Locating Evaporating Relatives

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Locating Evaporating Relatives

Evaporating relatives are a significant problem, but sometimes a research path will become more obvious by 
looking at other members of their family. No one lived in complete isolation. This week we look at a problem 
whose solution may rest in other members of the family. Some genealogists are hesitant to research 
individuals to whom they are not related. In this case, it is a virtual necessity if I want to locate the desired 

My Problem: 

Johannes Grass died in Wiesens, Ostfriesland, Germany in 1888, leaving his fourth wife, Gesche, and two 
young daughters as survivors in Germany. Johanna's two grown adult children by a previous marriage 
had already immigrated to the United States and started their own families and likely did not know their 
stepmother or their half-siblings. I could find no record of his widow or their daughters Johanna and Antje 
after the death of Johannes. 

Where To Start? 

My chances of finding these individuals may be enhanced by changing my focus from them to other 
members of their family. 

Gesche was the fourth and final wife of Johannes Grass. Johannes had two children with his second wife 
Asselina; Noentje (my ancestor) born was born in 1848 and Bertus was born in 1852. Both these children 
initially settled in the Hancock and Adams County area of Illinois. Noentje married in Hancock County in 
1874 and Bertus immigrated to the states in 1876, marrying in Adams County shortly after his immigration. 

Their father Johannes married Gesche in 1877, after both of these older children had left Germany. As 
previously stated, Noentje and Bertus likely had no relationship with their stepmother or their two much 
younger half-siblings. In some cases, an individual may settle near their step-children, but in this instance, 
if Gesche did immigrate to the United States, it seems unlikely that she would settle near her step-children 
unless there was other family nearby. Our answers may lie with Gesche's own family. 

More about Gesche's Family

Gesche was born Gesche Fecht in Wiesens in 1839 and was married to a Jans Weerts before she married 
Johannes Grass. With Jan she had three children who were also born in Wiesens: Dirk in 1861, Garrelt in 
1863 and Gerd in 1865. At the time of their step-fathers death in 1888, the Weerts boys were all grown 
men. They too, appear to leave the Wiesens area. 

Gesche also had several siblings, some of whom remained in Germany. Our initial concentration will be on 
those siblings who are known to have immigrated, her brother Henry Garrelts Fecht (born in 1832) and her 
sister Antje Fecht Thiems (born in 1842). 

Make a Chart

I have difficulty keeping my own family straight, let alone the family of someone else. Before my research 
progressed too far, I sketched out a chart containing all the individuals named so far and their relationships 
and dates and places of birth. A stack of family group charts was not going to be helpful and the chart 
helped me to remember how various individuals were related to each other. 

Off to the States

Just because Gesche and her two youngest children appear to leave the Wiesens area, they did not 
necessarily immigrate to the United States. I need to remind myself that this is an assumption that I have 
made and that it may need to be re-evaluated at some point in the research process. The only information 
I have currently is that one relative thought the two youngest children of Johannes Grass also died 
in the United States (a weak reason at best). Because United States census records are readily indexed, it 
was decided to do some quick initial searches in those records. All of this was done with the hope of locating 
Gesche and her daughters. 

A Little Work Revealed Some Potential Leads. 

Census records indicated that there was a Dirk and a George Werts living in Montgomery County, Illinois. 
These two appeared to be strong potential matches for the sons of Gesche as census records indicated 
they had the same month and year of birth as Gesche's sons Dirk and Gerd. Gerd is frequently 
Anglicized to George, so this apparent name change was not a major concern. As an additional coincidence, 
George has a daughter Gesche. My next step is to try and access death certificates for these two men to see 
if the parents names are listed. If they are Gesche's sons, my next step will be to obtain obituaries or 
death notices for these men to see if any mention is made of their mother or any surviving siblings, particularly 
the two younger sisters. Once I know I have the right individuals, other records, particularly county histories, 
should also be checked for additional biographical information. Again, I'm looking for anything that will 
help me locate all of Gesche's sons with the hope of locating a clue as to Gesche or her daughter's 

I Still May Not Find Gesche. 

If the leads on the sons are not fruitful, my search will continue with Gesche's two siblings: Henry G. 
Fecht and Antje Fecht Thiems. 

