I never knew my Dad’s Dad. When he died I was a month old.
He would be 150 years old now.
I have wanted to know more about him and his life’s journey. I know that he has influneced who I am, even if I don’t quite know how.
I have scoured the available sources to recreate his life. He dwelt here from 1862, during the time of Lincoln and the Civil War, till 1935, Roosevelt’s first term and the deepening days of the so-called Great Depression. He lived on the West Coast of our Country: born in San Francisco, he came of age in the Alaska Territory, and settled down into the business of living in Goldendale, Washington.
I have relied in San Francisco on public records and the City Directory. My major source in Treadwell, Alaska, has been the Douglas Island News, with additional help from Alaska historical records. In Goldendale I have used the reporting of The Goldendale Sentinel, public records like birth, marriage and death certificates, and census reports, as well as the recollections of his children, my father and aunt.
He is not your grandfather; he may be your great grandfather or someday your great, great grandfather. Or then he might just make you think of your own paternal ancestors, those who have helped to make you who you are.
You may read about him my clicking on the page to the right: “Robert Willis: Pillar of the Community.”
It happened in a roar. Instanteously. Walls collapsed; people screamed; dust and smoke choked the air. Firemen did their best to save the injured and extricate the dead. Hospitals and mortuaries filled up. Over 3,000 people died.
It could have occurred in New York in 2001. It did. It also devastated San Francisco in 1906. Both cities, its families living and dead, bear scars, not just lifelong ones, but ones that get passed on by generations.
In “The Willis Family and the San Francisco Earthquake,” I have sought to remember both.
Today, July 31st, I completed this article, the last in a series, one each about the eight major branches of my family.
Research here took me to three places: England, Ireland, and New Zealand. For England, I sought records of births, marriages, and deaths through the General Register Office in London. I also employed a genealogical researcher in Lancashire for data I could not obtain online. In Ireland, I engaged another genealogist to explore documentation for me at the National Archives in Dublin. I obtained from Tony Harris, the deputy editor of the Otago Daily Times in Dunedin, a copy of the edition that alerted Michael Fleming to his bequest and shared with the community his plans to leave Dunedin for Montreal to retrieve it. Indeed, the online posting of “Papers Past” in New Zealand admirably filled out my story of the Lynch/Fleming family in Dunedin. For those interested in exploring further the gold rush days of Otago on the South Island, especially as it involved Irish immigrants, I would direct their attention to two books: A Distant Shore: Irish Migration and New Zealand Settlement by Lyndon Fraser (ed), University of Otago Press: Dunedin, New Zealand, 2000; and Irish Migrants in New Zealand, 1840-1937: The Desired Haven by Angela McCarthy, The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, Suffolk County, England, 2005. For the description of life in Manchester’s cotton industry, I found particularly enlightening A. & G. Murray and the Cotton Mills of Ancoats by I. Miller & C. Wild, Oxford Archaeology North: Lancaster, England, 2007.
In days to come, I intend to write more particular stories involving this extended family.
I completed today an article concerning the Steltjes family in the Lower Rhine region of Germany. It may be accessed on the right by clicking on the title: “Steltjes Family of Germany and the Netherlands.”
In researching this article I used sources available in English, German, French, and Latin. As I am here speaking about the family dwelling principally in Germany, I employ for the most part German spelling. So, for example, documents in German spell the family name as steltjes or stiltjes where the Latin documents use stiljes. In America the spelling takes on various additional forms: stilts, stiltes, stilt among others. Or consider the man whom we would in America call Anthony. On his birth certificate in French (he was born during the period when Napoleon ruled Germany), he is Antoine. In ecclesial documents he is Antonius a form also used in German documents. Or again, in English we have John, in French Jean, in Latin Joannes, and in German Johann. In my article, therefore, I speak of Antonius Steltjes and of Johann Hermsen. After his immigration to the United States we would call a man Henry John Hermsen, back in Germany we addressed him as Heinrich Johann Hermsen.
I relied on four primary sources for information about the Hermsen and Steltjes families in the Lower Rhineland. For the Steltjes family in Frasselt I obtained records from St. Anthonius Katholic Kirchengemeinde, 4193 Kranenburg-Frasselt, den, Gocher Strasse 52, Deutschland. For the Hermsens in Nutterden, the records were at St. Lambert Katholic Kirchengemeinde, 4190 Kleve-Donsbruggen, den, Nossling 7, Deutchland. I received a trove of information about both families in Germany and in nearby Netherlands from Mosaik, Familienkundliche Vereinigung fur das Klever Land e.V., Lindenallee 54, 47333 Kleve, Deutschland. Most major municipalities have a records bureau (standesamt) from which one may obtain copies of birth, marriage, and death certificates. For this article I wrote to–Standesamt, Gemeinde Kranenburg, Klever Strasse 4, 47559 Kranenburg, Deutschland.
I have found it useful to write to German sources in their language. I had a friend of my wife at Yale’s German Department do the encoding and translating for me. I could handle translating both the Latin and French documents myself.
I additionally used the genealogical search engine of http://www.Ancestry.com . Federal census records and ship arrival records were most helpful.
I finished today an article on the coming together of the Willis and Caldwell branches of our family. I call it the San Francisco Connection. The article is published on the right.
In completing research for this piece, I found most helpful three sources. In the first place, the San Francisco City Directory from 1860-1900 proved invaluable in locating the dwelling places of various family members and in ascertaining their work, whether alone, together, or for a company. Complementing this, the federal census records from 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, and 1910 established households, membership in households, birth and marriage years. Other government records–military, natualization, voter registration–filled out the story of these immigrant families becoming active participants in their new land.
