On Her Way: Through the Paris Menagerie

Let me start by saying that I am not French. A few of my ancestors were once Parisian, oh, about 400 or 500 years ago, but that DNA has long ago been driven out. When I look at myself I see a combination of stubborn, freckled Scottish with strong Slovak cheeks and a steady German hairline.

One of those steady German bloodlines comes from a rare place that is actually in French hands today – the Alsace-Lorraine region. It’s easy to see, when looking at images of my Alsace ancestors, how the Alsatian people, with their distinct dialect and culture, straddled the line between what we consider stereotypical German and French people. My third great-grandmother must have been a beauty in her youth. Sophia Dambach was dark-haired with large, pale eyes, a strong jaw, and a distinctive nose. Sometimes I think she looks French, sometimes Rhinish, and sometimes I wonder if she’s the source of my grandmother’s mysterious trace of Ashkenazi Jewish DNA – a mere two percent. But whatever secrets her blood held, she was Alsatian above all else.

Sophia Dambach Gelbach-1

Sophia Dambach Gelbach

Sophia was born in the village of Pfalzweyer, in the Vosges Mountains of the Alsace bossue region, near the Rhine border, on August 23, 1823. The Alsace-Lorraine region was constantly being fought over by France and other entities, from being a dowry for the Kingdom of Germany in 1299 to being sold to the Archduke of The Holy Roman Empire in 1469. While Alsace was being divided and cut up into different pieces to suit others, Pfalzweyer itself remained under French control from the mid-17th century onward. By the beginning of the 19th century, Alsace had survived the French Revolution and was experiencing a post-war baby boom, which Sophia and her six older siblings were all a part of.

But the surge in population created a strain on the economy. There were food and housing shortages, and they were even felt in tiny mountain towns like Pfalzweyer, which doubled in population from 1801, with 181 people, to 1821, when there were 321 residents. Compounding this was a decrease in the value of the grain harvest, which resulted in a high cost and poor quality of bread, and a cholera outbreak in 1832. Then there were the ridiculous laws set down by the government.

In 1827, under King Louis XVIII, there was a new forestry law enacted, making the gathering of wood, leaves, acorns, beechnuts or any other items from the forest floor forbidden. Given that the village was located in the mountains, where the topsoil was thin and rocky, the forest was an essential component of everyday life. The farmers were dependent on its wood for building their homes, the dead leaves were used for stable litter and then fertilizer for the fields, their pigs were fed with acorns, and they even made an oil out of the beechnuts they collected.

The mayor of Pfalzweyer recorded this explanation for the departure of his residents, listing those families that left for more “fertile soil.”

“All these individuals have left this village for it is located on top of the Vosges mountains, where the soil is so unproductive that it needs plenty of manure, and these people are forbidden to collect the dead leaves in the forest surrounding the village,” he wrote.

The Dambachs (pronounced Dam-baugh) were part of this exodus. Sophia’s parents Christian and Juliana, aged about 60 years, packed up their family in 1838 and set off for the port of Le Havre, an epicenter for emigration in the early 1800s. During this trip there is a curious note in the family history, passed down by one of the Dambach children, who were all young adults at the time. Sophia was the youngest at just 14. The family paused on their journey in Paris to “see the wild animals in the zoo.”


The Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, 1794

The zoo they might have seen was the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, one of the first public zoos in the world. It had been formed after the French Revolution, when the the Paris police department ordered that exotic animals being exhibited on Parisian street corners be confiscated and handed over to the Museum of Natural History. These were such creatures as polar bears, mandrills, agoutis, tigers, vultures, and eagles. There the professors gave them a new home, opening the doors of the Ménagerie in 1793 to the public. It was free for everyone from the beginning, and by the spring of 1838 when the Dambachs walked through it, the Paris zoo housed as many as 400 species of mammals and birds, making it the largest exotic animal collection in Europe. In fact, 1838 also happened to be the last year that the Ménagerie was considered the premier zoo in Europe. That was the year that Frédéric Cuvier, the head zookeeper at the Ménagerie since 1804, died. The Ménagerie still exists today, and while it will never again be what it was when the Dambachs visited it in the 1830s, a walk through the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, with its historical buildings, is like stepping back in time.

It is surprising that with their adult children and increasing age the Dambachs didn’t just settle in Paris, like many of their Alsatian brethren did. But they chose to leave, putting France and Europe behind them and pressing onward, across the Atlantic to America.


From the New York Evening Post’s Marine List, Wed., July 18, 1838, pg. 3.

The Dambachs arrived in New York City on July 18, 1838 on a ship named the Alliance. The trip had taken 40 days and they were part of a group of 210 steerage passengers. Their eldest daughter Catherine, who was thirty-six at the time, had married a man named Johannes Adam Zehner in France, so she arrived with him and their children separately, traveling through the Baltimore port. The family was destined for Ohio, the records show, but they stopped in Western Pennsylvania instead, settling to farm in what is now Marion township in Beaver county. In the small, German-Lutheran community where they had settled, Sophia met a neighbor named Philip Gelbach, a Bavarian who had also immigrated with his family through the port of Le Havre in 1832. They married in Butler, Pennsylvania in 1846, and had seven children together. The wedding blanket that was woven for her by a master weaver – emblazoned with her name and wedding date – hangs in a museum in Pennsylvania today. Sophia lived to see a new century, dying at the age of 81 on February 22, 1907.

She saw much in her life – starting in the Vosges mountains, visiting the famed Ménagerie in Paris, crossing an ocean, traveling through 1830s New York City and trekking across Pennsylvania to pioneer a new land. Her family withstood the Civil War and discovered “black gold” in the oil fields of Butler County, setting themselves up as gentleman farmers and wealthy bankers by the turn of the century. How amazing to be able to see such a transformation of your family’s fortune in just a generation.

One day I hope to walk the paths of the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in the footsteps of Sophia.

The Marriage Records of Rev. John Casper Stoever: Part IV

Recently I was doing some research on my father’s paternal German ancestry and I stumbled across a real find – the church records of Rev. John Casper Stoever, who married, baptized and buried many of the German and Scotch-Irish settlers in Pennsylvania in the 18th century. These typically took place in the counties of Berks, Dauphin, Lancaster and York. Stoever arrived in America on Sep. 11, 1728, traveling on the same ship, the James Goodwill,  as my own family.  The Harrisburg Telegraph apparently ran a series in the 1890s, republishing his records for the genealogically-minded descendants of his flock.

