Dear Napoleon


Years ago, when I was just first beginning my research, I was introduced to my grandmother’s second cousin, Robert Marcoe. He believed that he and my grandmother were the great great grandchildren of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph.

This particular family legend later turned out to be untrue. I often wonder if anyone ever told Mr. Marcoe that he was wrong. I hope not. I would like to think that lived out his old age and died with his dream of a glorious familial past intact.

Years later, after breaking through a “brick wall” in my research, I was able to finally find the father of my 4x great grandmother, Nathalie Noreau, one of my grandmother’s ancestors:



Born 1911 in Wisconsin

Died 1984 in Wisconsin



Born 1875 in Wisconsin

Died 1968 in Wisconsin



Born 1835 in Quebec

Died 1908 in Wisconsin



Born 1809 in Quebec

Died 1891 in Wisconsin



Born 1782 in Quebec

Died 1862 in Quebec



Born 1734 in Quebec

Died 1805 in France


When I did a subsequent Google search for my newly discovered ancestor, Jean Baptiste Noreau, I found a connection to Napoleon even more interesting than that Mr. Marcoe had dreamed.

His name turned up in a book written by a Robert Larin and published in 2006 about the French’s first attempt to settle South America. Jean Baptiste Noreau was one of the settlers in the late eighteenth century. In researching and writing his book, Mr. Larin had done me the favor of writing a biography of my ancestor. In that biography, he included the following letter, written by Jean Baptiste Noreau to Napoleon.


Letter Jean Baptiste Noreau wrote to Napoleon in 1805

September 19, 1805

His Majesty, Napoleon I, Emperor of the French

At the beginning of March last, I left Montreal with my son to bear to your imperial and royal Majesty the wishes of the inhabitants of the French Empire in Quebec.  

I arrived in New York, where my son remained due to illness. I embarked on the ship Thomas of New York under Captain Garduer. I arrived in Bordeaux on 27 March last and was detained by illness in a hospital. I sent to your majesty the package for which I was responsible. If you would like further information on the state of Quebec, I will be in Paris should you wish to speak with me.

I am your most humble, obedient and submissive servant.

Jean Baptiste Noreau

Additionally, Mr. Lorin gave the following account of my ancestor’s life:

Jean Baptiste Noreau was born in 1734 in Quebec. When the British conquered the French colony in 1755 he was apparently among those who resisted and was taken prisoner and sent to England. He was eventually released and made his way to St. Malo, France where, 1763, he married a young French woman, Anna Francoise LeNouvel.

Soon after their marriage, the new couple traveled to South America to take part in the French government’s plan to found a new colony in what is not French Guyana. They appear in the 1765 census there as part of the settlement of Sinnamary. This initial attempt at settlement was a failure, however, and Jean Baptiste returned to Quebec with his family.

He is listed as a member of the militia that fought the American forces that attempted to conquer Quebec in 1775. For the next 30 years he lived in Quebec, hoping, with many of his fellow countrymen, that one day France would return with its armies to repatriate them as French citizens.

In 1805, the 71-year-old Jean Baptiste Noreau, traveled with his son to New York City. His son took ill and he continued alone to France. It was there, from a hospital in Bordeaux, that he wrote his letter to Napoleon.

That letter, dated September 19, 1805, is the last that was ever heard of Jean Baptiste Noreau. He probably died there, aged 71. Perhaps he died with his own dreams intact, of his home once again being a part of the French Empire.

I wish I had the chance to share this with Mr. Marcoe. Sadly, I lost touch with him over the years. He passed away last summer. Belatedly, I would like to acknowledge my gratitude to him for helping to ignite in me a fascination for family history. I hope that it is appreciated by other members of our family that the day he died, July 14, is celebrated today in France as Bastille Day. On that same date in 1789, the people of Paris rose up in revollt, beginning the period in French history that ultimately led to Napoleon’s rise to power.

While some of your family’s legends may be true and some may turn out to be false, I can promise you that the truth you discover will be infinitely more fascinating than anything you can imagine.

Make it a part of your research to do a search on the Net whenever you find a new ancestor. Just never forget to make sure you’ve done your research and can prove that the person you are searching is indeed related!

Contact me if you have any suggestions for future posts, or if you have a question for me  at

Finding Your Religion

View of the Wisconsin River near Nekoosa, Wisconsin

As a boy, I played on the banks of the Wisconsin River and in the woods that surrounded my hometown. I imagined myself to be an explorer or, more often, an Indian warrior or hunter running silently in search of my prey or a fleeing enemy.

People have many reasons for researching their ancestors. Some may want to prove that they descend from a Civil War soldier or Revolutionary War hero. Others seek to find noble or royal descent. Still others desire to find where in Europe, Africa or elsewhere in the world their family lived before coming to America.

