Into the Archives
By Jackie Nickel
After being introduced by my new cousins, Pat Parker, Kathleen Head and Eleanor Roth, to genealogy just three weeks ago, I couldn’t wait to dig through historical records. I made a date to meet Pat at the Maryland Historical Society on Monument St. on Friday morning, Oct. 20. I left home early, knowing I’d get lost as I always do traveling downtown. I didn’t disappoint myself, arriving there “the long way” but only a few minutes late. There was Pat, looking remarkably like another cousin, one I’ve known since childhood! We paid our $4 admission to enter the museum and Pat led the way to the second floor library where you check your purse and pens in lockers. It’s pencils and notebooks only for obvious reasons in the library.
I’m somewhat familiar with MHS since one of my sons served a college internship there. Nonetheless, I was happy to have Pat lead me in the right direction through the rows of shelves, stacks and drawers. Most information, such as census and church records, are on microfilm so the first step is to lay claim to a working desktop projector. We found two, side by side. Pat explained that census records were “sealed” for privacy for 72 years so the most recent we could go back was to 1920, however most of that year was destroyed by fire. She showed me how to come up with the Soundex number for my family name by assigning numbers to consonants and led me mumbling “N240” toward the census drawers. “Here it is! N240.” Without Patty, it would have taken me half a day to find the right reel, but with her, it was a piece of cake.
Since I’m not very mechanically inclined, the microfilm machine itself was a challenge but once the reels were in place I was literally on a roll. We swept through the 1910 census until we located my familiar family names. Wide double pages, handwritten by census takers, detailed each person living in the household, age and occupation. I found my great grandmom Mary Nickel, the one I’m searching for, living on South Clinton street with my grandfather and his brother. They operated a saloon and rooming house there but she listed her occupation as “none.” I had goosebumps as I wrote down every detail, imagining how it was to be interrupted from daily chores by a door-to-door census taker in 1910. Then Pat and I worked our way back to the 1900 census. No need to go to 1890 since my Mary didn’t come to this country until 1895.
Now is the time to interject family lore. Mary was born in Pressig, Bavaria around 1842. She and her husband had several sons and owned a lumber mill. The marriage as well as the political climate was not good, thus, we’ve been told, Mary packed up her boys and headed for the Land of Opportunity, the U.S.A. She didn’t get far, however. When she arrived at the port and attempted to register for the voyage, she was refused passage without her husband’s consent. Since she hadn’t even told him she was leaving, this was not possible. So Mary, with the boys in tow, headed back to Pressig.
Entering the forest near home, she was met by a band of gypsies who lived in the woods. She told them her woes and they provided a solution. Mary was almost six feet tall. With a little help, she could look like a man. They cut her long hair and dressed her in men’s clothing. They coached her in ways to board the ship without raising suspicion, to use her husband’s identity, to work her way over as a deckhand — and to stow away some of the children. Sounds preposterous, right? Well, we’ll see, I thought as Pat and I went on to passenger lists of German shipping lines from 1885. There were no Mary Nickels. But there was a Johann, 34, with two sons, George and Johann, eight and nine. Could it be? Could it be the other boys were stowaways, why there were two Georges and two Johns among the brothers? More goosebumps.
Pat led me then to church records, Sacred Heart of Jesus, all on file. There I found marriage records of my grandparents and their siblings and my mom’s baptismal records, but no mention of Mary Nickel, my great grandmom. I still don’t know when she died or where she’s buried. We checked city directories, similar to telephone books, from the early 1900s and found her listed several times. But in 1914, the year my mom was born, her name was no longer there. Mom was named for her as was I. Had she lived to see her granddaughter? Pat and I poured over film and searched obituaries for several hours as time flew by. We parted with a hug and my renewed commitment to keep up the search which would next lead to a visit to the Mormon library, right in Essex.
“There are volunteers at the Mormon library on Stemmers Run Rd. who will help you get started and point you in the right direction,” Kathy emailed me. The entrance is in the rear of the building and the hours are posted at the door. “Just press the bell and the volunteer of the day will let you in. See you soon.”