New York Brick Wall Busters #1: Probate Petitions

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Vital records — births, marriages, and deaths — are essential in genealogical research, since they establish details about the major life events of an individual, including age, residence and relationships with parents, spouses and children whose names may not be found anywhere else.  These vital records are typically created contemporaneously with the events they describe, either by the individual directly or by someone who knew them, often making them some of the most reliable records a genealogist has when proving identity and relationships.

Any genealogist who spends time studying their New York roots quickly comes up against one of the state’s most notorious blockers to research — vital records collection did not begin until 1881.  For some researchers, the absence of vital records before this year prevents them from making any progress — something we genealogists call a “brick wall.”

Fortunately, this brick wall is surmountable.  How, you ask?  With probate petitions!

What is a probate petition?

“Probate petition” is a term used to describe a request filed in court by the executor of an estate (for a decedent who left a will) or an administrator of an estate (for intestate decedents) seeking permission to begin the process of settling an estate, such as through payment of debts and distribution of the decedent’s real and personal property.  If a person left a will, the petition was called a petition to probate, and if a person did not leave a will the petition was called a petition to administer — genealogists refer to these collectively as  “probate petitions.”

How does a probate petition help in New York research?

In 1829, the New York Legislature passed a new law with two requirements that are crucial for genealogists [1]:

  1. Probate petitions had to name all heirs-at-law.  This requirement was true whether or not the decedent chose to name an heir in their will, and it was true even if the decedent left no will at all.
  2. Estate papers had to be preserved.  Prior to the new law, courts had free reign to discard papers related to the settlement of estates.  Under the new law, courts were required to keep all probate papers on file.

The requirement to name all heirs means that the names of family members can be learned by reading a probate petition.  This is especially useful when no will was made, or when a testator omitted an heir from a will, either because the heir had received their inheritance during the testator’s lifetime, or because the testator had a dispute with the heir.

Places of residence were usually also given in a petition.  If an heir was dead or was a minor at the time of probate, that was usually noted too.

Assuming the petitioner was truthful (petitions were filed under oath), all of this information can generally be expected to be complete and accurate — and all of it has been preserved by the courts, rather than discarded.

Compliance with the law began in 1830 and improved as time went on.  This timing means some probate petitions can provide evidence of names, residences, dates and relationships for people born as early as the mid-1700s!

Who are Heirs-at-law?

In order to interpret probate petitions, the laws of inheritance in New York State need to be understood.  In his book, New York State Probate Records, Gordon L. Remington provides a great summary [2]:

Under the laws in effect in 1829, if a person left a will, they could leave their property to whomever they chose.  In 1848, women in New York State gained the right to make wills, even if their husband was still alive.  If a will was left, then it controlled inheritance.

In neither case was a person required to name any heirs at all, in which case rules for inheritance in intestate estates aid interpretation of the petition.  According to Remington:

  • children of the deceased received equal shares first
  • if a child was deceased, then that child’s issue received his/her parents’ portion
  • siblings inherited when a decedent left no direct descendants
  • half-siblings could inherit personal property, and real estate beginning in 1865

Anatomy of a probate petition

Let’s take a look at a probate petition and see what we can learn from it.

Below is the probate petition in the estate of Elisha Harvey, filed in the Surrogate’s Court at Watertown, Jefferson County, New York, by Valmer R. Harvey of Watertown. [3]


A reading of the petition provides a wealth of information:

  • The opening names the petitioner, Valmer R. Harvey, and gives his place of residence as city of Watertown.
  • Next, we learn the name of the decedent, Elisha R. Harvey, also of Watertown, and his date of death, 8 March 1874.
  • We learn that Elisha was a U.S. citizen and was residing in the county immediately prior to his death.
  • Next we learn that Elisha left a will and that Valmer was named in it as a legatee.
  • We see the value of Elisha’s estate was not given, suggesting that an inventory of his personal belongings and a valuation of his real estate had not yet been conducted.
  • Valmer next provides a list of all of the known heirs-at-law of Elisha:
    • Valmer R. Harvey, himself, of Watertown – living son of majority age
    • Sophia A. Searles of Ellisburgh – living daughter of majority age
    • Juliett Nichols – deceased daughter
      • Frank Nichols of Pinckney, Lewis County, New York – living grandson, a minor over 14
      • Charles Nichols of Ellisburgh – living grandson of majority age
  • Finally we’re told that Elisha’s wife, Esther, was still living and a resident of Watertown at the time of the petition on 11 March 1874.

We’ve learned a lot from one document!  We now know Elisha’s exact date and place of death.  We know that he had one son and two daughters in his lifetime, one of whom has died — and, crucially, we have learned the daughters’ married names!  We’ve discovered the names of two of Elisha’s grandchildren, their relative ages, and their whereabouts.  We’ve also learned the name of Elisha’s widow, though her relationship to the others in the petition is not stated and cannot be inferred.

All of the births, marriages and deaths described in this petition took place before New York State began collecting vital records in 1881, yet a careful reading has given us much of the information that vital records could have supplied.

Where to find probate petitions

Probate proceedings in New York State are normally filed with the Surrogate’s Court in the county where the decedent resided.  Remington’s book provides contact information for each Surrogate’s Court in New York State.

Although some probate petitions are written in will books, they are usually filed amongst the loose papers for an estate, commonly referred to as “estate files” or “probate packets.”  Remington’s book provides a comprehensive list as of 2011 of probate packet holdings at each Surrogate’s Court, plus an inventory of probate packets on microfilm at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In recent years, both and FamilySearch have placed probate records for New York State online. has not placed estate papers online, but some petitions may be found in the will books that they’ve digitized and made searchable in the following collections:

FamilySearch is the only website that has digitized probate packets, as part of its online collection, New York Probate Records, 1629-1971.  This collection has not been indexed for searching, so access is had by browsing the images manually.

The table I have compiled below indicates FamilySearch‘s online probate packet holdings for each county in New York at the time of this writing — remember that more may be available on-site at the Surrogate’s Court:

