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.