The Hunt for Hoffmans in Shepherdstown, West Virginia

When I was a kid I didn’t think about who my Grandpa John Hoffman’s grandpa was. Grandpa seemed far too old to ever have had a grandpa himself. But Grandpa John did have a grandpa, and his name was Samuel Hoffman, and he was the first of my branch of Hoffmans to come out west.

Hoffman Headstone, College City Cemetery
Hoffman Headstone, College City Cemetery

Samuel was born in 1834 in the state of Virginia, and he came to California sometime between 1870 and 1880 with his wife Elizabeth Jane Wade, and their three sons: Harvey W. Hoffman, Alvey Wade Hoffman, and Worthington Newcomer Hoffman (that name piqued my interest, and I did eventually learn about its origins). Those three boys were born in Maryland, just across the Potomac River from where Samuel grew up in Virginia.

 

Samuel’s oldest son, Harvey W. Hoffman (1864-1930) was my great-grandfather. He married Nancy Bole (1868-1950), a native of California, in 1892 and they produced two sons: Harvey Virgil Hoffman (1893-1960) and John Wade Hoffman (1904-1975), who was my grandfather.

 

I was able to trace the Hoffmans two generations further back from Samuel to a John Hoffman who was born in Shepherdstown, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1760.

map locating Shepherdstown WV
click on map to enlarge

This is where I had gotten stuck in my Hoffman research about a year ago, so I had set it aside and concentrated on other branches of the family.

 

When my wife and I recently started planning a trip to the East Coast, I revisited my Hoffman research. I had always assumed Hoffman was a German name, so I was intrigued to learn that Shepherdstown, West Virginia, was an area that had had a large German population, many of whom were crafts people. As usual, I wanted to know the stories of my predecessors. Did they emigrate from Germany? From what part? When and why? Did they have a craft? What was it?

 

Well, here it is 2016 and we don’t have the promised jet packs. But we do have the internet, so I plugged the desired information into the Google search engine and learned that modern-day Shepherdstown is a charming, historic college town. It is near the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, now a National Historic Park (all 184.5 miles of it) as well as other historic sites such as Harpers Ferry and Antietam. IMG_3501 Shepherd University is there, and has been there since 1871 when it was established as part of the state normal school system. The more I read, the more I wanted to go there, and as it was within a couple hour’s drive of our other planned destinations—Annapolis and Washington D.C.—we booked a couple nights at the Thomas Shepherd Inn (a B&B within walking distance of many points of interest). IMG_3506 (1)I contacted the Shepherdstown Museum and made an appointment to visit their archive. I emailed information about what I had discovered thus far about my family in the area, including family names I was looking for. I also knew (from the website Find A Grave) that any number of Hoffmans were buried in the Reformed Graveyard in Shepherdstown, so we planned to visit the cemetery as well (cemeteries have become a common destination in our travels). I crossed my fingers and hoped I might gather a few more scraps of information about the Hoffmans from the Shepherdstown archive.

 

In the end our trip was wildly successful. Not only did my wife and I have a great time exploring, we learned some fascinating history about the area, and the documentation I found on my family was far better than I could have imagined—a real genealogical coup! Even in this age of the internet, it turns out there’s nothing as good as going right to the source.

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The Clarke Family Takes Root and Expands

The next decade or so after their marriage in 1867 finds William and Catherine Clarke—or Will and Katie, as they were known—building their family, their farming and ranching enterprises, and their community involvement in Yolo County. At the time of their marriage, Catherine’s daughter from her previous marriage, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Tenney (my great-grandmother), was four. Two months after the wedding a son, William Dougal Clarke was born (recall that Lizzie as an adult wrote in a letter that she had learned that brother Willie was in fact her full brother, not her stepbrother as everyone had been led to believe, i.e. he was not the son of WJ Clarke but of Catherine’s first husband, Willard Tenney). Two years later a daughter, Margaret Jane, was born (1869). In 1871 another daughter, Catherine May, followed by a son, Noble Foster, in 1873. Two more children came along, Celia Violet in 1876 and George W. David in 1879. Twelve years after their marriage the Clarkes had seven children.

