Peter Albert Reinshagen was born on April 23, 1853 in the industrial “cloth making” town of Lennep located within the Prussian Rhine Province. Although now a borough of Remscheid, Germany, the history of Lennep dates back to the Middle Ages, and its town center still remains with more than 100 examples of 18th century “Bergische Haus” architecture, distinguished by timber framed post construction, grey-black slate facades, white window frames with green shutters, and white door lintels.
Peter was the second child and oldest son of six children born to Peter and Julie Leverkus Reinshagen (a sister, Anna, born a year earlier, died four months after Peter’s birth, and Albert, the youngest child, died in 1865 at not quite 3 years old). Peter grew up with a younger brother, Carl Hermann (Karl), and two sisters, Auguste and Anna (she was born 8 years after the death of her older sister, Anna). The Reinshagen and Leverkus families were prosperous in their manufacturing businesses; however, family life changed when Peter was just 12 years old; his father passed away on March 13, 1864.
Das Land des Wieder Anfanges
-The Land of Another Beginning-
A massive wave of German migration to the United States began in the 1830s, with the number of arrivals spiking in the mid to late 1800’s. In the 50 year span between 1820 – 1870, over 7.5 million German immigrants came to the US, more than doubling its population. Although decisions to emigrate seem to have been primarily based on economic, religious and political issues, there does not seem to be a specific cause underlying the phenomenon. In fact, there are probably as many different motivations behind the 19th century migration from Germany to America as there were immigrants being that it was an extraordinarily diverse group with differing religious and cultural values, dissimilar political views, and varying geographical, vocational and educational backgrounds.
The diversity of these German-speaking people was due to the fact that since the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, Germany had been divided into a patchwork of independent, monarchical states with distinct histories and competing interests. While political unrest and economic turmoil existed throughout the German states during the 18th and 19th centuries, the circumstances were never as extreme as the famine and oppression suffered in Ireland during the same time period. Consequently, German immigrants were not always escaping a desperate situation, and many had professional skills as well as capital to start a new life in America.
A mass emigration effort to establish German settlements on Texas land was conducted in the 1840’s by “The Society for the Protection of German Immigration in Texas” (known as “Adelsverein”, the “Nobility Society”) for the purpose of creating new world markets for German industry and promoting German maritime commerce. The endeavor resulted in successful colonies in central Texas that still exist today, but ended in 1853 because of Adelsverein leadership, financial and administrative shortcomings.
So, it seems, many Germans making the dangerous transatlantic voyage toward an uncertain future may have been lured by the promise of an expansive new world with greater opportunity and ideological freedom.
We don’t know his reasons, but do know Peter, at 24 years old, set off for America on May 26, 1877 from the port city of Bremerhaven on the SS Mosel. We can, however, assume there were personal, complex motivations, rather than economic hardship, as he traveled alone on second class passage, leaving behind his mother and siblings, and never to see his homeland again. Peter arrived in America shortly after the intensely disputed election of President Rutherford B. Hayes at the close of the Reconstruction Era, embarking on his odyssey during the outset of the Second Industrial Revolution (1870 – 1914), a period of rapid growth and great advancement in manufacturing and technology. At the same time, unresolved political, economic and social issues continued to afflict the country with conflict, suffering and violence.
It was the beginning of the family mystery.
Mother never talked about father. — C.H. Reinshagen (1891-1980)
What happened to Peter after he arrived in America? What sort of man was he, and how did he die? No one had answers, but there was plenty of speculation among his descendants.
In 1891, less than 15 years following his immigration from Germany, Peter died a few days before his 38th birthday and a few months prior to the birth of his only child, Carl Peter Henry (Charles Henry). Carl was raised in Comal County, Texas by his mother, Emma, and from the age of 7 years, a stepfather in a large, blended family of step and half siblings. Unfortunately, he was not given much information about his father, except Carl was made aware of his uncles, aunts and cousins in Germany. No one in the family had the most basic information as to Peter’s travels and work in America, the circumstances of his death, or the location of his grave. As a result, family legend developed depicting Peter as somewhat of an outcast, a “ne’er-do-well”, and bar owner, inferring the entire story was likely much worse. It seemed after so many years, the man, his son and family deserved better. In late 2014, the search began.
There are no photographs of Peter, no written communication. Three treasured documents have survived— a family tree compiled in 1906, the May 26, 1877 Mosel passenger list, and Carl’s baptism certificate, dated November 15, 1891. Therefore, the first logical step of this investigation involved taking the information from the documents and search the internet. There was a feeling of determination and confidence at the start of this endeavor because there are so many online information resources, tools and data bases, including records of birth, death, marriage, US census, immigration/naturalization, military, and probate as well as genealogy websites and newspaper articles. But, after many long days and nights of intense googling, it became apparent the “Finding Peter Research Project” was not going to be quick and easy. Peter was not showing up on anything.
