Family Stories – Can You Separate Fact from Fiction?

In my previous post, I investigated a story that sounded a bit suspicious. After a simple search, I confirmed that the family legend was…well exactly that, a legend.

I decided to look a bit further into the actual “facts” published about Joel Blackwell. The first thing I noticed was that birth and death dates for a Joel Blackwell living in Rutherford, North Carolina in 1810 were inconsistent. Apparently there were two people with the same name living similar lives during the same time period.

The historical society made many assumptions and then entered those ideas into some books about one man named Joel Blackwell. As one researcher told me, “There are two different Joel Blackwells and no one bothered to separate them into two different men. Therefore, most of the books in print are incorrect.” In this case, even the experts got it wrong.

Unless you have hard proof such as real documentation, consider the family stories and trees a good starting point and investigate further.

Daniel Blackwell – Dismantling the Building Brick by Brick

Daniel Blackwell tore the original State Line Baptist Church down brick by brick after he was dismissed from the congregation for making whiskey. The congregants became tired of his loud, disruptive alcoholic behavior and the whiskey production was his final offense. The elders felt that he committed a serious misdeed so they banned him from entering the church. Daniel didn’t like this judgement and took revenge.

I thought that this story sounded questionable and decided to search for additional details.

According to a few documents, the original State Line Baptist Church was built on the property of and belonged to my husband’s 5th great-grandfather’s brother, Joel Blackwell. Mr. Blackwell purchased the property from J. W. Camp. The only other item that is clear is that Joel was a congregant of the church. Some legends claim that he was a lay Baptist minister who built the church himself. One fallacy to the story that is easily to prove as incorrect is the material that was used to build the structure. It has been recorded in the Heritage of Rutherford County, NC Vol. I that the first church was not made out of bricks at all but was instead built from logs.

Single room log church

Single room log church

In another version of the story from the same book, it was Joel and not his son Daniel that destroyed the church log by log while in a drunken rage. Furthermore, Daniel was charged by the church for making whiskey but he was not kicked out.

Papers show that Joel did indeed own the property and then upon his death, he left the property to his son Daniel.

Since these stories and others like them cannot be proven, they should only be documented as family lore.

If a family story sounds a little bit too good or too suspicious to be true, it’s nice to know that often times, we have the tools at our fingertips to help separate fact from fiction.


Moshe Bernfeld – Part 3: Resilience in the Face of Adversity

As I continued my  research* of Moshe Bernfeld, I realized that his life was constantly filled with challenges and sadness. He experienced persecution, the death of his future father-in-law right before his wedding, the untimely death of his young wife, poverty, a lawsuit, and shattered dreams. Yet despite his struggle, he remained committed to his goals. His resilience in the face of adversity is a powerful lesson.

Moshe wanted to make a difference in the world. Every time a door shut, he tried to open another. He encountered so many roadblocks in his life but he persevered, never ever giving up.

His dream was to enrich the lives of children through education. In the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, he made several attempts to open a school. During this time period, schools focused on religious education. Moshe wanted the curriculum to include more general secular studies. He had heard of a new type of school that was set up by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and he wanted to model a school after his philosophy. Rabbi Hirsch’s school included subjects such as music, literature, art, philosophy, natural science and ethics.

In 1868, a few days after Moshe decided to open a school, a fire broke out in his hometown of Tysmienica. At 1:45 p.m., as the family was having lunch, the alarm bells rang on the eastern side of town. Moshe’s family lived on the western side. The day was humid and the strong wind spread the fire to the inner part of the city.

Most of the streets consisted of wooden houses that burned like tinder. Within a few hours, a large part of the city was up in flames. The marketplace as well as town hall were on fire. Eventually, the family heard the sound of the town hall tower fall to the ground.

As the fire appeared to be moving in a western direction and closer to the Bernfeld family home, Moshe became worried and started moving their belongings to a field. Throughout the evening, he ran back and forth from his home to the field. He brought clothing, linens, bedding and books to safety. His wife, Serke stayed in the house to guard their other things. They were concerned that someone might take advantage of the situation and rob them.

