploeg was tethered to the dock beside one of those warehouses with the red tile roofs, just beneath you Granddaughter. Perhaps, if I could have peered up into the future, I could have seen you perched upon that hill, reaching out to me through the mists of time.

I was with you in Elsesro today, my Granddaughter.

You stood where we stood, where our children played and we heard their laughter once again as the sun grew warm. You touched the trees that were saplings when I staggered upon that land, falling upon the ground in thanksgiving after emerging from that hell-hole ship, reeking of death.

You stood just a few feet away.

Ahh, some of those sturdy trees are gone now, as am I, but the stump remains, just as part of me remains in you.


We hoped that our fate had turned for the better at Elsesro, but we questioned if it could be so. We didn’t know the language and wondered what would become of us. America was never further away. Germany was in the past. We were in limbo. Purgatory on Earth.

While incredibly relieved to no longer be adrift, we looked out at this bay for 30 long days, wondering if we would leave before that time, feet first.

Death seemed to be the only way off of this terrible ship.

God, it seems, wasn’t yet done testing our will.

Those 30 days and nights were endless, relentless. Still, more people died. And more. And more.

When that eternity had passed, we were allowed to depart the ship. We had no place to go, we still had no food, our clothes were in tatters and as the local residents described us, we “were more dead than alive.” Begging was against the law, but what choice did we have?

Thank God, some of the residents at least took the pitiful wailing orphans into their homes, hearts and families.

You met one of their descendants today, Granddaughter, Christian Rieber. He built that lovely memorial for the Zee Ploeg survivors in Herdla where we stood together.

Christian’s ancestors died on the Zee Ploeg and we tried to comfort the orphans, but could not.

The Zee Ploeg was so badly damaged that she could not be repaired. The breaking masts had crashed through the deck and broken the sides.

Not knowing what to do with us, the Norwegians are a resourceful lot.

At Elsesro, another ship with no masts called the Noah’s Ark was tethered to the Zee Ploeg, upon her deck. Those of us left alive lived between the two ships lashed together in the cove, cold, miserable and suffering as the gloom of winter fell upon us.

Still, it was better than dying one by one, adrift at sea.

The Noah’s Ark Tragedy

Elsesro, where you stood today, was where the tragedy of the Noah’s Ark took place, as if there hadn’t been enough tragedy already. More terror and death.

In January, on the 14th, in the dead of the winter during yet another horrific storm that blew in from the north, the Noah’s Ark broke loose from the Zee Ploeg, crashing into the sea and drowning many of the people who had already survived a shipwreck and starvation, sweeping them out to sea. Then another 20 died in the next fortnight from terror.

The survivors, nearly drown, became very ill. Today, you might call it pneumonia or maybe they had heart attacks, but we didn’t know why back then. Slowly, more died and were buried in the churchyard behind St. Mary’s Church, the church in the neighborhood where the Hanseatic League Germans lived.

Thank goodness those Germans spoke our language and we could at least have the comfort of a funeral service we understood to bury our unfortunate dead. They wrote the names of our dead in their church book, giving us at least some semblance of normalcy and consolation.

Those we had to bury at sea had nothing more than a prayer, and those swept overboard…I can’t bear to think…

22 Kong Oscar’s Gate

You probably didn’t know there were hospitals in 1817, but one, of a sort, existed in Bergen, left over from the war with Sweden three years earlier where captive soldiers needed treatment. That’s where the desperately ill were sent, often to await the grim reaper. 22 Kong Oscar’s Gate, meaning house 22 on King Oscar’s Street.

The building that served as our hospital isn’t there anymore, of course, but I walked beside you when you climbed the cobblestone street, the same one I trod, and visited the building in that location today to see where we lived.

I was fortunate, if you can even use that word to describe our plight, that most of our family was in the hospital and had been since October. They had to carry us off of that ship. We couldn’t walk and were very nearly dead. So I wasn’t on the Zee Ploeg on January 14th when the Noah’s Ark accident happened.

More than 100 people had died by this time, including all 30 babies born during the journey. We no longer knew who was still alive. Confusion reigned.

After the Noah’s Ark accident, many more were sent to the hospital to recover, or die. Twenty more died that next week. There were funerals every day. Graves couldn’t be dug fast enough.

Thankfully, kindly townspeople brought us food, and clothes, for we had none.

The Lawsuit

I know the Bible teaches us forgiveness, but I could not forgive that despicable captain for what he had done to us. Manzelmann, of course, had secreted food away and he didn’t suffer the same fate as we did. Then, he tried to poison us. He was seen acting suspiciously and slipping poison into the kettle of gruel.

Some of the ruined food was saved and indeed, it proved exactly as we suspected – POISON. We should have made him eat it. We had to dispose of that poisoned food, meaning what little food we had was wasted as we starved. His murderous intentions and incompetence in so many ways caused the terror, torture and deaths of our countrymen and cousins. He didn’t care.

In essence, he killed our beloved daughter, Elizabeth. No, I could not forgive that man.

By January 8th, I was once again able to walk, so Johann Fidler and I filed suit against Captain Manzelmann, asking for our passage money to be refunded so that we could pay our Norwegian benefactors and once again purchase passage to America.

Manzelmann claimed that he was not responsible for our predicament, that we needed to sue the company in the Netherlands that we contracted through for his services. Under the dark of night, Manzelmann stole board a ship and returned to the Netherlands, leaving the misery and devastation he caused behind, never having to answer for his actions. We should have hung him on the ship when we had the opportunity.

The Zee Ploeg was too badly damaged to be repaired or rebuilt and her wood became part of those warehouses you saw at Elsesro today, Granddaughter. Who knows, maybe part of her still remains in those rafters.

New Beginnings – A Wedding and a Baby

On February 8th, my wife Frederica’s brother, Johann George Ruhle, married Catharina Koch, a girl from Schnait who was also emigrating. Her mother was a Ruhle, related to my wife, and her grandmother was a Lenz, related to me. Actually, in those two villages, there wasn’t anyone who wasn’t related, several times over.

George and Catharina courted while we floated down the Rhine past those majestic castles and after we climbed aboard the Zee Ploeg in Amsterdam.

Those castles were a romantic sight alright and enough to inspire anyone. In June, they announced their engagement, although we certainly suspected. They would marry after we arrived in America. We all celebrated and well, they might have celebrated a bit too much.

Georg and Catharina married in Bergen in the old Cross Church, just around the corner from the hospital where we had all been taken. The door was always open then too.

I walked beside you in the church today, my Granddaughter. The inside looks much the same as it did when we fervently prayed for safe deliverance.

We sat in these pews and prayed at this alter, day by day, to God to deliver us to America. With no resources, we were entirely at his mercy.

Was there a way for us? Was there any salvation on this side of the grave? How many more would die? I would rather die than go on alone.

I know it sounds odd to say that we were fortunate to be so ill, but the hospital is what saved us. We weren’t on board when the Noah’s Ark broke free, plummeting into the sea.

The hospital was barren and stark. The townspeople of Bergen brought us food and a few clothes. We were so grateful because, austere as it was, it was so much better than the ship. Somehow, we had been transformed from hopeful emigrants to pathetic beggarly refugees.

As we could, we wove and repaired fish nets and anything else we could do, but we were far more of a burden to the people of Bergen than anything else. They too had suffered at the hands of Mother Nature, with starvation knocking at their doors as well. They had little to share, but shared what little they had.

Not to mention that having been defeated in the Napoleonic Wars, they had been overcome by Sweden just three years before. They were terribly poor, just eeking by. Thank God for the blessings of the bounty of the sea, or we would surely have perished altogether.

A Secret

Let me tell you a little secret. No one can hear, can then?

Frederica’s brother’s wife, Catharina, when they married in Bergen, was “with child.”


There was no way for Georg and Catharina to marry on the ship, and although they were properly penitent for their immoral behavior, celebrating their upcoming marriage prematurely one would say, it was too late. A child, we thought, would brighten all of our spirits. This child seemed ordained by God, especially since the baby was born in February, even though his mother was starved during her pregnancy. We gave her as much of our food as we could.

Little Joseph Ruhle was born at the hospital on February 28th. We rejoiced and baptized him right away right around the corner at Cross Church, where his parents were married.

We were so thankful to have a place to worship so close by, less than a block away, around the corner just past the green house.

I proudly carried little Joseph to the church myself as his mother rested! He was the newfound joy in our life. The symbol of our hope for our new lives.

I saw you lovingly touch that baptismal font inside the church today, Granddaughter. We gathered around that font as baby Joseph Ruhle was baptized. We were so grateful to hear him cry, full of life, despite the odds. That day seemed to be the turning point. Frederica’s father, Adam, the baby’s grandfather proudly served as his godfather. Joseph’s birth gave us all renewed hope. Yes, life was improving now!

Things were looking up.

But Baby Joseph too was soon cruelly ripped from us, exactly three months later in May of 1818. We sorrowfully wrapped his tiny body for burial and said our goodbyes. The funeral was held the next day, on May 28th in St. Mary’s Church with a German service, his little body laid to rest in the pauper’s corner, beside the rest of the Germans from the Zee Ploeg who had perished.

More than 2200 people were buried in that field above the church. It’s a Park now, still known as “The Grave.”

Most of the graves weren’t marked then, and all are gone now.

I saw you here too, Granddaughter, searching for his lonely grave in the rain today.

None of us could afford a stone. No one knows now where his little body was left behind, his grave lost to history forever.

We washed you with our raindrop tears, but do not grieve, we are with him now.

The Rappites

After baby Joseph died, our despair seemed to deepen with every new day. We knew that we could not stay in Bergen forever. The Norwegians didn’t want us, and we couldn’t blame them. We didn’t want to live as paupers, taking charity. We couldn’t support ourselves. We still needed to find a way to America, but there were very few options.

Frederica’s half-brother, Christian Breuning managed to arrange passage for himself on a ship for America in July. The Rappites from the Harmony settlement in Indiana were willing to pay the passage for anyone who would join their colony, but of course their way of life was very strict and included complete celibacy. Being a young father, I didn’t feel that was the right answer for our family. Lucky for you, Granddaughter, because your mother’s grandmother, our daughter Margaret wasn’t born until the last day of December in 1822, the day before our 3rd anniversary setting foot on American soil. If we had joined the Rappites, well, to put it daintily, you wouldn’t be here.

Christian Breuning left Bergen on August 13th on a ship that held 80 Rappites, although we understand that the Rappites later felt the German boys were too rowdy for their settlement. Some passengers disappeared after arriving in America and never made it to the Harmony settlement, apparently having a change of heart. We always wondered what happened to Christian.

After Christian departed, our countrymen continued to die. Three of our cousins from Schnait named Daniel Lenz died and are all buried with the others in the poor section in Fredens Bolig Cemetery, above St. Mary’s Church. Conrad Lenz died too. One grief on top of another.

The Ship Prima

The Norwegian grey skies and never-ending winter rains had begun, the sun disappeared for days at a time, and darkness was descending on the country.

The people of Bergen were as desperate to be rid of us as we were to be gone. We could not return to Germany without money, as the king made it very clear when we left that we would never be allowed to return. Germany didn’t need any more poor people and the Rhine was in essence a one way river. Our families there were all in desperate straits as well, with the crop failures and high taxes and could not sponsor our return.

Finally in the late fall, the Norwegian government found the captain of the ship Prima who agreed to transport us to America and allow us to be sold into indentured servitude after arrival in order to pay our passage. Indentured servitude would take another 7 years. Surely Frederica’s parents, Adam and Katharina Ruhle would never live that long. She would be 70 and he would be 61 by then. Who would even purchase them? Indeed, 11 people on the ship were too old to be sold after we arrived in America.

This was Captain Manzelmann’s fault – that evil, despicable man. He had brought this disaster upon our heads. Passage to America should not cost us another 7 years, 7 very long dear years of our lives. It has already cost us one and a half years, and we were destitute refugees in Bergan, not near America yet.

By the time we sailed to America, were auctioned and served 7 years, it would be nearly 10 years since we left Germany, hoping to start a new life. Adam and Katharina’s life would be over. They would have sacrificed and suffered for nothing.

