The Back Rhodes of Our Genealogy

We hope you find your missing links among ours

By Dr. Donald C. Rhoads
22 Widgeon Rd.,

, MA


Origin of the Mystery:


        As a child, ones concept of family is limited to the familiar: mom, dad, siblings, grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles and cousins.  That there may be a longer and more complex family history does not enter into the young mind or, if it does, it appears to be too remote and complicated to engender much interest.   Even so, at a young age of perhaps 12 or so, I remember grandpa Rhoads telling me that the original family name was NOT Rhoads but rather Roth and that the early history of the family was someplace in Pennsylvania.   This was very interesting to me---to think that my family name was, in fact, inaccurate!  Why was it changed?  Who were the Roths?  When did it change?  This was my first exposure to this interesting mystery however, grandpa Rhoads could not supply more detailed information and so the mystery has prevailed with little or no illumination until recently.




          The ability to unlock the mystery is related to two events.  First, uncle Mervin sent me a partial genealogy of the Rhoads family that Mrs. Judi Swanson of 10011 Bladensburg, Rd., Ottumwa, IA. 52501 had prepared including newspaper articles from the Fremont Gazette, Fremont, Iowa detailing the life of Albert John Rhoads, grandpa John Rhoads' father or my great grandfather (hereafter called "A.J." the first-----my dad was "A.J." the second, i.e. Alton Jennings).  Judi also sent me a write-up prepared by Charles T. Raber of Allentown, PA. .on the occasion of the "First Reunion of the Alexander R. Roth Family" held in Egypt Memorial Park, Egypt, PA. on July 4th, 1953.   The 1953 document provides insight into our Swiss heritage and the fact that the name change from Roth to Rhoads apparently took place twice! 


          The second opportunity took place during two business trips from Cape Cod to Connecticut (four hours each way) with a colleague Dr. James Blake.  During the somewhat boring ride, we soon ran out of science and business talk and turned to our respective personal interests. During these rides I found out that Dr. Blake ("Jim") was deeply into genealogy, especially 19th century civil war veterans, families, and widows.   In passing, I gave him the name of Reuben Roth of Pennsylvania (all that I knew at that time as provided by Judi Swanson's research) and he said he would search via Ancestor.com.  He called me a few days later and said that he had hit pay dirt!  He supplied me with reams of data on Roth families of Pennsylvania including Reuben, his wife, children and parents back to the late 18th century.   Jim gave me forms that would allow me to obtain, from the National Archives, both the military record of Reuben and the pension application of his widow Mary and her four living sons (the fifth died at the age of 10).   The pension applications were especially informative as they consist of affidavits from friends and neighbors testifying, under oath, about family relationships, dates of birth, hometown, etc..   An important KEY to the whole history was government documentation surrounding Reuben Roth. This is one of the few times that bureaucracy works in our favor.


                   In retrospect, it is clear that prior to the "Information Age" grandpa Rhoads would have had a difficult time tracking down this family mystery.  Now we have the tools and the extensive database to efficiently pursue and solve such family mysteries.  I do not intend here to produce a comprehensive family history; rather I will focus on tracking the name change from Roth to Rhoads.  It does serve, however, as a good start for an extended and more comprehensive genealogy that you may wish to pursue on your own (?).  I have appended a family tree so that you can follow the ancestral line through time and place.


          The following text is a summary of genealogical search based on military records, pension affidavits, Judi Swanson's genealogical work including newspaper clippings from the Fremont Gazette, data supplied by Ancestry.com, Rootsweb.com, Genealogy.com, and Familysearch.org   The national census of 1850 was also helpful.  Relevant documentation from primary historical sources is appended to this text.




          The military record of Reuben Roth is short as he died six months after being drafted into Co. "G" of the 176 Pennsylvania Regiment (Infantry).  He was drafted into duty in Lehigh Co. on October 16, 1862 at the age of 37 years.  At that time he and his wife Mary were residents of South Whitehall, Pa.   If you look this up on a map, it is immediately west of Allentown and Bethlehem, PA. The military record consists of Muster Roles; i.e. periodic inventories of men in the company regarding their status (present, absent, sick, wounded, or mustered out).   The dates that he is reported are Nov. 7 to Dec. 31, 1882---January & February 1863---March and April 1863.  The April 18th Muster indicated that he had died in General Hospital #5 in Beaufort, South Carolina on April 17th, 1863.   The cause of death as documented by the Surgeon General's Office was Tebris (?) congestion, apparently a respiratory disease that was rampant in civil war encampments (called camp cough).  He is buried in the National Cemetery in Beaufort, S.C. as recorded in the Roll of Honor: Civil War Soldiers.  A photograph of his grave is appended to this report and was provided to me by Judi Swanson who obtained it from the Beaufort National Cemetery, 1601 Boundary Street, Beaufort, S.C. 29902.