Moshe stopped moving their belongings around midnight because he became too exhausted to continue. Although the fire was getting closer to his street it was still a distance away. Eventually the flames were extinguished by firemen from Lviv and elsewhere but unfortunately, much of the city was destroyed.

The Bernfeld’s were fortunate that their home was saved from any damage. However, after the fire occurred, it was too difficult for Moshe to start the school and he had to postpone his plans.

His next opportunity to get involved with a newly established school happened about a year later. A friend, Hillel Kahana had recently started a school in Romania and asked Moshe if he would teach there. When Moshe’s mother found out, she begged him to stay in Stanislawow. He honored her request and did not accept the job offer. She died that winter. After her death, Moshe contacted Mr. Kahana but the position was no longer available.

In 1871, after returning home from a lengthy teaching job in Russia, Moshe once again decided to set up a school in the area where he was working. He received an advanced payment of several hundred rubles. The money was given to him to relocate from Tysmienica to Russia. But his wife did not want to live in Russia so the opportunity fell through and he gave the money back.

By 1872, Moshe was still unable to fulfill his dream and decided to alter his plan. He moved with his family to Lviv, a large city which offered a better opportunity. In Lviv, he became a private teacher. Parents would hire him to teach their sons. His house also became well-known as a center for adult learning. People came from all over the city to learn.

In the near future, I hope to find out if Moshe ever came closer to achieving his original plan. There are additional pages that need to be translated from his son’s autobiography.

Moshe’s memory lives on through his legacy of education. He taught many students who in turn went on to become great thinkers and educators in their time.

*From the autobiography of Rabbi Simon Bernfeld found in Reshumot (Tel Aviv 1926) vol. 4.

Wikimedia Commons – National Archives Records and Administration – A Future Gold Mine Resource

There’s a wonderful resource called Wikimedia Commons. It’s a database with over 21,000,000 freely usable media files which include images, sounds and videos.

The focus of this post is Wikimedia Common’s National Archives Records and Administration (NARA) page. NARA recently made an announcement that it will be uploading all of its holdings to the Wikimedia Commons page. I decided to learn more about this resource and would like to share some of the items that I found.

The following are just a few of their many interesting topics:

“Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War” by Alexander Gardner

195 Civil War photos are included in this series.

Officers at Headquarters, Army of the Potomac Fairfax, Virginia 1865

Officers at Headquarters, Army of the Potomac
Fairfax, Virginia 1863

Headquarters of the army of the Potomac during the Battle of Gettysburg

Headquarters of the army of the Potomac during the Battle of Gettysburg 1863

Petersburg, Virginia Army Forge

Petersburg, Virginia Army Forge 1864

The photograph above shows a group of military personnel preparing to shoe a horse in the camp’s temporary blacksmith shop.

Alexander Gardner’s “Portraits of Tribal Delegations to the Federal Government” compiled 1872

These photos are of North American Indians representing various tribes.

Daughter of Gap in the Salt - Comanche tribe

Daughter of Gap in the Salt – Comanche 1872

Jose Pacati - Yuma Indians 1872

Jose Pacati – Yuma Indians 1872

Afraid Of The Bear-Ma-To-Ko-Kepa  Cut Head, Sioux Reservation 1872

Afraid Of The Bear-Ma-To-Ko-Kepa
Cut Head, Sioux Reservation 1872

Personal papers from John F. Kennedy and his family

Rose Kennedy's letter to her children

Rose Kennedy’s letter to her children

Presidential Letters 1789-1875

Letter to James Madison Announcing the Surrender of Louisiana to the United States by France - 1803

Letter to James Madison announcing the surrender of Louisiana to the United States by France – 1803

Stereographs of the Civil War, compiled 1861 – 1865

General Grant (bending over the bench)

General Grant (bending over the bench)

The photo above piqued my interest and I wanted to learn more about it. The passage below is an explanation of the photo. An enhanced image follows.

