Friday, September 7, 2012

How to use the Hilffrich Records on

Note: In this post I link to an database.  If you want to visit these links, you must be an Ancestry subscriber and logged into the website. is an amazing source of information.  Countless thousands of imaged and transcribed records are there for the browsing.  However, for some of the transcriptions, Ancestry inexplicably stopped short of making them useful.  For me, the prime offender is the Lehigh County, Pennsylvania: Hilffrich Pastoral Records.

Let's use an example to see what the problem is.  Gideon Moyer was my 2nd great grand uncle, and I want to locate his baptism record.  When I search for his name in the Hilffrich records, I get one result that looks promising: Gideon Meier, Baptized, 24 Oct 1824.  That's him!  Most Moyers in this area were once Meyer or Meier.

When I click "View Record", I get a page that displays this information again, but does not include information about his parents or sponsors.  You might think that Ancestry has me covered, because there is a link next to "Other Names Associated with this Event."  But when I click that link, what I get is a hodgepodge of other records with the same surname.  In fact, this new record-set contains every single record in the Lehigh Hilffrich database, in no particular order.  Obviously this is useless.

But there is hope.  It turns out that Ancestry did indeed index these records in order.  They just didn't provide an interface to easily browse them this way.  But it is possible, and the secret lies in the URL of the record.  The URL is just the web address of a page.  It usually starts with "http" and lives somewhere near the top of your browser.

Here is the full URL of that original record we found on Gideon Moyer:|_F00028C2_x%2c_F00027D3|_F00027D3_x%2c_F00027F9|_F00027F9_x&uidh=6hu&pcat=37&fh=1&h=5881&recoff=6+7

It's long and confusing, but I highlighted the relevant piece.  That "h" is a parameter that lists the actual numeric index of the record you are looking at.  Changing the number will let you browse to any record in order.  Let's look at the records immediately before and after this one.

&h=5879 - Peter Meier, Father, Baptism
&h=5880 - Catharina Meier, Mother, Baptism
&h=5882 - Peter Meier, Sponsor, Baptism
&h=5883 - Maria Meier, Sponsor, Baptism

Peter and Catharina are Gideon's parents, and the sponsors, Peter and Maria, are his grandparents.  I never would have been able to glean all this from Ancestry's interface alone.

Hopefully this will help some folks who are struggling with this database the way I was!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Y-Chromosome is a powerful genealogical tool

Last year I had my DNA tested by Family Tree DNA.  I was mainly interested in their autosomal test, but I also ordered a Y-chromosome test just to be thorough.  This proved to be a good move, because the test revealed some awesome things about my direct-line paternal ancestors.

The findings can be broken up very roughly by time-period.

Recent History (the last 500 years) 
My main goal in taking the Y-DNA test was to find people who share my surname.  I was hoping to compare notes and maybe find out where our line originated.  My own Moyer/Meyer ancestors have been in America since 1750 at least, and I can't trace them back to Germany, so having another line of descent to trace would be very useful.  Surnames in Europe stretch back about 500 years, so a Y-match sharing my name would be, at most, my 18th-or-so cousin.

As it turns out, my closest match was indeed a Meier.  I wrote him and eagerly awaited a reply.  Sadly, he never responded, a problem that plagues DNA testing sites.  Luckily he had posted enough about himself that I was able to cobble together his family tree.  I traced his line back to Henry Meier, a prominent businessman in St. Louis.  Henry died in 1900, and I was able to locate an extensive obituary that gave his place of birth: the province of Hanover, Germany.  This doesn't necessarily mean that my Meyer ancestors were from the same place, but it at least provides a starting place.

Middle History (the last 1,000 years)
What else can we tell from the Y-DNA test?   Well, one fact that jumped out at me immediately is that, save the one already mentioned, every single one of my matches traced their ancestry to England, not Germany.   This result strongly implies that my paternal line spent quite awhile romping through the British Isles before packing up and moving to the Continent.   It's even conceivable that the traveler already had the name Meyer, since the name is English as well as German.