I had paid the first passage for the entire family, but without a penny to my name, we were reduced to charity and utter dependence in Norway. Our sole request was that we would be sold together as a family. With that agreement 270 Germans, us included, climbed aboard the ship Prima and set forth again.

Frederica cried as we boarded the Prima. Terror was in our hearts. Our unsteady legs shook, but we had to climb aboard that ship.

Our child’s body along with so many of our countrymen already rested beneath the sea with more left behind in St. Mary’s churchyard. Of the almost 600 people that sailed on the Zee Ploeg from Amsterdam, only about 350 left Bergen. That doesn’t count the newborns who perished of course, and it doesn’t count the few orphans who survived and stayed behind in Bergen with their new families either.

The first few weeks on board the Prima were almost normal, as voyages go. Captain Woxland chose the southern route due to the lateness of our sailing. Along the coast of Portugal, we caught the never-failing trade winds and sailed across the sea to the West Indies. We heaved a collective sigh of relief, but once again, the unholy seas turned on us.

Captain Woxland had to fight a raging storm, a hurricane that nearly caused our ship to capsize. Terror filled our hearts once again, but Woxland was a skillful Captain and a good man, not at all like Manzelmann.

To help quench our fear, we prayed aloud and sang songs. The Lord had brought us this far and surely, surely, He would not let us perish now. We did not arrive in the fall as planned, and not in Philadelphia as we intended, but weeks later limped into Baltimore midwinter, on New Year’s Day 1819. We had been delivered. We had escaped the dragons of the sea for the sixth time. Thanks be to God.

Of course, we were yet to be sold, auctioned, but we would never have to set foot on another ship, nor would we, for the rest of our lives. Nor would our descendants for five generations, until you, that is. I don’t know, my dear, if you are brave or foolhearty! But you are assuredly one or the other.

Your Return

Granddaughter, I’m so glad you returned in the ship in the sky. I hope you can feel my love and gratitude across the years.

I’m so thankful that you made your way back to look out over the fjord to the island across from Herdla. Never was anyone so glad to be cast upon rocks!

The simple church on the hillside there gave us such hope as we saw the boats approaching from the shore with food. We rejoiced, watching the arrival of our saviors.

I’m so grateful that you returned to give thanks in the church in Herdla for the people who saved us. They’re buried in that churchyard by the sea, you know. We owe those good people our life, and yours.

It’s fitting that a replica of the Zee Ploeg graces that church today, commissioned by Christian Rieber, a fourth generation descendant of one of those pitiful orphans. Our descendants sure have done us proud.

I’m sure you know of the Norwegian custom of building a replica of a shipwrecked ship and donating it to the first church the survivors worshipped in to give thanks to the Lord Almighty for their rescue. See the Zee Ploeg hanging there from the rafters? Now you know why.

You walked in our footsteps in Elsesro too. A place of great relief and also of great sorrow.

So much to bear, when life was already unbearable. Elsesro’s peaceful beauty today belies the tragedy tucked away beneath years of forgetfulness.

The hospital, our place of salvation and our makeshift home for so many months is gone now, but you visited us there too. Our spirit remains. We trod those same ancient cobblestones as we walked up and down the hills streets of Bergen, and around the corner to the Cross Church.

By Thomasg74 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 no, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21771343

I saw you at the church door today, exactly where we stood too. We passed through that very door.

I was so touched that you walked up the aisle in the Cross Church were Frederica’s brother was married and baby Joseph was baptized with his grandfather standing proudly beside the baptismal font. That was one of our few days of happiness and joy in Bergen.

Bless you for your prayers for our souls there. We pray for yours as well.

The Cross Church provided us with peaceful respite then, just as it did you today.

Sermons at St. Mary’s Church were in German, a comfort to us, and Lord knows, we walked up the streets to that church for another funeral every week, it seems. Sometimes every day.

By No machine-readable author provided. Mortendreier assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=979904

We stood in St. Mary’s Church beside you today, just as we stood there the day we buried baby Joseph, and Daniel Lenz, all three of them, and Conrad Lenz and so many more.

The tiny bones in the cemetery on the hill behind St. Mary’s Church are long returned to dust. You did what we could not do, standing in our stead at the grave of that sweet baby boy and others that we left behind in that pauper’s field.

The burying ground is a park now, but we walked that sacred land with you. Our dust still remains.

Our memory lives again. We became you. You carry us in your veins. Remember, our and your DNA rests in the Bergen cemetery too, beneath the sea, and in churchyards in Germany, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

Frederica’s parents, Dorothea Katharina and Johann Adam Ruhle never made it to Ohio with us to see our new land. We lost them along the way.

Thank you, Granddaughter for rescuing us from the death ship of oblivion. For finding us and telling our story of that tortuous journey. The wonderful people of Bergen saved us then, and you saved us again. As long as someone remembers us, knows our story, we aren’t entirely dead. Well, we may be dead, but we aren’t gone and forgotten.

If you doubt that I was with you today, look upon this rainbow across the harbor at Elsesro, a gift from me and your ancestors already here – your mother too! We struggled to help you find your way to Norway and we are smiling, ear to ear!

You made it!! We never doubted your resolve. After all, you carry our blood.

The rainbow begins, or ends, in Elsesro, in the shipyard – just like it begins and ends with you. Indeed, Elsesro is the pot at the end of the rainbow, on the left end of the faint double rainbow, the beginning of the next generation.

Need God speak louder?

You, Granddaughter, are our pot of gold – although you think that we are yours.

Yes, that journey was terrifying, devastating and our hearts still ache, but it was the path to you. We did survive and live on through you. You make us proud!

Know that as we watched you sail away on a very different ship, we stood on the mountain top watching over you. As we will, Granddaughter, all the days of your life.

Grateful acknowledgements:

Many people played a part in in bringing the life of Jacob Lentz, his wife Frederica Ruhle, her parents, Johann Adam Ruhle and Dorothea Katharina Wolfin, and Frederica’s siblings together in Germany, then in Bergen, and finally in the US. I am eternally indebted to the following people who helped me along this path in so many different ways with rescuing these ancestors, and their story, from oblivion.

  • Christian Rieber – Benefactor for many Zee Ploeg descendant historical contributions including the monument and pavilion being built nearby and the museum documentary. Christian is an inspiration for all generations.
  • Sigmund Steinsbo – Our gracious host on our Herdla day – thank you so much for driving.
  • Arnfrid Dommersnæs Mæland – Bergen historian extraordinaire who served as a wonderful liaison in Bergen. I couldn’t have had this amazing Bergen experience without Arnfrid. Most of the historical images and some of the contemporary photos are courtesy of Arnfrid.
  • Arvid Harms – Arnfrid’s husband, wonderful, patient  and amazingly unique companion (who drives a very cool Bentley).

  • Arne Solli – Bergen historian and researcher.
  • Herdla Church – Steward of the Zee Ploeg ship replica.
  • Herdla church historian – Generously provided access to church and prepared a historical presentation.

Herdla Church visit, left to right, Arvid Harms, Arnfrid Dommersnæs Mæland, church historian, me, Sigmund Steinsbo

  • Herdla Museum and staff – Welcoming guardians of the Zee Ploeg video (in both Norwegian and English) that resides in the museum. The Zee Ploeg monument and pavilion are also located on this lovely property.
  • Gunnar Furre – Herdla Museum Director who hosted our visit and tolerates Zee Ploeg descendants who return like homing pigeons.
  • Yngve Nedrebø – Historian at the Bergen archives.
  • Håakon Andersen – Amazingly talented creator of the Zee Ploeg ship model.
  • Liv Stromme – Assistance with Zee Ploeg research.
  • Lisbeth Lochen – Assistance with Zee Ploeg research.
  • Martin Goll – Assistance with Beutelsbach and Schnait research.
  • Niclas Witt – Assistance with German archival material and retrieval.
  • Jim – My husband who accompanies me on any number of insane adventures and claims to like it:)

Wonderful traditional Norwegian dinner in Bergen with Arnfrid, Arvid, me and Jim. The perfect evening. Jacob Lentz may have been there too, but if so, he didn’t eat much nor drink any of the local brew.

Researchers wishing to remain anonymous:

  • Tom – My cousin, retired professional German genealogist and research partner, whom I adore for many reasons.
  • Chris – Native German speaker, my friend who loves history, is eternally curious, finds the most amazing resources and rounds out our research team perfectly. I met Chris on this trip too, but that’s a story for another time.

Without the consistent combined efforts of Tom and Chris, Frederica Ruhle would never have been identified, which ultimately led me to Beutelsbach, Schnait and then Bergen in person. None of this would have happened without them. These men have never-ending patience and there isn’t a big enough thank you.

I am amazed, over and over again how, through genealogy, we meet complete strangers and emerge fast friends. For that gift, I guess I have to thank Jacob Lentz.


The interviews by Friedrich List were extracted from the book by Günter Moltmann 1979, “Aufbruch nach Amerika. Die Auswanderungswelle von 1816/17,” and translated by Chris.

Aunt Margaret’s Bombshell Letter – 52 Ancestors #210

Aunt Margaret (1906-2005), one of my Crazy Estes aunts, wrote a bombshell letter on January 26, 1978. Little did I know that I had unwittingly been the catalyst, nor that the bomb itself would explode in my own hands a quarter century later.

That letter answered a lot of questions, but it also introduced many, MANY more mysteries, some of which I’ve been able to solve. Others, however, remain stubbornly elusive, nagging reminders of how little we sometimes know about even our closest relatives.

Introducing the Characters

Before I share the letter, I need to give you a dance card with a cast of characters, and believe me, they are truly characters. Otherwise you’ll surely miss some of the essence of the soap-opera-esque plot.

Let’s start with a pedigree chart. Three charts, actually, one for each of my grandfather, William George Estes’s marriages. He’s the character in red, below.

Lazarus Estes and his wife Elizabeth Vannoy lived at the end of Estes Holler in Claiborne County, Tennessee and died in 1918.

While Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy, called Betty, had several children, only two are mentioned in Margaret’s letter – Cornie Epperson and my grandfather who is Margaret’s father, William George Estes (1873-1971.)

William George Estes was married three times, assuming all three “marriages” were legal. I’m positive that the first one to Ollie Bolton was official, as I have the marriage documentation. The others, well, you can decide for yourself.

  • William George was first married to Ollie Bolton, having a total of 10 or 11 children. Six are mentioned in this letter and five survived to adulthood. They are, in age order, Estel, my father, Joseph “Dode,” Margaret, Minnie and Elsa.
  • William George’s second marriage was to Joice Hatfield and they had one daughter, Virginia Estes, also mentioned in Margaret’s letter.
  • William George’s third marriage was to Crocie Brewer who had a total of four children with him, but only two of which, Josephine and “red headed” Evelyn are mentioned by Margaret.

White and Black Sheep

Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy’s daughter, Cornie Estes (1878-1958), married Worth Epperson (1873-1959) and set up housekeeping right across the dirt road from Lazarus where they lived and died.

Cornie Estes and Worth Epperson celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. They seemed to be the glue in Estes Holler after Lazarus and Elizabeth died.

Cornie and Worth are buried together in the cemetery called Cedar Hill, at least it was called that by the family, on Lazarus’s land. The road between Cornie’s house and Lazarus’s was barely a two track at the time I first visited in the 1980s.

You can see the cemetery beneath the cedar tree in the center of the photo above.

William George Estes with his sister, Cornie Estes Epperson

While Lazarus seemed to have been the stable cornerstone of the family in Estes Holler, his son, William George was quite the opposite. Put bluntly, William George was unquestionably the black sheep. A very interesting black sheep, but a black sheep nonetheless who seemed to exasperate everyone around him as he drifted from one marriage and crisis to the next, leaving a trail of human carnage behind for others to unravel and clean up, as Margaret’s letter bears witness.

Aunt Margaret

William George and Ollie’s daughter Margaret, the letter-writer, born in 1906, married Edward Wyatt O’ Rourke and moved to California before 1942. The photo below was taken in 1944 and Margaret notes it was in San Francisco.

