Oh, Annie: Thinking About My Great-Grandmother

I've written about my great-grandmother, Annie Schwietering Ortmann, here and here. Today, I've been working on my book (German research for newbies, essentially), and I did an exhaustive search on the Big Three (Ancestry, MyHeritage, and Family Search) for the Ortmann family.  I found some interesting things.

First, we know that as researchers, we have to deal with variations in spelling.  If your ancestor is named Smith or Jones, this might not be much of an issue.  But if your great-grandmother's name was Schwietering, well, here are the variations I've found so far:

Annie Sweder

If I'm being very conscientious, I'll search for all of these variations any time I search for Annie.  Can you say "tedious"?

More important is that in my searches, I found birth and/or death records for Joseph Ortmann and Annie's children.  Indulge me while I present you with a list:

Anna, Feb 1875 (Annie was 19, Joseph was 30)
Amelia, September, 1875, (died shortly after birth)
Mary Theresa, Oct 1876
Augustus J., Sept 1878
Adelaide, Oct 1880
Joseph Benard, Mar 1883
Bernhard, June 1885 (died Dec 1886)
Catherine A., Dec 1886
Herman Henry, Nov 1888
Henry Anthony, May 1891
William John, Aug, 1893
John, 1900 (died a few months later; Annie was 44, Joseph was 55)

Annie had 12 children in 25 years; I had one child at the age of 34, so this boggles my mind. With a few exceptions, Annie gave birth to a child every other year between 1875 and 1893, and then had one more child -- an accident, perhaps? -- in 1900.  He didn't live long.

New York tenement, circa 1900; Library of Congress

I have a hard time imagining her life with all those children around.  Their children seemed to stay close to home -- in the 1900 census, all nine of the surviving children are living at home, ranging in age from 6 to 24.  The older ones are working, of course, Anna in "passementary" (making trimmings for furniture and clothes); Mary in millinery (women's hats); August works as a shipment clerk; Adelaide is a dressmaker; and Joseph B., age 17, works as a "bottel sorter."  It's hard to imagine that their father, Joseph, could support everyone with his occupation of cabinet maker, so it appears that as soon as the children could work, they did. Also helping out, at the time of the 1900 census, was Annie's brother Herman Schwietering, whose profession as a cabinet maker suggests that he worked with Joseph.  He no doubt contributed part of his earnings to the household.

With 12 people living in the same place, I wonder -- how big was their apartment?  Were some of them sleeping three to a bed or alone on the floor?  They lived at 327 West 36th Street, and it appears that they had significantly more family members living in their apartment than did any of the other residents; one resident had seven family members in their apartment but everyone else had fewer than seven.

Annie, I so wish I knew more about you.  Was it fine with you that you were basically a baby machine?  (That's harsh, I know.)  Did you ever say "not tonight, Joe"?  Did you have dreams and desires that didn't include being a mother to nine or more children at a time?  That several of your daughters work in sewing related fields suggests that you spent a lot of time sewing and teaching. Living in what must have been a New York tenement, did you ever think about Nienborg, Germany, where you were born?  Did you have anything beautiful, or was your life nothing but drudgery?

Joseph Ortmann died in 1911 at the age of 66; Annie outlived him by many years until her death in 1936 at the age of 80.  She lived with her daughter Anna, who appears never to have left home and who outlived her mother by only seven years.  

I like to think that those 25 years after her husband died were quiet ones for Annie; she had Joseph's Civil War pension, and I hope that was sufficient for her to lead a quiet life.  Perhaps she was able to spend time with her grandchildren.

That said, I wonder if she ever met her grandchild, William John Ortman Jr., my dad.  His father was estranged from his family, and I just don't know whether there was ever a moment that the rift was healed.

I would give anything for a photograph of her.  I would love to have known you, Annie Schwietering Ortmann.


  1. I can identify with so much that you've written: grandmothers with 15 and 16 children and wondering how they managed with so many at home; children not leaving home till they're in their mid- to late-twenties; the husband many years older than the wife (in one of my couples, she was 18, he was 33 when they married). In my case, my g-grandmother died at age 68, 6 years before her husband.

    It's sad that your grandfather was estranged from his family. I hope another of Annie's descendants finds you and has photos to share.

  2. I don't know how they did it. I think about the cooking, the mounds of laundry -- of course, the girls would have had to pitch in from the time they were able to fold a towel, but still. And the concept of a mother asking for "space" or a little time to herself just didn't exist, I'm sure. I just wish I could see a little diagram of where they all *slept*. Thanks for your comment, Nancy --

  3. I can't imagine how hard her life was. I only had 2 kids, and alone time was hard to come by some days. I guess she never got any, or even knew what that was!


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