Cats in the Cradle: The Importance of Family Trees

The Discovery

A while ago I wrote on the value of online genealogy tools like Ancestry.com and Fold3.com.  Through them I was able to discover some rather amazing facts about my family tree about which I had no idea.  I have to say, the commercials for Ancestry.com are on the mark (with some caveats which I discuss at the linked article above).  Many of us go into family research blind, knowing nothing about our family history beyond two generations–unless, of course, you live in a castle somewhere with tapestries and oil paintings depicting your lineage (if so, you’re probably not reading this blog).    Tools like Ancestry and Fold3 give a glimpse of the past that may otherwise be completely lost and not everyone can find the time to go to the local courthouse and spend all day getting copies of their family documents (though I recommend it).

Since I wrote that first article, I have discovered a very rich history of heroism in my family.  It took a lot of legwork to track down most of these lines–sometimes cracking a line just takes a tenacious attitude and a lot of open tabs in your web browser to sites like findagrave.com and the Sons of the American Revolution  database and, of course, the state archives.  Knowing how to navigate through the data is something you pick up after years of doing serious research (which, thankfully, I have), but really it also utilizes a lot of common sense.  Also a healthy dose of skepticism can’t hurt–sometimes you find something that is just too good to be true and, in those cases, you must always validate (I repeat: always validate).  Validate, validate, validate.  I cannot stress that enough.  Validate.  (Okay, I’m done).

First the Awesome

Often people will discover some really amazing things about their family.  In my tree, I discovered at least eight direct ancestors (that is, someone who can be traced back directly) who fought in the American Revolution.  And for your curiosity, I’m sharing their names and some history I have gathered (some will be more complete than others):

Philip Neuhart (Newhard): Philip was born in America, his family having settled here as far back as 1733.  Enlisting in Thompson’s Rifle Battalion (later became known as the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment) in the regular army in 1776 (at the age of about 17), he went north to fight at the Siege of Boston.  Following that campaign, he journeyed with a large group of volunteers (many from Thompson’s Rifle Battalion and Daniel Morgan and his rangers) on what many would later write was a tedious and trying march to Canada with Benedict Arnold.  The volunteers from Daniel Morgan’s detachment and the men  from Thompson’s Rifle Battlion fought at the Siege of Quebec, but when they stormed the defenses–making it further than any other group of men–they were surrounded and captured before they could retreat.  Philip spent the next six months in grueling conditions at the hands of loyalists until he was paroled to British-occupied New York where his conditions only worsened.  Loyalists were said to spit on discharged patriots, many were beaten, chided, starved, and made to live on the streets with the rats.  A year or so later, Philip was finally permitted to leave New York under the accord that he would no longer fight against the crown–a truce that he apparently did not keep, as he shows up on muster rolls in the Pennsylvania militia in 1778 and through the rest of the war.  An alternate possibility (proposed by Bob Smalser, another family historian) is that he was exchanged in 1777 with Daniel Morgan and his men, but there is no direct evidence which links Philip with Morgan that I can find (though as a fellow rifleman, it is not beyond question as some of troops from Thompson’s Rifle Battalion were exchanged in 1777).

Captain Gerlach Paul Flick:  Having only arrived in America in 1752 on the ship Neptune, Paul Flick settled in Northampton County; he must have been an active participant in the community as he shows up on letters to the county government as a petitioner to build a series of guard houses along the Forks of the Deleware to protect against tribal raids from northern Native American tribes who, apparently, pushed south to raid the farmland and homesteads.  When the war broke out, he was commissioned a Captain (in Northampton County, and probably all Pennsylvania militia units, an officer was voted in by his peers) and given command over the 8th Company, 4th Battalion, Northampton County Militia.  His command shows up on rosters and returns during the Philadelphia Campaign.  It is possible that his company took part in the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777, fighting on the left flank against Hessian troops.  What is certain is that his company was responsible for picketing and skirmish action throughout the whole campaign.  Later in the war he joined up with a group of Rangers responsible for ensuring the safety of the Pennsylvania frontier, mainly meant to hold off the Native American tribes that the British had enlisted to help stop the rebellion.

The other individuals I know less about, but will list them in no particular order.