My own motivations for researching my family have changed over the years.  Initially, I simply wanted to be able display my ancestors on a chart. Today my  passion stems from a desire to preserve my family’s history for future generations. However at one point in my life, my main motivation was a quest to find out if I had any Native American ancestors. Thanks to church records, I was able to do just that.

When I was just beginning my research, my mother told me that her mother’s ancestors were French from Canada. I already knew that the first Europeans to arrive in Wisconsin had been French. I also knew that some French Canadians could trace their ancestry back to the Native Americans the first colonists encountered when they settled in Quebec. Later, many of those first settlers’ descendants migrated south to the US. My grandmother’s family was among them and I hoped to find, through her, a Native American forebear.

Hopeful, I visited my grandmother’s sister, my great aunt. She didn’t know anything about  “Indian blood” but she did give me useful information. She knew the names of her grandparents, all of whom had been born in Quebec. I knew that if I could just find where in Quebec, I could link up with some of the published genealogies that traced many French Canadian families back to colonial times.

She knew where their paternal grandfather, Jean Baptiste Balthazor, had been born and fortunately knew his date of birth. Having that information made it easy to learn more. I just had to order the parish records from the local Mormon Family History Library. Thanks to that resource, I quickly found his birth record. That record gave me the names of his parents delivering me another step closer. Searching further back in the films, I found their birth certificates, which gave the names of their parents.

That information got me far enough back to find each of Jean Baptiste’s great grandparents in the lists of families in Father Cyprien Tanguay’s Dictionnaire généalogique des Familles Canadiennes, one of the primary sources for French Canadian genealogy. The nearest printed copy of this series of books was at the Wiscosnin State Historical Society. I visited and paged through the volumes for hours. I found some amazing information. First, the Balthazor family began in North America with a soldier who arrived in 1755 and stayed. I also found that some of my ancestors had resettled in Quebec after being part of the British expulsion of the French from the colony of Acadia, now Nova Scotia, also in 1755.

But my focus remained on finding a Native American connection. Each of the many lines that I traced back that day ended with an immigrant ancestor who had come from France sometime during the 17th and early 18th centuries.

I then followed the same strategy for my grandmother’s paternal grandmother, Marie Marcoux, and her ancestors. Again, I completed dozens of charts and gathered pages of information, but found no sign of a Native American ancestor.

I moved on to researching my grandmother’s maternal grandparents, but, to my surprise, my great aunt told me that her grandmother, Mary Boomhower, was actually German and not French. That information, in my mind, eliminated her as a descendent of any Native peoples. I know now that her ancestors were Palitinate Germans who settled in New York, among the Mohawk, and that many did intermarry with them.

I had only one great great grandparent left to research, my grandmother’s maternal grandfather, Pascal Letourneau. The problem was that there was no easy bridge back to Quebec. My great aunt had not told me where he was born. All she had given me was a birthdate of May 16, 1834.

I turned to the census to see if I would find any clues there. In the US 1860 census, there was a “Baschle Leterneau,” age 24 (estimated birth year 1835/1836), with “Chris,” age 26 (estimated birth year 1832/1833), and, just above them, a Christopher , age 53 (estimated birth year 1806/1807) and “Tallie” Letourneau, age  51 (estimated birth year 1809/1810).

1860 US Census of Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin

Immediately, I suspected that the younger Christopher was his brother and that the older couple was their parents. If I could prove those relationships and find any documentation that showed where they had been born, I could possibly make the jump back to where Pascal had originated in Quebec.

I found the information I needed in the church records of St. Patrick’s church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. All of Pascal’s children were baptized there and Christopher Letourneau, his apparent brother, was godfather for some. Christopher’s death, as recorded at the parish, gave his birthplace as St. Cyprien de Napierville, Quebec. I went back to the local Family History Center and ordered the parish records for that town.

I found Christopher’s baptism right where it should be, given the year his death record gave for his birth, 1831. A few pages earlier was the marriage record for his parents, Christopher and Nathalie Letourneau.

Marriage record of Christopher Letourneau and Nathalia Landry, 1830

Now came the moment of truth. If I could find a Pascal Letourneau born to Christopher and Nathalie in 1934, I would have bridged this line back to Quebec.

I was crestfallen when there was no Pascal listed as being baptized in 1834. Not ready to give up, I checked a few years back. Still nothing. Then I scanned forward into the baptisms for 1835. There, recorded on May 16, the same date my great aunt had given me, was the baptism of Pascal Letourneau. She was off by one year, but she had his birthday and month correct.

Baptism record of Pascal Letourneau, 1835

Going back to the marriage record of his parents, I found his father’s parents listed as Amable Letourneau and Isabelle Bissonnette. That information led me to his father’s birth certificate and then his grandparent’s marriage record. Having gotten back to the late 1700s, I could now trace all his lines back using Tanguay.

