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Wm J Dietrich's Fictional Genealogy

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William J Dietrich and his fictional genealogy

William J. Dietrich (WJD) (1875-1950) was one of the editors of "History of Lehigh county, Pennsylvania, and a genealogical and biographical record of its families" (Roberts 1914), and evidently wrote the Dietrich section of this work (ibid, vol II pp 253 ff). He begins with a fable tracing the origin of several migrant Dietrich families to Wilhelm Emanuel Dietrich (1680-1780), citing an entry in a 19th century manual of German coats-of-arms (Wappen) for Baden nobility:

Dietrich. (Taf. 56.) Kaiser Leopold I. erhob Schloss Hirschingen den 15. Oktober 1700, den Johann Peter Dietrich und seine beiden Söhne Felix Ernst und Wilhelm Emanuel zu Lehen und Wappengenossen, eine Urkunde, die später, wie in so vielen ähnlichen Fällenals Adelsdiplom angesehen wurde.
  Aus dieser Familie trat Ernst v. D., geh. 1771 zu St. Goar aus hessischen Diensten 1803 als Hauptmann in badische Dienste, zeichnete sich als Militär vortheilhaft aus und starb den 10. Mai 1816 als Obrist a. D. zu Durlach.
  Wappen: b. In jeder der 4 Ecken ein g. Stern in der Mitte aber ein schräges r. Quadrat mit den Winkelpunkten jedesmal die Schildesränder berührend, darin auf gr. Dreiberg ein spanisches s. Kreuz.
  Kleinod: s. r. b. g. Wulst, mit 5 Pfauenfedern besteckt, deren mittelste mit 4 g. Sternen belegt ist. (von Grass 1878, pp 95-96, fig 56)

WJD translates this in part as:

Kaiser Leopold I., on Oct. 15, 1700, elevated the castle Hirschingen, belonging to Johann Peter Dietrich and his two sons, Felix Ernst and Wilhelm Emanuel, from the feudal service to the same amonal bearing as himself, a testimonial of merit, which in later days, as in many cases of like nature, was regarded as an evidence of the highest nobility. ...
  The arms consist of an escutcheon, 'azure' (blue); in each corner of which is a star, 'or' (golden): in the middle of the escutcheon is a lozenge, 'gules' (red), the corners of the lozenge touching the borders of the escutcheon; in the lowest angle of the lozenge a trimount surmounted by a Spanish cross, 'argent' (silver).
  Ornaments: The escutcheon, is surmounted by a helmet or casque, 'argent' (silver), overhung by leaves, on the right ‘gules' and ‘argent' (red and silver), on the left 'azure’ and ‘argent’ (blue and silver), and with a crest into which are inserted five peacock feathers, 'verd' (green), the middle feather being inlaid with five stars, 'or’ (gold). (Roberts, p 253)

He then embellishes this account by adding birth and death dates, relocating castle Hirschingen from Baden to Dresden, and endowing Wilhelm with "many sons," five by name: Casper (born 1710), Elias (1713), Jacob (1718), Johann (1720), and Philip (1725). WJD then asserts that the last four -- as well as three sons of Casper -- migrated to America at various times between 1739 and 1767, and identifies them with actual American immigrants. Jacob and Johann disappear from the record after migration, but Elias, Philip, and two sons of "Casper" (Johannes and Adam) all have numerous descendants (WJD was a descendant of Adam).

There are major problems with this tale, and much of it appears to have been invented by WJD out of thin air. WJD leaves clues that he didn't expect it to be taken seriously by omitting place names and other details. In one important respect, however, the fable is definitely not an amusing, harmless hoax: WJD has mangled the genealogy of Elias -- purportedly the second son of Wilhelm -- almost beyond recognition. The origins of Elias (actually born in 1701, not 1713) have been traced to the Neckar valley just north of Stuttgart (E. Dietterick, private communication) -- nowhere near Dresden -- and among the children identified by WJD only Elias' youngest daughter (Elizabeth) Christina (1746-?) and youngest son Johann Jacob (1749-1814) fully correspond to children. WJD gives the correct name and year of birth for Elias' oldest son Johann Elias (b. 1738), but most other details, including a complicated account of the migration of Elias and his children to America, are pure fiction. Elias came to America with his wife and three or four children in 1744 (WJD says he came alone), and settled in Northampton county, PA. WJD replaces two actual children of Elias -- Judith (b. 1735) and Johannes (1741) -- with fictitious ones -- Georg Hans (1742) and Adam Lorentz (1743). (Georg Hans Diettrich and Adam Lorentz Dieterich are the names of actual immigrants who arrived in America in 1752 and 1755, respectively, but they were definitely not sons of Elias.) For more details about Elias and his family see his Wikitree profile Elias Dieterich (1701-1759).

WJD also mangled the genealogy of his own migrant ancestors, although not as badly as he did for Elias. WJD claimed that Johann Adam Dietrich (1740-1817) was the son of a fictitious Casper (see above), and that he migrated to America in 1767 with his wife and two sons. In fact, Adam was the son of Johann Adam Dietrich Sr (abt 1710-abt 1775), who migrated in 1751 from Wolfskirchen, Alsace, along with his family including Adam Jr. The younger Adam's first four children were baptized in Berks PA before 1767 -- WJD should have known this, as well as the relationship of father and son. Assigning Adam Jr a fictitious father (Casper) was an egregious mistake.

Genesis of the fable about Dietrich origins and migrations

A second mangled genealogy for the fictitious Elias Dietrich (b. 1713), similar to that in Roberts (loc cit), was supposedly found in a Bible originally owned by Philip Dietrich (1806-1881), a great great grandson of the historic Elias (b. 1701). Written in German script, this manuscript agrees that Elias was a son of Wilhelm Emanul [sic] (b. 1680), with similar names and dates of Elias' sons and grandchildren, but omits his brothers and the convoluted story involving multiple Dietrich migrations to America. (Michigan D.A.R. 1957 pp 89-90)

A plausible hyphothesis is that Philip's family inherited a garbled version of their Dietrich ancestry, and Philip -- or possibly dau Cordelia Ann (Dietrich) Wilde (1834-1911) who inherited his Bible -- undertook research to determine their origins. Key elements common to the WJD fable include descent from Wilhelm Emanuel Dietrich (b 1680), and spurious details about Elias (b 1713 in Dresden) including names of his fictitious wives and children. This clearly involved some diligent research, since some of the names -- the "knight" Wilhelm Emanuel Dietrich, the migrants Georg Hans and Adam Lorentz Dietrich, etc. -- were drawn from already published material. WJD probably saw a version of this research by Philip's family specific to Elias and his descendants, and expanded it to include descendants of Adam Dietrich Sr (b abt 1710) and others as well.

WJD was apparently employed starting in 1906 by J. H. Beers & Co. to collect genealogical material for their "Historical and Biographical Annals of Berks County, PA" (Montgomery 1909). Evidently, he traveled widely in this capacity, and developed more contacts from organizing the Dietrich Family Association in 1903 and subsequent Dietrich reunions held in Kutztown, Berks Co PA in 1904 and 1906. WJD moved to Allentown, Lehigh County, before 1910 and became involved in the publication of the "History of Lehigh County" (Roberts 1914); he was almost certainly the author of the Dietrich article in this book, including the fable about Dietrich origins and migrations. WJD's genealogical activities evidently ceased after 1914, possibly due to pushback from colleagues who recognized the extent to which the fable was fabricated, unsupported by historical records.

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