Finding the Burket Family
-- By Rich Allison
Ever since I was a young child I had the desire to find my “roots” and to know where my ancestors had come from in Europe on their way to America.
Most of my ancestors had come to America in the 1700’s or were already here as Native American Indians, and therefore tracking history back more than 10-15 generations or 250 years is not an easy job.
Both my wife, Sandy and I came from a very rural area in south-central Pennsylvania near Claysburg, PA -- mid-way between Bedford and Altoona, PA.
The area is predominantly German. These ancestors came to America by ship with most of them landing in either Philadelphia, PA or Baltimore, MD. From there they worked their way west through the Lancaster valley area, Gettysburg area and eventually crossed the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and settled in this rural valley near Claysburg, PA.
I have a difficult enough time traveling over the mountains and on the winding roads of Pennsylvania in a new automobile and sometimes a four wheel drive vehicle. I cannot comprehend the hardships that our ancestors endured in their quest to come to America. The ship ride alone from Europe with the disease, illness, lack of food and cold must have been most difficult.
But just as bad would be going to a new country where nobody spoke the language, where no realtor had a house for sale, where no roads existed and no malls or stores were nearby. And where something that we take for granted was their top priority of the day -- locating food for the table.
The hardships of the 1700’s are far more difficult that we can ever imagine. We think that today’s farmers are some of the hardest working people that we know, but can you imagine no tractors, no seed companies, no fertilizers, no place to buy livestock feed.
This coupled with the hostility of the American Indian who saw strangers coming to America and taking their land and pushing them aside created a constant threatening environment.
Today we hop on an airplane and travel anywhere we want in a short time. Our ancestors took months and years to migrate from the eastern United States near Philadelphia to central Pennsylvania sometimes setting up households along the way and then finding that the land wasn’t suitable, the environment of hostility was too much to bear or just the dream of finding a bigger and better place to raise a family was what would drive them to keep moving.
I, too, have had dreams of finding my roots. I keep traveling in hopes of finding some part of my German heritage.
In 1972 I made my first trip to Europe. The moment my feet hit the soil of Germany, I knew I belonged to this ethnic group. The terrain of Germany, the gently rolling hills and mountains is similar to Pennsylvania. The trees with their hardwoods of oak and maple along with the pines and fruit trees of Pennsylvania are reminiscent of Germany.
And the food -- it was so similar to what I grew up eating as a child. The pork dishes, the sweet and sour sauces, the bacon dressings on lettuce, the shoofly pies, the soups, the smearcase (cottage cheese), the applebutter, the schnitz (apple slices), the cucumbers and onions in cream, the pan fried steak, porkchops, chicken and noodles, mashed potatoes and stuffing are all reminiscent of Germany. I could go on and on.
Little did I realize as a child how the German traditions of cooking survived 250 years of being passed down from generation to generation. Never did I realize that my wife and I would be cooking those same dishes as my mother and her mother and our great grandmothers down through the years.
To be of German heritage, you need to love life, love to eat, love to work hard, love to play hard and most importantly love your family above all else except your God. I can see from the fine friends and relatives that we have that we are truly from German descent.
The majority of my ancestors had come from Germany. To this day I have not been able to track one of them down to a specific town in Germany.
For my wife, Sandy, it was a little easier. With her family, the Burket family of central Pennsylvania, it all started over 250 years ago when a young family from the Swabian region of Germany decided to go to America to find a better life for their family.
As part of our never ending search for our roots and information on our ancestors, we had researched many different libraries, family notes and every other possible avenue of information on the Burket family of Bedford County, PA.
As a matter of fact, other people had traced the Burket/Burkett/Burkhardt families back to Herbrechtingen, Germany and books were even written on it, but apparently none had actually made a connection with some living distant relatives like we had.
This story actually begins in 1740 when my wife, Sandy Burket Allison’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Johan Dedrick Burcket and his wife, Polly Kountz along with their eight month old son, Jacob Burcket arrived in the British Colonies on the ship called “Loyal Judith” and landed in Philadelphia, PA on November 25, 1740 or approximately 258 years ago.