Baptism record of Christopher Letourneau, 1807

Marriage record of Amable Joseph Letourneau and Isabelle Bissonette, 1801

Baptism of Joseph Amable Letourneau, 1774

Marriage of Marguerite Perrault and Amable Letourneau, 1769

I spent hours sitting in that library pouring over those books. One line after another, I traced back on a dozen pedigree sheets.

Finally, there it was. One line of my great great grandfather, Pascal Letourneau, seemed to trace back to an Algonquin Indian woman, Marie Miteouamegoukoue.

I was elated – for about half an hour. When I shared my excitement with the librarian at the genealogy desk, he cautioned me that the printed references sometimes contained errors. Just because I had found the connection in the Tanguay book, it didn’t mean I could be certain it was true.

So it was back to the Family History Center to dig deeper armed with new information. More films were ordered and scanned. With new information in hand, I was able to trace back, birth record by marriage record, back to Marie Miteouamegoukoue’s daughter, Madeleine Couc.

Baptism of Marguerite Perrault, 1753

Marriage of Marie-Louise Boileau and Laurent Perrault, 1743

Baptism of Marie-Louise Boileau, 1721

Marriage of Marguerite Menard and Pierre Boileau, 1706

The marriage of Marguerite Menard proved the link to Madeleine Couc as her mother. But, while Tanguay listed Madeleine as Marie Miteouamegoukoue’s daughter, I could find no actual record to prove their relationship.

Family of Marie Miteouamegoukoue and Pierre Couc as recorded in Tanguay

But while there was no baptism or marriage record for Madeleine to prove that Marie Miteouamegoukoue was her mother, there was the baptismal record of her nephew, Jean Couc. I found her listed there as the “daughter of Pierre Couc,” Marie Miteouamegoukoue’s husband.

Baptism of Jean Couc, 1689

Marriage of Marie Miteoumegoukoue and Pierre Couc, 1657

Finally, I had my connection to a Native American ancestor, verified by church records, back twelve generations.


Born 1835


Born 1807


Born 1779


Born 1753


Born 1721


Born circa 1685


Born circa 1669


Born circa 1631

Marie’s own baptism was recorded as taking place in 1650, along with many members of her tribe.

Baptism of Marie Miteouamegoukoue, 1650

The majority of our ancestors were very devout, whatever their particular faith. Long before governments took the time to officially record the “vital” events of their lives, religious organizations did. Wherever your family worshipped, there are records that you can use to trace them back, possibly for many generations.

For your assignment this week, pick a branch of your family that you are having trouble with. Make sure to find out where they worshiped and then get access to the records. You can do this by emailing the church itself or the local genealogical society or public library.

Once you have located the records, find the names of birth sponsors or marriage witnesses. You will now have names of close relatives or neighbors that will help you later in your research.

Let me know what you find, at

Reaching Further

On the bank of the Sieg River just west of Weldergoven, Germany

Peter Birkhauser, my 4x great grandfather, died on May 5, 1809. For most of us, being able to find just that much information is rewarding. But, because I reached out to others asking for help, I have so much more. In fact, I can piece together what I believe to be a very accurate account of the last hours of Peter’s life.

Years ago when I first began my research, my Aunt Frances, wife of my grandfather’s youngest brother, heard of my interest. One day, unexpectedly, a packet of information arrived in the mail containing information given to her when she and my uncle visited distant relatives in Germany a few years earlier.

Included was a picture of what I at first believed to be a grave marker along with a translation of the inscription our relatives had given her:

Peter Birkhauser, tenant of the Boedinger Hof, died 5 Mai 1809

As she explained in her note, it was not a grave marker. It was a “Gedenkkreuz,” or “memory stone,” often placed by family members on the actual spot where a loved one had died.

It was an amazing find, but something didn’t seem quite right.

The short translation didn’t match with the amount of writing that appeared on the stone. What had our relatives not included? Was there perhaps a clue as to why he died on that particular spot? Short of a trip to Germany, I didn’t have a way to get a more thorough translation. So, I did the next best thing and ordered a microfilm copy of the church records of the parish where Peter resided. I hoped that the record of his death might provide a clue.

The Mormon Church has done us all an amazing service. Traveling the world, they have filmed every record of genealogical significance that they can get access to, including the surviving church records of many German towns and villages. Chances are you have a Mormon Family History Center within easy driving distance. At minimal cost, you can order films online and then visit the center to view them.

The microfilm arrived in a few weeks and knowing the date of death, it was a simple task to find the entry.

Hennef, Germany parish register

Geisbach 5 May (1809)

About 11am very near the town of Weltergoven, Peter Birkhauser, suffering from the confusions of old age, choked and died. He was widowed, father of seven children, about 85 years old, and was buried at 8:00pm in the evening.

