Johnstown, 1855-1866

This article is a placeholder giving an overview of what we know (and conjecture) about Alois’ time in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, roughly spanning the years 1855 to 1866. It will be replaced by a fuller narrative when the research is complete.

We began with family legend, as captured in my great aunt Marie Boehmer’s handwritten notes to my father, Edward R. Betz, sent sometime in the 1970’s.

Aloysius Betz and Magdalena Pfaller married about
1854 by Rev Clement Braun O.S.B.
in Johnstown Pa.
4 Children Joseph - 1856 - 1857
William F. 1858 - 1936
Frank H. 1860 - 1889
Dorothea 2-1862 - 10-1862

With this as a starting point we set out to search the archival record in order to determine if Alois went to Johnstown after he arrived in America, and if so what he did there, and whom he did it with.

One of the first things we looked for was his arrival here in the U.S. We thought for some time we had found it in the record of an “A. Betz” who came here from Bremen in late 1854. In November of 2014 we received the German documents that can be seen on the site today. They showed conclusively that his permission to travel to America was issued in 1855, and so he could not have been here in 1854. To date we have still not located Alois’ entry record. The only thing we can say with confidence is that he was granted permission to travel from Bremen to Baltimore in the spring of 1855.

In 1860 the Federal Census for Cambria County, Pennsylvania (the county where Johnstown is located) documented an A. Betz, aged 31 years living in Upper Yoder township with his wife Josephine, aged 30 years, and two young children: William, aged 2; and Frank, aged 3 months. At first glance this record appeared to be a good fit for our ancestor. The names and ages of the two boys are correct. A. Betz’s age is wrong for Alois, who was born in November of 1827 and so would have been 32 when the census was enumerated in June of 1860.  An error of that magnitude is by no means uncommon in old census records, so it doesn’t weigh heavily against this being our man.

However, there are two other problems with the record that are more serious. The first is that the place of birth for both Alois and Josephine is given as “Berne,” which is a city in Switzerland and for Alois at least is certainly not his birthplace. The second problem is that his wife’s name does not match my great aunt’s recollection. One of them is incorrect.

The first problem is dismissed fairly easily. The 1860 census that produced the record was enumerated by a gentleman named H. A. McPike, who probably did not speak German. He would have interviewed Alois, whose English we can assume was not highly developed. Alois was born in Enkering, a town in the Kingdom of Bavaria. The natural response for him, and for many other Germans who were interviewed by census takers, would be to answer the question “where were you born?” with “Bayern.” This German spelling of the kingdom’s name appears over and over in census records of the time, and if other aspects of the record match then it is likely Mr. McPike simply misheard it as “Berne.”

The problem of the wife’s name cannot be cast aside so easily. Family recollection is typically good with regard to given names. If they are known at all then they are usually close. You might get Frank instead of Francis, or Gerald instead of Gerard, but to traverse from Magdalena to Josephine is quite a leap. In order to surmount this we have to show that this record is correct in most other details, and then provide a plausible candidate for who Josephine was. The best evidence, of course, would be a marriage license, or anything in his own hand naming her. Of the former we have found no trace so far, and if the latter exists then it may be in some of the untranscribed  German letters that we have.

Sometimes the pursuit of history leaves you with scattered known points between which you must be willing to interpolate. If we look forward from the 1860 timeframe the first known piece of verified information that we have that is of use is the 1880 Federal Census for Cuyahoga County, Ohio. It is useful because we know absolutely that this record is our ancestor. Various documents attest to his ownership of the property at 37 Marion Street during this time period, and correspond with anecdotal evidence from family photographs and notes.

The 1880 record thus establishes who was in his family at the time. Those individuals included two young men: William, aged 21 years; and Frank, aged 20 years. The place of birth is given as Pennsylvania for both. This confirms my great-aunt’s recollection with respect to the names and ages of the two male children she says were born to Alois in Johnstown, PA. These names and ages also correspond closely with the 1860 record taken in Johnstown. This leaves the name of his wife, Josephine rather than Magdalena, as the last remaining problem. Was there a Josephine whom he could have married, and is there any other evidence to show that he did?