The history of the 176th Regiment indicates that they were part of a contingent serving under General Foster who was sent to reinforce the Union Army at Charleston.  They then set sail for Hilton Head on the fifth of February.  This unit did not see any hostile operations and therefore we can assume that Reuben succumbed to "Camp Disease" on the trip south.  Total casualties in this regiment were 44---all related to disease.





          Reuben Roth, in the census rolls of 1850 (August) was living with nine other Roths in the household of George and Elizabeth Roth.  Reuben was then 25 years old and is listed as a tailor.   He married Mary Sevan  (a French name??)  soon after this census record in the winter of 1850 and began a family in South Whitehall, Lehigh Co., PA.. .  In the years between 1850 and 1863 Reuben and Mary had five sons.  The death of Reuben must have been a blow to the family with 5 young boys to raise.  Oscar was born in 1862 and so was an infant at the time.  Oliver was only 4, William Francis was 7, Joseph was 9, and Albert (A.J.) was 12.  It was likely that A.J. and Joe had to pick-up many of the chores for Mary.   Because Mary was a widow of the War of Rebellion, she qualified for a pension as did her sons.   The pension records documenting her applicability are particularly insightful and a few of them are appended to this text.  Numerous affidavits by her neighbors, clergy, and friends validate her applicability.  Her pension started retroactively on April 17th, 1863 at $8/mo. and $2/mo. For each of her children (Albert, Joe, William, Oliver, and Oscar).   So, a total of $18/mo was what she received.   Interestingly, the affidavits that she signed as applicant were marked with her "X" mark and so she could not write (and probably could not read).  I am intrigued by Mary's maiden name (Sevan) but cannot find her line in my research to date.


          The affidavit dated May 29th, 1863 is particularly interesting as one of the witnesses was a WALTER P. RHOADS of North Whitehall, PA.  He was obviously well known to the family and his name reappears on a later affidavit dated July 24, 1869 (see below).


          In 1867, Mary Roth was remarried to a John Kratzer.  They apparently lived in Catasauqua Co., PA. at that time.  In remarrying she lost her pension.  John Kratzer died in 1894 and Mary found it necessary to reapply for pension.  The reapplication (Nov. 8, 1902) required filing more affidavits with the Pension Office.   She subsequently went back on pension with "inflation" raises of $12/mo (Nov. 1902) and  $20/mo (Sept. 1916).  Mary Roth died in 1919 at the age of 91 and so her pension stopped at that time.  In fact, her son Oscar drafted the notice of death and sent it to the Bureau of Pensions from Catasauqua on Nov. 14, 1919


          Several court documents drafted on July 24th, 1869 assigned guardianships to the Roth children.  WALTER P. RHOADS was given guardianship of Joseph P. Roth.  Charles Ringer was appointed guardian of both Oscar and Oliver Roth and Phaon Troxell was appointed guardian of Albert J. Roth.  William Francis died at the age of 10 in 1866 (drowned in the river) and so did not figure into the guardianship assignments.






          We know from the guardianship documents that, as of July 24th, 1869, A.J. was still legally known as a Roth.  A short history of A.J., published in the Fremont Gazette, says that he left Lehigh Co., Pa. To go west at the age of 17 (this would be in 1868).  At that time he was no longer receiving a pension as these were limited to children up to 16 years of age and so he had incentive to seek his own fortunes in the west.   He apparently went to Colfax (?) Indiana   for a time and there met and married Miss Susannah McNett (an English surname) in 1872.   They were married as Mr. and Mrs. A.J. Rhoads so the name change occurred between 1869 and 1872.  The census of 1880 shows the Rhoads' household consisting of Albert (28), Susan (25), and three sons: Francis (7), David (3), and William (6 mo.).  They lived in Colfax, Clinton Co., Indiana.  A.J. was listed as a miller and Susan as a housewife.  They subsequently had a total of 11 children—what a revelation, as I didn't know that grandpa Rhoads even had brothers and sisters!


