Some genealogists want to trace their roots back to Charlemagne; I just want to know where every one of my progenitors lived before setting sail to America and when they arrived. And while a DNA test can give me a general answer, it doesn’t reveal the towns my ancestors lived in and when they decided to leave them. There’s a big difference between growing up in the economic center of Oslo and the small picturesque village of Flåm.
When I set off to answer those questions, I started with my father’s father’s family as my grandfather had claimed everyone on his side of the family arrived in Pittsburgh in the early- to mid-1800s. My father’s genealogy charts went back several generations for that side of my family, so I figured just a little research would quickly take me back to the Motherland. Indeed, a glimpse of a few census records was all I needed to confirm that the last boxes on my father’s chart were first generation. Unfortunately, the census listed them all as hailing from the very vague “Bavaria” (Bavaria joined the German Empire in 1871). But this at least helped me understand why they came to America: according to ushistory.org, “In the decade from 1845 to 1855, more than a million Germans fled to the United States to escape economic hardship. They also sought to escape the political unrest caused by riots, rebellion and eventually a revolution in 1848.” With that in mind, it’s a bit ironic that one of my ancestors who fled that turmoil found himself serving in the American Civil War a decade after he immigrated.
Using the free library version of Ancestry.com, I was able to trace six of my eight great-great-great grandparents on my father’s father’s side back to the towns of Württemberg, Hesse-Darmstadt, and Odenwald in Germany/Bavaria. (For those keeping count, everyone has 32 great-great-great-grandparents—that’s 16 on the father’s side and 16 on the mother’s.) The documents I found also gave me an eye-opening glimpse into what life was like for a steelworker’s family on Pittsburgh’s South Side in the mid- to late-1800s. I knew my grandfather had an aunt and three uncles, one of whom died young, but thanks to Ancestry.com, I discovered my great-grandmother actually had nine children; four of whom had died between 1875 and 1890 (all before their third birthday). If that wasn’t bad enough, her mother lost three children, all under the age of eight, to diphtheria in the span of one week in 1877. Two generations of one family buried eight children within five years. (And, yes, my second great grandmother was still having babies when her eldest daughter married. Women started young in those days and continued until they died or hit menopause.)
Unfortunately, my research pretty much demolished many of my grandfather’s oft-told stories. While that side of the family may have been (it’s still to be proven) Lutheran “since the Reformation,” they certainly did not help establish the German Lutheran Church in Downtown Pittsburgh, which was there decades before any Betzler arrived at the Steel City. None appear to have lived in Liverpool, England either—although I found a distant relative who resided near Liverpool, Ohio. I also could find no mention of a Betzler owning a butcher shop in the Pittsburgh area, but I did find one who owned a cigar shop on the South Side. And who knows where my grandfather got the idea that his mother had been a school teacher and his great grandfather “a professor of music” (although that man was a musician in the Civil War) as neither appear to have anything more than a grade school education. And, although my DNA test shows French ancestry, so far I have been unable to identify any person of “noble blood from the Alsace Lorraine region” in our lineage. Adam Entous, writing in an August 22, 2022, New Yorker article, summed up this type of family legend best: “Family stories get passed down from one generation to the next, like a game of telephone. Over time, the narrative is refined: heroes are made, shameful details are edited out, fables become facts.” Amen.
After verifying/disproving my grandfather’s many stories, it was time to tackle the one glaring dead end on my father’s family tree: my grandfather’s mother’s line. The only information my father had was her name and death date and her father’s very common name of John Baker.
It is not surprising so little was known about this branch of the family tree as my great grandmother Naomi Baker Betzler died when her eldest son (my grandfather) was only 6 years old; he was then raised by his paternal grandparents and his father’s sister. There must have been some falling out between the Bakers and the Betzlers, as although the families lived near each other in Pittsburgh’s Beltzhoover/Allentown area, my grandfather appears to have had little to no contact with his mother’s family after her death. Knowing this and seeing that my dad had been unable to flesh out this line of the family had made me assume there was no information to be discovered. One should never assume.
I dug out the obituary I’d found for Naomi in the microfiche newspaper files at the Carnegie Library back in the 1980s and was pleasantly surprised by the amount of information it contained:
The Pittsburgh Gazette, October 29, 1911
“Mrs Naomi Gertrude Betzler, aged 40, of the South Side, died yesterday in the home of her father, John Baker, 8 Pegg street, after a short illness. Mrs Betzler was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and came to this city with her parents 30 years ago. She has been a resident of the South Side since that time. Besides her mother and father, she leaves her husband, Daniel Betzler, three children, three brothers and three sisters.”
- I entered Naomi’s name and death date. Up popped her death certificate, which listed her mother as Huldah Perkins of New Castle, Pennsylvania, and her father John Baker, born in Pittsburgh.
- I searched for John Baker with a spouse named Huldah Perkins and found his death certificate, which stated his parents’ names and that both were born in England (I was later able to narrow that down to Dudley St. Thomas in Worcestershire—another line successfully traced back to the Old Country!).