In searching for Josephine we came across the arrival records of the family of Joseph and Marianne Pfaller, who entered the U.S. at Baltimore in July of 1855. This was the same port to which Alois would have been traveling that same year, and in roughly the same season. Accompanying the two were several individuals of their family, including a young woman named Josepha, aged 25 years. The name that a German speaker would write as Josepha is the same name an English speaker might write as Josephine. The Pfaller family listed their destination as Johnstown, and the record shows that they settled there and remained the rest of their lives. Joseph and Marianne are both buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Geistown, Cambria County, very near to Johnstown.

So we had a woman whose name and age were correct, who traveled from Bremen to Baltimore at the same time as our man, if not on the same ship, and who then proceeded to Johnstown and settled there. Was she the Josephine in the 1860 record? If she was, then was the A. Betz in that record our Alois? We searched fruitlessly for a wedding license, or announcement, or any mention of Alois and Josephine together in an official document. One of the problems with researching history in Johnstown is that the city was devastated by the infamous flood of 1889, and a lot of the official records were destroyed. Often the only available sources are newspapers and state or federal records that existed outside the affected area.

Getting to certainty that the 1860 record represented Alois Betz thus seemed an insurmountable task when a rereading of my great-aunt’s notes revealed something startling. At the top of page 1 she had listed what she knew of Alois’ parents.

parents Johan Betz - and
Elisabetha Betz (nee Hollander)
Johan died Nov 13 - 1856
Elisabetha died Oct 10 - 1855
Elisabetha parents
Josepha Phaller -
born May 19 - 1830 - died Feb 22 - 1862
parents of Josepha Phaller
Joseph Phaller and
Marianne Phaller - (nee Eberle)

Right after the date of his mother Elisabetha’s death my great-aunt Marie wrote the words “Elisabetha parents” and then listed some more people and dates. The first time I read this it didn’t mean anything. I wasn’t at the time ready to deal with Alois’ maternal grandparents (implied if you take the words “Elisabetha parents” to be an introduction to what follows). When I reread it after finding out who Josephine probably was everything clicked into place. I don’t know why Marie wrote this the way she did. She may have been interrupted, or simply have had an incomplete recollection. It doesn’t matter for our purposes, because what she had written there was almost precisely the names of the two Pfaller parents and their daughter Josepha from the Baltimore arrival record, down to the correct maiden name of Marianne as recorded on her gravestone.

Taken together this information shows conclusively that the woman Alois married was Josepha Pfaller, not Madgalena (there are plenty of other Magdalenas in the family to account for that name popping into Marie’s mind as she wrote her notes). The two of them may have met on the ship, or in Bremen before departing, but it is much more likely that the families knew each other and the whole thing was arranged before they emigrated. It is interesting to note that the elder Pfallers were married in Greding, according to their epitaphs, a town just four miles north of Enkering on the Schwarzach river, and which Alois visited several times during his days as a wandering journeyman.

The couple probably married in 1855, shortly after arriving. Of the ceremony or it’s celebrant, named in Marie’s notes as Clement Braun, OSB (Order of Saint Benedict), we have found no official trace nor mention. The city of Johnstown, founded by another German immigrant named Joseph Schantz, had a thriving German community, many of whom lived in Cambria City across the river from Johnstown proper, and were employed at the Cambria Iron Works. The young couple would have had plenty of help getting started, which is no doubt one of the reasons why they all chose the area in the first place.

Marie’s notes recall a first child, Joseph, who died young. We have found no record of him or his death and burial. In 1858 William was born. In 1859 a bunch of German Catholics who had been attending church at St. Joseph’s across the river in Johnstown decided that the church was too small and too distant. The built a new one called Immaculate Conception, which became the main and oldest German Catholic congregation in Johnstown. Alois’ name is listed in a German text describing the actions of those founding parishioners, along with a Jacob Betz who may have been a relative.

In 1860 the couple welcomed son Frank, and were counted in the census in June of that year. In 1861 a single line in a directory of Cambria City merchants lists A. Betz as a licensed merchant, his having paid a fee of $7. Once again we can’t confirm that this A. Betz is our Alois Betz, other than to say that the census a year prior listed no other individual whose name could be abbreviated that way. In 1862 Marie’s notes say that a daughter Dorothea was born to the couple in February, and died the following October. In a separate section quoted above she says that Josepha Phaller (the spelling of the surname is given as she wrote it) died in February of 1862. From these points we conjecture that Alois’ wife died giving birth to Dorothea, and that the child died eight months later of causes perhaps related, or not.

