Greetings. I hope my summer hiatus from writing hasn’t killed off what little readership I have. I know I said that in a previous post that my work ethic was virtually non-existent during the summer months, but that’s not 100% factual. I have been working, sometimes feverishly. Just not on this blog. On what? You are justified in asking.
On my family history. The Big Summer Project has been scanning, digitizing, and organizing the thousands of family pictures that have come into my possession over the years. Doing this has also revived my periodic interest in genealogy.
Say what you will about obsessing over the Magic: The Gathering or the minutiae of Harry Potter, but exploring genealogy truly outranks them in sheer nerdiness. It’s the hobby of Mormons and retired people (nothing against those folks, it’s just that they’re not your go-to for cutting-edge activities). But I suppose I’m one of them. The only lower rung on the hobby ladder is metal-detecting. Maybe next summer.
As someone with the last name of Isenhower, I have been subjected repeatedly to the well-meaning but irritating question “Any relation to the President?” These instances are diminishing greatly since those with any knowledge that there had once been a President Eisenhower are rapidly dying off. “No, it’s spelled differently,” I would always say.
Out in the retail world, I had a little routine. If there was an older person manning the counter, I would observe them always checking the “E’s” first when I would go to pick up a prescription or my developed film. (The fact that I once picked up developed film is itself evidence that I, too, am heading into the “older person” zone.) I would let them look, and allow them to give me a puzzled, apologetic shrug, before I told them, with exaggerated patience as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “Check the I’s.”
Yes, I was kind of an ass.
My parents would always say up front, “Isenhower-with-an-‘I’,” as if that were the full name. They had to deal with it much more than I ever have. Almost no one goes to the E’s first anymore. It’s kind of a relief, as I no longer have the energy to direct random maliciousness toward retail clerks. (Almost. Randy at Wingstop, there’s almost no chance you’re reading this, but you’re an idiot and you annoy me to no end.)
Despite the different spellings, I discovered several years ago that yes, in fact, I am related to former U.S. President and Supreme Allied Commander of the European Theater of World War II Dwight D. Eisenhower. I’ll explain how in a moment.
The following section of text was found recently in a forgotten My Documents file-in-a-file-in-a-file in a dusty corner of my hard drive — a Word document pieced together in stages from 2003 to 2008 or so during times when I caught the genealogy bug. I can’t claim total authorship. Some of the writing sounds like me, some assuredly does not, and I’ve forgotten what I typed out and what was cut-and-pasted from several different sources. So with that disclaimer, here’s the History of Isenhower-with-an-I:
According to tradition, early generations of the Eisenhauer family were horse-mounted warriors in the service of Charlemagne (768-814), living in a hilly farming region of southern Germany known as the Odenwald, on the banks of the Rhine River.
During the years 773-795, reports were given of a massive ore mine situated right in the midst of the Odenwald, and even in modern times iron ore has been mined there. A picture dating from the early 18th century shows the primitive way iron and ore were exploited. The man below in the pit of the mine who breaks off the iron ore is the eisenhauer (iron-cutter). Derived from this professional term, the family name developed. Being a small municipality, the Odenwald was frequently overrun by rulers of more powerful countries, resulting in its people being oppressed and deprived of religious, personal and political liberty. Equally disruptive was the fact that in this locale beginning in the early 1600s, the population was about evenly divided between Catholics and the new Protestant Lutherans, with intense religious strife from time to time, including home and church burnings, business disruption, and mob violence.
The line of American Eisnhauers is from Eiterbach, a small village northeast of Heidelberg. In the 1600’s, William Penn made several trips to Germany to convince German farmers to emigrate to his new North American colony, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was filled with merchants and craftsmen, but very short on farmers. Penn founded his colony on the principles of the Society of Friends religion — the Quakers. The Quakers and Mennonites had many similarities. (The Amish, still common in rural Pennsylvania, are an offshoot of the Mennonites.)
