Adventures in Family History Research

For several years (actually, starting back in Fall 1979 when I wrote a research paper on family history for a women’s history course), I have been working on trying to discover as much as I can about my heritage.  Watching Who Do You Think You Are? (first on NBC, and now on TLC) has encouraged me to revisit my genealogy.  Ethnically, I am Pennsylvania German; I know a little of the language (mostly words that are not used in polite company) and do eat the food, celebrate the culture, and have a Wilkum sign in my faculty office and in the window next to the front door at home.  But, as I have begun to research my family’s history (aided a bit by doing an Ancestry DNA test last year), I have found that my heritage is much more than German…and in the process I have also discovered that some of the stories I have read in family history books do not match historical reality.

Case in point:  One of my ancestors (who actually is traced through three of my maternal great-grandparents) is Katharina DeTurk.  The DeTurk family was somewhat prominent in early Berks County, so this was a fascinating discovery.  However, the story of the family’s origin (as stated at the beginning of Chapter 1 of the published family history) is a bit suspect:

“The DeTurk family, or rather the name of DeTurk, may be traced by history and tradition to the year 1105 A.D. and is said to be of oriental origin.  From a letter, written in German, and the coat of arms of the DeTurk family in the possession of Mrs. Ella Baer, Kutztown, Penna….is found the following data of the family DeTurk, their origin and dispersion, which according to the letter, is from the records in the libraries of Versailles and Paris.”…..

“The letter reads as follows:  ‘The DeTurk family is of oriental origin.  The progenitor of this family was brought to France by Count Kaimund of Toulouse from Palestine, where he was taken prisoner in the year 1105 A.D.  He was a Turkish Emir, that is a prince, and his name was Hayraddin Silodin.  In France, however, he assumed the name of Arnulph Le Turk, that is Arnulph, the Turk.  He was knighted and admitted into the nobility.  He bore on his shield as well as on his helmet a lion holding the sun, the sun signifying the diety of the Turks, the lion valor or strength.  The present coat of arms of the family is made up of this shield and helmet bearing.  King Francis I renewed the grant to Reginald LeTurk.  The copy of this grant at Nismes of 1529 is still to be found in the archives of Paris.’”[1]

Now, it makes perfect sense to me that the name DeTurk (or LeTurk in France, although I would have expected it to be spelled LeTurque) is of Turkish origin.  But the first clue to me that something was amiss was the 400 year gap between when Hayraddin Silodin was captured by Count Raymond of Toulouse and when King Francis I renewed Arnulph’s grant to Reginald.  (Some genealogies on Ancestry.com even list Hayraddin/Arnulph as Reginald’s father, with a 1105 birth date for him!)  Count Raymond of Toulouse (listed as Raymond of Saint-Gilles in Encyclopedia Britannica), died at Tripoli in February 1105 during the First Crusade.  If Count Raymond (Raimond in French) died at Tripoli in early 1105, it is extremely doubtful that he took Hayraddin Silodin captive in Palestine and brought him to France that year–especially since he brought his wife with him when he went on the Crusade (and left his son in France as his successor in Toulouse).[2]

Big shock—family history book has wrong information (please note sarcasm).  So the next question:  who is Hayraddin Silodin, and who was Reginald LeTurk’s father?  (Actually, that’s two questions, but you get the point).  Modern technology (hello, Google!) potentially becomes the key to solving that mystery—and in the process creating a new one.  Typing in “Hayraddin Silodin” in the search bar, 239 results appear.  Some I can dismiss as duplicates; some are posts on genealogy discussion boards about people who claim that Hayraddin Silodin is their ancestor, are looking for more documentation, and/or repeat the information from the DeTurk family genealogy.  A few are links to family trees that identify a new birth date for Hayraddin Silodin:  1490 (but still in Turkey).  This, of course, leads to a new question:  If Silodin was born in Turkey in 1490, how (or why) did he go/get to France?  After all, he couldn’t have been captured during the Crusades if he was born in the late fifteenth century, just a couple of years before Columbus would “discover” America.

