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 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, Town of Orleans, population schedule, page 69, dwelling #552, family #553, Engelbert Diepolder household; image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : 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 (http://www.ancestry.com : 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 (http://www.ancestry.com : 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 (http://www.ancestry.com : 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.