Monday, February 2, 2015

52 Ancestors: So Far Away

Week 6 (Feb 5-11) – So Far Away. Which ancestor is the farthest from you, either in distance or in time/generations? Which ancestor have you had to go the farthest away to research? (No Story Too Small)

So, it looks like I have three options laid out in this challenge:

  1. The ancestor farthest away from me in distance
  2. The ancestor farthest away from me in time
  3. The ancestor that cause me to travel the farthest

Two is just not going to happen. I have a number of lines stretching back well into the early Middle Ages and have learned that at that point in history, primary sources are scarce and published genealogies that stretch into it are iffy. On numerous occasions, I've come across a supposed line that traces back to Thor, son of Odin or to Zeus. Umm...yuh-huh. That's likely. How does that happen? Well, early on, the folks who drew up pedigrees for those in power all too often faked a line in order to include important historical figures or even gods in the family tree and so prove that their client was worthy to rule. 

Anyways, trying to figure out the exact generation where you go from historical and accurate to mythological is tricky and sometimes you just end up with several generations labeled "semi-legendary." And then there are lines that conjecture. If I go with that, I'd end up in ancient Egypt because maybe, maybe I can trace a line from Central Europe into Byzantium to Syria and eventually to the pharoahs. But again, there is a TON of conjecture between my medieval countess and that Egyptian king. It could have happened but there are way more fuzzy points than a genealogist would like.


I'm going for both One and Three. One takes me to the Volga area of Russia and Three takes me to my travels in Germany. And the prize for the ancestors that fit both One and Three goes to Jacob and Margaretha (Rhein) Ewald. I'll also mention their son-in-law Franz Meler, since his story is related.

Here's what I knew about them:

Jacob Ewald was born in about 1718 and his wife Margaretha in 1728. Like the ancestors of Katherine Hoffman that I mentioned earlier, the Ewalds immigrated to the Leichtling colony near the Volga River in Russia, where they became farmers. They're mentioned on that colony's First Settlers List of 1767, along with their children Friedrich, Catharina, and Margaretha (my ancestor, then aged three).

Magaretha grew up and married a widower about sixteen years her senior. Franz Meler, born in about 1749, shows up on Leichtling's First Settlers List with his first wife Anna Maria Schnellbecher and nine-week-old daughter Sarah.

That we knew this much is miraculous to me. I can remember a time, back when the Soviet Union still existed, when my father and grandmother were told by relatives that what they already knew about their German ancestors in the Russian colonies was all that they would ever know about them. And logically, that seemed likely. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was little reason to hope for more.

Then, in the late 1990s, the censuses came to light. The Russian government, wanting to keep tabs on anyone they considered foreigners, would periodically take a census of the German villages, including each member of household, their ages, their livestock and crops, and their movement to other villages. While they paint an incomplete picture, they are precious. And thus, our family came to know that my great-grandfather's grandfather Nikolaus Mehler (who we knew from Great-Grandfather's stories) was the son of Georg, son of Friedrich, son of Franz and Margaretha.

Well, one more valuable piece of information that the First Settlers List tells us is where these people came from. The Ewalds came from Aschaffenburg in Bavaria, Germany and Franz came from in Mainz in the Rheinland Palatinate in Germany.

This last year, my mother decided to plan a trip for all of us to Europe. Mom's idea was to go to Italy and I readily agreed. I've wanted to go to Florence since I was a teen, which is when I learned to love Botticelli and da Vinci and the other greats of the Italian Renaissance. To give my father something that would interest him, she chose to include Germany, including a tour of ancestral hometowns. What that meant for me was a couple of months of going over the records we had and doing additional research so we would know what towns we wanted to see and what we could do when we got there.

Mom was of great help with Mainz. She took a moment while we were both scrambling about planning to help me Google information on the town. And this is how I learned about the wonderful Stadtarchiv! At her suggestion, I wrote to them to gather any information on Franz that I could before I left. I also decided to look for a stadtarchiv in Aschaffenburg and email them as well (though I did this a little too near to our departure). I highly recommend the archives in Germany to see if they can help you - they often have someone who speaks English, if you don't know German and are often very helpful.

Mom booked us to stay first at Ruesselsheim near Mainz and this was our home base for several days. On the last of these days, we stopped at the Stadtarchiv in Mainz. We only had a few hours in the morning before the archives shut for lunch and we had to leave to get to Rothenburg ob der Tauber before nightfall.