I’ve run across online trees citing Rev. Stoever in the past, but I’ve never seen a secondary source like this before. It was fascinating to think that a newspaper would take up so much of their printing space for genealogy research, and very exciting to see my 4th great-grandparents names listed here. I got to thinking about all of the other names listed, and decided that maybe some of those descendants might like finding their ancestors names as well. So I’m going to publish large-scale photographs of the clippings from that newspaper and share them. I’m starting with part four purely because this is where my ancestors’ names are listed. Enjoy!


Click the image above to make it full size.

Surnames listed above: Abmeyer, Adams, Ainsworth, Albrecht, Allen, Allison, Angst, Aston, Atkinson, Bach, Backer, Balmer, Baltz, Bamberger, Barnet, Bartholomae, Bartholomaey, Bassler, Bauman, Baumgaertner, Bayer, Beamansdoerfer, Beistel, Bell, Benin, Bickel, Bigham, Bingeman, Biohl, Blackburn, Blanck, Blessing, Boebel, Boesshaer, Boeszhaar, Boger, Boggs, Bohr, Bohrmann, Bopp, Bosch, Bowman, Boyd, Braun, Brecht, Brechtbiel, Brown, Bryan, Buchman, Buck, Bueckle, Buerger, Burckhardt, Caldwell, Campell, Camron, Carnaghan, Carson, Cassen, Cavet, Clark, Cleellan, Clerck, Clunty, Cooper, Cowden, Craigh, Crain, Crow, Cunningham, Curry, Danninger, Deck, Decker, Deissinger, Derr, Dieb, Diller, Dinniss, Dixon, Dollinger, Dougless, Drumming, Duliban, Dunlap, Dunn, Eberly, Edelmann, Egis, Eisenhauer, Ellinger, Emrich, Enderes, Endress, English, Ernst, Espy, Faber, Falck, Farrell, Fauler, Federhoff, Fehler, Felleberger, Feltin, Feuerbach, Finney, Finnssler, Firnssler, Fischer, Fleming, Flohr, Frendling, Frey, Fuchs, Fuchz, Fulton, Gall, Gallmeyer, Gebhardt, George, Gerhardt, Germann, Gingrich, Gockel, Goettel, Greenlee, Greys, Grosz, Gur, Haehnlin, Haessler, Hammann, Hanna, Hauck, Hauer, Hays, Heckendorn, Heinrich, Held, Helm, Henne, Henninger, Henry, Herman, Herr, Hetzler, Heyl, Heylman, Heylmann, Hill, Hoeger, Hofman, Holderbaum, Hoellen, Hoerner, Holtz, Hornberger, Huber, Hummel, Humphreys, Hunter, Ilin, Jameson, Johnston, Jones, Jungblut, Karg, Karnoughan, Kastnitz, Kaufman, Kaufmann, Keim, Kennedy, Kessinger, Kinkead, Kintzel, Kirckwood, Kirstaetter, Kleber, Klein, Kobnar, Kober, Koch, Koellicker, Koester, Kolmar, Korr, Knemmerling, Kraemer, Kucher, Kuefer, Kueffer, Kuemmerling, Kuntz, Laber, Laedin, Lard, Laughlin, Lay, Layblin, Lentz, Leonhardt, Lock, Lohman, Long, Loresch, Loughlin, Lusk, Maag, Maennig, Mahorder, Manningham, Margar, Mattern, Mattheis, Maurer, Maxell, Mays, McCleere, McClunninghen, McClunty, McClure, McCraight, McCurry, McElhenny, McKiney, McKut, McLyntie, McManus, McMollen, McMurphey, McNees, McNutt, McQuien, Meyer, Michael, Mohr, Mollen, Moor, Morton, Mueller, Muench, Neal, Neass, Neiss, Neu, Neuschwanger, New, Nufer, Oberfeld, Oberholtzer, Oehler, Ohlinger, Ollinger, Patz, Peter, Petry, Pettigrew, Pflantz, Pflautz, Pfrang, Phaghon, Post, Praello, Raisch, Ramberger, Ramsey, Rauch, Rauh, Raup, Rea, Read, Rebmann, Reiber, Reichenbach, Reiss, Reyer, Rheinoehl, Ried, Riess, Ritter, Roeszlin, Rogers, Ross, Roth, Rudiesiehl, Ruecker, Rutherford, Sauter, Scannel, Schaaf, Schaefer, Schaeffer, Schally, Schantz, Scharf, Schauffler, Schenk, Scherertz, Schirck, Schmidt, Schnaebele, Schnaebelin, Schneider, Schnug, Schock, Schuetz, Schumacher, Schwenck, Scot, Seiler, Seydelmeyer, Sharp, Shmidt, Siechlin, Simon, Simson, Simund, Snodgrass, Soerer, Soloman, Speck, Spicker, Sprecher, Stahl, Steel, Stein, Steinmann, Stewart, Stiebich, Still, Stober, Stoehr, Stoever, Stroh, Strohfuss, Stroher, Stoltz, Stuart, Stuck, Tate, Thany, Thomas, Thome, Thompson, Thornton, Traner, Truckemueller, Tucker, Uhler, Ulher, Ulrich, Umberger, Vogel, Volck, Wagner, Walmer, Waters, Watson, Weber, Weidman, Wegman, Weiss, Wentz, Wepner, Weyhrich, Weyrich, White, Whitside, William, Williams, Willis, Wilson, Wolf, Wolfkiel, Zehrung, Zerfass, Ziegler, Zimmerman, Zoll

The Weird and Wonderful Baby Names My Ancestors Gave Their Kids

I have a mild obsession with baby name lists. I love reading lists of weird names Puritans gave their kids, the strange floral wave that hit the Victorians way too hard, and the thrillingly odd way that people during the Renaissance and the Restoration spelled well, everything. This really shouldn’t be surprising to me, considering that genealogy is very much a name game (or maybe I should say a name-chasing game). So tonight when I was wandering through a very long and boring lineage of distant cousins I started writing down all of the names that stood out from the crowd. These the are weird and wonderful names in my family tree, somehow all related me through blood and marriage.


