Lancaster, Pennsylvania has a long and storied past. It served as the United States capitol for a single day during the American Revolutionary War. Thaddeus Stevens and former United States president James Buchanan both called it home.
I call Lancaster home, too. But for years, I considered myself a transplant. My mom hailed from the Midwest, my dad from the Pacific coast. They met at college in Florida, then moved to Lancaster shortly after I was born.
I grew up surrounded by preserved farmsteads and blue historical markers. Even the Amish horse-drawn buggies that slowed traffic seemed like relics of a long-ago time. But I never considered this history my own until the day my great-aunt Kathleen called. She’d been researching our family tree, and found ancestors from a small Pennsylvania town called “Manheim.” Did we know of it?
I was seven or eight years old at the time, and I have no memory of Kathleen’s phone call. But my mom loves to tell the story.
“We laughed and laughed,” Mom says, “because it was two miles down the road. There our ancestors were in the 1700s and here we were, three hundred years later. It seemed like we’d come full circle. ”
The First Immigrants
According to Kathleen’s research, our ancestors immigrated to the Lancaster area from central Europe in the early 1700s, about twenty years after William Penn acquired the land from King Charles II. Some settled in the area; others moved west.
“I knew my mom’s family came from Pennsylvania,” Kathleen told me recently, when I asked her about the discovery. “They were the people who came to America and worked to get his country started. But nobody could find the name of my fourth great-grandfather. My uncle had traveled to Pennsylvania twice, trying to find out who this guy was. I advertised in several magazines, but we still couldn’t find his name.”
It took a chance encounter at a family reunion to find the name of the man Kathleen was seeking: Valentine Metzler, a bishop in the Mennonite church. Further research revealed that his bible was housed in the historical archives of a college in Lancaster.
Valentine Metzler’s Bible
Metzler’s bible also has a long and storied history. The book was printed in Zurich, Switzerland in 1571. According to a handwritten inscription on the front page, Metzler bought it for 40 shillings on 27 April 1767.
According to the “Family Record of Bishop Metzler” in The Pennsylvania German, records of the bible were lost after Valentine’s death until 1832, when a tramp sold it to a man in Manheim, Pennsylvania for five dollars. From there it was passed through the Metzler family for several generations.
Today, Ancestry has almost a dozen member photos of the bible. But Ancestry didn’t exist at the time of Kathleen’s research. To see the bible, she had to drive from Indiana to our home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania—a trip of nearly 600 miles.
“It was the only family artifact I got to see,” she recalled. “But it was worth it.”
A Family Comes Full Circle
Kathleen’s trip forever changed the way I see my hometown. It also sparked an interest in genealogy that continues to this day. Unlike my great-aunt, I don’t have to travel cross-country for research. The preserved farmsteads that I visited as a child likely housed some of my early ancestors. The blue historical markers, too, have taken on personal relevance. And if I don’t feel like leaving home, I can access many of the documents online.
As Ira D. Landis wrote of my sixth great-grandparents, Valentine and Anna Metzler: “Though dead, yet they speak, and eternity will alone reveal their worth. May we cherish their faith and traits and be the better because they lived.”
Kelly Kautz is writing “The Skeleton Club,” a memoir about family secrets. She lives with her husband and two young sons in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Connect with her on Twitter @KellyKautz.