From the Palatinate to Virginia to Nebraska

April, 2021

Lincoln – Genealogical research, inspired by provocations in literature, can turn up surprising finds, especially now with primary sources so widely available.  Such is the case after my own reading of Willa Cather's last, thinly-disguised novel based on her family, published in 1940 and set in Virginia, 1856.  Some of my family has the same European and Virginia heritage, and made the same choice to migrate to Nebraska.  We surely can benefit from a comparison of similar and interwoven experiences.  

In 1738, two brothers from the Rhineland Palatinate crossed the Atlantic to start a new life in America.  After a few years in Pennsylvania, Johan Wendel Seybert, with his wife Catherine Reiss, settled near the Potomac in the mountainous part of Frederick County, Virginia, beyond Winchester, where their descendants would farm along the Back Creek tributary for generations and where Willa Cather would be born.  

His brother Johan Jacob Seybert, with his mother, Anna Lorentz, his wife, Maria Elizabeth Theiss, and their children settled further upstream near the South Potomac headwaters, in Virginia's Augusta County highlands.  George Washington, of the British colonial army, ordered the construction of Fort Seybert to protect the settlers during the French and Indian War, but to no avail.  Johan Jacob Seybert, his mother, his wife, and several of their children were killed by Shawnee in the Fort Seybert massacre of April 28, 1758.  Other children, including one year old George, were taken captive to be raised as Shawnee.  George was eventually rescued by his teenage brother Nickolas; in all, five Seybert children made their way back to Augusta County.   

In 1771, three brothers from a different family, in my ancestral line, also left the Palatinate for America, along with their parents Henry and Catherine Harper Weimer (Wimer).  The parents died at sea.  The teenage brothers Jacob, Philip, and George were sold into indentured servitude on arrival in Philadelphia to pay the ship's captain for transport.  Philip was sent to Augusta County, Virginia, where after seven years his brothers joined him.  Philip and George each married and raised families there.

The two ill-fated families, the Seyberts and the Wimers, were linked in 1813 when George Seybert's daughter Sarah married George Wimer's son Jacob.

Both the immigrant Philip Wimer and his son, Philip Wimer, Jr., became slave-owners, as did the Seybert (Seibert, Sibert) family of Back Creek.  Willa Sibert Cather picked up the story in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, which she explained was more fact than fiction.  Her great grandmother Rhuamah Lemmon, of a prominent Winchester family (and "Sapphira" in the novel), brought several slaves into the family when she married Jacob Funk Seibert, grandson of the immigrant Johan Wendel Seybert.  

The Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery.  During the conflict, a part of former Augusta County, which had been redrawn as Pendleton County, became part of the new state of West Virginia.  Philip Wimer, Jr.'s son, Peter B. Wimer, who fought for the Confederacy, left Pendleton County for Nebraska after the war, settling in Lancaster County.  Rhuamah Lemmon Seibert's daughter Rachel Seibert Boak, her daughter Mary Elizabeth (nicknamed "Jennie") Cather, and Jennie's daughter Willa, age nine, along with others of the Cather family into which Jennie married, left their Virginia homes in Frederick County for Webster County, Nebraska.  Some of the Seiberts had fought for the Confederacy; the Cathers were Unionists.  

Descendants of the massacred Seyberts made their way to Nebraska as well, including Isaac Seybert and his son Andrew Seybert, who settled in Cass and Otoe counties.  Andrew married a descendant of Peter Thomas Hull, a Virginia ancestor of several Wimers and a captain in the Revolutionary Army in whose Augusta Militia company Nicholas Seybert, the one-time Shawnee captive, had served.

The migration to Nebraska included extended families and neighbors.  The Cather family was joined on The Divide in Webster county by the Lockhart, Larrick, and Lewis families, their Back Creek neighbors.  The Cather children attended the "New Virginia" country school. The Wimers in northern Lancaster County were part of an extended family that included former Virginians of the Phares, Bland, Lambert, Mullenax, Calhoun, Zicafoose, Higgins, and Strawder (Strother) families.

Philip Wimer, Sr., was my fourth great-grandfather. Peter Thomas Hull, who settled in Augusta County in 1752 and for whom Fort Seybert was protection, was my sixth great-grandfather. Among my DNA cousins are several Seyberts and Seiberts. A Strother cousin was the next-door neighbor of the Seiberts on Back Creek in the years following the Civil War, when former slaves Matilda Jefferson ("Till" in the novel) and Thomas Parrot ("Sampson") were listed as servant and miller, respectively, in the U.S. Census of 1870.  My grandmother Ressie Mae Zicafoose Oberg, daughter of Susan Wimer and William Clark Zicafoose, was born in Dry Run, Pendleton County, West Virginia, in 1884 and moved to Nebraska at age nine onto the farm of her grandfather, Peter B. Wimer.    

