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Family Myths: Separating Fact From Fiction

The Story

Johann Heinrich Kaiser and Anna Katherine Schleicher/Sleiker immigrated to the United States when their daughter, Sophia Elizabeth Kaiser was three years old. Henri saved the money for the voyage and stored it in a box that was approximately 8" x 5" x 5" tall. The night before they were to sail, someone broke into their home and stole the box and with it the money for their passage. Henri borrowed the money the next day from a friend, they paid their passage and set sail for America.

Upon landing in New York, they immediately left for Ft. Smith, Arkansas where they both lived out the rest of their lives. They are both buried in Ft. Smith.

How I Used the Story

Sophie Elizabeth Kaiser, age 14
Confirmation, 1887

This is the story I heard dozens of times from my grandmother, my gr-aunt, my mother and my mother's cousins. So when I began researching my family history, I asked questions. The sad tale on this is that I knew my gr-grandmother, Sophia Elizabeth (Kaiser) Finney. If at 14, I had been interested in family history, I could have asked her these questions and gotten better answers.

Where did they live before coming to the United States?
What year was Sophia Elizabeth Kaiser born?
Where was Johann Heinrich "Henri" Kaiser born? 

Every time I asked the questions, my grandmother and her sister, my gr-aunt would get in an argument They all agreed on when their mother, Sophie Elizabeth Kaiser was born: 27 April 1873. But the "where" was another conversation.

Auntie Marie said that her mother was born in Russia. My grandmother said her mother was born in Germany that became a part of Russia and my mother added to the mix by stating that her grandmother told her that she was born in Poland. My mother also said that her grandmother [Sophie Elizabeth Kaiser] told her that she was born in the same place as her father.

I listened to all of them and drew this conclusion: that Sophie Elizabeth Kaiser and her father were born in that northern part of Germany that changed hands over time--that part that was sometimes Germany, sometimes Poland, sometimes Prussia and sometimes Russia.

I looked at maps and on lists of old German towns. I looked for Kaisers and Sleikers (because that was how my Grandmother had spelled her grandmother's name.) I could not find them.

In my recurring searches during 2010, I began to notice that just over the border from the Poland/Prussia/Germany area into Russia the last four letters on some of the town names ended in "naja." This was important because we have Henri Kaiser's confirmation certificate. He was baptized on 22 Mar 1860. This document is 151 years old. At some point, it was torn and someone taped the tear--right over the name of the town where Henri was born. But that town name ended in "naja." I began to suspect I had been looking in the wrong place.

Johann Heinrich "Henri"  Kaiser Confirmation Certificate
22 March 1822, Privalnaja, Russia

Just a few weeks after this, my sister happened to ask a friend of hers who is an immigrant from the Ukraine if she might know the name of the town on the confirmation certificate. When she saw the certificate, her friend recognized it right away as Privalnaja. Privalnaja was the Russian name for the town, but the Germans who settled there called it Warenberg.

Johann Henri Kaiser, Anna Katherine Schleicher/Sleiker and Sophie Elizabeth Kaiser were all Volga Germans.

Search for Volga Germans

My Error: Focusing on the Story, Instead of the Documents

If I had looked at my documents and not let the story interfere with my thinking, I might have found Privalnaja sooner and thus learned years before I did more about Henri and where he came from.

What did my documents say?

®  SS Lessing Passenger List, 27 Sep 1876: Henri Kaiser--from Russia
®  Henri Kaiser's Declaration of Intent--renounced allegiance to the Csar of Russia
®  1900 Carroll Co, Arkansas Census Henri Kaiser--born in Germany
®  1900 Carroll Co, Arkansas Census-Bettie [Sophie Elizabeth] Finney--born in Russia, both parents born in Russia
®  1910 Pope Co, Arkansas Census-Sophie E. Finney--born in Russ-German, both parents born in Russ-German
®  1920 Garfield Co, Oklahoma Census-Sophie E. Finney--born in Russia
®  1920 Major Co, Oklahoma Census-Myrtle [daughter of Bettie] Hammons, mother born in Russia
®  1930 Major Co, Oklahoma Census-Sophie E. Finney--born in Germany, both parents born in Germany. 

I had 6 documents stating that the Kaisers came from Russia. I had 2 documents stating that they came from Germany. Both of the latter 2 documents are censuses and the information could have been provided by anyone--even a neighbor.

Of the first 6, 4 are also census records and the information could have been provided by anyone. But the first two both say "Russia." These are also the documents closest to the time they immigrated, which are generally more accurate than information provided over time.

Instead of following the actual facts/data that I had, I made an assumption about what "Russia" meant on all of these documents.

Family stories are important. Most of the time they have some truth to them. But they are clues to our research. They should not drive our research in a quest to "prove" them.

What I Learned

I learned that family stories contain "kernels of truth," but are also subject to years of misinterpretation. Remember playing the "Gossip Game" when you were a kid. It's like that.

I learned that I should follow the documents first, then add in the family story.

I learned that the old joke was true--the one about the quarter. A man was under a street light looking for a quarter and a policeman stopped to ask him what he was doing. He replied, "I'm looking for a quarter." So the policeman began to help him look. After a while, the policeman said, "Are you sure you lost it here?" And the man replied, "No. I lost it over there, but the light is better here."

Sometimes we think the "light is better" in the stories.

If you have Volga German ancestors check out these websites:

There are also several Germans from Russia Societies:

Genealogy Tutorial
Author of Genealogy Cheat Sheets

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