An Olympic Connection

I absolutely love this picture. I found it for sale online a few years ago – a newspaper photo by Ell Sampson for the Chicago Daily Times, taken November 29, 1939, just before my grandmother’s brother, Dick Schwartz, married the Olympic track star, Betty Robinson. On the back of the photo, “These two people have their licenses to be married and the date will be very soon.”

Below is the entry from the 1940 Census, showing Dick and Betty (Richard and Elizabeth) a few months later, living at the Mayfair Hotel in Chicago, 5496 Hyde Park Blvd. They’re on lines 27 and 28. Dick was working as a mail order executive, and Betty as a saleslady. Both worked 44 hours a week.

Betty’s unique and powerful story has gotten a fair amount of attention in recent years. Dreamworks has even purchased the rights for a movie version! She was discovered by a high school teacher as she was running to catch a train at age 16. Just weeks later, she became the first woman to win gold in Olympic track in Amsterdam in 1928, finishing the 100-meter race in 12.2 seconds. She was almost instantly world-famous. But in 1931, a year prior to what would have surely been another successful Olympics for her as a runner, she barely survived a plane crash after going for a ride in her cousin’s biplane to cool off. She was in a wheelchair and on crutches for months, but eventually resumed training. Miraculously, she made the 1936 Olympic relay team, and the United States won the gold medal for the 4x100m relay in Berlin.

So that’s my Olympic connection, and I guess I couldn’t let the summer games pass this year without mention of my great-aunt Betty and uncle Dick. As we never lived particularly close to them, my memories are limited to their occasional visits. I remember Dick as a real charmer, but never one to take anything too seriously. Like many of my older relatives, he patiently tried to answer my genealogy questions, in person and by mail. Both Dick and Betty were tremendously friendly and easy-going, as is their daughter. In later years, we visited them at their home in Colorado, where they got out Betty’s medals and shared stories.

Dick and Betty Schwartz with my grandmother, Evelyn Thal (center), ca. 1974
Dick Schwartz at the piano, ca. 1974
Betty Schwartz with her Olympic medals, 1995

I thought I’d take the opportunity to recommend two books – one fiction and one non-fiction – for anyone interested in Betty’s life and the history of women’s track. And if you’re looking for a picture book for younger readers, I can recommend Unbeatable Betty, by Allison Crotzer Kimmel.

Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women’s Olympic Team, by Elise Hooper, is a wonderful, fast-moving, historical novel. It traces the stories of Betty and two of her 1936 teammates, Helen Stephens and Louise Stokes. There is plenty of dramatic material here. In addition to Betty’s accident, Helen faces numerous challenges from her upbringing and her homosexuality, and as an African-American, Louise has an entirely different set of challenges. All three narratives clearly illustrate the attitudes of society toward women and minorities at that time. These are three women that we don’t hear much about anymore, but whose stories deserve to be told. Though some license is taken with the details, the gist of the story is accurate and the book is a great read.

Joe Gergen’s The First Lady of Olympic Track: The Life and Times of Betty Robinson is not only an excellent biography, but also an eye-opening account of the early history of women’s track. Since it was written after Betty passed away in 1999, first-hand accounts of her life were limited. There is certainly a healthy amount of biographical material, but to me, the highlight of the book is the light it shines on the challenges of the female athletes of the time. Apparently there was serious concern then that racing would impact a woman’s fertility. If you’re interested in more details, this is an interesting and very readable account.

You can Google Betty Robinson and come up with all sorts of accounts of her story, videos and her obituary from the New York Times. While you’re at it, check out, and the link to the Traincatchers Foundation, managed by her granddaughter. Their mission: “To inspire and support young female athletes’ competitive efforts as they reach beyond barriers.

Who Was Ivan Teryokin?

The Mysterious Story of the Russian General

I’m fortunate to have in my archives recordings of multiple interviews with my great-grandfather’s sister, Paula Thal Aminoff. In a few of them, she recalls the story of Ivan Teryokin, which was evidently a story frequently told and asked about. But both his relationship and his actual military history are a bit of mystery.

The Stories

In a 1974 conversation with Bernhardt, Pierson, and Ted Thal and Marge Adinoff, Paula relates the story in great detail, connecting it to Abram Ockter.

Ivan Teryokin story, 1974

Here is the transcript of the story. In this version, the name “Ivan Teryokin” is not given.

Paula: A general.  He was a general in the Russian Army. Well, he was as a kid, you know..