I hope to eventually confer with most of these matches to see if there is a particular region of England where they cluster.  However our common ancestors are so remote that the various lines probably had time to spread all over England.

Remote History (4,000 to 5,000 years ago)
This last result is what most people expect from a Y-DNA test: their haplogroup.  Mine happens to be I1.  This group has a high concentration across Northern Europe, maxing out in southern Scandanavia.  There is some disagreement as to where this haplogroup originated, but I believe the most recent thinking suggests Denmark.

In Great Britain today, the I1 haplogroup appears more often on the eastern side of the island, so that's likely the general area my ancestors inhabited while in England.

Putting it Together
When taken collectively, this really offers a compelling picture of my paternal ancestry.  The story begins somewhere around Denmark while the pharaohs were building their pyramids in Egypt.  There, a man belonging to the I1 haplogroup begat a son, who begat another son, and so on.

Eventually, an x-great grandson traveled from continental Europe to England, which has seen influxes of Germanic peoples throughout its history.  In England, the sons continued having sons, until one day, one of those sons went back to the continent, and possibly settled in northern Germany.  More sons and more sons, until finally, one of them packed up, got on a boat, and came to America.  In Pennsylvania, they had more sons: Wilhelm, Peter, Peter, Nathan, Roger, Alfred, David.  And finally me.

Friday, August 24, 2012

My first DNA matches!

One of the first things I did when I got started in genealogy last year was submit my DNA to be tested with two popular services: 23andMe and Family Tree DNA.  I finally had some success in determining the relationships of some DNA relatives.

My first hit was with 23andMe.  In general I have been dissatisfied with the general lack of people interested in genealogy on that site.  People primarily use it for health analysis, and my own experience has been that only about 15% of users will respond to requests to find a common ancestor.

Still, even people who don't respond sometimes provide valuable information, such as their own name and a list of family names.  For one of my matches (a predicted 3rd to distant cousin), I was able to use the provided information to do a little Internet sleuthing and ultimately build a family tree.  By sheer luck one branch of the tree was fairly well researched by Ancestry members, and I found a connection between us.  We turned out to be 7th cousins twice removed.  Our common ancestor was a man named Hans Jorg Rex (b. 1682, Germany, d. 1772, Germantown, Pa.).

This finding was exciting but somewhat dissatisfying for three reasons:
  1. The ancestor was so remote that I can't really be sure that we didn't share a more proximate ancestor on another branch.  I was unable to push back very far on a large chunk of my match's tree, leaving open the possibility that we are much more closely related.
  2. The match was on an unconfirmed branch of my own tree.  I have circumstantial evidence to suggest that Hans Jorg Rex is my direct ancestor, and I believe that he is, but I lack documentary evidence at one step of the chain.  Perhaps this DNA match should be seen to strengthen my hypothesis of this direct ancestor.
  3. Because my match will not share genomes with me (or even respond to messages), I will never know which segment of my DNA was passed down from this ancestor.

My second match was made using Family Tree DNA.  We were predicted to be 3rd to 5th cousins, and better yet, I recognized a surname from my tree in his list.  It did not take long to confirm that we are actually 4th cousins once removed.  Our shared ancestors are Peter Moyer (b. 1800, Lynn, Pa.) and his wife Catharine Gerard (b. 1804, Germany).  My match and another genealogist in his family were both extremely helpful and willing to discuss and share research.

This match absolutely confirms the chain of ancestors in my tree leading back to Peter Moyer, which I find to be quite a relief!  I sometimes worry about the presence of so-called non-paternal events (NPEs) in my tree, but this is one line of descent where that can be ruled out.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Moyer Clan

One of my main genealogical focuses has been the family branch to which I owe my name -- the Moyers.  According to Charles Roberts' History of Lehigh County Pennsylvania and a Genealogical and Biographical Record of its Families (Vol. 3, p. 930), the progenitor of this clan was Wilhelm Meyer, who owned land in the towns of Lowhill, Lynn, and Weisenberg in Pennsylvania.