County Collection Name Years
Albany Probate records 1868-1900
Allegany Estate papers 1807-1930
Bronx none
Broome Probate records 1846, 1876-1878
Cattaraugus index only 1800-1956
Cayuga Estate papers 1799-1905
Chautauqua index only 1811-1962
Chemung Estate papers 1836-1900
Chenango Probate records 1809-1829, 1869-1883, 1885-1889, 1891-1912
Clinton none
Columbia Estate papers 1830-1880
Cortland Estate files 1810-1893
Delaware Estate papers, proceedings 1797-1900
Dutchess Probates [date] packets 1793-1868
Erie Estate papers 1800-1929
Essex index only 1799-1938
Franklin index only 1800-1900
Fulton Probate records 1877-1908
Genesee Probate records 1856-1908
Greene Estate papers undated
Hamilton Estate papers 1861-1908
Herkimer Estate papers 1792-1900
Jefferson Estate papers 1805-1945
Kings index only 1780-1971
Lewis index only 1805-1940
Livingston Estate records 1822-1905
Madison Estate records 1847-1875
Monroe index only 1821-1970
Montgomery Probate records 1874-1922
Nassau none
New York Miscellaneous probate records 1800-1869
Niagara Probates 1834-1970
Oneida Probate proceedings 1867-1965
Onondaga index only 1802-1923
Ontario Probate records 1828-1924
Orange none
Orleans index only 1825-1926
Oswego index only 1846-1916
Otsego Petitions 1929-1934
Putnam index only 1812-1970
Queens index only 1787-1987
Rensselaer Estate files 1793-1906, undated
Richmond none
Rockland Probates 1802-1900
Saratoga Probate records 1857-1885
Schenectady Probate records 1871-1917
Schoharie index only 1795-1902
Schuyler index only 1855-1970
Seneca index only 1804-1914
Steuben none
St. Lawrence none
Suffolk none
Sullivan none
Tioga none
Tompkins index only 1818-1910, 1936-1951
Ulster Probate packets 1707-1921
Warren Estate records 1941-1955, undated
Washington none
Wayne index only 1823-1964
Westchester Estate papers 1795-1900
Wyoming Petitions, probate records 1841-1900
Yates none

Final Thoughts

Probate petitions are a terrific substitute for vital records when you’re working on individuals and relationships in New York State before 1881.  If you are lucky enough to find a probate petition, look closely and you may find the evidence you need to break down your brick wall.

Some probate petitions have been lost.  If you cannot find a probate petition, don’t give up hope.  Instead, check newspapers for the area in question — courts often required a petitioner to publish notices to heirs in the local newspaper of record for several consecutive weeks.  A newspaper announcement may not be as comprehensive as the petition itself, but it will usually contain all of the names and residences, which may be enough to get you over that brick wall.

If a probate petition helps you break down your brick wall, please leave a comment so that other readers can benefit from your experience!  Good luck!


[1] New York Genealogical & Biographical Society, New York Family History Research Guide & Gazetteer (New York: NYG&B, 2014), p. 65.

[2] Gordon L. Remington, New York State Probate Records: A Genealogist’s Guide to Testate and Intestate Records, Second Edition (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2011), pp. 28-29.

[3]  Jefferson County, New York, estate papers file H-494, Elisha R. Harvey (1874), petition to probate, 11 March 1874; image, “New York Probate Records, 1629-1971,” images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 2 May 2017) > Jefferson > Estate papers 1805-1900 box H 35-39, case 494-528 > image 4 of 1259; citing Jefferson County Surrogate’s Court, Watertown.

Thousand Islands Marvel: Floyd Carter’s Motor Ice Boat


Author’s note:  A version of this story was originally published in the January 2011 issue of Thousand Islands Life magazine to mark the 100th anniversary of Carter’s invention.


        “The familiar sound of a put-put from the vicinity of Washington Island caused people to look at one another on Saturday.  It was the real noise so familiar to everybody on the water front and as it came nearer and more distinct the docks were well peopled.  An ice boat without a sail is a real novelty here, but such it proved to be.”

So opened a brief article in the Jefferson County Journal about the events of Saturday, January 21st, 1911, on a dock overlooking the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands region of Jefferson County, New York, describing a new invention by local man, Floyd L. Carter, that was to be the subject of much attention—and imitation.[1]


Floyd L. Carter as a young man, about 1890.

Floyd Carter was born in 1877 near Clayton, a son of Byron Carter and Clarissa Britton.  In 1896 Floyd married Ada[2], only daughter of Michael J. Diepolder, the keeper of Rock Island Lighthouse.[3]  By 1900, the couple was living at 1711 Spring St. in Thousand Island Park.[4]  It was here that Floyd began to hone his skills as a mechanic and a boatbuilder.

The Thousand Islands region lies at the confluence of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River and consists of 1,864 islands scattered between the U.S. and Canadian mainlands. Until the Thousand Islands International Bridge opened in 1938, boats were the only form of transportation for inhabitants of the islands or for those wishing to cross the international border.  In winter, when the river froze over, locals would use “ice boats”—homemade wooden platforms to which they attached sleigh runners, a cloth sail, and a rudder for steering—and wait for a steady wind to push them across the ice. Not only was it slow going, but it was also dangerous since the boats could be difficult to control and were at the mercy of the elements.


An early example of the kind of sail-powered iceboat in use at the time of Carter’s invention, published in Jonathan Haddock’s 1895 book A Souvenir of the Thousand Islands (Watertown, N.Y.), 257.

The first mention of Floyd Carter in connection with an iceboat was in 1904, when he was working as an oarsman carrying passengers for hire between the islands and the mainland.  The December 29th edition of the Watertown Daily Times records: “Bill Tidd visited his parents here Christmas and on his return to Clayton engaged F. L. Carter with his ice boat to take him to Fisher’s Landing.” That trip ended abruptly when the iceboat, clocking 40 miles per hour, hit a weak spot in the ice, sending its passengers skidding across the icy river and damaging the iceboat severely.[5]

Over the next few years, Floyd earned a reputation as one of the finest boatbuilders on the river.  In 1906, he assisted Clinton Snell at Lafargeville in the construction of a naptha launch, 25 feet long with an eight foot beam.[6]  He built more than 20 racing boats, including some of the Sliver model.  In 1909 he introduced the Gazelle, cited as the smallest but fastest racer of its type on the river, which was purchased by Charles Freeman of New York City.  By the end of the year Floyd had plans to move to Dallas, Texas, to go into the automobile business.[7]  Fortunately for the onlookers at the docks in the winter of 1911, he stayed put….

The iceboat that Floyd Carter unveiled in January 1911 was 8 feet long and 7 feet wide.  Instead of having a mast and sail attached for wind-driven propulsion, like those used in the vicinity up to that time, his innovation was to incorporate an airplane propeller for locomotion.  Carter used a six horsepower Panard engine to drive the propeller, which had a span of more than 6 feet.  Two large runners provided support in the back, while a shaft attached to a single steering sleigh in the front provided directional control.  On its first trip across the ice the boat topped 50 miles per hour.[8]


Floyd L. Carter’s motor ice boat as depicted on a postcard.  The brand “Panard” is visible on the engine.  Calumet Island is visible over Carter’s left shoulder, suggesting the picture was taken at one of the docks on Riverside Drive in Clayton.  The man seated is unidentified.

Not to be outdone, other local builders soon introduced their own variations on Carter’s concept:

On January 31st, 1911, Fred Guernsey of Clayton presented his motor ice boat, identical to Carter’s with the exception that his engine was attached via sprocket chain to a spiked cogwheel at the rear of the boat which dug into the ice to move it forward.[9]

In December 1911, airplane builder Charles Hoffman introduced his “Areao-Ice-Hydro-plane”, an 11 foot contraption with 37 inch beam, consisting of runners attached to the bottom of a boat hull, powered by a five foot propeller rotating 1,900 times per minute and achieving top speeds of 60 miles per hour.  Hoffman’s invention could use the runners while on ice, and stay afloat via the hull when it struck water, making it ideal for the thawing season (if only Carter was driving this back in 1904!).[10]


Detail from Floyd Carter’s engine repair business letterhead. Courtesy of Dr. Maynard H. Mires.