Buzz: What was his name?

Paula: Ockter.  And that’s your ring that you have, one of you, or spoon.

Buzz: Oh, we have a spoon.  A O on it.

Paula: Abram Ockter.  But in the olden days, in Nicolai’s time, they used to come and grab the children, about 13 years old, and take them away.  And that was all there was to it, you couldn’t do anything about it.  The Jewish boys, anyway. Yeah, I remember those names.  Yeah, that was Abram Ockter, mother’s uncle.

Ted: ..funny that they gave things and put their own initials on..

Paula: They used to, when they gave wedding presents, they put their own initials on.  So they took him in the army, and that was all there was to it.  You know, you couldn’t do anything about it.  But, it was government.  And years later, he came back to see his parents.  And he had taken up music and had become quite a musician.  And he came back..

Ted: I never told you anything about that kind of story..

Paula: ..with the intentions of staying, you know.  But you know, he was already quite up high in rank and in the army, and somebody..  You know, our great grandfathers had an estate.  And next to their estate there were estates where the nobility lived, and they used to invite him over for dinners and for parties, and of course he went, because.. Well, it just killed his mother that he went and ate “traif”. You know.  So then one day, he went over, Jake was a baby, he came, he liked my mother.  And he came in, he told mother he came to say goodbye.  And she says, “Why goodbye?  I thought you were going to stay?”  He says, yes, he came back with full intentions of staying, but he knows it makes his mother heartsick to see him go and eat and spend time with all the goyim, so he knows it won’t work out.  He doesn’t want to hurt his mother, and he can’t live the same kind of a life that they are living, because he’s been away from it too long.  So he says the only thing for him to do is just to go back into the army.  So he went back, and he went back to his music.  And he became a Kapellmeister for the Tzar, the Kapellmeister..

Marge: Concertmaster.

Pierson (?): Chief Musical director.

Paula: Yeah, Chief Musical director for the Tzar.  And Uncle Sam [Aminoff, from St. Petersburg] used to say that at the High Holidays, there used to be a man come in with all the fancy uniform and a lot of orders, all kind of orders on his chest, come into the synagogue to pray.  Well, anyway, he went back and he became a very big musician, and was with the army.  So then, my aunt, my mother’s younger sister, was married to an uncle, a brother of his.  And the uncle had died, and if she wanted to marry again, she had to get his permission to marry.  Either he had to marry her himself or give her permission to marry somebody.  And he couldn’t marry her because he was married.  He had a wife and two sons.  So she wrote to him, and wanted to know if she could get that permission from him.  And he says, sure, the only thing is, he wants her to come down for a visit.  And he’d be glad to give her the permission.  So she went down to visit him.  And they treated her royally.  His wife was very ill at the time. But he had two sons, and they all treated her very nice.  And she got the permission.  And when she was leaving, he told her, he says, as long as his wife was ill, he wouldn’t do anything and he wouldn’t leave her.  But as soon as his wife dies, because she wasn’t expected to live, he’s going back to Riga to be near his folks, and when he dies he wants to be buried in the same cemetery where his brother is.  But he had become a General with his music you know.  And so when Abraham [Blumberg] was here, about four or five years ago, when he was in Miami that time, and Ted had a big dinner for the whole family, whoever was there, and Abraham and I were there too, and so, Hoddie, that’s Preston’s son’s in‑laws were bragging about someone they had in the army that was high up or something.  So Abraham says to me, “Why didn’t you tell her you had a General in the army?  You could have bragged too!”  I says, “Well for one thing I don’t want to brag.  Another thing I had forgotten all about it.”  And I said, “What do you know about it?”  He said, “What do I know about it?  I know all about it!”  Because he had come back, and he been to his parents wedding, and he used to see him all the time, but I didn’t get quite the end, I suppose at the end he died, you know.  But, he was a big musician.

In a later interview in Los Angeles, 1981, with an interviewer who still hasn’t been identified, Paula repeats the story, and this time uses the name, “Ivan Teryokin.” Abram Ockter, however, is not mentioned.

Ivan Teryokin story, 1981

Here is the transcript of this version:

I: What were their names?  What were your mother’s sisters’ names?

Paula: One is Chaya, and Fanny, and Sarah.  Three of them. And she had some brothers.

I: Do you remember their names?

