A Journey “Home” to the Shenandoah River Valley

Today's post was written by guest blogger Joan Smith, a writer friend of mine. Joan has been working on a memoir about the unsolved murder of her mother. Here she shares with us her travels to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia for background research on her family history.

 Home in the Shenandoah River Valley, Virginia. By  Rob Shank  on Flickr.

Home in the Shenandoah River Valley, Virginia. By Rob Shank on Flickr.

By Joan Smith

I can trace my mother’s family line to Philip Peter Becker/Baker from Framersheim, Germany. He arrived in this country in 1743 and settled near an oxbow in the Shenandoah River Valley, Virginia. Philip Peter and his cousin Nicholas were both young and single when they arrived, but within 10 years they each found wives, started families, and helped more neighbors from Framersheim find land in the valley.  

The families recreated the interdependence of their mountain farming community in Germany with diversified crops, livestock, orchards and vineyards, along with crafts such as blacksmithing, masonry, pottery and fine carpentry.  Until 1906, when my great grandparents moved from “the Valley” to the steel mills of Pittsburgh, five generations of the Baker family enjoyed life-long marriages and an average of 10 children. 

I longed to see their valley and the little town that came to be called Strasburg.  I wanted to experience the place that had shaped so many generations of my family. Eventually in spring of 2014, I began making phone calls. Even though I worried about whether to call the Heritage Association, Historical Society or the library’s history room, one phone call revealed many of the same people volunteered at all of them, or put me on to someone else to call.

I made arrangements to visit the history room of the Shenandoah Public library.  Librarians are great allies, interested in digging for details and sharing the hunt. In Virginia, where history is oxygen, every document you can imagine is saved and catalogued. I was touched at how personally they took on my quest. When I bemoaned that a book of the Baker family was no longer in print, the librarian looked it up on Amazon and presto! I was able to order one of the five remaining copies. 

I found an actual handwritten letter from my Great-Great Grandfather Abraham Baker, a blacksmith, to his friend Isaiah Funkhouser, telling him the knife blade was ready for the handle Isaiah had made.

“If you have any more handles to fill send them on before I get too old, I am getting older every day and more feeble and it won’t be many days before I will have to quit making knives.”   

He was 82 and died 7 years later.

In this place I was overwhelmed by so many feelings. I felt at home in the Valley somehow. I became giddy, driving here and there, trying to find everything I had read about: the church my ancestors helped found; the stone house Isaac Baker had built; the location of farms and graveyards, streets and house numbers. I had not planned on the emotional experience and the desire to drink in the very land and sky.

By the end of the day, I was thrilled at the information I had gathered, and frustrated I did not have time to locate Abraham’s farm, a stone house built by his great-grandfather Philip Peter Baker in 1813, the Lutheran Church founded by some of the Bakers, or the graveyards where many Bakers are buried hither and yon.  

As I was driving out of town, I spied a stone house I thought might be Philip Peter’s. I stopped to ask a neighbor, who said the owner had just died, but she gave me his nephew’s name and phone number and suggested I call. I sat staring at the house for several minutes. 

I was not prepared for such profound feelings. Here I was, standing on their land. The soil was saturated with the lives of my family. It was as if something within me started to root into that ground.

Once at home in Maine, I did phone the nephew, whom it turns out had just inherited the first stone house, and was eager to talk about the Baker family. Our 18th century immigrant ancestors were cousins who established farms close to each other, and helped found and build yet another Lutheran church near their farms. 

 On my next visit, I want to walk on the land, sit and meditate on their graves, explore some of the hollows and streams, where they must have played as children or defended as Confederate soldiers. I also will phone a few people I’m told may still remember my great grandparents. I will stay until I run out of questions, or room in my memory to hold their answers.  

 Writer Joan Smith

Writer Joan Smith


Share in the comment section about your search for family history. What surprised you?