Then…Success! Found a record of Peter’s marriage to Emma Michel on February 20, 1887 in Comal County, Texas. Also, discovered some of the limitations of an online genealogical search and reasons Peter is so hard to find.
The biggest factor is that searchable 19th century public records are limited, incomplete, and very often inaccurate or not available on the internet; therefore, genealogical research takes a lot more digging. Case in point, an online search of the US census records was a total bust, maddening until learning most of the 1890 census records (the year before Peter’s death) were damaged by a fire at the Commerce Department Building in January of 1921. It then became somewhat discouraging to realize the chance of discovering documentary evidence of Peter’s location and occupation in the US had been reduced to the statistical information of only one source—the 1880 census. This led to the conclusion the library was the best next stop on this journey.
The staff is friendly and helpful at the Lorenzo de Zavala State Archives & Library in Austin, Texas, and it was fun exploring all the reference materials and collections. A search via an ancestry informational website (for free!) identified a record of Peter’s birth and baptism in Lennep. It wasn’t a lot, but a hopeful sign he was out there somewhere. Since his son Carl’s baptism took place at a church in San Antonio, Texas, it was likely Peter had died there. The recommendation from a library staff member was to go directly to Bexar County records to check for a death certificate.
An online search of county and city records as well as published obituaries in the Bexar County, Texas area was not successful, and things really got frustrating after a telephone conversation with a county research clerk resulted in zero findings and a certain amount of hoplessness. It became clear—the next place to try is the church.
Founded by German immigrants in 1857, St. John’s Lutheran Church (Deutsche Evangelische St. Johannes Kirche) has substantial historical ties to San Antonio, and church volunteers have put in many hours preserving and making available its records which date as far back as its founding. The information and documents available on St. John’s website are extraordinary, yet again, there were problems locating anything related to Peter in the online church archives, and this was particularly perplexing because Carl’s baptism certificate was issued by St. John’s in 1891. Not ready to give up, made a call to the church office and left a message.
That call led to an email exchange with Maria, a volunteer genealogy researcher at St. John’s, and receipt of her email on December 12, 2014 was a memorable moment (there were tears!):
From city records: Peter died of consumption in the San Juan Mission settlement area on April 20, 1891. His doctor was William Meier. He had been a resident of Bexar County for 16 months, and was buried in Bexar County (“Lutheran”).
A few days later, Maria found Peter’s funeral listed in the church record books, and although a burial site was not identified and can’t be located in the church cemeteries, Peter Albert Reinshagen was added to the St. John’s cemetery “presumed burial” list because of the funeral record and the added note “Lutheran” in the city of San Antonio death record. A gracious acknowledgement very much appreciated by the family.
Finding this long lost ancestor was both heartrending and joyous, and while more research is required to track Peter’s life in America from 1877 to 1891, the cause of death “consumption” is an important clue to the events leading to a tragedy. Consumption (also known as the “White Plague” and the “romantic disease” in reference to the high mortality rate among young and middle age adults during that time period) is a medical term used in the 19th century for symptoms known today as tuberculosis, an infectious disease that commonly affects the lungs. At the time of Peter’s death, tuberculosis was widespread in Europe and North America, highly contagious as the population density and poor sanitary conditions of cities created a high risk environment, and deadly because there were no adequate treatments.
“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero
We are inherently compelled to search for long dead relatives. Many thousands of years ago, when humans began living in large settlements, they searched for connections to a trusted tribal group through common ancestry, eventually the practice evolved into a means of establishing links to prominent or heroic figures in order to validate social status. Today, a primary motivation is an instinctive desire to better understand who we are and how far we’ve come.
Finding Peter has answered some of those questions, but there are still missing pieces to the puzzle, and as so often happens, the answers have led to more questions. The Finding Peter Research Project, therefore, remains ongoing. Will update you with any new findings.
In the meantime, best of luck with your own family history research. Listed below are online resources I found helpful in tracing Peter Reinshagen from Germany to the US. If you have questions about the Finding Peter Research Project, would be happy to try to answer, and would enjoy learning about your family research projects as well.
Read about the German immigrant ship, SS Mosel,
and Peter’s transatlantic voyage route HERE.
“German Immigration” US Immigration and Migration Library Reference, US History in Context
Wikipedia: Remscheid, Berg House, German History, Prussia, Thirty Years’ War, German Americans, Adelsverein, Reconstruction Era, Rutherford B. Hayes, Second Industrial Revolution, History of Tuberculosis
Family Search website (free online search of a large collection of genealogical and historical records)
US census research information: Genealogy FAQs
The National Archives and Records Administration “Resources for Genealogists”
Texas State Library & Archives Commission: Genealogy Resources & Online Public Access Catalog
St. John’s Lutheran Church website – History/”Church Archives” page
How To Make a Family Tree, the National Genealogical Society – References for Researching, a step-by-step tutorial
20 Reasons Why You Should Write Your Family History, by Carmen Nigro, New York Public Library (February 9, 2015)
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Feature photo is courtesy of Brian Mann/Unsplash CC0