Busting through brick walls

Anyone who has ever attempted to research their family history knows that at some point, the trail ends–in other words, you hit the proverbial “brick wall.”  Maybe the surname is too common, or maybe the records have not survived (even if you have limited your research to tracing your family in the United States).  Perhaps the elders in the family don’t have good (or accurate) recollections of the family history, thus leading you into unrelated rabbit holes.  In any case, you get stuck and step away from it, hoping that someday the brick wall will come tumbling down.

My last name is Guenther.  I have been able to trace the Guenther line (with that surname) back to Germany, where the “first” Guenther, Charles William, was born in 1813 in Hesse-Darmstadt.  He came to the United States in the 1840s, married Amelia (Amalia) Crecelius at Trinity Lutheran Church in Reading, and had at least seven children before his death in June 1897.  While living in Pennsylvania, he taught German at Reading High School, sold insurance, owned a restaurant, and published German language newspapers, among other occupations.  But, according to family lore, he founded Carpenter Steel–which, of course, was founded by James Carpenter, not Charles Guenther.  Tracing further back in Germany, however, has proven to be a bit of a challenge, as apparently Guenther is a common name in that region.

My great-grandfather, Milton Raymond Guenther (who apparently was called Timmy for some reason), married Clara Edna Miller in early 1903.  You would think the Miller name would cause problems–but it’s actually through Clara that some of the brick walls came tumbling down.  In this case, it was Clara’s mother, Cinderela (also spelled as Senderella or Rella on census records), who led the breakthrough.  This definitely was one case in which having an unusual first name helps tremendously, as I was able to find out her parents’ names and then work back.  It turns out that through Cinderela I’m related to two early ministers in Pennsylvania–Reverend Anthony Jacob Henckel, the first Lutheran minister in the colony, and Matthias Bauman, who, following an illness in 1701, began to see visions and founded the “New Born” faith in which he essentially saw himself as the second coming of Christ.

My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Wheeler, which is also a rather common name–until you realize that the German counterpart could be Weiler.  Through this line (actually, through Sariah Hassler Wheeler, my great-great-grandmother), I discovered one of my mother’s ancestors “owned” one of my father’s ancestors when Jacob Gehry arrived in Philadelphia in 1739 as an indentured servant and was indentured to Johann Valentine Griesemer (and later married Griesemer’s daughter Anna Margeretha).  Sariah’s maiden name was discovered through her obituary, which opened the door to her parents’ names, and then census records, Find a Grave, church records, and family trees on Ancestry.com led me to her parents, grandparents, etc.  Sariah’s line has been traced back to the 8th century (770 to be precise) through a rather interesting ancestor; that is the story for another blog.

Slowly, as the little leaves on Ancestry.com appear, windows are opening, and the proverbial brick walls are falling down.  At the same time, though, I can see how the research can become addictive; I also have violated some of the guidelines I give students by consulting encyclopedias in order to verify information.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, I now have a better understanding of why I like ottomans (the piece of furniture); with these new discoveries, I’m also finding out why learning Spanish might tie in with my heritage.  I’m still stuck, though, on some of the findings that have come from my mother and I doing the Ancestry DNA testing; I sort of have figured out the 33% Scandinavian for her side (Yoders!), but we’re both stumped on the 6% (me) and 17% (my mother) Irish ancestry.  One thing is certain; we both don’t think it comes from one of her aunts marrying a Fitzgerald.

And so the adventure continues…


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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