Paula: Well one of the brothers, was..  You know in those days they used to take them into the army.  They used to take kids up off the street and put them in the army.  Well they took this one brother who was only thirteen and put him in the army.  And they took him away, and that was all.. there was nothing you could do about it, you know.  In those days, Russia was, whatever they did, they did.  Well he went into the army.  And he was in the army, but he always told his mother that someday he was coming back.  So when Marge’s grandfather was born, Mother had just had him, he was just a baby, and he came back.  And they were so happy to see him. But you know, he was already different.  He was a musician. And around the country, the people who had estates used to invite him for lunch or dinner or something, and naturally he’d go.  Well it killed his mother that he would go and eat traif, you know.

I: They were a very observant family.

Paula: Yeah.  So one day, mother was in bed with Margie’s grandfather, and he came in.  He said he came to tell her goodbye.  And she says, “I thought you were going to stay.” He says he did too.  He thought he’d stay, but he sees that his mother just can’t stand it.  It’s too much of an aggravation for his mother, so he’s going back into the army. But he went back into the army, and he was a musician.  And he became the Tzar’s main musician.  And he was a.. very high official.  Because, I know once we were in Florida, and my nephew Ted came down and gave a big dinner for all the people who were in Florida.  So one of the women there was bragging about somebody she had.., a musician that she was bragging about.  So my cousin was here from Israel.  So he says, “Why didn’t you brag about yours?”  He says, “You had a musician, a..”  I can’t think of the name now, the.. he was a very high official.

I: ..the title.  What instrument did he play?

Paula: He was a General, that’s it.  And he was a wonderful musician.  Of course he changed his name.  His name was different, you know.

I: To what did he change it?

Paula: Ivan Teryokin.

I: That’s a name I’ve never heard.  A Russian name?

Paula: Ivan Teryokin.  A Russian name.  And then, after years, my mother’s sister’s husband died.  And for her to remarry, she had to get the husband’s brother’s permission. So she wrote to him and wanted to know if he would give her permission to marry again.  He says, yeah, he’d give her permission to marry again, but he wanted her to come to see him first.  So she went there to see him.  And his wife was sick already.  And he says, well, as long as his wife lives he wouldn’t do anything.  But after his wife goes, he goes back to Riga, that’s where they lived, and goes back to Judaism, and will be buried the same place where his brother is.  So whatever is in you, you know, you just can’t change.

I: Did he eventually go back to Riga?

Paula: Yeah, he went back to Riga.  Because this cousin of mine from Israel was here, and he used to talk about him.  I says, “What do you know about him?”  He says, “I know about him.  He used to be at the house all the time.”

The third version of the story was recorded during Paula’s 95th birthday party, in Los Angeles, California, on August 10, 1978. Unfortunately, the audio from the recording is not good enough to share. Bernhardt “Buzz” Thal and Marge Adinoff are doing the interviewing. In this account, the name Ivan Teryokin is included again, and no Abram Ockter. It’s obvious from the questions that the relationship with this gentleman has always been ambiguous.

Buzz: What was the relationship of the one that became the music band leader?

Marge: The General.

Paula: Oh, that was an uncle.  My grandmother’s brother. 

Buzz: Oh, that was on your grandmother’s side, this then would be on the Eliason side.

Paula: My grandmother’s side. 

Buzz: On the Eliason side.

Marge: What was his name?

Paula: His name was a Russian name, Ivan Teryokin. 

Marge: Ivan Teryokin?  How would you spell that?

