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A family-tree saga: How I got from Ancestry.com to a farm in Germany

CNET logo CNET 22/12/2019 Shara Tibken
a large green field with trees in the background: CNET's Shara Tibken visited the German farm that's been in her family since at least 1542. Shara Tibken/CNET © Provided by CNET CNET's Shara Tibken visited the German farm that's been in her family since at least 1542. Shara Tibken/CNET

"Tibken," a woman says as she answers the phone. I pause a moment, digesting the fact she actually said Tibken. I'm calling one of the six numbers I found in Germany's online Das Telefonbuch for residences with that last name, the same as mine. A Tibken -- familiar, yet a total stranger -- has actually answered the phone on my first try. I can't believe my luck. 

I'm spending a month in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a journalism exchange program through the Goethe-Institut. I've always been interested in family history, and over the past couple of years, I've gathered information about my origins from various family members. This trip, I'm on a mission. I want to track down where the Tibkens came from, and maybe even meet some distant cousins. 

Despite numerous trips to Germany, I've never taken the time to research my family history here. I've always thought I'd have more time to do it later. There are constantly more articles to write, and life gets in the way. Then my dad's older brother and sister died within a couple of weeks of each other in August, and his younger sister started facing health problems. There may not be a "later." 

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For most people today, the easiest way to research family history is through Ancestry.com. That's my first attempt, too. I enter every ancestor's name that I know into the system, and it spits back "hints," suggestions of other people who might also be my relatives. The problem is I have no idea if those names are accurate, and I don't really know how to confirm them digitally. And AncestryDNA, while interesting, also doesn't give me much to go on that I don't already know. Technology is going to get me only so far.

CNET's Shara Tibken visited the German farm that's been in her family since at least 1542. © Shara Tibken/CNET

CNET's Shara Tibken visited the German farm that's been in her family since at least 1542.

It turns out that ancestors from both sides of my family came from Northern Germany, within an hour or two of Hamburg. They emigrated to the US in the mid- and late 19th century, seeking better lives for their families. After stops in places like Venezuela, New York and New Orleans, they eventually settled on farms in southwest Iowa, where I grew up and where my family still lives. 

I visit an emigrant museum in Hamburg and a Hanseatic history museum in Lübeck to learn more about the area my family came from. I spend a day in Schwerin, a town in the region where some great-great-great-great-grandparents on my mother's side originated, and I travel to Oldenburg, where a great-grandmother lived before moving to the US in 1890 and marrying a Tibken. I try to find any distant relatives still living in Germany that I can -- which takes me back to that phone call.

"Irene?" I say, naming the woman listed at that phone number. Click. She hung up.

I call back, and it sounds like a different woman has answered. She doesn't say Tibken this time, and I immediately ask in my stilted German if she speaks English. She does. "Is this the Tibken residence?" I ask, expecting her to answer in the affirmative. "No," she says. "It's not?" I reply, shocked. "No," she answers again. We sit in silence for what feels like an eternity before eventually hanging up.

I look at the number I dialed, puzzled. It's the same I called before, and I can't figure out what went wrong. I try two more Tibken residences listed in the same town, with no luck. One more hangs up on me, and another doesn't answer at all. 

I blame those phone hangups on my lousy German skills. This isn't going to be as easy as I thought.

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A German history lesson 

My entire life, I've known that my grandparents, many "greats" in the past, emigrated from Germany to Iowa. Some left Europe as early as 1850, while others came in the 1870s and later. Most were farmers. None were rich. 

The Germany of the mid-1800s wasn't the Germany of today. It didn't even become a country until 1871, around the time my Tibken great-great-grandparents left for the US. Europe faced war after war, and a population boom led to millions of people in poverty. By the middle of the 19th century, about 75% of farmers didn't have enough land to make a living. From the 1800s to early 1900s, more than 7 million Germans emigrated to the US. 

a tree lined street: Klethen is located about an hour by car southwest of Hamburg, Germany. Shara Tibken/CNET © Provided by CNET Klethen is located about an hour by car southwest of Hamburg, Germany. Shara Tibken/CNET

"You have Germans coming for different reasons ... but mostly for economic opportunity," says H. Glenn Penny, a professor of modern European history at the University of Iowa. "Most who end up in the Midwest have agricultural skills, and they're not impoverished. That sets them apart from the Irish and others."

