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.
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.
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. RootsWeb.com is a good one. Geneanet.org 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 email@example.com.