NOTICE.  IN the matter of the Inquisition upon the Real Estate of Peter Moyer, late of Lynn township, Lehigh county, Pennsylvania. In the Orphans' Court of Lehigh county, Penna.  To Nathan Moyer, Leah Oswald, Joshua Oswald, Abigail Lynn, Jesse Lynn, Rachail Leiby, Lovina Sponsaler, Frederick Sponsaler, Elizabeth Moyer, Simon Moyer, Hester Salem, Catherine Hartz, Peter Hartz, William Moyer, Catharine Smith, Mary Gilbert, Lovina Baily, David Baily, Annie Wilson, Hamilton Wilson, Catharine Gilbert, Jonathan Gilbert, William A. Gilbert, Eli J. Gilbert the last two being minors having for their Guardians Jonathan Gilbert, _____ Gilbert, William Moyer, a minor having for his Guardian _____ Roosevelt, Peter Moyer, Nathan Moyer, Mary Moyer, minors having for their Guardians, Jesse Lynn, Jacob Moyer, Mary Witherstine, Jacob Witherstine, Polly Baker, Emanuel Baker, Rebecca Hunt, William Hunt, William Moyer, Daniel Moyer, Priscilla Moyer, Esther Moyer, Susan Moyer, Gideon Moyer, Matilda Moyer, Mary Moyer, Catharine Moyer, Catharine Snyder, Jonas Snyder, Mary Rau, Nathan Rau, Lydia Baily, Peter Baily, John Platt, Guardian of the minor children of Sarah Platt, deceased, Lovina Platt, George Platt, Elizabeth Durst, Lewis Durst, Elizabeth Sechler Benjamin Sechler, Daniel Moyer, Morton Goldner, Guardians of the issue of Nathan Moyer, deceased, Gideon Moyer, J. P. Moyer, Benneville Moyer, Owen Moyer, Nathan Moyer, Noah Moyer, the last two being minors and having Jonas Rabenold for their Guardian, Caroline Rabenold, Jonas Rabenold, Esther Fritzinger, Amelia Zellner, Solomon Zellner, Jonas Fry, Nathan Fry, Mary Knerr, Amos Knerr, Caroline Muhlhaus, David Muhlhaus, Catharine Heil, Benjamin Heil, Amelia Fenstermaker, Daniel Fenstermaker, Sarah Fry, Sarah Moyer, Sylvania Moyer, Susan Moyer, children, heirs and legal representatives of Peter Moyer, late of Lynn township, Lehigh county, Pennsylvania, deceased.  Take notice that in pursuance of a rule granted by the Orphans' Court of Lehigh county, you are required to appear at the said Court, on the third day of November, 1865, at 10 o'clock, A. M., of said day, accept or refuse to accept the several purparts of said real estate at the valuation thereof or show cause why the same should not be sold, otherwise an order for the sale of the same will be granted by the said Court  [Seal.] By order of the Court. GEORGE W. HARTZELL, Clerk. October 11, 1865-4w
Wilhelm had at least one son -- Johann Peter Meyer -- and Johann Peter's large family left a great many descendants.  According to Roberts, most of the children moved to Ohio.  My own ancestor, Peter (Johann Peter's son), stayed behind in the Lehigh Valley.  My goal has been to track as many family lines as I can, but with at least 16 children, it's not easy.  Miraculously, I found much of the family carefully enumerated in a newspaper article.

The Library of Congress' Chronicling America website is a fantastic resource.  That's where I located an article from Ohio's Western Reserve Chronicle originally printed on 11 October 1865 (annotated at right).  The article is an announcement to heirs of Johann Peter, concerning his land.  Johann Peter's living children are listed first, followed by his grandchildren by his deceased children, grouped by family.  Below the fold is my attempt to make sense of each of the ninety-two names mentioned in the article.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Determining accurate ages

John Trittenbach -- my 4th great grandfather -- was born about 1783 somewhere near Easton.  In 1810, he married Catharine Barnett, and spent the next few decades producing children who would vex future genealogists like me.  Based on the censuses from 1820 to 1840, it looks like John and Catharine had nine or ten children, of which I've identified six...all girls.  More than any other family in my tree, the Trittenbachs have stymied efforts to pin down their birth dates.