In 1912, Theron Patterson and Benton Wilbur of Alexandria Bay extended the motorized ice travel concept to dry land.  Their idea was to affix two cutter runners to a horse sleigh, and mount a 16 horsepower engine in the back, connected to a six foot air wheel for propulsion.  This new “motor sleigh” was capable of reaching speeds on land of 30 miles per hour, could climb hills, and on one trip reportedly traveled by road to Chippewa Bay, then over the river to Dark Island.  Two years later, Patterson improved his design with a new torpedo shape powered by a lighter engine, achieving 40 miles per hour.[11]

In 1929, Julius M. Breitenbach’s sleek new Arctic Goose was in service, hitting record speeds of 131 miles per hour.[12]

In 1931, Morris Knight patented a variation on Hoffman’s design, for an iceboat capable of navigating both ice and open water.[13]

By 1953, an airplane-based iceboat was in use by Robert Lashomb to carry the mail from Clayton to Grindstone Island, shortening the trip to 15 minutes or less–still the practice today.[14]

Floyd Carter died in February 1935, but his skill in both mechanics and boatbuilding continued to inspire his family long after[15]:

His young brother-in-law, Larry Diepolder, whom Floyd helped rear at Thousand Islands Park, went into business as a “gas engineer” and boat pilot.[16]  In 1921, Larry moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he competed in water races using boats he built himself.  He opened “Die Polder Electric Motors” which is still in business today.[17]

Floyd’s son Austin S. Carter moved to Chelan, Washington, after World War II, where he engaged in the boatbuilding business on Lake Chelan.[18]  In 1950, he was granted a patent for his concept of a “foldable boat.”[19]

So the next time you are on a lake or a river and you hear the familiar “put-put” of an engine off in the distance, perhaps you’ll remember the story of Floyd Carter and his motor ice boat from more than 100 years ago.  And when you hear it, be sure to stop, linger a while, and look around…. for like those assembled on the dock that chilly day, you may just find yourself a witness to the next great invention!

[Note: The author, Mark Wentling, is the great-great-grandson of the article subject, Floyd Carter.]



All images from author’s personal collection except where otherwise noted.

[1] “Jefferson County: The News of Its Many towns as Taken From Our Exchanges,” Cape Vincent (N.Y.) Eagle, 26 January 1911, pg. 1, col. 7; digital image, NYS Historic Newspapers ( : accessed 26 January 2011).

[2] Carter Bible Records, 1834-1974, family pages only from unknown Bible; digital images made by Mark A. Wentling, Randolph, Massachusetts, 2009.  The Bible originated with Byron Carter and his wife Clarissa Britton, parents of Floyd Carter, whose births are the earliest entries; comparison of ink and handwriting suggest most entries were created by Ada Diepolder, Floyd’s wife.  The Bible passed to her daughter Kathleen (Carter) Abbott Philow and was then lost when her estate was dispersed following her death in 1984.  The Bible turned up on the online auction website Ebay in 2009 and was purchased by Mark A. Wentling, great-great-grandson of Floyd and Ada, and it is now in possession of his grndmother, Barbara (Carter) O’Brien, Floyd and Ada’s granddaughter, as of 2017.

[3] 1880 U.S. census, Jefferson County, New York, population schedule, Town of Orleans, Lafargeville, enumeration district (E.D.) 135, pg. 18-B, dwelling number 162, family number 165, M. J. Diepolder; digital image, ( : accessed 17 February 2017); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 839.

[4] 1900 U.S. census, Jefferson County, New York, population schedule, Town of Orleans, Thousand Island Park, enumeration district (E.D.) 26, pg. 2-B, dwelling 44, family 46, Floyd Carter; digital image, ( : accessed 22 February 2017); citing NARA microfilm publication T623, roll 1041.

[5] “Thousand Islands Park: Four People Spilled From a Flying Ice Boat.”  Watertown Daily Times, 29 December 1904. pg. 4, col. 3-4; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards ( : accessed 26 January 2011).

[6]  “Lafargeville” [local notes],  The Watertown (N.Y.) Herald,  3 February 1906. unpaged, col. 3; digital image, NYS Historic Newspapers ( : accessed 26 January 2011).

[7] “St. Lawrence Park” [local notes],  The Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald, 1 August 1909, pg. D-5, col. 3; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards ( : accessed 26 January 2011);  “Thousand Island Park” [local notes],  The Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald, 29 August 1909, pg. D-5, col. 6; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards ( : accessed 26 January 2011); and “Thousand Island Park” [local notes],  The Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald, 5 September 1909, pg. D-5, col. 3; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards ( : accessed 26 January 2011).

[8] “Motor Driven Ice Boat.”  Jefferson County (N.Y.) Journal, [21-23?] January 1911, unpaged, col. 4; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards ( : accessed 26 January 2011); “Power Driven Ice Boats on River,”  Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times, 4 February 1911, pg. [illegible], col. 4; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards ( : accessed 26 January 2011); and “Motor Driven Ice Boat Like An Aeroplane.”  Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times, 1 March 1911. pg. 6, col. 2; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards ( : accessed 26 January 2011).

[9] “Power Driven Ice Boats on River,” pg. [illegible], col. 4.

[10] “Remembering… Dec, 28 1911,” Thousand Islands (N.Y.) Sun, 5 September 1984, pg. 15; “Remembering… 22 Feb. 22, 1912: New Style of Motor Sleigh,” undated clipping, ca. late 1990s, Thousand Islands (N.Y.) Sun. Privately held by Mark A. Wentling, Randolph, Massachusetts, 2017.

[11] “Remembering… February 19, 1914: Patterson’s Motor Sleigh”undated clipping, ca. late 1990s, Thousand Islands (N.Y.) Sun. Privately held by Mark A. Wentling, Randolph, Massachusetts, 2017.

[12]  Arctic Goose [untitled clipping],  Thousand Islands (N.Y.) Sun, 5 January 1933; Rex Ennis, “Arctic Goose,”  Thousand Islands Lifeposted 12 February 2010 ( : accessed 30 January 2011).

[13] “Google Patents,” database with images, Google ( : accessed 28 January 2011), images, Morris C. Knight, ice and water boat, patent file no. 1,816,118 (1931); original file location not cited.

[14] Robert Lashomb [untitled clipping].  On the St. Lawrence (Carthage, N.Y.), 13 February 1953; ; digital image, NYS Historic Newspapers ( : accessed 26 January 2011).

[15] Carter Bible Records.

[16] “U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, ( : accessed 28 January 2011), card for Lawrence Engelbert Diepolder, card no. 21, Local Draft Board 3, Orleans District 5, Jefferson County, New York; citing NARA microfilm publication M1509, roll 1753743.

[17]  Mark A. Wentling, “Rock Island Lighthouse Keepers: Emma E. Diepolder, 1901,” Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association ( : accessed 30 January 2011).