Paula: Ivan, no he was a Teryokin.  And you know, he left home when he was thirteen, they picked him up off the street when he was…  In those days, they used to pick the kids off the street and put ‘em in the army, you know.  And he was thirteen years old when he left home.  But when he had grown up to manhood, he decided to come home for a visit, you know.  He wanted to come home.  And he came home, and of course they were happy to have him home, you know.  But you know, he was away, he had been away for so long, that things didn’t mean a thing to him.  He didn’t care if he ate kosher or didn’t eat kosher, you know.  So he had gotten to be quite a man in the army, so the estates around the neighborhood used to invite him for meals.  And his mother had a fit every time he went, because he’d eat everything that they had, and it wasn’t kosher you know.  So she used to have a fit.  So he went out, Jake was a baby.  Grandmother was in bed with Uncle Jake, and he came in to tell her goodbye.  And she says, “Why goodbye?  I thought you were going to stay?”  And he says, yeah, he had fully intended to, but he sees that it’s only a heartache for his mother.  She can’t get accustomed to his being, to living differently than what they do.  So he went back to the army.  But years later, when mother’s sister, Aunt Sarah, was widowed, her husband died, she was married to an uncle, Uncle Avram.  You know, your father was crazy about him.  And he died, so she thought she might remarry.  So in order to remarry, she had to have her husband’s brother’s permission.  She could have gone and married this way.  So she wrote to him, and asked him if he would give her permission to marry again.  So he wrote back, yeah, he would give her permission, only if she came out to St. Petersburg to see him.  He would give her permission.  So she went to St. Petersburg to see, she wrote all that to Grandma, you know.  But his wife was sickly, and he had an idea that he wanted to see what kind of a person she was, that he might marry her when his wife died.  But she went to St. Petersburg and he treated her beautifully.  She was …at one time. But then when she left, he told her that as long as his wife lives, he wasn’t gonna do anything.  But as soon as his wife dies, he’s going back to Riga and will be buried in the same cemetery with his brother and go back to Judaism.  So when Abraham is here, he came to Florida to visit us for a week.  And while he was there, Ted came down and gave a big party for everyone of the family who were in Florida at that time.  So, Horty, [?] wife was married [?] to somebody else and she was bragging about the big man she had in the army.  So we left there, and Abraham said to me, he says, “Well, why didn’t you brag about the…

Marge: Concertmaster, wasn’t he?

Paula: Yeah, but what was he?

Marge: General.  He was a general.

Paula: General.  “Why didn’t you brag about the general you have in your army?”  I said, “Well, for one thing, I don’t care about bragging. Another thing, I really didn’t think of it at the time.”  I says, “What do you know about it?”  He says, “What do I know about it?”  He says, “I’ve seen him every day when I was kid.  He used to come to my grandmother’s and be there all the time.”  So he did, he went back to Europe and got back to Judaism.  But…

Marge: So his name was a different name.

Paula: Ivan Teryokin.  I remember the name.

Marge: Where did he get, he took a Russian name, not a family name?

Paula: Yeah. A Russian name.

Buzz: Was that two names or one?

Paula: Two names.  Ivan.  Teryokin.

Later in that same conversation, in response to questions about a family estate, Paula does talk about Abram Ockter:

Paula: Roy used to, your father [Fred] used to go out there very often.  My uncle lived there, Uncle Avram, and your father [Fred] used to be always his pet.  He just loved that kid.  And he used to go out there and stay with him.

Marge: Did he have family?

Paula: No.  He was married to my mother’s younger sister, and they never had any children.  But they were crazy about your father.

Buzz: What was Avram’s name?  Abraham.  What was his last name?

Paula: Ockter. 

Buzz: That explains the spoon that we have that has A O on it.

Paula: That’s Ockter.  Avram Ockter.

The Relationship

So the first question is, exactly what is the relationship of “Ivan Teryokin” to Paula Thal Aminoff? He is referred to as her mother’s brother, her grandmother’s brother, and an uncle. Of course, we have to remember that most of the story took place before Paula was even born. Jacob, the baby who her mother was “in bed with” at the time of Teryokin’s return to Talsen, was born in 1868, fifteen years before Paula was born. She is telling a story she has been told, not one that she experienced.

That said, most of the stories that can be checked from her interviews have proved to be true. So there is probably at least some truth to this story. Based on the fairly consistent telling of her aunt Sarah getting permission to remarry, I have made the assumption that Ivan Teryokin was the brother of Abram Ockter, the husband of Sarah Blumberg, daughter of Berle and Bayla Blumberg. Sarah was the younger sister of Paula’s mother, Lena, and is listed in an 1874 Revision List (sort of a census) as 18 9/12 years old on January 1, 1874.

Based on the fact that Bernhardt Thal inherited the spoons with the initials “A O,” I’m assuming that Abram Ockter was in fact the uncle that doted on Bernhardt’s father, Fred Thal. That would explain him having the spoons.

We also have photographs of Abram and Sarah Ockter, but they are not dated. They would appear, though, to be consistent with contemporaries of Paula’s mother.

Abram Ockter
Sarah Ockter
“A O” spoons, from Bernhardt Thal

The Rest of the Story

This is where the mystery starts. Up to this point, no “Ockter” documents have surfaced in Latvia that would match these people, though more may turn up. We can’t even prove that Lena’s sister, Sarah, married Abram Ockter. So far, no records. There are “Recruitment Lists” extant for that time and place, but so far, nobody by that name or similar. And I have yet to locate any Russian military documents that would include this gentleman in his Russian persona.