- I entered Hudah’s name and “New Castle,” which revealed the October 1925 death certificate for Huldah Perkins Baker, which contained her father’s name: Seabury Perkins.
- I searched for “Seabury Perkins” and “New Castle” and found another death certificate: Seabury had died in 1907 at age 88 years, eight months, and five days. No parent names were listed, but his birthplace, Massachusetts, and his birth date, April 2, 1819, were.
- A search for Seabury Perkins + April 2, 1819 + Massachusetts led me to his birth/baptism record and his parent’s names: Seabury and Huldah Perkins.
- Thank goodness for that unusual first name as a search for Seabury the elder led without much effort to his birth record—born June 23, 1792, in Carver, Massachusetts, to Gideon and Meribah Perkins. (Fun fact: further research uncovered four people named Seabury Perkins in the same time period—it seems no name is truly unique!)
- I put their names into the search engine and found a FindaGrave.com photo of their headstone in Purchade Cemetery, Middleborough, Massachusetts. The tombstone contained their birth and death dates.
- I then switched over to Findagrave.com, which led me down a rabbit hole as Gideon and Meribah’s pages linked to the graves of their parents, and then their parents, etc…I was getting pretty far back time-wise—the late 1600s, which was much much earlier than I ever dreamt my paternal grandfather’s family had been in America—and began thinking: “Good lord, how long have these people been in America?” when the next page answered my question and left me speechless: George Soule born 1595 in England and died 1679 in Duxbury, Massachusetts. He arrived in America in 1620 aboard the Mayflower.
So, this “dead-end” branch of my dad’s family turned out to be the most fascinating and it took maybe an hour or two to trace the family from Pittsburgh in 1911 to England in the 1500s, and that includes frequent sidetracks. Extending the search to other branches of this side of the family revealed I am descended from nine Mayflower passengers, including Myles Standish. My dad would have been gobsmacked.
Curious to know more, I used Newspapers.com to look up some of my Baker and Perkins ancestors and found the obituary for Seabury (he preferred Cebury) Perkins of New Castle. Having lived to the ripe old age of 88, his longevity was rewarded with an extensive obituary, which mentioned he was a Civil War veteran and that he would be buried in New Castle’s Greenwood Cemetery. Best of all, the obit featured a photo of him—a bearded, gaunt man who looked exactly like what an aged Civil War vet should look like.
Deeper probing into his life (still using the free Ancestry.com website) revealed Cebury had led quite the life. It appears he left Massachusetts as a young man and ended up in the Harrisburg area where he married and had the first of his five known children. A few years later, the family moved to New Castle, Pennsylvania, where, in 1864, at age 44, Cebury enlisted in Company F, 5th Regiment Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery. He served about one year. After the war he divorced his wife and, in 1873, married Elvira Edice, a woman 22 years his junior who had a five-year-old daughter (probably not his). The 1880 census finds Cebury and his new family in Larned, Kansas. But farming land in what was then considered Indian Country must have proved too much for a 60+-year-old veteran, because in 1887, Cebury sold his land and returned—it appears alone—to Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter, he was admitted to an old soldiers’ home in Virginia (I have a mental imagine of his children committing their “crazy” old man), where he stayed for seven years before returning to New Castle to live out the last year of his life near his son.
Needless to say, Cebury turned out to be the most fascinating person I’ve located on my tree. I would love to know more—especially about his time in Kansas and what happened to Elvira (neither his second wife nor his sojourn in the West were mentioned in his obituary or his pension application). At least this story answered a question for my brother: years before our father gave him a rifle that had been manufactured in Kansas in 1873. All my dad knew about the provenance was that his dad claimed it had belonged to someone in our family. So somehow our grandfather, who was only two when Cebury died, ended up with his grandfather’s rifle.
In hopes of learning more about Cebury, I decided to visit the New Castle Historical Society. Since I was going to be up there, I contacted Greenwood Cemetery and got the GPS coordinates to his grave. Unfortunately, there was nothing at the historical society and his headstone was weathered to illegibility.
Knowing that the government will replace any veteran stone that is damaged or destroyed, I asked the cemetery caretakers if they’d install a new stone if I ordered one. They said yes and a few months later, on a cold November morning, I watched a replacement stone be installed above the grave of my great-great-great grandfather—a man I had never heard of just one year earlier.
This is just a smattering of the cool things I have uncovered. At this point I could probably stop researching as I have a very solid and very large tree for both my father’s and mother’s sides of the family—although a few branches still dead-end before they reach the Old Country. But there are still mysteries to solve and the digging is so much fun that I know it will be impossible to stop. Finding just one little nugget is a huge dopamine rush. In fact, I’ve had so much fun, I began investigating my husband’s family even though he has little interest in genealogy. I thought my Mayflower connection would be the most stunning thing I would ever unearth, until I discovered my husband and I are related. Twice. His mother is not only my mother’s eighth cousin once removed she is also my father’s tenth cousin once removed.
That’s the thing about genealogy… you never know what bizarre connection you will uncover.