Take, for example, daughter Amanda (married William Mock).  I have identified her in the 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses, which respectively imply birth years of 1824, 1820, 1811, and 1808.  This has the somewhat dubious effect of making her 18 months older every birthday.  Her church burial record indicates that she was born in 1812.  What's a researcher to do?  Until a solution appears, I've simply been averaging these numbers to 1815.

A bigger question is why we have this vast range of dates for Amanda's birth.  As I understand it, birthdays generally weren't carefully tracked until the latter half of the 19th century.  But it's a completely different matter to believe that you are aging 50% faster than everyone else around you.  One conceivable theory is that vanity led Amanda to fudge her age a bit, but that she cared less the older she got.  Or maybe she just liked lying to census takers.  I may never know.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Stehley? Staley? Staly? Google tricks for variant spellings.

I have a 3rd great grandfather by the name of Gottlieb Stahley.  This is the kind of name that can give a genealogist agita.  There are probably a dozen different ways to spell both his first and last names.  Most genealogy sites have a wildcard function that eases the pain somewhat.  But what if you are searching on Google?  Well, the trick I use is to run a search like this:

Gottlieb|Gotlieb|Godlieb|Gottleib|Gotleib|Godleib Stehley|Stahley|Stehly|Stahly|Staley|Staly

The pipes mean "or," so the above string will find every combination of the listed names...thirty-six in all.  I don't have time to run thirty-six separate Google searches, so this is a great little shortcut.

By the way, this particular search helped me break through a huge brick wall.  I found Gottlieb in a list of headstone transcriptions, which further yielded a bonanza of information on that branch of my family

Friday, June 22, 2012

Old World origins

One of the things I really love to do is find ways to visualize data.  I do this for mundane things in my everyday life, and this compulsion has carried over to my work in genealogy.  Recently I decided to make a table of my ancestral origins.  This is the result:

Country Region City Surname(s) Immigrant(s) Date %
Italy Calabria Gioiosa Ionica Loccisano, Sfara Vincent Loccisano 1939 25.0%
Italy Calabria Cardinale De Fazio, Rotiroti Elizabeth De Fazio 1926 25.0%
Germany Hesse Angersbach Miller/Möller, Eifert Conrad Miller & Maria Eifert 1882-1887 12.5%
Germany Prussia, Posen Pogorzela Pritz, Zuelke Louis Pritz 1892 12.5%
United States NJ/PA Phillipsburg/ Easton Sauder, Barnett 5.5%
United States PA North Whitehall Mertz, Boyer, Klotz 4.7%
United States PA Lynn Schmidt, unk. 3.5%
Germany Württemberg Gerard Catherine Gerard 1816 3.1%
Germany Palatinate Dielkirchen Benner, Stoller Valentine Benner 1856 3.1%
Germany Württemberg Stehley/Stähle Jacob Stehley 1814 1.6%
Germany Moyer/Meyer Wilhelm Meyer 1740-1760 1.2%
Germany Trittenbach/ Drittenbach Johann Michael Drittenbach 1749 0.8%
United States PA Heidelberg Delong 0.8%
Germany Alsace Oberbetchdorf Kressley/ Grässel Jacob Grässel 1754 0.4%
Germany Palatinate Neff Anna Neff 1730-1760 0.4%

My goal here was to account for every immigration event in my family tree, and to determine the percentage of my ancestry tied to each event.  Of course I couldn't pin down every immigrant, so I simply listed the U.S. region of the relevant family branch.

So I am 50% Italian.  I've traced about 35% of my ancestors to Germany, or at least to areas that were culturally German, via nine separate immigration events, which I think is amazing.  The remaining 15% of my heritage is unaccounted for, but based on last names and locations in eastern Pa., I suspect it is mostly German as well.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Finding ancestors in online newspaper archives

One of the earliest stories my dad shared about our ancestors was that my 2nd great grandfather was a railroad engineer who died in a train wreck. My dad loved trains so I think this story particularly resonated with him. The upshot of such a sensational death is that the story is easy to find in newspapers.

