Monday, April 27, 2009

Finding Uncle Jake

J. W. Clifford aka Jake Kloepfer

"Uncle Jake" was my maternal grandfather's uncle. My great grandfather Philip Kloepfer was born in the tiny German town of Altleiningen, Rheinland-Pfalz, Bayern in 1861. His mother Elisabetha Kloepfer was unmarried at the time and no father was listed on the Lutheran baptismal record.

Elisabetha Kloepfer (b. 1834) had given birth to another illegitimate son, Heinrich Kloepfer, in 1854, but his father was recorded as Nikolaus Rehy in the Altleiningen parish register.

The family story, passed down through the generations, is that Nikolaus Rehy immigrated to America before Heinrich's birth. He promised Elisabetha that he would find work and build a home for them. Then he would return to Germany, marry her and take her and their son back to the United States.

Nikolaus did immigrate and found work, but he never returned to Altleiningen for Elisabetha. He married in the U.S. and had a family with another woman. Elisabetha was broken-hearted and obviously had a relationship with another man. Thus my great grandfather.

Nine years after GG-father Philip was born Elisabetha had another illegitimate son, Jacob Kloepfer in 1870. Again, no father was listed on the baptismal record.

When Jacob was five-years-old, Elisabetha moved to Mannheim, Baden, Germany where Philip was apprenticing as a stone/brick mason. There she married Georg Schneider and proceeded to have two sons by him. Both died as infants.

In 1876 at the age of twenty-two, Heinrich Kloepfer joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Two years later he decided to immigrate to Utah. No one knows if he planned on trying to find his father.

Evidently, Elisabetha was weak and ailing at that time and asked Heinrich (Henry) to take his eight-year-old half-brother, Jacob, with him. After traveling by boat up the Rhein, Jacob and Heinrich sailed first from Antwerp and then from Liverpool on 15 Jun 1878 on the S.S. Montana.

Philip immigrated in 1881 after finishing his apprenticeship. At the age of forty-seven, Elisabetha died three months after her son Philip left Mannheim.

When the 1880 U.S. Census was enumerated in Wellsville, Cache, Utah, ten-year-old Jacob was listed as Jacob CLIFFER, the adopted son of James and Sarah Park. Jake's brother Henry had married and was living with his Swiss wife in nearby Providence, Cache, Utah. The Kloepfer name was spelled CLEPERED in this record.

It is hard for us, in this day and age, to imagine why names weren't spelled correctly in the 19th Century records. Obviously, non-Anglo-Saxon names were more difficult to understand and spell. But even common names were often misspelled in the records, making research that much more challenging.

When Jacob became a naturalized U. S. citizen in Cache County, Utah, he was using the name Jacob SCHNEIDER, his mother's married surname. How on earth could his name be found in the records if we didn't know the circumstances of Jake's life?

Uncle Jake became an actor in vaudeville, silent movies and the early "talkies". He went by the stage name J. W. CLIFFORD, very close to the name used in the 1880 census.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find Jake's name in the 1900-1930 census records. Which name was he using at the time those records were enumerated? More importantly, how was his name interpreted by the census taker AND then how did the indexer interpret what the census taker wrote?

Uncle JakeCirca 1930s

When I became interested in genealogy many years ago, I asked my mom what she remembered about her great-uncle Jake. When she was growing up in Boise, Idaho, mom said Jake showed up at their home every two to three years and asked her father for money.

Mother didn't remember Jake being an actor. She thought he was a vagabond who traveled a great deal and never married, but she didn't know his traveling was because of his vaudeville troupe.

Memories are never perfect. People remember very different things about the same event. Two people might view the same person in entirely different lights. This is the case with Uncle Jake.

My mother's cousin Naomi Kloepfer Roberts remembered in 2001 that Uncle Jake had a money bag that he wore around his neck and it was always full of money. "He was rich and always had lots of money. I asked if he had more than what was in this bag around his neck. 'Oh, yes!' He was so rich and he had travelled everywhere."

Naomi remembered he was in vaudeville and played parts. The part she remembers everyone talking about was when he played Jiggs in Maggie and Jiggs. "He would often entertain the grand kids by playing the part of Jiggs with one of Uncle Fred's girls as Maggie."

Family members remembered that Jake died in Los Angeles in the 1960s. I searched the California death index under all his various names, but couldn't find a listing under Kloepfer, Clifford, or Schneider. I finally searched with his first name only, looking for a Jacob, born in 1870 in Germany and died 1960-1970 in Los Angeles. It worked!

I found his death listed in the index under the spelling Jacob KLEPSER, born 14 Feb 1870 Germany, died 16 May 1962 in Los Angeles. He was ninety-two. He died when I was twelve and I don't think I ever met him. I would certainly have plenty of questions for him now!

Some Guidelines for Searching Names:

  • Never assume your ancestor's names were always spelled the same way you spell them now.
  • Sometimes, you'll need to be creative in figuring out how a name could be interpreted or spelled.
  • Remember that every time a human writes a record there is a possibility of error. With each generation (or compilation), there is the chance of additional errors.
  • The first letter of a surname is important--think about how a capital letter might be mis-interpreted. "R" might be read as "B" when indexing. "S" is often mistaken for "L" in hand writing, etc.

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