I intend to follow up this article with two more initial explorations of the Steltjes and Lynch links: Steltjes to Hermsen, and Lynch to Fleming.
In the beginning, I mentioned that I would indicate the sources that I have found most beneficial in tracing our families’ roots.
Most immediately, I would single out personal memories, my own and others, about family members and their experiences. How often I have grieved that I did not speak about those who preceeded us with their living contemporaries. However, I was either too young to care, or I did not yet have the pertinent questions to ask. As assistance in this task of retrieval, I cherish photographs and letters that give insight into former times and situations.
I would rank government documents next in importance. At the start of life birth records furnish a wealth of information. These may be supplemented with listings from baptismal registers and newspaper notices. At life’s conclusion I gather much information from death records, funeral and cemetery records, as well as printed obituaries. Sometimes resourceful relatives have kept pamphlets or leaflets associated with religious services and burials. In addition the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) offers valuable clues into when and where a person died.
Marriage notices rank near the top of ordinary government documents pointing to a most significant branching out of a person’s life. Next to that, especially for men, are military records: draft registrations, enlistment and discharge papers, pension requests and treatment in and through the Veterans’ Administration. I would, indeed, single out census records, both Federal and State, as a trove of information. These reports go back to 1790 and become part of the public record seventy-two years after the census was taken. So, for example, the 1940 Federal census will be in the public domain in the year 2012.
To complete this brief listing, I would mention how invaluable local newpapers have been in giving the day-by-day flavor of a family’s life in a given community. They note the earthshaking (“Jim Willis drowned in the Columbia River”), the life-changing (“Mr. McKanna left on Tuesday for the Yukon gold fields”), and the ordinary (” Lizzie McKanna visited friends in Juneau last weekend”).
When it comes to tracing ancestors, especially back to foreign roots, that is another task. I will take it up later in another post.
Today is April 7, 2010. I have just signed off on a first article about the Fleming family: “The Mysterious Flemings.” As I have posted it as it developed, those of you who have looked at it already will find it completed now.
I have met my first goal: an article about each of the four families about whom I have direct, personal experience. I will turn my attention now to the other four families: Rooney and Caldwell, Steltjes and Lynch. I know about them, either from their descendents or from genealogical records.
As of today, this blog has invited 111 visits from interested viewers. The article on “Judge Willis: Democrat, Republican, or Independent?” generated a few comments. I have posted three of them at the conclusion of the article. More are welcome–for any and all articles.
Biographies tend to be chronological, starting with the crib and ending with the coffin. But we do not actually meet a family that way, especially when it stretches out over 300 years. We begin in the now, gradually grasp something about the then, and come to recognize tentative movements toward what may unfold in a new time and place.
We yearn to know “where we came from.” In order to create excitement a family historian might jump backward as far as he can to forgotten times and exotic places. But the validity of those beginnings for us flow from our own present experience as we trace back along routes already taken by us and by others, always linking them to the world we presently inhabit.
I know directly representatives of four of our eight families: Willis and Hermsen most directly as from such are my parents; McKanna most certainly through my father’s uncles in Yakima and Alaska and Fleming through my mother’s aunts in Portland, Oregon. I will, therefore, start this familial exploration by sharing memories and stories surrounding each. You may find them growing in the pages indicated on the right-hand column of this blog.
The convergence happened on June 13, 1933. Robert John Willis, a fledgling attorney practicing law in Yakima, Washington, married Winifred Mae Hermsen, a teacher of third to sixth graders in LaConner, Washington. The Reverend Anthony Barrett, pastor of the Church of the Assumption in nearby Bellingham, officiated. Family and friends from that parish, one in which she had been raised and attended school, celebrated with the young bride as she became Mrs. Robert Willis, ” Mike” Willis to her friends.
The Wedding Church of the Assumption
This marriage completed a process begun seventy-five years previously in a small church in Germany. On April 4, 1858 Heinrich John Hermsen, Mike’s grandfather, married Theodora Steltjes, a twenty-four-year-old woman, born in Groesbeek, Holland, and raised in Germany. This wedding took place at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Frasselt, a small farming community in the Lower Rhine region, in the orbit of the city of Cleve, and within twenty miles of the Dutch border.
A Side Altar in St. Anthony Catholic Church, Frasselt
For the past twenty years I have been researching this coming-together of families. Documents of many kinds fashion the structure of this movement of Mike’s people from Germany to Wisconsin to Washington, from Ireland and England to New Zealand and, finally, Oregon. They illustrate how Bob’s family followed a not-too-dissimilar route: from Ireland to Eastern Canada, to Minnesota and Montana and Alaska, or from Ireland to California to Alaska. Bob and Mike at last ended up in Washington State, in Bellingham for her and Goldendale for him. They lived their married life together in the foothills of the Cascades, in Yakima.
In this blog I wish to share the facts about this family, but not only the facts. Along the way I have accumulated many stories that flesh-out what otherwise could appear to be simply a genealogical exercise. I will, moreover, indicate the sources that I have found most helpful in my search. In addition, I intend to highlight the unresolved questions that lurk like flitting shadows avoiding the light. My hope will be that others interested in this familial drama may bring fresh facts and other stories that may penetrate the darkness and lift the shadows.
Please join me as I continue this people’s journey.