Margaret and Ed had one son who apparently married, then died (or disappeared) after having one child, a daughter, according to discussions with Margaret back in the 1970s. Unfortunately, Margaret’s stories about her son and the granddaughter were very convoluted and tangled, sometimes contradicted themselves and may have been partly the product of confusion, a propensity towards twisting the truth and mental illness that manifested as paranoia. I wasn’t sure who lived and died, when or where, but I do know it was an ungodly mess.


Aunt Margaret and her sister, Minnie, were both known to be somewhat eccentric in their later years. Ok, maybe in their earlier years too. Both were inclined to stretch the truth from time to time, and sometimes, they simply flat out fabricated stories. They were quite creative as well as experts in manipulating people to draw attention to themselves. These ladies seemed to be addicted to drama, and if there wasn’t any, they stirred some up. Before judging too harshly, read the rest of their story.

When I first read Margaret’s shocking letter, I knew that Margaret had previously been dishonest and manipulative with me. So you’ll appreciate that I had a healthy amount of skepticism about the veracity of the “truths” this letter revealed.

Margaret seemed to grow much worse as she aged as her inclination for tall tales stretched into outright paranoia. I think at one time she knew her stories were untrue, but by the 1970s and 1980s, she appeared to become increasingly unable to discern truth from fiction. The last time I spoke with Margaret who was then living in California, she insisted that I had visited her in either her second home in Hawaii or third home in Singapore and I “knew what I did.” I never met Margaret, nor did Margaret have three homes in different parts of the world, at least not to the best of my knowledge. And clearly, I didn’t “do” anything. Her accusations were nasty, unsettling and frightening. Rather than be drawn into her drama, I simply stepped away entirely, permanently.

Being aware of that history, suffice it to say, I didn’t know what to think, reading Margaret’s 1978 letter a quarter century later. I did what genealogists do, I set forth to prove, or disprove as much as possible.

Come follow along.

Solving the First Mystery

I am summarizing parts of Margaret’s 22-page hand-written tome but directly transcribing much of it, in the order in which it was written. Trust me, it needs her own words.

The letter, written in early 1978 to my step-mother, Virgie, long after my father’s 1963 death, is obviously quite friendly. Margaret opens with “My Dear,” and refers to Virgie as “my darling Sis,” although a red flag shot up when Margaret insisted on paying for a long-distance phone call by sending Virgie a check, even though “we are both on pensions.”

I learned years before that Margaret never did anything without some level of guilt being inflicted. She would voluntarily insist on doing something nice, and then inform you of what a hardship it had caused her. She seemed to live to make everyone around her feel guilty by elevating her own actions. I was a young adult when I was first exposed to Margaret’s behavior. I had never encountered anything like this before and didn’t exactly know what to “do” about it, but I did know it made me feel awful and icky. What I didn’t realize at the time is that’s exactly what it was meant to do. I’ll not ascribe motive, but since Minnie and Margaret exhibited many of the same behaviors, I suspect the root may have been family based, nature or nurture (or lack thereof,) or perhaps all three.

Margaret mentioned in her letter that she had called Virgie “a few years back” and had sent a letter as well to “the address on Hickory” in Dunkirk, Indiana which was returned.

I must say, the mention of the Hickory Street address confirmed something I had suspected from my father’s obituary and Google maps today. 501 Hickory, where Virgie lived when my father was alive is now 202 Shadyside. The houses had been renumbered, apparently between 1963 when my father died and 1978. Virgie’s home was at the intersection of the two streets.

I then thought to check in my mother’s old address book, and sure enough, Virgie’s address on Hickory had been struck through and replaced by the Shadyside address. Virgie never moved, closing her life in the house where it opened 86 years earlier.

These two side by side pictures show the house in 1919 on the left, with my father in uniform, and about 1963 on the right.

The house looks very different today, but it’s still recognizable. One mystery solved!

Margaret Thinks I Ask Too Many Questions!

Margaret begins:

“I have been trying to decide what to do about Roberta’s letter which was so abrupt and chuck full of personal questions regarding my family tree – since her mother seems to have withheld information regarding her connections with my brother, I do not feel it is any business of mine to reveal any knowledge I might have of Bill’s personal affairs or of any members of my family – and certainly not mine.”

Truthfully, this made me bristle.

All I can say is that I did ask lots of questions because there was no one else to ask and Margaret had encouraged me to do so – going so far as sending me letters with photos. I was grateful to find someone, anyone, who might have any answers. Margaret certainly never exhibited this attitude when we talked on the phone. I initially felt welcomed, even embraced. Margaret provided information, copied and sent photos and gave me the names of other people to contact. I was shocked and hurt to read that paragraph about myself.

Margaret was very uncharitable towards my mother who suffered from the behavior of my father in many ways. She didn’t live near my father’s family in Tennessee, and to the best of my knowledge, had only met his father and step-mother on one trip. She didn’t know the rest of the family, so she could hardly have withheld information she didn’t know.

Not only did Mother raise me alone, without financial support from him or support of any kind from any of his family, including Margaret, mother endured the disgrace that his choices reflected upon her. In many cases, Mother believed I was better off not knowing details of his exploits, as she did not want my opportunities to be painted with his brush after his death. Mother believed wholeheartedly that the choices she made were for my own good and in my best interest, given that she could not go back in time and “unmake” my father my father.

Ironically, Margaret closed her letter by saying exactly the same thing – that I was better off not knowing. But, now I do.

It’s wryly humorous that the very letter in which Margaret tells Virgie she isn’t going to provide me with information is the exact letter that provides me with that information. And what a revelation it was…

The First Secret Revealed

“Now I will give you a little secret of Bill’s you may have already have found out.

Our parents were divorced while young. Our father never contributed one dime to any of our support.”

Seems my grandfather had something in common with my father.

“We were all placed in foster homes and seldom had a chance to see each other until we became adults. We would then arrange a meeting at my mothers in Chicago over some holiday – never more than one or two at a time.”

I never knew that. All placed in foster homes? How incredibly sad. My heart melted. Ollie seems to have a perpetually sad look about her, even when she smiles as shown in the tiny photo at left.

My Father Ran Away to Join the Service

“Bill ran away and joined the army in 1916 by hiking his age from 14 to 18 – was a top Sargent during WWI and married Martha Dotter [sic] at Battle Creek Michigan at the age, correct age, of 16. Edna Miller was born while he was still in service. He was later divorced. My mother interfered and had the marriage annulled because of his age plus the fact that she disliked Martha who was much older than Bill.”

Had the marriage annulled? I realize that my father’s marriage to Ilo, another wife, might have been annulled, because he married under an assumed name, but I never heard anything about his marriage to Martha Dodderer being annulled. I would think a judge, especially at that time, would be very hesitant to annul a legal marriage into which a child had been born, effectively making the child illegitimate.

My sister Edna did say something about Ollie kidnapping her and taking her to Chicago when she was young, or at least trying to. So the word “interfered” might be somewhat understated.

Margaret continues:

“Bill was born in 1902 in Springdale, Arkansas. I had two other brothers born there – older ones.”

My father, according to his delayed birth certificate, was born in Sneedville, Tennessee in 1903, but then again, that birth certificate was issued based on his father’s affidavit and a Bible, also produced by my grandfather. His father wasn’t exactly the pillar of integrity.

Who knows why that birth certificate was obtained at that time, or why in Hancock County, Tennessee. If my father was born in Sneedville, or near Sneedville, that suggests that perhaps Ollie was living with or near her family at that time.

I would love to see that Bible. I had no idea a family Bible existed, nor where it is today.

Other records indicate that my father was born in 1901, so who knows for sure.

Given that Margaret was born a few years later, in 1906, she would have been recalling from memory, and she’s correct that the older children were born in Arkansas.

Margaret was only counting living siblings when she referred to “2 older brothers.” She had 4 older brothers in total. Brother Robert burned to death in a cabin in Estes Holler either not long before or about the time Margaret was born. Brother Sammy was born and died in the summer of 1893 and another child of unknown gender was born about 1896 and died before 1900 in Arkansas.

“When you were here I gave you a 8X10 picture of Bill taken at Battle Creek during WWI. I am having copies reprinted of that picture now for other members of the family.”

Ironically, Margaret did indeed copy this photo along with several more and sent them to me. Regardless of how she characterized me in this letter, without her generosity, I would not have the pictures of my family today that are included in this article. Thank you Margaret.

“It was his second hitch in the service when he was in trouble that I had investigated for you after his death.”

My father’s time in the service, including the “problematic” second hitch is detailed in the article about his love letters to Virgie.

Whatever information Margaret found went to her grave with her. Her investigation would have been before the devastating St. Louis National Personnel Record Center fire in 1973 in which my father’s records were burned.

New Year’s Day, 1944

“I last saw Bill on New Year’s Day 1944. I think the year is correct. Mother had phoned me in San Francisco that she was ill and I took a 72 hour leave from work and caught a flight back from the airfield.”

Margaret labeled this photo, “1944 New Years,” so it must have been taken in Chicago during that visit.

“She had also contacted Bill and we had arrived at mother’s the same day – we also left the following day (New Years.) Bill had some woman with him but I don’t recall her name. I think they worked at the same place and he had promised to show her Lincoln Park Zoo. She was not dressed for the freezing weather and I loaned her my fur jacket and gloves and stayed home with mother until they returned.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “some woman” in conjunction with my father.

This comment suggests that my father was coming from someplace else, since Margaret says they arrived the same day. It may also mean he came from a location significantly further south, where the weather was warmer.

On November 19, 1943, I believe my father married Ethel Hinton in Chicago, so Ethel would clearly have understood Chicago weather. However, by March of 1945, 16 months later, my father had married Dorothy Kilpatrick who lived in Richmond, Indiana. Dorothy should have been prepared for winter weather too – Richmond isn’t terribly far from Chicago. Is this woman with my father at New Year’s a new mystery woman?


“Then we each returned [to] our work. I never saw him again to speak to. However I’m sure I saw him at the post office in San Pedro in 1958 or 1959. He avoided me and seemed to just disappear in the crowd.”

In 1978, when she wrote this letter, Margaret would have been 71 and the paranoia that became very evident by the early 1980s had apparently begun. It may have been present back in the 1950s. I’m not entirely convinced that Margaret, as well as Minnie, didn’t have a form of mental illness that included paranoia well before dementia set in. They both exhibited the same types of behavior relative to being untruthful, as did my father (to some extent, minus the paranoia) and their father.

Another “Clink,” Another Teenage Girl

“Sometime before that I had received a letter from him in some clink in Kentucky.”

Wonderful, another jail record to search for before New Years of 1944. Or did she mean before 1958 or 1959? Sigh. Thanks Dad.

“Seems he had given some gal a ride across the line and she turned out to be [a] teenage runaway. He was caught with her and was in trouble because of it. He needed financial aid. I sent it to him. He also asked me to assist his wife Ethel. I had a letter from her also but can’t remember the details except that she was very much in love with him and would wait for him.”

Lord have mercy, here’s Ethel in Margaret’s letter waiting for Dad. Another piece of evidence that suggests that my father was the William Estes who married Ethel Hinton, and they are one and the same. How I would love to see that letter from Ethel.

If the woman at New Years of 1944 had been Ethel, Margaret would surely have connected those dots wouldn’t she?

Margaret may have been confused about the date or the state in which my father’s brush with the law over the teenage girl occurred. Here’s a brief timeline:

  • November 1943 – A William Estes married Ethel Hinton in Chicago. Uncertain if this is my father, but strongly suspect so, given that Margaret also mentions an Ethel.
  • New Year’s 1944 – Dad in Chicago with a woman he worked with and took to the zoo. Margaret doesn’t recall her name, but this is just 6 weeks after he married Ethel if the William Estes who married Ethel Hinton is my father.
  • December 29, 1944 until March 12, 1945 – My father worked at Eastern State Mental Hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee according to their records. He was married, no wife’s name given, but a relative named Dortha Estes was also a state employee.
  • By March 15, 1945 – Dad was in Walker County, Georgia marrying a teenage girl. He was roughly 43, but lied about his age.
  • According to subsequent court records, at the time he married in Walker County, Georgia, he was already married to Dorothy Kilpatrick who lived in Richmond, Indiana. He was convicted of bigamy in Georgia. However, that episode doesn’t include an underage girl running away or Kentucky. My father and his Georgia bride were married where she lived in Walker County, Georgia under the nose of her disapproving father.
  • March 1945 through December 1948 – As a result of his “error in judgement,” he got to spend time in jail until December, 1948 when he was released and returned to Chicago.
  • February 1949 – Married Ellen in Chicago.