Achsa – For things that go bump in the night, look no further than Achsa, a Biblical girl’s name unprettily pronounced “ak-saw.” Achsa W. Sprague was a well-known Spiritualist in the 1850s in America, peddling herself as a medium and trance lecturer. Many girls were unfortunately named after her, including my first cousin’s mother-in-law in 1856 in Carroll, Ohio.

Adaliza – She was nicknamed “Adda” but my 3rd great-grandmother’s niece was born Adaliza Stewart in 1845. Her mother was a native of Scotland, which is perhaps why she received this unusual name, which was more popular in Britain at that time. It is a medieval English variant of Adelais,, which the second wife of Henry I of England was named. Her sister was named Cynthia, another unusual baby girl’s name for 1850.

Alliene – This looks like some very hip invented baby name, but actually, it’s a more delicate spelling of an old Irish name, Allene, which means “fair, good-looking.” My great-aunt’s sister was given this middle name in the 1940s.

Aletha Eldora 1875 brother was Theron

Andrietta 1842 Georgia

Angellissa – 1858

Anphillis – I love this name, because it’s so medieval. My 9th great-grandmother, Anphillis Angell Smith, born 1640, was given this mildly Greek-sounding name that is a variant of Amphillis, itself probably a variant of Amphillia. Her daughter and granddaughter, Anphillis Whipple (1689-1776), shared it as well, though it had died out by the 1700s. Amateur genealogists are always trying to break it up into Ann Phillis. Sorry folks, it’s weirdly right the way it is.

Anzanetta 1872

Appeline 1800s

Apalia 1890

Arminda – We don’t have the market cornered on invented names, no matter how much we’d like to. This is a variant of Araminta, first invented by a playwright in the late 17th century for a literary comedy, of all things. It rose in popularity in the 1800s, and my relative Arminda was born in 1865. Minda would make a cute nickname, as well.

Artemisia 1853

Bert – My 2nd great-grandmother, Lonnie, born in 1863 in Alabama, was granted the middle name of Bert. I have no idea why, as there aren’t any Berts in her family tree, and it sure confused the census takers, who thought she was a boy as a child, but there you have it. Bert.

Blandina – 1756

Burdia – My 2nd great aunt’s given name was Bird, an oddly popular Victorian name that still gave the officiating reverend pause when he went to baptize her in 1883. Her father, after all, was his colleague, and he couldn’t imagine why he’d want to give his daughter such an odd name. My 2rd great grandfather was resolved. Burdia, a distant relative through marriage and born five years before Bird was, also was saddled with a name that has “flown” from popularity.

Celestria – This is actually a medieval English name that resurfaced in the 1800s. A variant of Celestia, it is of Latin origin, and means “heavenly.”

Chessie – When I saw this woman’s name in my family tree, I couldn’t figure out what it could be a nickname for. Turns out, it was a girl’s name all on it’s own in the 1890s, though originally it stems from the English name Chelsea, a famous port city in Britain.

Christophina 1800

Coyla – Pronounced “qway-la,” this name was created by Robert Burns as his muse, a poetic device for his poem The Vision in the late 1700s. It’s still used today, though it’s very rare.

Crisli – The last time anyone in my family as given this name was in 1279! This is a female given name from Wales, and it has a lovely sound like ringing chimes when it rolls off your tongue.

Evalyne 1868

Ereatha 1886 Eva

Gwenllian – I don’t know why but I am always drawn to variations of the name Gwen. This spelling dates to 1097, and was carried by an actual Welsh princess.

Hesther – Before Hester and Esther broke up to form two different first names, apparently for a period of time in the late 1700s, there was Hesther. It’s sort of cute, like a better Heather, and the bonus is that it’s pronounced the same way as Hester.

Honorat 1500 France

Iona – This Scottish origin name, pronounced “Ey-own-uh,” was popular in post-Civil War America, and it’s nickname, “Onie,” is just as cute.

Isabell – The 1700s on the frontier lacked a lot of things – good recordkeeping and extra “E’s” among them. I have found half a dozen Isabell’s in my family tree. At first I thought it was an error (surely they accidentally gave her an extra “L” or lost an “E”) but once I saw a tombstone etched with Isabell, I knew I’d found an alternate spelling that has all but disappeared.

Isabeau – 1580 France

Ithea – 1876

Jerusha – This woman was the wife of my 1st cousins 3x removed, James Webber. Born in 1860 in Kentucky, I think her parents were early Bible thumpers, since it’s a Biblical woman’s name that means “possession.” The original Jerusha was married to King Uzziah. A possession indeed.

Kenzey – 1762

Keziah – 1700s

Laurenia 1893

Lettos 1620

Lethy 1810 (Lethy Ann)


Lovina 1810


Lysetta 1868

Mabelle – It never occurred to me that the baby name Mabel belonged with the “belle” baby names until I saw this alternate spelling of it that was popular in the mid-1800s. I have several cousins who named their daughters this.

Marigard – There’s something very strong about this sweet medieval name. It’s a bit like Marigold without being too cutesy.  The first Marigard in my family was born in Essex in 1033, so it’s definitely a blast from the past.

Medora – 1858 Dora

Meloina 1875

Minda – Back in 1862 when my cousin Melinda was born, I suspect she had trouble saying her own name as a toddler, because “Minda” was her lifelong nickname. I love it – it’s cute and different and fresh for being 150 years old!

Mozelle – Laura Mozelle got this as a middle name in 1861. It’s a variant of a Hebrew word that means “taken from the water.” Only use if your baby is Moses or you had a water birth.

Persis – I love Persis, maybe in part because her parents gave her the most common middle name they could think of, Ann. She was born in about 1809 in Western Pennsylvania, and married my 3rd great grand uncle, Michael Core. Persis was Ancient Greek for “a Persian woman.” I somehow highly doubt this Persis had any Persian in her, though.

Pharaba 1790

Ora – In the late 1800s, Ora was a great baby name to give your daughter. It is Latin and means “prayer.”Some variants were Orah, Orabelle and Oralee.

Orleva 1893


Rosenia – A rose is just a rose, but a Rosenia is something else. The name Rosenia is a type of flowering plant in South Africa commonly called pussy’s-toes tribe, but during the roaring ’20s parents wanted names with a little more “oomph,” so Rosenia was born.

