I’ve been continuing my father’s research into our family’s ancestors. After he retired in the 1990s, he and my Mom traveled throughout central Pennsylvania researching Daddy’s roots. Our ancestors arrived from Germany in the early 1700s and settled in the Lancaster / Bethlehem, PA area. I was lucky enough to find the old family bible and scrapbook that someone made from an old book. Germans are know for their meticulous record keeping and my family was thoughtful enough to leave me lots of records. The family bible contains long lists of births and deaths in scrolling pen and ink. Grand-pop Yeager passed it to Daddy and now I spend hours hand hours pouring over it. I‘ve found doctors, con artists, preachers, businessmen and hardworking farmers /laborers. These are my people, but who were they really?
It’s thought that we are the product of both our environment and our DNA, probably in equal amounts. With that in mind, I wonder not only who these people were but also who am I? Will some distant niece in 100 years wonder who I was and how my life possibly touched hers? I’m becoming acutely aware of how much women were designated as second class people. I am also getting a painful glimpse of the indescribably terrible status of black people through out the history of our country. I guess that will be a subject for another day.
Some great sources for my research (using ansestry.com) has been federal and state censuses, death/birth certificates, death notices and military records. The first federal census was in 1790. George Washington was president and Thomas Jefferson was Director of the Census Bureau. They asked just nine questions. The questions change every 10 years when a new census is taken. It seems that even the questions asked tell a story of what was going on at that time. What did we need to know? What data was needed and why? What did we value and why? Earlier this year there were lots of news articles debating if we should ask about legal citizenship on the 2020 census. Our census continues struggle and evolve.
The first census in 1790 census called for the name of the head of the family and the number of persons in each household of the following descriptions:
That was it. It recorded the Head of Household Male’s name and just slashes for the number of all others. No names or ages for the rest of us. Only adult white men were important. No surprise there. As the census evolved the changing questions give us a revealing glimpse into our ancestors thought was important and issues they felt needed to be addressed.
In the mid 1800s, the census asked: How may children did the woman have? And then, How many were alive? The numbers were shocking and sad. It seemed common for women to loose 1-3 children. They often gave birth to 5-12 children. I makes me wonder what their lives were really like. All those children. All those deaths. Common diseases that are so easily treated today. My great great great grandmother lost 3 children in just a week to Scarlet Fever. Just a few doses of penicillin would have saved them. But penicillin would not be discovered for another 40 years.
Death seemed to be everywhere. Tuberculosis, fires, falls, strokes, heart attacks and lots of endocarditis were listed on the death certificates that I accessed. ( I wonder why that was so common) It seems a miracle that anyone survived. I can see by the dates of death ( often within days or weeks of giving birth) that many women died in childbirth. I can see in the marriage records that the men often remarried almost immediately. I guess they needed someone to take care of all those children and possibly a newborn left behind from a lost mother.
My great great great great grandfather, a well respected physician was lost to Yellow Fever during an outbreak in Philadelphia in 1843. Newspaper accounts say he was the only physician that was willing to treat the Yellow Fever patients but eventually he caught it too. Yellow Fever is a mosquito born virus that originated in Africa but was spread through ports like New Orleans and traveled up the Mississippi to New York and Philadelphia. During the Philadelphia out break in the 1800s, it is thought that 9% of the local population was lost to Yellow Fever.
Birth certificates asked if the child was legitimate. Death certificates asked if it was suicide. Censuses asked where your parents were from and could you read and write. Can you speak English? What color are you? Are you free? What do you do for a living? Who lives in your household? It was common to take in boarders and their information was listed too. All these little pieces have started to come together to paint a picture and my ancestors have started to come to life.
My 5th great grandfather was a fiery preacher that became well known in the Brandywine area of Delaware. Some of his sermons have been quoted in the history books of that area. I can’t believe how much his personality and expressions sound like my Dad. It leaves me speechless.
The last year and a half have been tough for me. I started researching all this stuff as therapy after the stroke but it has expanded into so much more than that. When I think to myself, How much more therapy, pain, frustration and setbacks can I stand, I start to think about these people. My family. My roots. I have their DNA. They were fighters. They were Survivors.
And so am I.
I have my Grandma’s eyes
I am the product of such sacrifice
And their stories live in me like holy water
I am my father’s daughter
Oh, I am my father’s daughter
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