This is Part 3 of The Orphan in My Family Tree. It is the true tale of my ongoing search for the parents of my great great grandpa Fritz, who was orphaned in New York City in the late 1870s and sent, at the age of seven, to live with a foster family in Bow Valley, Nebraska.
Young Fritz Arrives in Nebraska
I first jumped into Fritz’s story as many of us jump into family histories — backwards. I am fortunate that my mother, who after her “first retirement” became a certified genealogist, has always been interested in family history and is someone who keeps well cited records for everything she has come across. From an early age, I enjoyed trekking with my mom and sisters through small prairie cemeteries to make gravestone rubbings, and I enjoyed listening to my grandparents and great grandparents tell stories about the immigrants who made up my own personal American story. I was proud of the homesteaders who survived brutal midwestern winters in sod shanties and of North Sea fisherman who struck out for new lives in a land that offered a broad horizon of opportunity. The common thread in all our family tales, as I imagine is true for most family tales, is that family is the core comfort of life. Family is also the best reason to keep going during a rough winter, to strike out and do something new, and to be brave enough to leave the comforts of the familiar for new opportunities. Some branches of my family tree bow nearly to the ground with the weight of our known ancestors and their stories. It made me sad that Fritz seemed to spring forth alone, without the safety net of complex roots that I saw behind the others in my family tree.
At the time I became invested in delving into the details of Fritz’s early life, my mother was working on a book about another branch of our family. She sent me the information she had about Fritz, and wished me the best of luck. The genealogy project she was focused on at the time involved one of those families where everyone has fourteen kids, and then all of those kids have twelve or fourteen more kids, so I had the best of both worlds — a guiding mentor when I needed one, but the freedom to approach this research project in my very own way.
I started simply, attempting to establish a year for Fritz’s arrival in Nebraska. My dream was to find a newspaper story about an orphan train arriving in a small town (specifically, either Bow Valley, Nebraska or a nearby town) in which the journey of the children is described in detail. I saw a number of these stories in digitized newspaper collections of the time. A few stories included the names of children or the families who took them in. At the least, I hoped to find some local or regional announcement from the time period of these children’s arrival and an invitation to townspeople to come and offer these children a home. While I did find many interesting articles that enhanced my understanding of the experience of Orphan Train riders and the different ways people living in different regions viewed the phenomenon, I struck out finding anything specifically about Fritz or Bow Valley, so I decided census records might be a better place to start.
My search of various census records helped me not only find young Fritz, but also enabled me to begin to narrow down and verify the approximate year he came to join his foster family in Nebraska, as well as to verify the age at which he joined them. I did not find Fritz in the 1880 Federal Census records for Nebraska, and scant few records exist for the 1890 Federal Census, which was badly damaged in a fire. I did find Fritz in the 1885 Nebraska Census, listed as “Fred Brand, Orphan, aged 12,” in the home of William and Maggie Arens. There he finally was, right where he was supposed to be! In Township 5 (now known as Bow Valley) of Cedar County, Nebraska, living with his foster family.
While I was excited to find Fritz where he was supposed to be, I hoped to further narrow down just when he had arrived in Nebraska. If our family tale that he’d come to Nebraska at the age of seven was true, that meant twelve year old Fritz would have arrived to join the Arens household around 1880. I knew that he hadn’t been with them as of the June 1880 census, and I had no idea which month Fritz’s actual birthday was in, so I decided that it was reasonable to think he’d arrived sometime between the summer of 1880 and the end of 1881.
I decided to rely on the kindness of historically minded strangers and reached out to a contact listed on the Nebraska page of The USGenWeb Project. Through this contact I was able to access the Nebraska School Census transcriptions for the 1880s. Fritz was not listed in the 1880 Nebraska School Census for Bow Valley, School District #9, but other children from the William Arens household did show up there. Sadly, the school census data is missing for Bow Valley in 1881. In 1882, however, Fred, aged 7, is listed with the other children from the household of William Arens. An 8-year-old Fred is listed in the 1883 school census, and from 1884 through 1886 his name is recorded as “Fritz.” The school census records available for Cedar County are only available online through 1886, so if Fritz attended school beyond 1887, I do not have a record of it yet. Interestingly, Fritz’s age, as well as the ages for all children in the Bow Valley listings, increased by a few years in the time between the 1883 and 1884 census. In the 1883 school census, Fritz is listed eight years old and in the 1884 school census he appears as 11 years old. Similarly, the other children in School District #9 have recorded ages that increase by more than the one year in a supposed one year time frame. While each school census was recorded to have taken place in April of each year, there is a bit of mystery surrounding this inconsistency.
While the school census transcription may cast a bit of doubt on the precise age of Fritz, the federal and school census records taken together do help to show that Fritz arrived in Nebraska sometime after the June 1880 Federal Census was enumerated, but before the April 1882 Nebraska Shool Census was recorded. Both the 1885 Nebraska Census and the initial Nebraska School Census records in which Fritz shows up also support the family story that Fred joined his foster family, the Arens, around the age of seven.
Two important clues confirmed! So many more clues to investigate.
Chronicling America is a website produced by the National Digital Newspaper Program, which is supported through a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress.
I especially like that the Library of Congress Chronicling America website offers free access to its contents, and that those contents are easily searchable by state, date, and keyword. This is a great place to start browsing historical newspapers for your region. While I did not find information specifically relating to my research for Fritz, I have found the articles of the time related to orphanages, social welfare programs, and the attitudes of people regarding the homeless children sent west from New York an invaluable window into varying contemporary perspectives.
The Online Historical Newspapers Site is associated with a blog of the same name. The site is curated by, and the blog written by, Miriam J. Robbins, and was featured as one of Family Tree Magazine’s 101 Best Websites of 2017.
Miriam’s blog is a wealth of information for amateur genealogists like myself. Her posts about historical newspapers, which are full of links, were especially useful to me. While there are other sites that provide collections of historical newspaper links gleaned from around the web, Miriam has obviously taken the time to carefully select and organize links that take you exactly where you think you are going.
As you can imagine, the U.S. Census Bureau is a great place to start when researching Federal Census information, and looking for what type of information may be available for any given census year. The mission of the Census Bureau is “to serve the nation’s leading provider of quality data about its people and economy,” and they provide both historical and current data useful to understanding trends in our country’s economy and population.
My favorite feature of this site is the availability of blank census forms on which you can transcribe the information from each census year to ensure you are getting every last drop of good information from each census record you investigate.
The National Archives is truly a goldmine for beginning research that involves any records generated by, or associated with, the federal government. Their Search Census Records Online and Other Resources web page contains links to many free and paid resources at which a researcher can find census records. Census records contain different information during different years, and often provide clues to an ancestors immigration year, birth year, profession, financial situation, and country of origin. Sometimes, census records also include details about whether an ancestor could read and write, whether they owned or mortgaged their property, or which language was regularly spoken in their home.
The National Archives Search Census Records page is my go-to start page for census research because the page clearly lays out which records are available for each year. For 1880, for example, I find that I am able to search for Fritz not just in the Federal Census, but also in Mortality Schedules (which may help me eliminate a lead or two for a similarly named child) and the 1880 Schedules of Defective, Dependent and Delinquent Classes (which would include any children who were in an orphanage at the time the schedule was recorded). I also appreciate the notes by each link that indicate whether a site requires payment to access the records I am looking for. It is frustrating to hit unexpected paywalls in any research. With a little prior planning through the National Archives page, I can avoid that frustration by accessing free sites, or planning a trip to my local library or history center, where a paid subscription site might be freely accessible for patron use.