Hello! I haven’t written about genealogy for quite some time. Well, that’s because I was working on a manuscript about the modern-day genealogical mystery in which I was involved. For those of you who are interested in that aspect of my blog, I’ve changed up my home screen to have a nice clear link to navigate through any information that I’ve posted of that nature.
With that being said, I’d like to wade back into the family history foray by presented a slightly edited section from the above-mentioned manuscript. The definitive answer to a question posed by many an inquiring Janesvillian:
How, exactly are the Biers and the Parrs related??
Of the open questions in my casebook, I was uniquely suited to answer, “How are the Biers related to the Parrs?” I understood genetics and the Bier family tree. I did not understand the Parr family tree. I did find a ten-year old note on my to-do list: “figure out the Parr – Bier connection.” Huh. Too bad I never got around to that. I needed to query a fellow researcher who had knowledge of the Parr tree. Knowing none, that meant turning to Ancestry.com.
Ancestry.com has been around for awhile, well before it got into the DNA game. It is a website for doing genealogy research, charting one’s growing tree, and sharing results. There are aspects of working on Ancestry that I really enjoy. Ancestry catalogues scores of primary sources, many of which include images of the original documents. In the past, genealogists spent a lot of time in small historical libraries, poring through handwritten documents to score finds like these. Ancestry makes a lot of these references available and easily searchable from one’s computer. Don’t get me wrong–I still love a morning spent buried in the stacks of a small local library, and this type of research remains absolutely necessary. But slowly, Ancestry is digitizing these libraries’ troves.
Another nice feature of Ancestry are the green-leaf hints. Once you have even basic elements of your tree input into the site, it starts feeding you hints upon hints upon hints based upon those names and dates. The hints appear as enticing green leaves next to your relatives’ names, just begging to be clicked and chased down. And it’s so easy to go down the rabbit hole of these hints! They might lead to other peoples’ trees, census records, social security death records, any number of records that may or may not have something to do with your relative flagged with a green leaf. On more than one occasion, my husband has tried to tear my attention away from the seduction of the Ancestry green leaf, commenting, “You are more interested in dead people than in us!” It’s the green leaves! They are irresistible!
The problem with the seductive green leaves, though, is that Ancestry makes it almost too easy to add their suggestions to your research. There is no one reminding you to “double-check your info!” before merging it into your rapidly-growing tree. This danger is especially true when it comes to incorporating data from other members’ trees. While it is possible to build a tree on Ancestry privately, you are encouraged to share them publicly. Then, any possible overlap between different people’s trees sparks green leaf hints. A few clicks, and some anonymous person’s data is grafted onto the other’s tree. What often ends up happening is that multiple people share the same data and family trees, repeatedly copying and pasting from the original researcher who created the tree in the first place. Did that original person use good, verified data? Who knows. And Ancestry doesn’t clear its throat loudly to alert you to the fact that you might be making a mistaken graft. Instead, it lulls you into a click-happy trance with all of those green leaves.
I tread lightly when it comes to trusting other members’ trees. And I never, never graft them onto my own. Call me snooty, but I don’t want to accidentally taint all of my carefully sourced work. I also keep my own tree private; it is invisible to other users of Ancestry. I learned the hard way that not everyone may agree with the version of the truth as represented in my tree.
In addition to putting in names and dates, I populate my tree with all sorts of decorative fruits and flowers–pictures, maps, documents, and stories. While I don’t present the stories as biographical facts, I do include them as attachments. About ten years ago, I uploaded my tree and shared it on Ancestry, and I mistakenly included everything–facts and anecdotes alike. Unfortunately, one of the anecdotes was about a distant relative who, according to my great-aunts, killed herself “because her husband brought home a venereal disease.” This little tidbit was nestled away in my public Ancestry tree. Eventually, a descendent of that woman discovered it and wrote me a scathing message about posting such gossipy information publicly. Mortified, I deleted my public tree altogether and stayed completely away from Ancestry for years out of shame and trepidation. I still had a genealogy management program on my own computer on which I continued to grow my tree; I just never synced it up to the online Ancestry world.
Well, it was time to return. I renewed my Ancestry subscription and dove back into the familiar, overwhelming Ancestry.com website. I quickly found the Bier-Parr connection. In all of the Parr trees, “Frank Bier” was the founding Wisconsin ancestor. My Frank Bier. Frank Bier of the Valentine Ten. He of the amazing cheekbones. He with the three priest sons. Frank Bier appeared as the father of “Mary Bier” (mother unknown). Mary Bier eventually married a Charles Parr and established the Parr dynasty of southern Wisconsin.
