FAMILY OF  THE  PHOENIX, © 2010 Robert Keith. All rights reserved.

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About the Book

 

An aging Michael is the last remaining member of his Germanic Pennsylvania Dutch family who emigrated to America on the ship Phoenix in the mid-18th century. Like the Phoenix bird this family rose from the ashes of poverty in their homeland and built a new life in America.

 

In 1821, Michael dictates a journal to his son about his family’s life in the old country, their trip to America, their time in Philadelphia, and on their farms in Lancaster and Huntingdon Counties in Pennsylvania. Love, humor, joy,  sadness, grief, and a deep-rooted religious faith are all intertwined in Michael’s story of a family whose success in America far exceeded their modest expectations. In short, a story that breathes the richness and full-color of life into the black-and-white facts of this real-life family’s genealogy.

About the Author

Robert “Bob” Keith was born in Missouri, grew up a Kansan, and has an obvious Ozark mountain hillbilly drawl to his speech. Thanks Dad! He retired early from his professional life as an east-coast-based manager in higher education information systems [university computer stuff] and he and his wife, Judy, moved closer to home. He has since [addictively] devoted a great deal of his time to amateur genealogy and has extensively researched his father and mother’s early family trees. Unfortunately, genealogy limits a person from knowing their early ancestors as the human beings they really were. Bob opted to write a book that has decidedly corrected that problem.

 

Book excerpts

Preface

 

For the last few years my wife Rosannah has repeatedly asked me to set down in writing an account of my life and that of my family so the generations that follow will know and can more fully understand from whence they have come. Although she continues to tell me that my mind is not the least bit cloudier than the day we were married over sixty years ago, the mirror on our wall reflects that the same cannot be said for the condition of my body. I have at last relented to Rosannah’s loving reminders and I will attempt the undertaking of such an account. With the excellent writing skills of my son John Henry, we will all see how far my memory can trace the furthest reaches of my youth and forward from there. There is no guarantee certain that I will live to see this work completed or that my memory will hold up to the strain. In the least, I am hopeful the love of my life will, once and forever, be lovingly silent about this matter.

Chapter 1 - My family

There was never any question in our family that Father was in charge and it was he who always made the final decision if there was ever any disagreement. However, we all knew that Mother’s domain was the household, its contents and its inhabitants. I remember that Father rarely, if ever, questioned any decision Mother made about her home or about the way she reared her children. When it came to assigning and overseeing the chores it was always Mother who decided what was going to be done, who was going to do it, when it should be finished, and if the job had been done satisfactorily. If Father entered the house with muddy feet or soot on his clothes, Mother would be on him like a hawk on a field mouse until he made sure he would in no way affect the cleanliness of her home. At the dinner table we all made sure that two of Mother’s rules were followed; we always properly used tableware when we ate, and under no circumstance, would there be any food left on our plate when we had finished a meal. If these rules were ever broken it took nothing more than a stern look from Mother to correct the violator.

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During the years that followed, Mary wrote often telling us all how George and the rest of the family were getting along. “We have cleared a great volume of land,” she wrote. “We have built a grand cabin and although the winter clime is colder than we are used to, we are all well and fine.” We all knew that whatever the circumstance, Mary and those she loved would benefit and thrive. In the early winter of 1810, we received a sad letter from Mary recounting how George had passed away. She wrote, “My beloved passed peacefully in the night after a recent heart sickness. Although my grief is mighty, my cup still runneth over. Our children are well and we have many grandchildren and even some great-grandchildren. Michael, the love I have for you, my favorite brother, will only pass when I do, and then I am sure we will once again meet in God’s glory in the great beyond.” Three years later, in the summer of 1813, I received a letter from Mary’s oldest daughter Rosina telling us, “Mother has gone to be with her God and her husband. Mother told me before she died that she wanted you all to know that she was happy in life and love and that she and her beloved George would clear some land for you in the green pastures of Heaven.” My Mary, my sister, oh how God has blessed me.