Now I knew where the Gebekruez was located, somewhere on the Sieg River near the village of Welterhoven, and I knew how Peter had died – by “suffocation.” I concluded that he had drowned.

It still bothered me, though, that I didn’t have a full translation of what had been inscribed on the stone. Perhaps the translation gave some clue as to why Peter had been wandering alone. What was an old man, suffering from what appeared to be dementia, doing by himself at the river?. The relatives in Germany that my aunt had originally gotten the photo from were no longer available to help. With few options, I took a chance and sent an email to the mayor of Peter’s hometown, not expecting much back. I resigned myself to not knowing more until I actually visited Germany.

As luck would have it that email ended up in just the right hands. The mayor was a friend of a local genealogist, who happened to be married to another descendent of Peter. A few email exchanges later, I had a more complete translation of the marker.

Text as it appears on Gedenkkreuz

The highly revered Peter Birkhausser, tenant of the Boedingerf Hof in Geisbach,died of an asthma attack at the Sieg River, below (downstream) from the village of Weldergoven. He was about 85 years old and had been married for 47 years. The Holy Sacraments were administered and, trusting in God, he died at noon on 5 May 1809. God’s grace to the soul.

Now, I could piece together the story.

That morning Peter likely woke early, as he had all his life. Retired, he now lived in the house he and his wife, Maria Gertrud, had moved into when their daughter and her husband took over as administrators of the farm. As Maria Gertrud had died three years earlier, he would have dressed and walked across the yard to have whatever breakfast was his custom with his four young grandchildren. Then, putting on his coat and with walking stick in hand, he headed out on his walk.

He came to the river, possibly swollen and moving faster with the spring rains. As it was usually only to his waist, he would have waded in. Only this time he realized too late that the water was higher than usual. Panicking, he tried to turn back. He went under.

Somehow he made it to shore. Perhaps someone heard his cries for help and pulled him from the river. He couldn’t catch his breath. Peter Birkhauser died on the bank of the Sieg River.

While I can never be absolutely certain, I have a theory as to why he was there trying to cross the river that day. While researching the rest of his children, I found that one of his sons, Johann Adolf, and his wife, Anna Maria, lived on a farm just on the other side of the Sieg. Two years earlier, Anna had given birth to their first child. They had named him for Johann Adolf’s father, Peter. It seems likely that Peter had left that morning to visit his young namesake.

You have made progress in interviewing your immediate and extended family. Now it is time to reach out to relatives you may not even know you have. Take your 45 minutes this week and post some questions or research problems on one or two of the many genealogy message boards. is a good one. is another. Or, send an email to someone who you suspect might be able to help.

Genealogists are generally very generous and eager to share what they know. Don’t be surprised at the amount of information you will find by connecting with long lost family.

Let me hear about your success at

Family Legend

Painting of the Battle of Belgrade in 1456 between Hungary and the Turks

‘In the 1450s, the King of Hungary was at war against the Turks. A colonel in his army, convinced that his general was about to defect with his troops, killed him. Understandably afraid for his life, the colonel escaped to Germany where he eventually settled near the Rhine River and took the name ‘Birkhaeuser,’ meaning ‘one who lives in a house near birch trees.’”

Or so goes the family legend.

I first learned of this story in an article published by Heinrich Laufenberg, a German genealogist. It had been told to him in 1976 by members of the branch of our family that had remained in Germany. This story had not come down through my particular line of the family and I had never heard anything about it from anyone I’d been in contact with over the years, including other German members of the family, who, when asked, simply scoffed. They explained that it was not unusual that someone would have fabricated a noble or heroic origin for their family.

The issue was settled, in my mind, at least. Then, a few years later, I reached out to a distant cousin living in California. I wasn’t sure at the time exactly how we were related but, knowing that “Birkhaeuser” is simply “Birkhauser” written the way it had originally been by our immigrant ancestors, I assumed there was a connection.

He was, in fact, related, and we soon figured out exactly how. His great grandfather, Joseph E. Birkhaeuser, was the younger brother of my great great great grandmother, Gertrud. His son, also Joseph, had apparently cut ties with the rest of his family in the early 1900s and with his death any knowledge of the family had been lost. All, that is, except for one piece of paper that my distant cousin copied and emailed to me.

In the late 1800s his great grandmother, Christianna Armstrong Birkhaeuser, had written an account of her husband’s family. It matched almost exactly with the “family legend” shared by other relatives in Germany and published by Mr. Laufenberg.

Fascinating, to be sure, but it was still easy to discount both versions of the story; Christianna has simply heard from her husband the same family story that he had been told in Germany and that relatives still living there today had preserved. An interesting study in how a story had been passed down for almost 200 years, but nothing to be taken too seriously.

