Monday, June 11, 2012

There were three brothers who immigrated... Yeah, Right!

Yesterday, I was reading James Tanner's post Fact or Fiction? in which he discusses several recurring genealogy myths including 'The Three Brothers' myth. James links to two articles. One by Dick Eastman states "Genealogy newcomers often trip over the 'three brothers' story. It has been repeated thousands of times. I have yet to see one instance in which it is accurate." The other article, by Kimberly Powell said "While the 'three brothers' myth is very rarely true, there are documented cases of three brothers immigrating together." She goes on to say "While such a story in your family tree is more likely to be a myth than not, it is always worth checking out with good genealogy research."

It was back in 1986, just a few years after starting genealogy research, that I got my introduction to the 'Three Brothers' myth when I came across a small booklet titled simply "Berlin Family" which was written in 1911 by A. F. Berlin of Allentown, Pennsylvania. As it turns out, that little booklet was full of information, some of which has been proven to be true but much of it is full of errors and misinformation.

The first paragraph on the second page stated:
"I am informed that sometime before the Revolutionary War three Berlins (brothers), Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob came to America from Prussia." He goes on to say "One of the three original brothers, Isaac, settled in Philadelphia."
On page three he states:
"Another of the three original brothers, Jacob, settled ultimately near Lord Fairfax Manor in Clarke County, Virginia."
And in the next paragraph:
"Another of the three original brothers, Abraham, settled on the line of York and Adams County, Pennsylvania, where the town of Berlin now stands."
During the summer of 1986, Mom and I took a trip to Pennsylvania to research the Berlin and Yarian ancestors of her 'Grandma Phend' (Susie Lula Yarian Phend). Susie's parents were Eli and Lovina (Berlin) Yarian and Lovina's parents were John D. and Susannah (Hoffman) Berlin.

From the obituaries of John D. Berlin, we learned that he had been born in Adams County, Pennsylvania. There we found Orphan's Court records from 1843 which linked Susie's grandfather, John D. Berlin, to his father, Frederick Berlin.

Since the area in Adams County (near Abbottstown) where Frederick Berlin lived had been a part of York County prior to 1800, we also visited the Historical Society of York County. That stop proved to be monumental. There we found the records providing links to Frederick's father (Frederick) and to his grandfather (Jacob - our 1738 immigrant ancestor). But the big bonanza was in the collection of Dr. Charles T. Zahn who had spent many, many, many years gathering information on the Berlin family.

It was a huge collection but we had only half a day left before we had to return home. We did make copies of selected items, hoping we were getting the all-important "good stuff" but I'm sure we must have missed a few of the important documents and information as we didn't get through the entire collection. I had always hoped to return there but haven't made it yet!

Below is a portion of a letter dated July 31, 1970 that Dr. Zahn wrote to another Berlin researcher telling of the immigration of the presumed brothers while also adding an important research tip!

"The story of the Berlin family in America begins in 1738 with the arrival at Philadelphia, on the ship Charming Nancy from Rotterdam but last from Cowes, England - - of three young men or boys (presumably brothers.)
"Hans Jacob Barlin, age 22
"George Fredk Barlin, age 18
"Abraham Barlin, age 16
"On the three lists for the ship the name was variously spelt as Barlin, Barling, or Barly. They, themselves did not sign, but just gave their mark. I have a considerable amount of information on what happened to these three boys, all obtained from existing documents and gravestones, as well as from published histories. The latter, however must always be subject to verification, since much incorrect information has been published in local histories."
Sometime after the above letter was written, Dr. Zahn apparently discovered information that led him to write to the Strasbourg Archives where he obtained confirmation that the three young Berlin men were indeed brothers.

Above is a portion of a letter written September 30, 1977 by Charles T. Zahn, in the files of the Historical Society of York County, Pennsylvania.
"They came from a spa in northwestern Alsace, France (formerly Germany); namely Niederbronn or Niederbronn-les-Bains. From the Strassbourg Archives I have obtained Xerox copies of the baptisms in German script of the three brothers who came on the ship Charming Nancy in 1738. They were the sons of George and Elisabeth Berlin, whose marriage record was not available because of a gap in the marriage records at the time in question."
I don't recall whether the documents written in German script were in the collection or not but I did get copies of the hand-written transcriptions.

Dr. Zahn's information confirmed that there were indeed three brothers who came to America together, but their names were Jacob, Frederick, and Abraham - not Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as stated by A. F. Berlin. Although two of the names he gave were the same as the immigrants, Jacob and Abraham, their places of residence show that they were actually sons of the immigrant Abraham. So, in this case the myth turned out to be true, just not quite the way A. F. Berlin thought.

The immigrants Jacob and Frederick (22 and 20 years old, respectively, in 1738) both settled in York County prior to 1752 while Abraham (16 years old in 1738) remained in eastern Pennsylvania, settling near Reading in Berks County, and later in Easton, Northampton County.

In a letter dated October 25, 1977 Dr. Zahn stated that "For some 55 years" he had been collecting material "on the descendants of the three Berlin immigrants in 1738. Now 79 years old I am beginning a genealogy of the early members of this interesting family."

Sadly, Dr. Zahn passed away on May 17, 1979 and so never fulfilled his dream of publishing a book on the Berlin family. I thought perhaps someday I would compile a book on that family but I got side-tracked working on the Phend family and wrote a book about them instead.

However, two other researchers did take up the challenge. Among the letters in the Zahn Collection were several from Terry L. Johnson-Cooney and Reginald L. Berlin. In 1992, utilizing their own research as well as that of Dr. Zahn, and others, they published the first of five books on 'The Three Brothers' and their descendants. I think Dr. Zahn would be pleased. I know I was!

The Three Brothers - Jacob, Frederick, and Abraham.

Pennsylvania German Pioneers : A Publication of the Original Lists of Arrivals In the Port of Philadelphia From 1727 to 1808 (Volume II Facsimile Signatures 1727-1775) by Ralph Beaver Strassburger, edited by William John Hinke published by the Pennsylvania German Society Norristown, Pennsylvania, 1934. Photographed at the Allen County Public Library April 5, 2012.

Published under a Creative Commons License.
Becky Wiseman, "There were three brothers who immigrated... Yeah, Right!," Kinexxions, posted June 11, 2012 ( : accessed [access date])


Michelle Goodrum said...

Interesting story. I hope you make it back to the Historical Society of York County.

We've got a three sisters story in on of our branches.

Carol said...

Interesting post Becky. I try to never say never, cause ya just never know - - -

Kathy Reed said...

Great example of wonderful research to prove/disprove what had been passed down the line!

Anonymous said...

My mother's maiden name was Fabyan and, in an attempt to find out about other Fabyan's in New England, I wrote letters to those whose names and addresses I had found on that I did not recognize. One person responded saying that four brothers came to the U.S., went into northern N.H. and started hunting. Eventually a hotel was started and named for them - Fabyan House.
There is only one problem. The person for whom Fabyan House was named was a Horace Fabyan and he was part of my family tree. I have never seen anything from the other Fabyan family about their proof or basis. Given the names that they had, I am convinced the two families do merge in France in the early 1600s.