Mainz, near the cathedral (dom)
Photo taken by me (2014)

We sat in a little room, surrounded by old books and card catalogs and maps, with the cathedral bells sounding the hour outside, and searched feverishly through the cards that contained the extracted records of the parishes of Mainz. Every now and then, one of us would go to set of little drawers at one end of the room and with the help of the archivist, pull another drawer out and take it to the wide table in the middle of the room. The archivist knew very little English but between the librarian who did speak English and came to check on us a couple of times, the little German we knew, the little English the archivist knew, and a little pantomime and guessing, she was able to piece together what was happening and watch with eagerness as a discovery took place.

Above the door to the city archive and library in Mainz
Photo taken by me (2014)

There were no Franz Melers, no Franz Mehlers, no Franz Mahlers, no Franz Mollers christened anywhere near the right time. I was becoming resigned to the idea that Franz would remain the end-of-the-line ancestor. Then, my brother came to the rescue. While Mom, Dad, and I searched, he was looking around. His eyes met with a book marked Müller and he realized how close that was to Meler. He and Mom asked for the drawer that might contain Müllers and the archivist's eyes lit up. Of course!

Hearing what was going on, I pulled up my information and discovered something I had overlooked. While the family had gone by Meler and Mehler later, the very first mention of Franz that I had spelled his name Müller. The importance of looking for all the different spelling variations! How important that can be!

As it turns out, there was one Franz Müller born at the right time: Franz Michael Müller, christened 30 November 1748 at St. Emmeran's parish, Mainz, the son of Georg and Maria Müller! We had just enough time to stop at St. Emmeran's church before we had to leave for Rothenburg.

Copy of the original christening record for Franz Michael Mueller that I was able to obtain later

St. Emmeran, Mainz
Photo taken by me (2014)

Old statue (perhaps of Mary), St. Emmeran
Photo taken by me (2014)

Along the way, we stopped at Aschaffenburg. It's in Bavaria, only about 45 minutes away from the Czech border, and features a nice aldstadt (old part of town) with a large basilica. We walked around, then went into the basilica, then had lunch at a cafe (giant soft pretzels!). The church was of great interest to me because of the old memorial stones and the art (some created by artists I know) but I was startled by the relics (a very old skeleton, supposedly of a saint, in a glass coffin). Now, I have a good solid university education and have watched plenty of travel shows and knew very well about such relics. Being a good genealogist, I have a deep appreciation and lack of fear of cemeteries. I've seen other skeletons (or replicas - I never really determined which - at Jamestown) and mummies in museums. But this one...nnnhhh-huh-huh! Yipes! Not sure why it got to me but...shudder!

The basilica at Aschaffenburg
Photo taken by me (2014)

Painting by Lucas Cranach, Aschaffenburg
Photo taken by me (2014)

Overall, I liked Aschaffenburg but it was what happened when we got to Rothenburg that evening that really made that day complete.

The archivist at Aschaffenburg had emailed me. He had recruited two members of the local historical society and those lovely women had track down the Ewalds in the records. As it turns out, the Ewalds were pig-herders who moved frequently in and around Aschaffenburg. In fact, in Margaretha Ewald's christening record, Jacob and Margaretha are listed as "vagabundierend," or vagabonds. Jacob was the son of Johann Ewald and Margaretha was the daughter of Johann Adam Rhein.

A pig and butcher statue,
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Photo taken by me (2014), in honor of my
pig-herding Ewald ancestors

Like I said, working with the archives in the towns where your ancestor came from is important. So too, as this trip reminded me, is reviewing what you know periodically. And travel to these places that were so important to your ancestors can draw you closer to them. I felt less of a connection to my German roots than my other roots before. But getting to know Germany on such a personal level has given me a new level of love for that side of my family tree.

By the way, since then, I've been able to find more materials available from the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia and fill in some details about the Ewalds' voyage from Germany to Russia and potentially about Franz. To learn more, see my page about the Ewalds and my page about Franz and Margaretha.

Next week's challenge from No Story Too Small: "Week 7 (Feb 12-18) – Love. Which ancestor do you love to research? Which ancestor do you feel especially close to? Which ancestor seemed to have a lot of love?" After some deliberation, I think I'm going with a love story that may have inspired Shakespeare. Intrigued? Come back to find out more!