Hans Nicholas Eisenhauer (c.1691-c.1760), a native of Eiterbach like his father before him, had moved his family from place to place, avoiding religious persecution and ongoing border skirmishes with the French. It seems he made his home for a time in both Switzerland and the Netherlands. Unable to establish a permanent farming homestead, he supported his family as a weaver and lumberman — and occasionally a reluctant soldier.
William Penn’s message of peace, religious freedom, and fertile farmland to be found in Pennsylvania outlived the man himself, and continued to find a receptive audience in war-weary Mennonites. Mennonites who emigrated from Germany in the 18th century, typically went down the Rhine River by raft or flat boat to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where they embarked on English ships that then stopped briefly in England before proceeding to Philadelphia.
This relatively inexpensive and easily-managed route of emigration was the result of an agreement between the British monarchs King William & Queen Mary of Orange and William Penn. This was, in modern terms, a rescue effort for minorities who were being “ethnically cleansed.” William, who was originally Dutch, sympathized with the Protestant exiles, but not enough to want to keep them in England. The emigrants had to agree to take an Oath of Allegiance to the English Crown before proceeding on their journey.
In the fall of 1741, Hans Nicholas and family followed this route aboard the ship Europa. According to The Eisenhower Family by Betty White (!?), the passenger manifest of the Europa listed 44 adult male passengers — including “Hans Nicol Josshower (Iron cutter)” and sons — embarking from Rotterdam, Holland with Captain Ludsaine as the ship’s master. (Women and children were regarded more as cargo and not included on passenger lists.) They had a rough arrival in America on November 17, 1741. The Europa ran aground in the port at Lewes, Delaware and sank. Captain Lusdaine and a cabin boy drowned but “the 120 souls on board” were saved and transported to Philadelphia by boat, where they took the Oath of Allegiance three days later. Hans Nicholas settled and lived the rest of his life in and around Bethel Township, Pennsylvania, about twenty-five miles to the east of what would be the state’s modern-day capital, Harrisburg.
OK, back to words I know are my own…Much of the information I’m relating to you comes from a 1717 edition of the “Martin Luther Family Bible,” carefully brought over on the Europa by Hans Nichoals, with a handwritten family history on the cover, inscribed by an unknown hand sometime later in the 1700s. It is currently in the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, KS.
Hans’ son, Johann Peter Eisenhauer (1716-1802), was a blacksmith, gunsmith, and prominent merchant and landowner of Bethel Township, Pennsylvania, where he also served as constable. He married three times and fathered seventeen children through the course of his long and remarkable life. He is the common ancestor of both Your Humble Narrator and the revered General and President.
He became a naturalized British subject in 1752, but when the American colonies declared independence in 1776, he was firmly on the side of the revolutionaries. He was one of the few local merchants who provided supplies for General Washington’s troops during their legendarily harsh winter camp at nearby Valley Forge. (“Two bushels of wheat and some forage” according to a surviving invoice.) His eldest son Peter (may have) fought the British (or, more likely, their Indian allies) as a part of the guerrilla group Paxton Rangers, and another son, Frederick, was killed at the Battle of Germantown.
Spelling, especially the spelling of names, was pretty fluid before the 19th century, which can be confusing for amateur genealogists. Around the time of the Revolution, Johann Peter began frequently spelling his name “Eisenhower” as opposed to the earlier “Eisenhauer.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower was descended from Johann Peter’s seventeenth and final child (another Frederick) sired by ol’ J.P. when he was 78. The Holy Bee was descended from Johann Peter’s eldest son, the aforementioned…
Peter Eisenhauer (1745-1778), like his brother Frederick, did not survive the Revolutionary War. The date and place of his death correspond to an incident called the Wyoming Valley Massacre, where British-allied Native Americans and local Loyalists (colonists who remained loyal to Britain) attacked a group made up largely of the unruly frontier troublemakers called the Paxton Rangers (or variants thereof.) At times, the Rangers could generously be called a rough-hewn militia supporting the independence movement, but usually they were hard-living, destructive, Indian-killing thugs. (Peter fit right in. There are written accounts of he and a guy named Frederick Stump hacking up Indians by the bushel in 1768-9.) Records confirm Peter’s death took place at this time and place, but Revolutionary War records do not list his name among the official dead. It is not known if Peter was actually fighting “off the books” as a Paxton Ranger or with another militia group, or was just passing through and got caught up in the action, but he died along with 340 others in that obscure little river valley in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Peter Isenhower (1812-1881), who, like so many men of his generation, decided the eastern states of the young nation were already getting a little too crowded, and packed up his family and headed West. He moved through Carroll County, Missouri in 1851, and ended up in Steuben County, Indiana by 1859. It’s this clown we all have to thank for the endless name-spelling trauma we would be forced to endure as a result of his seemingly arbitrary decision to drop the first “E” from the family name sometime during his journey west. (If things really run in families, he was probably dodging a creditor or irate mistress.)