The story inspired me to finally take one of the genetic tests being offered by FamilyTreeDNA . The particular test I took cost about $200 at the time. I ordered the test and about a week later a kit arrived in the mail. As instructed, I swabbed the inside of my cheek with the q-tip provided, sealed it in the airtight container, and mailed it back.

A genetic genealogy test takes a sample of your DNA, analyzises it, and produces your genetic “code.” In this case it was my “Y-chromosome” code. It told me the genetic fingerprint that had been handed down from my paternal line, father to son, for generations. That information becomes meaningful when put into a database with codes that have been submitted by other test-takers. By comparing matches, you can find people (in this case men) from around the world who most closely match you. The more alike your codes, the more closely related you are.

Of course, I had expected my nearest genetic relatives to be other men living in Germany, or with proven German ancestry. That was not the case. My closest matches, those with whom I supposedly share a common ancestor within the past thousand years, were either in Hungary or in areas that had at one time been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Do the results of this test prove the family legend of a fugitive Hungarian colonel escaping to Germany and the founding of the Birkhauser Family? No. But it did give me pause, and something to think about as I continue to trace the origins of my family.

If you’d like to know more about how genetic testing can help you in your research or possibly bring credibility to your family’s legend, email me at



The Call of the Wild?

Prospectors in Nome, Alaska-1900

My grandfather revered his mother in the way that only a devoted son can. I never met her as she died about a year before I was born. I was six years old and visiting my grandparent’s home the first time I heard her name and realized that my grandfather had a mother of his own.

A portrait of my great grandmother, Margaret Anna Koenigs Birkhauser, hung in the room I slept in that night. It was in  a large ornate oval frame. She would have been about fifty at the time it was taken. Her hair was drawn back and she wore a high-collared embroidered blouse with a cameo broach pinned at the neck. From pictures, I know that she was a pretty girl and she remained a beautiful woman all of her life.

But, I was a small child in a dark unfamiliar room , and for some reason her portrait scared me. I’ll never forget the hurt look on my grandfather’s face when I told him that I couldn’t sleep because I was scared of the “lady that is looking at me.” Years later, I can understand how he must have felt. The bond between a mother and son remains strong long after she has gone.

She was born in 1886 on a farm near Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin, the second daughter and fifth child of Michael and Barbara (Weber) Koenigs. Two of her older brothers—William “Bill” and Nicholas “Nick”—left home when she was still very young.

The oldest brother, William, seems to have had a special place in her heart, perhaps because he was her oldest brother. When he left home she was about 14. At first he moved only a few miles away to their uncle’s farm, but eventually, when she was still in her teens, he left the state and never returned.

All that my grandfather knew was that William ended up on a ranch somewhere out west with the other two brothers and died there around 1950. His whereabouts in the years immediately after he left Wisconsin, however, were a mystery. If my great grandmother knew where he’d gone, she had never shared that information with my grandfather.

A few years ago, I decided to go in search of William. My goal was to find out where he was between when he left home before 1900 and when he died around 1950. If Margaret had heard from Bill during those years, where did he tell her he was living and what did he tell her he was doing?

Census records quickly gave the answer.

The first US Federal Census was taken in 1790 with another following each decade until the most recent census taken in 2010. The information recorded varied somewhat depending on the decade; it was not until 1850 that all members of the household were listed, as opposed to just the head of the family.

By law, census records are not released to the public for 70 years and the most recent records to be released are of the 1940 census, which became available just a few months ago.

Census records are invaluable for tracing your family back generation by generation. For some, they may be the only way to find the next generation. They can also be used to trace a family forward decade by decade, and, as illustrated here, to follow an individual’s movements over the years.

Below is an outline of William Koenig’s life using only census records.

William Koenigs in 1880 census – Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin

William appears as a newborn of eight months in the 1880 census of Forest Township, Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, the first child of Michael and Barbara Koenigs. According the census, he was born in October of 1879 in Wisconsin and both of his parents were born in Wisconsin.

There is no record of William ten years later in the 1890 census because the records from that particular census were destroyed. A tragic loss, to be sure, but fortunately, it is the only census that has not survived.

William Koenigs in 1900 census – Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin

By the time the 1900 census was taken, William is living in the household of his uncle, Nicholas Weber. His birth is listed correctly again as having occurred in October of 1879. He is listed as a “boarder” in the Weber household and employed as a farm laborer. It was likely only a few years later that he left Wisconsin.

William Koenigs in 1910 census – Cape Nome, Alaska

In 1910 both William and his brother, Nicholas, are listed as living in “Cape Nome,” Alaska.  Each gave his occupation to the census taker as “prospector.” Gold was discovered on the beaches of Nome in 1899 and thousands of young men made their way to Alaska in search of adventure and wealth.