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His body was lying all alone on the ground covered with a dark green woolen blanket. I lifted the blanket back to his shoulders and quietly recited the twenty-third psalm. He looked happy and peaceful in God’s arms and on his pale face, ever so slight a smile. I went back to our tent. At about noon George came to the tent driving his horse ahead of a small two-wheeled cart. In the back of the cart was a wooden casket. George stopped the cart, slowly looked over at me, and said, “Climb up Michael, we are going home.” As we started out George told me he had talked to Captain Davies and gotten permission to take Hieronimus home, he had bought a casket from a local carpenter, and a cart from a nearby farmer. George Slough, my darling sister Mary’s husband, had indeed taken care of us all.

Chapter 2 - The Old Country

This was one of the most beautiful and quiet places in the village. Narrow paths of small brown and white river stone ran throughout the graveyard and there were short wooden benches at various places where a person could sit and rest awhile. Each of the slate markers were surrounded by beautiful, well cared for small bushes, ferns, and flowers that burst into bloom in the spring and summer. Throughout the graveyard there were stately cedar trees standing as sentinels to protect this sacred place from the weather. Our family would visit the graveyard regularly to tend to the final resting places of those we loved and to say a prayer for them. Mother would quietly tell Barbara and John how much she loved and missed them and the goings on in the family and the village. I am sure they were listening.

Chapter 3 - Baltzer’s Trip to America

Sunday, the sixth of October, seventeen hundred and fifty-three from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in America!

To all of my family in Höchst, I have arrived in our new country! [We had now received the words from Baltzer himself and there was a loud cheer from around the table. At that moment I suspect all of us were as excited as Baltzer was when he wrote these words nearly three months ago! Had there been a contest for the loudest cheer of all I believe Mother would have won it. In all of my years with Mother I did not know such a sound could come from her.

I have so very much to tell you all I am not sure where I must start. On Saturday, a week ago [September 28, 1753], our ship the Neptune was tied to the dock in Philadelphia in the English colony of Pennsylvania in America. Everyone was on the main deck and when the last line had been tied to the dock there was loud cheering and clapping. I must frankly admit my traveling companions and I added a great part to the commotion. Let me first tell you about the voyage on the great ocean, it is called the Atlantic Ocean.”

Chapter 4 - The Rest of Us Go to America

The remaining nine weeks that we spent on the Atlantic Ocean voyage after we left Cowes, can be described with three simple words, agony and death. By the time we reached the Chesapeake Bay, Anna was very ill. Father and Adam had lost so much weight that we could see many of the bones of their bodies.

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At our last count we knew of at least eighty passengers who had died and been thrown into the ocean. Many of those who died were children. I cannot to this day talk about the human condition below the deck. I will simply tell you that during that time I saw the very best possible and the very worst possible of human actions.

 

Chapter 5 - Our Time in Philadelphia

 

Throughout the entirety of this event Mother had remained fast asleep and she was still so when Baltzer took her hand. As Baltzer gave her a kiss on the cheek she barely opened her eyes and, when she did, she looked up at him and said in a quiet voice, “Baltzer, bin ich im Himmel? [Baltzer, am I in heaven?]  Baltzer answered, “Neine Mutter, du bist in Amerika.” [No Mother, you are in America.] A smile slowly came to her face and still smiling she fell back to sleep.

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The man and woman closed the door behind them as they left. I thought to myself what more help could we have wanted or needed. In a little under two-hours’ time, we had come from the helpless squalor below the deck of our ship with our weak mother and very sick sister Anna who were now in a hospital. We would shortly be bathed, dressed in clean clothes, and no doubt have our finest meal since we had left Rotterdam over three months earlier.

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There seemed to be nothing different about this morning until we were awakened by the sound of Mother softly crying in the fireplace room. Father was the first to come to Mother followed shortly by Mary and us boys. Mother looked up at us from her place by Anna’s bed and said, “Anna gegangen zu sein mit Gott.” [Anna went to be with God.] …. In a letter from Mary many years later I remember she included a short paragraph about Anna.