My family came from a village called Klethen, about an hour's drive southwest of Hamburg. I know the name from letters my ancestors sent back to Germany, but I know essentially nothing about it or about who any of those people were.

Klethen is located in modern-day Lower Saxony. It's a tiny village, really more a collection of farmsteads, that's now a part of the bigger town of Ahlerstedt. Other parts of Ahlerstedt include Ahrenswohlde, Ahrensmoor and Kakerbeck, all areas mentioned in my family letters. 

At the time my family lived there, it was part of the Kingdom of Hanover. Hanover was a territory that switched hands many times, from the Holy Roman Empire in 1692 until it became part of the German Empire in 1871. 

Three years after Germany became a country, Johann Hinrich and Katharina Deden Tibken left for America. They were looking for somewhere to start over, and that was the New World. 

A lead 

I'm determined to get in touch with the Tibkens living in Klethen. This time, I ask a German journalist friend for help. I give her the three numbers I called, share the names of my ancestors and wait.

Soon, she emails me: "Called them and talked to Irene, unfortunately no Johann or Katharina in their Stammbaum (family tree). She looked for like 10 minutes. ... Sorrrrry!"

I'm crushed. What do I do now? I ask my friend to call the number back. My great-great-grandfather's first name was Johann, but he went by Hinrich and Henry Sr. when he got to the US. Maybe there's a Hinrich on the family tree?

a man riding a horse drawn carriage: Shara Tibken's great-great-grandparents, Johann Hinrich (Henry Sr.) and Katharina Tibken, immigrated to the US from Germany in the late 19th century. Courtesy of Anneliese Tobaben © Provided by CNET Shara Tibken's great-great-grandparents, Johann Hinrich (Henry Sr.) and Katharina Tibken, immigrated to the US from Germany in the late 19th century. Courtesy of Anneliese Tobaben

My friend calls back and has Irene check for Henry. There's nothing on the family tree, which is framed and hangs on the wall in the Tibken home in Klethen. My friend leaves her number with Irene, in case she discovers something. 

Irene does, sort of. She tells my friend that we're not related -- but her neighbor across the road, named Annegret Fricke, is interested in genealogy. She gives Fricke's number to my friend, who eventually passes it on to me, along with a link to letters from newly minted Americans to their relatives back in Germany. 

"Call Frau Fricke tomorrow," my friend says. "She does family tree research in the area, but she said there are many Tibkens. She is not your relative, but it seems like she knows a lot."

When I reach Fricke, she immediately fires information at me. 

"The last Tibken in Klethen was born in 1783," she says in cautious English. "Then he moved to Ahrenswohlde. His grandson emigrated to the US."

That emigrant, my great-great-grandfather Johann Hinrich Tibken, was born March 23, 1842, in Ahrenswohlde, she says. If I travel there, she can show me the farms where my family lived. I jump at the chance. 

Finally, the lead that I need. 

Starting high tech 

As a journalist, I should've known that working the phones would produce more leads. But nowadays, it's natural to check online first. Ancestry, the parent company of Ancestry.com, has about 20 billion records and adds 2 million more every day. The company has more than 3 million paying subscribers, and more than 15 million people have used its AncestryDNA service since it launched in 2012. Two years ago, I became one of them, confirming most of my DNA is German (though there's a big chunk that's unexpectedly British). 

As I've found, though, online research gets you only so far. I've spent countless hours on Ancestry.com over the years, trying to build my family tree. Old documents, digitized online, can be difficult to read. Names are spelled in multiple ways, which makes it tricky to know if a match is the right person. There are so many Johanns and Hinrichs and Johann Hinrichs in my family that I go cross-eyed, and Tibken itself appears as Tibbeken, Tipken and Tybken, among a few other variations.

an old brick house with trees in the background: Shara Tibken's great-great-grandparents lived in this house in northern Germany before emigrating to the US. Shara Tibken/CNET © Provided by CNET Shara Tibken's great-great-grandparents lived in this house in northern Germany before emigrating to the US. Shara Tibken/CNET

Once you identify someone you know on the tree, the algorithm will keep going, suggesting new hints of records and possible matches -- until it doesn't. If you label someone as your ancestor and they're actually not, it can throw off the entire family tree. Eventually, Ancestry.com hits a block, with no new hints or names to add. For me, that block came with Claus Tipken and Marje Heins, who lived in the mid-1700s. Ancestry.com keeps going past Marje, but Claus is the last Tibken grandfather the site can detect. 