What happened to Ethel (Hinton?) and Dorothy Kilpatrick? Your guess is as good as mine! I’d love to know.


On November 19, 1943, one William Estes married Ethel Hinton in Chicago.

I have been unable, in spite of writing to the Cook County Clerk’s Office multiple times, to obtain the actual application which both the bride and groom would have signed, which would confirm if the groom was indeed my father. If any of my readers know how to obtain the application from Cook County, please let me know.

Name: William Estes
Marriage Date: 19 Nov 1943
Spouse: Ethel Hinton
Marriage Location: Cook County, IL
Marriage license: {7DD8EEDE-D87A-4D33-AF3D-EDFB858ECB23}
File Number: 1795725
Archive Collection Name: Cook County Genealogy Records (Marriages)
Archive repository location: Chicago, IL
Archive repository name: Cook County Clerk

Based on this information from Margaret about an Ethel along with his propensity for getting married, it surely appears likely that this is him.

If Dad married Ethel in November 1943, was in Chicago with another woman at New Years of 1944, in Knoxville married to a Dorothy by the 1944/1945 winter, and then marrying another young gal in Walker County, Georgia in March of 1945, when the heck did he have time to get in trouble in Kentucky? Oh, wait, it’s my Dad after all!

The logical gap appears to be between New Year’s of 1944 and late 1945 when he was with Dorothy which “should be” between Ethel and Dorothy as well. His bigamy conviction in Georgia provided me with Dorothy Kilpatrick’s name and that she was living in the Richmond, Indiana Camping Park at that time.

The piece of information that throws me, however, is that Margaret says that Ethel was waiting for him. This surely must be before March 1945 when Dad was married to Dorothy and marrying in Georgia and before 1949 when Dad married Ellen in Chicago, so maybe Ethel was waiting for him when he was in jail in Georgia? But he was married to Dorothy then. I’m really confused. Could he have been a trigamist – married to the gal in Georgia, Dorothy and Ethel all at the same time? Is trigamist even a word? I can’t believe I have to look this word up in connection with my father. Bigamist was bad enough.

I suspect there’s another juicy chapter buried here someplace. Was he in jail someplace ELSE involving a teenage runaway a different time? In Kentucky? Is Georgia the “clink” Margaret is talking about. Seems unlikely. I need digitized court records. That’s what I’m putting on my Christmas list! Santa, are you listening?

Ollie’s Death

“The next I heard was after mother had died in 55 and I had received the funeral bill some months later. I ate his bottom out about what he had done and why he had let Jean pass herself off as me in Chicago. Also why I had not been notified of mother’s illness. I had been sending money orders and cashiers checks to her monthly. They were easier for her to cash at the store, P.O. or bank than my personal check which was from an out of state bank. I don’t believe she had a bank account but she did have a safety deposit box. She told me that much.

She was also receiving a RR [railroad] pension from my step-father’s death – also her own social security check. Someone had to be cashing them and signing her name. Every time I phoned the house I was told she was out.”

During this time period in Chicago, my father was involved with two women. He had married Ellen in 1949 and my mother later. In 1955, my mother, while pregnant for me, was taking care of Ollie who lived with them, was terminally ill and had terrible bedsores. Ollie did not live in her own apartment, could no longer get herself out of bed, was gravely ill and in a great deal of pain before her death on April 9th. Her death certificate says that she had atherosclerotic heart disease for 1 year and multiple decubitus ulcers for 4 months. This was not a sudden illness.

My mother was VERY unhappy with my father about the circumstances. While Mother was taking care of his gravely ill mother, he was drinking heavily and was more often absent than present. I guarantee you, if Margaret had called and my mother answered, Mother assuredly would have told her that her mother was ill and asked her to come and help.

Mother didn’t know for another year and a half or so that my father had another family and the “other wife” was pregnant too, at the same time! No wonder he was drinking.

I don’t doubt that someone was cashing those checks. It could well have been my father and he might have been spending the money on liquor. On the other hand, that money could have been buying medicine for Ollie and food. Regardless, I find it odd that Margaret didn’t realize how ill her mother, then nearly 81, was and had been for some significant time. Me thinks the lady doth protest too much, justifying her own absence when her mother so desperately needed her presence. Margaret’s mother’s care fell to my pregnant mother. I assure you, my mother would have been extremely grateful for any assistance.

“He didn’t answer for awhile and then to say he tried but couldn’t find me. My address was always on my envelopes with the checks to mother. I write fairly plain and when he needed a favor he had no difficulty in locating me very very quickly – phone reverse charges, telegrams, collect or special delivery.”

My father had a way of finding people when it suited his purposes.

The Halcombs

“A couple years afterwards I was calling on Dad in Lynch, KY. We stayed at the Cumberland motel – not with the Estes or Holcomb family.”

This would have been about 1957.

I had no idea who the Holcomb family was, but a hint like this was too important not to pursue. In fact, I had never heard that name before. How important could this be, anyway, if I had never heard this name?

Buckle up and hold on!!!

A revelation emerged around 3 AM after a long day/night of searching. Bless those Kentucky birth registers, even if they are incomplete.

It seems that both of William George Estes’s daughters by Crocie had children by Halcomb (not Holcomb) men.

On April 4, 1943, John J. Halcomb was born to William Halcomb and Josephine Estes who was then aged 20 years and one month.

Josephine, above, born in 1923, was Aunt Margaret’s half-sister through their mutual father, William George Estes and his third wife, Crocie, who lived in Harlan County, Kentucky.

I don’t know if William Halcomb and Josephine were married or not. With this family, I’ve come to view the word “married” not as a legal condition, but a description used when socially convenient. However, they must have been living as a family, because Margaret says they didn’t stay with the Holcomb’s, indicting that there was a Holcomb household.

Sadly, Josephine’s son, John Halcomb perished tragically on August 9, 1965 at 9:45 PM, at the age of 22, per his death certificate. His parents were both listed on that document, and Josephine Jackson, his mother, then married to Andy Jackson, reported the death.

John died in a car accident, immediately, of multiple internal and external injuries causing shock and hemorrhage. The note on his death certificate says, “ran off roadway” on Highway 160 near Lynch. Highway 160 is the dogleg road in Harlan County that runs upwards through Lynch, beside the creek and the coal mines, to the top of Black Mountain. William George Estes and Crocie lived in “Shack 74.” on Highway 160. Everyone there lived in shacks.

John Halcomb was buried in the D. L. Creech Cemetery, the same location where William George Estes was buried a few years later, along with John’s grandmother, Crocie, who had died 4 years before his death. Neither John Halcomb nor William George nor Crocie have tombstones. Josephine and Andy Jackson’s graves are marked with funeral home markers. Once those are gone, if they aren’t already, their graves will be entirely unmarked.

The only person in this entire family to have a stone is Josephine’s sister, Evelyn, who shares one with her second husband, Marco Pusice.

John Halcomb was Josephine’s only child. In the few pictures I’ve seen of Josephine, she is never smiling. Now I have a much better idea of why.

I never knew my grandfather had this grandson, or that the grandson was killed in a car accident two years after my father was killed the same way. William George was 90 when my father died and 92 when his grandson was killed.

The Second Halcomb

Next, I discovered in the Kentucky birth records that a daughter, Joyce Lee Halcomb was born on December 13, 1953 to a Halcomb male, who I believe is Jake (maybe Jack?) Halcomb and Evelyn Estes. The Kentucky birth index doesn’t provide the entire record, only the child’s and mother’s names. Of course, Evelyn is Josephine’s sister.

Both sisters had children by Halcomb males? What???

I had to recheck these records, because frankly, I was dumbstruck. I could find no Estes and Holcomb or Halcomb marriages for either Evelyn or Josephine.

This soap opera truly never ends, but back to Margaret’s letter.

“Bill and some woman along with mother’s dog King had been there.”

I suspect that woman might have been Ellen. Margaret apparently knew my mother, at least by name, but never referenced Ellen in her letters, although my father had been married to Ellen since 1949. King died tragically when I was about a year or maybe 18 months old, so Margaret’s visit, and my father’s, was after April 1955 when Ollie died and before 1957 when King died.

Bad Checks

“Bill had cashed a bogus check on some New York Pharmaceutical Company he was said to be working for. The store that cashed the check (Balls) was looking for him. Dad had promised to make it good but he was only drawing $10 from KY state – so I went down and paid it off. Also he later wrote one on himself which bounced.”

According to a court case, Smith Ball, a controversial man, died in 1964 and had operated a second hand store in Harlan County, engaged in the business of lending money and accepted promissory notes.

A New York Pharmaceutical Company? As odd as that sounds, my father was practicing medicine in Tennessee as he came and went, so that’s entirely feasible. Maybe by this time he was one of the early “drug reps.” At that time, doctors dispensed their own medicine when they saw patients.

“Seems mother used to sign notes for him on Chicago banks and I’d end up paying them off to save his neck. Since they were always paid his credit was good so he just kept repeating it and mother kept signing and I kept paying.”

Joe “Dode” Estes

“I was also sending Dad money and helping Joe [Dode] with his medical bills only to find out he was spending it on trips to Tazewell, Tennessee while working at the same time.”

Tazewell, in Claiborne County, the epicenter of the Estes clan, was about an hour south of Harlan County. I suspect Joe, nicknamed Dode, was visiting Claiborne County from Illinois.

“I also chewed him out in 57 when Ed and I visited Eppersons and Dode was working in the cain patch after telling me he was down and couldn’t get up. We went after him and when Aunt Corny Epperson told me Joe had come there splurging money received from his son’s death in the armed service – yet crying hard luck to me, I flipped my lid and really laid him out flat with a good lecture. I never wrote to him since and was told several years later he was killed in a accident but it’s only hearsay I’m repeating what Josephine wrote me and Edna Seal had told her.”

Above, Worth Epperson, husband of Cornie Estes Epperson, at left and William George Estes, at right.

Edna Seal (1917-1987) is Edna Epperson, daughter of Worth and Cornie Estes Epperson, who married Wilson Seal (1900-1961).

Joe Estes wasn’t killed in an accident, despite the family stories to the contrary, but died an old man in 1994. His life, like my father’s, was shrouded in mystery.

My mother also thought Joe had been killed in an accident, which suggests my father believed the same thing, but Joe died in 1994 in Fairfield, Wayne County, Illinois where he apparently had been living in 1942, according to Margaret’s letter.

Joe’s granddaughter told me that her father, Charlie, at about age 10, so about 1938, witnessed “men with guns” come and take Joe away. Joe was not seen by Charlie again until he was an adult.

I did find a record from 1926 in Fowler, Indiana where Joe was arrested for stealing a car. In a 1930 newspaper article, Joe admitted that he stole 21 chickens from the farm where he was employed and was sent to the penal farm for 6 months.

In another document, the police in Indiana were questioning my father in 1938 or so about whether or not he had seen Joe.

Newspapers.com shows that Joe’s wife filed for divorce in September 1940, giving their marriage date as 1926 and separation date as September of 1930.  Their son, Robert Vernon Estes was born in March of 1931, so she didn’t file for divorce for another 9 years, which would have been after the 1938 timeframe when Joe’s oldest son, Charlie, remembered the men with guns taking Joe away.

We know Joe was in California visiting Margaret in 1942. I originally thought perhaps Joe was involved with a witness protection program, but now, I’m thinking possibly prison. The Indiana and Illinois records might yield interesting information. An “accident” would be a good way to “cover” the fact that Joe was “missing” while in prison, although that accident supposedly occurred after 1957, not between 1938 and 1942. Like I said, this man’s life is full of inconsistencies.

Joe may well have been in an accident at some point, because his granddaughter reported that he had amnesia and would wander away. Margaret also mentioned medical bills. I surely will be glad when Newspapers.com brings the newspapers from that part of Illinois online.