All of which raises many questions.  Did the families of the brothers Johan Wendel and Johan Jacob Seybert keep in touch after the Shawnee massacre and did Willa Cather even know of the fate of part of her family at Fort Seybert?  There seems to be little in the Cather scholarship about it.  

With family histories of Indian captivity and indentured servitude, and thus presumably an enhanced appreciation of human freedom, why did the Seyberts and Wimers become slave-owners themselves?   

As a Nebraskan with roots in the Palatinate, in colonial America, and in slave-holding Virginia, I especially appreciate Cather's attempt to deal with her family's history and believe Sapphira to be among her bests works, because it hits so close to home.  She even dares to put herself into the book in the epilogue, a first-person account of herself at age five, witnessing at Back Creek the happy post-Civil-War visit of a former slave girl, now living in Canada, whom her grandmother Rachel Seibert Boak had helped escape from the Seibert family in 1856. 

What schools, parks, or other public places are named for Rachel, an undaunted Virginia abolitionist within the Seibert family and an early Nebraska pioneer?  None that I know of.  There should be some.  We should all have such ancestors in our family trees; maybe we do if we look for them.  I am looking in mine.   

Better Days Ahead

April, 2021

Washington –  A year ago I wrote, in this post, that "better days may be coming" in about a year. Despite some of darkest days in our country's history, those better days may soon be upon us.  Nothing could be more symbolic than this picture, which the Washington Post published.  It was taken Sunday, April 11, 2021.

Biden's Better Start at USDA

April, 2021

Washington and Lincoln – The Biden administration is off to a good start for rural America and USDA.  On day one, the President signed an executive order on equity, which specifically included in its definition "persons who live in rural areas."  "Geographic communities" are finally getting their due.  

He followed up by naming Kelliann Blazek as special assistant to the president for agriculture and rural policy.  She brings formidable qualifications to the job, having worked for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, as counsel to Congresswoman (and farmer) Chellie Pingree of the House Agriculture Committee, and as faculty at George Mason law school.  

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack then raised eyebrows with suggestions for sweeping change in America's food system:

“The time has come for us to transform the food system in this country in an accelerated way,” Vilsack said.  He rattled off statistics to make his case: Nearly 90 percent of U.S. farmers now rely on off-farm income to survive as a result of unsustainable economics. Roughly 60 percent of Americans have at least one chronic disease. Forty percent have two or more.  The government spends more on diabetes treatment each year — $160 billion — than USDA’s annual budget, all while knowing that poor diet is a major driver of chronic disease.  “When you look at those statistics, you have to ask yourself: Can we continue to do what we’re doing? It suggests to me that we can’t,” he said.

Even Senator Bernie Sanders, who as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee will have much to say about federal policy, has been talking up the importance of rural America:

"I come from one of the most rural states in America, and I lived in a town of 200 people for a couple of years. And I think there is not an appreciation of rural America or the values of rural America, the sense of community that exists in rural America. And somehow or another, the intellectual elite does have, in some cases, a contempt for the people who live in rural America. I think we’ve got to change that attitude and start focusing on the needs of people in rural America, treat them with respect, and understand there are areas there are going to be disagreements, but we can’t treat people with contempt."

The new Biden infrastructure bill also has much in it for rural America, causing bewilderment in some benighted quarters about why Biden would help the GOP base.  Unfortunately, the Biden administration has not made its case well, so far.  It has not couched its rural initiatives in their best light.  For example, restoring America's infrastructure must start with improvements to "natural infrastructure," meaning the prevention of soil and water erosion at its source.  Although the Biden plan has funds for conservation stewardship programs and even helping young farmers acquire farmland, the political opposition so far has been able to frame the debate around the idea that this is not "traditional" thinking about what Congress has been doing for decades; that is, letting topsoil wash away and then spending billions on repairs downstream to roads, bridges, canals, railroads, airports and levees.  

Biden has a better narrative to sell his infrastructure bill to rural America, if he will only use it.

But that should not detract from an otherwise good start.  Will rural America take notice?  It better, as transforming our food system and our infrastructure is the best, last hope for reversing the vicious cycle that has brought rural America to its long, sad, and shameful state of decline.  

What Secretary Vilsack needs now is a speechwriter who is not afraid to pen phrases like, "The era of get-big-or-get-out is over!" and "Re-populate, don't de-populate, rural America!" 

