By Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Michelle Ercanbrack, Family Historian at Ancestry
I cannot find how my grandfather Anthony Peter Hellmann came to the U.S. or where he lived before 1900. I have his enlistment in the Spanish-American War, and a 1900 census that lists his birthday as 1878 in Germany, and that he immigrated in 1881. Any suggestions would be helpful, as he died in 1918, and I have zero knowledge of parents or siblings. Thank you! —Sandi
The two questions you are attempting to answer—how your grandfather migrated from Germany and where he lived before the Spanish-American War of 1898—provide us with an opportunity to discuss what genealogists refer to as “the wall.” As anybody searching for their ancestors discovers sooner or later, every search for our ancestors hits a wall—a place where the trail goes cold, where records about your family member seem to have disappeared. And you, Sandi, seem to have hit two of these walls! Let’s see if we can help you scale them.
Our first rule when you are stuck is a simple one, but one that can be surprisingly useful: start all over, and carefully review what you have already uncovered. Combing through the records you’ve already found can help you see if you missed anything, or if more information can be gleaned from them than you first realized. Following the clues you gave us, we took another look at the 1900 census listing for Anthony Hellman. It shows that he lived as a boarder with the Brower family in Middletown, Orange County, New York. He was a naturalized citizen and worked as a “hat presser.”
You also mentioned his Spanish-American War Military Service Record, which we also reviewed. It shows that he enlisted in New York City as a volunteer for the National Guard, company A of the 8th New York Infantry. He is described as being 5’6” with blue eyes, brown hair, and a fair complexion. He enlisted on May 2, 1898, the day after the Battle of Manila Bay, which was the first major battle of the war. He mustered out and was honorably discharged 7 months later in November 1898.
Because you had found this record, we decided to look more deeply into Anthony Hellman’s military service, to see what we might find. Using Ancestry.com, we searched in a collection called U.S. Civil War Pension Index, and located an Anthony P Hellmann and his widow, Mary E Hellmann. This might seem an unlikely place to look because of its Civil War title; however, its subtitle is General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934. The index covers pension applications filed for conflicts that occurred before WWI, which includes the Spanish American War. (Don’t let the dates confuse you: pensions for WWI and WWII are in a different collection. Most pensions were not filed immediately after service, hence the collection extending to 1934. This is why it is so important to read sub-titles and database descriptions!)
Anthony Hellmann’s pension index indicates that he fought with two different companies: Company A, 8th NY Infantry, and Company B, 12th NY Infantry. An application number and date for Mary Ellen’s widow’s pension shows she applied on July 18, 1918, two months after Anthony died.
While this index card doesn’t seem like much, a copy of the original pension file can be ordered from the National Archives’ Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., using the pension application number, which we did.
When we opened that NARA package that came in the mail, it felt like Christmas morning! Anthony’s pension was a treasure trove of information, filled incredibly with 28 pages of affidavits from friends and relatives, as well as several original family documents. Who would have guessed that the only surviving copies of valuable family documents would be preserved in a pension application file? But here they were.
Details about Anthony’s service showed that a week after mustering out of Company A, he mustered into the 12th regiment on November 15, likely in Chickamauga Park, Georgia.
A month later on December 10, 1898, Spain signed the treaty of Paris, officially ending the war. Anthony’s company left Americus, Georgia, on December 26, the day after Christmas, for garrison duty at Matanzas and Cardenas, Cuba, during what’s known as “The American Occupation,” which lasted between 1898 and 1902. Matanzas is 65 miles from Havana, and Cardenas is 94 miles away it, so your ancestor no doubt saw this remarkably beautiful city at its prime. He “served honestly and faithfully in Cuba” for four months before returning home to New York City on April 20, 1899. It’s intriguing to note that your ancestor was an exceptionally well-traveled American for his time.
The pension file contains several genealogical gems tucked among its pages. To prove that she was in fact his widow, Mary Ellen included a transcript of Anthony’s death register entry. It shows he worked as a hat maker and died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 41. But it provided another bit of information that turned out to be an essential link to Anthony’s early life: the names of his parents, Simon Hellmann and Mary Mueller.
What’s more, his Volunteer Service Record contained another gem. It states that Anthony was born in Landau, a city in the Bavarian province of Germany, an area known for its wine making. We now had learned the names of his parents and where he was born!
The notes at the bottom of the page say he listed his “next of kin” as “Francis A Brower… relationship not shown.” Could this be the same Brower family with whom he was living in 1900? What is his connection to their family? To see if the Browers were related to Anthony, or what their connection could possibly be, we started researching Herman, Francis, and their son William.
As it turns out, William F Brower enlisted on the same day in the same company as Anthony did. A year after their service together, Anthony is boarding with William and his parents, with William’s mother listed as Anthony’s next of kin. While it’s possible they were family, we aren’t certain, but if they didn’t know each other before they enlisted, it’s apparent that they had become close friends during their military service. While the identity and whereabouts of Anthony’s family in the U.S. continues to be a mystery, it’s heartwarming to know that after the war, he was boarding with this friend he had made in the Army.
The only other clue about Anthony’s early life was an affidavit from Catherine and Susanna Muller, stating they had known Anthony since he came to America when he was five years old. Could Catherine and Susanna be relatives of his mother, perhaps? Their address in New York City is listed, which could help you find them in census records.
While most of the file focuses on why the pension was valid and why the family needed help, the inclusion of Anthony and Mary’s marriage and the baptismal records of their children make this an invaluable repository of information about the family. Their marriage and the baptism of their daughter, Mary Agnes Hellmann, were performed at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Joseph in Middletown, New York, by Reverend John P. McClancey, with the witness and sponsors being relatives of Mary Ellen, but not Anthony’s. It seems the community in Middletown where the Hellmanns lived included members of Mary Ellen’s Irish Catholic family but not necessarily Anthony’s, which might suggest his family lived far away or had passed.
Page-by-page searches in city directories for Brooklyn and New York City between 1880 and 1898 for an Anthony, Anton, or Simon Hellmann were fruitless, though not surprisingly so. Immigrants were often very mobile, so Anthony’s time in New York could have been very short, and non-English speakers were often left out of city directories.
Sometimes in family history the scenic route is the only way to reach your destination. While specifics about Anthony’s arrival and early years in America are still a mystery, ultimately, knowing the identity of his parents, and where he was born in Europe, will prove valuable in the long run, as your search continues.
We hope this information helps you in your search for your grandfather! Keep us posted as your explore more pathways.
Do you have a mystery in your own family tree? Or have you wondered what family history discoveries you could make with a DNA test? Send Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and his team of Ancestry experts your question at firstname.lastname@example.org.