Older folks in Claiborne County during my 1980s visits mentioned that at one time Joe had purchased a diner in Claiborne County with the money from his son’s death, then lost it. The son who died in the military was named Robert Vernon Estes whose family apparently discovered after the end of the Korean War in 1954 that he had perished in Korea in 1951. In August of 1952 when Robert’s mother, who had remarried, died, Robert Vernon was still listed as missing in action in her obituary.

William George Estes Dies

“Dad wrote me a nasty letter and I also cut him off. I had been sending him $25 a month and also when he was in Tazewell [Tennessee] I was sending Eppersons $25 towards his food. $50 here and there costs money and couldn’t take any more pressure. Seems I was a SOB and everyone else was just dandy.

When Dad died no one knew where to reach me and Josephine’s husband Andy arranged the funeral. Some 3 or 4 years later I learned about it and sent them double what they had paid out. Andy spent $750 and I sent $1500. Plus other amount at different times. Then I went back in the hospital for care and never contacted any of them since.”

William George Estes, my grandfather, died in 1973, 4 months shy of his 99th birthday. Andy Jackson was Josephine’s husband by 1965. I called the house in about 1978 when I was first trying to piece the puzzle of my family together. A boy, maybe age 10, answered the phone and a gruff man yelled at the boy to,”hang up, you know we don’t answer the phone after dark.” I’ve never heard of that tradition before, but mountain people were sometimes “funny” about things.

Regarding Margaret’s hospitalization, she told me in 1978 that she had liver cancer, but when they opened her up, they found a second functioning liver underneath and removed the cancerous one. Miracle or myth? I don’t know. Amazingly, she didn’t pass away until 2005, 3 months shy of her 99th birthday, so if she had cancer in one liver, with an extra one next door, the cancer clearly hadn’t spread which would be extremely unusual.

Bombshell – Grandpa was a Bigamist Too

Boom, mic drop!

“Dad was never divorced from Virginia’s mother.”

Virginia’s mother was William George’s second wife, Joice Hatfield, at left, with Virginia at right.

I can’t find any record where William George Estes and Joice Hatfield were actually married, although many of the Hancock County, Tennessee records were destroyed by fire. I’ve checked the records of Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. If you never get married legally, you don’t have to bother to get divorced. So much less hassle. So maybe William George Estes wasn’t technically a bigamist after all. Maybe.

“Josephine doesn’t know that. But there’s something Virginia doesn’t know either.

My mother caught Joice and Dad one day in bed together and nearly beat Dad to death with a plow rope because of it and the only thing that saved Joice was her Aunt, Mrs. Tom Folley pulled mom off before she killed them both. Then is when our family was broken up. Dad later got the divorce with Mrs. Folley as witness of the beating but never the reason.”

So William got divorced because Ollie beat him after catching him “in the act” of cheating? He’s lucky she didn’t kill him.

This picture appears to be the last family picture taken, in 1914, in Fowler, Indiana. Ollie looks anything but happy. Children are Margaret at left, Joe “Dode” behind her, Estel the oldest in the middle top, my father, William Sterling at right in the rear, and Minnie, the blonde child beside Ollie.

I called the clerk and rechecked for divorce records in Benton County, Indiana, where Fowler is located, from 1908-1922, with no records found. I had checked previously, but sometimes rechecking yields different results. Those divorce records might make for interesting reading as there may be more to the story. The story at this point IS that there aren’t any records in Benton County. Were William George and Ollie ever officially divorced?

Ollie moved to Chicago by 1918. Surely Mrs. Folley wouldn’t have been testifying in Chicago about something that happened in Indiana with William George who was then living in Tennessee or Kentucky with Joice.

The Hatfield-Estes-Brewer Drama

“Hatfield forced Dad to marry Joice when Virginia was born. They sent for her cousin Crocia Brewer to come and help take care of Joice and the baby. Low and behold Joice caught them in the same way mother had caught her. Joice grabbed a shot gun and was going to kill Dad and Crocia and Aunt Corney Epperson took it away from her and Grandpa Estes [Lazarus] run Dad and Crocia both off and told them if they ever came back he’d kill them both. Aunty told me this herself years later.”

This had to occur before 1918 because Lazarus died July 7, 1918. However, Virginia wasn’t born until November 25, 1918, so clearly something is amiss with this story, because Virginia was born 4 months after Lazarus died.

I heard this same story about Lazarus running William George and Joice off because of how they treated Ollie, after Ollie caught them. Same story, but cheating on different wives.

On September 12, 1918, William George Estes registered for the draft in Tazewell, Tennessee, giving “Joisce Estes” as his wife and the address as S. Tazewell, so they were apparently “married” by this time – or at least had moved back to Tennessee and were living as a couple. Joice would have been about 7 months pregnant at that time.

Clearly Margaret’s story or dates are a bit confused.

Two years later, in the 1920 census, Joice was still living with William George in Claiborne County, and Crocie along her son Horace were living with them as well. Crocie was Joice’s cousin, 2 years younger. So it appears that the incident where Joice caught William George “with” Crocie didn’t happen before the census of 1920 – because they assuredly didn’t live together after that event. By that time, Lazarus had been dead for 2 years.

If indeed Cornie Epperson took the gun away from Joice, this tells me that they were living in Estes Holler, not in Kentucky at that time – and indeed, the 1920 census bears that out.

So, I’d wager that Lazarus actually ran William George and Joice out, that William George moved back to Estes Holler in 1918 after Lazarus died, where he was living in 1920, and that the incident where he was caught carnally with Crocie happened in Estes Holler, where Cornie Estes Epperson lived, after the 1920 census.

William George Estes was a serial “cousin cheater.”

Crocie Brewer

Margaret didn’t mention this, but according to my mother, Crocie Brewer was deaf. I don’t believe she was able to speak either. My mother accompanied my father to visit William George and Crocie just one time between 1950 and 1955 and reported that my grandfather treated Crocie terribly. Mother refused to ever return. She used to shudder discussing it and flat out refused to provide any details.

Margaret continues:

“Well, the old man took her [Crocie] over in Arkansas where he and mother had started out. He made a good living for awhile with his camera. He was also a master carpenter.”

William George was a photographer, among other things. Many people had multiple skills and did whatever combination of things they could to make ends meet.

William George Estes and Ollie lived in Springdale, Washington County, Arkansas for several years after they were married. Crocie’s first child with William George, Josephine, was born March 19, 1923 in Arkansas, so Margaret’s information seems to be accurate. Perhaps he had truly worn out his welcome in Estes Holler by that time.

Given this information, Crocie would have gotten pregnant in about June of 1922, so Joice and William George would have split sometime between mid-1920 (census) and mid-1922.

“He was pretty old when he showed up at my brother Estel’s place in Appalachia, VA and confessed he had never married Crocia but by then there was children by her also. Estel didn’t know Joice had never divorced the old man so he took them over on the KY side and got them married.”

Children implies more than one child.

We know that William George Estes was in Arkansas in 1923 when Josephine was born. Daughter Helen May Estes was born in 1925, but her death certificate doesn’t indicate where. I can’t find William George in the 1930 census, so he may have been in transit or back so far on the mountain that the census taker missed him.

We know that by 1935, William George is back in Harlan County because the 1940 census says he lives in the same residence that he did in 1935 which would have been “Shack 74.” In the 1930 census, shacks 71 and 72 exist, but shack 74, apparently “up above” Lynch towards the top of the mountain, doesn’t. His appearance at his son, Estel’s house, in Appalachia, VA would have been sometime probably between 1925 and 1935.

In 1925, when the second child was born, William George was 52. He had two more children, the last one being born in 1935 when he would have been 62.

Appalachia, Virginia is located on Highway 160, down the other side of Black Mountain, across the line into Virginia, 15 miles along hairpin turns crossing the summit of the highest mountain in Kentucky.

William George lived near the top of the mountain on the Kentucky side. My mother said the drive was harrowing and treacherous and that was before the days of guardrails and paved roads.

For most of the 15 mile distance, the road is but a thread between rocks on one side and a precipice on the other, more comfortable for mountain goats than cars. It’s easy to see why John Halcomb died when he ran off the road. Today, the road has guardrails.

The first flat land that includes houses of any kind is about a mile east of Lynch on Main Street.

When I visited a few years ago, William George’s place was described by locals as “up above Lynch.” I’m sure Shack 74 is long gone. This shows Highway 160, heading “up” out of Lynch where the last houses are found today.

Bombshell Two – Worse Than Bigamy

Wow, I didn’t expect that bigamy bombshell. My grandfather was a bigamist, assuming he was actually married to either (or both) his second and/or third wives. For all I know, he could have been a trigamist too. Indeed, William George provided a right fine example for my father and the rest of his children. It’s possible that we have double trigamists, a father and son pair.

Margaret was right. Karma struck Joice for what she did to Ollie.

“The grandparents had long been dead when Dad took Josephine over to visit her relatives at the age of 15.”

The grandparents would have been Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy who both died in 1918. Josephine, born in 1923, would have been 15 in 1938. “Over to visit her relatives,” would have referred to “over the mountain,” meaning to Claiborne County.

“After that he went alone and stayed lengthy vacations leaving Crocia and the kids to make out the best way they could.”

This information implies that William George has been absent from Claiborne County for many years, from the time he and Crocie left before 1923 until about 1938. Yep, I’d say he wore out that welcome. After an absence of 15 years, as a fairly old man, he returned. But why, and why then?

In 1938, Crocia had two living children. Josephine born in 1923 (so age 15) and Evelyn (age 7,) born in 1931, just a month after smallpox killed Crocie and William George’s daughter, Helen May.

However, a baby boy, James, died in 1937 at 17 months of age…apparently of starvation. His death certificate generously says that he died of “acute intestinal indigestion due to improper feeding.” This was the secret to terrible for anyone to discuss openly.

Of course, when I read that, pieces suddenly fell into place. I remembered being told that my father and his siblings were fed moonshine in order to ease the pain in their stomachs so they could sleep when there was no food. And that was 24 years before baby James died, when William George was more physically able (assuming he was willing) to work.

Apparently Crocie and the children weren’t doing well at all, and Crocie was dealing with this alone. Where the hell was William George? Why was he hanging out in Claiborne County when he was clearly needed at home?

The 1940 census tells us that the neighbor families on Lynch Road in Harlan county were working most of the time and made $1350, $1820, $2600, $1190 (3 families) and $1720, compared to the paltry $144 made by William George Estes in the 12 months ending Dec. 31, 1939. William George, age 67, claimed he was unable to work as a farm hand, Crocie was doing housework and Josephine, age 17, was working at “other.” William George had worked no hours the previous week, and only 24 weeks the previous year.

In addition to bootlegging, William George reportedly cut timber to shore up the mine shafts. I don’t know how a man could be an unsuccessful bootlegger on a mining mountain, but apparently he was.

Oh, and if you think we’re done with the bombshells – we’re not!

Bombshell Three – A Third Halcomb?

“I helped Estel and I helped out as best we could. He wasn’t working half the time and I helped out all the way around doing without myself.

Aunt Corny was sick [died in1958] and Bill Epperson’s wife Lou wasn’t well [died 1962] but was taking care of everyone else. Meanwhile, my step-father died [1941] and I had double responsibility, no help from the others. Somehow we [we is struck through] managed to plug along – dishing out here and there and raising our own son. Both Ed and I was well fed up with the whole mess but continued to do the best we could by all of them until we caught up with what was going on. Seems like the old man would roost at Eppersons until the red headed Evelyn would go after him to come home and sign for my registered check. He’d cash it, give it to Crocia and catch the next bus back to Tazewell.”

For “red-headed Evelyn” who was born in 1931 to have been old enough to drive, this would have had to have been after 1947, or so, assuming she drove a car.

“Uncle Worth was pretty disgusted and so was everyone else. Lou wrote me and explained they hardly could feed themselves as I would send one check to Lou at Tazewell, one to Dad at Lynch so everyone didn’t show up to be fed free. It seems because people who live on farms is expected to have a generous supply of food on hand at all times and all relations welcome. First one and then the others.

I contacted the undertakers at Tazewell for an estimate of funeral cost for the old man and was going to make arrangements for his internment at the family burial plats on Cedar Hill. I was afraid he would get down sick at Eppersons and no one to pay for his funeral bill. I would have prepaid when the estimate came back. Well I never got such an eaten out as to mind my own business. His son-in-law would take care of his expenses, etc., etc. So I washed my hands of the whole shebang.