In addition to the surname change, religious affiliations also shifted. A.J. was confirmed in the German Lutheran Church as a child in Pennsylvania but changed his affiliation to the Methodist Episcopal Church in Colfax, Ind. and subsequently to the Methodist Church when he settled in Fremont Iowa. Much of the "Rhoads" family history revolves around Fremont where A.J. was a very successful businessman, served actively in the Methodist Church, and became mayor of Fremont.


          Where did the name RHOADS come from??  It seems to me that the most likely explanation was that he adopted the surname of Walter P. Rhoads, a Roth family friend.  His name appears and reappears as a witness in affidavits and declarations drawn up for Mary and the boys to receive pension payments.  This is the same W.P. Rhoads who was appointed the guardian of  A.J.'s brother, Joseph Peter Roth.  Of the four Roth brothers alive at this time, A.J. was the only one to drop the Roth surname and assume the Rhoads name.  I can find no evidence that this change was ever legal, i.e. recorded as an official name change.  The reason for the change in the surname is still a mystery and may never be known.  Perhaps W.P. Rhoads served as a mentor to the fatherless A.J. (?).   It is clear that A.J. held Walter P. Rhoads in high esteem as he named one of his sons after him (i.e. Walter Parker Rhoads  (1882-1972)).  As you read on you will see that Walter P. Rhoads may well have descended from the Roth "root stock" because the names of Roth and Rhoads have changed back and forth from the early 1700's to late 1800's.


An Even Earlier Roth to Rhoads Name Change !:


Up to this point in my search, I thought the mystery was solved----wrong!   I sent the results of my initial discovery to Judi Swanson and she informed me that she had a document that indicated that the Roth to Rhoads change had occurred much earlier than "A.J's" metamorphosis.   According to Charles T. Raber's 1853 history of the Roth family (focused on Reuben's brother Daniel and descendents), the original family name of Roth can be traced back to Switzerland, specifically Basil.  They were Burgomeisters and Knights (of Jerusalem) in the years 1372, 1444, and 1446.   The first immigrant to the New World was the Daniel Roth family in 1733 on the ship "Hope" from Rotterdam to Philadelphia.   A son, Peter Roth, was born in 1737 in Whitehall Township and was educated among the Quakers and "was persuaded by them to change his name from Roth to Rhoads".   The reason for this is unknown but perhaps the Germanic name of Roth had the connotation of a Lutheran allegiance (??).   Peter Roth/Rhoads turned out to be a BIG DEAL in Lehigh Co, PA as he was the President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas and of the Quarter Session for Northampton Co, and was appointed in 1812 as Associate Judge of Lehigh Co.  He was elected the first mayor of Allentown when it was incorporated.  The name of Judge Rhoads was well known throughout a major area of eastern Pennsylvania.  


Back to Roth !:


Wait---the tale even gets stranger!    If this was the entire story, the whole ancestral line from Judge Peter onward would have carried the name of Rhoads but it reverted back to Roth within two generations.   Judge Peter (Roth) Rhoads had a son John who married Magdalena Groff (Germanic surname).  They had a daughter named Maria Rhoads who, as we know, was a genetic Roth.  Well, she married back into the Roth family (her husband was John Henry Roth).  They were hopefully "kissing cousins".  They had 10 children (all named Roth).  One of those children was Reuben Roth, the father of "A.J." who was the one who elected to change his name back to Rhoads!  


          So, our genetic line is definitely German speaking Swiss with additions of German, English (and perhaps French if Mary Sevan is, in fact of French derivation??) through the female lines; The Roths were homesteaders in eastern Pennsylvania in the area of Whitehall/Allentown. Religious affiliations ranged from Lutheran, Quaker, to Methodist.  The genetic family name is ROTH!  German was spoken in the home.  So, if you want to do more genealogical work on other branches of the family you will have to untangle the Roth-Rhoads name change (mid 1700's) back to Roth  (1820's) and back again to Rhoads (ca. 1870).  Today, there are a TON of Roth families in the Lehigh Co. phone book with a lesser number of Rhoads entries. Many of our "roots" relatives are buried in Mickley's Cemetery.   Anyone anticipating a trip to Switzerland would do the family a great service if you would help document the Basil connection.  We also need to determine the old world origin of Mary's surname (Sevan).


Hope you enjoyed this little genealogical adventure as much as I enjoyed (partially) solving the mystery.   I am too old to anticipate changing names but if I were younger, I would be tempted to change my legal surname to Roth-Rhoads to accurately reflect the ancestral line.


Donald C. Rhoads,


Great-great grandson of Reuben Roth

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