Johan Dedrick and Polly were of Prussian (Germany) ancestry and moved to the Netherlands with plans to come to America. For their eight month old son to survive this very hard trip to America was an obstacle in itself.
Johan’s father, Johannes Burcket was the last link to a small town called Herbrechtingen, Germany. Johannes was one of nine children to his father and mother Andreas and Margaretha (Schneider) Burckhardt. He was born on Sept. 17, 1708 in Herbrechtingen. His father later remarried after his mother’s death and there were three more children. Johannes left there leaving behind a family of 11 of his brothers and sisters most of whom stayed in the small town of Herbrechtingen, Germany. Later, Johannes married a French maiden, Katrina Hebert. Apparently they settled in the German area of Prussia where their only son, Johan Dedrick Burcket was born.
From this ancestry, Jacob Burcket who was eight months old at the time of emigrating to America is the descendant where we traced our roots. While the family initially settled in Philadelphia, Jacob then married Barbara Fisher, supposedly the Quaker daughter of the mayor of Philadelphia. Jacob and Barbara Fisher Burcket later moved to Bedford County, PA in Union township near a small town called Queen, PA where my wife grew up, and where her ancestors settled and this began the growth of the Burket family from central Pennsylvania and also across America as we now know it.
Jacob and Barbara Fisher Burcket along with other members of the family are buried in a small family cemetery on the original farm land where they settled. While this cemetery has not been maintained, it can be visibly seem during the fall and winter months when the leaves have fallen from the trees.
While there were other Burkhardts to come to America, from this humble beginning of Johan and Polly Burcket came a large amount of Burkets throughout the United States. They had a total of ten children including their eldest Jacob Burcket of whom my wife, Sandy, is a direct descendent.
Johan Dedrick’s parents, Johannes Burcket and Katrina Hebert Burcket also arrived in the British Colonies 27 years later than their son, daughter-in-law and grandson. They arrived in Philadelphia on October 6, 1767 on the ship, Hamilton.
While Jacob Burket stayed in America, his parents Johan and Polly Burcket returned to their German homeland in their later years, because Polly had come from a well-to-do family and had a difficult time adjusting to the hardship of the American colonies.
On one of our trips to Europe in 1997, we decided to visit the small town of Herbrechtingen , Germany where the Burket family originated. Little did we realize that our connection to Herbrechtingen would be more than visiting a small church where Sandy’s ancestor’s were christened.
While we normally attend church on a regular basis, we are Protestants by faith. However, arriving in Rome, Italy on the day before Good Friday, 1997 had a different influence with the Catholic faith all around us.
Normally we even try to attend church when we travel overseas. But this trip was even more overwhelming with Good Friday and Easter in the middle of our trip.
On Thursday we visited the Vatican. On Friday, we attended Good Friday Mass at the Roman Coliseum with the Pope. Saturday, we arrived in Venice and went to St. Mark’s Church in Venice.
On Easter Sunday we attended Mass before leaving Venice and then went on to Salzburg, Austria. Easter Monday we visited various churches in Salzburg including the one where the “Sound of Music” wedding and hideout scenes were filmed. We then went to Mass in another church in Salzburg.
We had left Salzburg, Austria by train one Tuesday morning in April, 1997 and was actually heading for Paris, France to catch a flight to Scotland. But along the way on planning our trip, we decided to go out of our way and visit Herbrechtingen, Germany just to see the church and check out the cemetery where some of Johannes Burcket and his ancestors were christened, married and buried. We had no connection to any living people from this town, nor did we expect to find any.
After Salzburg, we stopped in Munich for the afternoon and then stayed in Ulm, Germany which was about one hour west of Munich. At this point we stayed overnight in Ulm and would catch a local train to Herbrectingen the next morning. This trip was about 35 minutes through other small towns.
We arrived in the small town of Herbrechtingen at approximately 9 am two days after Easter. As we stepped off the train, my first reaction was to talk to the stationmaster at the train station. Unfortunately he did not speak English. It was then that I showed him a copy of the church records from the Evangelistic Church Fellowship of Herbrechtingen.
He could only motion to go down the road into town. There were six of us traveling together at the time. Six Americans who could not speak German relying on a gut feeling that we would find something from the Burket heritage to talk about on our trip home.
