Finding the Parents of Franz Weigel
Franz Weigel is the patriarch of our Weigel clan. He is the father of the five children who immigrated to the US from Germany in the 1870s and 80s. He is the OLD COUNTRY personified. We have a photograph of Franz posing with his wife and daughter at their ancestral home of Weigelsdorf (presumably this was sent as a postcard to his family in America). We know that two of his sons went back to see their father in 1903. We know that Franz died in 1904. What we don’t know are the names of Franz’s parents. Or where (exactly) or when (exactly) he was born. Let me explain…
One of the goals in doing genealogy is moving the family tree, generation by generation, back further into the past. We first find our grandparents, then their parents, and so on until the “paper trail” runs dry. As we move back in time, we frequently encounter scarcity of records. War and natural disaster are common causes for record gaps and, unfortunately, records just don’t exist anymore for some areas during some time periods.
Another goal of family history is accuracy. Of course no one sets out to put false information into their tree, but it does happen. As beginner family historians, we often don’t pay strict attention to geopolitical boundary changes that happen to locations over time. We often don’t pay attention to the fine details in records that we collect that can help direct further searching and be used to verify or discount other information we may encounter. We are easily overwhelmed with the amount of information that others on sites like Ancestry or Family Search have discovered or shared. Some of this information is shared with notes stating that the information is a “hypothesis”, but many newer researchers don’t read the fine print.
A classic example of how easy it is to be misled is right in our own family tree in the person of Franz Weigel. I have recently been seeing more and more family trees online that are displaying some names for the parents of OUR Franz Weigel. I say “OUR” because the name “Franz Weigel” is not really that unique in Germany in the mid to late 1800s. To find the right branch of the tree – and make sure we are climbing our own family tree and not someone else’s – we first need to make sure we are looking in the right place. We work from known information backward to unknown. So- what do we actually know about Franz Weigel?
We know that Franz is listed as the father of the five children who came to the US and three other children (Franz, Marie, Paul, Joseph, August, Herman, Agnes, and Theresa – Herman Weigel later said he was the last surviving of 10 children born to his parents) on various documents and in newspaper articles. We know that Amalie Scholz is consistently listed as his wife and the mother of these children. We know that Franz was alive when the children left Germany because two of his sons returned to visit him the year before he died. We know that Franz died at Weigelsdorf, Munsterberg, Silesia, Germany in house number 95 on 25 November 1904, and was buried 30 November. He was a retired builder, his age at death was 85 years, 5 months. At the time of his death he had living sons in North America (Wisconsin) and a daughter “Hoffmann” in Germany. His death was recorded at the parish of St Bartholomaus Catholic Church (as was the death of his wife in 1901). The death records do not list parents for either Franz or Amalie.
Since we have the death record from this parish and the children all said they were living at Weigelsdorf before they came to America, it makes the most sense to search here for further records about the lives of this family. The problem we find in doing this is that there are huge gaps in these records. The baptism records are lost for the years between 1817- 1897. These years cover not only the births of all of the children born to Franz and Amalie Weigel, but also the births of Franz and Amalie. Marriage records are similarly affected with a gap from 1837 to 1869 which covers the marriage years for Franz and Amalie. Death records are also missing from 1836 to 1874. Any children of Franz and Amalie who died young would have been recorded in these years. The only reason we know the death date of Franz Weigel’s son, also named Franz, is that he was a soldier in the Franco-Prussian War and was killed in action. His death is recorded in military records.
We can extrapolate a birth date of June 1820 based on the information of Franz’s death record. We can search through marriages in the remaining records to try to find a good match, but any guess we make based on those records is just that – a guess. There is nothing in any of the available records that states that Franz was born in Weigelsdorf. He was living there when he died. He was living there as early as the 1870 death of his son Franz whose home village was listed in his military record. Neither of these facts mean that Franz Weigel was born at Weigelsdorf.
