My father’s father was transferred from New York to San Francisco during the depression. When I moved to New York City, I felt powerfully connected to its diverse immigrant culture, but I never thought of trying to figure out where and when my ancestors lived there.
Recently I found my Scottish and Irish 2x great-grandparents, James Inglis, the seaman, and Annie Corliss, mother of 9, living in the tenements on Cherry Street near the port of New York. These were my father’s ancestors on his mother’s side. I felt inspired by a photograph of Annie to take her Irish spirit of triumph over adversity into my soul.
Because it has become fashionable to be interested in things Irish, I began my ancestor research there. In fact, I am more German (3/8) than I am Irish (3/16). As I have delved into my German ancestry, I realized that being German became a cause for shame in both the First and Second World Wars. German language newspapers were banned, Germans were interned, people hated Germans, and many Germans changed their names.
As a child I learned to create mock battles against “krauts,” not suspecting that I was one. As an adult, I have often said that I am glad my German ancestors left Germany long before Hitler came to power. We did not eat German foods or attend a German church, and no one I knew ever spoke about the old country or expressed pride in being German.
I was surprised to read recently that more Americans have German ancestry than any other, and to learn that parts of New York and Brooklyn were known as “Little Germany” in second half of the 19th century.
My father’s grandfather George Christ died when my grandfather John Irving was a baby. The only thing my father could remember being told about his grandfather is that he was a tailor, that he emigrated from Bremen or Hamburg, and that he was a socialist.
In fact, my research showed that George Christ, the tailor, was born in 1863 in Brooklyn. He appears on the 1880 census living with his widowed mother, Mary; the occupation of both is “working on vests” (tailoring). George Christ married Catherine Eiloff (Iloff), also German, in 1883; he died in 1895 of tuberculosis after an illness of about a year. George left 5 children, 2 of whom died in the next few years. I imagine my great-grandmother Catherine nursing a husband who was throwing up blood during her pregnancy. I wonder how she managed.
One answer must be that my father’s great-grandmother Anna Maria Christ helped out. There are two clues in the family memory that my grandfather had a close relationship with his grandmother. One is my father’s memory that his father “tailored” a pair of slacks for him to wear to his wedding. The other is that I inherited two pieces of needlework that my father said his grandfather made, having learned to sew from his grandmother.
When I found George Christ and his mother “working on vests” in 1880 and verified through other records that he was born in the US, I realized that it was his parents who may have emigrated from Germany because they were socialists. Working backward, I found that there was only one male Christ of the appropriate age who died in the greater New York area between 1863 when George was born and when he appears on the census with his widowed mother. His name was Thomas; he died in 1863 of a stroke at age 51 when his son George was a baby.
Thomas Christ, farmer, and Anna M. Hemmerline arrived in New York on the ship Hermann from Hamburg in 1849.
They might indeed have had socialist leanings as they left after the revolutions of 1848. They brought with them bedding and one chest. Many of us assume that our European ancestors all came through Ellis Island. In fact Ellis Island opened in 1892. I thought Thomas and Anna M. came through Castle Garden in the Battery until I learned that it opened in 1855. For several decades prior to that ships transporting immigrants were required only to submit a list of the persons arriving to customs.*
I was unsuccessful finding Thomas and Anna M. in German birth and baptism records (many of which were destroyed in the wars) until a chance conversation revealed that Anna M.’s name might be Haemmerle, a name found in Switzerland and southern Germany. Haemmerle means small hammer and was the name of silversmiths, goldsmiths, and the makers of small pistols. This detail would provide a clue about what was in the chest Thomas and Anna M. brought with them from Germany. Anna Maria Haemmerle was baptized in 1823 in the Roman Catholic church in Hirschau, a small village near Tubingen in Wurttemburg, southern Germany. Ancestors on her father’s side can be traced back to the 1600s, all baptized in the same church. Her mother Gertrud Zimmerman’s birth records were not found in the Hirschau church or anywhere else in Germany. Zimmerman means wood worker or carpenter; it could be a Jewish name, which would explain the lack of baptismal records.
Thomas and Mary “Crist” lived in Bushwick in 1850. Mary and James or Thomas “Grist” appear on the 1855 and 1860 censuses living in Brooklyn with a son Conrad, born in 1851, who does not appear again in relation to the family. In 1862 Thomas Christ is taxed for owning a 2 horse carriage and 144 pieces of silver. Owning a 2 horse carriage is a sign of prosperity; Thomas may have been working as a carriage driver. I suspect that the 144 pieces of silver were made by the Haemmerle family in Hirschau and were brought to the US in the chest. It must have been quite a shock when Thomas died just as things seemed to be looking up for the family.
When Thomas and Anna M. settled there, the Bushwick-Williamsburg area of Brooklyn was rapidly becoming the second “Little Germany” of greater New York. German was spoken in shops and churches, German newspapers were read, money was deposited in German banks, and German beer gardens and social and political clubs provided a sense of community. When he died in 1895, George was buried in Most Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church,** which was featured in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. This church followed the Latin mass but the sermons and confessions were in German. Almost all of the addresses where Anna M. lived were within a few blocks of this church. She must have gone there every Sunday and stopped in often to pray to the Blessed Virgin for help with her daily struggles. Anna M. was 39 when George was born; he may have been her only surviving child. Surely there were others who died at birth or in childhood. A lot of candles must have been lit in the church.
Thomas Christ from Bavaria was naturalized in 1858. Anna M. Christ from Wurttemburg was naturalized in 1860. It was unusual for women to become naturalized because they could not vote and assumed the citizenship of their husbands.
Anna M.’s decision to be naturalized in her own right indicates to me that she had a strong sense of self. Does this reflect “socialist” ideas? After her husband died, Anna M. learned a trade and supported herself and her son as a single mother. She did not live with her son after he married: she maintained her own residence through the 1880s and until her death in 1907. She died of natural causes at age 73, leaving an estate valued at $350 or $8000 today. The bulk of this estate may have been the silver she brought with her from Hirshau.
I have been looking for many things in my ancestry research. One of them is a strong, independent—and possibly even feminist– female ancestor. I think I found her. I am sorry Anna M. Christ did not live long enough to vote. Next time I vote, I will vote for her. I will think of her family in Hirschau when I polish my silver.
*The picture shows immigrant arrivals in 1848, with the Castle Garden building in the background.
*Most Holy Trinity Church was rebuilt twice in Anna M.’s lifetime due to expanding membership. The photograph was taken shortly after the consecration of the 3rd church in 1885.
Note: Three years on many of the details of the story I told here are wrong. One thing remains the same: Anna Maria’s incredible spirit. In March 2016 I was informed that the Hirschau connection was wrong. This led me to discover that Anna Maria Hemmerlein was born in Stettfeld in Northern Bavaria and Thomas in nearby Unterpreppach. This means that our Anna M. Hemmelein is not the one who was naturalized in her own right. My DNA results show no Jewish ancestry. And the story of the two-horse carriage and 144 pieces of silver belongs to a Thomas Christy who lived in a different part of Brooklyn and whose name was incorrectly transcribed without the “y.” See my update, Finding Bavarian Ancestors.
Carol P. Christ has recently returned from the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she led through Ariadne Institute. It is not too early to sign up for the spring or fall pilgrimages for 2014. Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference. Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. For her ancestor connection is an integral part of gratitude for Life.