My family-tree history research revealed a chilling secret

    As a student at La Salle University, I grew to love Philadelphia even though my roots were elsewhere. Little did I know, my heritage was much closer than I thought with my earliest American ancestor arriving in Philadelphia’s Germantown section.

    Taking a community journalism course, I started to walk the streets of Germantown, wondering whether my German ancestors had come these very spots before moving to Reading.

    “What role had my family played in this neighborhood?” I wondered just outside the Wyck House on Germantown Avenue. I was shocked to learn that this very plot of land had once been in my family.

    Remembering some genealogy work my sister had done for our mother, Arlene Wagner, I asked her for a copy of the documents and searched for the word Germantown. What I found was Heinrich Frey, one of the original settlers who, according to legend, may have built Wyck. He happened to be my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

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    The papers said Heinrich Frey was the very first German settler in Pennsylvania, coming to the area before William Penn in 1681. There were stories connecting him with naming Rising Sun Avenue, praising his work as an artisan, naming him the first to get married at the Friends Meetinghouse in Germantown and having him eventually move on to form a religious association in Skippack, Montgomery County, where he was buried with his wife and …

    “Oh no, it can’t be,” I thought.

    The chilling reveal

    Until that moment, I had considered myself disassociated from the horrible crime of human slavery. Yet here it was, the existence of graves proving my ancestors had owned slaves.

    This dark chapter was more than sobering for two reasons: Although its history is mixed, Germantown does have a proud connection to fighting slavery, and African-Americans are the core of the community today.

    “How can I make it up to them?” I wrote in my class journal. “Who do I need to ask [for] forgiveness? If I want to tell my own history, I need to include this painful detail, but I’m still not quite sure how to deal with it.”

    Determined to get the real story, I went to the Germantown Historical Society where I got a folder with Frey’s name on it. Would it confirm my stories or dismiss them as legend?

    Discerning fact from fiction

    It seems that a man named Louis August Wollenweber wrote a book in 1878 called “Two True Comrades” which told a fictional account of Frey’s arrival. This is where the story about naming Rising Sun Avenue was created, along with a pair of fictional letters between Frey and his parents in Germany.

    A generation later, historians confused it for the truth and began to rely on its details for their own work. This makes me question the reliability of any history story ever told. If we are ever to find the truth, we need official documents.

    Thanks to Luther Vernon Frye, another descendant who wrote a book in 1997 about his own family history, I was able to discern some of what is likely to be the non-fictional story.

    Frey was not the first to arrive in Germantown, though he was here quite early. According to passenger lists, Frey was among several families who arrived in 1685 aboard the Francis and Dorothy. Unable to afford the voyage, he worked as an indentured servant for four years under Frankford Company Capt. Gerhardt Hendricks.

    I felt a little better knowing he had been an indentured servant himself, but it might have also made it worse. Since he had lost much of his freedom for a spell, shouldn’t he have been more sympathetic to slaves?

    It was also disappointing to hear that some of the accounts were legendary and this man was not as important as some stories make him seem. After all, it was my claim to fame to be a descendant of the first German in America. Still, it felt good to know the truth.

    The paper trail

    Deeds and marriage licenses confirmed several other things. He was there when Francis Daniel Pastorius, founder of Germantown, drew plots of land in the area for the second time in 1689. Frey received plot 18, purchasing 25 acres of land from Germantown Avenue to Wissahickon Creek and from Walnut Lane to Penn Street.

    A week after learning this, I drove from our campus to the shopping center at Chelten and Wayne. It was surreal to know that this location was once part of my family’s land.

    The Germantown Historical Society also has a photocopy of Heinrich Frey’s marriage license to Anna Catherine Levering. Signed by Pastorius, it may be the first marriage at the new log Meetinghouse in Germantown.

    One of their sons, John, bought the land at 5275 Germantown Ave., former home of the Germantown Chronicle, in 1743. John is buried at the Hood Cemetery, which would explain why it felt to me like sacred ground when our class visited.

    My family’s time in Germantown was short. Frey was here less than a decade before moving to Roxborough. Twenty-five years later, he became one of Skippack’s earliest settlers.

    It was around this time that his youngest daughter, Elizabeth Catherine, was born. In the mid-1800s, her great-great granddaughter Lydia Kauffman married my great-great-great grandfather George Wagner, from whom my mother received her maiden name.

    Germantown was all but gone from the family story until I returned in 2007, but coming back made me more sensitive to the racism all around me. No longer do I fight racism as an outsider to the issue, but as one with a personal story to tell.


    Eric Pettersson graduated from La Salle University this year and returned to his home in Reading where he started a blog, Explore Reading, A Progressive Guide to the City of Reading, PA. This essay first appeared on Germantown Beat, a local student-produced news site. NewsWorks features articles from GermantownBeat on its Northwest Philadelphia community sites and contributes multimedia journalism training to the program.

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