If you could travel back in time and ask one question to one ancestor, whom would you choose and what would you ask?
I answered this question during RoostTech, on video for a colleague's web series. I have lots of questions for lots of ancestors, but I chose a particular person for a particular research problem I've had for years.
My great-great grandmother, Marie Magdalena "Molly" Schmitz (or Schmidt depending on the record), born September 2, 1865, was a bit of a mystery. I was able to track her from her 1947 death back to her first marriage in the 1880's, but then I was stuck. I didn't know who her parents were. The documents I had for her listed four separate birth places: London, Belgium, Prussia, and Alsace-Lorraine. Plus, she was a Schmitz in the Chicago/Milwaukee area in the 1880s, along with a gazillion others with the same name.
Molly was widowed in 1896 after a few years of marriage. With a small child in tow (my great-grandmother), Molly left Milwaukee for Las Vegas, New Mexico. Now, I've been to Las Vegas, New Mexico and I can tell you it's nothing like the Las Vegas everyone else knows. This Las Vegas is small and dry. In 1896, it would have been the same.
Why did she go to New Mexico? She had to have known someone there. A lady doesn't just pick up and move to the middle of nowhere. I studied the other folks in Las Vegas and tried to find a connection, a common surname, ANYTHING, but nothing stuck out. I gave up and moved on to something else, then something else, until the issue faded.
Fast forward to this week, where I was asked to answer by brick-wall question on camera. I told the same story you're reading here, with the challenges of working with Schmitz/Schmidt and no solid birthplace evidence.
Just discussing the issue again piqued my curiosity. I decided to visit my Schmitz/Schmidt problem briefly with a fresh set of eyes. Molly's death certificate said her father was Joseph Schmitz/Schmidt and her mother was "Reichsdorfe." These were the only possible clues I had regarding the identity of her parents.
I started digging for people named Joseph Schmitz/Schmidt in the Illinois/Wisconsin area in the 1880's since that was where my Molly trail ended. I found one record that seemed promising for Joseph and Elizabeth Schmitz and family in Dublin, Indiana.
1880; Census Place: Dublin, Wayne, Indiana; Roll: 322; Family History Film: 1254322; Page: 136C; Enumeration District: 062; Image: 0035
I zeroed in on Amelia. Molly had a record or two where that name was referenced. This Amelia was the correct age. Was this my great-great grandmother and her family?
I was supposed to be covering events at a genealogy conference, yet here I was in the corner of the media section, sneaking in a little personal research. This problem has plagued me for years and now the genealogy spirits were teasing me.
I poked around the records and online information for this Joseph and Elizabeth. Someone online had uploaded an old newspaper clipping about their 50th wedding anniversary in the early 1900's. The article listed their adult children including a daughter named "Mary Hayworth" in New Mexico. Sure sounded a lot like my Marie Hayward (her second marriage) who was there at the same time.
More poking around led me to discover a death record for Elizabeth Schmitz. Her maiden name was Reisdorf. Sure sounded a lot like the maternal "Reichsdorfe" reference on Molly's death certificate.
The similarities were strong, but I didn't have the one holy grail of a record that would tell me for sure if these were Molly's parents, my great-great-great grandparents.
I kept stealthily searching online, trying to make it look like I was conference-focused even when I wasn't. This 1880 census above listed Amelia and Victoria's birthplace as "Aachen."
I decided to search the FamilySearch database Deutschland Geburten und Taufen, 1558-1898 (Germany Births and Baptisms) for people born in Aachen with the surname Schmitz. This was the first result:
"Deutschland Geburten und Taufen, 1558-1898," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:NNTY-KW5 : 28 November 2014), Amalia Schmitz, 23 Jun 1803; citing ; FHL microfilm 176,245.
It was my Molly, born on September 2, 1865 to my new-to-me great-great-great grandparents.
My Molly mystery was solved less than 24 hours after I said she was who I'd travel back in time to see. Coincidence? I think not. Our ancestors want to be found. Go out and discover them.