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Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 7/6/2005

Locating Evaporating Relatives

Evaporating relatives are a significant problem, but sometimes a research path will become more obvious by looking at other members of their family. No one lived in complete isolation. This week we look at a problem whose solution may rest in other members of the family. Some genealogists are hesitant to research individuals to whom they are not related. In this case, it is a virtual necessity if I want to locate the desired people.

My Problem:

Johannes Grass died in Wiesens, Ostfriesland, Germany in 1888, leaving his fourth wife, Gesche, and two young daughters as survivors in Germany. Johann’s two grown adult children by a previous marriage had already immigrated to the United States and started their own families and likely did not know their stepmother or their half-siblings. I could find no record of his widow or their daughters Johanna and Antje after the death of Johannes.

Where To Start?

My chances of finding these individuals may be enhanced by changing my focus from them to other members of their family.

Gesche was the fourth and final wife of Johannes Grass. Johannes had two children with his second wife Asselina; Noentje (my ancestor) born was born in 1848 and Bertus was born in 1852. Both these children initially settled in the Hancock and Adams County area of Illinois. Noentje married in Hancock County in 1874 and Bertus immigrated to the states in 1876, marrying in Adams County shortly after his immigration.

Their father Johannes married Gesche in 1877, after both of these older children had left Germany. As previously stated, Noentje and Bertus likely had no relationship with their stepmother or their two much younger half-siblings. In some cases, an individual may settle near their step-children, but in this instance, if Gesche did immigrate to the United States, it seems unlikely that she would settle near her step-children unless there was other family nearby. Our answers may lie with Gesche’s own family.

More about Gesche's Family

Gesche was born Gesche Fecht in Wiesens in 1839 and was married to a Jans Weerts before she married Johannes Grass. With Jan she had three children who were also born in Wiesens: Dirk in 1861, Garrelt in 1863 and Gerd in 1865. At the time of their step-father’s death in 1888, the Weerts boys were all grown men. They too, appear to leave the Wiesens area.

Gesche also had several siblings, some of whom remained in Germany. Our initial concentration will be on those siblings who are known to have immigrated, her brother Henry Garrelts Fecht (born in 1832) and her sister Antje Fecht Thiems (born in 1842).

Make a Chart

I have difficulty keeping my own family straight, let alone the family of someone else. Before my research progressed too far, I sketched out a chart containing all the individuals named so far and their relationships and dates and places of birth. A stack of family group charts was not going to be helpful and the chart helped me to remember how various individuals were related to each other.

Off to the States

Just because Gesche and her two youngest children appear to leave the Wiesens area, they did not necessarily immigrate to the United States. I need to remind myself that this is an assumption that I have made and that it may need to be re-evaluated at some point in the research process. The only information I have currently is that one relative “thought” the two youngest children of Johannes Grass also died in the United States (a weak reason at best). Because United States census records are readily indexed, it was decided to do some quick initial searches in those records. All of this was done with the hope of locating Gesche and her daughters.

A Little Work Revealed Some Potential Leads.

Census records indicated that there was a Dirk and a George Werts living in Montgomery County, Illinois. These two appeared to be strong potential matches for the sons of Gesche as census records indicated they had the same month and year of birth as Gesche’s sons Dirk and Gerd. Gerd is frequently Anglicized to George, so this apparent name change was not a major concern. As an additional coincidence, George has a daughter Gesche. My next step is to try and access death certificates for these two men to see if the parents’ names are listed. If they are Gesche‘s sons, my next step will be to obtain obituaries or death notices for these men to see if any mention is made of their mother or any surviving siblings, particularly the two younger sisters. Once I know I have the right individuals, other records, particularly county histories, should also be checked for additional biographical information. Again, I’m looking for anything that will help me locate all of Gesche’s sons with the hope of locating a clue as to Gesche or her daughter’s whereabouts.

I Still May Not Find Gesche.

If the leads on the sons are not fruitful, my search will continue with Gesche’s two siblings: Henry G. Fecht and Antje Fecht Thiems.

A search on World connect located a posting which indicated Antje died in 1913 in Kiowa County, Oklahoma. I immediately posted a message to the Kiowa County message board at RootsWeb hoping for a response. Perhaps something on Antje will help me locate Gesche and her children. If my posting does not generate a response, I will locate newspapers in an attempt to search for an obituary of Antje Thiems, which may mention surviving siblings. Of course, I’m hoping Gesche survived her sister.

On the surface, Gesche and her two daughters appear to have vanished off the face of the earth in 1888. It’s more likely they did not. My current attempts to locate these individuals have moved to other family members who might have left a record with enough detail to help me locate them. When a relative “disappears” it is always worth considering:

  • Have I researched all their siblings?
  • Have I researched all their children?
  • Have I researched all their cousins?
  • Have I researched all their step-children?

In all cases also consider:

  • With whom did this relative have a relationship?
  • With whom might this relative have immigrated?
  • What factors might have caused this individual to move?

Do I Have My Answer?

Not yet. Research is still progressing on Gesche. But it’s important to remember that we do not always get answers to our questions. The important thing is that our research is methodical and based upon the ways reasonable individuals would act. In a future column, we will follow up on Gesche and see where she was (or was not) located.


Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

Other genealogy articles by Michael John Neill