Later I was told his son-in-law, Jake, walked out on the whole mess when he learned that Evelyn, his wife, was not Dad’s daughter, but his own uncle’s daughter by Crocia. Yup!

Then the fat was in the fire. Seems Jake had been working in the mines and paying the bills. Now they were all out on their cans.”

OK, now I’m really confused. Jake was a Halcomb. If Evelyn was Jake’s uncle’s daughter, that means that Jake and Evelyn were first cousins. That’s not so unusual, but that also means that if Evelyn’s daughter or granddaughter ever DNA tests, and that’s a true allegation, I’ll never know because Evelyn wasn’t an Estes. Of course, if they test and match me, then obviously Margaret was wrong.

So both of William George’s daughters AND his wife were carrying on with and having children by Halcomb men? Lordy, I want to see what these men looked like!

I can’t exactly piece the Halcomb line together, but this is Philip Halcomb from Letcher County, KY, born in 1898, probably from the same line. He is quite handsome, but still…

In the 1930 census, there are two William Halcomb’s in Harlan County, both sons of different William Halcombs. The only Jack of even approximately the right age was born in 1926, son of Melvin and Armilda Halcomb. There’s another Jack born in 1928 to a mother named Susie – the Kentucky birth indexes don’t provide the names of the father.

So, we’re left with the question – who is Jake’s uncle? For that matter, who, exactly, was Jake?

Margaret STILL isn’t done!

The State Mental Hospital

“From what Estel told me the red headed one [Evelyn] done a time for drunkenness in the State Hospital.”

That doesn’t surprise me, given what we know about William George’s bootlegging, not to mention that Estel (left, below), Evelyn’s half-brother, reportedly continued that family tradition – having his daughters (also below) deliver moonshine in the mining town of Fleming, Letcher Co., KY where they lived in the 1940s.

Furthermore William George Estes was the grandson of Joel Vannoy (1813-1895), one of the first patients in the Eastern State Mental Hospital in Knoxville, TN when it opened it’s door in 1886. Some of Joel’s descendants were patients there as well. According to Uncle George Estes, Joel’s great-grandson who was born just 16 years after Joel died and clearly knew the family, Joel simply “lost his mind.” There is no evidence that Joel drank, but the Estes clan certainly did, and mental illness and alcohol are a very, VERY bad combination.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of “red headed Evelyn” but she is reported to have been stunningly beautiful.

The “State Hospital” in Kentucky at that time was located in Lexington, KY. Unfortunately, admissions records aren’t public after 1913.

Josephine and Andy Jackson

“Dad went to live with Josephine. Crocia died [1961]. All a mess. But my guess is with all the trouble Josephine and Andy [Jackson] went through with them it must have been a relief when both old folks died.”

I don’t know when Josephine and Andy Jackson married, but it was before her son, John Halcomb, died in 1965.

I also never knew that William George lived with daughter Josephine, apparently after Crocie’s death. He would have been 88 when Crocie passed away.

Dumping Evelyn

“Bill tried to dump Evelyn off on some of the kin folk and it didn’t work. I will always believe that’s what he was up to when I saw him in San Pedro. I think he got cold feet.”

Margaret’s paranoia was showing. The first flaw in her logic is the question of why my father, who lived in either Chicago, Illinois or northern Indiana at that time was in any way involved with Evelyn’s life in Harlan County, Kentucky, hundreds of miles away.

If my father wanted to dump Evelyn off with kinfolk, there were a heck of a lot closer places than California. Not to mention, where would he have gotten the money for that trip? My Dad was always poor as a church mouse.

Evelyn was with Jake Halcomb by 1952 when her daughter was born, so this “dumping” attempt in Margaret’s mind that supposedly happened in 1958-1959 would have been after Evelyn had been with Jake for at least 6 years and was 27 or 28 years old. That just doesn’t make sense.

Foster Homes and Elsa, the Lost Sister

“Elsa my younger sister was born 5 months after my parents was separated.”

Oh my God, poor Ollie. Forty years old, five living children, pregnant for the sixth, and a husband cheating with her 20-year-old cousin. The only child old enough to be on their own was Estel who married in February of 1914. Elsa was reported by Margaret to have been born in 1914.

“My mother had placed the rest of us in foster homes by that time. I was with the Freeman family. Dad’s x-boss, Bert Freeman was a building contractor. Dad his master carpenter. Minnie was with the Hamptons and Dode was at Pete LaFountains in Royal Center, Indiana.”

Abuse and Near Starvation

At one time, Margaret told me that my father had been married to Laila LaFountain. I wonder now if Margaret had the names Laila and Ilo confused, and the surname LaFountain mixed in for good measure. Joe was associated with that family, not my father. After all, it had been more than 60 years by the time Margaret was recalling that information.

Margaret told me that Laila used to hook Dad to the plow like a mule and whip him to plow the field. Said she saw it with her own eyes in Indiana. I was horrified and at that time, couldn’t even imagine such a thing.

The 1910 census shows no Laila LaFountain in Benton County. I’m relieved, but did someone hook Dad to a plow and whip him? Or Joe? Why would Margaret make something like that up? There is surely some grain of truth someplace. Did someone really do that to my father? Is this really why he ran away and joined the army in the middle of a war? My heart just aches.

“Sterl [my father’s nickname] had just arrived from Tazewell all tattered and torn – hungry and hollow eyes – he had stayed behind with Dad but it seems he got run off. Mother sent her cousin Ebb Cook money for his train passage and Cook sent him on to mother. “

Ebb Cook was Albert Rice Cook (1860-1942) who married Mary Jane Bolton, daughter of Milton Halen Bolton, half-brother to Ollie’s father. Ebb was Ollie’s half first cousin.

Obviously, Ebb was someone Ollie felt she could trust, and indeed, he did prove trustworthy. He probably saved my father’s life.

“A more pitiful sight you never saw. Mrs. Freeman would send me over every night with fresh milk and food for mother, Bill and clothing for the baby. Grapes were ripe so there were always plenty of juice for them. Later mother hired out as a cook in a café. Elsa was turned over to Dr. Nellie Green to care for. Dr. Green had no children of her own.”

Oh NO! Ollie had to give up her baby too??? Margaret once told me that “something was wrong” with Elsa and she died as a child, but Margaret never mentioned that Elsa was placed outside the family. Downs syndrome of course was my first thought, given Ollie’s age, but nutrition or birth trauma may have been a factor as well. I doubted the story of a female being a doctor in Benton County, Indiana, in 1914, but lo and behold, according to the 1910 census, it’s true and indeed, Nellie Green had no children.

In 1920, Nellie was still practicing, and her 19 year old nephew was living with her, but no Elsa. There are no Elsa’s or Elsia’s listed in the 1920 census that look to be candidates with the possibility of Elsie D. Bonham born in 1912. Did Elsa die in Benton County? Did she go to Chicago with Ollie and die there? Did she actually exist at all? I can find absolutely NO RECORD of this child’s birth or death, anyplace.

Margaret also told me that Ollie had twins about 1913 that both died as well, and again, no records. How can so many records be constantly missing for the same family?

1914 must have been the bottom of the barrel for Ollie – reduce to accepting charity, twins dead, another child born with challenges, no way to feed your children, and a  husband cheating with your cousin who also betrayed your trust.

“Bill was placed out on a farm with some people named Harkrider. Later mother also went to work there. Bill was at Harkriders when he ran away and joined the Army.”

For obvious reasons, my father never spoke of any of these dark and terrible days. They must have seared his soul. In 1914, he would have been between 11 and 13. So much death, grief, fear, hunger and pain.

My father would have lived and worked on that farm for about 3 years. At least he ate. This also explains why he enlisted on May 14, 1917 at Fort Benjamin Harrison, near Indianapolis. Apparently Ollie and the kids were still residing in Indiana at that time. I thought they had already moved to Chicago by then, but this explains why Dad enlisted in Indiana. The military was his escape from worse – never mind that the US was heavily engaged in WWI. War was better than Hell.

“Mother didn’t know where he was for several months and by then decided it was a good place for him. In the mean time Dode was lonesome for the hills and mountains so he left LaFountains and hopped a freight train back to Tazewell only to find Dad was no longer there. Hungry, cold and rejected by both Dad’s people and mother’s, the boy was afraid of being beaten and worked to death so he stretched his little skinny neck another foot tall and hiked up his age, borrowed some long pants off a clothesline and hiked over the mountains to Fort Monroe, VA and enlisted in the army. I’ll send you a picture of the lad in uniform. You can judge for yourself what a scared dejected little boy looks like trying to be a man of war.”

“He and I was always very close until he just didn’t give a hoot about anything but wine. I sent for and had him come out here and work in 42 but he just couldn’t adjust to California life.”

Joe in California in 1942, photo from Margaret.

I had heard from other sources that Joe had an alcohol problem. This means that all 3 of William George’s sons had alcohol addiction issues, along with at least one daughter. It’s no wonder.

“He went back to Fairfield, Illinois.

My brothers were very tall tho they were very young. Hard life gave them the older appearance.”


“Minnie was about 8 when she went to live with Dr. Pierce in Rose HiIl, VA. She was with mother very seldom after that.”

Photo of Minnie, age 8, Rose Hill, Virginia, according to Aunt Margaret.

Minnie was born in October of 1908 according to Margaret, but Minnie’s actual birth record says she was born on September 13, 1909 in Tazewell, Tennessee, so that would have meant she went to Rose Hill in about 1916. Dr. David Q. Pierce and his wife Kitty, a childless couple, raised Minnie. Margaret told me they wanted Minnie to help take care of the doctor’s wife who was somehow disabled. In the 1920 census, Minnie is age 13, listed as their granddaughter, and shown living with them. Minnie married John Raymond Price (1896-1977) in Lee County, Virginia about 1926, when, according to Minnie years later, “I was young and he was old.” By 1934, they were apparently divorced, because John R. Price married Marie Anderson in Claiborne County.

Minnie, above.

Margaret Talks About Herself

Margaret moved to Chicago with Ollie. I don’t know exactly when, but Margaret sent a photo with the words, “Mother, Franklin Park, Illinois 1918” written on the back. Given that we know that Ollie was still in Indiana in August 1917 when my father enlisted in the military, and was in Illinois in 1918, the move was apparently either in late 1917 or  1918.

Ollie looks extremely old in this photo, so much so that I wondered if this was actually Ollie’s mother, Margaret Clarkson/Claxton, of whom I have no photos. In 1918, Aunt Margaret would have been 12, Ollie would have been 44 and her mother, Margaret Claxton Bolton would have been 67. Given that Aunt Margaret labeled the photo and is in the photo, I suspect the picture is Ollie. After the living Hell Ollie had been through in the past several years, it’s no wonder she looks ragged.

“I worked for one family after another till I could get into the Cook County Hospital in Chicago and took nursing. Married young and like many other teenagers in and out of pitfalls of troubles but always managed to come out on top. Mussed up but never beaten down where I couldn’t catch a handful of hair to pull to my feet. It was not been an easy life by any means but I’ve managed to keep a fairly decent one.”

Margaret, modeling in 1925 in Chicago. Margaret was in Milwaukee in 1937, then in California by 1942.

The Plain Facts

“I’m giving you an outline of the plain facts. You will hear various tales. Just sort out facts for yourself and go from there.

I don’t think there’s anything in the family history that could be of any help to Roberta but only dampen her spirit, so I would not divulge any of this history to her. She no doubt feels she’s entitled to know but she better off to leave well enough alone. She may not be any better received by the relatives than I was. All had plenty of bread but only Uncle Howard Friar and Aunt Mary shared theirs with Mama and her Estes brats.”

James Howard Friar (1875-1962) was married to Mary Ann Bolton (1873-1942), daughter of Daniel Marson Bolton (1841-1924,) half brother of Ollie’s father. That made Mary Ann, nicknamed “Ropp,” Ollie’s half first cousin, who just happened to be her best friend as well.

Mary Ann Bolton and Howard Friar, above. The photo was probably taken by William George Estes. Notice that Mary Ann is dressed to the 9s, but Howard has worn through his shoes.

