My Family Herstory: Part One

March 1 — Do you have a favorite female ancestor? One you are drawn to or want to learn more about? Write down some key facts you have already learned or what you would like to learn and outline your goals and potential sources you plan to check.

One thing I believe to be very important when we talk about women’s history (or black history or queer history or so forth) is to remember that just as most of our voices were erased from the past, so too were the voices of the everyday person. It a good thing to recall prominent but oft overlooked historical figures, but equally important to consider how the history of women (or so forth) has impacted me. What stories would the women in my family tell had they had an opportunity?

I have done some genealogical research over the past 15 years or so and learned quite a bit about my family. Because most documents were male focused (head of household, draft and enlistment records, etc) it was easier to learn the men’s histories. But I had a stroke of insight one day when I “lost” the trail of a mother and found her again living with an adult daughter who (of course) had a different surname, that of her husband. Oh, that opened some doors for me as I went back and “worked sideways” to find where the women went as most of them outlived their husbands.

Interesting women I’ve met through genealogy

My great-great-great-grandmother Christina Johanna Remmele Born 30 Sept 1835 in Schwaigern (Germany) and emigrated to the US with her parents and siblings in 1852, settling in Watertown Ohio. Christina married William McFarland in 1861 (she was 26); he died in 1870 and they had one child together who died in infancy per the Census. Christina married a second time at age 51 to Conrad Bohl and he died in 1899.

The interesting thing is that my ancestor was Christina’s son Adam Remmele, born in 1858 when Christina was 23 and unmarried. She apparently had a child out-of-wedlock and kept him, gave him her family name and this was accepted by her family who helped to raise Adam. That’s pretty astounding. Christina also followed William McFarland into the Civil War and received a pension. She died in 1911 and was actually helping to raise her granddaughters after her son Adam died in 1902.

That’s all I’ve pieced together so far. The identity of Adam’s biological father is unknown – one can only imagine the possibilities, most of them tragic. I have not found where Adam was living during his childhood because he does not show up with Christina on the Census tracts. I presume either his grandparents or aunts/uncles because he came to Pittsburgh with several cousins, they changed the spelling of their name to Remley and settled on the Northside.

When Adam died, he left a widow – Jennie Tarleton Remley – with 5 young children to raise at the turn of the century. Jennie was an immigrant from Scotland with no local family. Records were skimpy so it appears she kept body and soul together running a boarding house and shuffling the children back and forth to family in Watertown. At some point, she remarried a John Murray but little is known of him. According to my grandmother (Jennie’s granddaughter), Jennie was a working class woman who didn’t get along with her daughter-in-law Jane. At some point, Jennie lived on a tugboat (perhaps with husband John?) and she died in 1944. It amazed me to realize she died after my father was born.

What was her story? Like many immigrants, she came alone. She lost a child soon after her husband died. The why’s remain unanswerable. Was she happy – ever?

Now her daughter-in-law Jane Rice Remley is perhaps the most mysterious of them all. Jane died in 1971 when I was a baby so she knew me even if I did not know her. She is a complete mystery. I know she had three siblings (John, Arthur and Margaret) and they all 4 suddenly appear on the 1920 Census, married with children. No trace of them prior to that. Remnants of scraps of stories suggested their mother died when they were young and their father raised them with the help of an unnamed aunt. At some point, they lived in the Hill District and she moved to Allentown when she married my great-grandfather.

Jane Marie Rice Remley
Jane Rice Remley Circa 1945

I can piece more of Jane’s story together because I know people who knew her and I’ve asked a lot of questions. But imagine the shocker when my research turned up the fact that Jane – a daily attendee at Mass at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church – was not Catholic. No record of her. I believe that she went to Mass, of course, but she wasn’t baptised, confirmed or married in the Catholic Church.

I know more of Jane’s secrets than I perhaps should, secrets that did a lot of damage to her daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters. I try to imagine why she made those choices and can only assume there’s some big missing detail from her mysterious childhood. Jane was very focused on propriety, appearances and perception. Being a middle class family was very important to her, I understand. But she took it pretty far beyond the normal person.

My working assumption is that Jane’s parents or parent emigrated to the US and their early years were unpleasant or unkind. Perhaps they were Russian emigrees escaping a pogrom. Another possibility is that they were Syrian or Turkish Orthodox Catholics. Both of these groups settled in the Hill District around this time period. I’m somewhat sure that they changed their name to Rice and there’s no evidence of a Welsh Protestant background. Perhaps they were poor, perhaps someone drank. Who knows? It is a bit odd and it nags at me as if I’ll find something important about myself when I find out who she was before she became mother and wife.

If I can, I’d like to join Ancestry.com again and continue my research. I have distant cousins who may still be in Pittsburgh, but I lost track of them at some point or rather, I lost track of their parents and grandparents. Perhaps they heard different family stories?

Three women, bound by the men that they married. United by suffering they endured by simply being average women struggling to make a way for their family. What did Christina see on the battlefields of the Civil War? How did Jennie recover from so much loss to carry on for another 40 years? And from where did Jane come?

These are not likely stories that would ever be in a text-book or shared in a movie. They are likely a litany of private pains and grievances and trials. But they are important to me and their perseverance – their survival as women – matters to me.