A secret past revealed: how genealogy uncovered one mother’s misfortune and her son’s chance to start over

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One of my favorite topics of study is the life of my great-great-great-grandfather, Michael Johannes Diepolder.  As a lighthouse keeper, the logbooks he left contain a 15-year-long daily record of his work, family, habits and moods.  When I read them, I feel almost as though I know him… well, as much as you can know someone you’ve never met.

Yet for all I’ve learned about his life, it took just one genealogical discovery to turn everything I thought I knew about his ancestry on its head, revealing a fascinating story—and a secret past….

What I thought I knew

From the research I had done, I knew that Michael was born on 14 December 1852 in Germany and had immigrated to the United States around 1859.

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1860 Census of Lafargville, New York, showing the Diepolder family. [1]

By 1860, he and his parents had made their way to LaFargeville in the Thousand Islands region of Jefferson County, New York, a rural farming community then and now.

In the census that year, Michael was listed as a seven year old schoolboy living with his parents, Engelbert Diepolder, a 31 year old cheese maker, and Saloma, a 26 year old woman.  As you might expect for immigrants just getting their feet under them in a strange country, they owned no real estate yet and all their personal possessions were worth only about $50.

This census record was a great starting point for understanding Michael’s family, and now I was ready to discover his ancestry before he came to America.

A mystery discovered

Since there were no naturalization records for the Diepolder family available locally, I decided to start with online immigration records.  Knowing the family’s ages, country of origin, and year of arrival helped narrow my search, and yielded the clues I needed:

Among the records of ships arriving in New York City from Hamburg, Germany, on 1 September 1859, was that of the steamship Bavaria.  On its passenger manifest were three familiar names:  Engelbert Diepolder, 31, farmer, Salome Steiner, 25, “his bride,” and Johannes, 6, “child.”

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Manifest of the Bavaria upon arriving at New York City showing the Diepolder family. [2]

I kept searching and found the corresponding manifest created in Germany when Michael and his family actually boarded the Bavaria.  It provided crucial information about their birthplaces:  Engelbert was born in Memhölz, and Saloma and Johann were born a few miles away in Kurzberg.  Both were farming villages in the southern part of Bavaria on the edge of the Alps, not too far from the Austrian border.

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List of passengers departing from Hamburg, Germany, on 13 August 1859 aboard the ship Bavaria, showing the Diepolder family. [3]

Terrific!  I now knew which villages to start looking in to uncover Michael’s ancestry.  At first glance my next step seemed straightforward…and yet, there was something unusual about these ship records.  The more I studied them the more questions I had….

  1. Why was Michael referred to by his middle name “Johannes”?
  2. Why did both records have “ditto” marks under his mother’s last name, “Steiner,” where “Diepolder” should have been?  I knew it was typical for German women to retain their birth surname during marriage.  Had the ship’s clerk just been careless in recording Michael’s name, given where he fell on the page?
  3. And why was Saloma called “his bride” instead of “his wife,” as though Engelbert’s relationship with her was relatively recent, when Michael was already six years old?

Every record I had found on this side of the Atlantic supported the conclusion that Engelbert Diepolder had been Michael’s father—not only the 1860 census said so, but Michael’s marriage and death records did too.  I thought all my genealogical bases were covered, but these ship records were casting serious doubt on what I thought I knew about the relationship between Michael and Engelbert.

Was my great-great-great-grandfather born “Michael Johannes Diepolder” or was he really born “Johannes Steiner”?

I had a mystery to solve!

Digging for answers

Thanks to the birthplace details recorded in the Hamburg departure manifest, I knew exactly where to start looking for clues: Kurzberg.

Since birth records for Kurzberg were not online, and I could not go to Germany myself, I hired genealogist Friederich Wollmershäuser to search the original records for me.  In the Staatsarchiv in Augsburg, Wollmershäuser located the registers for Martinszell parish of which Kurzberg was part.  What they revealed was a surprise….

Among the records for 1852 was the birth on December 14th of “Johann Michael” to Saloma Steiner, “a poor unmarried, catholic person” at 4 in the morning at a house in Kurzberg—”an easy birth.”  Baptism followed the next day at the Martinszell parish church. [4]


Birth record of Johann Michael, son of Salome Steiner.

This birth record answered one question: Michael had been called “Johann” in the passenger records because it was his first name given at birth.  “Michael,” the name he went by in America his whole life, was actually his middle name.