This photo taken about 1913 in Fowler, Indiana shows William George, at far right rear, with Ollie to his left. I believe the lady that Ollie has her arm around is Mary Ann “Ropp” Bolton Friar, and her husband beside her. The two men in the front right are “Smith cousins,” but I don’t know who they are or how they connect. Margaret is in the middle, Minnie in front of her mother, my Dad front left and Estel beside him. Joe was absent from the photo and at scouts, according to Margaret. It’s amazing with all of the poverty, pain and grief how these people put on happy faces for the few photos of that time. You’d never guess their struggles.

Little did Ollie know that in just a few short weeks or months, her life and that of her children would be shredded so tragically, traumatically scarring all of them permanently, the devastation rolling like an avalanche downhill to the next generations, yet to be born.

“Now you know your husband’s secret. We all loved our parents and tried to understand their motives – never loved or cared for by either and all going in different directions. Just a bunch of scared lost lambs that grew up to be a herd of hard fighting black sheep.”

William Sterling Estes and the Backwards Tombstone, 52 Ancestors #209

You know, I was already feeling bad enough that I hadn’t been back to visit my father’s grave, but then…well…this. My father’s life, it seems, was never straightforward and was always twisted around, backwards, and confusing. Dad hasn’t changed one iota, not even now in death.

His grave is backwards. Seriously.

You know, I swear…I think he was laughing at me!

The “Accident”

My father, William Sterling Estes, died following an automobile accident on August 27, 1963, in Jay County, Indiana where he lived with my step-mother, Virgie.

It was just a week before the beginning of my third grade year. For many reasons, none of which I understood at the time, I was not allowed to attend his funeral. Back then, children were often “protected” from sadness and death, but retrospectively, that was a very bad idea. For years, I never really believed he was dead.

The following summer, Virgie invited me to visit and I went to Dunkirk for a week.

I adored Virgie. She was a lovely, kind woman and I looked forward to spending time with her. She told me stories about my father, some of which I never forgot. All of which I wish someone had written down.

Her mother, “Grandma,” who lived with Virgie, was the grandmother I never had and spent long hours reading to me, playing Barbie, making doll clothes and telling me fascinating stories about the cards I viewed through a stereoscopic viewer, like the one below.

Grandma, born in 1878, was a bit more reserved and didn’t say much about Dad at all, except for a grunt now and again which I found interesting, but I didn’t exactly know how to interpret. Grandma was very kind to me and I have very fond memories of long hot summer afternoons spent playing with Grandma. She was one of the few adults that actually had time and enjoyed spending it with children.

I think her own grandchildren had grown up far too fast for her liking.

Hidden Messages

My mother and father hadn’t seen eye-to-eye for years, to put it mildly. I think it might have had something to do with the fact that he was married to another woman at the same time, but I’m just guessing😊

After being divorced from both women, however that worked, he then married Virgie, his teenage sweetheart from when he was enlisted in WWI, on April 24, 1961.

While my mother had absolutely nothing nice to say about my father, when she said anything at all, Virgie had nothing bad to say about him. Virgie truly loved and cherished my father. I’m glad, I think he really needed that.

Dad left Virgie love notes scattered in hiding places around the house. She found them for years after his death, tucked behind photos in frames and other out-of-the-way places.

Dad’s death was ruled an accident, but retrospectively, I believe it was a suicide based on what his employer, ironically, the funeral director, told me and things Mom said combined with tidbits like those loving mementos. If you didn’t plan on “leaving,” why hide things for someone to find after you were gone?

The First Cemetery Visit

My visit during the summer of 1964 was spent talking with Virgie about Dad. We both missed him.

We spent time going back to the places we three had visited together, like the VFW post. Dad and Virgie played the two slots that sat on the end of the bar, and Dad let me pull the handle. I thought that was loads of fun, especially when it was followed by that nice clanging sound! What fun. Mother would have had a fit.

Everything however, wasn’t fun and games.

Virgie took me to visit the IOOF Cemetery where Dad is buried. I recall that the grave she showed me that summer didn’t have a headstone. Virgie explained that when Dad’s sister, Aunt Margaret, whom I had never met, came from California to visit, they would select a headstone together.

I stood looking at the barren dirt that marked the location of the grave that Virgie told me belonged to my Dad. It seems so raw, so unkempt. The grass was just beginning to grow over the barren grave in raggedy tufts. The earth was still mounded up, washed round by rain but quite pregnant with a casket underneath. In there, Dad’s body.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

I desperately wanted to reach out those few feet to touch him one more time, but I couldn’t. Standing there in the glaring sun, looking at the all-too-silent grave of my father ripped my heart out. I had no idea a child could feel grief so profoundly. Tears streamed down my face in the searing heat. My heart ached too badly to even sob. I just stood trance-like as the waterfall tears wouldn’t stop.

Was Daddy really there? Really dead? If anyone would have told me the truth, surely Virgie would have. I didn’t want to believe it.

At Virgie’s house, the cemetery was visible from the end of the street. She allowed me to walk across the field to the cemetery. I could find Dad’s grave, because it was in the new row, towards the back, closest to the house.

I walked to the cemetery every day, a heartbroken little girl. I sat and talked to Dad, and cried, for hours, as curious cemetery-goers looked on but eventually left me alone again. I missed what we had, Dad’s visits, fishing, our special coffee each morning which was mostly milk and sugar with a splash of coffee for color. I grieved for what we would never have.

I grieved and grieved and grieved with no respite.

The Accident

Virgie told me little about the accident, other than Dad had hit a pole after having a heart attack. At 8, that’s all I needed to know.

She never told me the rest of the story, if she even knew it herself.

The unanswered question wasn’t so much his official cause of death, but why he had the accident in the first place.

What Virgie did say is that his last words, in the hospital before he passed away at 1:10 AM, were about me. Messages of love and encouragement, telling me to never give up and to graduate. I assumed then that he meant high school, but Dad may have had far more in mind.

A Decade+ Later

Virgie wrote letters to both me and Mom over the years, but the next time I would see her would be more than a decade later. In true Hoosier fashion, I just decided to drive to Dunkirk one day a few weeks after my son was born. I wanted to see Virgie and to visit Dad’s grave.

Truth be known, I wanted share my baby with Dad.

I had slowly come to believe that Dad probably was dead. Not because my mother or even Virgie told me so, but because I knew he would never willingly stay away from me that long if he had any choice.

I had also grown up, matured and realized that just because I didn’t want him to be dead was no reason to believe that he wasn’t. 99% of me believed that he was gone. But then, there was that skeptical 1% that still stopped and stared at men who resembled him – to the point of approaching a man on the sidewalk just a couple years earlier, my heart pounding so hard I thought it would burst through my chest.

I wish I had been allowed to say goodbye in the casket.

Calling Virgie in advance to ask if a visit was convenient, for some reason, never dawned on me. She was family – of course it was OK.

I pulled up to Virgie’s house in my bright red Chevy and knocked on the door. Cars were parked outside, and she was hosting a ladies’ card luncheon. She graciously introduced me and her grandbaby that she had never seen before. The women, grandmothers all, ooed and awed. After Virgie finished her hostessing, we caught up on news for awhile before I suggested that we take a ride to the cemetery.

Dad had been gone a decade. The grass had long ago covered the scar of his burial. The earth recovered, flattening itself, as if nothing had gone wrong.

Why was there still no stone on his grave? Aunt Margaret obviously came and went, if she had come at all.

At that time, I was in no position myself to purchase a headstone. It was all I could handle to buy baby formula and diapers.

A headstone in place would have quenched that tiny flame of doubt, but it wasn’t to be.

Another Three Decades

Time passed, life changed. As they say, life is what happens when you are making other plans.

I did graduate from high school and then college with degrees in computer science, a field completely foreign to my father’s world. I left Indiana as a single parent for an opportunity working for a think tank. My trips back to Indiana were to visit my Mom and step-father on the much beloved farm.

The raw urgency of my father’s death had faded and was now only a distant ache, and sometimes a painful stab. Dunkirk wasn’t close to or on the way to anyplace.

I still wrote to Virgie from time to time, always pleased to receive her letters which took me back to a much gentler time and place. She was a lovely lady.

When I remarried, she wrote that she was having health issues and trouble leaving the house for shopping and such, so there would be no wedding present. I didn’t care about presents, but I did care about her letters, and her, and told her as much.

I wanted to see Virgie again and called her from time to time, but in 1989, Virgie died.

After Virgie’s death, her daughter found items of my fathers and sent them to me. I am forever grateful for receiving the veteran’s flag that was placed on his casket at his funeral, then folded and presented to the widow. Oh how I wish I had been present.

Virgie had shown me something signed by President Kennedy after my father died, and now that “something” was mine.

Virgie’s daughter also sent 11 love letters that Virgie received from my Dad when he was young and in service – when they first met in 1919. Virgie saved these for 42 years, thinking of course that she would never see him again, let alone marry him one day. Love letters that would steal your heart, written in his own hand. Hers to cherish then, and mine decades later.

Reading those letters, I understood why they had married 42 years later and why she missed him so desperately. She used to tell me that no matter what anyone told me, he wasn’t all bad, and that no one understood the things that had happened to him. She was right, I had absolutely no idea and wouldn’t for several more years.


In 2003, 40 years after my father died, Virgie’s daughter found a letter from Aunt Margaret, written in 1978, to Virgie. It was this letter, written some 15 years after my father’s death, and coming into my possession another quarter century later that finally shed light on the hole in my father’s soul. That letter is the subject of a future article and it’s a bombshell, believe me.

About this same time, I asked Virgie’s daughter if she could show me where my father was buried, convinced that I would never be able to find it myself. She graciously agreed, and I traveled to Dunkirk.

We met at the cemetery. I had presumed that when Virgie died, that she and my father would share a headstone, but I was wrong.

Virgie did have a stone, beside my father’s grave, but he still had no stone. I was both shocked and saddened and couldn’t help but wonder why.

Virgie’s daughter suggested that we request a military stone based on his service. I didn’t realize that military stones were available. She contacted the funeral home and was informed that they would order the stone, and the family was only responsible for having it set once the stone arrived.

Dad would finally, finally, 40 years after his death, have a marked grave.

Meeting Elizabeth Wilson Ballard

I had meant to visit again shortly after the headstone was placed, but once again, life simply got in the way. Mother became ill, passed away, and suffice it to say, I simply didn’t make it back to Dunkirk. At least, not until this summer.

My 52 Ancestors series has had the effect on me of highlighting unfinished business in terms of research. However, in this case, the unfinished business was visiting my father’s grave.

I was making a trip back to Indiana for research in Fort Wayne, a trip to visit mother’s grave and a class reunion – fully aware that that trip was probably my last trip back – except perhaps to the library in Fort Wayne.

I refer to this as the “Goodbye Tour,” like rock stars😊

For me, in many ways, it was about unfinished business.

After a highly emotionally couple of days, I was messaging back and forth with a genealogy friend from Indiana, Elizabeth Wilson Ballard who writes at Diggin’ Up Graves.

Elizabeth asked where I was, and did I want to meet in person to say hello. I did, but it occurred to me that she was actually relatively close to the cemetery where my father is buried – and what better thing to do with a fellow genealogist.

We agree to meet for lunch, and then drive cross-country on an adventure.

The Cross Country Journey

Indiana farmland is a lot more fun with someone else in the car. Elizabeth and I had never met personally before, but we are convinced that somehow we are related and just can’t figure out how. “Sisters from another Mister,” as Elizabeth quips. Our conversation picked up like we were old acquaintances and had never not known each other.

Using our phones for navigation, we set out cross-country for Dunkirk and the cemetery. My father’s grave is listed on Find-A-Grave, so I at least had an idea of where the cemetery was located.

Leaving Cracker Barrell, the first thing we found was a pink farm, or better stated, a B&B with pink outbuildings. We laughed and joked about how they gave directions, such as, “When you see the pink barns you’re there. Yes, really, you REALLY CANNOT MISS IT.”

And then we laughed all over again.

Comic relief perhaps, but the cornfields and scarecrows felt good as we laughed and chatted our way across the Indiana backroads.

