Brickwall Overcome

Every one doing genealogy research eventually comes to a brickwall, that spot in the family tree when you can go no further.  This is the story of overcoming a family history brickwall using many and varied resources to succeed, including the help of two generous genealogists. The result was, for me, a remarkable new insight into my heritage.

My paternal uncle had gathered considerable family information and sketches of family trees for various lines of our family.  It was in these notes that I first encountered the name Frederick Bruce, an ancestor who came to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from New York with his family in 1842. Those key facts came from the book I Was Born in America: The Memoirs of William George Bruce.

Frederick was the father of Augustus F. Bruce, who in turn was the father of Martin P. Bruce, my great-grandfather. William George Bruce  (1856-1949) — Martin’s oldest brother — wrote and published many books on Milwaukee history and other topics.

Thus I set off with high hopes of finding more about Frederick Bruce in census and other records in Wisconsin and New York. Instead, I immediately hit a brickwall. There was no Frederick Bruce in census records in Wisconsin or New York, nor in the 1848-1849 Milwaukee City Directory. In contrast, I could find many records starting about 1857 for Frederick’s three sons: Augustus Bruce in Milwaukee, Martin F. Bruce near Pensacola, Florida, and John Bruce in San Francisco, California.

So I began collecting all the information I could about the three sons, and garnered additional insights from W. G. Bruce’s Memoirs.  I was delighted to be able to purchase a copy of the book that included portraits of Augustus F. Bruce, his wife Apollonia Becker Bruce and their son William George Bruce.

Pieces of the puzzle emerged. Frederick Bruce, his wife and son August came to America from Prussia in the 1830s. Sons Martin and John appeared to have been born in New York. The traditional male occupations for the family were sailor, ship’s carpenter and ship’s caulker.  And they were Protestants.  Clearly the family came from a port city with shipyards along the northern coast of Prussia, in other words near the Baltic Sea coast. But where?

A vital clue was provided on a copy of the abstract of the will of August Bruce, also called August F. Bruce, alias Bruss. Here was the original spelling of the family name, used until the late 1850s when all three sons began using the anglicized Bruce.

So when I found Frederick Bruss, a ship’s carpenter, in the 1847-1848 Milwaukee City Directory, I was elated — until I realized that he lived in the Second Ward on the west side of Milwaukee River, while our family had lived in the First Ward on the east side of the river, according to W. G. Bruce’s Memoirs.

I continued doing research. I discovered a Bruss family than had arrived from Pomerania in 1839, came to Milwaukee and then moved just north of the city to a new village called Freidstadt or “free city.” They were among the Old Lutherans who emigrated from Prussia to continue practicing their Lutheran faith, when the Prussian Emperor Wilhelm III forced a merger of Lutheran and Calvinist churches into one union church.

That Bruss family came from Cammin, north of Stettin and very near the Baltic Sea. When I read that Cammin was an historic Hanseatic shipbuilding city, I had a “eureka” moment. Could this be where my Bruss family was from? I decided to post a query summarizing all the salient details that I had collected about the family. I noted that the Prussia/Germany Genealogy Forum had an expert shown as Robert T. who helped many family seekers.

In a very short time, he replied and asked if this family from Cammin, Pomerania, Prussia was the one I was seeking: Martin Friedrich Bruss, age 40, journeyman ship’s carpenter; Sophie Bruss, née Stiemke, age 37, w; August Bruss, age 9, s; Martin Bruss, age 6, s; Johann Bruss, age 4, s. [W is wife, S is son]. 

The family sailed,  he wrote, on the ship Echo from Liverpool to New York City, arriving 19 September 1839. The Echo was one of five or six ships that brought about 1,000 Old Lutherans to America, where they settled in and around Buffalo, New York, or Milwaukee, Wisconsin. [Note: the Echo's passenger list has the surname misspelled as Buss, and both ages and occupation wrong, but Martin, Sophia, August, Martin and Johan are clearly shown.]

This certainly looked like my ancestors, except that sons Martin and Johann or John were also born in Cammin, not in New York.

How could I confirm this apparent match? I knew that John Bartelt, the genealogist with the Bruss ancestors in Freistadt, had obtained birth records for his own Bruss ancestors via microfilm. I wrote to him on the chance that he had the Martin Friedrich Bruss family details, and he did. He kindly sent the birth and baptism dates for sons August, Martin and Johann and they matched dates I had collected from other sources.  He also sent the birth and baptism dates for the oldest son, Wilhelm, who died young according to family history. This certainly was my family! And how wonderful to have Sophie’s name!

Now I could find them recorded in the 1943 book about the Old Lutherans, written in German by Wilhelm Iwan and translated into English. Martin Friedrich Bruss, journeyman ship carpenter, and his family from Kammin at shown at the very bottom of this listing of emigrants.

I wrote thank you messages to Robert and John, for their kindness was essential to helping me overcome this brickwall.

And then I remembered that there was a Martin Bruss in the First Ward on the east side of the Milwaukee River listed in the 1847-1848 Milwaukee City Directory — right where William George Bruce said his grandfather settled when he came to Milwaukee.

I was now able to find him in the 1850 Census in Milwaukee’s First Ward, age 51, a ship’s carpenter with $1,500 in real estate, surname recorded as Brass. He had remarried since Sophie had died — apparently in the cholera epidemic, W. G. Bruce had written. Recorded with Martin in the 1850 Census were his sons Martin, a sail maker, and John. All three were recorded as born in Germany. August, the oldest son, likely was away sailing on the Great Lakes.

Overcoming this brickwall took three years of researching on and off, looking again at what I had discovered, trying new approaches, and then taking a chance on a possible solution based on the clues I had accumulated. I am grateful to everyone who helped me find this part of my family who were among the first Germans to settle in Milwaukee when it was still three villages — Juneautown on the eastside, Kilbourntown on the westside and Walker’s Point on the southside — not to be incorporated until 1846.

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