Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Almost-Sad Tale of Sophie Amberger

For years, my husband had been told that his great-grandparents, Christopher Martin Buechler and Sophie nee Amberger, came to America in 1864. They hailed from the German state of Hesse and sailed from Bremen on the Ship Hansa. When I checked the indexes in Germans to America, I found Sophie but no trace of C.M. Perhaps the family story was wrong. Perhaps Sophie came alone to work as a servant in a wealthy German household. Perhaps she’d been jilted in Germany and took the first boat to America. Poor Sophie – a runaway!

I was determined to learn what happened. As a firm believer in going to the source – whether a political press conference in real time, C-SPAN testimony before Congress, or the actual civil record of an event – I went to the National Archives in Manhattan. My goal: to examine the original passenger manifests on microfilm. (I also double-checked Germans to America, and once again found Sophie in the index, still alone.)

I had no trouble finding the microfilm reel and made a copy of the roll with Sophie’s name. Above her was a surname that had been interpreted by the indexers at Germans to America as “Pouchter.” I didn’t know who this was, but I was fairly sure he would have left the boat directly before Sophie, judging by the order of names in the manifest. I stared at the microfilm, hoping for something to happen. (You never know ... the lights are dim and the microfilms are old.) I was stumped. Perhaps Sophie really did come to America, alone and frightened.

But, oh, the things that happen in bars! I met my husband at our once-favorite, now defunct, Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village (Casa di Pre, for those of you who knew it). Over a cold glass of white wine, I lamented that I couldn’t find C.M. (or “Buechi” as we called him). I took the microfilm print out of my bag and pointed out Sophie and Mr. Pouchter. And then, it hit me! Staring at the line with “Pouchter,” I saw the curly P resolve into a complete B, the “ou”
resolve into an o umlaut, the rest of the surname fall into place. It WAS Buchler, Christopher. Lost in transcription!

Sophie did not arrive alone. Perhaps C.M. and Sophie eloped, with Sophie sailing under her maiden name. Did they get married as soon as they hit American soil? Did they have a secret plan to leave Germany together? C.M. was quite a firebrand in his day, and perhaps Sophie’s parents did not approve. I cannot find their marriage record from 1864, so I don’t know all the answers. That search is yet to come.

Legions of indexers, paid and volunteer, put together fine collections of records for researchers to use, often free. In no way do I want to demean their efforts. But what I do advocate is that, if you can’t find it online, in an index, or a compilation, go to the source – microfilmed original records, vital record certificates, a family Bible, a newspaper, even an authentic letter in a reliable hand. You’ll be doing your own research the old fashioned way – and you just might find something interesting.

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