Michael, I am reminded of the day before Anna died when Mother and I were working in the kitchen in Germantown. As Mother went to the fireplace room to sweep the floor, Anna asked Mother if she was going to die. Mother said no to Anna and asked her why she would say such a thing. Anna told her that last night she had a wonderful dream about a beautiful garden full of flowers where many children were running, playing, and having such joy and happiness. She said she wanted to be able to go to that place and do that. Mother told her that one day soon she would be well enough to again run and play and Anna answered her, “I hope so.”

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When Mary finished reading she proudly looked directly at Father and said to us all, this means that the Gieg family now owns its very own land in the colony of Pennsylvania in the country of America. We shouted aloud and clapped for near to a full minute before Father told us to quiet down so as to not alarm our neighbors. As a family we had worked hard and we had suffered much and we had prayed mightily, but now. a dream that we had first thought about over five years ago had at last come true. Mother asked us to join our hands and she thanked God for our many blessings and for the strength of this family. She closed by thanking God for taking good care of Anna. I believe the Amen that followed could have been heard in the forests of our new land in Lancaster County.

 

Chapter 6 - The Brecknock Farm

 

It was not the value in money that Mr. Nelles had given as a Christmas gift to Father on that day. He had given Father back his self-respect and his self-worth, two important things that Father believed he had lost a few years ago in our village of Höchst. I remember when we finished our house at the Brecknock farm, I framed this letter in oak and it was permanently placed inside the cabin on the wall next to our front door.

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Hieronimus, Adam, Mary, Lewis, Jacob and I ran at our best speed across the bridge and passed the wagon and on to the rise of the hill. We stopped short and stared at the sight before our eyes. Mary turned around to Father and Mother, who had just crossed over the bridge, and told them in her loudest voice to hurry up and look at this, as she pointed ahead of her. When Father, Mother, and Baltzer joined us from the wagon we all stood in a single line across the road and beheld the view. In the distance we could see a hawk soaring high in the cloudless blue sky and the hint of springtime green on the trees in the small valley below. We could see the road winding out through the trees and across the valley until it disappeared over a short hill about three or four miles away. To the right of us was a sign atop a pole that had been driven in the ground. The sign simply read, Gieg land.

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He explained to all of us that it was a tradition in the village to put a tree on the building roof as a  topping out which meant the cabin was finished. The shingles were all in place by the time I returned with the tree. I climbed the ladder next to the front door and I handed the tree to Mr. Siedenstricker who handed it to Father to place at the highest point in the middle of the roof. As Father nailed the tree upright on the roof the sounds of our clapping and cheering could be heard echoing in the distant valley and Frederick even returned a low whinny in response to our celebration.

 

Chapter 7 - The Marrying Years

 

I remember once when Catharine was plowing behind Frederick, Baltzer came out from the furnace house and was watching her plow. The sight of a smallish Catharine trailing behind our huge black horse struggling with the large iron and wood field plow was something to see. Baltzer stood for the longest time before he clapped and shouted at her about the fine job she was doing. She stopped Frederick, turned toward Baltzer, and bowed in his direction as if she was a performer accepting the praise of an adoring audience. We all laughed for the longest time. I remember that moment and the times I saw Baltzer and Catharine walking hand-in-hand in the forest, dipping their feet in the stream, and just enjoying each other’s company. I wondered if someday I too might meet a young woman to be my bride and share wonderful moments like these. Little did I know at the time, that day was much nearer than I had ever imagined.

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I watched the white smoke from the fireplace disappear up the chimney to the cool crisp outside star-filled sky, and I wondered if there was someone out in the night, as I had once been, wondering if their future would include as loving a companion as I now had. A few years later a letter I received from my sister Mary included the following;

Michael, as I write these words from the candle light of the table in my home, I am reminded of the day of your wedding to Rosannah. After the excitement of the day I remember taking a walk to the Muddy and sitting on Mother’s washing rock and gazing at the stars. Over my shoulder I could see the smoke rising from your chimney. As I imagined the two of you in each other’s arms inside, I  remember wondering if there was someone somewhere under those same stars with whom, one day, I would be able to share my life. As I close this letter to you I am so happy for us both.

