Friday, January 25, 2013

Maria Magdalena and An Emerging Theory

Maria Magdalena Summers (Sommer) is our 5th great-grandmother, and was the wife of Ernst Menge (aka Earnest Man). Over the past couple years, we've been able to piece together that Ernst came from Sodel, Hesse, Germany, arriving in Philadelphia in 1754 aboard the ship Edinburgh. We know that Ernst married first a widow named Catharina Klockner, and shortly after she died in 1766, Ernst married Maria Magdalena Summers. She would later be referred to in both her father's and her husband's will by her Americanized name, Mary.

But we have never known much of anything about Maria Magdalena (MM). We have no records indicating either when/where she was born or when/where she died. We have solely a marriage record in Philadelphia in 1766, and four subsequent baptismal records for 4 of her 8 known children with Ernst. In addition to her own children, she was also step-mother to a daughter from Ernst's previous marriage, as well as several young children from the first wife's previous marriage to Johann Georg Ernst. It's fair to say MM had her hands full.

Now that we think we're zooming in on the Sommer origins as Freistett, Baden, Germany, we've been using old church records from the village to piece together the story. We think we have established that her father, Johann Georg Sommer, married Anna Barbara Ruben in 1745. We have found baptismal records for three children born to them in Freistett, one of which was Maria Magdalena, born 11 Feb 1749. Great! So now we know when MM was born.

But wait.  If MM was born in 1749, she was 17 years old when she married Ernst Menge, who was, according to our best guess, exactly twice that age, 34, at the time of his second marriage. There are plenty of examples of older men marrying younger women, especially during that era.  But still, it seems rather young to me. 

Then I noticed there was another Maria Magdalena Sommer born in Freistett.  She was born 21 Aug 1740, the daughter of Georg's older brother Matthias. So here's that story. Matthias' wife, also named Maria Magdalena, died in 1741, a year after her daughter was born. It's not entirely clear whether or not Matthias remarried. But the idea suddenly comes to me that maybe the girl was adopted by Matthias' brother Georg and his new wife Anna Barbara. Well, maybe!

So now let's try this on for size. If MM was born in 1740, then she was 26 years old when she married. Let's add to that some new evidence we have found in Philadelphia church records. One record in 1762 says that MM was 21 years old and had been in the country for 11 years. The second record in 1763 lists her association with somebody named Mr. Hooks.

What might I conclude from these records? Well, the 1762 record confirms an arrival around 1752, which is when Georg Sommer arrived in PHL. And an age of 21 in 1762, means a birth year of about 1741, a date that is closer to 1740 than 1749! As for the 1763 record, I suspect that MM was a servant, and quite possibly a Redemptioner, meaning that she had to work to pay for her passage to America. Perhaps that obligation kept her from marrying until she was in her mid-twenties.

And what does all this mean for our family story?  For one thing, it could mean that MM was not the daughter of Georg Sommer, but his niece. Certainly he referred to her as a daughter in his will, but I don't think he would refer to her any other way if he adopted her from his brother at an early age.  Our family story would have to be rewritten slightly to say we are descended from Matthias Sommer rather than Johann Georg Sommer. And yet, does changing the family tree change the fact that Maria Magdalena Sommer came to America with Georg and Anna Barbara, and they were her only family?  No, it does not.

We certainly have a long way to go to prove any of this theory, if indeed it can ever be proved at all.  But it's once again amazing to me how our family stories continue to evolve the more we just keep being curious.

Sommer Marriage in Germany

There have been two major questions surrounding the marriage of Johann Georg Sommer.  First is that his wife's name was Anna Barbara Longstreet.  That her name was Anna Barbara, we have no doubt, but we have never found even the slightest clue about the surname Longstreet.  Second, we have debated whether Georg married in America or in Germany.  We think we are coming closer to an answer for both questions.

To address the second question first, we would need to know when Georg arrived in America.  When he died in 1785, his obituary stated he was a member of the congregation for 42 years.  This obituary was among records found for the St. James Lutheran Church in Greenwich, New Jersey.  To be a member for 42 years, would mean he was in America from about 1743.  Unfortunately, we've not been able to find any passenger records for that time that show his arrival.  What we have found is a passenger list for the ship Brothers which arrived in Philadelphia in September, 1752.  On board was Hans Georg Sommer, as well as Johannes Sommer and Hans Martin Sommer, names of younger brothers of our Georg.  So we are leaning toward a 1752 arrival.  Meanwhile we are still trying to locate the actual obituary to see if there might have been a transcription error.  Even if there was not, Georg Sommer might have been a member of a Lutheran congregation that started in Germany.  At this point, this investigation is still open.

But let's just go with the idea that Georg arrived in 1752.  He would have been about 30 years old at the time.  And given that we know his oldest son was born in 1747, this would most certainly suggest that Georg was already married when he arrived.  So we started looking for a marriage in Freistett.  Sure enough, on 19 Jan 1745, Johann Georg Sommer, son of Matthias, married Anna Barbara Ruben.  And sure enough, on 23 Apr 1747 their son Georg Jr. was born.

So, wow.  Georg Sommer WAS married with children when he arrived in America.  And his wife, Anna Barbara, was not originally a Longstreet!  How in the world did the name Longstreet ever get associated with her??  My current theory is that she remarried after Georg died in 1785.  But so far, we've simply not been able to associate the Sommer family with the Longstreet name.  And like so many of our women relations of this early time period, we have no idea whatever became of Anna Barbara from Freistett, Germany.

Some Great Research Tools

I wanted to make mention of a tool that was used to help us in our search for the home village of Hans Georg Sommer.  His obituary said he as born in Freystadt, Elsas.  The people at the international desk at the FHL immediately used the Fuzzy Gazateer:

This site helped us investigate which of the matches that came up for Germany was closest to the Alsace region.  Freistett in Baden was a Bingo!

I'd also like to make mention of some tools for helping in the rather daunting task of trying to read old German script.  We had already run into some documents from early Pennsylvania written in German, but now that we're looking at actual German church records, the simple task of reading at times seems next to impossible to me.

So first I want to say I am currently using a great online tutorial for learning German script.  It includes animations for how the letters are formed, downloadable practice pages, and reading tests.  Considering how much I have been struggling with reading the German script, this is a lifesaver for me!

Assuming one can make out a word written in German script, there is then the job of translation.  The best online reference I've seen is from familysearch:

So, as always, I deeply appreciate the internet for helping researchers like me.  Without tools such as these, this line of my research would pretty much be over.