[18] “Austin S. Carter,” obituary, Wenatchee (Washington) World, 27 January 1975, p. 23, col. 5.

[19] “Google Patents,” database with images, Google ( : accessed 28 January 2011), images, Austin S. Carter, foldable boat, patent file no. 2,533,220 (1950); original patent file location not cited.

Proud to Support Rock Island Lighthouse in New York State Parks’ New Video!

It’s finally out!!….


On May 16th, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation released a terrific new video highlighting Rock Island Lighthouse State Park, near Fisher’s Landing, in the Thousand Islands region.  The lighthouse was chosen as one of three sites across the state to be featured in a new series entitled “We Are New York” created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act this year.

Rock Island reopened to the public in 2013 after years of extensive preservation and restoration efforts by the State, and I was lucky enough to provide text and photographs from my research for the permanent exhibits.

The video series was conceived by Austin O’Brien and Cordell Reaves with the Office of Historic Preservation.  Their goal was to demonstrate the value of historic preservation in establishing community identity by sharing the stories of individuals with a personal connection to each site.

DB Media Company of Rochester contracted with the State for production.  Filming took place at Rock Island on August 27th and 28th last year, with brilliant sunshine and plenty of enthusiasm.  The company used drones equipped with cameras to capture the spectacular aerial shots highlighted in the video.

Among those of us invited to share our stories on camera were Deb Spry, Manager of Rock Island Lighthouse State Park, Brian Thomas, Capital Facilities Manager for Thousand Islands Parks Region, Kevin Kieff, former Director of Thousand Islands State Parks Region, Manny and Vicki Jerome, Friends of Rock Island Lighthouse State Park and long-time volunteers prior to the site’s restoration, and me Mark Wentling, in my capacity as Executive Director of Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association and a descendant of Michael J. Diepolder who was Keeper of the lighthouse from 1886 to 1901.  Each of us shared our personal enthusiasm for the lighthouse and what its restoration means to us.  Ruth Pierpont, Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation, was present along with O’Brien and Reeves, who conducted some of the interviews.

The video was premiered May 6th at the keynote address of the 2016 New York Statewide Preservation Conference in Albany to a crowd of more than 300 historic preservation professionals, enthusiasts and officials from across the state.

The video runs approximately four minutes in length and can be viewed on New York State Parks’ official YouTube channel at

It has been tremendously exciting and rewarding to be part of transforming Rock Island Lighthouse from a boarded up, neglected site in danger of being lost, into the shining example of the spirit of the Thousand Islands that it is today!

Do you want to know more about a lighthouse keeper or a lighthouse you love?  Find out how I can help through my lighthouse research service!

Mark Wentling at Rock Island Lighthouse

Insult upon injury: the tragic life of Professor Joshua Thorp

[Do you have an ancestor whose story you’d like to discover?  I am a professional genealogist with more than 20 years of experience.  Find out how I can help!]


Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 12.45.47 PM

Thorp family sketch in Hardin’s 1893 History of Herkimer County [pg. 127, family sketches]

Prof. Joshua Thorp, who spent most of his life in teaching…was for some time principal of the academy at Onondaga Valley, N.Y., and also of the High School at Watertown.  He was a very successful teacher and lecturer, and was in the war of the Rebellion.”

So read a sketch of the Thorp family published in 1893 in Hardin’s History of Herkimer County, New York.  By this account, Joshua Thorp led a rather illustrious life, excelling in the noble profession of teaching, serving his country during the Civil War and raising two children.

Yet, Hardin’s work was not entirely unbiased.  Like many publishers of “glory books” in his day, Hardin probably partially paid for its publication by canvassing homes in the county, offering to include a person’s biography in exchange for their commitment to buy a copy.  In this case, Hardin likely got his details from Joshua’s son John Jacob Thorp, who resided in the county.

John was busy building a business reputation of his own.  Hardin needed a sale.  Both had reason to tell a happy tale.

Was the story true?  Read on and judge for yourself….

Fact or Fiction?

Joshua Thorp was born about 1825 in the Town of Root, Montgomery Co., in New York’s historic Mohawk Valley, a son of Ebenezer Deacon Thorp and Martha Ann Young.[1][2]  By 1846 he and his wife, Catherine Shull, had welcomed their first child, Louisa Ann “Eliza” and three years later came son John Jacob.[3]

Joshua was indeed an educator.  In the 1850 census (the first in which the whole family appears by name) Joshua reported his occupation as “school teacher” and he is on record as a teacher at the Crum Creek School in the nearby Town of Oppenheim.[4]  As for whether he was principal at Watertown, records do not exist to investigate the claim[5]; however, an unbroken chronology of principals at Onondaga Valley Academy does exist and Thorp’s name is not on it.[6]  ….Strike one.

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 1.05.30 PM

1850 census of Town of Root, showing Joshua Thorp employed as “school teacher.”

According to Hardin, Joshua also served in the Civil War; however, there are no records of a New York soldier by that name to support that claim.[7]  ….Strike two.

Given the conflicting evidence, the verdict on the veracity of Hardin’s book is a mixed one.  Joshua did indeed teach, but not where Hardin reported.  And there is no evidence of a military career.

The true story of Joshua’s life would be found in other records—and in surprising places….

A Family Broken

In the summer of 1853, tragedy struck Joshua’s home when his 28 year old wife Catherine died, leaving him to care for his daughter Louisa, 7, and son John Jacob, 5.[8]

In the 1855 census, Louisa and John were living with their grandparents, Ebenezer and Martha, and their aunt Hope A. Thorp, on the family farm in Root.[9]  By 1860, Ebenezer and Martha were both dead.[10][11]  Joshua was not named in his father’s will.[12]  By 1865, Louisa had married and John, 16, had been taken in by his uncle John I. Shull at his farm in the Town of Danube.[13][14]

Where had Joshua gone?  Was he off looking for better paying work to provide for his children?  Or had he abandoned them?  The search for answers to these questions would lead far away from the family farm in New York….


Headstone of Catherine Shull, wife of Joshua Thorp.
Credit: Elizabeth Olmstead at

A New Start

Joshua showed up next in 1861, 900 miles away in Stark County, Illinois, where he was teaching in the town of Toulin.  According to Leeson’s Stark County history, “[Joshua] Thorp presided over the seminary from October, 1861 to February 1862….In March 1862, [he] proposed to teach the high school for $30 per month, on condition that he be authorized to employ a female assistant”[15]  Leeson goes on to say “J. Thorp…was principal of high school, or No. 1, at $50 per month,”[16]

Why had Joshua left his children to teach in Illinois of all places?  The records don’t say.

Joshua didn’t stay in Toulin for long.  By 1863, he’d moved 40 miles northwest to Geneseo, Henry Co., Illinois, where in June he registered for the military draft.  By this time, the country had been in a state of civil war for two years.  He reported himself to be a 37 year old unmarried teacher born in New York.  Was this proof of the Civil War service Hardin reported back in New York?  As it turns out, no.  There are no records of a Joshua Thorp serving from Illinois; in fact, there are no records fitting Joshua’s description serving from any state during the war.  The claim of Civil War service, like the one about being principal at Onondaga Valley, seems to have been bogus.[17]

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1863 draft register for Henry County, Illinois, showing Joshua Thorp.

