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.