Having come from (what I figured was) a predominantly Irish-Italian family in New Jersey, I assumed that my family’s story here in the United States was a relatively short one.
Imagine my surprise when I used Ancestry to discover my family’s story in America went back eight generations, all the way to the Revolutionary War.
Potatoes and Pasta: Perfect Together
Like so many of the families in the town I grew up in, we bought wool sweaters and claddagh jewelry at Bridget’s Irish Cottage at the mall, and ate spaghetti along with our turkey on Thanksgiving Day.
If anyone asked me what my heritage was I would answer “Irish-Italian” without giving it a second thought.
My wife, who was raised in the next town over, is also from an Irish-Italian family. When she was a kid she had a t-shirt that said it all. It had a picture of New Jersey and of the Irish and Italian flags and said “Potatoes & Pasta: Perfect Together.”
So I thought I knew my family story pretty well. My guess was that the earliest documents I’d find when researching my ancestors would be manifests of ships that had set sail from European ports in the last century.
The fact that I was so wrong is what I love about genealogy (and is what inspired me to start the website Genealogy Explained for other hobbyists like me). There are so many surprises, and there are always new mysteries to unravel.
British by Birth, Italian by Marriage
My last name is McDermott, and my grandmother’s maiden name was Bombino. There is, however, one family name that does not quite fit with my Irish-Italian narrative of alliterative starches. My mother’s maiden name was Boggis, a name that is decidedly not Irish or Italian.
It’s English. Her father, or “Pops” to me and my siblings, is what I would call “Italian by marriage.” Having grown up as an only child with divorced parents, Pops was only too happy to be brought into the fold of my grandmother’s warm family as an honorary Italian (and even happier to eat all that good Italian food).
I think I did always have a vague idea that Pops was part British. At one point he told me he was English and possibly Scottish.
From talking to him, I also had the impression that his family were relatively recent arrivals. Researching the Boggis line, I found that was true. Pops’ father (my great-grandfather), Eric Anderson Boggis came here from England in 1913 at the age of ten.
But when I started to trace Pops’ other side of the family, his mother’s family, it was a much different story.
Meet the Orwigs
Pops told me that his mother’s maiden name was Francis Simms, and that her mother was Annabelle Simms. He knew very little about his mother’s family and did not have any knowledge or memory of his maternal grandfather.
As I started researching, I found that Frances Simms was actually Frances Zimny. Her mother was Annabelle Orwig who was the daughter of Samuel Orwig, a name I had remembered seeing in the family trees of my DNA matches.
Pops knew that at one point his mother lived near Pittsburgh. But he didn’t know what the connection was to Pennsylvania.
In my research I found that there were Orwigs who had a long history in PA, stretching back to before the American Revolution. In fact, there was even a town they founded called Orwigsburg!
New Country for Old Men
Eventually my search led me to a published genealogy that detailed the life of one Gottfried Orwig who was born in Germany in 1714 and arrived in the port of Philadelphia in 1741.
According to this history, he went back to Germany the next year and returned with his wife Clara. They bought some land near Reading from members of the Iroquois tribe and started a family.
The best part? Years later Gottfried joined up during the American Revolution. He and a group of other older Germans made up a company known as “The Old Men’s Company.” Supposedly the drummer was a spry 94 years!
Gimme a Gottfried
As I learned more about the Orwigs, I was eager to go back and check my AncestryDNA matches. I wanted to find out if my DNA was pointing in the same direction as my research. Was it likely I was related to this line of Pennsylvania Orwigs that led back to Gottfried?
Since I’d had my DNA tested two years ago, my list of AncestryDNA matches had been steadily growing.
I scanned the list, looking for those I knew were from my grandfather’s maternal line. When I got to the first match who had Orwig in their family tree, I clicked in further, looking for one name in particular.
After searching a few trees that did not go back as many generations as I needed, I finally landed on one that did. And there he was. Good old Gottfried—right where I had hoped to find him.
And just like that, I went from someone who thought his ancestors had come to this country in the last century to someone who suspects his seven times great-grandfather served in the Revolutionary War.
Even now I still have so many questions. More questions about the Orwigs. More questions about Gottfried and his descendants. But as I said, that’s what makes genealogy so exciting–every new ancestor you discover brings a new mystery to solve.
What Will You Discover?
Could you have unexpected history even the history buffs in your family would never suspect?
Get started with an AncestryDNA test and explore your family story today.