The record went on to state that Johann Michael had been born illegitimate.  There was the answer to my second question:  Michael appeared on the passenger lists with his mother’s last name “Steiner” because Engelbert was not his father after all!

So the obvious question was: who was Michael’s biological father?

A search within the records of the Kempten district court yielded a list of illegitimate children born in Martinszell parish in 1852.  On it was Johann Michael, born to Saloma Steiner, “unmarried poor person, daughter of widow Katharina Steiner.”  A note in the record revealed his father’s true identity:

“The father of the child is said to be a Frenchman, supervisor at the railroad, Aegidius Bollage, as the mother says.” [5]

“Aegidius Bollage” is Latin and translates to “Gilles Boulanger.


Kempten court entry naming “Aegidius Bollage” as father of Johann Michael.

I now had the name for the real father of my ancestor—the ancestor I thought I knew so well.  His paternal family name hadn’t been Diepolder after all.  And it wasn’t even Steiner.  It was Boulanger!

So who was Gilles Boulanger?  Why hadn’t he married Saloma?  And why wasn’t he with his son in America instead of Engelbert?  Guardianship papers at the Kempten court held the answers….

In a petition to the court filed 12 January 1853, when little Johann Michael was just shy of a month old, Saloma Steiner pleaded for appointment of a guardian to support her child.  Her affidavit read:

“I denote unmarried railroad supervisor Gilles Boulanger from Nessonvaux, Cne. d’Ole near Verviers in Belgium, as the father of my child Johann Michael…. He has gone back to his home nine weeks ago.  He was employed by entreprenneurs Sinne and Groven who, as is known, also have departed.  As the French law is valid in Belgium, whereas no complaints for the payment of child support can be filed, I am unable to file any claims against him.  The child has board and lodging with my mother.” [5]


Detail from Saloma’s affidavit, naming Gilles Boulanger of Nessonvaux as the father of her child.

In response, the court appointed master-blacksmith Franz Xaver Köberle of Greifenberg to be the child’s guardian.  Köberle, who was present, told the court: “I have no other choice than to agree to the declaration of Salome Steiner and know nothing odd about her good fame.”

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Saloma’s signature on her guardianship petition shows that, even though poor, she was educated well enough to write her own name.

The puzzle comes together

With the discovery of the ship’s passenger records, the birth record and guardianship petition, and through subsequent research into Belgian records with the help of volunteer genealogist Georges Close, the complete picture of Michael’s origins and his mothers’ tribulations came into focus.  Their story went something like this:

Living in the village of Kurzberg in 1852 was 18 year old Saloma Steiner, whose father had recently died, leaving her and her mother in desperate economic condition.

An influx of railroad workers meant business, since each would need food, lodging and laundry.  Perhaps it was under these circumstances that Saloma crossed paths with the man supervising the crew, Gilles Boulanger, who was 26 years her senior.  They got to know one another—well enough for Saloma to know the details of his hometown—and by the early spring she was pregnant with his child.


In this early picture of Kurzberg, the large white building at left stands on property owned by Saloma’s mother’s family for four generations, and is where Saloma was living when the railroad, visible in the foreground, came to town. From this view, it is easy to imagine how Saloma and Gilles could have met and carried on a relationship during the summer of 1852. The railroad is still in operation today. [6]

By the time the railroad was completed, Saloma was eight months along and Gilles’ employer was pulling out.  Rather than stay in Kurzberg to care for young Saloma in the final weeks of her pregnancy and witness the birth of their child, Gilles returned home to Nessonvaux, Belgium.

A month later, Saloma gave birth to their son, Johann Michael Steiner, named in honor of her eldest brother who no doubt had cared for Saloma and her mother after the death of their father.  With Gilles being long gone, Saloma leaned on her mother to shelter and feed her new baby boy.

It didn’t take long for Saloma to realize that Gilles had no intention of returning or taking any kind of responsibility for his new family. Prevented by French law from pursuing Gilles in his native Belgium for child support, Salome took matters into her own hands and secured the support of a local man who was skilled in a trade that could provide steady income.

Some time passed and Salome met and married a man from the neighboring village of Memhölz.  His name was Engelbert Diepolder, a farmer in his twenties with no children of his own.  He was the fourth born in a family of five, meaning he had little chance of inheriting land to start his own farm.  Perhaps for this reason he set his sights on taking his bride and her young boy to America, where newspapers extolled the acres of rich farmland for the taking.