Sheira – Nothing like the British to remind us that baby names can be daringly different. This baby was born to parents coming down from their high of the Roaring ’20s, which might explain her middle name. Considered to be a variant of the Arabic word Shakira.

Sidelia 1895 Alabama

Sirtha – This sounds like the sort of Hindi name that a hippie mother would give her daughter in 1967, but in fact the Sirtha in my family tree was born in 1845 in Kentucky. This name lasted well into the early 1900s for many baby girls, according to census records, though I can’t trace its origin.

Treva – This was sweet-sounding name that became popular in the late 1800s and lasted through the end of the 1920s. My second cousin, born in 1827, wore this name, as did the wife of a another. It’s the feminine form of Trevor, which means “great settlement” in Welsh.

Tryphena 1812

Tura 1922

Verda – The Victorians loved V names, and Verda is no exception. This variation of Vera stems from the Latin word verus, meaning “truth.” Verdie is a great nickname for a Verda.

Versa – The Victorians loved V names, and Versa is no exception. It’s most likely another variant of “verus.”

Vesta and Vinna – I confess these aren’t terribly strange names. After all, Vesta was the goddess of the hearth and Vinna sounds like a variant of Lavina, but I had to include them because these were the names of twin sisters born in 1872. They called each other Vistie and Vinnie, and were 4th cousins of mine. Adorable.

Victoire – 1824, Charleston

Westanna – I was bemused when I came across this middle name not once, but twice in one family line. Elizabeth Westanna and Mary Westanna, both Stevenson girls born in 1851, were nieces of my 3rd great-grandfather. This was a rare female name found primarily in Pennsylvanian Scots-Irish families in the mid-1800s. It’s earliest known use was by the famed Rev. David Elliott of Pittsburgh, who named his eldest daughter Westanna Sarah Elliott when she was born in 1821.

Wilda 1906 (Twilda)

Yola 1917

Zella – I’d heard of the girl’s name Vella, and even Mella (a variant of Melissa) but Zella, the wife of my 1st cousin 5x removed, was new. Her first name was Ada, a more typical name for a girl born in the 1850s, but that Z. initial must have gotten a lot of questions! It’s a variant of Zela, a Greek name meaning “life.”

Zipporah 1709

Zuzana/Zuzanna – This is an Eastern-European variant of Susanna that just sounds a little more exotic and fun. I have oodles of aunts from Slovakia in my tree who were all Zuzana’s before they came to America.



Abiah – This great Hebrew name means “my Father is Yahweh,” and was well-liked in the early 1800s as a boy’s names. There are several Abiah’s in the Bible and in my family tree.

Adair – This is actually a very cool Scottish variant of the English name Edgar, meaning “fortunate and powerful.” Popularized in the early 1900’s, the Edwardian people had it going on when they gave their sons this name. Today it’s being used most often as a girl’s name.

Adiel – The name Adiel is a Biblical baby name. In Biblical the meaning of the name Adiel is: The witness of the Lord. 1898 Nebraska

Aeron – 1842

Alwin 1924

Ardo – While I don’t know where my cousin’s stepson got his name, I do know that when he was born in Iowa in 1878, his parents thought he’d stand out from the crowd. I thank them profusely, since it made tracking down my relative very easy – just follow Ardo!

Arnot – 1920 (Arnot Smart)

Aristide 1877 Savannah

Asa 1870

Benoni – My family tree is littered with Benonis in the 1700’s, and I can’t help but think it’s a fun Biblical ariation on the traditional Benjamin, while still providing a great nickname, Ben.

Charnick – 1790

Cherrick 1801

Creed 1845 (Medder middle name)

DeLorma – In 1874 my cousin gave her youngest son this name, and I still can’t figure out where it came from. It seems to have been a different but well-liked baby name used all over the United States in the mid 1800s, but heck if I can tell what it means. Originally it was a man’s name, but eventually women started popping up with this first name.

Dirck 1744

Doane 1919

Edgon – 1893

Elax – This sounds like another one of those modern  invented names, but actually Elax was born in 1859. It was apparently a popular boy’s name well into the 1840s in the South, though it’s origin is baffling. I can only assume it’s some variant of Alexander.

Eldred – 1916

Eleazer 1645

Elihu – 1832

Engelbarth – Ah, Engelbarth. This is a variation of the name Engelbert, which derives from an ancient Germanic tribe’s name, combined with the word “berht,” which means “bright; famous.” So they were once a famous tribe, and my German ancestors carried this name proudly for several generations in the late 1600s/early 1700s. Engel is a shorter version I also see used occasionally in the 1800s.

Festus 1788 (Lyon middle name)

Fielder 1735

Gerrit – I have some Dutchmen up there in my family tree, and they loved naming their sons Gerrit. So many Gerrits! Luckily, they stopped that by the 1800s, so this Amsterdam-inspired baby name seems new.

Harlem Victor Pennsylvania 1881

Harrel – Families tend to jump on a particular name and cling to it for several generations, until they barely remember themselves where it came from. This Hebrew name for “God’s mount” tromped along through the 1800s, paired with the first name Isaac for several children.

Hezekiah 1897

Hulie 1919 (middle name Owen)

Ieziah 1700s

Isom – Kentucky is the land of  weird and wonderful baby names. This variant of Isham, an Old English name that means “home of the iron one”  was made all the more difficult for my cousin’s brother-in-law because he always chose to go by the name “Bim.” Never spelled it the same way twice except on his tombstone.

Jermyn – 1578

Kenes – This is another one of those great 1800s names where they used a surname as a first name. You thought we just invented that, eh? This Kenes, born in 1837, was an in-law of a cousin of mine, and he got stuck with the middle name of Marion too! I suspect that this is an alternate spelling of Keynes.

Kraft – 1700s Germany


Larkin 1748

Leonin 1578 France

Levant – Popular in the 1920s, Levant is a French name that means “rising,” as in, the rising sun. It’s also a place in the eastern Mediterranean. An alternate name is Levander, which sounds just a bit too girly for my taste.

Lorance – This is such a great alternate spelling for the name Laurence that I don’t know why it isn’t more popular. In the 1800s it was bestowed upon several baby boys in my family tree.

