A WOMAN’S PLACE IN THE LINEAGE was written by Gretchen Elsner-Sommer for publication in Roots Web’s Genealogy Journal Vol. 6, No. 5. 31 January 2001
It is the women who most interest me as I follow back my family
line. The trouble is that by tradition ancestral histories run
alongside the men. The girls are often either left out entirely
or isolated on an unconnected sidebar. Through the years I’ve
probably looked at hundreds of family charts, first in school
history books of English and Russian dynasties and later charts
from my own family and many others. I always notice the names of
daughters and sisters who are only listed with a birth date,
their futures forgotten, not even the day of their death
In my own research, I had run into a snag. The only information
I was able to find about my paternal great-great-grandmother was
her maiden name and her birthday, 8 January 1829. This I gleaned
from her 1852 marriage papers in Mannheim, Germany. As I
searched one source after another trying to locate more facts
about her life, I began to realize that she was one of those
women I had often seen and tried to imagine — somebody’s
daughter or sister — a very short line in a family tree. My
great-great-grandmother had a very visible place in my family
tree. By her husband’s side, she stood atop a long line of
children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. There quietly,
she passed on no clues as to who she was outside this marriage.
Her relationships, whatever they were, would have left their
impressions on her as she began a new life in 1852 as a wife and
soon thereafter a mother. Unlike her husband’s background, a
view into her world was inaccessible to those who followed her.
I had to find the family that had given birth to her and then
over the next 175 years forgot her. In my mind’s eye, I could
see a well-documented chart with a little branch on it. The
branch contained her name, birth date, and a view of the world
that had shaped her. I knew her maiden name was von GERICHTEN
and I knew that family research was strong in America. I also
knew that my English was a lot better than my German. So from
my sister, who is an “ace” on the Internet, I got a list of the
names and address of 14 von GERICHTEN families in the U.S.A.
I wrote to each of them giving a brief description of what I
knew and asking for help.
Within a week, I received a long fax with a chart that was
interesting but I couldn’t quite make a connection. Within 10
days, I received two of my postcards with the names of von
GERICHTEN family members I should contact. The next day, before
I could contact these people, I received in the mail a business-
size envelope that I could tell contained many sheets of paper.
The name on the return address was von GERICHTEN but it wasn’t
from someone to whom or even a state to which I had sent a
letter nor was it one suggested on my returned postcards.
Before I even opened the envelope I sat with it in my hand for a
few minutes. I knew what it contained — a family tree, a long,
well-documented family tree that many people had carefully added
to, enlarged, and maybe even computerized over the years. I knew
it also contained a little branch, broken off almost 200 years
ago, a branch to which no one had paid attention, a branch with
my great-great-grandmother’s name on it.