As we approached the cemetery area, from the country side, our tone became more somber, in part, because we had to pay close attention to find the cemetery since we were approaching from the backroads side.

In part, because we both knew what was lurking ahead and neither of us really knew quite what to expect.

The Cemetery

Finding the cemetery was a bit comical. Two experienced genealogists really shouldn’t have had this much trouble, but the corn was high and the address was not available from Find-A-Grave so we were doing what I call “dead reckoning.”

I had always approached the IOOF Oddfellows Cemetery from within Dunkirk, and I knew it was within sight of Virgie’s house. But that wasn’t how we arrived. The GPS had a mind of its own.

On the map below, you can see the location of Virgie’s house marked with the red pin, along with the cemetery directly across the field to the west, with the curved end. That part is new and did not exist when my father was buried.

I couldn’t remember where Dad’s grave was located, except that it wasn’t near the county road, and it was near an internal road. It was at the back of the cemetery in 1964.

I looked for the stones that showed burial dates of 1963 and finally found him in the quadrant below with the red arrow.

Finding Dad’s Grave

Finding Dad’s grave in the cemetery was somewhat more of a challenge. We finally found it by finding Virgie’s stone, which was larger and her name faced the main road, or west, as you see it below. This is what we saw driving down the internal cemetery road from the main county road.

The “other” side of Virgie’s stone, which I would have considered the front, is where the dates are carved, and that side faces towards her house, or east.

Before we move on, I want to mark the location of Dad’s stone for posterity. I don’t know who would ever want to visit, all things considered, but if someone does, the red arrow below is pointing to his stone.

Here’s the location from a different perspective.

In the cemetery, you’ll notice that Dad’s small white stone is directly behind and to the right of the red McGraw stone, and to the left of the Brown stone when driving in from the main road.

Here’s my vehicle parked in front of the spruce tree in the photo, at the intersection of the little cemetery roads inside the cemetery. You can see the red McGraw stone directly behind my rear bumper.

Ummm, But Where’s Dad?

Ok, now we found the stone, but where is Dad actually buried? And why would I even ask a question like this? It’s obvious, isn’t it?


Of course, the first thing you’ll notice is that while Virgie and Dad both have carving on the front (West) side where his dates are carved, Virgie’s birth and death dates are carved on the “other” (East) side. His East side is blank, above.

Which begs the question of where the bodies are buried.

What the heck???

This is beginning to sound like a murder mystery, not cemetery stomping!

I thought burials were on the “date” side, so you’re standing on their head as you look at their birth and death dates. After all, it’s called a headstone.

And regardless, if it’s the other way around, and they are buried on the back side, you’d think it would at least be consistent in the same cemetery. And if not in the same cemetery, at LEAST consistent with a couple who share the same burial plot? But their dates are carved on opposite sides.

What happened?

And where are they actually buried?

Clearly, one is not buried on one side and one on the other, so one is buried on the date side and the other is buried on the “other” side – since I’m making a leap of faith here and assuming that they are actually both buried side by side on the same side.

Elizabeth and I were both confused, and we were not leaving without figuring this out.

But how does one do that?

Thank goodness we were the Genealogy Dynamic Duo!


The first thing we did was to look around at the other graves. If you look behind me as I’m leaning against Dad’s grave (the blank East side), you’ll notice that the stones behind me aren’t consistent either.


We realized that some graves have flat stones that look to be between graves, which was very confusing. A grave consumes a certain amount of space.

However, I walked until I found a flat one that was a footstone for the headstone in the same row as Dad’s grave. AHA!

This footstone confirmed that the bodies were buried on the “back side,” meaning the side with Virgie’s dates and the side that is blank on my Dad’s stone, that I’m leaning against, above. So I was sitting on Dad in that picture.

Why the heck would someone set the stones for a couple differently? Why would they set Dad’s stone with his body on the blank side, and Virgie’s the opposite? Her’s was already in place when they placed his. Wouldn’t they have faced it the same way?

Elizabeth remembered that she had been told that cemeteries always face the east so that when the Rapture comes, the bodies will “rise up” from the graves facing east. If this is the case, then Dad’s head is indeed at the headstone, right where this headstone/footstone grave down the row would seem to indicate. And true to the religious custom, if he stood straight up out of his grave, he would be facing east.

So this is where Dad is actually buried, below, at the back of his marker.

NOT on the date side (below). All I can say is that I’m EXTREMELY glad I didn’t exhume Dad for DNA testing, given the possible confusion. Whoever considered that he might have been buried on the OTHER side of the tombstone?

I hadn’t thought about taking flowers, since this visit was very much a spur-of-the-moment event, so Elizabeth and I picked some wildflowers and decorated their graves as best we could. No, these are not weeds. Weeds are a matter of perspective:)

I can tell that Virgie’s family comes to visit her grave.

Dad’s grave looks naked by comparison.

Truthfully, I still wasn’t convinced, so after returning home, I called the funeral home and the cemetery sexton. When I said I was confused, they both started laughing. Apparently there is no consistency and yes, the bodies ARE BURIED, at least in this section, on the east side of the markers.

So, Dad is buried on the blank side and Virgie is buried on the date side and they are buried side by side. That explains why the little angels and things her family leaves sit on that side of the stone.

For the record, I did inquire as to how much it would cost to turn his tombstone around. I never heard back after three calls, so I’m not going to have it rotated. However, if anyone should ever visit and discover that it has been turned, someone did a veteran a favor.

One mystery solved, but now a difficult decision.

To Go or Not to Go?

My father died by suicide. I didn’t know that until I was an adult. I found the newspaper article and using Google maps, I had determined where his accident occurred.

When I was a child, clearly Virgie never discussed this nor took me to the place that claimed his life.

As an adult, should I go or not?

Grief is an exceptionally private emotion – especially when it involves suicide. So many thoughts swirl through your brain.

Elizabeth already knew about the circumstances of my father’s death, and she and I had previously talked about all sorts of difficult topics, of which suicide was only one. Her understanding, nonjudgmental presence was comforting to me.

Was I prepared to see where my father died?

Did I even want to?

I knew it was either now or never.

What would it be?

I asked Elizabeth her opinion, as we sat in my car in the cemetery, beside my father’s grave.

If I could have only turned and asked him why.

Elizabeth and I discussed the pros and cons, and eventually reached the consensus that I should “go for it” and that we were both mentally prepared. Neither of us quite knew what to expect. How do you prepare for something like that?

How could I anticipate how I would feel? It’s not something I’ve ever done before – and not something I ever want to have to do again either.

The first thing I did, however, was to drive to where I thought I remembered Virgie’s house being located.

Virgie’s House

I remembered, as a child, walking from Virgie’s house, directly down the street, across the field, to the cemetery. It was a straight shot. As I drove to where I thought it was, I was rewarded with this vision. This is the same view I remember from those hot summer days that I spent sitting beside my father’s grave.

I drove on down the street and indeed, found Virgie’s house. It looks a lot different today, of course, but it’s still the same house. That window above the kitchen was the upstairs bedroom where I slept. I pretended it was a fun secret room in a castle.

The porch looked so familiar. Grandma and I used to sit there, fanning ourselves during the heat of the day. Sometimes Grandma would read and I would sew my Barbie clothes, with her looking on watchfully, of course. The address on the porch confirms that indeed, it’s 202 Shadyside.

Mt. Auburn at Main

My father died at the location of Mt. Auburn and Main. The newspaper article about his death stated that he “was traveling westbound on Mt. Auburn at the time of the accident and his car struck a pole 100 feet west of North Main Street.

Please note that my name is listed incorrectly as Barbara, his half-sister is listed as his step-sister, all of his other siblings are omitted as are other children.

Using Google maps, I had already determined that the pole he hit was the one at the location of the grey pin on the map, below, far left. What looks like a street where the pole is located is actually an alley.

Once again, Elizabeth navigated using her phone as I drove.

This time, we proceeded in silence, except for an occasional “turn right” or “turn left.”

Sitting at the corner of Mt. Auburn and Main, I can see the pole in the distance in the alley, beside the yellow garage and behind the trash container, dead center ahead. This would have been where he sat, or didn’t, those last few fateful minutes.

I felt like I was in a time warp. There it was.

Looking up the street, there isn’t another pole that could be hit without going through a house and the article would surely have mentioned hitting a house had that occurred.

No other poles were visible in either direction.

Did he intentionally aim between the houses?

Why this location? Was it a split second decision? Had he been drinking? Or was he remorseful because he had fallen off the wagon.

Or, was there something else? My mother thought that he was ill at the time of his death, based on his health when they lived together. More specifically, she thought he had cancer, but there was no mention of that and he had an autopsy.

Elizabeth and I knew that particular pole was the only candidate, and it was located exactly as the article described. Utility poles aren’t often moved because the wires are attached.

We pulled down the alley.

A fist-sized lump appeared, not in my throat, but in my stomach as we approached.

That pole is old, bearing the scars of many years of climbing. It’s possible that it could be the same pole that was there at the time. Or was the pole was replaced when he hit it?

Looking back from the other side, it’s somehow ironic that red paint had been sprayed on the pole. I know it’s meaningless, but just the same…

Physics of the Accident

Because I’m who I am, I have to understand this.

Dad would have hit the pole from the back side, towards the road and away from the alley. Given the speed involved, I suspect that the pole would have been damaged, and this pole does not seem to bear that kind of scar – although I’m certainly not an expert in utility pole collision damage. Wooden utility poles are generally expected to survive for about 40 years although some last much longer. He died 55 years ago.

How fast was he going, and what would have happened to the pole?

At 40 MPH, your body (and car) are moving at 58 feet per second. This was also before seat belts, so his body would have crashed into the steering wheel, which was moving towards him at the speed in which his car, a Rambler, crashed into the pole. The pole would probably not have fractured at those speeds, according to impact studies, but would clearly have been damaged.

At 40 MPH, his car would have traveled that entire distance of 100 feet between the intersection and the pole in less than two seconds. If he was traveling at 20 MPH, the distance would have taken a total of 3.5 seconds. In a Road and Track article, Lt. Dan Bates says that in older cars, just 20 years ago, one stood a good chance of dying if you were traveling at 20 MPH and had a head-on accident into a stationary object like a pole. Dad didn’t die right away, so he probably wasn’t traveling at a terribly high speed.

This causes me to ponder another question.

If Dad had floored the gas pedal, he would have hit harder and faster – at least I would think so.

Did he change his mind part way through a suicide attempt, but too late to stop?

That thought nauseates me.


Elizabeth and I sat in the alley for several minutes and discussed the dynamics of the situation – both physical and personal. I’m surprised no one called the police.

She asked me if I was alright. I tend to “go silent” at times like this and just think. My thoughts were swirling and tumbling over each other in a 55-year-delayed grief-filled blizzard of emotions.

I was more saddened by visiting the place that took his life which looks so innocuous than by visiting the cemetery where he is buried. The place where he decided to die. The place where uncontrollable grief and agony of some description overtook him, then took him. The place where the darkness won and death seemed like the best option. The place where his heart ached enough to end his life and remove himself from mine.

I could feel it all, sitting there, just a few days shy of that terrible anniversary – a summer day much like when he pushed that gas pedal, knowing full well what would happen.

Seeing that pole rush towards him – what was he thinking?

All parents pass away eventually. We will all one day have a cemetery to visit, but not everyone has a utility pole. Not everyone has to deal with the knowledge of suicide and wonder why? What pained a loved one that much?

Did he think or know that he was ill and dying? If so, that’s easier to handle than other demons that might have driven him here.

Did he fall off the wagon, again, as Virgie’s daughter suggested, and unable to deal with the guilt, personal disappointment and pain it would cause others, decide to end that never-ending battle with alcohol forever? God, I hope not.

I wonder what might have been different had he lived? How would my life have changed? And would it have been for the better or worse?

Unanswered questions. Unremitting pain and sorrow. But there’s no turning back time. No other road. Just this one – the path he chose.

He’s my father. The childhood me adored him. I love the man I knew.

I ache for his pain and the loss that affected us both so tragically. His pain ended that day, but mine was just beginning.

Heartfelt thanks to Elizabeth, indeed, sister-from-another-mister, for her support and encouragement during the final chapter of this part of my journey.