'I found a brave frontiers woman in my family tree'
“She must have been a feisty girl because, on her arrival in America she promptly escaped. That would take guts”
The backbone of the American colonies was formed by adventurers like Catherine Weissenberg, who died in suspicious circumstances as Gail Dixon discovers
The winter of 1709 in Germany was so cold that birds froze in mid-air. A mini-Ice Age was beginning in which livestock, casks of wine and harvests would be destroyed. For the people of the Palatinate region of Germany, who had already suffered years of war, turmoil and heavy taxation, it was too much to bear. Thousands packed their possessions, journeyed along the Rhine on boats to Amsterdam and sailed for England for the protection they would get from the Protestant Royal family, to live in makeshift encampments near the Thames.
Mass migration followed for decades and among the unfortunate hordes was teenager Catherine Weissenberg, the 5x great grandmother of family historian Heather Campbell. young to face such privation. However, this was just the start of her challenges," says Heather.
The Palatines were offered the chance to start afresh in Ireland or the American colonies, and in 1738, Catherine sailed for New York. Like her contemporaries, she had to pay for her passage by becoming an indentured servant, which meant that she could be 'sold by the captain of the ship into domestic or agricultural positions for a fixed number of years.
Many young white emigrants to the American colonies were indentured. “Death rates were high among them because of the exposure to new diseases and they were treated horrifically as they had no value beyond the five or 10 years that they were indentured for. Many of them were worked to death."
The ships were little more than hulks, and some arrived in America with so many sick people on board that they were refused entry to port. Thousands of people died of fever or froze to death and 1738 – the year Catherine arrived - was the worst of all. “Known as “The year of the destroying angels', many ships were beached with a cargo of dead bodies. A journal reported of one ship with 300 passengers in which ‘not 10 escaped disease or freezing to death."
“Catherine must have been extremely resilient to survive such an ordeal. “She must have been a feisty, determined girl because on arrival in America she promptly escaped.
That would take guts, especially in a foreign country. Heather found an advertisement placed in the New York Weekly Journal by a Captain Langden, who was trying to capture her dated 22 January 1738. It reads that Catherine was 'Middle stature, black ey'd, brown Complexion, speaks good English, altho a Palatine born; had on when she went away, a homespun striped waistcoat and Peticoat, blew-stockings and new Shoes'. A reward of 20 shillings was offered for her capture.
“It's my guess that Catherine was a pretty girl who ran away to escape being used and abused."
Due to his power and influence, much has been written of him which Heather has been able to access via library books and online.
William Johnson was an Irishman with connections who travelled to America in 1737 to help establish a British Protestant settlement in the Mohawk Valley.
“This man was to become so famous in America and a legend to this day that there are more than a dozen biographies on him. I read four of them and looked for the woman he had bought and later passed off as his wife. I was on a roll."
Johnson learned the languages and customs of the six tribes of the Iroquois nation and became their British agent garnering their support in the fight against the French for control over territories. He acquired vast swathes of native land and became very wealthy in the process. Following Johnson's leadership and support in a number of victories, George II made him First Baronet of New York, a title that exists to this day.
Johnson had affairs with many women and is believed to have fathered more than 100 children.
“In one of the hardest moments of my search, I discovered that Johnson was my 5 x great grandfather and that he bought Catherine for two pounds - a fact that continues to appal me to this day.
“Catherine became housekeeper and bedwarmer to William Johnson. They had three children - Anne, John and Mary, my 4 x great grandmother, all of whom were christened with Weissenberg as their surname.
“Sir William's roving eye probably led to Catherine's downfalls”
I discovered this after contacting the New-York Historical Society Museum whose amazing archivists sent me copies of the register kept by the vicar at the time, Reverend Henry Barclay. Having records that go back 300 years about my ancestor is thrilling."
William never married Catherine but she is mentioned in the biographies which has given Heather a fascinating insight into her way of life. “Each time she had a baby she traipsed to the church to get them christened, on two occasions through the depth of upstate New York winter. To survive in such a harsh environment is courage itself and shows that she had tenacity and resolution. If Catherine could make it to church with her infant children, William could have done the same for her and legitimised them all through marriage." By 1758, Sir William Johnson was one of the richest men in the Mohawk Valley and the family lived in a manor house at Fort Johnson, near the settlement of Amsterdam.