There is also a question of whether he actually returned to Riga, or whether it might have been Lithuania. Abraham Blumberg, quoted in the stories, was the son of Lena and Sarah’s brother, Jacob, and was raised in Lithuania. So if he remembered the “general” visiting, it probably wasn’t in Riga.

So at this point, much is still a mystery. If I’m interpreting the accounts correctly, this musical military man was related by marriage instead of by blood, but it’s still a story worth telling.

Sharing My Family History

I’ve been researching my genealogy for more than thirty years, and over that time, I’ve experimented with many ways to share stories and information with family members. I’ve published newsletters and created a Facebook group, shared trees on several genealogy websites, and I’m now in my second-generation genealogy website. But by far the most rewarding way to share my family history has been the books I’ve created for my children.

Several years ago, when my oldest child turned two, I had the idea of creating a “Cousins” book as a birthday present. It was a simple picture book, with a 15-line poem I made up about cousins. I dug up and “recruited” photographs of lots of cousins, children and adults, and put them together using Snapfish. It was a big hit with the two-year-old, and a tradition was born.

Since then, I’ve managed a book every year, with significant help from my father and my husband. Each child receives the same title at the same age, and each book includes a personalized dedication in the front and a recent photograph in the back. The books have progressed from simple picture books to histories of 100 pages or more.

Two years ago, I was asked by the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center to give a presentation about my books, and I’ve been asked to repeat this program virtually this summer, on Tuesday, July 20th at 2:30 p.m. If you’re interested in hearing more about the books and how they were created, you can register here.

Once the kids grew out of picture books, more research became necessary. I quickly realized that a lot of detail was needed to make the story interesting, and I had instant sympathy for the authors of the historical novels that I so enjoy! The books became larger projects, but also more rewarding to work on. I could pick a person or topic and really delve into it in a way that I hadn’t before. Finding additional accounts of a particular blizzard, or, amazingly, the entire text of a school Christmas play via Google, helped tremendously with the story of my grandfather. For a McCormick history, my research into military history before and during the Revolutionary War really paid off with dramatic battle stories. And I had a deadline every year, so the book had to get done!

I’ve been fortunate that both my husband and my father have each written two books. My father wrote two sets of wonderful stories which I compiled, and my husband wrote a set of stories and most recently a large memory book with lots of pictures. He worked hard sorting through photographs and compiling that book completely on his own.

I’m also lucky to have ready-made material for a few books on hand. I’ve used my mother’s high school diaries, the Civil War pension file of Thomas Wilson, and my mother’s letters from Paris as the basis for my most recent titles. Annotating and elaborating on these texts has been a huge amount of fun. With my mother’s diaries, I was able to track down some of her childhood friends who helped answer a lot of my questions. Just identifying references in her diaries and letters added a great deal to my understanding of her history. And I was fortunate to have several of her photographs to help illustrate both books. With the pension file, I was able to trace the activities of the military units mentioned, and also found a 19th-century “personal ad” to make things interesting!

Probably my favorite book, which is also my kids’ favorite, is the “Almanac of Immigrant Ancestors.” I’ve included excerpts on the website on the various “branch” pages. I made up a two-page spread for each of 53 immigrant ancestors, who arrived in North America between 1619 and 1899. They ranged from English settlers in New England, to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, with lots of variety in between.

My oldest turns 17 this year, and I’ve just “announced” that the annual titles will probably only extend through the 18th birthday. After that, I want to spend time on some larger projects. But part of me wonders whether they will get done without that birthday deadline!

If you’d like to see excerpts from the books or learn more about how they were created, check out my virtual presentation, given on July 20,2021 through the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center.

