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 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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.