This view shows “General Grant’s Council of War” in the field near Massaponax Church, VA., May 21, 1864. The pews or benches have been brought out under the trees, and the officers are gathered to discuss the situation. It has been a disastrous day for the Union troops; the losses have been heavy, with nothing apparently gained. General Grant is bending over the bench looking over General Meade’s shoulder at a map which is held in Meade’s lap. The Staff Officers are grouped around under the trees; the orderlies are seen in the background; the ambulances and baggage wagons can also be seen in the background.

Enhanced image - General Grant talking to General Meade  May 21, 1864

Enhanced image – General Grant talking to General Meade
May 21, 1864

Files on Project Mercury, compiled 1952 – 1968

Fact Sheet-Astronaut John Glenn's Space Mission - 1962

Fact sheet-Astronaut John Glenn’s space mission – 1962

Photographs of FBI personnel and activities taken during the tenure of J. Edgar Hoover

George G. Liddy aka G. Gordon Liddy   Special Agent - 1964

George G. Liddy aka G. Gordon Liddy
Special Agent – 1964

G. Gordon Liddy had a talk show in Washington, D.C. as well as a very colorful past which included participation in the Watergate scandal.

Currently, NARA has over 100,000 uploads of material specifically selected to appeal to a broad audience. The goal is to upload everything. That’s great news for people participating in family history research as well as history enthusiasts. I’m looking forward to another promising resource.

Madison School – Bridgeport, Connecticut 1935

MadisonSchool Bridgeport, Connecticut

Madison School – Bridgeport, Connecticut

What became of the sweet school boys with the mischievous sparkle in their eyes?

Or the girls, so modest and refined.

Did they go off to war?

Did they succeed, have families, travel the world?

The journey of life is filled with surprises.

I hope they found what they were looking for.

Joseph Simon Frankel: 1742-1815

Joseph Simon, my 4th great grandfather and his son Michael Joseph were hospital administrators at the Bettenhausen Jewish Hospital, located in Hesse, Germany. The hospital serviced the community from 1740 to 1880. It operated as a charitable organization and was funded through donations. The establishment was set up to take care of the poor who did not have money to pay for their medical expenses. They also arranged burials.

Michael Joseph Frankel family document which includes his occupation (Hospitalverwalter) hospital administrator  Courtesy D. Gotthelf

Michael Joseph Frankel’s family document which includes his occupation (Hospitalverwalter) hospital administrator
Courtesy D. Gotthelf

One of their tasks as hospital administrators was visiting the civil registry office to sign records in the metric books. Their names are found on many of the Kassel and Bettenhausen records.

The vital records were written so that the name of each witness was mentioned one time within the document and then every person signed it. When I looked at the 1808 Bettenhausen metric book, the very first record jumped out at me because Joseph Simon’s full name was written twice and the name Simon was written an additional time. As I continued to look at other pages, I saw that his name was only mentioned once per record.

Death record for Joseph Simon's wife, Schoenchen with his signature  - 1808

Part of the death record for Joseph Simon’s wife, Schoenchen with his signature – 1808

I knew that something out of the ordinary was contained within this record and decided to have it translated. Andreas Schwab, a biomedical scientist generously volunteered his time to help me understand the document. He translated it from German to English.

The translation is below. It was translated as the document was written in 1808.

Death certificate in the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, on the eight and twentieth day of the month of May at two o’clock in the afternoon appeared before me, the mayor John Jungblut, as civil official of the Jews of the municipality of Bettenhausen in the Canton of Unterwalden of Fulda Department, the Jewish almoner Joseph Simon, sixty-seven years old, and his son and adjunct Michel Joseph, twenty eight years old, his occupation a peddler, both from Bettenhausen, who declared that the Jewish woman Schoenchen Simon nee Nathan from Bettenhausen, sixty-eight years old, had died in the year one thousand eight hundred and eight and the twenty-eighth day of the month of May at twelve o’clock noon in the dwelling number 1145 at the Israelite Hospital in Bettenhausen, that she was born in Allendorf [Eder] in [Hesse] Darmstadt, her father had the surname Nathan and had been a cattle dealer; that she had been married twice, namely after the death of her first husband with the above-mentioned Jewish almoner Joseph Simon in Bettenhausen; about the first name of her father, the first and last names of her parents, the occupation and the name of her first husband, and finally about the residence of all of these people they could not give any information. After I convinced myself of the death of the above by [visual?] inspection, I issued this death certificate and entered it into the dual registers with identical wording, and, after reading it, signed it together with the two declarants, the first being the spouse and the other the stepson of the deceased. So happened in Bettenhausen on the day and year as above.

