Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My German Ancestors: A Discovery About Family History

This past summer, I got hooked on watching Who Do You Think You Are?  This hour-long TV program on  NBC explores the family histories of modern celebrities like Steve Buscemi and Ashley Judd.  The show actually got me thinking more about my own family, and I finally joined Ancestry.com and began to dig a little deeper.  Given my interest in history, I am surprised I had waited this long to start doing extensive on-line genealogical research. 

Generally speaking, I knew that most of my ancestors on both sides had come to the United States during the great wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  They belonged to those tired, poor, and huddled masses of Italians, Germans, and Eastern Europeans looking for a better life in America.

I decided to start my search with the Baumgarten clan.  My Dad's father had passed away when my Dad was just a kid, so many Baumgartens have only faint knowledge of the family history.   Within a day or so, I discovered that the Baumgartens had come to America's shores prior to the Civil War, and even before the mass influx of Germans in the 1850s.  I was floored to learn that part of my family had arrived in the United States so much earlier than I originally thought.  And now I had my own personal connection to the period of American history that interests me the most.

I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised.  After all, by 1860, around 1.3 million German immigrants lived in the United States.  They populated cities like Pittsburgh, where my family settled, and St. Louis.  Around 200 German language newspapers and magazines were published across the United States. (Source: Library of Congress, Chronology: The Germans in America.) 

My Great Great Grandfather John Baumgarten was born in Pennsylvania in 1850.  His parents were both from Germany.  My Grandfather, Francis, and Great Grandfather, Frank, were living with John at the time of the 1920 Census.  Going back fifty years, I learned that in 1870, John resided with an "R." Baumgarten and his wife, Elizabeth, in Birmingham, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.  "R." turned out to be Reinhard (or Reinhart) Baumgarten, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1839 to Joseph and Bertha, two German immigrants.  Reinhard eventually made his way to Ashland, Kentucky, where he died in 1911.  The exact relation between Reinhard and John is uncertain, but Reinhard is definitely the family link to Kentucky that I have heard so much about.

View of Pittsburgh from 1857, when John was only a young boy of about seven. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)  Pittsburgh was a center of antebellum industry in the United States and later supplied the Union during the war.
Of course, calculating Reinhard's age during the Civil War, I immediately began to search Union Army records to see if he had enlisted or was drafted.  I turned up no military service records for Reinhard, but just yesterday I located the 1863 draft registration for a "Reinhart  Bomgarding" in Pittsburgh.  The age and place of residence for this person match those for Reinhard.  I have a feeling that "Bomgarding" may be a clerk's mistaken effort to spell "Baumgarten."  (Belive me, even today my family name is misspelled in a variety of curious ways.)  If this person is not one in the same, then I do not yet have the faintest idea as to Reinhard's involvement with the war and the draft.  In any event, Reinhard shows up again in a January 1865 application for a U.S. passport that he sought for travel to Europe.  Whether he made a trip overseas is unknown at this time.

While looking for Reinhard's service record, I came across a William Baumgarten, who enlisted in Co. K, 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry in Pittsburgh in March 1864.  William was born in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania in 1845 to Joseph and Martha Baumgarten. The 102nd Pennsylvania was attached to the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac.  William fought at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.  He was wounded three times during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 and was mustered out of service in June 1865. 

"Pittsburgh (Pa.), from Seminary Hill," 1864.   (Courtesy of University of Pittsburgh
I am uncertain of a family connection to William, although I'd certainly like to claim an ancestor who served!  William's father has the same name as Reinhard's father, but the mothers' names are different.  Both men were close in age and were from Pittsburgh.  Incidentally, an 1867 directory for the City of Pittsburgh indicates that a William and Reinhard worked at Baumgarten & Brothers Grocers in Birmingham, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh.  This fact may be a coincidence, or perhaps the two men are indeed the same Reinhard and William and are brothers.  My research has just begun, and it may be many years before I have the time and other resources to get the full story of John, Reinhard, William and the other Baumgartens.

All of these findings got me thinking.  So often people speculate as to what their ancestors thought 150 years ago.  Absent letters or diaries, or even oral history, our attempt to understand our ancestors' thoughts and feelings is a difficult one. The questions are many, but the answers are few.  John Baumgarten grew into a teenager during the Civil War.  What did he think about the war at such a young age?  How did his immigrant parents view the war?  Did they support the Union or were they apathetic about the conflict?  What did John, his parents, and Reinhard think about slavery?  Why did Reinhard decide not to answer Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers like so many of his fellow Pennsylvanians?  What did he think about the draft and the draft riots?  Why was he seemingly so removed from events in America that he wanted to travel abroad during the last winter of the war?  Did my Grandfather Francis ever hear stories about the wartime from his Grandfather John?

These answers are now, and likely forever, lost to history.  I can only read about the German-American community during the Civil War and try to understand how the conflict may have affected the Baumgartens of Pittsburgh.  Regardless, I now feel deeply connected to the history of 19th century America and the Civil War in a way that I had not before.  Even if I don't know everything about my ancestors, they serve as a strong personal link to a world long gone.


Vince said...

Interesting post. Now on my third year living in Pittsburgh, I've concluded that the city doesn't do all that good of a job interpreting its mid-nineteenth century history, which I think ought to be extremely fascinating based on tiny glimpses I've seen of it. Maybe it's just that looking then forces you to see the impending train wreck of the Carnegie era, so people want to avoid it.

Anyway, one pretty remarkable resource you might like is a photographic album of the Lyon Shorb iron company, which was not too far from Birmingham:
Perhaps some of these guys stopped by your ancestor's grocery store.

Also, not sure if you caught it, but I found some rather amusing hyperbolic descriptions of Pittsburgh by visitors from Lancaster that I posted a few weeks back:

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Vince. I haven't lived in the Burgh for quite a number of years, but I don't particularly recall hearing much about the city during the Civil War. Rather, there was a lot of focus on the French and Indian War (interesting in its own right), which essentially started at the Forks of the Ohio. Perhaps as you suggest, people don't want to think about the subsequent days of smoke, grime, and labor strife.

Thanks for the two links. The University of Pittsburgh site has some good images, like the one I included above. I wonder if these laborers ever shared a beer with my folk? In any event, Reinhard was listed on the draft records as a laborer, so perhaps he too was at such a factory.

I really enjoy your webiste and had seen this post. I definitely will need to forward a link to my family!