List of Books

  • Age 2 – Cousins
  • Age 3 – Mommy and Daddy Book
  • Age 4 – A is for Ancestors
  • Age 5 – Paula’s Story
  • Age 6 – Growing up in Detroit, by Norman Thal
  • Age 7 – Chester Long – Kansas Farm Boy
  • Age 8 – The Daddy Book, by Geoff Gephart
  • Age 9 – Almanac of Immigrant Ancestors
  • Age 10 – From Indian Wars to Indianapolis: The Story of My McCormick Ancestors
  • Age 11 – The Mommy Book
  • Age 12 – Grandpa’s Stories: The Program of a Lifetime, by Norman Thal
  • Age 13 – Diary of a Kansas Schoolgirl
  • Age 14 – The Civil War: A Drummer’s Story
  • Age 15 – My Generation: An Illustrated History, by Geoff Gephart
  • Age 16 – An American Organist in Paris

Finding Revolutionary Ancestors

It being Fourth of July weekend, thoughts naturally turn to 1776 and the Revolutionary War. What were our North American ancestors doing at that time? How many were directly involved? Even if proving descent from a Revolutionary War ancestor is not your goal, it is still fascinating to try to discover more about what these individuals lived through.

I have spent varying amounts of time on this sort of research, but enough to know that it gets complicated very quickly. Particularly early in the war, and even continuing throughout, each colony had its own militias, with differing levels of organization. Eventually, the federal government organized troops, and these fought alongside the militias. Distinguishing which unit an ancestor served in is not always easy, even when you have the number of a regiment! For today, I thought I’d touch on the ancestors who have records of one kind or another as Revolutionary War veterans, and what I know of them. With more time and research, I hope to be able to learn more.

Aaron and Abraham Pinney

All of us know of Paul Revere’s famous “ride,” but may not remember that it was the beginning of a bigger “Lexington Alarm” that called up volunteer militia from several colonies. Sergeant Aaron and Lieutenant Abraham Pinney, two sons of Abraham Pinney and Elizabeth Butler, were among the approximately 4,000 troops who marched from Connecticut towns “for the Relief of Boston in the Lexington Alarm” in April of 1775. According to the “Record of Connecticut Men in the Military and Naval Service During the War of Revolution” (1889), 74 citizens of Simsbury, Connecticut, were among those that answered the call. In the end, many more volunteers responded than actually served in battle, and some men returned home before getting to Boston, their service not being needed. We don’t know what Aaron and Abraham actually did. We do know that like many others, they signed up for additional service. When the Governor of Connecticut put out the call for more troops in July of 1775, Sergeant Aaron Pinney enlisted in the 4th Company of Huntington’s Eighth Regiment. According to the same “Record of Connecticut Men,” this group was stationed on the Sound (presumably Long Island) until September 14th, when General Washington called troops to Boston. The regiment “took post at Roxbury in Gen. Spencer’s Brigade.” Pinney’s service lasted from July 6 until December 14, 1775. No more is known of his experience at this point.

In 1776, both Aaron and Abraham were part of Captain Roberts’ Company of the 18th Regiment of Militia, which served in New York from August 24th until mid-September. They would have been part of the battles over Long Island and Manhattan at that time, not going particularly well for the colonies. Later in the war, Aaron Pinney is listed as part of Colonel Beebe’s regiment of militia, raised in the spring of 1780. No more is known of their service at this time.

John McCormick

Around May 1, 1776, John McCormick enlisted in the Virginia militia in the service of Captain James Robertson. In his own words from his pension file, he “volunteered to protect the inhabitants of the frontier from Indian depredations.” He was part of a group at Fort Lee in July of 1776 when it was attacked by the Cherokee. They left the fort deserted before the attackers arrived, and moved to Fort Caswell at Watauga. McCormick was one of about seventy-five men defending that fort as the Cherokee attacked and eventually set up a siege that lasted about two weeks. In October, his company left Watauga and pursued the Cherokee, who were allied with the British troops. He was then stationed at Fort Patrick Henry from November until February 1777.

At that point, McCormick moved north to Bedford County, Pennsylvania, and was required to enlist in the militia there. He is listed in Captain Solomon Adams’ Company of the Third Battalion and in Captain Charles Hainey’s company from Bedford County. It’s likely that he didn’t see any active service at that time, as men were required to enlist and drill, but often were not called into service. In 1780, John McCormick enlisted in Captain William McCall’s Company of the Third Battalion of Pennsylvania militia, and was assigned by Colonel Robert Culbertson to serve as a sentry for the town of Bedford. This he did for his required three-month service in the militia.

Pennsylvania Brethren

Several of my ancestors were staunch members of the Brethren Church in Pennsylvania, and as such, would have avoided military service as much as possible. Andrew Fridley is listed with the Cumberland County Militia from 1779-1781, with Captain Samuel Royer. Jacob Deardorff served as a private in 1783 in Lancaster County, under Captain John Shonhower. John Price served as a private under Captain Daniel Clapsaddle from 1780-1781. And Emanuel Stover is listed as a private under Captain Thomas Johnston from 1780-1782. In all likelihood, these men did not see active duty. At this time, I have not found muster rolls to indicate they served beyond the required drills.


