Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On the trail of my German immigrant ancestors

Where in Germany was our immigrant Martin ancestor from??
The above question haunted me for years! My 2nd great-grandfather, Johann Mathias Martin, emigrated to America in 1847, but no one in the family knew exactly where in Bavaria (Germany) our ancestral town was located.  Mathias Martin's son, John Stephan Martin, was only a year old when he came to this country.  John's son was my grandfather, Elmer Matthew Martin.

I grew up knowing my Grandpa Elmer Martin was German (he was born in Illinois but both parents were German). Elmer would make sauerkraut in a large crock. Eating the homemade sauerkraut was mandatory when we visited his house. He also liked strange looking sausages and smelly cheeses. And of course, he drank a lot of beer. But on the plus side, he was clean, neat, organized, inventive, precise and specific. I am not sure if these are German characteristics but they were certainly his.

When he was in his twenties, Elmer Martin left his family in Rock Island, Illinois and traveled around the West eventually ending up in southwestern Colorado. After a divorce from his first wife (no children), Elmer married my grandmother, Maymie Pearl Wilson.

Our family "out west" never had much contact with the Martin family back in Illinois. In 1971, several years after the death of my Grandpa Elmer Martin, I decided to visit Illinois and get to know my Martin relatives. My room-mate from Wisconsin was driving home for the summer, so I hitched a ride with her as far as Rock Island, Illinois.

My Illinois Martin relatives were welcoming and very nice. I stayed with my great-uncle, Wilber Martin, and his wife, Celia. They were wonderful people -- I fell in love them and felt cheated that I had not had them in my life up until then. They lived on the farm that my 2nd great-grandfather, Mathias Martin, had purchased and farmed. I felt a lot of history just staying there on the farm.

One of my goals on my trip was to find out exactly where in Germany the Martin's were from. No one in Illinois seemed to have a great interest in family history at that time or know where the Martin's immigrated from. So, even though I did not find our immigrant information, I returned back home with a greater appreciation of my Martin family and will always be thankful for their hospitality to me.

During the following year, I made numerous trips to the Family History Library in SLC. There I found several books on the History of Rock Island. One of the books had the following information on our immigrant Matthias Martin.

Martin, Mathias, Farmer; Sec. 23; P.O. Milan; Rep; Methodist; owns 200 acres of land, valued at $5000; born in Dhierstien, Germany, Nov. 30 1809; came to Jefferson Co., Wisconsin, in 1847; lived there seventeen years; came to this Co., May 15, 1864; wife was Mary Kestner, who was born in Redenboch, Jan. 5, 1822; married Dec. 25, 1849; eight children.
"Past and Present of Rock Island County, Illinois"; H.F. Kett & Co., Chicago; 1877; pg. 435.

For years, whenever I had a chance, I would search through maps and gazetteers for Germany. But, I could never find the two towns mentioned in the article above. This was in the pre-internet and pre-google days, so all searching was done the old-fashioned way.  From the naturalization papers and census records, I knew that both of these towns should be in Bavaria. But, narrowing the search down to Bavaria (Bayern) still did not help. Finally, one day while researching in the map section of the local university library, a young man who had lived in Germany helped me. He helped me realize that the names of the towns were written in English but were most likely pronounced in German by my ancestors. So using German pronunciation, we came up with the following:

Dhierstien = Thierstein
Redenboch = Rothenbach

Bingo! We found two towns in a German Gazetteer that matched and then found them on a map in Bavaria about 5 miles apart.

From the German Gazetteer, Ortschaften-Verzeichnis Freistaat Bayern, page 1175
Map of Thierstein & Rothenbach in Oberfranken, Bayern, Germany
I could not find microfilmed parish records of the towns at the Family History Library in SLC. So, a wonderful German neighbor helped me write letters in German (I included international money coupons for good measure) to the Evangelical Lutheran Parish Priests in both towns and then I waited and waited -- hoping and praying that I had the right locations and right religion. There were only two main religions in Germany at that time - Lutheran and Catholic. The Martin's attended the Lutheran Church before converting to the Methodist Church here in America, so I was guessing that they belonged to the Lutheran Church in Germany.

A couple of months later I received records for our family from both Parish Priests. The Martin family records were in the Thierstein Evangelical Lutheran Parish and the Castner family records were in Arzberg Evangelical Lutheran Parish (Rothenbach is just a few miles from Arzberg). I am very grateful to both parish priests for the time and effort given to locate my family records, make copies and send them to me.

To see copies of the parish records sent to me by the Parish Priests, click below:
Thierstein Evangelical Lutheran Parish Records
Arzberg Evangelical Lutheran Parish Records

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great research methodology for finding immigrant origins. Using a University Library to do research is also a great idea - especially is areas like map research.