William Koenigs in 1920 census – Cape Nome, Alaska

William is still there in 1920, still prospecting for gold.

Nicki and Joe Koenigs in 1920 census – Pierce County, Washington

Nick, however, is living on the ranch he owns in the shadow of Mt. Rainier.

William and Nick Koenigs in 1930 census – Pierce County, Washington

Sometime between 1920 and 1930, William left Alaska and joined his brother in Washington.

William and Nick Koenigs in 1940 census – Pierce County, Washington

The last census available, the 1940 census, shows William still living in Washington with his brother, Nick.

When the 1950 census is released to the public in ten years, William will still be listed as living in Washington. He died there in 1952 according to other records I have found online.

Most census records can be found online, either through state historical and genealogical societies or through membership services, like Let me know if you need help finding the census you are looking for. Email me at

Johnsburg K-5000

Imagine that you could call one of your ancestors, say someone who lived 200, or 250 or 300 years ago. Who would you call? What would you ask them?

If I had called my 7x great grandfather, Johann Heintzen, on May 25, 1749, he would certainly have told me that he had just seen his neighbor killed in his vineyard by a bolt of lightning.  If I’d called the next month, he might have told me that he had just loaned money to one of his neighbors, Wilhelm Birkhauser. Later that year, he might have shared that he had found “blood root” growing in his garden, believed by he and his neighbors to be a bad omen.

He also might have bragged of his size and told me he could beat any man within a day’s walk in a test of strength.  Whether that was true or not, he could state with some confidence, based on his own accounting of his wealth, that he was the richest man around, at least in Bergheim and the surrounding area.

Article by Heinrich Brodesser describing the mid-eighteenth century diary of Johann Heintzen

Of course, I didn’t find all this out with a phone call, at least not a call to Johann Heintzen. The article, and the diary it described, was an accidental discovery. I just happened to do a search for the name, “Johann Heintzen” and “Bergheim” on the internet. That search turned up something unbelievable. Someone had published an article with excerpts from the diary he had kept in the mid-1700s. It was one of those treasures that a researcher dreams of finding.

So, it wasn’t a call to my ancestor that led me to this information.  It was, however, the phone calls to relatives that eventually lead me to him and the remarkable find of his diary.

By now, you may have had the opportunity to actually interview a relative or two in person.  Now its time to reach out by phone to those who aren’t within traveling distance, and to follow up with more questions to those who you have been able to interview previously.

This is the chart that I use to track the information I gather.  Use it as-is or as a guide to create your own. You will see that it asks for a lot of information, more than we’ve talked about asking before. Use it as a tool to follow up and fill in some of those blanks with people you’ve already talked to and use it as a guide when speaking over the phone. Email me if you’d like me to send it to you as a word document or pdf.

Good luck as you continue your journey. Next week we’ll talk about how to find your family in the census.

As always, you can reach me at

Becoming American

For over 150 years my family has heeded our country’s call to arms. Fighting in America’s wars has been a part of what has made us Americans.

Each generation has had their war. For my father and uncles it was Vietnam. My grandfather was buried with honors as a WWII veteran. His father, my great grandfather, watched cousins and friends leave for WWI never to return.

My great grandfather’s World War I draft registration record

And his father, my great great grandfather, saw his new homeland torn apart by the Civil War, just a few years after arriving in the United States.

The closest I ever came to fighting in a war was registering for the Selective Service on my eighteenth birthday. I remember my mother’s concern, even though we weren’t currently at war, that now a son was a phone call or letter away from the draft. My father’s reaction was characteristically somber and serious as he explained the responsibility it represented. I can only imagine that actually seeing a loved one actually go off to war must bring a similar array of emotions for the wives and husbands, parents and children left behind.

War was a fact of life for almost all of our ancestors, no matter when your family came to America. If your family was in the United States by 1860, you almost certainly have a direct ancestor or close relative who fought in the Civil War. And, if they fought, they left behind records.

Pension record of Theodore Birkhauser

Military records can be a wealth of information and Civil War records are a great example. Finding my relative’s Civil War pension record provided all the basic facts of his life and identified the regiment he fought with. Once you know the regiment and company your ancestor fought with, you can follow them through the war, almost day by day.

He was born in 1843 in Germany and came to the United States as a young boy in 1856.

After a few years in Wisconsin, he set out on his own and was living in Peoria, Illinois when he enlisted in the Union Army in September 1862. Over the next two years, he fought alongside his comrades at many of the major battles of the war, including Gettysburg.

Monument to the 82nd IL at Gettysburg

Private Birkhauser was discharged from his regiment for health reasons in Washington, DC in March of 1864 and reassigned to a veteran regiment.

He died on August 16, 1919 of pneumonia. At his side was “Miss Elizabeth Birkhauser,” who census records showed was his daughter by a second marriage.