Although William and Catherine Clarke have plenty of descendants living today, these descendants all came from three of their seven children: My great grandmother Lizzie bore nine children, all of whom lived into adulthood; Margaret bore three sons, two of whom lived into adulthood; and Foster Noble produced a son and two daughters, all living into adulthood.

A tragic event occurred just five months prior to William’s marriage to Katie. William’s partner Jack Stewart was killed in a bar fight in the Knight’s Landing Union Hotel, stabbed to death by Charles A. Brown, who was convicted and sentenced to six years in state prison. Clarke subsequently bought out Stewart’s heirs—siblings still living in Scotland whom I’m sure had no use for wheat fields in California—for Stewart’s shares in the ranch. In 1870 the 60 acres that had been Stewart’s share were purchased by Katie (Foster) Clarke’s brother, James Washington Foster—the only one of her siblings to be born in the U.S. (Illinois) after her family emigrated from Ireland.

William and Katie Clarke each had siblings who settled nearby—remember that both the Clarkes and the Fosters immigrated initially from Ireland and came to California by way of Illinois, although I don’t yet know if the two families knew each other prior to their lives in California. Perhaps not, as a letter from one of William Clarke’s cousins who remained in Illinois asks William about his bride, “Where did you find her?”

One of the things I’ve found to be common in my own family history, and is probably common to many families in early California, is the intermarrying of families, i.e. two brothers from one family marrying sisters from another, or cousins marrying sisters, etc. This situation sometimes creates confusion, especially around names when the tendency for kids to be named after aunts, uncles and grandparents is added into the equation. Katie Clarke’s mother was Margaret, and she had a sister also named Margaret. William Clarke also has a sister Margaret, and he and Katie named their daughter Margaret. Katie’s brother James Foster married a woman named…wait for it…Margaret.

Noble Clarke, brother of William John Clark
Noble Clarke, brother of William John Clark

In any case, by the 1870s William had two siblings living in the Yolo/Colusa Counties area, his brother Noble and his sister Margaret. Katie Clarke also had two siblings in the area, her half-sister Elizabeth Little, who married William’s brother Noble, and her brother James Worthington Foster, a Civil War veteran who is shown to be living with Will and Katie Clarke in the 1870 census.

The pattern of my family’s immigration followed that of many other families: Siblings following siblings across the ocean and across the continent. By the 1870s both William and Katie have relatives who remained in Ireland as well as relatives who remained in Illinois—parents, siblings and cousins. Fortunately, some correspondence between the family groups has survived into the present day and sheds light on family events. Letters from a cousin of William’s inform him that his mother had died, and then his father. Letters from Katie’s half-sister Sarah in Illinois comment on the floods and loss of crops that the Clarkes endured over the years. In 1874 she writes,

“I do not see how you can live out there with so much water around you. I think it must be very unhealthy and then [to] lose so much wheat. I do not think that pays very well.”

In spite of Sarah’s misgivings about the area, it seemed to suit Will and Katie Clarke and they lived out their lives in Yolo and Colusa Counties.