By 1867, Joshua had moved again, to Kane County, where he found work as principal of the high school at Elgin City, while boarding at a house on the southeast corner of North and North Center streets.[18]

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1867 Kane County, Illinois, directory showing Joshua Thorp

By 1870, Joshua had moved yet again—and this time he had company.  The federal census of Polo, Ogle County, Illinois, shows Joshua, a 44-year-old school teacher from New York, living with wife Katie, a 27 year old housekeeper born in Illinois, and three-year-old Carrie Thorp, also born in Illinois.[19]

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1870 census showing Joshua, his new wife, Katie, and their daughter, Carrie.

After years of moving around, Joshua began to put down roots in Polo.  He was admitted to the local lodge of Freemasons and appears to have become a favorite.  A newspaper article entitled “Masonic Festivals” tells of him reading the poem “Solomon’s Temple” and presenting a chair to one of his fraternal brethren “in a very happy manner, eliciting universal commendation.”[20]

Joshua had a new family.  He was well-liked in his new community.  Things were looking up for him, professionally and personally.

A Turn for the Worse

Joshua’s good fortune would not last long.  Within a few short years tragedy struck again, when Katie died.  The 1880 census shows Joshua as a widower and single father caring for Carrie, by then 13, and attending school.  The two were boarding in the South Evanston neighborhood of Chicago where Joshua was employed as a teacher.[21]

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1880 census showing Joshua as a single father once again.

By the time Carrie reached adulthood, Joshua’s life was crumbling.

On 20 November 1888, “J. Thorp,” a 63-year-old schoolteacher from New York, was admitted to the Ogle County Almshouse at Oregon.  He was listed as a “transient” with a “good” education, but in “poor” health.  Joshua had apparently lost all means to support himself and he had no property to speak of.  The cause for his “pauperism” was listed as “crank,” a term indicating he had become unbalanced, eccentric and ill-tempered.[22]

Ogle County Almshouse was locally known as the “County Farm,” since it was quite literally a farm.  In 1878, the county Board of Supervisors had authorized the purchase of 50 acres along the west bank of Rock River, south of Oregon, and the erection of a building to house patients.  In 1883, an 18-room brick building for the insane was also built. In Joshua’s time, the farm was expanded to over 100 acres.  Not until 1909 were the buildings “heated with hot air furnace by blast, and lighted by electricity”[23].

Within a few months of admission, Joshua may have been transferred to the Elgin State Hospital, originally opened in 1851 for treatment of the insane.  An entry in the almshouse register for Joshua reads “March 14, 1889 Went to Elgin,” but it is crossed out.[24]  If he was sent to Elgin he may have been turned away (explaining the cross-out) since prior to 1894 Elgin’s policy was to send those who were too infirm for treatment back to their county’s almshouse.[25]  This was probably the case with Joshua, who was in poor health.

Joshua was eventually discharged from Ogle County Almshouse on 30 October 1895.[26]  In total, he had been a patient nearly seven years.

Upon discharge, Joshua was “sent to his children” in New York.[27]  His destitute condition must have been quite a shock to his family and friends, who by then had in their hands Hardin’s glowing remarks about his achievements as a soldier and educator.  This was not the man proud son John Jacob had described only two years earlier!


Entry for Joshua’s original admission to the Ogle County Almshouse.

Things must have gone badly for Joshua upon his return to New York since he didn’t stay long.  Just five months later, on 27 May 1896, Joshua was readmitted to the Ogle County Almhouse in Illinois.  The cause of his condition was again listed as crank.  Authority for his admission was recorded as “returned from the east.”[28]  Had he returned to the almshouse voluntarily or was he forcibly admitted?  The record hints at the latter.

His second stay would be his last.  Joshua Thorp’s life came to an end at the Ogle County Almshouse, when on 31 July 1900 he died of consumption (a.k.a. tuberculosis).  He was 75 years old.  He was laid to rest in the almshouse cemetery.[29]

The Final Insult

Dying at the almshouse wasn’t the last indignity the once-hailed professor would suffer—his headstone was even inscribed with the wrong name: Joseph Thorp.[30]


Joshua Thorp’s headstone in Oregon.  Credit: Kris Gilbert

Adding insult to injury, due to a land dispute in 1967 all the markers in the almshouse cemetery were pulled up and piled in a corner near the road.  It wasn’t until 1970 that the markers were put back, but by then no one was quite sure where each patient was buried, so the stones were laid flat on the ground in rows according to best guess.[31]

So for more than a century, Joshua Thorp has lain buried in a farm field, made nameless by a careless mistake, and today his actual resting place is only an approximation.


County Farm Cemetery, the field where Joshua Thorp is buried.  Credit: Kris Gilbert

Unanswered Questions

For all the facts the paper trail reveals, the most important—and troubling—questions about Joshua’s life remain unanswered:

Why did he leave his children in New York?  With all of his experience as a teacher and principal he clearly was capable of providing for them.

Hardin would have interviewed Joshua’s son John in 1893.  By then Joshua had been a patient in the almshouse in Illinois a full five years.  Is it possible that John hadn’t heard from his father in years and had no idea that he’d fallen on hard times?  Or did John know and choose to leave that part out of the story he told Hardin in order to cover up his father’s tragic turn and his own embarrassment?  Given the evidence contradicting Hardin’s book, it doesn’t seem too large a leap to conclude that John was giving Hardin the best story he could come up with about his father.  A sterling family reputation would reflect well on John and his business.  Who would bother traveling to Illinois to check the facts?

What kind of relationship did John and Louisa in New York have with their half-sister Carrie in Illinois?  Perhaps none.  Katie and Carrie weren’t included in Hardin’s account, indicating John never mentioned them.  Likewise, in Illinois, Joshua’s obituary claimed he had “no relatives” surviving other than Carrie.[32]  Did they not know about one another?  Or was there acrimony amongst the children stemming from Joshua’s seeming abandonment of his first family years before?  Certainly Joshua must have spoken to John and Louisa about his new wife and daughter during his brief return east in 1895.  Then again, perhaps Joshua jumped the train en route and never made it back to New York at all.

Did Louisa and John ever find out what became of their father?  Did they ever try to find his grave at the almshouse, only to be turned away?  “Nope, no Joshua Thorp here.”

We’ll probably never know the answers to any of these questions, but thanks to diligent genealogical research we at least know the questions left to ponder.


This story began with the lofty claims of a son about his father’s grand accomplishments as reported to a publisher more than a century ago.  Sound genealogical investigation proved essential parts of the story to be untrue—and left out—possibly out of ignorance, but just as likely to protect the family’s reputation.

Through careful evaluation of census records, city directories, newspaper accounts, almshouse registers and cemetery records scattered across nearly a thousand miles, the true story of Prof. Joshua Thorp’s life emerged, depicting a much more flawed—and perhaps sympathetic—character.

