Exploring the lives of Alois Betz and his descendants in the United States
What makes history fascinating to some people is difficult to explain. Certainly my children couldn’t tell you what makes it fascinating to me. But I think it is essentially the digging out of secrets, and the recovering of things long lost. Large events are often well recorded from many different perspectives, but the lives of individual, ordinary folk quickly fade from view once the last living memory passes. Reconstructing what happened in such a life over a century ago is, for some at least, an engaging and satisfying process.
It is all the more engaging when the narrative we’re trying to build is one that explains the lives of our own ancestors. The people who preceded us, the families that begat families that begat families down the generations, fascinate us for deeply human reasons. They continue to do so even in a modern age when status, wealth, property, and privilege are at least somewhat less likely to be the bequest of an antecedant than the result of contemporary hard work and good luck.
Several years ago my father and I began to discuss what we knew of our own family history. I had heard off and on throughout my life of a young man named “Aloysius” who had emigrated here from Germany in the 19th century and founded our branch of the family in the United States, but beyond the name I had known almost nothing else. During those initial discussions my Dad dug up some pictures and notes that had been sent to him by my great aunt, his father’s sister, back in the 1970’s. The image above was among them. Suddenly we had a face to accompany our family legend.
Beginning with my great aunt’s notes we started piecing the puzzle together. As we researched we benefited from the increasing digitization of immigration and census records, newspapers and periodicals, birth and death notices, and court records. Details began to emerge. “Aloysius” became “Alois,” a form of “Louis.” The “mid-19th century” became 1855. We had a place where he was born, and places that he had lived after he came here. We had census records of his household in 1860, and again in 1880. We had his obituary, and the court records of the probate process that followed his death.
Late in 2014 we came into possession of a treasure trove of documents and photographs courtesy of Sister Clare Boehmer, daughter of Joseph and Marie Boehmer (nee Betz, daughter of Edward R. Betz, son of Alois Betz). Among these were a large number of official documents in German, some printed and some hand-written. The oldest dates to around 1846 and predates Alois emigration to the U.S. by nine years. Probably the most fascinating is his wanderbuch, which documents his time as a journeyman in southern Bavaria. Among the photos, some dating back as far as the 1870’s, are images of Alois, his second wife Rosina, and all of the first generation born to them in the U.S. You can find high resolution scans of all the documents and photos here on the site.
My great-great-grandfather Alois Betz had at least ten children with two different wives. Of these at least eight survived into their child-rearing years. It is likely that a large number of his descendants are living in the U.S. today. Hopefully some of them will find these pages, in which we have gathered together everything we’ve been able to discover, interesting and useful. A good place to start, whether you are wondering whether you might be a descendant, or are just curious, would be with the overview of Alois’ life.
Beyond that introduction there are specific pages dedicated to his life in Enkering, the town in Bavaria from whence he came, Johnstown, Pennsylvania where he went first on arrival, and Cleveland, Ohio where he ended up making another start after finding mostly grief in the little town on the Connemaugh river. There is also a page on the lives of the various descendants after Alois’ death in 1891. Some of these pages are pretty spare, and some are completely empty. We’ll try to fill in what we can as we go along, and if it happens that you know something we don’t, or can correct something we think we know, please feel free to leave a comment on the relevant article.
Tracing names in the historical record can be a tricky thing. Europeans arrived in the U.S. with the name that had been given them by their parents, and that name was often anglicized voluntarily or otherwise, soon after arrival. To further complicate matters the name that an emigrant used might vary based on who he or she was addressing or being addressed by. Thus “Alois”, whose name was a later German form of the Old Occitan name “Aloys,” and of the latinized name “Aloysius,” might be addressed as “Louis” by native born Americans, and as “Alois” within his own community of German speakers. In fact both forms appear on official documents as well. Similarly Alois’ first wife Josephine might be known as Josepha or Josephina, and his second wife Rose as Rosa or Rosina.
Similar problems sometimes pop up with surnames as well as given names. One family name in particular has given us some trouble when it comes to presenting information in a consistent way, and that is the name Sarlouis. The history of the Betz and Sarlouis families becomes mingled in 1888 when Frank M. Sar Louis married Lena R. Betz, a niece of Alois Betz. Frank’s surname is consistently spelled “Sar Louis” in my great aunt Marie’s notes, and in official documents. However Frank was beyond doubt the son of Peter Sarlouis of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a Prussian immigrant and Civil War veteran, and “Sarlouis” is how the name is spelled on Peter’s gravestone.
To further complicate matters, by the time we get to the generation of Frank and Lena’s son Alphonse, he is spelling the name “Sar-Louis”, and that is how it is spelled on his gravestone in Florida. A little searching will show that Sarlouis is an old name originating in the Saarland, and associated with the town of Saarlouis in that region. My feeling is therefore that “Sarlouis” is the definitive spelling, so I have used that parenthetically to link the names of the various family members together. Otherwise I have represented the name as it is written in the record being cited, or as we know it was spelled by the individual under discussion.
The site contains links to high-quality scanned documents. Each document is presented as a thumbnail with a brief description. The thumbnail links to a separate page where the 300 DPI version of the document can be viewed directly, and 600 and 1200 DPI versions can be downloaded from Google drive. Comments can also be added to the document pages, so if you believe you can help with a translation or clarification please don’t hesitate to do so.
The original German documents are all around 165 or more years old, and in very fragile condition. They are stored in individual archival enclosures, and were carefully scanned using an Epson Perfection V550 photo scanner. Documents were scanned at 1200 DPI and downscaled to the various sizes made available here. Many of the German documents are large format. The military document (document #5), for example, is approximately 16.5″ by 13.5″. These formats are too large to be scanned in one go by the Epson, so as many as four individual scans were taken and combined using Microsoft ICE to create a seamless stitched image.
The high resolution versions are made available for scholarly purposes and to aid in translation. It should be noted that the 1200 DPI scans are extremely large. Many are over 15,000 pixels wide and over a half-gigabyte in size. If you don’t need the higher resolutions the half- and quarter-resolution images (600 and 300 DPI, respectively) are also available, but these are still very large files. All scanned images are presented in lossless compressed PNG format. In addition there is a link to a .ZIP file containing an uncompressed full-resolution .TIF of each document.
Photographs date back as far as the 1870’s, so some are in better condition than others. All images were scanned at 300 DPI, and are presented in lossless compressed .PNG format. In addition there is a link to a .ZIP file containing an uncompressed full-resolution .TIF of each photograph.
In some cases documents have interesting material on the flip side. These are treated as separate documents, although clearly linked in presentation and by obvious file name patterns. The same is true for photographs, which often have written notes on the back. When these are legible they will be presented as separate scans linked to the original photo using the same name formatting.