When I taught women’s history, I used to assign a family history project in which I asked students to trace four generations of the women in their families. I had grown up knowing about my family’s history, and was surprised to learn that many of my students could trace no further back than their grandparents.
I’m not going to do that assignment today, but I was wondering how much I could reconstruct about the lives of my great great grandmothers. I come from a family of storytellers, but it turns out that most of our stories about male progenitors and very little information survives about the women. Let’s start with my paternal side.
My Great Great Grandmother, Marie Koch Passet, was born in Neu Isenburg, Germany, in 1822 and married when she was twenty two. A decade later Marie and her husband immigrated to the United States with four children, the youngest of which was only three months old. According to family legend, Marie and her family docked in Boston after several weeks at sea (I suspect they traveled in steerage), and stayed there for a year before continuing on to northwest Ohio where they purchased farmland. After giving birth to three more children, Marie died at fifty three and was buried in a rural cemetery. The family was prosperous enough to afford a portrait, which portrays her as somber, with straight brown hair parted in the center and swept into a severe bun. Her dark cape and dress are plain, but neat, with no lace or jewelry to offset the stark nature of the image.
I don’t have a picture of my Great Great Grandmother Sylvania Barnheisel Young, but I do have one of her mother, Susannah Snyder Barnheisel , who was born in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania in 1811. Like many nineteenth-century farmwomen, Susannah had a large family, giving birth to at least eleven children, eight of them daughters. One of the younger members of her family, my Great Great Grandmother Sylvania (1847-1935) lived her entire life in Wyandot County, Ohio. She married quite young, at fifteen, to a farmer named George Young. Sadly, I know nothing more about her except she gave birth to at least five children.
Moving on to another branch of my family tree, my Great Great Grandmother Marie Catherine Kroedel Frank, a Lutheran, was born in Germany in 1819. After her older sister died (presumably in childbirth), Marie (age 27) married her brother-in-law, Peter Frank, gave birth to a son, and immigrated to Ohio in 1850. The family settled in Wyandot County, where Marie died eight years later at thirty nine, leaving children ages 4, 5, 7, and 10. As the wife of a farmer determined to establish himself in a new country, I’m sure her short life was filled with hard work. After her death, Peter married for a third time and fathered six more children.
My Great Great Grandmother Anna Margaretha Roszman Ross was also a Lutheran. Born in Germany in 1821, she married Johann Adam Ross in 1847 and gave birth to a son the following year. While she remained in Germany, Adam sailed for the United States, eager to make his way in the world. His travels took him to the California gold fields, and she did not see him again for several years, but by 1854 they had reunited and were living on a farm in Wyandot County, Ohio, where she had six more children. I suspect her early death, occurring only one day after her fifty-fourth birthday, was due to hard work as well as a weak heart.
And now, what do I know about the women on my maternal side? Mary Ann Belsey (1827-1894) spent her entire life in England. She was twenty seven when she married Charles Harrison in an Anglican church in Dover. After giving birth to seven living children, she watched them scatter as far away as South Africa and the United States. Mary Ann appears to have had a more affluent lifestyle than the great great grandmothers on my paternal line. In 1871 she had a servant, and her husband accumulated enough money to buy land in the United States for his spinster daughters. Nonetheless, she was only sixty seven when she died.
Mary Burnett was nineteen in 1854, the year she left England with her sister and brother-in-law and their seven children. She refused to come earlier because she wanted to finish sewing school before she moved to a new country. While on board the ship, she met Benjamin Baxter, who she married later in the year, and they settled on a farm near Peotone, Illinois. Mary gave birth to at least seven children, and the family relocated to Kansas, where Mary died in her eighty-fourth year. A devout woman, she read the Bible to her grandchildren.
I know much less about my Great Great Grandmother Hannah Bonning Quantock (1815-1896). Born in Somersetshire, England, she married a roof thatcher, and gave birth to at least nine children. Hannah’s children wanted to better themselves economically, and some of the boys apprenticed themselves to farmers in the United States. She lived into her eighty first year.
My final Great Great Grandmother, Susan Newton , was born in Somersetshire, England, in 1829. A genealogist who assisted with some research years ago indicated that her parents never married. Susan was twenty four when she married Samuel Townsend, and she gave birth to at least eleven children. Despite the finery she is wearing in this portrait, the family was not wealthy, and several of her teenage daughters went into service. According to the England and Wales census of 1871, she supplemented the family income by working as a glover, piecework she could have done at home after the birth of her twins in 1870.
Who were my Great Great Grandmothers? I’m sad to discover how little I know about them, and how many aspects their life stories have fallen through the cracks of time. But I am not surprised, because they were ordinary nineteenth century women from ordinary families. Sure, the details I can unearth confirm what I would have predicted, they were wives and mothers who, for the most part, lacked economic privilege and worked very hard. Many of them had large families, and four immigrated with their husbands to the United States, where they adapted to new language, culture, and traditions. But I wish I knew more about their hopes, their dreams. Most of all, I wish I could catch a glimpse of their personalities–did they laugh easily or have tempers, were they worriers or did they roll with the waves, did they have a knack for solving problems or did they create them? Were they shy or gregarious? Curious or unquestioning? Were they submissive, dutiful wives, or did some of them question authority? If only DNA could reveal the answers!