Would you like the story of your ancestor told?  Read more about my professional genealogy research services!

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Obituary for Joshua Thorp, printed in the Dixon Telegraph.

Author’s Note

The subject of this story was my great-great-great-grandfather.  I’d like to thank two groups who made this story about him possible by pointing you to their websites:

First, are Kristine A. M Gilbert and the volunteers with the Ogle County, Illinois, GenWeb site.  Kristine photographed and transcribed all of the stones at County Farm Cemetery in 2004 and put them online.  Please have a look at Kristine’s work and if you have Illinois ancestors see the many other cemetery transcripts and photos created by the Ogle County GenWeb team of volunteers.

Second, are Ruth Abramovitz and Barbara Heflin with the Illinois Regional Archives Depository (IRAD), who transcribed the index to Ogle County Almshouse records and made them searchable online.  Please read about their work on the IRAD website.

It was through the work of both these groups that I pieced together the final puzzle of who Joshua a.k.a. “Joseph” Thorp really was.  Thank you!

Further Reading

If you’d like to learn more about using institutional records, including sanitariums, state hospitals, asylums, poorhouses and almshouses, as part of your genealogy research, then I suggest the article by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack entitled “Genealogy Workbook: Institutional Records,” published in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Family Tree Magazine.  You can get it online or you can order a copy via interlibrary loan from your nearest library. [I provide the above link as a convenience to my readers; I’m not affiliated with Family Tree Magazine nor with the article author.]


[1]  Hardin, George A., ed., History of Herkimer County, New York, Syracuse, N.Y.: D. Mason & Co., 1893, family sketches, 127; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 14 April 2016).

[2]  Lethbridge, Melvin W.  Montgomery County, N.Y. Marriage Records: Performed by Rev. Elijah Herrick, 1795-1844; also records of Rev. Calvin Herrick, 1834-1876; also records of Rev. John Calvin Toll, 1803-1844. St. Johnsville, N.Y.: Enterprise and News, 1922, p. 10, entry 350 for Ebenezer Thorp to Martha Young; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 22 April 2016).

[3]  1850 U.S. census, Montgomery County, New York, population schedule, Town of Root, p. 654 (written), dwelling 113, family 123, Joshua, Catherine, Eliza and John J. Thorp; image, ( : accessed 14 April 2016); citing NARA microfilm publication M432, roll 533.

[4]  “Crum Creek School” at Fulton County, New York, GenWeb ( : accessed 14 April 2016).

[5]  An inquiry to the school district in 2000 indicated records were not available for time period in question.

[6]  Slocum, Richard R. “In Old Onondaga Valley: The Academy and its Early Organization” at Onondaga County, New York, GenWeb ( : accessed 14 April 2016).

[7]  Based on a search of military service records and pensions at,, and for the name Joshua Thorp and variants in New York, accessed on 22 April 2016.

[8]  Find A Grave, database with images ( : accessed 14 April 2016), memorial 75501044, Catherine Sholl Thorp (1825-1853), Rockwood Cemetery, Rockwood, Fulton County, New York; gravestone photo by Elizabeth Olmstead.

[9]  1855 New York State Census, Montgomery County, population schedule, election district 1st & 2nd, Town of Root, unpaged, dwelling 150, family 25, for Ebenezer, Martha A., Hope A., Louisa and John J. Thorp; digital image, : accessed 14 April 2016); citing Census of the state of New York, for 1855. Microfilm. New York State Archives, Albany, New York (roll number not given).

[10]  Find A Grave, database with images ( : accessed 22 April 2016), memorial 37453511, Ebenezer Thorp (1792-1860), Rural Grove Cemetery, Rural Grove, Montgomery County, New York; gravestone photo by David Peck.

[11]  Find A Grave, database with images ( : accessed 22 April 2016), memorial 37453534, Martha Thorp (1798-1858), Rural Grove Cemetery, Rural Grove, Montgomery County, New York; gravestone photo by David Peck.

[12]  Montgomery County, New York, “Book of Wills, Vol. 10” 544-546, Will of Ebenezer Thorp, 28 September 1860; digital images, ( : accessed 14 April 2016).

[13]  Frasco, Jo Dee.  “Marriage Records from the 1865 NY State Census, Town of Herkimer” at Montgomery County, New York, GenWeb ( : accessed 22 April 2016).

[14]  1865 New York State Census, Herkimer County, population schedule, Town of Danube, p. 11 (penned), dwelling 400, family 73, for Jacob I. Sholl (head) and John J. Thorp; image, : accessed 14 April 2016); citing Census of New York, for 1865.  Microfilm. New York State Archives, Albany, New York (roll number not given).

[15]  Leeson, M. A. Documents and Biography Pertaining to the Settlement and Progress of Stark County, Illinois. Chicago: M. A. Leeson & Co., 1887, 282; digital image, ( : accessed 14 April 2016).

[16]  Leeson, p. 253.

[17]  U.S. Civil War Draft Registrations, 1863-1865.  Consolidated List, Class I,  Fifth District, Illinois, Vol, 2, p. 709 (penned), entry for Joshua Thorp; digital images ( : accessed 14 April 2016).

[18]  Bailey, John C. W. Kane County Gazetteer. Chicago: John C. W. Bailey, 1867, 203; digital images, ( : accessed 14 April 2016).

[19]  1870 U.S. census, Ogle County, Illinois, population schedule, City of Polo, p. 46 (penned), dwelling 359, family 362, Joshua, Katie and Carrie Thorp; image, ( : accessed 14 April 2016); citing NARA microfilm publication M593, roll 265.

[20]  “Masonic Festivals.” Rockford Gazette (Rockford, Ill.), 6 January 1870, p. 6, col. 2; digital images, ( : accessed 14 April 2016).

[21]  1880 U.S. census, Cook County, Illinois, population schedule, Village of South Evanston, enumeration district 217, p. 276 (stamped), p. 45 (penned), dwelling 386, family 386, Joshua and Carrie Thorp; image ( : accessed 14 April 2016); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 201.

[22]  “Ogle County Almshouse Registers, 1878-1933.” Microfilm roll 30-2819, undated, unpaged, entry for J. Thorp with “Date of Admission” of 20 November 1888.  Illinois Regional Archives Depository, Regional History Center, DeKalb, Illinois.

[23]  History of Ogle Co., Illinois. Chicago: Munsell Publishing Co., 1909. 653; digital image Ogle County, Illinois, GenWeb ( : accessed 14 April 2016).

[24] see reference 22.

[25]  “Elgin Mental Health Center” at ( : accessed 21 April 2016); citing Briska, William (1997). The History of Elgin Mental Health Center: Evolution of a State Hospital. Crossroads Communications. p. 85.

[26]  see reference 22.

[27]  see reference 22.

[28]  “Ogle County Almshouse Registers, 1878-1933.” Microfilm roll 30-2819, undated, unpaged, entry for J. Thorp with “Date of Admission” of 27 May 1896.  Illinois Regional Archives Depository, Regional History Center, DeKalb, Illinois.