Lore – I stumbled across three sisters in my family tree who married three brothers out of Kentucky. And boy-o, did those fellas have funny middle names! My favorite was Lore, which is probably a family surname of French origin.

Loring 1890

Loudon 1756 Rhode Island

Loyd – No, I’m not missing the extra L, this apparently was an acceptable alternate spelling of Lloyd in the Victorian era. Both a second and third cousin on opposite ends of my trees were given this name, and continued using it on all official documents well into the 20th century.

Luykas 1642


Mazier “Mazey” 1877

Melanction – I’m totally not making this one up, I swear. Philipp Melanchthon was so popular as a leader of the Reformation in the 1500s that people were still naming their babies after him in the late 1800s! “We want to show everyone we are educated people. Bam! Your middle name is now unpronounceable.” What torment.

Meyric – 1275 Welsh Meyric is a form of the English and Welsh Merrick.

Olen 1880

Orrie – I can’t tell you why my 2nd cousin was named Orrie, but I do know that it was the perfect name for a man born in 1884. It may have been a variant of Orry, an Old English name meaning “from the Orient” or a nickname-used-as-a-real-name for Orson. Either way, it was pretty popular for baby boys born at the end of the 19th century.

Orval 1880

Otho/Otha – This is actually the German variant of Otto, itself a diminutive of Othello. I could totally see an Othello going by the nickname Otho. It was most popular in the very early 1800s, when my cousins made their sons their namesakes. You would think Otho would be really unique, but not in my family, where I have two sets of Srs. and Jrs!

Palius 1795

Peleg 1678

Philander – Sometimes naming your child something intellectually stimulating really backfires. This was a popular boy’s name of Greek origin at the turn of the century, but luckily my cousin Robert only had to use it as his middle name. Originally it meant “loving mankind,” or “lover of man,” and now it means “lover of illicit, casual sex.” Oops.

Rockford – Maybe this isn’t the weirdest name, but it’s truly wonderful. This cousin, born in New York in 1884, was called “Rockie” by his friends and family. Amazing!

Semdis – This is a baby name from the 1870s that deserves to remain buried. Even the census taker couldn’t figure it out, writing “Sendus” on his form in 1880. Yes, “send us” a better name!

Sophus – He never went by his Latin-sounding birth name but rather was always called Stewart by those who knew him. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that when he died and people saw the newspaper, they were surprised to discover he had been a Sophus at all!

Tandy – Tandy’s middle name was Farmer, so perhaps his parents were just uncreative, but more likely this was a Kentucky given name that derived from a Scottish nickname for Andrew. Today it’s mainly used by girls.

Theophilus 1700

Theron 1876

Uzal – Gotta love those Biblical baby names, they just keep popping up everywhere! In 1747, I bet Uzal was just glad he wasn’t named John or Mary, the standout baby games of his generation. Uzal means “wandering,” and is most likely the name of the founder of an Arabian tribe in what is modern-day Yemen.

Varnum – 1800

Vennis – He was not born in Venice, but actually in Michgan in 1899. He daughter were named Arda and Metta, so I guess strange names ran in the family.

Veo – Used for both men and women, Veo was one of those crazy names popularized by the Edwardians around World War I.  In Spanish it means “to see.”

Veryl – My uncle’s middle name is Veryl. It’s obviously a family name that was way more popular probably…never. Let’s be honest, it has always been a bit unique as a baby name. It stems from the Old French baby name Verrill, which means truthful.

Waitman – Nope, this isn’t a family surname, it’s actually a mildly unique first name for babies that was used throughout the 1800s. The earliest man on my tree carrying that name was born in 1852, and by 1924 just six baby boys were given it in the whole of the U.S. Waitman’s origin is Old French, and derives from the English surname Waite, meaning “watchman.”


Wordell – 1876

A Final Thought About Passing On Family Surnames as Middle Names: If your family name was once Hardenberg, Coolbaugh, Wickoff, Dingleman, or maybe even something slightly innocuous like Peck, spare your sons and daughters and don’t pass that on as a middle name to them. Mainly your sons. Definitely your sons. Also, Dick is not the best first name for your future baby. Unless you are planning on having a Dick Casablancas.

Have a strange family name you’d like to share? Tell me about it in the comments below!

A Real Humdinger: I’ve Got a Live One, Folks!

Wow, have I got a humdinger of a story for you guys. Recently I was having fun digging a bit into my Greene family branches (which, when you get back towards the 1500s really starts looking thin and shaky with lots of unknowns) and stumbled upon a previously unknown sister of the original Greene immigrant, Richard “the Surgeon” Greene. He came to America in the early 1600s and founded a dynasty of Greenes in Rhode Island (“Rhode island: Neither a road nor an island. Discuss!”). Rachel Greene, his sister, came to America as well, which is probably why she is remembered by us colonials, so I had some fun going down her line and seeing what happened to those very distant cousins of mine.

Engraving of Rebecca Rawson

Soon I hit upon her granddaughter, a lovely girl named Rebecca Rawson. Lovely Rebecca was a Bostonian that was born to a large and prominent Puritan family in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Her daddy was the Secretary of the Colony, so I get the feeling they were a Big Deal. She was described as being “one of the most beautiful, polite and agreeable young ladies then in Boston” and some of the biographies went on and on about how perfect and wonderful she was until I really found them really suspect (aka, I wanted to throw up). Granted, she did seem very lovely to look at, in that general English-miss type.

Anyways, so when Beautiful Rebecca was about 23, a man named Sir Thomas Hale began calling on her. He was from England, and was the nephew of the chief justice or some such there, and after wooing her for a while, they married in July of 1679. Now she was Lady Hale (please, there had to have been some jealous Puritan bitches in Boston that day) and he whisked her and her wedding gifts off to England in all their glory.

They get to England and arrive at her relative’s home late at night. The next morning good ol’ Tommy goes back to the ship to retrieve her trunks containing all of her clothing and other belongings. The trunks arrive, but he hasn’t returned yet with the keys to open them, so impatient, Rebecca breaks into one of her trunks so she can get some new clothes (well who wouldn’t by two in the afternoon?). To her horror, she found that all of her belongings were gone and the trunks were filled with trash, rubbish, wood shavings and other combustible manner.