The names of Franz Josef Weigel and Veronica Kirsch are the most frequently used as the parents to OUR Franz on online trees. These people did live at the correct Weigelsdorf and were married there in 1816. They certainly COULD be parents to our Franz, but guessing doesn’t make it so. Interestingly, many of these trees link a source in Czech records to this couple and our Franz. Following the link takes you to a couple called Franz Josef Weigel and Anna Maria Veronika Buettel and their son, Franz Josef, who was born in August of 1820. The church record clearly states that this Franz Josef married Eleanora Beh in 1849 and that this Franz died in 1873. Obviously, this is not OUR Franz.
Simply because Franz Joseph and Veronica Kirsch are the *best* match for the parents of OUR Franz on first glance, does not mean that they are in fact his parents. Assuming that Franz WAS born in Weigelsdorf, Veronica could have died in the 4 years between her marriage and his birth and Franz Joseph could have remarried. There could just as easily be another couple lost to history that were married in 1818 (or 1819 or 1820). The assumption that his parents had to be married before any children were born is also dangerous. Franz could have been a younger child of a couple married many years before his birth, an illegitimate child, or a child of parents from another village who moved to Weigelsdorf for work.
Franz Weigel is listed as “Franz Weigel” in all available documents – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he was born with that name. Many children born during this time period were given additional names at birth. Many children went through their lives being called by their middle names. I have seen some trees that list Franz Weigel as Franz Joseph, or Johann Franz, neither of which have any basis on any available documents.
Franz Weigel was Catholic as were all his children. It is also important to pay attention to the religious affiliation of our ancestors throughout their lives. I have seen records attached to trees with Franz Weigel that are from Evangelical Lutheran parish records. Trees with no sources are bad, trees with wrong sources are worse.
So what do we do when the paper records run out?
Many people now turn to DNA in hopes of connecting to family when there are no records. This also requires some understanding of exactly what we are looking at when we match DNA with someone else and they have previously unknown family members listed in their tree. I have done my DNA on Ancestry and I match loads of people who have parents listed for Franz and Amalie Weigel in their trees. Shouldn’t this mean the mystery is solved?
When we have a match for our DNA test on any of the genealogy based companies, what does that actually mean? It means that we match the DNA of the other people who submitted their DNA samples. It does NOT mean that we match all the other people in their attached family trees. How can that be?
Let’s say that I have submitted my DNA sample to Ancestry. I receive my match list of all the other people who have submitted their DNA and are found to have segments in common with me. I have a tree attached to my DNA that says who my parents, grandparents, etc. are. My matches have their ancestors listed in their trees too. Now let’s say one of my matches has Santa Claus listed as his 5th great grandfather on his tree. I match the person who submitted the DNA so I must be related to Santa too! Hurray! I LOVE SANTA!!
No, I am not related to Santa because my DNA match has him in his tree. I AM related to the person who submitted the DNA in the first place, but the ancestors they place in their tree may or may not be accurate. If my brother submits his DNA and he lists characters from the Marvel Universe in his online tree as his ancestors, then it will look like I am related to Iron Man too (if I trust the tree he has built). DNA is a great resource, but it still requires proof of relationships when you are building back your tree. As the saying goes: “Genealogy without evidence is Mythology.”
The unfortunate answer to the parenthood of Franz Weigel is that we just really can’t know who his parents are with the information currently available. I have reached out to the church at St. Bartholomaus and they have confirmed the record gaps – these records are GONE, not just unavailable online, or stored in an archive. I have reached out to some groups who specialize in Prussian research to try to find alternative records like census, tax, or land records to see if the Weigels can be found. Similarly, these records were lost or never existed. Many places were affected by conflicts and border changes in the 200 years since Franz Weigel was born and loss of records is not uncommon in areas where these events occurred.
Sometimes we have to stop building the tree when the records run out. There is no shame in hitting a dead end. The accuracy of our research is so much more important than building a tree back to the beginning of time. It is much better to have an honest tree than to have a tree with errors and false ancestors. I will keep hoping that some new record set will be uncovered that will help solve the mystery of Franz Weigel’s parents – and Amalie’s too for that matter. Maybe Grampa Santa will bring some records to me for Christmas one of these years!