A search on World connect located a posting which indicated Antje died in 1913 in Kiowa County, Oklahoma. 
I immediately posted a message to the Kiowa County message board at RootsWeb hoping for a response. 
Perhaps something on Antje will help me locate Gesche and her children. If my posting does not generate 
a response, I will locate newspapers in an attempt to search for an obituary of Antje Thiems, which may 
mention surviving siblings. Of course, I'm hoping Gesche survived her sister. 

On the surface, Gesche and her two daughters appear to have vanished off the face of the earth in 1888. Its 
more likely they did not. My current attempts to locate these individuals have moved to other family members 
who might have left a record with enough detail to help me locate them. When a relative "disappears" it is 
always worth considering: 

Have I researched all their siblings? 
Have I researched all their children? 
Have I researched all their cousins? 
Have I researched all their step-children? 
In all cases also consider: 

With whom did this relative have a relationship? 
With whom might this relative have immigrated? 
What factors might have caused this individual to move? 
Do I Have My Answer? 

Not yet. Research is still progressing on Gesche. But it's important to remember that we do not always get 
answers to our questions. The important thing is that our research is methodical and based upon the ways 
reasonable individuals would act. In a future column, we will follow up on Gesche and see where she was 
(or was not) located. 

Where Is That?

Anyone who subscribes to virtually any genealogy mailing list has heard the question. 

Does anyone know where X is? 

In what county is X? 

How do I find X? 

While sometimes the answer is obvious or as simple as a five-second lookup, there are times when finding 
the location defies virtually every attempt. And yet finding many genealogical records requires a fairly specific 
knowledge of place. There are some steps that most genealogists take in locating that hard to find village in 
their family's past. This week we take a look at some websites and techniques for locating a location that 
cannot be located. 

United States Geological Survey Geographic Names Information Server

This site searches a database of hundreds of thousands of place names across the United States. Not all of 
these locations are populated places, however. Mountains, creeks, churches, cemeteries, rivers, and other
types of items are included. I have even found a place classified as a "post office" with the notation that it 
was "historical." (It was Plumb, Oklahoma, for those who are interested.) The USGS GNIS site provides the 
location of the feature, including the state, county, longitude, latitude, and additional details and links to maps. 
It is worth a look even for those places that have already been located. 

Leave the feature type blank. The location for which you are searching may never have been a populated 
place and today may not even exist. Overly specific searches may cause the desired results to be filtered 
out of your search. Choose only [populated place] in the drop-down menu for feature type, when you are 
absolutely certain the item for which you are looking is a populated place. 

An 1895 obituary indicated my aunt lived in Plumb, Oklahoma. I began with a search for a populated place 
at the USGS GNIS with no success. When the feature type was set to all (which is done by choosing the 
"blank--the first choice on the drop down menu after the words "Feature Type"), the reference to a post 
office named Plumb in Payne County, Oklahoma, was located. The other reference to Plumb in Oklahoma 
was to a creek. I decided the post office reference was the most likely match and started my search there. 
Sure enough, I found my aunt in the 1900 census for Payne County, Oklahoma. 

Be Partial to Wild Searches
The USGS GNIS site allows for partial searches (string-based searches) when the complete name is not 
known. Entering in the letters "Bla" will bring up results such as: 

and other similar matches 
Wildcards are also allowed and are particularly helpful when the name of the feature is only partially known. 
If an obituary is partially unreadable, the town may appear to be Ba---ville. This search can be entered in the 
USGS site as "Ba%ville" and will return matches such as: 

This more specific search eliminates those entries that do not end in "ville." 

The U.S. County/Town Database at RootsWeb

This site provides a database of towns throughout the United States and the counties in which they are 
located. Good to use when there's little doubt the name of the town is correct. It is not necessary to enter 
the complete name of the town on this site as string based searches as also performed here. Wildcard 
operators are not allowed. A search for the letters "ca" in Iowa, resulted in several results, including: 

The name of the state is optional, even if just the first two letters of the town are entered (or at least it worked 
at the time this column was written!). 

The 1895 U.S. Atlas

Pam Rietsch has created a site that has actual images from the 1895 U.S. atlas along with a state-by-state 
index. This is another excellent resource for locating small villages and towns that today do not even exist. 
The scans here are high quality scans and will print quite nicely. 

Even if you know where the location is, a map of the area from this time period may still be helpful. The 
county map for where I live reminded me of how easily town names can confuse if one is not careful and if 
sufficient detail is not provided. I live close to Ontario and Utah and yet live east of the Mississippi River and 
south of Lake Michigan. 