So her family is outraged and her husband is nowhere to be seen. However, apparently they’d made a stop the night before for a “business meeting” on their way to the relative’s house, so everyone decides to go back to that place and inquire as to where Sir Thomas Hale might be.

When Lady Rebecca arrives, she asks for Sir Thomas Hale, Jr., stating she was there the night before with him. She is told that while no Thomas Hale stopped by, one Thomas Rumsey was there the night before, with a young lady, and that he had gone home to his wife and family at Canterbury. Thud. Oh yeah, and apparently Sir Thomas Hale, Sr. is childless, so Thomas Rumsey isn’t his son. Double thud.

Yes, exactly, my friends. The prettiest girl in Boston was duped by a bigamist thief and horrible con-man. Wanna know the best part? Remember, this is the 1600s. It takes forever to get across the Atlantic and it’s exceptionally boring as well. So Rebecca is, not surprisingly, pregnant!

She did a decent job making lemonade with some big-ass lemons. She had a married sister in England who’d never had the yen to immigrate with the rest of her family, and so she and her baby settled in with her. She needed some money, so she started painting miniatures on glass, to support herself with “ingenuity, industry and pride in procuring herself a genteel living” (blech, another one of those awful glowing biographies). And, apparently her childless sister did such a good job raising Thomas Rumsey’s kid for her, she decided to leave the baby with her. Ouch.

After 13 years living it up in London as an “artiste” (aka, generally a half-starving person who calls themselves an artist in an attempt to actually earn a real living), Genteel Rebecca, now 36 years old, decided to go back to Boston. Her uncle accompanied her, and the trip, for whatever reason, was taking the slow boat to New England through, of all places, Jamaica. My God, way to make a long trip longer! Well, it was the Caribbean, after all; maybe they thought it’d be a nice vacation.

So their ship lands in Port Royal, Jamaica in June of 1692. I’m not sure when they dock, but I do know the day that her uncle steps off the boat to “complete the settlement of his accounts of his voyage.” I think that’s fancy talk for “pay port fees” and such, though for all we know it could have been him drinking and whoring his ass off since he was away from prying eyes in a city known for ancient forms of money laundering and loads of Sodom and Gomorrah activities. But I shouldn’t judge. Maybe he was a really nice guy and was kind to the prostitutes.

Engraving of Port Royal during earthquake

Anyways, the day Rebecca’s uncle was on shore was June 7, and if that day doesn’t live in infamy for any of you it should, because that was the day an earthquake hit Port Royal and basically destroyed it. Well, destroyed is really too kind of a word. Two-thirds of the town sank into the sea immediately after the main shock, including all of the wharves, which sunk at once, and the ships, which capsized. The sand liquified during the shaking so the buildings just appeared to flow into the sea, and in two minutes the town was covered with water up to the top rooms of the buildings left standing. Then a tsunami came through immediately after all that, and fissures opened and closed, crushing people, and then the sand solidified and trapped more people in that. Oh yes, and there were landslides. Lots of landslides. To the people who survived, it must have seemed like the Hand of God had picked up the snow globe that was Jamaica and shaken the hell out of it. Ok, maybe not a snow globe, since snow globes hadn’t been invented yet, but the Hand of God was totally involved. Anyways, about 3,000 people died, which was half the population in Port Royal at the time, and a couple thousand more died in the weeks following due to having their bodies put through the wringer without any penicillin or potable drinking water.

In case you are wondering about Perfect Rebecca, well, she didn’t make it. The reports of her death were very dramatic – “she was swallowed up, together with the whole ship’s company” – and I suspect she drowned instantly. Well, as fast as people drowning can die. Her uncle was the only one who survived to report back to Boston that the darling of Boston had not survived.

It really made my day, because it’s not so often you run into such a ridiculously dramatic story, and find yourself distantly related to the individuals in it! For the record, Rebecca was my 2nd cousin 9x removed. Whew.

If you found my version of the story a bit too straightforward for your taste, I really enjoyed this woman’s rendition on her blog, complete with lovely mocking Disney pictures.

52 Ancestors: Anna Devecka, a Stranger in Her Own Land


Anna Devecka Paytas, wedding portrait, 1924.

Anna “Anne” Marie Devecka Paytas (1906-1982) was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. She was also the first ancestor that really made me excited about researching my family tree. In part this was because my father’s line, which goes back to kingdom come, was full of well-researched WASPs, while the Devecka line was my more mysterious Eastern European ancestry. And in part this was because I look like her, my mother looks like her, and her mother looked like her. The Slovak blood is strong in us. And the most important reason I became interested in learning more about Anna? Because she has a really amazing story.

Anna was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Sept. 8, 1906. Her parents were Martin Devecka and Eva Majzlik, who I suspect married because of Anna’s impending birth, as census records indicate they married in late 1905 or early 1906. I have no record of their marriage yet so this could just be wishful thinking, but either way, Eva was just 16 years old when her daughter was born. She and her husband were recent immigrants from Slovakia, then part of Hungary. They immigrated separately, but probably met because they were from the same region in their home country, Liptovsky Mikulas, and were part of the Protestant minority. Many immigrants tended to form their own communities in America. Eva had come over in November 1903, at the age of 13, lying on the Ellis Island manifest and saying she was 15, probably to ensure that she was considered old enough to work. Martin, who was 22 when his first child was born, had arrived in America in the winter of 1902, settling in the Woods Run area of Pittsburgh in May 1903, then called old Allegheny City. This area borders the North Side, where an industrial riverfront attracted many Slovak, Czech and other Slavic families in the early part of the 20th century.

Soon after Anna’s birth, Eva returned to Slovakia. No one in the family is sure of why she did this – it could have been that she wanted to show her daughter off to her family there – but it was common for recent immigrants to make trips home. Eva’s hometown was Pribylina, a village in Liptovsky Mikulas that has been around since at least the 1200s, and my Majzlik family lived there for hundreds of years. Since “majzlik” literally means “chisel,” they were probably stone cutters at one point in time, though by the early 1900s, they were peasant farmers eking out a living in a depressed area, which is why many of their number were immigrating to the US.

