Retracing our ancestors' steps can be a challenge. It is far easier, in studying their migration route, to know where they finally landed than to know first the place where they launched.
Take my wanderings while chasing the records of my husband's third great-grandfather Nicholas Schneider. It was easy to determine his final resting place. Documents of his last residence showed the same rural county where my mother-in-law spent her childhood. No surprise there. It was only through study of—and puzzlement over—Nicholas' children's records which led me to a hypothesis that the Schneider family migration trail led from Adams County, Pennsylvania, through Emmitsburg, Maryland, and then to their final destination in Perry County, Ohio.
But what location was before that? We've already jumped to the start of the immigration story and the record of Nicholas' young family arriving at the port in Philadelphia in 1804. What became of them between that arrival date and their first appearance in Adams County in 1810?
As I researched the records for the Schneiders' neighbors and associates in Emmitsburg, among the details for that area was the mention of a typical migration path for early-arriving German-speaking Catholics. Not surprisingly, the churches in Emmitsburg and Conewago township, Pennsylvania, were mentioned, but there was one other Catholic location which was included in that migration list: Goshenhoppen.
While you may never have heard the name Goshenhoppen, its mention immediately brought me back to a research project I haven't touched for years: that of my mother-in-law's patriline. That other branch of her Perry County family, I suspected, had once attended a Catholic church called Goshenhoppen.
The last time I had pursued information on what was called the Goshenhoppen records, I was still conversing with fellow researchers via genealogy forums. Back then, not much was digitized or available online. People would breathlessly refer each other to researchers who might have a copy of an index of the Goshenhoppen files, but the sense was that the material was hard to access, if you weren't able to travel to the source.
Revisiting the topic today, thanks to the prowess of search engines, I can see the case is far different. Thankfully. To check for the Schneiders' presence in this potential stopping place for migrating Catholics in the early 1800s, I have many resources open to me.
First, general-purpose website resources like Wikipedia's entry for Bally, Pennsylvania, identify that borough as the geographic location of the parish once called Goshenhoppen, and reveal that Jesuit priest Thomas Schneider established a Catholic mission there in 1741. In seeking clarification over the term "Pennsylvania Dutch," I also gleaned the information about early German-speaking Catholic immigrants that they congregated around the early missions established by Jesuits. Conewago and Goshenhoppen were again mentioned specifically.
Now, access to information in those early Catholic records from the Goshenhoppen parish is far more easily gained. Digitized copies of books about the records are online through university archives. The contents of the registers are compiled in books and microfilms at the FamilySearch library in Salt Lake City. And, I was delighted to find, a transcription of some of the records is now searchable online, thanks to the behind-the-scenes grunt work of Joseph Webb at GoReadingBerks.com.
Included in the material at this last-mentioned website are searchable files for Goshenhoppen Catholic mission baptisms, marriages, and burials. While the transcriptions are by no means the complete history of the church's sacramental duties, they at least provide a check point for someone seeking way markers for their wandering ancestors' whereabouts.
As for the wanderings of Nicholas Schneider and his family after their arrival in Philadelphia, it looks like the Goshenhoppen hypothesis yielded a negative outcome. Though there was a Schneider family represented in the baptismal records, it does not appear to be the family of our Nicholas and Anna Elizabeth. Sometimes, when we are uncertain about our family's history, we do have to test reasonable guesses. It's just that many times, the answer to our queries will be "No."
From that point, we simply pick up and move on to the next theory. At some point—hopefully—a well-reasoned hypothesis will lead us to an answer.