Tuesday, June 4, 2024

When "I Don't Know" Can't be the Answer


If you ever hope to get past your brick wall ancestor, the phrase "I don't know" cannot be part of your vocabulary. If you want to find those answers, you have to know what you're looking for before you begin a successful search. That doesn't mean you already know the answers, but it does mean you at least need to find a factual toehold before you can grasp the rest of your ancestor's picture.

Thus, before we begin puzzling over the phantom relative I found in my mother-in-law's Metzger line, we need to start with an inventory of what we do know—or at least the details which seem to be most likely facts.

In today's example, that "phantom" family member was a previously unknown son of my mother-in-law's second great-grandfather, immigrant Michael Metzger. In all the records I could find for him, his name was represented as John Metzger, but apparently he also went by the name Johann Metzger—especially after he surfaced far from home in a small town called Ferdinand in Dubois County, Indiana.

Just today, in laying out the facts I've already accumulated on this John (or Johann) Metzger, I learned enough background information to connect some dots in his story line which hadn't previously made much sense to me. For instance, I couldn't understand why, if the man was known in earlier years as John Metzger in records back in Perry County, Ohio, where his family had settled, he would become known as an adult as Johann rather than John. Looking up a brief entry on the town of Ferdinand helped explain, for instance, why his headstone clearly listed his name as Johann: the town was settled mostly by German-speaking immigrants from central Europe.

Since John Metzger had married in Perry County in 1852, I had expected to see his entry in the 1850 census, but so far I haven't located him listed under either given name, John or Johann. The digitized marriage entry was difficult to read on the bottom of the page in Perry County court records, but thankfully a volunteer had posted a clearer copy of that record in his Find A Grave memorial. 

After that point in 1852, John Metzger and his bride, the former Mary Ann Wiest, showed up in Dubois County records in Indiana until the point of their passing, in 1896 and 1917, respectively. Oldest child Frank was born there in 1853, followed by four more sons and one daughter. Interestingly, in all the U.S. Census records which included his name from 1860 through 1880, this mystery relative was listed not as Johann but as John Metzger.

Working from those small points which were the familiar toehold of what little I knew about the man, a picture began to emerge. It took following through on each of John and Mary Ann's children for that picture to take shape. An entry on third-born son William, long after his parents' passing, was the stroke of luck which confirmed his parents' German-speaking heritage: William happened to be included in the expanded section of the 1940 census, which provided the information that the language he remembered speaking in his childhood home was German, not English. Surely that detail echoes back to previous generations as well, reminding me that John's parents also were German speaking residents in their adopted home in Ohio.

Just reading between the lines on those few things that we do know about a supposed "brick wall" ancestor can lead to fresh understanding which, once we think about it, can lead to more clues and, eventually, answers. When we begin a search for a new ancestor, we may presume at first that we don't know anything, but even grasping for the one detail we can say is true can connect us with a corollary piece of information which will help us along our way in that research mode. Each step may indeed be a baby step, but it leads us closer to sketching in the picture of who that mystery ancestor might have been.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...