Theodore Birkhauser enlisted as an immigrant and was discharged two years later, an American. Today, he is still honored as an American Veteran.

I hope your plans and preparations for meeting up with relatives this summer are progressing. Perhaps you had the chance over the Memorial Day Weekend to begin your research.

Next week we will round out our “interviewing” steps with suggestions for how to conduct interviews by mail and over the phone.

Next week: Johnsburg K-5000

Finding Anna

I will probably never know what she looked like. Did she have brown or blond hair? Was she short or tall?  Did people consider her pretty or plain?

And yet, images of her, if somewhat blurred, play in my mind. I see her as a small child clinging to her mother’s skirt, a little girl chasing after her sisters in their father’s vineyard, the teenage bride of a man she did not love, a young widow in an illicit affair, the middle-aged matriarch of a large family and an old woman boarding a ship knowing she would never again see the place of her birth.

Her name was Anna Maria Heinzen and she was my great great great great (4x great) grandmother.

I find the stories of each and every one of my ancestors to be intrinsically fascinating, certainly because they are MY ancestors, but also because each was an unique individual with their own dreams and disappointments, tragedies and triumphs. The quest to paint as complete a picture of each of them is, for me, the very essence of genealogy.

Yes, each of them deserves to be remembered and honored and each has something to contribute to the larger story of my family. Yet, every so often someone comes along that I am particularly drawn to, either because of what I know about them or because of what I do not know. Anna is one of those people.

The first time I learned of her was from a news clipping. My grandfather’s cousin had researched our family and the local newspaper wrote a piece about it. The article included a photo of Cousin Laverne standing next to the grave markers of Anna and her family with the story of how they had left Germany and come to Wisconsin.

Anna’s marker at St. Anthony’s Church in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin
(Photo taken July 29, 1980 by Steve Birkhauser, age 14)

Anna was only briefly mentioned. The article referenced her having come from Germany a few years after her daughter, Gertrud, and her family had arrived in 1849. Intrigued, I made my parents drive two hours out of the way on a vacation trip a few months later so that we could visit the churchyard where Anna was buried. Standing there, seeing her name carved into the stone with her birth and death dates, made her real to me. I was hooked.

My relative’s research led me to the town where Anna was born and soon I had ordered microfilms of the town’s church records through the local Mormon History Center. Within a few weeks, I had copies of Anna’s birth record, her marriage records, the birth records of her children and the death records of her first and second husbands.

Many German towns have “Familienbuecher” (family books) compiled from church records that are published and can be purchased online. I ordered the family book for Rheidt, the village where Anna was born, and it provided additional information on Anna’s family and ancestors.

Between reading microfilms and waiting for books to arrive, I studied the history of that particular area of Germany so that I could better understand the socio-economic and political forces that might have influenced her life.

Over the course of a few months, a picture of a life, Anna’s life, had begun to emerge.

She was born in 1788 in Rheidt, a village on the bank of the Rhine River, just north of Bonn. She was the third of four children born to Johann Heinzen and Anna Gertrud Honecker. The family lived on a large “hofe” (farm) on the bank of the river that included a vineyard, orchard, horse and livestock stables and fields. Her family was of some prominence and her grandfather was the “Schultheiss” (mayor) of the neighboring village of Mondorf.

She was seven when Napoleon’s troops invaded. At the age of eighteen she married for the first time to Johann Birkhauser, a man of her family’s choosing from another locally prominent family. In less than a year, she was a young mother and children continued to arrive at regular intervals over the next ten years.

Photo of the Wintermuehlenhof in Konigswinter, Germany where Anna lived for most of her adult life

Anna was 33 when her first husband, Johann Adolf Heinrich, died in 1821. Three years later, she married his nephew, Jodocus, five years her junior, by whom she had already borne a child.

Portrait of Jodocus Birkhauser, Anna’s second husband

By now, she was living on the Wintermuehlenhof, an estate in Koenigswinter, a town south of Bonn.

When Jodocus died in 1846 her eldest daughter, Gertrud, had been married for 12 years and had a large family of her own. Three years later Gertrud and her husband, Johann, and their eight children, left for America. Anna, now middle-aged, stayed behind in Germany, perhaps because her youngest son, Joseph, had not yet finished his studies at the University of Bonn.

Anna received news just over a year later that her son-in-law, Johann, had died, leaving Gertrud a widow with nine children. Still, Anna remained in Germany, perhaps because, fortunately, two of Gertrud’s brothers had accompanied her to America and could help raise the large family.

Finally, after Joseph graduated, Anna made the journey to America. She was reunited with her family in the spring of 1858, just months before she died at the age of 70.