[29]  see reference 28.

[30]  Gilbert, Kris. “County Farm Cemetery, Oregon Township, Ogle County, Illinois” ( : accessed 14 April 2016).  Photo of grave for “Thorp, Joseph.”

[31]  “County Farm Cemetery, Oregon Township” at Ogle County, Illinois, GenWeb ( : accessed 14 April 2016).

[32]  “Prof. Joshua Thorp Dead.”  Dixon Evening Telegraph (Dixon, Illinois), 1 August 1900, p. 1, col. 3; digital images ( : accessed 21 April 2016).

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

[Do you have an ancestor whose story you’d like to learn?  I am a professional genealogist with more than 25 years of experience.  Find out how I can help!]

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 prior 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.  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.

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

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 at the time, I decided to start with ship passenger records.  Knowing the family member’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 Joh. [Johann], 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 passenger manifest created in Hamburg, Germany, where Michael and his family 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” was expected?  I knew it was typical for German women to retain their birth surname during marriage, but it was unusual for a child to carry his mother’s maiden name.  Had the ship’s clerk simply been careless in recording Michael’s last name, or was I missing part of the story?
  3. Why was Saloma called Engelbert’s “bride” instead of “wife,” as if to suggest their relationship started recently, when Michael was already six years old?

Until now, every record I had found on this side of the Atlantic had supported the conclusion that Engelbert Diepolder was Michael’s father—not only had the 1860 census said so, but Michael’s marriage and death records did too.[4]  I thought all my genealogical bases were covered, but these ship records were now 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, Bavaria.

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.[5]


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.  Using a middle name as one’s preferred name was common for Catholic families at the time.

The record went on to state that Johann Michael had been born out of wedlock.  That 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 biological father after all.

The obvious next 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 an entry for Johann Michael, born to Saloma Steiner, “unmarried poor person, daughter of widow Katharina Steiner.”  A note in the record revealed his father’s identity:

“The father of the child is said to be a Frenchman, supervisor at the railroad, Aegidius Bollage, as the mother says.” [6]

“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.  His family name wasn’t Diepolder after all.  And it wasn’t even Steiner.  It was Boulanger!

Who was Gilles Boulanger?  Why didn’t he marry 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.” [6]


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.”[6]

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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 genealogist Georges Close in Liège, the complete picture of Michael’s origins and his mothers’ tribulations had come 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 to the town 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 learn 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. [7]

By the time the railroad was completed, Saloma was eight months along and Gilles’ employer was pulling out of the area.  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 financially supported 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 to the court 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 follow the Catholic custom of using Johann’s middle name, Michael, but also chose to change his last name to match Engelbert’s.  Thus, Saloma’s child was effectively given a new identity in America that hid the circumstances of his birth.  In doing so, she could leave behind the bitter remembrance of Gilles’ abandonment, and her son would grow up free from the stigma of an out of wedlock birth.

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

Loose ends

Did Michael ever know that Gilles Boulanger, and not Engelbert Diepolder, was his real father?  It’s hard to know the answer.  It’s conceivable that if Saloma met Engelbert when Michael was young enough that 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. [8]

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

And 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.[9]

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 generations of Diepolder family ancestry before passenger lists became available and I realized that I needed to change course.

This story also teaches how using all means available—including hiring a genealogist with access to local records—to follow the complete trail of records left by our ancestors can reveal surprising details that help 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!

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

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, Town of Orleans, population schedule, page 69, dwelling #552, family #553, Engelbert Diepolder household; image, Ancestry ( : accessed 17 March 2016); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 761.

[2]  Manifest, S. S. Bavaria, 1 September 1859, n.p., lines 94-96, Engelbert Diepolder, Saloma Steiner, and Joh. [Steiner]; image, “New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” database, Ancestry ( : accessed 17 March 2016) > Date > 1859 > Sep > 01 > Bavaria > image 3 of 9; citing Records of the U.S. Customs Service, “Passenger Lists of Vessells Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897,” micropublication M237, roll not cited, NARA, Washington, D.C..

[3]  Manifest, S. S. Bavaria, 13 August 1859, written p. 409, line 94-96, Engelbert Diepolder, Saloma Steiner, and Joh. [Steiner]; image, “Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934,” database,  Ancestry ( : accessed 17 March 2016) > 1850-1859 > Direkt Band 013 (28 Feb 1859 – 30 Nov 1859), image 215 of 323; citing Hamburger Passagierlisten, Vol. 373-7 I, VIII A 1 Band 013, p. 395, microfilm no. K_1707, Staatsarchiv, Hamburg, Germany.

[4]  For marriage record, see “Ontario, Canada, Marriages, 1826-1938,” database, Ancestry ( : accessed 16 March 2016) > Leeds and Grenville > 1894 > image 5 of 10, “Schedule B.–Marriages County of Leeds & Grenville Division of Gananoque,” 1894, p. 450, marriage no. 15 (penned), 006684 (stamped)., Diepolder-Row; citing Registration sof Marriags, 1869-1928, reel 82, Archives of Ontario, Toronot, Canada.  For death, see Caryn Winters, Town of Orleans, Jefferson County, New York, Town Clerk, to Mark A. Wentling [author], letter, 14 June 1999, containing transcript of Diepolder family death records on file; author’s files. 

[5]  Martinszell parish church (Martinszell, Waltenhofen, Schwaben, Bayern, Germany), baptism entry, Johann Michael Steiner, 15 December 1852; “Kirchenbuchzweitschriften Martinszell 1837-1861”; KBZS Kempten 2754, Staatsarchiv, Augsburg, Germany.

[6]  Kempten, Schwaben, Bayern, Germany, Landgerich ä O. Kempten, VA S Nr. 920, guardianship file for Johann Michael Steiner, 1853; Staatsarchiv, Augsburg, Germany.

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

[8]  Michael J. Diepolder, entry for 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..

[9]  Transcription of the Act of Marriage for Gilles Joseph Boulanger and Consolatà Luvarà, Gallina, Sicily, 28 September 1872; Civil Status Registers, Art: 1 [1872?], Olne, Liège, Belgium.

“I never saw my father again….”: how genealogical research answered a lifelong question for one woman

[Do you have an ancestor whose story you’d like to learn?  I am a professional genealogist with more than 20 years of experience.  Find out how I can help!]


My grandmother, Barbara, was nine years old the last time she saw her father.  On that day in 1943, she and her sister were walking to school when a car rolled up alongside them. In the driver’s seat was her father, accompanied by a woman she’d never seen.  “Barbara, Uncle Sam is calling me,” he said, “will you come with me?”


Barbara and her sister Lila in 1935.

What a question!  Since their parents’ divorce, Barbara and her sister had been living with their grandparents on a quiet farm.  Suddenly she was being asked to leave all that she knew for travel down an uncertain road.

Her sister ran into the school as the teacher who stood in the doorway looked quizzically at Barbara.