"Don't just take a hint and slurp it into your tree as fast as you can," says Jenn Utley, Ancestry director of research. "When you get a hint, take a good look at it and make sure it matches up."

And don't just rely on suggestions of possible relatives provided by Ancestry.com, she says. Use the site's search function to look up people, do a Google search to see what it surfaces and examine old newspaper clippings through Ancestry's Newspapers.com site. 

But eventually, those sources too dry up. If I want to know more about my ancestry, I need to put away my computer and take Frau Fricke up on her offer. I'm heading to the German countryside.

Going low tech 

A week after talking to Fricke on the phone, I arrive in Ahlerstedt with a different German journalist friend along to translate. The first stop is the local church to look through old birth, death, marriage and baptism records. 

We call ahead to talk to the church secretary. She'll pull the years we want, but we have to hurry. It's already past 11, and the record room closes at noon. The secretary gets two or three inquiries a year from Americans looking into their heritage, she tells me through my translator friend. The documents aren't online, so the secretary has to go through the physical records. In her 19 years at the job, I'm the first American to actually visit, she says.  

a large brick building with a clock tower: A church has existed in Ahlerstedt, Germany, since at least the 1200s, but the current church was built in 1865. Shara Tibken's family belonged to this parish. Shara Tibken/CNET © Provided by CNET A church has existed in Ahlerstedt, Germany, since at least the 1200s, but the current church was built in 1865. Shara Tibken's family belonged to this parish. Shara Tibken/CNET

As soon as we arrive, we hurry through the drizzle, past the red brick church and into the office. The secretary has books waiting for me. Piles and piles of them. The newer ones have been typed and organized. The older ones are filled out in ornate, faded cursive, almost illegible in places. What I can clearly read, though, is "Tibken." It's everywhere. Page after page of people with my last name.

After quickly taking photos of the books, I knock on the front door of the church's pastor, Detlef Beneke. I want to learn more about the area and the people who live here. 

The land around Klethen is poor quality, Beneke tells me. The farmers in the area were much poorer than farmers closer to the Elbe River, but then fertilizer was invented. "When fertilizer came, it turned the other way around," the pastor says. Farmers around Klethen were used to working hard because of their poor land. So when fertilizer came along, they prospered. 

Still, farms were small, the owners had to pay taxes to bigger farms, and the eldest sons inherited all of the land. Henry Tibken Sr. and others from the area left for America because there was no opportunity to expand. There was no land to buy around Klethen, even if they could've afforded it.

"You needed so much land to live," Beneke says. 

A new world  

Many German farmers couldn't make enough to survive, but America was a different story. A farmer who had only half a hectare (about 1.2 acres) of land in Germany could own 64 hectares (158 acres) of land in the US after just a decade in the country, according to a site run by the German Federal Foreign Office.  

Iowa, which became a state in 1846, was a popular place for Germans to settle. By 1920, half of all Iowa farmers were of German descent, according to Iowa historian Peter Hoehnle, and Germans were the largest ethnic group in Iowa from 1850 through the 1980s.

"Iowa was seen, around the 1850s, as a land of opportunity," said Bill Friedricks, a professor of history at Simpson College, my alma mater in Indianola, Iowa. "Land was very cheap. It was still selling for the federal price of $1.25 an acre. Even if you bought it from an original purchaser, you were still getting a pretty good deal on land."

a vintage photo of a man and woman posing for a picture: Henry Tibken Jr. and Anna Kloppenburg, CNET reporter Shara Tibken's great-grandparents, got married in 1900. Courtesy of Shara Tibken © Provided by CNET Henry Tibken Jr. and Anna Kloppenburg, CNET reporter Shara Tibken's great-grandparents, got married in 1900. Courtesy of Shara Tibken

In 1870, the Iowa Board of Immigration published a leaflet called "Iowa: The Home for Immigrants" that it translated into multiple languages and distributed across Northern Europe. The state wanted Europeans to move to Iowa. That they did. 

Two years later, Henry Tibken Sr. (Johann Hinrich) left Germany for the US along with his wife Katharina Deden Tibken and their firstborn son. After arriving in America, they headed to Red Wing, Minnesota, to live with friends and find work. After another two years, when their second son, Henry Jr., was 3 weeks old, they traveled by ferry down the Mississippi River to Davenport, Iowa, and then took a train to Wiota, in the southwest part of the state.

Henry's brother Claus had been living in Wiota, and they'd decided to join him and buy an 80-acre farm. They never left.