When the new family arrived in America, they had a choice to make.  Saloma still carried her family name of Steiner, and could easily adapt to the American custom of taking her husband’s last name.  But what about little Johann Steiner?….

It’s clear from the records that Engelbert and Saloma decided to not only change Johann’s last name to match Engelbert’s, but to even change his first name too.  Thus Saloma’s illegitimate child was effectively given a new identity in the New World.  She could leave behind the bitter remembrance of Gilles’ abandonment, and her son would grow up free from the probing questions and knowing glances of his neighbors.

Engelbert, Saloma and “Michael J.” started over in America as a new family—the Diepolders.


Did Michael ever know that Gilles Boulanger, not Engelbert Diepolder, was his real father?  It’s hard to know the answer.  It’s conceivable that if Saloma married Engelbert when Michael was young enough, then Engelbert would have been the only father Michael ever remembered.  Passenger records naming her as his “bride,” though, suggest Michael was probably old enough to have remembered a life before Engelbert.

Whatever the case, it’s clear from subsequent records that Michael regarded Engelbert as his father.  Indeed, he must have held great affection for him.  In his log entry for 21 March 1895 at Rock Island Lighthouse, Michael wrote “a young visitor arrived here 7:50 a.m.: it’s a 9# boy”—he named that little boy Lawrence Engelbert Diepolder. [7]

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Michael’s logbook entry celebrating the birth of son Lawrence Engelbert.


Loose ends

In case you’re wondering what happened to Gilles Boulanger, there is no record that he ever visited America or otherwise engaged in his son’s life.  But he did ultimately resurface….

Gilles appeared again in 1872 in the village of Gallina, Calabria, Italy, working as a railroad employee.  There, on September 22nd, he married Consolata Luvarà.  He was 54 and she was 23.

They had no known children.


Lessons learned

This story shows how easy it is to take American records of immigrants at face value and how assuming that they tell the whole story can lead to mistakes in your family tree.  I spent years tracing more generations of the Diepolder family before I found the passenger lists and realized that I needed to change course.

This story also teaches how using all means available—including hiring a genealogist or seeking out volunteers—to follow the complete trail of records left by our ancestors can reveal surprising details, helping us get to know their stories, and therefore ourselves, a little bit better.

That kind of knowing, after all, is the real goal of genealogy!


Introducing my great-great-great-grandfather….Michael Johannes Diepolder



Author’s Note:

It was Michael’s service as lighthouse keeper that inspired me to create the Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association in 2000.  To learn more about Michael and the other keepers of  Rock Island Lighthouse, at Fisher’s Landing, New York—now a state park—please visit rockislandlighthouse.org.

Do you have a family lighthouse keeper or a favorite lighthouse you love?  Find out how I can help you discover more through my lighthouse research service!


[1]  1860 U.S. census, Jefferson County, New York, population schedule, Town of Orleans, p. 69, dwelling 552, family 553, Engelbert, Salome and Michael Diepolder; image Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 17 March 2016); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 761.

[2]  Manifest, S. S. Bavaria, 1 September 1859, stamped p. [not indicated], line 94-96, Engelbert Diepolder, age 31, Saloma Steiner, age 26, Joh., age 6; images, “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 17 March 2016).

[3]  Manifest, S. S. Bavaria, 13 August 1859, written p. 409, line 94-96, Engelbert Diepolder, age 31, Saloma Steiner, age 25, Joh., age 6; images, “Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934″ Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 17 March 2016).

[4]  Martinszell parish church (Martinszell, Waltenhofen, Schwaben, Bayern, Germany), “Kirchenbuchzweitschriften Martinszell 1837-1861,” KBZS Kempten 2754, Staatsarchiv, Augsburg, Germany.

[5]  Kempten, Schwaben, Bayern, Germany, Landgerich ä O. Kempten, VA S Nr. 920, guardianship file for Johann Michael Steiner; Staatsarchiv, Augsbury, Germany.

[6]  Photo courtesy of Margarete Heidl, Waltenhofen, and Friederich R. Wollmershäuser, Oberdischingen.

[7]  Entry by Michael J. Diepolder, 21 March 1895; Lighthouse Logbooks, Rock Island Station, N.Y., Box 365; Record Group E 26 (NC-31): U.S. Coast Guard Lighthouse Service; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

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