This was news to me. As far as my records indicated, Frank Bier had neither a daughter named Mary nor a Parr relationship. According to everything I knew, he was married only once, to Mary Klein. The Parr trees included this marriage to Mary Klein along with all of its children, but as a second marriage.
Was it possible that Frank Bier actually had been married twice, a fact heretofore overlooked in my Bier research? Or had he fathered a daughter named Mary out of wedlock?
A quick review of the facts as presented on these Parr trees answered my question: no way. My Frank Bier, of the Valentine Ten, was only 11 years old at the time that Mary Bier, matriarch of the Parrs, was born. She simply couldn’t have been his daughter. It wasn’t the same Frank Bier–there must have been two of them! The founder of the Parr family was a different Frank Bier, and all of these Parr family trees were mixing him up with Frank of the Valentine Ten!
Here’s how it might have happened. Somewhere along the line, a researcher noticed that Mary Bier’s father was named Frank, that Valentine Bier had a son named Frank, and created a tree showing both of these Frank Biers as the same person. And then Ancestry encouraged people to copy and paste the mistake, and no one ever bothered to check the math. Repeated enough times, the idea that the Parrs were descended from Valentine Bier via his son, Frank, became an accepted truth. Later on, I learned that this conflation and assumption appeared on handwritten charts shared between Parr family members for years, well before the advent of Ancestry.com. I wanted to shout this discovery from the rooftops. There are two of them! You’ve got the wrong guy! But alas, Ancestry does not have a town crier function.
So, who was this other Frank Bier, whose daughter co-founded the Wisconsin Parr dynasty? I started referring to him as Mystery Frank while I attempted to sort it out. I found a census record indicating that Mystery Frank lived in Rock County in 1860, prior to the arrival of the Valentine Biers in 1882. I confirmed this on an 1860 plat map. In 1860, Mystery Frank Bier owned 40-acre parcel 10 miles from the eventual Valentine Bier homestead. Mystery Frank and Valentine must have been related somehow. Where did Mystery Frank graft onto my own Bier family tree?
I had to construct a Parr tree that went all the way back to the common ancestor between the Mystery Frank Bier and Valentine Bier. I knew where I needed to focus my search. The Zamrsk Archives in the Czech Republic.
During the Bier Trip to the Homeland the previous summer, our bus briefly stopped in the Czech hamlet of Zamrsk. Our tour guide arranged the stop to show me the building where parish records from the outlying Bohemian village churches were archived. She warned me that I wouldn’t be able to enter–the hours were limited and appointments were required. However, she assured me, all of the records were digitized and available online. See? She shared a copy of Valentine Bier’s baptismal record that she made from the digitized archives, reassuring me that they were quite easy to navigate. Resigned, I gazed at the outside of the archives building, a renovated prison. As the group stretched our collective legs, a few of us happened on a family picnic and were offered beers–the drinkable kind. We continued on our way to Ketzelsdorf; I added Zamrsk Digital Archives to my genealogy to-do list for a later day.
When we returned home, I fully intended to spend time with those digital records. However, I was daunted. The files were numerous. They were catalogued in Czech. They were handwritten in German. They were simply overwhelming. Without a specific question in hand, there was no hook to lure me into tackling these dense archives. With the Kathleen mystery, however, I had a specific task: Find Valentine Bier. Find Mystery Frank Bier. Find their common ancestor. Solve the mystery of the Bier-Parr relationship.
I dove into the digital fray of the Archives at Zamrsk.
First, I downloaded all of the zip files for the village of Ketzelsdorf. There were about 20 unique file sets, each containing a different church record book. Record books handwritten, in German, several hundred years ago. I identified a promising register, baptisms, and opened it. And I stared in transfixed horror at the pages that might as well have been henna drawings. I couldn’t turn to Google translate for help, because I couldn’t even decipher the letters of the German words! They were a series of inky tracings, meaningless loops and whorls!
Desperate, I Googled things like “how can I translate these old German registers?” or “deciphering old German text for the non-German speaker.” Miraculously, I found a self-published book amusingly titled, If I Can, You Can Decipher Germanic Records. It might as well have been the Rosetta Stone itself!