There are a few other ancestors from the Gephart side of the family that appear on lists of Revolutionary War soldiers. I have not yet found any additional information beyond the following:

If you have any further information on any of these soldiers, please contact me. Meanwhile, Happy Fourth of July!

The Thals of Sassmacken

From a 1981 interview between Rabbi Lennard Thal and my great-grandfather’s sister, Paula Thal Aminoff, I have this quote: “Sassmacken. There was full of Jews. And there were a bunch of Thals there – not related, another family, very fine people, but not related to us. Ours was a big family and they were a big family.”

If you’ve done much research into families of Sassmacken, it would not be be surprising for you to have connected to one or more Thals. There were, in fact, two very large Thal families with roots there, and yet another that had ties to Talsen and other Courland towns. And Rabbi Lennard Thal? He connects with yet another Thal family from Lithuania. To make things even more confusing, the two Sassmacken Thal families are both headed by men named Moshe!

Let’s start with an overview of these families, and then, in honor of Father’s Day, I’ll talk a bit about Y-DNA.

Moses and Sara Thal

Moses Thal, my great-great-great-grandfather, was born between 1798 and 1803, the son of Yakov, according to his death record. According to his granddaughter, Paula, he and Sara were quite young when they were married, and they lived and raised their family in Sassmacken. Like many residents of the town, Moses was registered in Tukums and is listed in those revision lists. Below he is listed in an 1838 record with his wife, Sara and oldest son, Levin.

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Moses and Sara had ten children, and remained in Sassmacken until they died, she in 1888 and he in 1892. Details of their descendants can be found here. Most of at least four branches emigrated to the United States before the Second World War, but many of the rest remained in Latvia. Those familiar with the remembrances of Sol Katzen will recognize the widows, Dora and Minna Thal, from this family. They were the wives of Shimon and Ephraim Thal, sons of Moses and Sara. Large numbers of those who remained were killed in the Holocaust. At this time, I know of descendants living in Israel, Australia and a few remaining in Latvia. There is a 19th-century Latvian record indicating that one descendant lived in Africa, but no further records have been found.

Moses and Gittel Thal

The other Moses Thal was born about 1792, the son of Yankel and Jache. Like my Moses Thal, he was also registered in Tukums. Below he is listed in the revision lists of 1834 with his sons, Nachman, Jankel, Itzig and Schaye, as well as his wife, Gittel, his mother, Jache, and his daughters, Zipore Taube and Feige-Maye. Nachman’s wife, Riwe, and daughter, Ester, are also listed.

Details of the descendants of Moses and Gittel can be found here. A large branch of the family ended up in South Africa before 1900, and I visited descendants there many years ago. Many also emigrated to the United States, and several remained in Latvia. I have recently heard from a descendant of this family in Moscow as well. Among the descendants in this family was the famous chessmaster, Mikhail Tal, son of Nechemia and Ida Thal, both descendants of Moses and Gittel. In Sol Katzen’s memoirs, the children of Itzik Thal, son of Moses and Gittel, figure prominently. He remembers three sons in particular: Cheme, Jacob and Shaya.

Two More Families

Another Thal family, that of Auzer and Henne Thal, has roots in Tukums. To my knowledge, there are no records of these descendants in Sassmacken, but there are connections to Talsen, Mitau, and Libau. Auzer was born ca. 1784 and died in 1864. At this time, I have records of two sons, Lazar and Abraham, both of whom had many descendants. One branch of this family emigrated to Scotland in the 1890s and spread from there to the United States, South Africa, and Australia. Many others ended up in the United States. Details of Auzer’s descendants can be found here.

Finally, the ancestors of Rabbi Lennard Thal, Ariel and Chava Thal of Skophishok, Lithuania, are worth mentioning. Their descendants don’t appear in Latvian records, to my knowledge, and I have not kept good records of them. But many Jewish families moved from Lithuania into Latvia, so it’s worth noting that this significant family was not very far away.

So Is There a Connection?

Written records for these families only go back to the early 1800s. In fact, the Jewish population of this area didn’t take surnames that much earlier, probably in the 18th-century. How did two or more Jewish families end up in the same place at the same time with the same names?