Some researchers tend to overlook print materials. This is a huge mistake. Not everything the genealogist 
needs is available online with a few clicks of the mouse. 

For many states, books of place names have been printed, frequently by a state historical organization or 
university press. Many times these books contain a snippet of historical information about each place, more 
than will be listed on the USGS site. Your local library may have a book of place names for your state or 
county (county histories are another excellent place to obtain information on these small places once the 
county is known) or may be able to get them on interlibrary loan. 

A Google search for "yourstate" place names may also locate references to such printed materials. 
Searches of online library card catalogs could also be conducted to find these published materials. 
Libdex (www.libdex.com/country.html) has links to thousands of online library card catalogs to assist you 
in locating book references. 

Do I Have the Name Right?
Sometimes the place cannot be located because we do not have the location correct. Was the name 
spelled incorrectly? Are there other ways to interpret the handwriting? Was the person who gave the 
information confused or misinformed? Is the state correct? 

We have discussed hearing and pronunciation problems in earlier columns: 

"Do You Ear What I Ear?" (www.rootdig.com/adn/earwhatiear.html)

Consider a Posting to a Message Board
After you've done some preliminary checking on your own using the sites referenced today, if you are 
relatively certain of the state or county, consider posting a query to the appropriate state or county 
message board http://boards.ancestry.com or mailing list http://lists.rootsweb.com. There may be a list 
member who is aware of information or references that cannot be located with online searches. 

Can I Google It?
Google is an excellent search tool, but must be used with thought and was not created to solve every 
genealogy problem. I used Google to try and find a village that I already had located: Breckendridge, Illinois. 

Genealogists love Google because it locates many things, but sometimes that is the problem: it locates too 
many things. My search for "breckenridge Illinois" at www.google.com could easily have left me more 
confused than I already was. Note: this Google search was conducted on 23 February, results obtained 
when this column goes live may be different. 

I already knew where the Breckenridge, Illinois, I was looking for was located. Because of this, I was better 
able to see that I must be careful in using Google's results to try and initially locate a very small place or one 
that no longer exists. In the first two pages of search results, there was only one containing a reference for
 the "right" Breckenridge. 

Google's first results were for maps at Yahoo!, Google, and MapQuest. Maps at Yahoo! and Google both 
brought up results near Springfield, Illinois, nearly 100 miles from the former hamlet I was trying to reference. 
MapQuest was the only one that found two references to Breckenridge, Illinois (the one near Springfield 
and the other one in Hancock County). This second location was the one I was actually looking for. 

Based upon my little test, I generally would use Google to search for references to the location after the 
county had been located. Then the county could be entered as an additional search term. When I searched 
Google for "Breckenridge Hancock Illinois" some erroneous results were still received, but the number that 
appeared to reference the location in Hancock County were significantly higher than before. This would also 
be an excellent way to locate more information about the location. In fact, in the first twenty hits, two 
genealogy websites were located containing a person who had a vital event in the village. I might have to do 
some more experimenting. 

Finding a place where your ancestor lived may lead you to more records. Consider searching the sites 
mentioned in this column, contemplate the accuracy of the place name, and remember that the reference 
you need may only be available on paper between two hard covers. 

How are you Handling the Skeleton?

We all have them. Some of us have more than our share, but rare is the ancestral chart without a skeleton 
or two. The event may range from a minor blemish to a major scandal. When dealing with these situations, 
the family historian is well-advised to remember the time in which the event took place and the emotions of 
any living family members who were directly impacted by the event. Our reactions to something our 
great-great-grandfather did may say more about us than about him. This week, to start with, we look at a 
few "scandals" I have uncovered. 

Censured by the House 
In 1742 John Rucker was accused of betting on an election, bringing liquor to a polling place, threatening 
election officials, and causing general mayhem at the courthouse. The Virginia House censured he and a 
few other men for their actions. In the ruckus that ensued, John even grabbed the blade of a sword with his 
bare hands. Interestingly enough, he died within a year of the incident, but probably not due to 
embarrassment. This situation is tame by many standards, and I have included all extant documents I could 
find in my files. 