“I’m going to stay here,” Barbara said after a long pause.  With those fateful words spoken, she watched the car carrying her father and the woman she had never met pull away.  Its wheels carried them toward the horizon and disappeared.

“I never saw my father after that,” said Barbara.  “I’ve always wondered what happened to him.”

It was now 1999, and as I sat across the kitchen table listening to Barbara tell her story, I could only imagine what questions must have haunted her during the 56 years since that day.

        Where had he gone?….
        Why didn’t he ever come back?….
        Was he even alive?….
        Should she have said yes?

I agreed to track down answers to as many of these questions as I could for her.  Fortunately, Barbara knew some details about her father that could get me started on the road to discovery:

Austin S. Carter in uniform

Austin S. Carter in his uniform

Austin Sinclair Carter was born on 16 July 1913 in Omar near Clayton, Jefferson County, New York.  It was a rural farming community, only a few miles from the mighty St. Lawrence River and the Canadian border, in the Thousand Islands region where life on a boat came as naturally to the locals as walking on land.

He was the son of Floyd Lewis Carter, a boat builder, and Ada Blanche Diepolder, who had once proclaimed herself the prettiest woman on the river(!).

Austin had helped build the famous Thousand Islands International Bridge that opened in 1938, connecting the mainland U.S. with Ontario, Canada.  He had also served in the Army Air Force during World War II.

This was all great information, but none of it gave me a place to start looking for Austin after the war, and there were no other relatives or acquaintances of his around for me to ask.

Then Barbara pulled out the one crucial clue she had—her grandmother’s obituary.

Obituaries are a valuable genealogical resource because they usually contain biographical information about a subject, including interests and occupations, places of residence, military service, organizational memberships and pointers to surviving relatives.  Usually this information is reliable because it has been provided by an immediate relative or close friend who was in a position to know.  Still, it’s always wise to verify the information found in an obituary, since the stress surrounding a death can muddle a person’s recollections under a reporter’s questioning, and reporters themselves can make mistakes when trying to assemble answers into an accurate record of unfamiliar names and relationships for publication, especially in the rush to meet a deadline.  Sometimes a person or reporter may even alter or omit the deceased’s affiliations, partners, children and other significant relationships intentionally.

Austin’s mother had died on 8 May 1974 and her obituary, published in the Watertown Daily Times, indeed contained a list of survivors:

“Besides her daughter, Mrs. Carter is survived by a son, Austin, of Washington State.”

Eureka!  I now knew that after leaving New York in the 1940’s, Austin had somehow found his way to Washington State.  Yet decades had passed since then.  Would he still be there?  My next task would be to pick up his trail in Washington records.

I first considered which sources would be most likely to contain a record of Austin.  Census records would not help, since none were available for the time period in question due to privacy laws.  Searching in city directories would be like finding a needle in a haystack, since I did not yet know where in Washington Austin had settled down.  Given that Austin would be in his late 80’s by this time, I knew there was a good chance he was no longer alive.  With this in mind, I turned to the Social Security Death Index to narrow my search.

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is an essential tool for researching recent Americans.  This searchable online database contains a record for each person who has died since 1936, was given a social security number and whose death was reported to the Social Security Administration.  Each index record contains important genealogical data, including:

  • Full Name
  • Date of birth
  • Date of death
  • Social Security Number (SSN)
  • State or Territory that issued the SSN
  • Last place of residence (zip code)
  • Last place of claimed benefit (zip code)

Among other things, a genealogist can use an entry in the SSDI to obtain (with an immediate family member’s written consent) a copy of the original application for the deceased person’s Social Security card, which can contain even more valuable information, such as the person’s birthplace and parents’ full names, including mother’s maiden name.

My search of the SSDI turned up one record for an Austin Carter residing in Washington:

Name: Austin Carter
Born:   16 Jul 1913
Died:    Jan 1975
Residence: 98816 (Chelan, Chelan, WA)
Issuing State: New York

The name, date and place of birth and state and time of residence were all exact matches.  Here was Barbara’s father.

I was pleased that I had finally found him after all these years, but the record was bittersweet confirmation that he had been dead for a long time.

Yet this was not the end of my investigation.  I wanted to be able to tell Barbara what her father’s life had been like after he left her and her sister in New York so long ago.  To do that, I once again turned to an obituary search.

From the SSDI entry, I knew that Austin had probably died in Chelan.  I performed an online query to discover which newspapers served that community in 1975 and quickly zeroed in on The Wenatchee World, which was still in operation.  A clerk at the newspaper’s offices directed me to a local library that kept copies of old obituaries in their genealogy collection.  One phone call to the library and a few days later I had Austin’s obituary in my hands.  Published on 27 January 1975, it read:

“Austin S. Carter, 61, Chelan, died Friday evening in a Chelan hospital following an extended illness.

He was born July 16, 1913 in Clayton, New York.  He spent his early life there.  During World War II he served in the Army Air Force.  Following his discharge he moved to Chelan in 1946.  For two years he was employed with the Lake Chelan Boat Company.  From 1948 until 1950 he was employed with Howe-Sound Mining Co. at Holden.  Since 1950 he has been self employed as a carpenter.

On Jan. 8, 1963, he married Betty J. Randolph at Chelan.  He was a member of the Chelan Valley Lodge No. 118, F.A.M., Charles B. Reed, Council No. 14, R.& S.M., past high priest of Wenatchee Chapter No. 22, R.A.M., Columbia Commandery No. 14 Knights Templar, El Katif Shrine and the Chelan Eagles Lodge No. 2218.

Surviving are his wife Betty at home; one daughter, Mrs. Bob Woods of Winkleman, Ariz.; two sons, John of WInkleman, Ariz., and Tommy Randolph of Cashmere.”

I could now tell Barbara that after the war her father had settled in a place much like where he grew up that allowed him to make a living from work on the water.  He had also continued to be a builder—in fact, further research uncovered that he was awarded a patent for a “foldable boat.”

I could tell her that the reason he hadn’t come home was because he had settled down with a new wife and children (later research would show them to be hers from a prior marriage).

Finally, whatever his reasons were for not contacting the daughters he’d left behind during his lifetime, Barbara could now know that his silence during the previous 24 years had not been a lost opportunity to reconnect, but rather was the byproduct of his death.

The mystery of Austin’s fate was solved and Barbara’s questions were finally answered.

Introducing Barbara’s father…. Austin S. Carter.


The gravemarker for Austin S. Carter at Fraternal Cemetery in Chelan, Washington.

Austin’s grave marker at Fraternal Cemetery in Chelan.


This story proves the power of genealogical research to bring meaningful closure to a person’s lifelong and most deeply held questions.  It also illustrates the value an experienced genealogist provides in choosing the right tools and resources for the time period, location and question at hand to help solve a mystery.

Is there a mystery in your family waiting to be solved? Read more about my professional genealogy research service to find out how we can discover answers together!


Detail from Austin Carter's patent for foldable boat

Detail from Austin Carter’s patent for a foldable boat.  U.S. Patent No. 2,533,220.