Were the parents of Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, German immigrants?
My curiosity led me to investigate Betty Smith after noticing on the back cover of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that she was the daughter of German immigrants. The dissertation of Carol Siri Johnson, relying on information from Betty Smith's unpublished autobiography, states that Betty Smith's parents were born in America. I used the Internet to find out the facts and discovered some surprises along the way.
|What we knew|
|Undisputed facts||Elizabeth Wehner (Betty Smith) was born December 15, 1896 in Brooklyn, NY to John Wehner and Kate Hummel. She had two younger siblings, a brother William and a sister Regina.|
|Popular knowledge||Most references, including the biography in the current edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, state that Betty was the daughter of German immigrants.|
unpublished autobiography by Betty Smith is in the Library of the
University of North Carolina. This was the basis of the biography
written by Carol Siri Johnson as part of her dissertation. In 2004, the autobiography
became closed to research for 15 years except with the written permission of Betty Smith's
grandchildren. In any case, according to the library's Website,
Betty's daughter "apparently regarded this telling of Smith's
life as highly embellished."
This information about Betty Smith's parents is from the autobiography/biography:
|Where we looked|
|Wehner data||John Wehner appears
with his parents and 3 siblings in the 1880 census living on Montrose
Avenue. By 1900, John is married and living on Stagg Avenue. His
father is dead but his mother and siblings are on Johnson Avenue. In
1910, John's mother is living on Jefferson with two of John's siblings
and a grandchild.
New York death records, a few of which are online, and online city directories round out the known data for John's family. In the Kings County court records, Ambros Wehner filed a petition for naturalization in October of 1880. The index for this petition does not include year of immigration, though the residency requirement was 5 years.
Ambrose Wehner was born in Bavaria about 1842. He and his wife Elizabeth, born in Bavaria the same year, were married about 1870. They came to the US around 1875. John's father died between 1880 and 1888; Elizabeth died some time after 1910. They had 7 children, 5 of which are known:
John's sister Mary married Frank Ludwig, a German butcher. After her death, Frank remarried (about 1906). Mary's daughter Josephine, born about 1900, lived with her grandmother Elizabeth in 1910.
|Hummel data||In 1880, Kate
Hummel, age 3, is with her father Thomas, mother Maria, two sisters,
and two brothers on Hopkins Street in Brooklyn. By 1900, none of the
children were living at home though some lived nearby. In 1910, Thomas
was a widow living alone on Ten Eyck. He died before 1920.
Thomas Hummel filed a petition for naturalization in October of 1873 in Kings County. A daughter, most likely Kate though unnamed in the birth record, was born November 25, 1876 in Brooklyn to Thomas Hummel and Mary Seifred.
Thomas Hummel was born about 1837 in Wuerttemburg, Germany, probably not far from the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) where many Hummels lived. Maria was born about 1835, also in Wuerttemburg. They came to the U.S. around 1863 where they had 8 children, 6 of which lived to adulthood:
Kate's brother Peter married Charlotte Fick in 1897 and they had two sons, one named after her father, Christian, and one named after his father, Thomas. Both boys died before age 10.
|What we learned|
|John Wehner||The 1880 census says
that John was born in Bavaria in 1874 and his younger
brother Frank was born in Brooklyn in 1877. In the 1900 and 1910
census records, John states that he was born in New York. His mother,
living in a separate household in 1900 and 1910, states in those years
that she came to this country in 1871 or 1872.
It is possible that John was born in New York but it is more likely that he was born in Germany and came to this country around age 1. He seems to have considered himself American and was, in fact, brought up in a multiethnic area of Brooklyn. Although this would make him technically a "German immigrant," in my opinion the term would be a stretch for a person born in Germany but raised since an infant in the U.S.
It appears to be untrue that the Wehner family came to America "many years" before John was born as stated in the autobiography/biography.
|Kate Hummel||Kate Hummel was clearly born in the United States.|
|Surprises|| The spacing of John
brothers is much more spread out than "each a year apart" as
noted in Betty Smith's autobiography/biography.
John also had a sister, unmentioned in the autobiography/biography,
who lived to adulthood, as well as two siblings who died young.
The Aunt Lotty that Betty Smith referred to in her writings was an aunt by marriage and not the sister of her mother Kate. In fact, most of the information on Kate's family supplied by Betty Smith appears to be wrong, including the parents' relative ages and the existence of brothers. [Since so much of the information in the autobiography/biography does not correspond to the records, I recommend more research on this branch of Betty Smith's family to verify my account.]
In May of 1902, when Betty Smith was 5 years old, a 10-month-old sister named Maggie died. There is no mention of this event in Betty's biography.
According to Betty Smith's biographer, the description Betty gave of her grandparents "shows a great resemblance to the family history of the Nolans" in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I believe, however, that the Nolan family history was not based on Betty Smith's family; Betty Smith's family history -- as told by Betty -- was based on the fictional Nolans'.
Got a pedigree puzzle? Get help from a professional researcher.