When Eva and Anna got to Pribylina, Anna was introduced to her grandmother Anna, called Hana, whom she was probably named after, and then handed off to an aunt. Eva and her mother, who was a widow of about 55, then left for the city of Bratislava to find work in the factories there. Eva earned enough money to return to the US, with one small catch – she didn’t take Anna with her. Anna, now three, was abandoned in Pribylina – and her mother never explained why. This hurt Anna deeply for the rest of her life.

By 1909, Eva had returned to America, and in 1910 she and Martin were living in a boarding house on the North Side with other Hungarian Slovaks. He worked for the Pittsburgh Locomotive and Car Works, a railroad manufacturing company founded by Andrew Carnegie in the 1860s. Anna remained in Pribylina with her grandmother and aunt, among other relatives. It was likely that Eva couldn’t work with a small child and Martin had trouble supporting them all on one income, but this decision – to leave her daughter in Hungary – was going to have a big impact on everyone’s lives, in part because of what was about to happen to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In the summer of 1914, Anna was 7 and a half years old. Her aunt, who was one of her mother’s much older half-sisters, made her clothes for her and was generally kind. They lived just a few houses from the Lutheran church in town. Then the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, throwing the world into turmoil. The First Wold War had begun, and it was especially difficult for the Slovaks. Not only were they, as Hungarian citizens living in the western part of the Empire, caught between the warring factions of Europe, but they had been seeking independence from the Empire. With the death of Franz Ferdinand, who was supporting Slovakian autonomy, they were left to plan their campaign for independence in secret, At one point during the war, Slovak and Czech politicians held a secret meeting in Liptovsky Mikulas, a town just 10 miles from Pribylina. They were truly at the epicenter of the war.

During the war the Hungarian government, which had already been forcing the Slovakian population to assimilate for the past 30-odd years, began to crack down, censoring the Slovakian people even more in an ethnic cleansing called magyarization. Men in the town were conscripted into the Hungarian army for the war effort in the east against Russia, including Anna’s uncle Adam Majzlik, who never returned. Church bells were even melted down to make cannons for the war. The war ended in late 1918, when Anna was 12. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more.

Anna Devecka's Ellis Island record, line 13.

Anna Devecka’s 1920 Ellis Island record, line 13.

A year and a half later, Anna was deemed old enough to work. which meant she could join her family living in the United States. At 13 and a half, she was the same age her mother had been when she’d come to America just 18 years earlier. Her Ellis Island record shows that she was listed as a Czechoslovakian, and then that was crossed out and someone hand wrote “US Cit” across the page. This was an important distinction. After the Great War, American immigration policy changed drastically, and if Anna had not been born in the United States, she may very well have not been allowed in.

In 1920, Martin and Eva were living in Sharon, Pennsylvania, having both been naturalized in March. They’d done some “planned” parenting, waiting until 1912 to start having children again, which meant that Anna, or Anne, as they called her, had four younger siblings she had never met before. They were all under the age of 5, and she was expected to take care of them during the day.

Anne hated it. She was a stranger in a strange land. She was an American citizen who spoke with a broken accent and carried all of the customs of a foreign culture with her, unlike her Americanized siblings. She hadn’t been back on her homeland’s soil since she was an infant or toddler, and most likely couldn’t remember America at all, let alone the mother who had left her at three. There were certainly letters sent back and forth between the two countries – Martin lists her intimately as “Annie” in his US citizenship papers, but that was it. And now, back in the bosom of her family, she was expected to immediately become what amounts to an unpaid nanny. Most older children babysit their younger siblings in large families – it’s been the way of the world for centuries. But most older children aren’t estranged from their families for over a decade.

The Deveckas soon moved back to Pittsburgh, where there was more work for Martin at Pressed Steel. Anne found a job as a live-in maid or nanny in the household of Dr. Donald Gauger Lerch, a local area physician and surgeon. Mrs. Anna Lerch was a new mother in her early thirties, from a well-to-do family in Philadelphia. She soon discovered that Anne couldn’t read or write English, not a surprising fact considering any schooling she’d had would have been in a Hungarian-dominated country. Mrs. Lerch volunteered to teach her and was amazed to discover how clever Anne was and how quickly she learned. Anne’s memories of life in the Lerch household were fond, but that was soon to end.

Anne was told by her family that a marriage had been arranged for her. This was surprisingly common in immigrant Slovak communities, even among the children of immigrants. Anne, as a recent immigrant herself, for all that she was American, would not have thought to complain. The marriage was arranged right down to the selection of the wedding rings, and on Mar. 1, 1924, at the age of 16, Anne married Matthew Paytas, a Slovakian dairy farmer from a neighboring county. After three and a half short years learning how to manage in a big city like Pittsburgh, she was in for another complete life change.

The Paytas’ dairy farm was in Cranberry Township, a bucolic rural community in Butler County, about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh. There, Anne was expected to live with her new in-laws, Joseph and Eva Paytas, helping out on the farm and raising vegetables in their large garden to sell. Matthew Paytas, her new husband, was tall with light red hair and a long, square face. He was also adopted. His adoptive parents had taken him in as a small child, more as a way of gaining free labor rather than gaining a son. They treated him unkindly, and life in the Paytas household was far from being a warm, loving family environment.

Anne got pregnant within a month of being married. Her first child, a girl she named Irene Marie, was born Jan. 16, 1925. This was my grandmother. She was only a month younger than her uncle, Anne’s youngest brother Albert, who was born Dec. 16, 1924. Anne had three more children, who were born in quick succession – Helen Jane in 1926, Dorothea “Dorothy” Ann in 1928 and finally a son, Jerome “Jerry” Richard, born in 1932. The children all attended the Graham School, a one room schoolhouse near the farm in Cranberry. The Harmony streetcar line went through the township, offering a low rate for passengers headed to and from Pittsburgh. Being part of such a tight-knit ethnic community meant that the Paytas family might have traveled to their church, Emmanuel Slovak Evangelical Lutheran, in the North Side, for special occasions, maybe even taking the train. But money was tight. At the beginning of the 1930s, fewer than a third of the farms in Cranberry had electricity, and it is doubtful that the Paytas’ would have invested in it. Farm life was hard, and it was about to get harder.