At least, that's what the official American Tibken family history book says. The German records unearthed by Fricke tell a slightly different story. 

Johann and Katharina didn't get married until Oct. 22, 1872, according to those Ahlerstedt church records. The official family history had them already living in the US by that time. German records say the family didn't leave for the US until April 28, 1874, when they traveled on the Pommerania from Hamburg via the port of Le Havre in France. They arrived in New York on May 13, 1874.

I can't easily verify which is true. Ellis Island's online database has no matches for a Tibken arriving in the 1870s (it brings up only one of the family's return visits, in 1900), and the "alternate spellings" option surfaces 8,811 matches. 

Where the family history and German records again match up is the birth of Henry Sr. and Katharina's second son, Henry Tibken Jr., on July 26, 1874, in Minnesota.

Henry Jr., the man who became my great-grandfather, married Anna Marie Kloppenburg in 1900. She'd emigrated to Iowa from Oldenburg, Germany, a decade earlier, with her mother and sister. Her father was in the military and joined the family later. 

Henry Jr. and Anna had four children, including my grandfather, Albert, born in 1912. Albert married Eleanor Knop in 1939, and they had five children. My father, James Tibken, was their third, born in 1946.

My family still lives in the same area Henry Sr. and Katharina settled when they arrived in 1874. My ancestors donated land to build a Lutheran church in Wiota that my family still attends today, and my family still farms some of the same land.

Town chronicles

It's my family's history in Germany that's wholly unknown to me. That's where Fricke comes in. 

My connection with her turns out to be more fortunate than I ever could've imagined. She isn't just a family-tree hobbyist. Fricke and several friends have spent decades researching the German archives to build official town histories. She published the Klethen Chronik (Chronicle) in 2006, a 248-page tome that covers everything from the early history of the village to modern-day customs. It also features sections on each farm in the area, along with a family tree of the owners. 

Shara Tibken standing in a field: CNET Senior Reporter Shara Tibken explored her family history while working in Hamburg, Germany this fall. Shara Tibken/CNET © Provided by CNET CNET Senior Reporter Shara Tibken explored her family history while working in Hamburg, Germany this fall. Shara Tibken/CNET

Fricke hits me with an overwhelming amount of information. Lüttensbur is a farm that's been in the Tibken family since at least 1542, as far back as records exist. Its first known owner, from around 1524 to 1594, was Lütke Tibbeken. Lüttensbur still exists today. 

The subsequent owners, and my ancestors, include Arendt Tibbeken, Arent Tibbecken, Lütke and Engel Bokelmanns Tibken, Lütke and Maria Fitschen Fitzken Tibken, and Claus and Marje Hayns Tipcken. I now know most of their birth and death dates, marriage anniversaries, spouses' parents names and the names of their children.

Claus and Marje's son, named Claus Tipken, inherited Lüttensbur. Claus Tipken (1750-1813) married Anna Rebecca Ehlers (1754-1786) on Nov. 12, 1773, in Ahlerstedt. Claus and Anna had six children. Their eldest, Claus Tipken, inherited the farm. Their fifth child, Hinrich Tipken, born in 1783, is my direct ancestor. 

This is where my branch of the family splits off from Lüttensbur and why I grew up in Iowa and not Germany. According to inheritance laws, the entire family farm was passed to the eldest son. The younger sons worked as farm laborers and tried to buy land of their own. 

My Stammbaum

That was the case with Hinrich Tipken. He married Engel Eckhof in 1808, and a marriage contract between Hinrich and Engel, unearthed by Fricke, says the groom gave his bride, among a long list of items, 100 reichstaler, five cows, five pigs and a horse. He worked as a farm laborer until 1826, when he bought some farmland in Ahrenswohlde.

Hinrich and Engel's third son, Johann Hinrich Tibken, is my direct ancestor. He worked as a farmhand until marrying Anna Margarete Duden, the daughter of a farmer, in 1838. He took over the Duden farmstead after they married. 

a group of people posing for a photo: Johann Hinrich and Katharina Tibken, the great-great-grandparents of CNET Senior Reporter Shara Tibken, raised their children in Iowa. Kakerbeckchronik © Provided by CNET Johann Hinrich and Katharina Tibken, the great-great-grandparents of CNET Senior Reporter Shara Tibken, raised their children in Iowa. Kakerbeckchronik

Johann and Anna had five sons. The first two died in infancy. Their third, Johann Hinrich, is my great-great-grandfather who emigrated to the US and who became known as Henry Tibken Sr. 