Chapter 8 - The Dying Years

I picked Mother up from her blanket, took her inside, and laid her down on her bed. As I stood up I noticed that her eyes were now closed and I put my hand to her face and I knew then she was no longer breathing. I turned to Father and Rosannah who were standing behind me, and I told them that Mother had gone home. I heard a slight whimper of crying from the other room and one-by-one we came to Mother’s bed and kissed her gently on the cheek. Father was the last one by Mother’s bed and I heard him whisper in Mother’s ear that she should take good care of Anna until he too joined her at home.

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I sat by the candlelight at the table in Adam’s cabin and I knew that I would not sleep until I could talk to him. At first light I heard Adam rise from his bed and I lit a fire in the fireplace waiting for him to join me in the family room. He finally came in and sat beside me at the table and I asked him how he was feeling. He told me that he was very sad and very tired and then he asked me what he should do. I told him that we would all help him bury Lizzie, mourn with him in his loss. and join him in taking care of his children.  …. Adam told us that he and the boys had spent some time saying good-bye to Lizzie and they had gone on a long walk around the fields and played for a while in the Muddy. Adam said that they had found the perfect resting place for their mother in the shade of a large cedar tree across Bowman’s road from their cabin and they all knew she would be happy there.

Chapter 9 - The War of the Revolution

Another man asked if there would be uniforms given to the militia and the captain said no. The same man then quickly asked that if we were in a battle how would we know who was a friend and who was a foe. The captain just as quickly replied that the enemy wore a red-coat and we needed to make sure we did not wear a coat of that color. This answer drew laughter from the crowd. The last question I remember hearing was what would happen if an able man did not enroll in the militia. The captain  answered that any man who failed to enroll may be held as a traitor to his country. With that answer the crowd grew very quiet. There was no question or misunderstanding among anyone in the gathering about what that meant.

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When it came my time to enroll, the man at the table asked me my name and I told him. He looked on another list and asked me how I spelled my name and I told him. He looked back on the other list again and said that he had an Adam with a last name similar to the way I had spelled my name for him, but it was not quite spelled the same. I told him that was my father. He asked me if I was sure of the spelling and I said yes. He looked at me and asked me if I was a German and I said yes I was. He then said that in America the name that I pronounced for my last name [Keech] would be spelled “K-E-I-T-H” and I said that was fine as long as I knew to come when it was called. He then said Keith and asked me if I would come and I said yes I would. …. When we got home I did not tell Father what I had done with my name, but I did tell Rosannah and she was thrilled to be Rosannah Keith. She then quoted William Shakespeare and  said, That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. After I thought for a moment about what she had said, we both had a good laugh.

Chapter 10 - My Family

I should have noticed that Michael’s eyes were growing in wonderment as I finished my story. Satisfied that I had done a good job with my nature lesson, we got up from the log and Frederick and I went on with our plowing. I did not notice the moment that Michael stopped following behind me, but when Rosannah rang the bell for lunch, he was nowhere to be seen. At just the moment I was about to begin a search for him, I saw him running at top speed from the forest across Bowman’s road toward the cabin holding what appeared from a distance to be a bee hive in his left hand. He was screaming at the top of his lungs and with his right hand he was swatting at what I immediately knew were unseen, but most surely present, bees.

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Then with a new found sternness to his voice he picked up the hammer looking object and told us the Indians called this a tomahawk. Then Mr. Salisbury took the rock end of the tomahawk and placed it next to a large scar on the right side of his forehead that came to just above his right eye. It was clear to everyone in the room that the edge of the rock was a perfect fit to his scar. He told us that a Cherokee Indian warrior had nearly killed him with a tomahawk such as this one.

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I do remember that later when the family was enjoying the coolness of the evening, Phillip pulled a good-sized shiny quartz rock from the pocket of his britches. He told his brothers and sisters to look at what he found in the cave. Rosannah and I smiled at one another and I knew that she had the same thought as I did. Phillip would not remember the perilous and life-threatening events of the day as they actually happened, but rather it would be the day he found a beautiful quartz rock in the cave and that his brother Adam had helped him find it.

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Before Barbara could hand the paper back to Mr. Stone, my wife took the parchment and began to read it aloud to us. I do not remember exactly each word that she read, but I remember that it was dated the tenth day of January, 1781, and it was addressed, To Whom It May Concern. Rosannah read that this was a note of introduction for Mr. Jeremiah Stone and that he had faithfully and without regard for his own well-being served in the Continental Line of the colonial states of America. I recall the next paragraph near word for word. “I have known this man for almost twenty-five years and for all of that time he has been a true and honest friend in every endeavor we have both undertaken. Mr. Stone once saved my life in the face of enemy hostile Indians and for that I will be forever indebted to him.” Rosannah then told us the letter was signed by George Washington, General of the Continental Army. …. I believed this may well have been the first time Mr. Stone had known what was written on his paper and I could tell how proud he was.

Chapter 11 - The Hopewell Farm

We then went out to the front porch where we sat together in our new wooden swing and sat quietly swinging as we looked up at the thousands of stars in the night sky. I then softly told Rosannah how very much I loved her and how happy I was that we were side-by-side at our new home. She looked at me and said as she tightly squeezed my hand that God had made a wonderful plan for us both and she had never been happier in her whole life.

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At first light of the fourth day of rain we saw the water starting to seep through the front door. We looked out the small front windows and we could no longer see our front porch. We prayed that it was still attached to the cabin and not floating somewhere down to the Juniata. I waded out in the mud in the backyard and saw that our livestock were still high and dry among the trees on the hillside. The water had not yet surrounded the cabin but I could tell it was just a matter of time before it did so. As I looked skyward at the gray clouds that were being rung out of water like a wet cloth towel, I saw a lighter gray patch in the sky, and then another, and another. All of a sudden the large drops of rain that had just a bit earlier hit the ground so hard they splashed mud on my britches, began to be smaller and they fell less often. Rosannah too had noticed the clouds were turning a lighter shade of gray and she  opened the back door to look at the sky. No sooner had she ventured near me in the back, when, as if the red sea had parted, the clouds broke open to sunlight and then vanished completely leaving both of us basking in full sunlight.“

 

Chapter 12 - And On to Ohio

 

I asked him if his father was by any chance from Wörth am Main in the old country. At that moment the man looked puzzled and he answered that indeed he was at one time a boatman on the Main river there and he asked me how I knew that. I introduced myself to him and while I shook his hand, I told him that about sixty years ago my father had contracted a boatman by the last name of Huffnagel to take our family from Wörth to Rotterdam in Holland. The man interrupted my story and he told me to wait just a moment and he would soon return.

After a short time the man returned through the back door of the building slowly leading an old gentleman, feebly using a cane, by the hand. When they both came to the counter where John and I were  standing, the younger of the two men repeated what I had said about hiring a boatman. The old man looked at me and asked me what my name was and I told him I was Michael Keith. But, I told him at the time of our trip to Rotterdam over sixty years ago, my last name was Gieg and my father’s name was Adam. His eyes then lit up as he asked me if my father was the man with the pewter cups. I said yes that we used the cups to pay our tolls at the customs houses. I could see tears in the old man’s eyes as he asked his son to bring him around the counter to me.

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I have seen the wonder of new life and the agony of death. Joy and happiness without bounds. The darkest reaches of sorrow, unbridled laughter and unquenched tears. The love I have known from my family and my dearest wife has always been with me through each of these moments and without that I would be nothing. Rosannah and I both know that the time we have lived has far exceeded that which remains but we are not sad nor are we remorseful. We have been happy together far beyond our due and we will leave this earth content in knowing that to the best of our ability we have served our God, our family, and our fellow man.

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Just released sequel !