John Jungblut Meier

Joseph Simon

Michel Joseph

This record enabled me to learn some new details about Joseph Simon. The document was a death record for Joseph Simon’s second wife, Schoenchen. Up to this point, I never came across a record indicating that Simon Joseph remarried. His first wife, Gidel Mayer died in 1784, a few days after she gave birth to my 3rd great grandfather, Seligmann. Joseph Simon’s second wife went by the name Schoenchen Simon which means that she took on his patronymic name, ‘Simon’ from Joseph son of Simon (Joseph Simon).

I also learned that the last name Frankel was adopted by the family some time after the 1808 Napoleon decree and was not a family name that was passed down. In this record as well as others in 1808, Joseph Simon and his son Michael Joseph do not sign using a surname. They started signing documents with their new last name in the beginning of 1809.

The record also confirmed that a headstone assumed to be Joseph Simon’s was indeed his.

Joseph Simon’s title in this record was an almoner, specifically defining his job as someone who helped people in the hospital with their financial needs and social issues. However, he has also been found in other records with the title, hospital nurse. Michael Joseph’s title in this record is peddler. This is interesting because all the other records, including the family tree above, indicate that he was an administrator at the hospital. He is also mentioned in a detailed document regarding his affiliation with the hospital.

As I continued to uncover information about Joseph Simon and Michael Joseph, new clues led to additional resources. Eventually an article was located that provided in-depth information about the hospital. The piece mentioned that the Frankel family originated from Fürth, Germany and that three generations of the family worked at the hospital in Bettenhausen. At this point, I have not found evidence supporting the claim that the Frankel family were natives of Fürth, so the search for the Frankel’s continues.

Could You Pass the United States Citizenship Test?

During this 4th of July weekend, American’s are celebrating their liberty, freedom and independence. I am proud to be both an American as well as the child of a father who served in World War II and the Korean War. Growing up in a patriotic home positively influenced my love for my country. I have great admiration and appreciation for my ancestors who gave up so much to seek out the American dream.

During the 19th and early 20th century, when many of our ancestors immigrated to America, the process for US citizenship was relatively simple. The greatest amount of stress at that time was making it to the American shores and then passing the initial screening after entering ports such as Castle Garden and Ellis Island.

In order to become a citizen, a foreign national had to fill out an application. Once it was processed, he would declare on oath before an open court his intent to become a law abiding citizen and to follow the US Constitution. In addition, he had to renounce his foreign citizenship.

Today, it is not as simple to become an American citizen. One of the requirements is to take a U.S. Naturalization Test in English. Below are some sample questions from

Could you pass the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test? Applicants must answer 6 of 10 questions correctly (out of 100 different possible questions). These sample questions were taken from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services official website:

1. How many amendments does the Constitution have?

2. What is the economic system in the United States?

3. Name your U.S. Representative.

4. What are two Cabinet-level positions?

5. Who is the Chief Justice of the United States now?

6. Who lived in America before the Europeans arrived?

7. The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name ONE of the writers.

8. What is ONE thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for?

9. Before he was President, Eisenhower was a general. What war was he in?

10. What did Susan B. Anthony do?

See the answers below:

1. 27; 2. capitalist economy/market economy; 3. answers will vary; 4. Any two: Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Education, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Secretary of Homeland Security, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Labor, Secretary of State, Secretary of Transportation, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Attorney General, Vice President; 5. John Roberts; 6. Native Americans/American Indians; 7. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Publius; 8. U.S. diplomat, oldest member of the Constitutional Convention, first Postmaster General of the United States, writer of “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” started the first free libraries; 9. World War II; 10. fought for women’s rights/fought for civil rights.

Good Luck!