Hamburg 1876

“You have to have skills.” Napolean Dynamite coached Pedro. “Numchuk skills.”

It takes more than skills to find some of our ancestors, especially those who began life in a foreign country. It some times takes a little luck. That proved true in my search for my father’s great grandfather’s roots. In this particular search we hope to track down the parents of Laura Clara Lena Kopfer’s parents: Robert Kopfer and Mary Caroline Temme. To put it another way, her Laura’s grandparents.

What do we know? Laura’s father, Robert Kopfer, died in 1908 leaving a wife Mary and six children, “all minors.” He owned a farm in a German enclave in DeKalb County. His property was adjacent to German farm families found in our tree: Rissmans, Baie, Hartman. The 1900 Census indicates that the parents of the young farmers were born in Germany, with one exception. In a 1930 census Floyd Kopfer reported his father, Robert, was from Wisconsin.

Robert was two years of age when he arrived in the states from Germany. We do not know where his parents resided early on. German communities were appearing in a band across the iron belt from New York through Milwaukee, Chicago and St. Louis. It is conceivable Robert’s parents appear in the records of Wisconsin. Whether he was born there remains to be seen.

Matters become confused when the spelling of names changed. I found a Robert Kopper marrying a Mary Temme in DeKalb County in 1886. Following that lead creates a false trail that takes me to Schenectady, NY in 1900 thru 1930. Clearly not the Robert I can follow. I believe Robert ‘Kopper’ is a misspelling of our Robert Kopher. The error creates a false lead in online ancestor software and those who are not diligent enough will make the mistake of placing Robert in New York, and drawing three children into our family tree at a point that is incorrect. Some records point toward a father by the name of William and a mother named Wilhilmena. That is about as helpful as finding the right ‘Steve Smith’ in the United States. Every other fraulein I find in our family tree is a ‘Minnie’ derived from Wilhilmena.

A story handed down as truth in our tree informs us that Robert’s father was deaf and that his wife died in a fire. Whether that was the Chicago fire, a farm house fire, workplace? I don’t know. Did this happen in the homeland or here? Questions need answers and one answer could bring Robert’s parents to the surface. And therein lies the motivation that tugs at an amateur genealogist. I feel I am resurrecting the history of a human whose life is so intricately tied to our own lives, whose DNA courses through my sinew and whose efforts paved the way for me. She wasn’t just Robert’s wife. She was a person in her own right. She was my great great grandmother.

It wasn’t really all that long ago that Robert’s parents carved out a life. Did their story get lost in the tumult of the great German migration? It was more than a German invasion. The tidal wave from Germany became a human tsunami of Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, pouring through New York City. Did the civil unrest, economic chaos and political upheaval in a land that would become Germany obfusicate the history of the German emigrants?

Taking what we know we will search American and German records including church, state and corporate.

It is far easier to find Mary Caroline Temme’s parents. They are right over there in the  corner of the beer garden tent at Octoberfest. That’s Conrad Temme and his lovely wife Caroline Grimme. Conrad left the German principalities, Bavaria in particular, in 1854.  He married Caroline on October 1, 1854 in La Salle, Illinois. Caroline Grimme was born about 1826 in Hamberg, Ebersberg, Bavaria in what would eventually become the nation of Germany.

The 1860 Census lists ‘Hannover’ as her birthplace. Conrad is identified as being born two years earlier, in January of 1824 in Braunschweig, Bavaria. Their son Henry was two years of age. Two more pieces of info are found in this census data. Conrad is a ‘laborer’. It does not specify farm laborer as it frequently does in a census. Caroline is described as unable to read or write. I am assuming the report refers to her comprehension of the English language.

Conrad and Caroline move from LaSalle to Pierce Township, DeKalb County IL somewhere between 1860 and 1880. The 1880 Census describes Conrad as a farmer, Caroline as the ‘Housekeeper’ and 22 year old Henry as a ‘farm laborer.’ Four children are identified as Henry Dietrich, Mary Caroline, Alvena and Johanna.  Those are the names that appear in Conrad’s Will as his surviving children. The spellings differ from other documents found through the decades. That is not unusual and more the fault of the agent gathering data than the parents.  As an example I find references to Lavinia as opposed to Alvina and Johanna frequently becomes Anna. I have archived Conrad’s will in the Document section of this system and can summarize relevant elements of it as follows:

The will identifies his wife as previously deceased and four children. We have that info above. His son Henry is the executor of the will and the document is witnessed by son in laws: William Charlesworth and Henry Kettler. William is the husband of Johanna and Henry is wedded to Alvena.  The Charlesworths reside in Waterman in 1900, the Kettlers in Carlton, Mary (wife of Robert Kopfer) and her brother Henry each live in Hinckley. Henry was married to Wilhelmine (Minnie) Lampe.

The children accept the responsibility for Conrad’s debts. His property is valued at $6,000 and his debt at $11,000. The court requires and the children agree to submit an inventory of all property and belongings of Conrad Temma. Three neighbors will be charged with developing the inventory: Fred and William Burmaster and August Leifheit.

I have to add a personal note here. In thirty years of research related to family history and an intense effort in the last several years I have noticed a sad trend in family fortunes. The wills of my ancestors in Virginia over the course of the 1600 and 1700’s left vast sums of wealth to their progeny. Plantations were handed down, sums of money and property (regrettably including slaves). Any outstanding debts were covered by the wealth of the deceased.

In contrast my ancestors coming in from Ireland and Germany in the 1800’s apparently arrived with the bare necessities, worked hard to survive and often accumulated debt that followed them to the grave, in the effort to gain the American Dream.