Originally published January 04, 2003 in the Daily Press
By VIRGINIA H. ROLLINGS Columnist
Some of you who attended genealogy courses I taught for years might remember that I would write “KROPFGANS” on the board and offer $100 for information about this German name.
Friends who now come to the Family History Center laugh when I mention the name. My mother was Matilda Kropfgans, whose parents died when she was young. She knew nothing of her ancestry except that her father was an orphan raised by “an old uncle in Iowa.”
I went to Iowa years ago before all its records were microfilmed and made available elsewhere. I found the uncle, and her father, listed in the 1860 Iowa census, a nephew in the Kropfgans household, with Saxony as his place of origin. Nothing revealed where the family originated in Germany. I examined available courthouse records, finding an oath of allegiance in Dubuque, but not a naturalization petition, which might supply origin. I found Kropfgans deeds, wills and obituaries, but nothing told where they had lived in Germany.
I went to the National Archives to check passenger lists in ports of embarkation in Germany, but the name was not there nor on ships leaving Bremen, Hamburg or LeHavre. Nor were they in American ports of Philadelphia, New York, or New Orleans. The locality is necessary in order to search. The only clue was “Saxony,” entered in the 1880 census. I went to the great Family History Library in Salt Lake several times. Nicht!
Back again in Iowa, I interviewed cousins and children of former neighbors of Johann Gottlieb Kropfgans, who died in 1883. I talked with families named Kosbau, Luckterhant, Armbruster, Haferbecker, Leppert and Feuerhelm. Some remembered with little interest; they drove me out “on the prairie” to the old Kropfgans farm, advising me not to worry: “they were good people, so what more is there to know?”
Thousands had left Germany in terrible wars and in greater numbers when the Homestead Act of 1862 was advertised throughout Europe: Free land in America; all you had to do was build a dwelling and cultivate it! Millions crossed the ocean and never looked back, having said permanent farewells to parents and family “in the old country.” They cut big trees and dug big stumps, built little churches everywhere and sent their children to one-room schools.
Anxious to be totally American, they learned English with their children. Some changed difficult names. Few kept any records or talked about their families. So I took the easy way, searching our English families who came to Colonial Virginia where the Rollings were settled in Surry County before 1636. Since Surry and Isle of Wight records had survived wars and courthouse fires, my children’s “heritage books” were soon filled with ancestors who had been intermarrying in the area for nearly 400 years. Thousands of cousins carry the names Barham, Bell, Holt, Pyland, Derring, Williams, Hart, Harris, Warren, Spencer, Wilson, Gwaltney, Judkins, Davis, Rowell, Thompson, Berryman and Gray; in Nansemond there were the Prudens, Everetts, Brasseurs and Holloways as well as cousins among Quakers at Chuckatuck.
Lineages traced back to Jamestown, 1607. Thompsons were among zealous Massachusetts Puritans who came to Virginia to convert Anglicans. But Kropfgans shadows stayed by me. The name seems to have ended in the United States when my mother, an only child, married. None appeared on disks of national phone directories. None were in the first Social Security Death records. Three years ago I went back to Iowa and stood beside the slender marble pillar in an old cemetery, carved with the name, Johann Gottlieb Kropfgans. The photo is in my Kropfgans notebook with a tall stack of letters I wrote to German officials and embassies, individuals and to Washington D.C. All added up to one word in most replies: “Nicht.”
But it changed recently. Many times I had typed the name in Internet searches. Nicht! But a few months ago I again typed “Kropfgans” in an Internet query block. A long document in German appeared. Then the mouse sniffed about and there was an option to translate to English. In seconds I was reading that Johann Gottlieb Kropfgans, born 1660, and his son, Johann Gottlieb Kropfgans, born 1704, of Saxony, were musicians, players in concerts in Leipzig and Breslau with Johann Sebastian Bach and Silvius Weiss. The younger Gottlieb was with Johann Adam Hiller of Breslau, who arranged orchestration for opera and added the lute to the instruments for first time in about 1740, when Kropfgans was invited to be the lutenist. He traveled with Weiss, master lutenist, and they played in Brussels and at the crowning of the prince of Austria. His little daughter, Johanna Elenora Kropfgans, studied with Weiss and at age 9 was a soloist in Breslau, titled a “Brushische Lutenist.” Her brother played at age 7 and could “transpose and improvise figured bass.”