The walk from the train station seemed like a long one, but in reality was only about 1 mile. When we appeared to end up in a residential area by mistake and no church in site, we saw an older lady walking towards us. Again in English we asked if she spoke English and she said “No.” Again we showed the church records and the family name Burkhardt. She motioned for us to follow her. About a minute later, this lady is knocking on a house door and a man opened the upstairs window. They communicated in German and she mentioned “Burkhardt family from America.”
This man then motioned to come into his house. We went upstairs and met Georg Burkhardt. Georg could not speak one word of English, and we could not speak German.
Finally after ten minutes of frustration trying to talk to each other, Georg called his daughter on the phone who lived about 1 ½ hours away. In her broken English she told us that the church we were looking for was down the road in the middle of town. We then said farewell to Georg and headed further into town.
While the walk into town from the train station was only 1 to 1 ½ miles, it seemed like an eternity since we didn’t know where we were going. I then decided to go into a local bank and try to ask for directions to the local church. The lady bank teller told me in broken English that I should go across the street to the Rathaus or City Hall and perhaps they could help me.
Later we found out that the town of Herbrechtingen is a quaint, small town of approximately 12,000 people. The cleanliness of the town, the beautiful flowers and gardens and the warm hospitality of its people is very typical of the German culture.
There at City Hall was a clerk talking to a lady on my side of the counter. When I asked if they spoke English, they both shrugged their shoulders and said “No”. I then took the christening records and the name of the church and pointed to it. The lady on my side of the counter wanted to help. She motioned for me to follow her.
We then went outside where all six of us congregated around her. She attempted to point and started to walk toward where the church was. Then I pointed to the name Burkhardt/Burkett/Burket. She took one look at it and gasped and said “Burkhardt!!. I’m Burkhardt!”
We looked at each other in amazement. Here possibly was a living relative of Sandy’s from Germany. I pointed at Sandy and said, “She’s a Burkhardt.”
The lady yelled “Cousin from America!!” and started hugging Sandy. That day was the beginning of a wonderful relationship for Sandy and her German cousins.
The lady’s name was Inge Schiller. She could only say, “Moment.” and left. She came back and said “Thomas comes.” In about 5 minutes Thomas Schiller, her son, came on a bicycle with his German-English dictionary.
Inge and Thomas took us on a tour of their quaint and lovely little town of Herbrechtingen, Germany. She has a Volkswagen Beetle that held four people. Her sons call it her “Holy Beetle”. We sent Inge, my wife, Sandy, my sister, Sally and her friend Carol in the Volkswagen. Our children, Brian and Amy , Thomas and I walked the town.
After 1-2 hours of seeing the church, the monastery, the Women of Stone, the museum and the other sights in town, we asked Inge and Thomas to lunch. Thomas talked to his mother in German and then said, “No, my mother wants you to come to our house.”
Where in America would a lady and son take in six total strangers that they had never seen before and who could not talk their language?
It was two days after Easter and Inge had plenty of baked goods from Easter Sunday. She began carrying pies or torts from her basement. She also served apple juice that is made at their home each fall. We enjoyed the food and stayed another hour or two.
Soon it was time to leave to go back to the train. Inge and Thomas walked backed with us. When the train came, Inge cried and said, “You must come back and stay longer and learn to speak German”.
Since that time letters have been going back and forth to Germany as well as many packages of gifts from us to the Schiller family and many from the Schiller family to us. It has been a great relationship and friendship.
This year in 1998, we decided to go back to Europe to take our son, Brian back to Scotland to visit college friends that he had met while studying there in 1996-1997. Once again we decided to spend several days in Herbrechtingen.
After corresponding back and forth, we asked for them to find a hotel for us in Herbrectingen. Inge responded with an emphatic “No, you are staying at our house!
We reluctantly agreed after we found out that there was a second house on their property which had been Inge’s parents before they died.
When we arrived in Herbrechtingen on Tuesday, we were greeted at the train station by Inge, Helmut, her husband, Joachim, their oldest son and Thomas.
