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Jul. 25 2012

Genealogy 101

By WBJC | Posted in Host Blogs | 2 Comments

This past March I wrote a blog entitled “Discovering Lancaster” about the trip my wife and I took last summer to Carlisle and Lancaster, Pennsylvania to research my family genealogy. As promised, I am returning with the first in a series of blogs about what we discovered. I wondered at first whether my family tree would be of interest, but one of my colleagues urged me to do it, and I notice genealogy has suddenly become a national obsession. Ancestry.com just recently reached two millions members, my wife and I among them.  And there are now two television series devoted to genealogy, NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” and PBS’s “Finding Your Roots, with Dr. Henry Louis Gates”. Each traces the family tree of a celebrity, and invariably arrives at amazing discoveries. I must concur. My own discoveries have been mind blowing, and I am now certain that every human being alive has amazing stories in their ancestry. We just have too many ancestors for that not to be the case.

When I started looking into my forebearers, I was unaware I was part of a trend, but it makes sense. People like myself, having reached middle age, start wondering where we came from. My interest must be traced back to my maternal grandmother, Bessie Strock Thompson, whom I called “Nana”. My parents and I moved in with Bessie and my grandfather James Thompson in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania when I was two. James died when I was five, we soon moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and Nana lived with us for the rest of her life, dying in 1982 at the age of ninety-nine.

My grandmother and I were very close, but she never spoke of her early life, and I never asked. The closest I came was in my early teens when I asked my mother about Nana’s family. She told me, “Strock, Niesley (pronounced NISS-lee), Eisenhart, and Stauffer.” Remarkably, I remembered those names for decades. Now my mother was very proud of her father, who had been a lawyer and at one time the mayor of St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania. She would always tell me, “We’re British,” referring to her father’s ancestors. (My wife, who is of Irish descent, later got Mom to admit her father also had Welsh as well as English ancestors.) George Hessler was my stepfather, and my actual birth name was Petersen, so I assumed I had no German ancestors.

One night in October 2009 I was online, when I decided on a whim to Google the four names my mother had told me so many years earlier. On the third hit, up came the registry of the Mt. Zion Cemetery in Churchtown, Pennsylvania, just outside of Carlisle. I am not unfamiliar with this cemetery. My wife and I first saw it  in 1982 at my grandmother’s burial. My grandfather was buried right beside her (although when James Thompson died in 1957, I was considered much too young to attend). My mother Elizabeth Thompson Hessler died in 2001, and my stepfather in 2003, bringing us back to the Mt. Zion Cemetery. It was at my mother’s burial that I first noticed what a beautiful town Carlisle is. I had lived there at the age of four, but was too young then to notice. During my Mom’s burial, my wife and I were fascinated by the name “Niesley” on several grave stones, remembering what Mom had told me decades before.

The first name I saw on the cemetery registry was Rena Niesley Strock, who died in 1943, eight years before I was born. I remembered in my childhood my mother occasionally mentioning “Aunt Rena” with a chuckle in her voice. This was my grandmother’s sister, who never married ( back in the day, she would have been called an “old maid”), and I must admit it had never crossed my mind that “Aunt Rena” was the sister that Bessie grew up with.

Then I found the grave of  Howard Kossuth Strock, who died on May 13, 1883,  three months after my grandmother was born on February 22, 1883. And with that information, another forgotten memory returned. Sometime around the age of twenty, I asked my mother, “What was Nana’s father like?” and she answered, “Mother never knew her father. He died when she was just a few months old. He was in his early thirties.” I asked “What was his name?”, and she replied “Howard”. “Of course,” I nodded and chuckled, since my mother’s brother was also named Howard. Why I never pursued the topic further amazes me now. But here obviously was the grave of my great grandfather,  who died at the age of thirty-one, when Bessie was a baby. The question that would haunt me for almost a year, that I so wished I had asked my grandmother, or my mother, or even my stepfather, when they were still alive, was how did Howard Strock die?

And so many more questions occurred to me. Bessie never knew her father, but what about her mother, Annie Niesley Strock, who lived to 1919? Why hadn’t I asked about her?  I always thought of Nana as growing up “in the early twentieth century”, but I had a very fuzzy notion of time when I was younger. Bessie was already seventeen in the year 1900. She grew up in the horse and buggy era, before the invention of the telephone, with no electricity or indoor plumbing, during the cowboy and Indian days. (Bessie was seven when the Wounded Knee Massacre took place.) Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Verdi wrote their late masterpieces when she was a child. Edison invented the light bulb just four years before she was born. This is the lady I saw every day of my life while growing up, and I never asked her a single question about her early years. Watching the celebrities on “Who Do You Think You Are?”, I hear them repeating the same question: why didn’t I ask my grandfather or grandmother more when they were still alive? Apparently I’m not alone.