Hard Times 
Regular readers have heard of Barbara Siefert before. This German immigrant married Peter Bieger in 
Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1849. By November of 1850 the young couple was living in Illinois. By November of 1855, 
they have two young children and Peter accidentally shoots himself and dies almost instantly. By May of 
1856, Barbara has married George Fennan. By June of 1856 George has abandoned Barbara and her two 
daughters. Barbara continues to run Peter's tavern and makes no hesitation in pulling a gun on a patron 
who gets a little bit unruly. In 1859, Barbara marries Conrad Haase, and the couple leave the river town 
and begin farm life. Four children and more than a decade later, the couple divorce, with Barbara returning 
to the home she bought with her first husband. Twelve years later Barbara and Conrad remarry, but the 
marriage only lasts a few weeks. 

I'm not certain Barbara's behavior qualifies as scandalous. It could be easy to question some of her choices, 
but it's not really my place to pass judgment on her. However, thinking about why she might have made 
some of her decisions may lead to additional records and an enlightened perspective. I record everything 
about Barbara in my files and personally think there is a great deal one can learn about life and history in 
a relative such as this. I always remind myself that Barbara was a twenty-something nearly destitute 
widow with two small children, living in a small nineteenth-century town where she did not speak the
language and did not have any extended family. 

Our decisions are often determined by our background, our education, and our limited options. Our ancestors 
were no different. 

In the following two situations, I have changed the names and a few minor details either because the actual 
situations are not that recent or because my wife (and not myself) is the actual descendant. 

Keeping Marriage in the Family 
Thomas Jones was married to Sally Smith in the early 1860s in a small Mississippi River town. 
Approximately five years after his marriage to Sally, he began a relationship with Sally's sister Susan. 
He had children with Sally and with her sister Susan. In fact, Thomas Jones, Sally Jones, and Susan 
Smith, and the entire passel of children are enumerated in one household in the 1870 census. The entire 
family (except for Thomas) is entered into the county poor farm in the 1870s, where Susan gives birth a 
few months later. Susan's children and some of Sally's are adopted out to different families over a two-year 
period. Sally and the non-adopted children return to live with Thomas in the summer of 1870. This story has
 been shared only with those family members who have expressed an interest in the family's genealogy. 

Oversight or Not?
The story: The river flooded. The husband and the two children escaped on a boat. The husband left the 
wife screaming on the roof of the house. He did not go back to get her. The gentleman who shared this 
story with me has wondered if the abandonment of the wife was accidental or intentional for additional 
reasons not mentioned here. The descendants of this family who know about the husband and the wife 
have been very reluctant to say anything at all about them. I have included this story in my notes but have 
not shared it or discussed it with any person other that the man who shared it with me. My concern is that 
the relative or two who may eventually talk may clam up permanently if I make what details 
I know common knowledge. 

Where Are You Getting the Facts? 
The last story differs from the first three. The cases of election antics, multiple husbands, and multiple wives 
have all been consistently documented from numerous public documents that leave little doubt as the major 
details. Sharing these stories is not really telling any story that is not already available to anyone who wants 
to go digging for it. The last situation is different, to date no public record of the flood story has been found. 
It is these undocumented stories that can cause even more problems than ones available to those willing 
to search. This is especially true when living family members are involved. 

How Bad Is It? 
While our first ancestor was censured by the Virginia House, none of the scandals mentioned today 
resulted in criminal prosecution or jail time. Stories of a more heinous nature are more likely to create 
modern-day friction, especially if children or grandchildren of the perpetrators are still alive. Use caution 
and good judgment when sharing. Is it necessary to mention that your uncle was in prison for a bank 
robbery he committed when he was nineteen if he lived a respectable life after his incarceration? If jail time 
of the head of household caused the family to splinter and spread amongst several households, then it 
probably should be included in the family history (explaining the father's absence may be difficult otherwise). 
Keep in mind that we all have details of our life we would probably rather not have shared with the world. 
The difference is that not everyone leaves a paper trail of colorful activity! 

And Again, Is It Necessary? 
There is a first cousin of one of my ancestors who was in all likelihood developmentally disabled. A court 
case over his inheritance reached the state supreme court in the state where he lived. The testimony also 
indicated the mother became senile in her mid-thirties and died and that the father “knew two things: 
how to aquire [sic] land and drink whiskey.The local doctor testified that the home was the filthiest 
residence he had ever seen in his practice. Specifics of the cousin's behavior were also included. I have 
been very judicious about including these details in the family history (including several facts that would 
probably cause this newsletter to be caught in most reader's spam filters). 

Just the Facts 
Keep your genealogical reporting to the facts and perhaps to any reasonable implications the events may 
have had on the lives of other family members involved. Leave any judgments about their behavior to judges, 
juries, and higher powers that exist beyond the grave. 

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