2. John Barth of Keokuk County, Iowa, and the Offhand Comment

John Barth immigrated to America in 1874, according to family legend to avoid conscription into the Prussian army. He wound up in Keokuk county, Iowa, where in 1876 he became the teacher of St. Peter and Paul Parish Church school in the tiny community of Clear Creek. Ten years later, his first wife Katharine Limbach having died, he married Mary Anna Rung, legendarily his music pupil at the school. Several moves followed: To Clinton county, Iowa, about 1888; to Barton county, Kansas, about 1890; and finally to a homestead near Edmond, Oklahoma county, Oklahoma, in 1893. John died in that area in 1906, either of consumption or a stray bullet from a bank robbery, depending on who told the story.

Barth, John.Lulu

A Mysterious Origin

John’s origin, however, was long shrouded in mystery. Family legend recorded that he was Catholic and that he was from Baden, Germany. Certainly he taught at a Catholic school, and his native country was confirmed by census records. But which Baden, the Grand Duchy or the namesake city within it? The conscription legend certainly made sense, for Baden had become part of the German Empire in 1871. But otherwise there was no clue to John’s origins.

An Offhand Comment

In 1985 my wife and I visited her great-aunt Rose Barth Boettcher in Litchfield, Illinois. Rose was the next-to-youngest and likely last surviving child of John Barth. During an interview she confirmed some of the old legends, including the conscription story. But she said she didn’t know anything more about her father’s origins — no exact place of origin in Baden, and no parents’ names. She did have a birthday for John, 28 May 1849, having included it in a typed “Family Register” she had compiled about 14 years previously. She had also written that he had no brothers, a stray fact gleaned from her father.

Toward the end of the interview, sensing that the opportunity might never arise again, I decided on one final effort. “Do you recall anything,” I emphasized, “that might help identify your father’s origins in Germany?”

Rose hesitated. Then she said offhandedly, “Well, I was named Rosanna Susanna by my parents, but the French priest who baptized me changed it to Rosalia Susanna. I was told I had been named for my grandmother.”

A Long Wait For The World To Change

So the matter stood for nearly 30 years. All attempts to determine the origin of John Barth failed. Even the monumental series of books Germans to America, by Glazier and Filby, failed to list any immigrant whose vital data unambiguously matched John’s.

Those 30 years saw enormous changes in the world of genealogy. The database known as the International Genealogical Index (IGI), which had first been published on microfiche in 1975 by the Church of Latter Day Saints, appeared in expanded form on CD in 1988. By the late 1990s, the internet came into widespread use, and in 1999 the IGI was incorporated into the on-line website FamilySearch.org [1].

But more importantly with respect to the case of John Barth, during this period the LDS Church accelerated its massive push to enter genealogical records into the database. In 1988, an already impressive 147 million records had been indexed worldwide, of which some 19 million (13%) were German [1, 2]. But by 2013, 1 billion indexed entries were in the worldwide data base [3].

Repeated Searches, Then Success

Throughout this period I repeatedly searched the database in its various editions, failing to turn up relevant Barth records. But then, in 2012, something intriguing happened. The ever-expanding FamilySearch database turned up an indexed church record of a Johannes Barth, born 27 May 1850 in Handschuhsheim, near Heidelberg, Baden, Germany. The name was right and the place was appropriate. More importantly, the birthdate was tantalizingly similar to the one Rose had given for her father, 28 May 1849. Could these possibly be the same man?

That was the wrong question, as it turned out; I should have been looking at the women. For a closer examination of the church record showed that Johannes was the son of Susanna Jost. Aunt Rose’s offhand comment, made at the end of an interview almost three decades previously, had finally proven its value, identifying John by way of his mother in the Baden church records. Johannes was the son of Susanna by her husband Casimir Barth. In short order, several other observations confirmed the match.


Importantly, the church records showed no brothers of Johannes Barth, just as Rose had reported. He did have two sisters of record, one of them named Eva Catherina. Her marriage was found in Catholic church records, as was Casimir Barth’s christening, both helpful discoveries because the affiliation of the church in Handschuhsheim was ambiguous. Thus, both from the standpoint of being an only son, and Catholic, Johannes was a match to John. Furthermore, John had used the name Casimir for one of his own sons in America. Taken together, the circumstances were convincing in supporting the match.

But what about the close but not quite matching birth dates? There is a rule of thumb in genealogy that the earlier a birth year is reported in the historical record, the more accurate it is likely to be. Over time, memories distort and reported birthdates drift. An extreme example in my wife’s genealogy is the case of an ancestor named Hester Walcott Brownlee. She was born about 1810 according to her father’s 1820 pension statement; 1804/5 according to the 1850 and 1860 censuses; 1803/4 according to the 1870 census; 1794 according to an 1894 newspaper article; 1793 according to her 1898 death record; and 1792 according to her 1898 obituary. It is clear that the 1820 statement by her father must be the most accurate, for he surely would not have mistaken his 10-year-old daughter for age 28, as she would have been according to the obituary. What is striking is the pronounced drift toward older and older birth years as Hester aged.

In John Barth’s case the earliest known record of his birth year was in 1880, his first U.S. census record. On June 16th of that year he (or someone of his household) reported that he was 30 years of age — i.e., born between 17 June 1849 and 16 June 1850. That range of dates fit perfectly with the church record, but less well with Rose’s date. For its part, the one day difference, between the 27th and the 28th of May, can be considered negligible given the imperfections of reportage. Clearly, this was a match.

Additional Ancestors

An additional Barth generation proved to be traceable beyond Casimir. Susanna Jost, his memorably named wife, proved traceable for several more generations, with collateral lines to the Dietz, Ries, Stammler, and Wassermann families.

I surely would not have been willing to make the identification of John Barth as Johannes Barth on the basis of the imperfect birthdate match alone. Not a bad outcome from Aunt Rose’s offhand comment, reported in our single meeting nearly 30 years previously.


[1] Information retrieved from https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/International_Genealogical_Index (2014).

[2] Information retrieved from http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/International_Genealogical_Index_(IGI) (2014).

[3] Information retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FamilySearch (2014).

All other references for the above statements are given in two volumes. The first is the all-in-one ancestry, The Omnibus Ancestry. That work updates and corrects, in brief form, material in the much more detailed volume, Barth-Hickey Ancestry (1993). Both books are available for download through Lulu.

You may also be interested in visiting the Bolesbooks website or my Facebook page.

The quotations in the text are paraphrases from memory.

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