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from the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 2/28/2001

Reading Between Johann's Lines

The presentation was not for a genealogy conference. The audience was small, and the average attendee age was nine. Yet, while I was gathering the information for this presentation, I realized how much I had overlooked in my research. There is nothing like preparing to "present," however informally, that can make one aware of unfollowed leads and unanswered questions.

Research checklists and guidelines are excellent things, but sometimes there is nothing like getting ready to "talk" your information to someone else that brings the gaps to light. My elementary school audience was learning about immigration, and my presentation was on that topic.

I enlarged the copy of the passenger list for the ship of my great-great-grandfather, who emigrated from Germany in 1869. His entry in the passenger list* includes his age, gender, previous residence, and destination ("U.S.A"—very helpful!). I knew his date of birth from various other records, the age matched exactly (not always the case), and the previous residence was correct (not always given, and not always correct when it is). There was never any doubt that the Johann in 1869 was my guy. The fact that his surname (Ufkes) is fairly unusual was a significant help.

As I looked at Johann's name on the list, I remembered that the Ufkes family genealogy published in the 1980s contained a typed translation of a letter written upon his arrival in the United States. The letter would be a definite addition to my presentation. It is the only letter I have that was written by an immigrant ancestor to relatives who remained in Europe.

When I read the letter, I immediately wished I had copied the entire ship's roster when I had the passenger list at my disposal. Johann's letter mentioned his passage and some of the others who were on his ship.

Johann's letter stated, in part:

"On the way a young man hovered with us who also wanted to go to America, named Focke Riekens Keiser from Virtel who was 20 years old, to come to America to keep out of the army (had a letter from Agent Zimmerman) so . . ."

Many Germans immigrated to avoid military service, and apparently Focke was one of them.

Johann's letter continued:

". . . write me if Gesche Fecht bedding was found. (Some more bedding lost—it was as though I lost my own). I only lost a handkerchief, otherwise I had a nice trip, and I am hale and healthy."

Unfortunately, the page of names I copied from the passenger list did not list the young man who came to avoid military service. (Of course, one may not always be able to copy an entire passenger list.) But several of the entries on Johann's page indicated that some of the individuals had come from the same village of residence as Johann. The villages of several other immigrants on Johann's page were very near Johann's village of Holtrop.

Johann's letter is undated, but the first paragraph leads one to conclude that it was written shortly after his arrival in America. It reads:

"For the first time, I take the pen, beloved, to write a few lines as to how I have fared on the trip. Dear friends, as you well know, I left you on the 24th of February to come to an unknown land."

Given that the boat landed in New York City on 15 March 1869 (from the passenger list), it would appear that the letter was written at the earliest in late March. Johann would have had to travel from New York City to Adams County, Illinois (where many of the people mentioned in the letter lived) most likely by train.

There is another clue in the letter that helps in the dating process. Johann writes, "After Easter I will go to Junction; there I have a good chance to hire out, it may be God's will."

Johann's reference to Easter allows an even better approximation of the date of the letter. In 1869, Easter was on the April 4**. Based on Johann's arrival date and the date of Easter in 1869, the letter was very likely written between late March and 4 April of 1869. It is not always possible to date such letters this precisely. One should read letters carefully for subtle clues that may assist in the approximation of dates and places.

Johann's reference to "Junction" is admittedly vague. From previous research on this and other families in the area, I immediately knew that the reference was to Keokuk Junction—now known as Golden, Illinois. In this letter, it is the only location mentioned.

If I had not known where "Junction" was located, I could have searched various online geographic databases and similar print reference material, but "Junction" would have been difficult to locate had I not already suspected a state. If this had not resulted in success, perhaps the other individuals mentioned in the letter could have been located.

Johann mentioned that his sister Antje liked it in America very much and that she was working. Most likely, she was not married and immigrated under her maiden name. The surname of her sister and brother-in-law, also mentioned, were not given in the letter.

In this case, I knew the full names of the sister and brother-in-law. They were Rolf and Christina Habben. Antje immigrated in May 1868. Rolf and Christ.[sic] Habben and their children are listed directly before Antje on the passenger list. It always pays to read the entire list.

Johann's letter home was probably greeted with excitement from his family. I greeted it with excitement too. If you find a letter from one of your family members, take time to carefully analyze it once your excitement has waned. You are more likely to notice subtle clues once you have gotten over your initial response to finding the letter.

* The best initial approach to using the Germans to America series is as follows: I located Johann on all federal censuses from 1880 until 1920 (he died in 1924) so that I could obtain an approximate year of immigration. I also located his obituary to see if it contained a year of immigration. These records allowed me to approximate Johann's date of immigration. Then I searched specific volumes in Germans to America for Johann's name. His name was listed as Ulfkes, not Ufkes. [Not EVERY German appears in Germans to America, but the series is the place to start.] Upon finding Johann in the series, I then obtained a copy of the actual passenger list on National Archives microfilm.

** There are several sites on the Internet from which one can obtain the dates on which Easter and other religious holidays have taken place. Cyndi's List has a section of links on calendars and dating that is particularly helpful.

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 the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures 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 Web site.

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