A Trip Back in Time: Plumas County, California

My family’s history is closely intertwined with the early history of California. Three of my four grandparents were born in California, as well as three of my eight great-grandparents. I know of at least four ancestral family groups or individuals who came to California by wagon train, for gold or for land, or perhaps just in search of new opportunities. I find myself more and more fascinated by these pioneering families, and not just those whose blood lines I carry, but others I keep uncovering who are more distantly related by marriage. Although I fear I may have snoozed through more than one California history lesson in my school days, it all seems terribly intriguing now. I want to delve into their stories and get a picture of what their lives were like both before and after their emigrations. Perhaps that is what history buffs have in common, the desire to understand what people’s lives were like during a particular era that has passed. It’s also why we need to be aware that our own histories are also important. Believe it or not, people in the future will want to know what our lives were like. As a budding genealogist I feel fortunate that my family has been in Northern California for generations, mainly because it’s so easy to travel to the areas where they lived. Ancestry.com is a great source of information up to a point, but to get down to the nitty gritty, fill in some of the details and flesh out the stories, it’s best to visit the county where one’s ancestors lived. County courthouses, museums and archives provide a wealth of information in the form of official records—birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, divorces, property deeds, etc.—as well as photos, historical publications that can’t be found anywhere else, and the collected reminiscences of old timers. How grateful I am to the letter writers, the letter savers, the journal keepers, and the interviewers for leaving a wealth of information to sift through. Recently when my wife and I got one of our frequent urges for a little road trip, I suggested Plumas County as a destination. We had back-packed in that area a few years ago but that was before I had any awareness of the historical connections my family has there. My maternal grandparents (and great-grandparents and great-great grandparents) were primarily farmers in the northern end of the Central Valley, in Yolo, Colusa, and Sutter Counties. I’ve only recently become aware that Catherine and William Clarke, my great-grandparents, drove their cattle up to Plumas County for summer pasture every year back in the later 1800’s. My great-grandmother drove a wagon, probably filled with supplies and some assortment of their seven children—at least those too young to help with the cattle drive. They spent summers up in the mountains, as did many other Central Valley families. As roads to the area became more developed, hotels were established and tourism began to flourish in the area, families came to escape the heat of the Valley as well as illnesses such as malaria, diphtheria, and cholera. By the 1870’s entire communities were camping together each summer, coming from such Valley towns as Gridley, Chico, and Red Bluff. As I was putting together the facts and family relationships using Ancestry.com, I could not help but notice that two of William and Catherine Clarke’s offspring married into the Stover family. I could see that the Stovers were early arrivals to an area called Big Meadows in Plumas County. It was my desire to dig deeper into the story behind these marriages and the Stover family that put us on the road to Quincy recently. The Clarkes and the Stovers were both cattle ranchers, but while the Clarkes made their primary residence in Colusa County and thus retreated back to the valley come fall, the Stovers were permanent residents of Plumas County. This county sits at the far northern reach of the Sierra Nevada, while Lassen Peak, which is the southernmost peak of the Cascade Range, sits just to the north. A portion of present day Lassen Volcanic National Park is located within the northwest boundaries of Plumas County. It was and is a stunning area of forested mountains, expansive alpine meadows, and creeks which feed into the Feather River. It is the Spanish name for the river, Rio de Plumas, that gives the county its name. Many miners were attracted to this area during the California gold rush, and although the Stovers did initially come west seeking gold, they eventually settled in this area for the purpose of cattle ranching and dairying.

Our trip to Plumas County was a fruitful one. I had made an appointment with Scott Lawson, the archivist at the county museum in Quincy, and by the time I arrived he had pulled out all the information he could find on the Stovers and the Clarkes. The Stover name continues to be well-known in the area, and there is a Stover Mountain, Stover Creek, and even a strip mall in the town of Chester called the Stover Creek Center. I waded through historical tomes, newspaper clippings, transcribed oral histories, and photographs—scanning them all using an app on my iPhone. Talk about striking gold! We also visited a small museum that was part of the public library in Chester, and found many more photos and information about the Stovers in particular, and life in Plumas County during the 19th and early 20th century in general. Unfortunately, the archivist was not in but I did get her phone number. I also learned that my great-grand-aunt, Catherine May (Clarke) Stover was the first librarian when the Chester library was first built in 1929, the same building that is in use today.

We left Plumas County well-satisfied with our visit, laden with maps, books, historical and tourist information as well as all the documents I had scanned. We only spent three days there but in addition to our family history treasure hunt we took three lovely hikes, drank some good locally-brewed beer, had several delicious meals, and met many friendly, helpful folks. A return visit is certainly in our future as there seems to be so much more to explore.