If Edna M. Bentz hadn’t written this book, I’m not sure that I would have ever been able to make any sense of the Zamrsk Archives on my own. Edna’s miraculous volume gave translations for words frequently used in genealogy, such as “date,” “birth,” “death,” and “legitimate.” I made a list of the words that I needed to be on the lookout for, such as “Taufe” for baptism and “Mutter” for mother. Perhaps most importantly, the book provided examples of every way that a letter might be written in the German script common to the 18th and 19th centuries. There was an entire page of variations devoted to each letter–a separate page for capital and lower-case. The variation was overwhelming! I felt how today’s school children must feel when confronted with cursive writing. I wanted to reach out to Edna and thank her personally. Unfortunately, she died several years before I discovered her book.
My next big breakthrough was discovering that one of the scanned books was actually a master index of births. It referenced all of the other volumes, listing only the barest of facts and page numbers. The actual registers of births, deaths and baptisms were much wordier and therefore more confusing. I had no chance of deciphering these sentences, even with my handy translation book. The master index, however, was far less wordy and far more predictable: name, date, parents’ names and birthdates, house number. And there were only a few words, generally names or numbers, in each uniform, predictable column. This was it! Huzzah, now I had only to turn to the “B” section and find Frank and Valentine Bier!
Except that there was at least one index page per year of Biers! I had a vague notion that Ketzelsdorf had a lot of Biers, but this was absolutely insane. At least 30 Bier babies were born per year. Further, the same given names were repeated over and over–about six common names each for boys and girls. There were half a dozen Franz [Frank] Biers born per year in Ketzelsdorf. I clearly wouldn’t be able to just scan for the names I wanted and go from there; there was simply too much repetition. How to find Mystery Frank and Valentine needles in the haystack of Biers?
Luckily, the births index contained one more important data point for each entry: a house number. House numbering took off in Europe in the mid-18th century, and the same numbering system survives in many places to this day–including Ketzelsdorf. Therefore, I logicked, assuming that families didn’t tend to move around very much, I could attempt to identify family units by combining patterns of three variables: mother’s name, father’s name, and house number.
It was time. Time for a sortable document. Time for a spreadsheet. Over the next month, whenever I had a spare minute or two, I’d pull up the “B” section of the baptismal register and enter data for the Bier babies. I knew that Valentine was born in 1842 and Mystery Frank in 1844, so I catalogued 1800 to 1850, hoping to capture them, their parents, and their grandparents.
I couldn’t concentrate on this task for very long at one sitting. It simultaneously required immense focus and was terribly boring. The data entry portion was boring, but the deciphering of script was incredibly difficult, even with Edna’s handy book. I added several new versions of lettering to those that she provided as I progressed, as different handwriting appeared. The index contained page-years of “legible” script, followed abruptly by years of chicken scratch, corresponding to the arrival of a new parish priest. In the end, I filled a lot of fields with question marks, never quite settling on which letters were written. For example, it took me about a month to realize that what I thought was a “G” was actually a “Th.” A whole world of “Theresias” was opened to me. I only hoped that I had enough useable data mixed with the question marks to identify the family trends that I needed.
In the end, I entered data on 380 Biers born in Ketzelsdorf between 1800-1850. Then I had to make sense of it, and shake Mystery Frank Bier and Valentine Bier out of the pile of names. One stroke of luck was the name “Valentine.” His parents were creative namers in a sea of uniformity. There was only one “Valentin” born in the entire time span that I catalogued, on February 14, 1842. They named him for the saint whose feast day he shared. When I found his entry, I was relieved. The register’s information matched with what I had in my records, down to the house number in which he was born–number 78.
A second stroke of luck? I knew the name of Valentine’s brother, Anton. I found an Anton with the same parents as Valentine, Johann and Victoria Bier. Strangely, Anton was born in number 136, not number 78 like Valentine. When Valentine was born, Johann and Victoria were living with Victoria’s folks at number 78. After that, they moved in with Johann’s folks at number 136 where Anton was born. Number 136 was actually the Bier family home, the place where all of the answers resided. If I didn’t know that Valentine and Anton were brothers, I would have entirely ignored number 136. Believe it or not, there were several Johann and Victoria Bier couples milling about Ketzelsdorf in the 1850’s. I don’t know that I’d have otherwise connected the #78 Johann & Victoria with the #136 Johann & Victoria.
Once I identified the correct Bier household, it was relatively simple to identify all of the babies and parents of number 136, back to Valentine’s grandparents. Long story short? Valentine Bier and Mystery Frank Bier were first cousins. They shared a common grandfather, the delightfully named Adalbert Bier. Recall that Mystery Frank Bier’s daughter was the matriarch of the Parr dynasty. Although there was nowhere to actually announce it, I could announce that the Biers and the Parrs were rather distantly related indeed, back to number 136 in Ketzelsdorf and Adalbert Bier in the late 1700’s. Whew.