But one result intrigues me:  a link to a Wikipedia article about Cem (also known as Jem or Jem Zizim), a Turkish prince from the late 1400s.  When I teach the research methods course (and, in fact, in all of my courses), I tell my students that they are not allowed to use Wikipedia or encyclopedias as sources in their research.  Students reading this blog will now say, “Dr. G is a hypocrite!  She uses Wikipedia in her research!”  Not so fast—I’m using it as a resource to find more information.  There is a difference.  The link that appears is to a Wikipedia article in Italian, so I search for Cem (who is listed as Sultan Cem in the English article) for sources.

Sultam Cem is a rather interesting historical figure, as evidenced by John Freely’s biography Jem Sultan – The Adventures of a Captive Turkish Prince in Renaissance Europe (2004).[3]  Son of Sultan Mehmet II, who founded the Ottoman Empire in 1453, Cem was one of two claimants to the throne after Mehmet II’s death in 1481 (the other was his elder half-brother, Bayezid II).  The two brothers fought, and Bayezid II solidified his claim to the throne.  Cem essentially was taken prisoner on his half-brother’s orders, guarded by the Knights Hospitaller (who unsuccessfully tried to convert him to Christianity), and relocated to Italy, then France, then back to Italy, where he died/was murdered.

While in France, Cem (known as Jem Zizim in France) fell in love with La Belle Hélène, Philippine de Sassenage.  The affair was cut short, though, because Philippine had been betrothed to a French nobleman; before they parted, she informed Jem that she was pregnant with his child.  According to Freely, “local records confirm that…Philippine bore a son out of wedlock in 1484.  Tradition has it that the Turkish prince ‘Zizim’ had fathered the boy, and that he was raised by Philippine as a Christian and married to a relative of the family.”[4]

So…why is a Turkish sultan’s name appearing as a “hit” when a search is made for Hayraddin Silodin?  Well, now the family history story transforms from Hayraddin being captured during the First Crusades to being the son of Sultan Cem and Philippine de Sassenage (who apparently were married during his time in captivity in France).  No record exists of Philippine marrying Jem, and, given that he was Muslim and she was Christian (and she married someone else before he left France forever), it is unlikely that such a union occurred.  But it could possibly mean that Hayraddin Silodin (or Arnulph LeTurk) is the son of that union, and he appears in numerous family trees as the father of Reginald LeTurk.  Except there is a problem; all of these family trees list Hayraddin’s birth year as 1490, when Jem was no longer in France.

A proposed solution:  Hayraddin Silodin did not exist, at least under that name or as my ancestor.  The boy born to Philippine in 1484 was named Arnulph and given the last name LeTurk to honor his father.  Arnulph sired Reginald, who became mayor of Nimes (or Nismes as stated in the assorted family stories) and inherited his father’s coat of arms and shield.  LeTurk becomes DeTurk when the family flees France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and settles in present-day Germany, joining the migration to New York in 1709 and settling in Berks County a few years later (where Johannes Keim settled with his wife Katharine DeTurk Keim).  If this scenario is true, then it’s relatively easy to trace Arnulph’s father’s line back several more centuries before the Ottoman Empire existed (and possibly Philippine’s, since the de Sassanage family was in the French nobility).

And, on the bright side…it sort of explains why The Dick van Dyke Show is one of my favorite television shows of all time, and why the ottoman is a favorite piece of furniture.  It’s in my DNA… 


[1]History and Genealogy of the DeTurk DeTurck Family, Descendants of IsaacDeTurk and Maria DeHarcourt, compiled by Eugene P. DeTurk (NP:  DeTurk Family Association, 1934), 11.

[2]David Nicolle, The First Crusade 1096-99:  Conquest of the Holy Land (Oxford:  Osprey Publishing, 2003), 14.

[3]John Freely, Jem Sultan:  The Adventures of a Captive Turkish Prince in Renaissance Europe (London:  HarperCollins Publishers, 2004).

[4]Ibid., 116.

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About Karen

History Professor. Baseball fan. Author of two books, one of which I force my students to buy and read. You want me on your Trivial Pursuit team.
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