One answer might be that they originated in different places. Sassmacken was a bit of a hub for Jewish merchants at one time during the 19th-century, and these families may have taken the name “Thal” before they both arrived in the town. There is a very early revision list for a Moses Jankel Thal in Kandau in 1816. I haven’t confirmed 100% which one this is, but this would indicate that both Moses Thals may not have been born in Sassmacken.

The question of a connection leads me to my “Father’s Day” topic of Y-DNA. Because of endogamy – the massive amount of intermarriage evident in these and most Jewish families – a standard autosomal DNA test is of little use confirming or disproving a connection. Without going into too much detail, a Y-DNA test provides information about your paternal line, and is accurate much further back than a standard DNA test.

At this time, the only place to do this sort of testing is through Family Tree DNA. Men and women can both have the test done, but the paternal line will be the only one tracked, so those born with the name “Thal” would be of interest here. I have had Y-DNA tests done for both my father and myself. Recently, I had a test completed for a descendant of the Auzer Thal family and there was no connection. I have not yet located a descendant of the other Moses Thal family to do a test.

My suspicion is that my great-great-aunt Paula was right all along. There is probably no common ancestor for these families. But I suspect the only way to prove it one way or another is through Y-DNA tests. If you are interested, check out Family Tree DNA and contact me.


For those who don’t know me, let me take a minute to introduce myself. Professionally, I’ve been working as an orchestral violinist for more than thirty years. But for even longer, I’ve been pursuing my family history. Having seen printed genealogies for my mother’s side of the family, I was inspired while I was still in college to record what information my father’s relatives could tell me. Before I knew it, I was hooked. Although I’ve researched with varying intensity over the years, the pursuit of family stories and the angle genealogical research brings to learning history have continued to be my passion.

Why the Website and Blog?

More than twenty years ago, I created my first genealogy website. It was part of my foray into HTML coding and website creation back in the early days of such things. I kept it going for several years, and in fact have it to thank for making a connection with Thal family relatives living in Latvia and Israel. But as I began raising two children, I let the website slide and eventually disappear.

Why bring it back now? Most of my data is now available through my Thal-Gephart Family tree on In fact, that’s still probably going to be the most up-to-date version of my research. But I have more to share than just facts. I hope to include stories, documents, photographs, and more here. I look forward to sharing my thoughts and research in a longer format than is available on commercial websites. And I hope to connect with others who can help me solve some of our family puzzles. In the future I plan to add links to several of the books I’ve written for my children. That will be another post for another day. And I’m also intrigued by the idea of using GIS mapping software to help illustrate and analyze family history.

Another thing that intrigues me about this “new” format – compared to twenty years ago – is the ability to receive comments about posts, photographs and more. Of course there’s a risk, but I look forward to hearing from more people this way, and perhaps enhancing my genealogy community! Don’t hesitate to let me hear from you!

A Few Words About Organization

With so many families to track, it was a challenge to arrange things in a usable fashion. In my research in general, I’ve set the generation of my g-g-g-grandparents as the limit for tracing descendants. Beyond that, I’ve followed a few – mainly to establish connections with other relatives – but for the most part that generation is where I’ve drawn the line. With more than 15,000 relatives in my database already, there has to be a limit somewhere!

So that’s the reasoning behind the trees I have displayed here. They are the descendants – and ancestors when I have information – of my and my husband’s g-g-g-grandparents. And in case you’re wondering about the colors, I’ve kept a color scheme from one of my earlier books, making my family pages blue and my husband’s green.

Each of these branches has its own page, with “People,” “Places” and “Photographs” for most branches. Reports of descendants and ancestors are included in “People,” along with the occasional link to websites of related individuals and published genealogies. I have intentionally not included living relatives anywhere, to my knowledge.

“Places” includes links to locations where these families resided, and published histories of those locations. I’ve included a select few photographs for most families as well. In some cases, I have so many that I can’t possibly share them all, and in others, I don’t have any pictures in my collection! More individual pictures are available through my tree on Ancestry, but I’ve picked some of my favorites to share here.

I’d Love Your Help

On many of my family pages, there are links to “mystery photos” that I’d love to get identified. And I plan to use the Blog feature to occasionally put questions out there about some of my “brick walls.” If you can help with either of these, I’d love to hear from you! Of course, I’m always looking for photographs and additional information and documents as well.

That should do it for an introduction. Now that you know about me, let’s see how this thing goes!