THE BLOG

Where's William? Finding New Clues in Old Evidence

05/12/2015 08:50 am ET | Updated May 12, 2016

I have been researching my husband's family and have hit a roadblock. His great-great-great grandfather, William Weikert, came to America from Germany and settled in a community about 30 miles from us. I know he was born September 1817. I have a copy of his naturalization record; however, the writing is difficult to read and at the time he was naturalized, no supporting documents were required, such as affidavits or family history. I don't know where to go from here, since it's difficult to read the area in Germany he was from...I can't tell if it was Baden or Bavaria or some other province. He is recorded in Muscatine County, Iowa, as being married in 1848. They were Catholic. Any suggestions? ~ Angie

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Dear Angie,

Beginning with the information you provided, we checked records that have the best potential for leading us to William Weikert's place of origin in Germany. You may have looked into these resources, but experience tells us that it pays to revisit the information you've collected and analyze it with new eyes.

Instead of focusing entirely on William Weikert, we wanted to learn more about his family, acquaintances, and the Iowa communities where he lived. Finding details about the lives of extended family members and even neighbors can often lead us back to common ancestors shared by different individuals on their separate family trees. We also wanted to see what was going on in Germany that might have prompted him to leave for America in 1817. Immigrants were often part of a chain migration, sometimes leaving the homeland to join other family or community members who had already found a better life in the United States in a particular city or even a certain neighborhood. Understanding the push/pull migration patterns that motivated someone, often very poor, to move to an entirely new continent across the ocean is important because individuals rarely struck out on their own or headed to a specific location arbitrarily.

Most were influenced by family members or others in their community. Sometimes, we can spend a lot of time looking for a single individual and come up empty; however, looking at the bigger picture and searching for other people who were part of your ancestor's family or church or community is sometimes a very effective way to find your their origins. As a bonus, you'll learn more about your ancestors' lives along the way.

We began by looking at William's gravesite on Find A Grave. Headstones and death records can contain a surprising number of clues and bits of information about a person's ancestry. On Find A Grave, we found a photo of William's grave marker in Klein Cemetery, Moscow, Muscatine County, Iowa. In 2007, the individual who submitted the photo added that William was born in the Rhineland-Pfalz area of Germany--an area too broad to be helpful. However, it would be wise to follow this lead to see where the individual found this information and if they have found anything more precise since 2007.

At Ancestry, we found an index card for William's naturalization, but it contained very little biographical information. It does verify that he was naturalized in Muscatine, Muscatine County, Iowa, on January 10, 1859. The space provided for his "country of birth or allegiance" simply says "Germany." His witness at his naturalization was a person named J. Kaefner. If we can find out more about Kaefner's roots, this might shed some light on your ancestor's origins and family members. We found a John Kaefner in several Muscatine records that indicate that he was from Bavaria. It is certainly important for you to try to learn more about Mr. Kaefner.

In the United States, a federal census has been taken every ten years since 1790, and some states, including Iowa, took their own censuses between these decennial federal counts. We looked at all available census records on Ancestry for the time William Weikert lived in Muscatine County, beginning with the 1850 federal census. Here, William shows up as "Wm Wickert," age 34, born in Germany. He is living with his wife, Anna M. (21, born Germany); son, John (2, born Iowa); daughter, Catherine (1, born Iowa); and a Conrad Miller (16, born Germany). Someone has made a note on the Ancestry index indicating that the correct spelling should be Weickert, a clear indication that others are working on William's family.

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A detail of the 1850 federal census of the William Weikert family at Ancestry

The 1852 Iowa state census tells us only that there is a "Wm Wackart" living in Moscow, Muscatine, Iowa. The 1856 census form shows more detail: we find "William Wackart," age 40 and born in Germany, living with his wife, "Annamatte," who is 27, and four children in Moscow, Muscatine County. Looking at information provided about other individuals on the page of the 1856 census gives us a better idea of the makeup of the local population. The farmer just above William gives his birthplace as Bavaria, and several others on the page simply give Germany. Historically, rich farming lands in Iowa attracted many Germans--the second-largest immigrant group to settle in Iowa. The earliest Land Ownership Maps at Ancestry (1874) show that someone in the Weikert family owned farmland in Wilton Township, Muscatine County, from that time until the latest available map on the site (1916). It may be worthwhile looking into Iowa land deeds for more clues about William.

The 1860 federal census identifies "William Weikart," living in Wilton Township, Muscatine, Iowa. His birthplace is said to be "Bavaria/Bayern," and five children are now living with him and his wife, "Anna M."

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A detail of the 1860 federal census of the William Weikert family at Ancestry

After the censuses, we turned to a digitized book: A Portrait and Biographical Album of Muscatine County, Iowa. The book was published in 1889, well after William's death, but county histories can contain helpful clues. One of the biographical sketches that caught our eye was for Henry Lang Sr., a settler of Wilton Township. Mr. Lang was a native of Bavaria born in 1803 and who "resided in his native land until 1848." With his family, "he left his German home for Bremen, whence he sailed for Baltimore, Md. And was forty-two days on the ocean. His destination was Iowa." Of course, we can't jump to any conclusions, but these patterns could apply to William as well. He may also have been one of the famous "Forty-Eighters"--a group who had participated in the violent revolutions of 1848 (also known as "The Spring of Nations" or "The Year of Revolution"), which affected 50 nations in Europe, including Germany. Many Germans who came to America at that time were from the upper classes and well educated and as such were not typical immigrants.

The same volume mentions the "St Joseph Mutual Aid Society organized in 1859 under the German-American Roman Catholic Aid Society," which paid out $20 for funeral expenses and $3 per week for sick benefits. In some places, records like these have been preserved, and they often include birthplaces and other biographical details not found elsewhere.

The history of Muscatine County, Iowa, also includes a section about the Catholic Church in Muscatine. If you can find William Weikert's parish records in Muscatine, they could hold a wealth of clues. If that church has been closed, you may be able to learn more from the Diocese of Davenport. Other items you might find at the diocese level are old Catholic newspapers for the area, parish history booklets that list early settlers, and other unique collections that preserve the history of the Catholic Church in Muscatine County.

Perhaps the most promising clues will come from others who are researching the same family and have posted family trees and comments on Message Boards on GenForum/Genealogy.com. In 2001, an individual posted a message that she had the probate files for William Weikert who died in 1863 in Muscatine County and "information on the marriages of his children." In a message posted in 2003, she was "still looking for" the German origin of William Weikert (1816-1863) of Moscow Township. He was married to "Anna Martha Moeller (1829-1915) and descendants still live in the county." In 2010, on the same message board, another person posted: "William 'Wilhelm' Weikert, Born 18 Sept 1817 in Bavaria, Germany, died 13 March 1863 in Moscow, Iowa." She added that she "would love to exchange any information." We strongly encourage you to contact her! If nothing else, you will have an ally in your quest. Perhaps the two of you, as it turns out, will be related!

So, while we did not find William Weikert's exact origins, we believe that taking the time to follow through on some of the clues we've provided in our column will lead you to even more information and ultimately to the answer you're looking for. More information may be found in family trees, DNA results, and new German record collections at Ancestry. It might take a little time, but the journey through time and your trek through William's fascinating homeland and his times promises to be an exciting adventure!

Do you have a mystery in your own family tree? Or have you wondered what family history discoveries you could make with a DNA test? Send Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and his team of Ancestry experts your question at ask@ancestry.com.