“Why, that’s today,” I said to myself. It was February 21, less than a week ago, and I was one hundred ninety-three years late for the wedding. Justine Friederike and Hermann Heinrich said their vows on February 21, 1821. As you might have guessed from their names, they lived in Germany or a part of Germany that was then Prussia. As it happened, the February 21 date was also the groom’s birthday. He was twenty-five years old on his wedding day, and the bride would be eighteen on the first of June.
Or maybe she had already turned eighteen the previous July.
Justine and Hermann were my great-great-grandparents. I have been looking on Ancestry.com hoping to find out something about their lives. As one might expect, they have a great many descendants by now, and I found their names on a dozen family trees besides my own.
The records, however, have lots of troublesome discrepancies besides two different dates of Justine’s birth. In my family tree, her maiden name is Boeker, but in others it is Hanke, the same as her married name; in a few others, it is Noetzel. Two different sets of parents are given to Justine. I had to consider the very real possibility that there were two young women in the town at approximately the same time, both with the name Justine Friederike. But that can’t be right, either, as in all the records, Hermann Heinrich Hanke is named as her spouse.
The couple had several children; their firstborn, Christian, born in 1823, became my great-grandfather; Another son, Herman, born in 1825, eventually came to America and settled in California. Their daughter, also named Justine, was born in 1827, and their third son, Johann, was born in 1831.
Then, big news—to me, at least. Whether Hermann passed away or the marriage ended in divorce, I do not know, but the records seem to show that Justine later married a man named Adam Noetzel. They, too, had several children: Samuel, born in 1834; Charles, born in 1836, and Augusta, born in 1838.
The Noetzel family came to America in 1868 and settled in Wisconsin. Adam died the following year, and Justine died October 7, 1885. The Wisconsin Find-a-Grave Index names a Justine Friederike Hanke Noetzel and quotes from her obituary as follows: “On Wednesday, at 11:45 P.M., Mrs. Justine Noetzel departed this life at the ripe old age of 83 years… Grandmother Noetzel was a kind old lady and was respected by all who knew her.”
Although I am not a genealogist, I am intrigued by the way genealogists must piece together little bits of information, weighing likelihoods when certainties are questioned. If the Justine Noetzel who is laid to rest in a cemetery in Wisconsin is the same person as in my family’s history, then Justine outlived two of her sons from her first marriage. Herman, we know, died in 1879. Christian, my great-grandfather, was no longer living in 1881. That was the year his widow Friederike came to America and settled in Nebraska. Did the two women know each other’s whereabouts? Did they exchange letters?
That’s how is, I think, with family history and perhaps with all history. From the obscure past, sometimes, a person may come into our awareness to capture our attention for a while. We pore over names and dates wishing we could ask, “What was life like, for you?” even while knowing we will never really know.