  • Johann Conrad Rau
  • Abraham Gross
  • Philip Fenstermacher
  • Deobald Schott
  • George M. Zimmerman
  • Johann Daniel Kuhns
  • Johan Valentine Schaffer

Additionally, I’ve learned that some of my ancestors fought in other rather vital wars that helped develop and shape this country.  Captain John Schaffer (son of Valentine Schaffer), my 5th Great Grandfather, fought in the War of 1812 and led men in the regular army against the British in what was widely considered the second war for American independence.  The War of 1812 is widely forgotten in America, which is unfortunate.  So having an ancestor who not only fought in the war, but was an officer in the war, is pretty cool.

I’ve also discovered that at least one direct ancestor fought in the American Civil War.  While the only photo I have of him is old, Peter Bruch was drafted into the 178 Pennsylvania Infantry regiment and saw some action until being posted to Washington as what must have been guard duty and provisional work.

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Peter Bruch in old age.

The Interesting

Occasionally you find some ‘whoa’ moments while doing research.  The sort of thing you find really interesting, but isn’t quite so awesome as some of the other stuff you’ve found.  Usually this gets relegated to people not directly related–cousins, uncles, or aunts–that you may want to pass along your line anyway.

For example, during the Civil War, several Schall’s (great-great-great uncles and cousins) enlisted in the 153rd Pennsylvania (a Regiment made up of men only from Northampton County), just in time to take part in the Battle of Gettysburg, where Absalom Schall (distant uncle) received shrapnel wounds to his shoulder and arm from an exploding shell on the first day of the battle.

But sometimes you do find some pretty ‘Ah ha!’ stuff in your direct line and those are some good times.   Like the fact that I’m descended from nobility.  Oh, yes.

Nicholas Schall Sr. gravestone.  It has since been removed, though his burial place is still there with a chart detailing the site.

Nicholas Schall Sr. gravestone.

My earliest traceable ancestor was a Freiherr (Baron) in Germany: Baron Maximilian Ramian Henrich Schall von Bell. His wife, Baroness Anna Marie Elisabeth Hatzfeldt, belonged to a (still) illustrious lineage, which we can trace back to at least the 12th century (possibly earlier). Her father’s name was Melchior von Hatzfeldt, but because of some possible confusion with his birth/death date it is difficult to know if this is the same Baron Melchior von Hatzfeldt that led an army as a Field Marshall in the 30 Years War (but I have a suspicion it was him). What is certain is that both families—the Schall von Bell’s and the Hatzfeldt’s—were some of the oldest noble families of their time.

Maximilian died in 1742 in Germany, and soon after his son Nicolas, age 43, came to the United States in late October of 1752 on the ship Neptune (a year after Paul Flick came over on the very same ship, mentioned above) with his wife Catharine, sons Andreas (who is my ancestor direct) and Nicolas Jr., and their daughter Mary Ann.  Probably the single most fascinating thing I discovered while doing research was my noble heritage; one would think something like that would have been talked about during family reunions, right?

Additionally, aside from running off and fighting in various wars early on, it seems most of my ancestors were land owners and farmers.  And, as it turns out, also moonshiners.  Yes, that’s right.  Moonshiners.  This tradition seems to have died out during the prohibition years, but pretty interesting none the less.

The ‘Not So Awesome’

You take the ‘not so awesome’ with the awesome when you’re doing family research.   Whether it is that rather odd-looking crazy great-uncle or that cat-lady for an aunt, there are going to be some members of your family that have some dubious backgrounds.  It just happens.  Not everyone can be a noble, war hero, or a moonshiner, I guess.

One of the things I’ve found in my search is that one of my great-great grandmothers seems to have been sold into a marriage my her father after her mother died.  I can’t really prove this, but it seems the only likely scenario as she was under age when she married and seemed to have been working as a laborer in a household not her own prior to this incident.  But she must have also loved her husband; she had several children with him and remained married to him until his death and, it seems, she never remarried.

Additionally, it also seems as though one of my great-grandmothers was a little bit of a grifter with men.  She married four times, though her first husband was my great-grandfather Calvin Schall–unfortunate, since the only thing I’ve ever heard about him was that he was just the nicest guy anyone had ever met.