Family of Anna’s daughter, Gertrud, as listed on the passenger manifest of the Luconia, departed Antwerp, Belgium in March of 1849, arrived in New York City in April of 1849

She could never have known that a century and a half later a descendent would be so interested in her life. Even with all I’ve learned about her, my fascination continues. I have so many questions I wish I could ask her, but that is part of the fun, isn’t it? We take what information we can find about our ancestors and do our best to construct a narrative that, hopefully, reflects something of who they were and the life they lived.

I wish you well as you go in search of your own “Anna.” If you’ve already found her, I hope you will share their story by posting below. I am also interested to hear about any successes you have had in reaching out to your family.

As always, you can reach me at

Happy searching.

Anna’s signature as it appears on the 1834 marriage record of her daughter, Gertrud

Happy Mother’s Day

When you look at this photo what do you see?

I see a young woman, not yet 30 years old, who in the previous five years had married, given birth to a daughter, emigrated from her native Germany to America, buried her first husband and almost immediately after married a man twenty years her senior. The photo was taken just after her second wedding.

Her name was Elizabeth Thelen and she is my great great great grandmother.

Elizabeth was born on September 29, 1829, the first child of Johann Thelen and Anna Maria Schaefer. She grew up on the farm they worked just outside the tiny German village of Siebenbach.

A brother and sister followed before her mother, Anna Maria, died in November of 1838. There is no record of her father remarrying and Elizabeth, as the oldest daughter, would have taken on much of the responsiblity for the care of the household and her younger siblings.

The role she inherited after her mother’s premature death may explain why it was not until 1853, when she was 24, that she married Martin Schumacher, a young man from the neighboring village of Herresbach. Nine months later, she gave birth to their only child, a daughter, who they christened Katharina. In the spring of the next year, the new family traveled to a port on the Atlantic and boarded a ship to America. They eventually made their way to Wisconsin where they settled in the spring of 1855.

It could not have been easy. There was a house to build, fields to clear and a home to establish. But I imagine the excitement they must have felt at the prospect of a new life in a land full of promise and opportunity.

Sadly, their happiness was shattered a few short months later when Martin unexpectedly died.

She had few resources and a small child to care for. Alone in a strange land with an infant and no means of support, she did the only thing a woman in her situation could do. Still grieving the death of Martin, she remarried on February 15, 1858 to Mathias Schneider. Almost twenty years her senior, Mathias had buried his wife less than three months before. With seven children at home ranging in age from three to 14, he had immediately begun looking for a new wife.

Did Elizabeth find happiness again in her new marriage? Of course, we can never be sure. We do know that she and Mathias would have three children together before he died in 1872.

A widow for a second time at 42, Elizabeth never remarried. She lived the remainder of her short life watching her children and stepchildren grow and leave to begin families of their own. She was 52 when she died in the winter of 1882.

She left us no written record of her feelings, her dreams, her joys or her disappointments.  What we have are the most essential facts of her life and, gratefully, this single image, created over 150 years ago, through which she still speaks.

This week’s post is not so much a step as it is a tip. Old photos can be great clues. But, much more importantly, they give a face and a voice to your ancestors.

As you reach out to family for assistance in your search, always ask if they have old photos. Don’t worry now if they or you can’t identify them. Some people will be very protective of their family photos and may not let you borrow them long enough to scan them. Even a picture taken with your smartphone ensures that the image will not be lost.

To my mother and to all mothers, past, present and future, Happy Mother’s Day.

Next Week: Finding Anna


Most of what has been uncovered about my mother’s Irish roots is owed to some spoiled potato salad and a sweltering summer day. The irony that most of my Irish ancestors came over during the Great Potato Famine is not lost on me.

Soon after I started researching my mother’s ancestors, I sat down with her father, my grandfather, at a family reunion in Wisconsin. It was one of those oppressively hot, humid days that you don’t think should be possible that far north.

His pride in his Irish heritage was touching. A picture of the Kennedy brothers hung in his house for years. On this particular day, he recounted stories of his father and uncles sitting on the front porch of the “old homestead” smoking their corncob pipes. As to the origin of the family in Ireland, however, he knew very little.

Luckily for me, a swarm of flies descended on a plate of spoiled food at the table where his sister, my great aunt, was sitting. To escape their fury, she moved to our table and was soon sharing her own stories and remembering what she had heard as a young girl. Two hours later I had a notebook of clues that eventually led to the discovery that their side of my family originated in County Cavan, Ireland.

Summer is the time for family events—perfect opportunities for gathering information about your family history. The secret is in the preparation. If you can get people thinking before you see them they are much more likely to recall the information you are looking for.

Send out an email or letter a few weeks before the event. Include a copy of your chart.  Bring a photo that might get people talking. Better yet, ask them to bring a photo they can share.

Enjoy your family this summer, and as you create new memories with the people you love, take the time to capture and preserve your family’s past.

Let me know how it goes by posting below or emailing me at