It took me two months, with the help of Ancestry.com and the Mormon Family Search (the Mormon Church has an extensive genealogy archive), along with papers that my wife and I had found when we cleaned out my late parents’ house, and simply random searches on Google, to figure out that all the Strocks, Niesleys, and Eisenharts buried in the Mt. Zion Cemetery in Churchtown, Pennsylvania were my ancestors. (The Stauffers, it turned out, were a very distant family line, not nearly as important as several others that I later discovered.)

The Strocks, Niesleys, and Eisenharts all emigrated to Pennsylvania in the early to mid eighteenth century. Jacob Niesley (who then spelled his name Nissley) was a Mennonite who left Bern, Switzerland fleeing religious persecution. He came to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1717 and purchased land from William Penn, who was providing haven for people fleeing religious persecution such as the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Church of the Brethern. Indeed, it is because of Penn that the Amish have such a large presence in Lancaster County to this day. Jost Strock travelled from Wurttemberg, Germany to Cumberland County in 1764, and settled in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was one of three cousins fleeing a brutal lord who had murdered one of their fathers. Conrad Eisenhart came from Palatinate, Germany about 1754 and settled in York County, Pennsylvania. It is also likely he had two brothers who came over around the same time. His grandson George Eisenhart is my third great grandfather, and the father of Sarah, Benjamin Niesley’s wife, and Bessie’s grandmother. George Eisenhart seems rather lonely as the only Eisenhart in the Mt. Zion Cemetery, the rest of his family still living in York County.  His wife and son predeceased him. So contrary to my beliefs, I actually have German ancestors, and like most early Americans, they were farmers.

We almost lost a treasure. It took my wife and I three years to clean out my late parents’ cluttered house, and we drew the line at the waterlogged basement. The man who bought the house ran a trash hauling business, and told us we could leave the rest to him. In the basement was a rusty filing cabinet that my stepfather had said contained “some of my grandfather’s legal papers” . Inside it, the new owner found several hundred family photographs, including tintypes and daguerretypes from the mid nineteenth century, and kindly mailed them in a box to us. I wonder if my mother and father even knew they existed. At first I could only puzzle over who these mostly unidentified faces were, but once I began assembling my family tree, I started to deduce their identities. (Luckily, Bessie wrote names on a picture of her parents we found in her bedroom drawer.) It was if I was at long last becoming acquainted with my beloved grandmother’s family and friends, and even ancestors she never met (like my two great great grandfathers, John Strock and Benjamin Niesley; family resemblances and period style helped me identify them, at least tentatively).

In September 2010, my wife and I made our first trip to Carlisle, Pennsylvania to visit the Cumberland County Historical Society and find out how Howard Strock died. Carlisle is steeped in American history, so assistance in researching one’s ancestors is always forthcoming, not only among the professional historians, but many of the townspeople as well.  The Historical Society’s Hamilton Library had three librarians plus a photo archivist, who kindly left his archive to meet with us, and at one point all four of them were working on our project simultaneously. No doubt they were fascinated by the many historic items we had brought along from the rusty filing cabinet, including a hand colored baptism certificate in German from 1778 (for Jacob Strock, my third great grandfather). We certainly felt welcome.

During our two days there, we found much information (and even some photos from the library data base that identified some of our own!), but nothing could compare to our biggest discovery. I told the librarian that my great grandfather Howard Strock died on May 13, 1883. Carlisle had two newspapers at that time. The first one, available in transcription, had nothing. The second newspaper was available on microfilm, and the librarian brought me the film that contained the paper from Thursday, May 17, 1883, which I proceeded to scroll through. Newspapers were different back then. No photographs, a few drawings, and text crammed together, made all the more difficult to read by the ravages of time. One ad even read “Go West!” But there, near the final page, was the banner “Died”, and the obituary of Howard Strock. My great grandfather was apparently a farmer in Monroe Township, immediately southeast of Carlisle. One day he was riding down a mountain with a wagon full of wooden fence rails, when his cart overturned on top of him. He lingered for a year, seemed hopeless, then surprisingly got better, only to relapse and die. And three months before he died, my grandmother (his third child) was born.

Across the street from the Historical Society was a lovely Belgian restaurant, and while we ate, the owner told us he knew where the mountain was: South Mountain, at the very southern border of Monroe Township. Apparently a bit further south it had been an encampment before the Battle of Gettysburg.

That night in the motel, I was about to fall asleep around 3AM, when suddenly my wife Dyane gasped, “Reed! Do you realize what this means? If Howard Strock took a year to die, and your grandmother was three months old when he died, his wife must have become pregnant right before the accident.” Suddenly the whole picture fell into place. Annie Niesley Strock, my great grandmother, was pregnant with my grandmother while her husband was dying. Howard stayed alive long enough to see her born. Perhaps when spring planting arrived, and he seemed better, he may have gotten out of bed to work the fields, only to have a relapse and die that May.

Looking at his pictures, he seems like such a quiet, gentle man, even a bit sleepy-eyed. He looks just like my mother’s brother, my late Uncle Howard, and is a ringer for the long-haired gentleman in a photo (possibly a print from a daguerretype) that we have dated to the 1860’s, and believe to be his father John Strock.

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