Sometimes, though, you get some really dark–and I mean dark–family history.  On my grandmother’s side of the family (Ukrainian), I learned a great aunt was held in concentration camps during the German invasion of World War II.  Why?  Well, apparently she lived (in peace) in a predominantly Jewish village of Stankova.  It is quite difficult to fathom that sometimes; somebody in my family had been a victim of the Nazi holocaust.  How do you even… I can’t….

photo(5)

My great aunt survived the concentration camp and was brought over to America by my great grandfather; she is on the right.

Making the Case

At one point in human history, lineage meant everything.  It was so vital to the early Christians that Matthew fabricated a genealogical tree that went back to Abraham (to show Jesus’s favor to the Jews while depicting him as a new Moses) and Luke thought it necessary to develop one that went all the way back to Adam (in a sense, overriding Matthew’s account as if to suggest that Jesus came for all, not just the Jews).  Paternal lineages defined many facets of ancient society: they forged political bonds, developed land grants, built estates, earned military rank, and lorded over serfs or slaves. In these ways, I think that lineage is outmoded and unnecessary.    Certainly I do not think lineage should be the determining factor in ones life—no one should be condemned or confirmed due to the actions of their parents (or grandparents).

Still, I do believe lineage is important.  While many know their direct family–parents, grandparents–I would say most people don’t bother to investigate their roots beyond that point.  Until I had done some research into my family tree, I had (falsely) supposed that my ancestors had come to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century or even the early twentieth-century.  Because family histories are often lost over time–lands are sold, Bibles (with family trees in them) go missing, pictures can bleach in sunlight–it is quite possible that most are unaware of even their great-grandparents.  But why is any of this relevant to you?

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The arrival marks in the middle of the names of my ancestors going back seven generations – Nicholas S[c]hall and his sons Andreas (my 6th-great grandfather) and Nicholas Jr. (Taken from the volumes of the Pennsylvania German Pioneers)

As a student of history, I’ve witnessed the fallout from a general ignorance of the past.  History doesn’t repeat itself, people repeat history and often to tragic ends.   But while I would say that our society’s past(s) represent our society’s memories–and the preservation of memories are always important (even bad ones)–our family histories represents our most sacred and personal memories.  In a sense, if societal memories represent the ‘what we had for breakfast’ type of memory, our family tree is more akin to our memory of our first kiss, our first favorite teacher, our first fishing trip, or the time we fell while learning to ride a bike.  We may be situated, generally speaking, in a large biological network–also socially, culturally, ethnically–we are also situated within this more personal network, environmentally, with which we are supposed to get encouragement, care, support, love, and our basic values.  As infants, we don’t first imitate society, we imitate our parents.  As we grow, we may strive to imitate the world around us more broadly, but we are first and foremost affected by those who raise us (even if they suck at it, unfortunately).

Knowing where we come from is instrumental in answering questions about ourselves.  Sometimes we just don’t know how relevant our family history can be to our current situations because we often isolate ourselves to the present.  I was raised Catholic, though my grandfather and all of his relatives and ancestors were Lutheran.  While growing up, I was taught to question everything because of the distinct differences of belief in my tree; I am an apostate of the Catholic church today most likely because of the events that unfolded with the excommunication of Maximilian Schall von Bell in the eighteenth century.  It really is the perfect example of a butterfly effect that I can conjure.   But these ripples defined me.  Don’t you think it is time to find out what ripples from the past have worked towards defining you?

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2 responses to “Cats in the Cradle: The Importance of Family Trees

  1. This is some great advice – and it sounds like you come from a really interesting family!

    My paternal grandfather did a lot of genealogical research about that side of the family some years back. I’m now inspired to look through the book he compiled to see what kinds of details he found. Also, my grandmother and her family were held in Yugoslavian concentration camps during WWII – we’ve videotaped a few “interviews” with them to preserve their stories about that, and also about what life was like in the small village they grew up in, which is, of course, totally destroyed now. I highly recommend this for everyone to do with their relatives, regardless of background, because it’s a great source to have. My boyfriend and I are hoping to interview his grandparents in a similar way soon.

    One question though – do the sites you list have records from other countries, or do you know of any sites that do? No one on either side of my family settled in the US until the 1950’s, so I don’t think I’d have any direct ancestral links to any US records older than that. Still, it would be interesting to search around and see what I can find. Thanks for the info! :]

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