Nathan D. Moyer (b. 1849, Lynn, PA) was the youngest child of Peter Moyer and Catherine Girard. As a teenager he got a job with the Jersey Central Railroad and would eventually become the oldest engineer on the line. On the morning of 9 October 1909, the air thick with fog, his train collided with another near Siegfried Station in Northampton, PA. The engineers of both trains were killed. Dramatic, yes, and made more dramatic when some bulls being carried by one of the trains escaped and gored two women.

My dad had a copy of the story from The Globe (Bethlehem, PA), which is the longest news article I have found on the matter, clocking in at 700 words or so. But some quick Google searches revealed the story was reported far and wide, even warranting a blurb in the New York Times. The best part is that, while searching online for articles about Nathan Moyer's death, I stumbled on some remarkable stories concerning his life.

Nathan D. Moyer, of Bethlehem, an engineer employed on the Bath division of the Central railroad, has had several experiences within the past few days which show of what kind of stuff men are made. The other afternoon, while going along tho road at a lively rate, between Bangor Junction and the Bangor Superior quarry, he noticed an object lying on the track between the rails. He quickly applied the brakes and by using every effort succeeded in bringing tho train to a standstill within a few feet of the object. Running ahead it was found that tho object on the rails was a five-year-old boy fast asleep. On Saturday last by a similar effort he stopped his train in time to save an old woman and a girl who were driving over the tracks.An 1898 article in The Scranton Tribune, included at left, recounts two incidents in which Nathan's quick thinking saved lives. Within the span of a week, he twice prevented his engine from running over people: first a small boy, then an old woman and a girl.

Nathan wasn't always so lucky, however. The next year, in 1899, The Easton Free Press reported that Nathan's train ran over a man on the tracks. It appeared to Nathan that the man deliberately knelt on the rails, making it a possible suicide.

Decades earlier, in 1876, a report on internal affairs for the state of Pennsylvania listed railroad accidents. The relevant text reads, "Cornelius Brown, stealing a ride on a coal train; jumped from the train while in motion, and had one leg crushed below the knee. -- Nathan Moyer, engineer; Edward Murta, conductor."

I'm glad I availed myself of these online newspaper/book archives. It has helped provide a clearer picture of my ancestor's life and profession.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thanks, Dad, for the inspiration

My dad was an avid genealogist.  It was a lifelong passion for him.  He would often take trips to cemeteries to photograph the gravestones of long-dead relatives, and at he attended family reunions with pen, paper, and a lot of questions.

Once, when I was fairly young, he showed me a hand-drawn pedigree chart--my ancestors, carefully arranged on a piece of paper.  I remember being keenly interested as he told me some of their stories.  But the genealogy bug never quite bit me like it had bitten my dad.  I was always peripherally interested in his progress over the years, regularly asking him how he was coming with the family history.  I listened intently to all his new discoveries and enjoyed pouring over the various descendant charts he printed out.  But genealogy was always his hobby, not mine.

Dad died on May 26, 2011.  He was quite young, and it was very unexpected.  During the weeks that followed, my thoughts kept returning to our family history--my father’s legacy.  I knew that I would be the one to preserve all his work.  It wasn’t so much a decision as it was a simple fact.  Still, I was somewhat daunted.

Sometime over that summer I worked up the courage to log into his account (thankfully, Dad was never one for imaginitive passwords).  The next few months were some of the most amazing of my life.  Browsing the family tree and piecing together the steps my dad had taken was a wonderful, eye-opening experience.  I had finally been bitten by the genealogy bug.

And so, genealogy became one of the many gifts my dad gave to me.

It’s been about a year now, and I feel like I’ve grown somewhat from a credulous newbie, unquestioningly accepting every possible lead as fact, into a hardened skeptic, making tentative hypotheses and seeking documentation.  I still have a lot to learn, though, and I decided that starting a blog is a good way both to organize my thoughts and find others who are researching my ancestors.