In 1857, the elder Johann sold the farmstead. Today, it's no longer a farm but a small neighborhood of red brick houses. This farm is the first stop on my tour with Fricke, and it's a quick one. I brave the rain to snap a few shots of the homes before moving on.

After selling the farm, Johann bought another on the border of Ahrenswohlde and Ahrensmoor. This is stop No. 2 on my family farm tour. 

Like most other structures in the area, this home is made of red brick. Unlike the first farm, this is the actual Low German home my family lived in, albeit updated with a new roof. In the past, such houses combined living quarters and a barn under one roof. Today, it's a successful dairy, and I can smell and hear the cattle moo-ing nearby. 

The elder Johann lived in this home until his death on July 10, 1882. Henry Sr. also lived there before emigrating to the US. By the time Johann died, his sons had all left for America.

a close up of text on a white background: Shara Tibken's ancestors sold their farm in Ahrenswohlde, Germany, in 1883. This is part of the original contract. Shara Tibken/CNET © Provided by CNET Shara Tibken's ancestors sold their farm in Ahrenswohlde, Germany, in 1883. This is part of the original contract. Shara Tibken/CNET

Fricke introduces me to Anneliese Tobaben, the current owner, who also put together one of the area's history books. She invites me to her dining room to show me old photos of the home and the original contract selling the Tibken house and part of the land in 1883. It's eight yellowed pages of handwritten, cursive text that turned the farm over to another family after Johann's death. 

The contract reveals that the new owner paid 3,380 German marks (about $1,911.53 at the time or $49,000 when adjusted for inflation to 2019) for the house and 7 hectares (17 acres) of land. The money was sent to Johann's sons in Iowa.

I'm overwhelmed. I can't believe I'm holding the actual contract in my hands to sell the home I'm standing in. The walls around me are the same walls that sheltered my ancestors. It was inside these very walls that they dreamed of America and decided to leave behind everything and essentially everyone they knew. It was all to give their family -- which eventually included me -- a better life. 

Lüttensbur

My last stop of the day is Klethen and the ancestral Tibken farm, known as Lüttensbur. When I started on my quest, I never in a million years could've imagined there was a farm, still operating today, that's been owned by Tibkens since at least the 1500s. 

Fricke says the current owners, her neighbors, are home and willing to meet us, though they don't speak any English. She hasn't yet told me their names. We drive in the rain down a manicured driveway to a stately, red brick house, as an elderly couple waits at the front door. It's Dietrich and Irene Tibken, the farm owners and my distant cousins. Yes, that Irene, from the phone calls. 

a large brick building with grass in front of a house: Shara Tibken's distant relatives live in this home in northern Germany. It's on the farm that's been in her family for about five centuries. Shara Tibken/CNET © Provided by CNET Shara Tibken's distant relatives live in this home in northern Germany. It's on the farm that's been in her family for about five centuries. Shara Tibken/CNET

Now that I've made it, I don't know what to say. I don't really speak German, and they don't speak English. Irene and Dietrich usher me over to the Stammbaum hanging on their living room wall. I lean in closer to examine the names on their family tree. 

Fricke motions toward the top of the tree before it branches off another path. Those are your relatives, she tells me, pointing at the names Hinrich Tibken and Engel Eckhof. It turns out there is a Hinrich on the tree, just not the one I thought or the one Irene searched for. 

Irene and Dietrich explain, through my translator friend, that they didn't want to force any of their children to be farmers. None of their sons wanted to run the farm, so it now belongs to their daughter. She and her husband live in the same home as Dietrich and Irene. That's probably the second woman I talked to, the one who said she wasn't a Tibken.

After five centuries of ownership by a Tibken, Lüttensbur's owners now have a different last name. Had I waited to track down my roots, I might never have found the farm. 

I made it just in time. 

Our Christmas Together Appeal proudly supports Age UK and The Children’s Society who are providing vital services to society’s most vulnerable this festive season. Because no one should feel alone. Together we can make a big difference. Join us here.

Fiona Weber-Steinhaus contributed translation and research assistance for this report. 

This article was written as part of the Goethe-Institut's Close-Up journalists' exchange program and Wunderbar Together -- The Year of German-American Friendship. More information can be found at www.goethe.de/nahaufnahme and at #GoetheCloseUp and #WunderbarTogether.

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