Sunday, June 10, 2018

Arriving in America

One of the great things about studying history is that there is always something new to discover, simply by asking a different question. As I work on a fictionalized account of historical events, I find myself asking very specific questions that I would not have asked otherwise. For example, it's generally known that German immigrants in the 1740s would most likely arrive at Philadelphia, but what was that experience really like? If you put yourself in their position, what were the logistical details of arrival?

I had casually assumed that everyone disembarked as soon as the ship docked, and that the ship would dock as soon as it arrived. The truth is far more complex.

"Philadephia in the Olden Time," print by F. J. Wade, circa 1875
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Deciphering a Name

One of the bigger challenges for genealogists is figuring out what a family name used to be, before the immigrant ancestors had their names Americanized. The further back in time you go, the more difficult it becomes. During the early to mid 1700s, names were recorded in government documents only if the individual was a property holder, passed through the court system, or was a government official. Ministers kept records of every baptism, marriage, and burial they performed, but not all of those records have survived. For communities without an established church, dependent upon annual visits by itinerant pastors, the records might not include individual names, just the number of people baptized.

For the family that forms the core of my book, there are varying opinions about their name. It was eventually Americanized to Poe. Some researchers have decided that the original spelling was likely Pfau, but I am inclined to think that it was actually Pau or Paü. The use of the umlaut seems unlikely, as "Paü" is used today in Turkey, while "Pau" is a German word that is pronounced like Poe. "Pfau" was often Americanized to Faw, indicating a clear phonetic difference between the names.

I decided the best approach would be a search for any documents signed by members of the Poe family. The earliest I found were land deeds in the collection of the Maryland Archives. The family patriarch appears to have signed his name Georg Jacob Paü. I'm still not sure what to make of the apparent umlaut over the u.


Georg Jacob Pau signatures on the official copy of the deed of sale for a portion of land he owned, dated 18 November 1761.


Monday, January 8, 2018

Researching 18th Century German Immigration

Genealogists are some of the biggest history buffs on the planet. An initial online search for information about the German family I'm researching, who arrived in America sometime around 1742, pulls up a ton of research posted by genealogists, as well as a couple of self-published novels about German immigrant ancestors. Unfortunately, there is no single authoritative source about the family in question -- even within one or two generations, there are differing accounts of where they came from and when they arrived. I've had to make educated guesses to reconcile conflicting information and come up with what seems to be the most likely origin story.

Since Germany did not exist as a cohesive nation until 1871, it's not entirely accurate to call them German immigrants. Most of the colonial-era immigrants from the future Germany are referred to as Palatines, a reference to the region controlled by the Elector Palatinate, but this too is inaccurate. Looking just at immigrants coming from the Rhine River valley, there were numerous other territories from which they originated. Württemberg, for example, was a large region on the Rhine which was occupied by French troops during the winter of 1741-42 (one can easily imagine that people living in Württemberg may have been very motivated to emigrate to the new world after the French army finished ransacking their towns). However, for a variety of reasons, "Palatine" has become the generic term for immigrants from this region during this era, regardless of their actual point of origin.

Detail of map of Germania published for Benjamin Hederichs in 1742.
From Geographicus Rare Antique Maps