From Census Records To Cemetery Tours
By Jackie Nickel
I found some relatives I didn’t know I had a couple weeks ago. Or rather, they found me. It started out with a phone call I received on Friday the 13th… a call that has since led me to church records, census documents and the graves of ancestors long departed. Pat Parker of Catonsville called me that Friday evening introducing herself and explaining “my mother is one of your fans.” She said that her mother, Eleanor Roth of Essex, has been reading my work for many years and has felt a connection beyond mere words on paper. Almost five years ago when my mom died, I wrote a tribute that touched a few hearts and led Eleanor to check the obituary pages. Among the names in the list of survivors, she made an association that hinted of a possible family bond. Eleanor’s husband’s great grandmother and my great great grandmother could be one and the same. Something I wrote recently about family spurred her to ask daughter Patty to call me and broach the subject. “She’ll probably think I’m crazy,” Eleanor told Pat. “Crazy? I love this kind of stuff,” I told Pat as we delved into the mystery of our common roots. Yes, my German great grandmother was named Sophie and she was married to a Swede named Peterson and their daughter Lillie, my grandmother, married John Nickel. The family ties go back to another Sophie, one I didn’t know about until Pat’s call. My great grandma Sophie’s mother was also named Sophie (or Sophia as it is on the records) and she married three times, the final husband being Eleanor’s great grandfather George Rothe (pronounced Row-tee and later, after dropping the “e,” Roth). So Sophie the younger was stepsister to George. Of course, after an hour and a half phone conversation that night, I was totally confused — and totally hooked on tracing my roots. The next day, Saturday, I called a couple cousins and started making a list of birth and death dates of their parents and grandparents and other information like where deceased relatives were born, buried, etc. just for a starting point. Sunday morning I woke up with the irresistible urge to visit the cemetery. Not Oak Lawn, where all my known dear departed are buried, but one mentioned to me by Patty as the gravesite of my great grandmother’s first husband. She had found records of his interment while following a branch of the family tree from our common kin, Sophia at a cemetery with an unlikely name, Schwartz’s.
Schwartz’s Cemetery. Not a very reverent name, but Patty explained it was the burial ground of the United Evangelical Church of Christ at East and Dillon Sts. but when Pastor Schwartz took over, people began to refer to it by his name. It was off German Hill Rd. or O’Donnell St., not sure which. Do you know how many cemeteries there are on German Hill Rd? Not just the big ones like Sacred Heart of Jesus, Sacred Heart of Mary and Holy Rosary, but the little Polish National Catholic one, the two Jewish cemeteries and a couple more in between. Well, none of them were Schwartz’s. My friend Carole went with me a few days later to check out O’Donnell St. “Lock your doors,” she told me as I picked her up. It’s not in the best neighborhood. Off we went. Have you ever driven I-95 past the Baltimore Travel Plaza and noticed the forlorn hillside of tombstones off to the right? Well, that’s a portion of the O’Donnell St. cemetery complex. I say complex because O’Donnell Heights is another area of multiple graveyards. I know. I’ve been to them all. And we finally found Schwartz’s! The next day, I emailed my new cousins Patty and her sister Kathleen, who lives right in Middle River, and called their mom Eleanor to share my excitement. I’ll let my email tell the story: “Had a good day in the cemetery yesterday — doesn’t that sound gruesome? My girlfriend went with me — took us a while to find Schwartz’s but we finally did — German writing on the gateway. We drove round just looking until I took a turn up a dead (ha ha) end and had to back out — told Carole to look behind us and tell me when to cut my wheels. I noticed she was looking down. She said “there’s a Peterson footstone.” I looked over and saw a big Scharling headstone! That’s the last name of Sophie the younger’s second husband. So Peter Olaf Peterson has a footstone on the right side and John Scharling on the left and in the middle is my great grandma Sophie (that’s Sophie the younger, remember). Leads me to believe Scharling was a friend of Peterson (they were both Swedish seamen) whom Sophie married after Peter’s death. Then we drove into Sacred Heart of Jesus, just circling around, not getting out of the car. I made another turn up a dead end and looked over and there was a Foertchbeck next to a Foehrkolb, both names of families who had married one of the Nickel brothers. The grave was of the parents of my grandfather’s brother’s wife! There are Foehrkolbs in my neighborhood too — you can bet I’ll call them!
Next we went to Oak Lawn to visit my mom and her aunt and I said I wanted to look for my uncle George Nickel who is buried near a soldier statue — we went all around the soldier and couldn’t find him then drove on and I spotted a second soldier statue. Sure enough, right behind the soldier and to the right was Uncle George with Aunt Kate — and on the opposite side of the tombstone was my grandfather’s brother George and his wife Annie (Kremp) Nickel!
I know this is all divine providence, especially the first two since I had no idea where they even were and didn’t even get out of the car! Yes, you can tell I’m hooked! It’s given me a new sense of time and place in the universe and a chance to think about what I’m made of. I’m more determined than ever now to find my great great grandmother Mary Nickel — for whom I’m named (Mary Jacqueline) and who was born exactly 100 years before me. I feel connected to her more than ever now. Divine providence. Meeting Patty at the Maryland Historical Society to dig through records next week!”