Peter gave us Benjamin Isenhower (1835-1909) who lingered back east until about the time of the Civil War, then he and his young family joined his parents in Indiana, where he was a hardware store owner (and occasional postmaster) in the town of Ray.
Benjamin fathered James Culder Isenhower (1859-1928), who has the distinction of being the first Isenhower to settle in Iowa — specifically, Tama County, Iowa, which remains the “Isenhower-with-an-I” capital of the world to this day. Swing a dead cat in the county seat of Toledo, and you’ll probably hit an Isenhower. (This is not recommended.)
And wonders never cease, I’ve produced two more “Isenhowers-with-an-I”‘s, one in 1998 and another in 2000. Odds are, that name will continue for at least a couple more generations, but those who look for it under “E” will be gone altogether, and we “I” types will be persecuted no more.
So there it is. The Charlemagne stuff seems a little far-fetched, but I’ll leave it in. (You can excuse any old bullshit with the phrase “according to tradition.”)
If you want to explore genealogy, it’s easy and no one has to know. It’ll be our little secret. Just download yourself some free family tree-making software. I recommend Legacy. If you want to pony up some cash, you can get the full version with some extra features, but the free version is just fine for most users (including myself.) Start plugging in what you know. Once you get beyond the facts you know about your parents and grandparents, it’s time for research.
1) Ask questions of your elderly relatives. I know this makes your hobby no longer secret, but your elderly relatives will not judge you the same way your jackass friends will. Your elderly relatives will probably be delighted (unless there’s some shameful family secret, which is always worth finding out.) Be prepared to pay a personal visit or talk on the phone, as your elderly relative may not be “on the e-mail.” And be prepared to cross-reference and ask others, as an elderly relative’s memory for places and dates may not have its former bite. They may not remember their parents’ anniversary or where their late brother was born, but they’ll remember that Great-Uncle Alec smoked Hav-A-Tampas, and the cold snap that killed their begonias, and what they wore to third cousin Ida’s wedding (everyone knew it wouldn’t last, as Ida had a wandering eye and the fellow she married was a plow-blade salesman who was on the road a good part of the year, and a good Baptist, but not a Reformed Baptist, etc. etc. until you start sneaking peeks at your watch). Precious memories, but not much good for filling in your family tree software.
2) Use the internet. If you go to the various family tree websites (Ancestry.com, Familysearch.org, and several others) armed with some names and dates of great-great-grandparents, you are bound to find some information on your ancestors, even if your family is totally non-noteworthy and unremarkable. I lucked out in sharing ancestry with a president, but I’ve found material on all branches of my family.
A word of warning: Much of the information may be wrong. If one person entered a wrong date or bad guess years ago, it can and will be re-copied and re-sourced ad infintum by lazy researchers until it sounds like gospel truth. Using the material on the websites as a starting point, do as much of your own research as you can, delving deeper into online archives. If you’re patient and make some lucky mouse clicks, you can uncover new material and correct some mistakes without leaving your computer chair. (There’s always the option of actually traveling to various county offices and nosing around in the records — true original research — but most armchair genealogists can get by without that level of commitment.) But never trust the first thing you find. It’s a jumping-off point only. Mistakes and sloppiness abound. Double-check everything you get from the ‘net whenever possible.
As always, you can learn more at your local library…