More than Fifty Letters

A collection at the Nebraska State Historical Society contains over one hundred letters written to a first cousin of my second great-grandfather in the late 19th century. At least a dozen of those letters are actually written by my third great-grandfather, Johann Goldenstein (1814-1891) who spent his entire life in Wrisse, Ostfriesland, Germany. The vast majority of letters were written by family members to Johann’s nephew, William Ehmen of Gothenburg, Nebraska. Some of the letters were written to Ehmen’s wife and daughter.

There were a lot of them and the limits of my budget dictated that I focus on ones that I thought would be most helpful to my research. That list consisted of over fifty letters written by my ancestor, his daughter, his brother, and a few other select individuals.  I decided to not obtain copies of letters written by non-relatives and by one cousin of William that wrote approximately fifty letters. Sometimes one simply has to maintain a budget.

Staack-Ehmen Family, “Collection Record,” Nebraska State Historical Society

The inventory of the letters is specific and details the date of each letter, to whom it was addressed, and by whom it was written. That made determining which letters I wanted copies of fairly easy. The inventory was posted as a PDF file and I was tempted to simply have the computer search the text for specific last names in which I had an interest so that I saved time and did not overlook any references. That would have been a mistake. There are many letters from non-relatives and individuals who knew Ehmen before he lived in Nebraska (Ehmen was raised in Germany and lived in Adams County, Illinois, and Mendota, Illinois, before moving to Nebraska).

Staack-Ehmen Family, “Collection Record,” Nebraska State Historical Society

There were two letters from a Trientje Behrend[sic] of Keokuk Junction, Illinois (the original name for the town of Golden). One is undated and one is dated 1874. Members of the Goldenstein-Ehmen family are fairly well-documented. There is no Trientje Behrend in the family. It was the only name that stood out to me other than relatives of Ehmen.

But I am descended from a Trientje Behrends who lived near Golden, Illinois during the time frame in which the letters were written. It’s possible that the 1874 letter and the undated one are written by her. While I’m waiting for a copy of the letters, I need to determine if there was any other Trientje Behrend(s) living in or near Golden besides the one who is my relative. That will help me in determining if the letter was written by my relative or not. This Trientje is not related to the Goldenstein-Ehmen family at all, but simply lived in the same general area as family members did in Adams County. I cannot assume because the name Trientje Behrends is not all that common that there was only one person in the area with that name. While the population of Golden, Illinois, is small, it was heavily settled by Ostfriesen immigrants. Trientje is a common first name within the Ostfriesen community. Behrends is not as common, but it is not a rare surname either.

I’ve taken the inventory of letters and created an excel spreadsheet using the inventory details. That will help me to make certain I’ve got all the letters I wanted. It will also help me to craft citations when I get to that point. I can also include a column in the spreadsheet for the file name(s) of the images and any comments about the image when I’ve had a chance to look at it. That will help me to stay organized and give me something to do while I wait for the images to arrive.

That and try and determine how many Trientjes there were in Golden in the mid-1870s.

Specific comments and thoughts:

  • letters and similar material written by someone may be in an archives thousands of miles from where they lived
  • sometimes a manual search is necessary-I would not have found the Trientje Behrend reference otherwise
  • never assume your family “never left letters”–I’ve been researching this family for thirty years and never dreamed I’d find this sort of material on the family
  • organize material before you get it if possible–that will save time and confusion later
  • never assume that there is only one person in an area with the same name
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