Again it was like meeting long lost relatives. Off we went to their house at 1 PM in the afternoon. Then the feast of feasts began with Inge’s cooking. It started with Fladdlesuppe or beef broth with paper thin pancakes in it. It was excellent.
Next a huge platter of spatzle (somewhat like our noodles) was on the table along with a huge pan of pieces of pork medallions with mushrooms in a reddish Paprika sauce or gravy. This was to go over the Spatzle. Next another pan with a yellowish color was on the table. This was pieces of turkey with mushrooms done in a curry sauce to be put over the Spatzle.
There was carrot salad, cucumber and onion salad, tomato salad, lettuce salad, other vegetables, fresh strawberries and ice cream, plum pie, apple and raisin pie, apple pie, strawberries with fresh whipped cream, pound cake, Swabian bread and rolls, apple juice, beer, wine and more.
This was one meal that continued from 1 PM until about 4 PM. It was wonderful. As a matter of fact, it was excellent. Never before in my 25 times to Germany had I experienced such good food.
The language barrier had improved. Inge’s two sons spoke fluent English. Inge and Helmut had learned some English and could speak and understand some of the conversation. Sandy and I had a partial recall from our younger days when she took four years of German and I used to speak and understand it OK from my trips abroad.
The next day we visited Heidenheim where a castle sits on the hill overlooking the town. We returned to their house and then Inge served platters of meat and cheese, beer, wine and juices at 9 PM. This was followed by more desserts and we finally stopped eating at midnight and then fell into down feather beds.
At one point we all stood around her kitchen stove and tried to learn the details of some of her recipes such as spatzle and the other great dishes that Inge had prepared for us. My handwritten notes plus a spatzle maker and several cookbooks that they purchased for us with both the German and English translations have been a big help. It will take considerable practice to even come close to Inge’s great cooking on just a few of her recipes.
On Wednesday, we had a breakfast of meat, cheeses, rolls, juice, coffee, teas, etc. Then we went by car to the Steiff teddy bear factory approximately 4 miles from their home. Stieff bears are very expensive bears with a button tag in their ear.
We visited the museum and some shops and then returned to Herbrechtingen where we stopped once again at the church office and more food was picked up by Helmut for our trip to Rothenburg, a walled medieval town in Germany where the entire town was walled in the middle ages by the Romans.
A great day of shopping, touring and eating in Rothenburg was highlighted by the trip back to Herbrechtingen where Inge had arranged a Burkhardt family reunion for Sandy and her German relatives. It was held at the town museum, a building filled with artifacts and antiques going back 300-400 years.
Each relative brought some food, some drinks and Sandy met other relatives. Besides Inge, Helmut, Joachim and Thomas, there were: William and his wife, Gisela Burkhardt, George Burkhardt, Gerda, Inge, Ulrike and Karin and her husband, Jurgen. All these people were of Burkhardt descent.
One relative, William Burkhardt told me that they never knew that they had relatives in America until last year when we first went to Herbrechtingen. He told me that Inge Schiller told them about the Americans coming to Herbrechtingen and that they were related. He said they told Inge, “No way. We don’t have relatives in America”. She showed them the christening records for the church in their town that we had left with her. After checking out the records, they did discover that one brother, Johan Dedrick Burket had come to America and that Sandy and these Burkhardts in Herbrechtingen were indeed related.
Family trees were compared from Sandy’s files from America along with the Burkhardt family trees from Germany.
This was the First German/American Burkhardt/Burket family reunion. However, we plan to have many more over the years. We are looking forward to having them come to America to visit us and offer what we have here in America for them to enjoy. The standards which they set for hospitality will be most difficult to achieve. We were treated like royalty.
The memories are wonderful. Having found family roots and relatives for Sandy was a gift from above. We think that because of attending all the church masses and visiting churches that Easter weekend, someone answered a prayer to get us to the right place on the street in that small German town.
The new relationship with our German cousins is something that money and time could not buy. You might spend a fortune and a lifetime tracking down relatives and never find what we found in the small town of Herbrechtingen. Sandy now has something that no one can take away from her—German family roots and relatives to go with it.
Now if I could just find some of mine!
Click on any photo in this collage for a larger view!