It was the Great Depression. Joseph Paytas’ wife had died in 1931, and soon after he decided to sell the farm. He didn’t give Matthew a choice in the matter, so the Paytas family suddenly found themselves without a home or jobs. Joseph moved to live with his brother’s family, and they moved to Monaca, in Beaver County, where Matt found work at the Sanitary Works. It should have been a relief to be out from under the thumb of the Paytas elders. But Matthew was not always a happy man, and there were rumors in the family that he could be abusive, whether verbally or physically, no one knows really knows for sure.

Matthew and Anna Paytas with Elliott Granddaughters Lois and Carol, Easter Sunday 1953.

Matthew and Anna Paytas with granddaughters Lois and Carol Elliott, Easter Sunday 1953.

He and Anne were hard workers, and as the ’30s slid by, they found themselves on firmer footing. By the time Irene was in high school, they had gone back to farming in New Sewickley Township. According to family records, they purchased, for cash, 20 acres, which included a “fine home” and a barn. Their garden was for their own use for the first time and there were chickens and a few fields of grain for feed. Matt continued his work as a mixer at the Sanitary Works, and later for the American Bridge in Ambridge during WWII. He did his farming in the evenings and during the weekends, with Anne and the kids shouldering their share of the work.

Irene graduated from Freedom High School as the class valedictorian in 1943. It must have been a proud moment for two parents who’d had such hard-scrabble lives and had come from broken families. Denied the opportunity to succeed at an early age, Anne and Matt saw the American Dream realized in the lives of their children. Their second daughter, Helen, got a job as the head bookkeeper in the office of the Freedom Oil Co., where her father was just a maintenance engineer. They would see their third daughter, Dorothy, become the class salutatorian. Their son Jerry joined the military, served in the 82nd Airborne as a paratrooper and a sergeant during WWII, and then went on to graduate from Geneva College. He later became an accountant and married an Italian-American registered nurse named Norma Tavolier. Irene worked at the Freedom National Bank before marrying a local Hookstown farmer, Richard S. Elliott, and Dorothy married WWII veteran Bob Campbell of Beaver Falls. After 10 years of work, Helen finally married a career military man, Chuck Whitmore. Helen and her husband lived an interesting life of travel because of his job – one of their children was even born in Morocco! By 1974, when Matthew and Anne celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, they had 15 grandchildren and 3 young great-grandchildren. They had lived to see all of their children marry, lead fulfilling middle class lives, and they had achieved the success of being able to “retire” to their farm.

Back row (left to right): Dale and Scott Campbell (Scott is the redhead). 3rd row: Lois Elliott, Robin Whitmore, Becky Paytas, Paul Brown (in Becky's arms), Gary Whitmore (with the long blond hair) and Carol Brown. 2nd row: Cindy Campbell (kneeling), Matthew and Anna Paytas (seated). Front row: Anita Paytas, Susan Whitmore, Laura Brown, Jerry Paytas.

Back row (left to right): Dale and Scott Campbell (Scott is the redhead). 3rd row: Lois Elliott, Robin Whitmore, Becky Paytas, Paul Brown (in Becky’s arms), Gary Whitmore (with the long blond hair) and Carol Elliott Brown. 2nd row: Cindy Campbell (kneeling), Matt and Anne Paytas (seated). Front row: Anita Paytas, Susan Whitmore, Laura Brown, Jerry Paytas, Jr.

There are elements to Anne’s story I know I am missing, because my mother and her siblings lived half an hour to an hour away, and didn’t often get to see the Devecka side of the family or visit “PawPaw” and “Grandma” on their farm. Anne’s relationship with her mother, for example, is a complicated mystery. While Anne was hurt by the abandonment and treatment she experienced as a child, as an adult she and her mother would visit and chatter away together in Slovak – closer perhaps because of their shared background than any of Eva’s other children. After all, they were both raised by the same woman in the same home on the same little village street in Slovakia, and may have felt more like sisters than anything else.

In 2014, after the funeral of my great-aunt Dorothy’s former husband, Uncle Bob, I got to meet two of my mother’s cousins for the first time as an adult. I was telling them some of the highlights of their grandmother Anna’s life story. This included the recent discovery that the Devecka last name was actually spelled Devečka in the old country, and was probably pronounced De-vesh-ka. When I said that word out loud, my cousin Cindy, who had been walking to the kitchen to get a drink, popped her head around the corner of the wall and exclaimed, “I remember that! I remember grandmother and her mother Eva talking in Slovak when I was little, and that’s the way they said Devecka!” Hearing the old pronunciation of the family name brought it all rushing back for her.

Anne lived to be 74. She died May 21, 1982, just 7 and a half months before I was born. Her husband and she had entered the Rees Nursing Home in New Castle, and Matt had died of bone cancer the summer before. Her mother, the tough old bird, had lived to be 87, and had only passed away 5 years previously. It’s hard to know what Anne thought of the course of her life, and the role her mother played in it. Eva was a woman hardened by a difficult existence, and my mother, aunts and their cousins only remember her as a “scary, mean old lady.” But Anne was completely different. Though she never lost her thick Slovak accent, she had a sunny personality and is remembered as being sweet, loving and always smiling. Her heartfelt joy just beams forth from every family picture. She seemed to take life in stride, and each new challenge was met with perseverance and a positive outlook on the future. I’m so happy to have inherited her smile.

This story was compiled from family memories, census, church and Ellis Island records, and from the pages of a family manuscript called “The Devecka Family Tree,” written by Anne’s brother Edward Walter Devecka, Sr. in 1983. For further citations please see my family tree on Ancestry.com.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

This year I decided to start a genealogy blog to complement my ever-growing online family tree. I’ve reached the point in my genealogical research where I’m dealing mainly with brick walls and DNA evidence, so last year consisted of a lot of “cousin bait” research. While it is always fun to find out who your distant cousins are, I realized that I needed to start fleshing out my direct ancestors a bit better, creating a stronger paperwork trail and spicing up their spots on the family tree with photos and stories.

So Amy Johnson Crow’s ingenious 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks project is just the sort of thing I was looking for. This will give me the opportunity to tell the rich, varied stories of my family lines. And of course, I hope that some of what I uncover helps other genealogists piece together their own family trees.

My 52 Ancestors In 52 Weeks:

  1. Anna Devecka, a Stranger in Her Homeland
  2. On Her Way: Through the Paris Menagerie


View All 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Posts