In 1864 an article in the Ebensburg Alleghanian printed a list of local men caught up in the draft, which the paper’s staunchly anti-draft editors referred to as “Lincoln’s Lottery.” One of the names listed for Cambria Boro is Lewis Betz. The name “Louis” is an anglicizing of the German name “Alois,” but we have never seen it spelled “Lewis,” which is a variation that he certainly would not have used. The newspaper writer might have, and once again the only thing we can rely on is that there is no other Betz around in the 1860 census with a similar name. One could have arrived between 1860 and 1864, of course, and in any case we have found no record that Alois ever served in any unit in the Civil War, which was just a few months from being over when this round of the draft occurred.

The last likely mention of Alois in Johnstown appears in the Ebensburg Democrat-Sentinel in 1866. It is a notice of properties siezed and sold for delinquent taxes, and lists the sale of a house on 1/2 lot owned by “Alose” Betz, who had owed some $5.46. It is likely that he had already left. His son Charles by his second wife Rosina would be born in Ohio in November of that same year, 1866, and so Rosina must have been with child by the previous February. It’s likely, but by no means certain, that they were already established in Cleveland well before the boy’s birth. Certainly Alois time in Johnstown had been hard. He had lost a wife, two children, and perhaps his property. He had persevered for ten years. In the end he may just have decided that the grass was greener somewhere else.

However it all ended, it appears to have ended quickly and irrevocably. Alois packed up and left the little town on the Conemaugh river. He had come as a young man of 27 or 28 years, traveling by sailing ship from one of the oldest and most stagnant societies in Europe to the wide open American frontier, where it seemed he had found only grief and failure.  No doubt once again encouraged by a network of friends and relatives, some of whom had already found a place for themselves there, he likely boarded a train of the Pennsylvania Railroad, bound for Pittsburgh, and from there made his way to Cleveland, Ohio and started again. Those of us who are descendants of the family he started in the growing town on Lake Erie can be thankful he had the courage to try. But all of this is for another tale, and another time.

We cannot leave Johnstown behind without dwelling on one or two of the mysteries that remain. The first concerns a young woman named Magdalen R. Betz, later Mrs. Frank M. Sarlouis of Cleveland, Ohio. From my great aunt’s notes:

Lena Betz married Frank Sar Louis
I think in Johnston PA - in 1888 -
(There was a bad flood there 5-31-89)
Lena Betz was a first cousin to my
father (Edward) but I do not know the
right names of her parents.

In fact Lena R. Betz married Frank M. Sarlouis in Cuyahoga County, Ohio in 1888. The connection to Johnstown is there, however. Frank Sarlouis was the son of Peter Sarlouis, a Prussian emigrant who lived in that town all his life. His obituary, published on June 5, 1925, noted his age and standing as a Civil War veteran, and early member of Alois’ church, Immaculate Conception. His son Frank is mentioned specifically along with his residence in Cleveland.

This leads us to believe that Lena was the daughter of a male sibling of Alois’ living in the Cambria County area, who attended the same church as the Sarlouis, and was part of that same network of friends and relatives that supported Alois on his arrival. At the time of the 1860 census there were two other families named Betz living in Cambria County. The family of Joseph and Dorothea Betz lived in Yoder township with their toddler son Joseph, Jr. John and Mary Betz lived in Croyle township with their young sons George and Jacob. By the 1870 census, of course, Alois and his sons have left for Cleveland, but the families of Joseph and John remain in the area through the 1880 census and wax and wain as deaths and births have their effect.

By the time of the 1880 census Joseph and Dorothea have two sons, George and Lawrence, who may figure into a later discussion of the Betz clan in Cleveland in the late 1800’s. For now it is sufficient to note that it isn’t difficult to conjecture that there were a few branches of the German family living in the Johnstown area at the time that Alois resided there, along with other friends and relatives, with whom he maintained contact after he left. Lena was almost certainly a member of one of these families, who later came to Cleveland to marry the son of another of them, Frank Sarlouis.

Looking for Louis


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *