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  • Writer's pictureTheFormidableGenealogist


On March 19, 1872—142 years ago—Joseph Kaufman died in Tazewell County, Illinois. He was born in France about 50 years earlier, according to the information he volunteered on the 1860 and 1870 censuses. His children later thought—as do all my Kaufman relatives—that Joseph was born in Germany. Considering the changing boundaries in that part of Europe in the 19th century, he was likely born in a region that had been claimed both France and Germany in its recent history. The first area that came to my mind was Alsace-Lorraine, taken by Germany from France in 1871. Many clues have led me back to that area, but I still haven’t found exactly where Joseph was from.

Joseph arrived in Tazewell County prior to his August 1851 marriage to Fronika “Fanny” Kettner. Fanny had arrived with her family from Bavaria just two months earlier. She and her sister Magdalena were married on the same day; another sister, Susanna, was married in Illinois just 16 days after first setting foot in New York. Three other sisters were married in very short order. [Their marriage record says that Joseph Kaughman married Sophrona Kitner, but it's the right couple.]

All the Kettner siblings married spouses from the Amish Mennonite enclave around the Tazewell, McLean, and Woodford County areas of Illinois. The Mennonites who settled in my hometown of Manson, Iowa—along with Joseph’s son Peter, my great-great grandfather—shared many of the surnames of those active in Illinois with Joseph Kaufman. They continually intermarried and moved to together to start a new congregation, which was certainly not uncommon among any religious sect. My family seemed to be related somehow to every Mennonite in Iowa. For many years I didn’t realize how true that was, or the unique history of these people in Iowa.

The first Mennonite church west of the Mississippi river was founded in Lee County, Iowa, in the 1830s. Church members from Butler County, Ohio, came in the 1840s. [Apparently there was a schism in the congregation there about buttons v. hooks and eyes.] By 1855, there were still only 55 members of the church. Settlements would form in locations around Iowa City; in Page County, in southwest Iowa; in Buchanan County, in northeast Iowa; and in Calhoun County, in the northwest. Starting in 1892, Amish Mennonite families from Illinois moved to Calhoun County around Manson, and the church was organized in 1897. I hadn’t previously understood how few Mennonite congregations there were in Iowa, with a membership that remained stagnant through the 1950s. It’s no wonder so many families from Tazewell Co. came to Manson. There were few other places to find those with similar beliefs, customs, and language--and this location would have offered affordable farm land.

The first Amish settler in the area of Illinois where this sect would take root came to McLean County from Butler County, Ohio, in 1829. He had originally emigrated from Alsace. Many of the Amish settlers in McLean, Woodford, Tazewell, and Livingston Counties came from Alsace and would often stay briefly in Pennsylvania or Butler County before continuing on to Illinois. Other areas from which these settlers came included Hesse, the Palatinate, Bavaria, Baden, and Switzerland.

These Mennonites, also called Anabaptists, came from two main ethnic traditions: Dutch and Swiss. The families from the latter were living in Switzerland before the religious persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries that drove them into Germany and France. Many lived around Basel, which sits at the intersection of the modern-day boundary between Switzerland, France, and Germany. Perhaps Joseph lived around Basel, which would certainly contribute to the confusion about the place of his birth.

Joseph Kaufman had one son who survived to adulthood—my second great-grandfather, Peter—but I really do appear to be related to much of the 1850s Mennonite and Amish congregation of central Illinois. I am hoping the growing popularity of DNA testing kits will help me connect with our common roots (and therefore informative documents) in Germany. Or France. Or maybe Switzerland.

Photo: Joseph Kaufman farmed land near here. It's now under Interstate 474 in East Peoria, Illinois, north of Pekin.


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