The first step in our ancestral quest was to identify the major branches of our family tree. While we were waiting for my ex-wife to provide a list of her known ancestors, my daughter and I went to work on the Pellman side of the family. This started off easily enough. My father was John A. Pellman and my mother's maiden name was Violet Joyce Willis. For my daughter's school assignment, we didn't need to research my mother's ancestors, since she was the immigrant ancestor on that side of the family. So we set the Willis side of the family aside for the moment and concentrated our efforts on the Pellmans.
My paternal grandfather was John Guss Pellman and my paternal grandmother was Vivian Grace Jenner. I remembered that my grandmother had believed that she was either descended from Dr. Edward Jenner, the discoverer of smallpox vaccine, or one of his brothers, and I had shared this information during show-and-tell at school many times during my childhood. So we were excited about exploring the Jenner line of our ancestry and documenting this descendancy. My Uncle Bob, who has the memory of an elephant, provided the names of my grandfather's parents, George Frederick Pellman and Mary Victoria Schimmel, and my grandmother's parents, Almond Lewis Jenner and Gabriella Belle Phelps. So, within the first few hours of our quest, we had already identified my daughter's Pellman-side ancestors back to her great-great-grandparents! We now had the surnames of Pellman, Jenner, Phelps, and Schimmel for the major branches of our family tree. And the assignment was going to be a snap! Or so we thought ...
Unfortunately, neither the records nor the memories on my ex-wife's side of the family were as complete as my Uncle's, so we weren't as fortunate with the other half of my daughter's ancestors. We spent a couple of hours a day for several weeks tracking down bogus leads on the Internet, but were never able to trace the other side of the family beyond my daughter's great-grandparents. Two years later, we are only just piecing together some of that information.
So, as far as the assignment went, we were done. We were able to determine from letters and other accounts that the Pellmans, Jenners, Phelpses, and Schimmels had all come to America earlier than my daughter's great-great-grandparents. Since my mother was the only immigrant among the known ancestors, she became the focus of my daughter's written report and oral presentation. And the case could have been closed, had our curiosity not been piqued by what we had learned in the process. Even though the assignment was complete, both my daughter and I still wanted to know who our immigrant ancestors were and when they did come to the U.S.
Many years earlier my cousin, Al Hadad, had done a considerable amount of research into the Pellman and Schimmel families while many of my older aunts and uncles were still alive to provide tales and information about the family's origins. He had managed to trace the Pellmans and Schimmels back one more generation: To William Henry Pellman and his wife Lizzie Meier, and Joseph Schimmel and Mary Margaret Trum. This added another generation and two more surnames to our list, but still didn't produce our immigrant ancestors. It was also the point at which the search took on a whole new level of difficulty. In every branch of the family, the trail simply came to an end with my great-great-grandparents. No one in our family had any records or memories of prior generations, Ancestry.com had no earlier records, nor did Genealogy.com or other online resources, and every government office we contacted gave us the same answer: "Our records don't go back that far."
For a few months, it looked like our journey had come to an end, and all we had to show for our effort and expense was a list of dead-end surnames representing the major branches of our family tree: Pellman, Jenner, Phelps, Schimmel, Meier, and Trum.
I posted inquiries on every genealogy message board I could find online. Occasionally, someone would reply, but usually with information about subsequent generations or additional details about those I had already identified. For months, we found nothing that shed light on previous generations or who had been the first immigrant in one of our major family lines. I was beginning to give up hope of ever solving this mystery.
Our first major breakthrough would come from a divine source ... the Jenner Family Bible!