Catherine spent 20 years with William and the family must have enjoyed good living standards for the time. However, threat was ever-present due to conflict with the French over territory.
A murder in the family?
Sir William's roving eye probably led to Catherine's downfall, as the story of their lives takes a darker turn at this time. “The biographies reveal that in 1759, Sir William met a Mohawk woman called Degonwadonti (later known as Molly Brant), whom he marries in an Indian ceremony. In April of that year, Catherine dies and is buried in an unmarked grave, even though Sir William is incredibly wealthy. Five months later, Degonwadonti gives birth to a son.
“I can only piece together evidence but it's my strong suspicion that Degonwadonti murdered Catherine to clear the way for her family and that Sir William Johnson colluded by looking the other way. Degonwadonti and Sir William had seven more children together and I'm sure she wanted her eldest son to be the next Baronet of New York. Sir William dies suddenly at
the age of 59 in 1774 his death was recorded as a stroke, rumour has it that he committed suicide. In his will, Catherine's son John is named as his successor and John becomes the Second Baronet of New York. Despite never marrying Catherine and burying her in an unmarked grave, Sir William has the audacity to refer to her as his 'beloved wife' in his will.
“I'm shocked by how angry that I feel about the hardship and abuse Catherine suffered, even though it happened 300 years ago. What emerges, though, is a picture of a determined and gutsy lady who arrived in America as an indentured servant and established her own little dynasty. The title Baronet of New York still exists. I'd love to know what happened before Catherine died, and if Degonwadonti had a hand in it.
Catherine's gutsy, pioneering spirit lived on in her children, as Heather's research has revealed. Her daughter Mary married her cousin Guy Johnson and they had three daughters. “During the American War of Independence (1775 to 1783), Mary and her daughters were obvious targets and had to flee for their lives.
"Heavily pregnant at the time, Mary had to be guided through forests by Mohawks to reach safety at Oswego. Tragically, she died in childbirth and so did the baby just as they were in sight of freedom in Canada.
“The eldest of the girls was my 3x great grandmother Mary and she married Colin Campbell, then a lowly British captain and followed him all over the world."
Captain Campbell rose to become Lieutenant General Campbell and died at his post as Lieutenant Governor of Gibraltar during a siege in 1814. “Discovering his record during the Napoleonic Wars, I was proud to put Colin Campbell on my family tree. He was posthumously awarded a baronetage which his eldest son Guy inherited.
A scion of Scottish nobility
"Colin's father John Campbell was known as John of the Citadel and a direct descendant of the Campbells of Breadalbane, a scion of Scottish nobility. My father George Campbell told me we were descended from a notable - and at times notorious - clan, and I thought he was being fanciful. It was exciting to discover the rumour was true.”
The Campbell family had mixed fortunes following Colin's Campbell's distinguished career. “My great grandfather Horatio Guy Campbell - grandson of Colin Campbell – was a lieutenant in the Royal Marines. He died suddenly at the age of 33 of a brain haemorrhage.
"He had deserted the Royal Marines and left his wife and three children destitute. I paid a researcher at the Royal Archives to find the relevant papers and it was definitely worth paying £80 to have copies of these papers because I found out what a terrible time he had of it in the Crimean War. I wonder if he had suffered from post traumatic stress disorder."
There are baronets, war heroes and lieutenant-generals in Heather's history but, for her, Catherine Weissenberg is the real heroine of the story.
“I'm also immensely proud of my great uncle Wilfred Ashcroft who died at Ypres on 8 May 1915. He has no known grave but his name is on the Menin Gate.” Given the fact that Heather's family spans across continents and many centuries, you'd be forgiven for thinking she'd travelled the globe for research, visiting archives and museums in far-flung places. The fact that she has done it all from her PC is perhaps the biggest surprise of all.
"December 2013 | Who Do You Think You Are Magazine." 29 Oct. 2013, Who do you think you are magazine issue Dec 2013. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.
About the author: GAIL DIXON is a journalist and editor with many years' experience. She has worked as a commissioning editor for BBC Focus and is a regular contributor to Who Do You Think You Are? magazine. She is co-author, with Paul Parsons, of The Periodic Table, which became a number 1 Amazon bestseller
"Quercus books about page for Gail Dixon" with links to her books | accessed 21 December 2018