Avoiding a Student Loan Servicing Meltdown

April, 2021

Washington – A new warning from five nonprofit higher education organizations about an impending student loan servicing meltdown is as ominous as it is true:

To mitigate the challenges facing borrowers during the pandemic, the Biden Administration extended the pause on payments, interest, and collections for most federal student loan borrowers through September 30, 2021. When the pause ends, tens of millions of borrowers will move back into repayment simultaneously. The difficulties borrowers face are likely to persist even as the economy re-opens and the COVID crisis subsides. The impending transition out of the repayment pause is an unprecedented challenge for the Education Department (ED), the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), and its contracted loan servicers. In fact, recent survey work indicates that as many as nine million borrowers could reach out for help at the same time, potentially overwhelming the system.  [emphasis added]

There is no good reason for confidence that the Education Department's current servicers will be up to the task.  Some of them have failed miserably at simpler tasks; two of the three primary servicers have been sued for their failures by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and by several state attorneys general under state consumer protection laws.

What would help in this situation is to reduce the number of loans the servicers must handle.  Much ink has been spilled about whether loans should be forgiven up to $10,000, or $50,000, or entirely, based on  various rationales, some compelling and some less so, and if the Secretary can do this by executive authority or if it takes an act of Congress.  Such loan forgiveness in any amount would reduce the number of loans outstanding significantly.  The Biden Administration has asked the Department of Justice for an opinion on the question, but many people familiar with DOJ's borrower-unfriendly history expect the opinion to say any such loan forgiveness requires legislative, not executive, action.    

There is another alternative, short of outright forgiveness, that would reduce the number of loans.  The Secretary could start now to offer borrowers the option of repaying immediately a discounted value of their loans, to get the loans off the books for the benefit of both the borrowers and the U.S. government.  Many loans have already been discounted heavily in the federal budgeting process because they are in default, or the borrowers are already eligible for discharges, or borrowers will be eligible for future forgiveness under various programs such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.  

The federal treasury is never going to see much revenue from these loans, so it would make sense to get rid of the burden of administering them.

If I were a borrower in the PSLF program, which has poor prospects* of ever being straightened out, I might gladly repay an appropriately discounted loan amount and be done with it, rather than holding out hope for competently-administered cancellation of my loan in exchange for my public service.  

Another option would be for the Secretary to offer borrowers who have been faithfully in repayment for a certain number of years the opportunity to pay off their loans at principal plus interest at the government's cost of borrowing.  As I am reminded by those who know, federal student loan interest rate formulas (and fees and capitalizations) were established decades ago in an environment requiring equity between different federal loan programs, not on the basis of otherwise prevailing interest rates.  That time has long since passed.   

These options to reduce the number of loans are consistent with a plain reading of the Secretary's authority to settle and compromise loans under 20 U.S.C. 1082.  This is what a private business would likely do in similar circumstances.  And DOJ had no objections when, several years ago, a Secretary of Education wrote off hundreds of millions of dollars of lenders' liability to repay false claims, because the Secretary said it was in the government's interest to do so.  If that was the case then**, it is much more the case now, when the entire credibility of federal student loan administration hangs in the balance.  

These options would also meet with fewer objections from those who allege that any outright loan cancellation is unfair and inequitable.  The relief would come largely to borrowers for whom the federal student loan system has failed, as many were short-changed by schools that should never have been in business and prepared students inadequately to pay back their loans; by servicers that could not keep their paperwork straight or gave borrowers bad advice as to their best repayment options; and by four most recent years of a borrower-hostile federal Education Department that too often actually denied borrowers their rights under law.***  

The benefits of substantially reducing the number of student loans will accrue to the government, to borrowers who need a fresh start without student loan debt, and to taxpayers generally who will benefit by a significant boost to the economy as student debt burdens are lifted.  


* The Massachusetts attorney general recently reached settlement with the PSLF servicer PHEAA to compensate that state's borrowers for deficiencies in loan administration.  If this proceeds on a state-by-state basis, rather than being resolved at the federal level, it is likely many borrowers will never see the benefits they are entitled to under law.    

** In May, 2007, Secretary Margaret Spellings told the House Committee on Education and Labor, and later reiterated, that the Education Department itself had partial culpability for lenders' overcharges, and that the best course was to forgive the corporations' obligation to repay rather than to litigate the matter. 

*** Of late there have been allegations of racial discrimination in the distribution of student debt burden.  This is not a surprise; in 2003 in a working paper for the Institute of Education Sciences, I found that public and nonprofit colleges' financial aid packaging practices placed higher debt burdens on the black low-income.  This was even without inclusion of for-profit colleges in the dataset and is another reason the Secretary should craft debt relief to include this demographic.