The Baby Was Thick and Fat: Clues in 1880s Letters to Nebraska

by Michael John Neill 

Local gossip. Worries about money. News about the children. The content of the letters is not all that extraordinary. But when they are written by your relative in 1887, they take on additional significance.

A cousin sent me digital copies of three letters written by my ancestor Lina Ufkes in the late 1880s. Like any record, they need to be fit into my ancestor’s life. And they need to be analyzed for additional clues.

Written to Whom?
It would have been easier if Lina had specifically named the letter’s recipients, but the greeting on each letter is “Dear brother-in-law and sister”–no specific salutation. To determine the likely recipients, I had to look at the families of both the writer and her husband.

Lina Ufkes had no sisters of marriageable age in the late 1880s. This eliminated her family. Her husband, John Ufkes, had only two living sisters in 1887–one in Nebraska and one in Germany. Since the letters mention relatives known to have been in Nebraska in 1887 and indicate that greetings should be passed on to them, it seemed reasonable the Nebraska sister was the intended recipient.

In addition, the individual who sent me the letters obtained them from her grandmother who had cared for an unmarried son of the Nebraska sister (from whom she suspected her grandmother got the letters).

From all this I came to the conclusion that Lina was writing the letters to John and Antje Ufkes Harms who were living in Franklin County, Nebraska in 1900s. My reasoning and conclusions about the letter’s recipients are included in my transcriptions of the letters, and in my genealogical software package.

Getting a Date
Of the three letters, only one is dated (20 September 1887). One of the undated letters mentions the birth of a son, Bertus, on the 10th of March–“a thick and fat baby.” This same letter also mentions the recent marriage of the pastor (unnamed) and the engagement of the pastor’s sister to a neighbor, Tonjes Goldenstein. By learning the dates of these events, I was able to narrow the date of this letter to 1887 or 1888. One letter remains undated.

Who Is Mentioned?
Lina mentions several people in her letters. I already suspected who several of them were, but in order to reduce the chance of incorrect conclusions, I referred to information already known about Lina and John’s family. In the letter mentioning the birth of her son, Lina actually mentions all her children. Son Johann (age eleven or twelve) is helping his father on the farm; Trientje, Lina, and Hinrich are going to school. Gerhard is too young for that, but does attend Sunday School and son Eilt has been sick for the past month.

In the apparent second paragraph of this letter, Lina asks the Harmses to send greetings to “Uncle Rolf” and to “Eilt and Trientje and Hinrich Habben.” The last three individuals mentioned are nephews and a niece of John Ufkes, children of his sister Christena Ufkes Habben. They were easy to figure out. Her husband was named Rolf and is apparently the “Uncle Rolf” mentioned in the letter.

I was confused. Why did Lina refer to Rolf as “uncle” when he was clearly John’s brother-in-law? Did she make a mistake? Was the translation done? It turns out both Lina and the translator were right. It was I who very nearly jumped to the wrong. Rolf Habben did marry John’s sister, Christina; but she was his second wife. His first wife was the sister of John Ufkes’s mother. This was why Lina referred to Rolf Habben as an “uncle” instead of a “brother-in-law.” This is a good reminder to never attempt to “fix” a document by correcting it while transcribing.

In a future column, we’ll discuss a few other items Lina mentions and indicate how those items were researched. In the meantime, getting the letters was a real treat for me and analyzing them caused me to revisit some research that I had not looked at in quite some time.

General Suggestions
Here are some tips regarding family correspondence:

  • Review the family structure of the letter writer, including extended family and family by marriage. Some individuals may only be mentioned by first name.
  • If the letter is in a foreign language, consider getting more than one translation, particularly if the handwriting is difficult to read.
  • Try and place every person in the letter–even those that are not relatives.
  • Do not “correct” the document. Comments about potential errors can be added separately where they clearly do not appear to be part of the document itself.
  • Never give up hope. I had been researching Lina for more than twenty-five years before I learned of the existence of these letters.
  • Try and track down your own extended family for such materials. These letters were sent to me by a relative who descends from one of my great-great-grandfather’s sisters.

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Michael John Neill is a genealogical writer and speaker who has been researching his or his children’s genealogy for more than twenty years. A math instructor in his “other life,” Michael taught at the former Genealogical Institute of Mid-America and has served on the FGS Board. He also lectures on a variety of genealogical topics and gives seminars across the country. He maintains a personal website at:
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