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and Narrative Historiography of Ott Research

 Copyright © 1999-2003 T. Mark James
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Ott families the world over are surprisingly well-researched. In 1879, a millionaire named Martin Ott died in Vienna, intestate and without heirs. In the confused scramble that ensued for the old man’s estate, it became an urgent matter for Otts everywhere to try to prove a link to Martin’s family. This sudden and frenetic interest in genealogy had both good and bad effects. On the good side, Ott families in Germany, the Netherlands, New York, South Carolina, and Louisiana began to collect and record what they knew of their histories and family trees. Much information would have vanished into the ages if the allure of Martin Ott’s wealth had not inspired everyone to write it all down. On the bad side, the desire to find a link to Martin sometimes inspired people to invent wishful stories that supported their claims. Long after Martin’s estate was settled, it has not always been easy to determine which data are factual and which are fantasies. The Siberia Ott story is an excellent example of this.

Prior to Martin Ott’s death, the two main sources for information about the Ott family that immigrated from Switzerland to South Carolina are two sets of parish registers: those of the Oberhasli district, in canton Bern, Switzerland; and those kept by the two Reverends Johann Ulrich Giessendanner in Orangeburgh, South Carolina, from 1737 to 1760. In addition to these primary sources, some tax and emigration records in Switzerland, and land and census records in South Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana, provide some information on our Otts.


Records in Switzerland

Until 1713, the district of Oberhasli, Switzerland, corresponded to a single ecclesiastical parish, named Meiringen after its largest town. In 1713, the upper part of the parish split off to form a separate unit, the parish of Hasli im Grund, or Guttannen. Baptismal registers for Meiringen survive for the years 1571 to 1703 and 1733 to 1875 (when Swiss civil authorities started keeping such records); marriage records exist for the years 1664 to 1753. In the upper parish of Hasli im Grund, both baptismal and marriage registers survive for the entire period from the parish’s formation in 1713 until its dissolution in 1835. There are also some spotty death and confirmation records for both parishes, but these are incomplete because the church authorities did not require them to be kept. My references to these records come through the transcriptions and translations made in 1994 by Swiss genealogist John Hüppi for J. Wayne Hilton.

Swiss emigration and tax records can be found in Albert Bernhardt Faust and Gaius Marcus Brumbaugh, Lists of Swiss Emigrants in the Eighteenth Century to the American Colonies (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1976, two volumes). Melchior of Meiringen does not figure in these records, apparently because he left Switzerland illegally; however, Melchior of Guttannen appears in volume II, page 27.


Early South Carolina Records

Immigrants from Germany and German-speaking Switzerland began to arrive in the Orangeburgh district (then called Edisto), South Carolina, in 1735. In 1737, one Johann Ulrich Giessendanner appeared in this district and began to fulfill the functions of pastor, there being no other clergy in the area. Giessendanner was not an ordained minister of the established Swiss Reformed Church, but was something of a rebel, a member of a religious cult known as the Pietists, or Inspirationists, and came to South Carolina probably to flee persecution. He kept a log of baptisms, marriages, and burials. When he died in 1738, his nephew, also named Johann (or John) Ulrich Giessendanner, took over as pastor and record-keeper. The younger Giessendanner’s religious beliefs were more flexible than were those of his uncle; in 1749, he went to England to become ordained as an Anglican minister. An excellent history of the two Giessendanners can be found on the Web site of Joop Giesendanner.

The parish register continues, first in German and later in English, until October 1760, when Giessendanner’s health apparently failed; he died probably in the spring of 1761. The original is kept in the Caroliniana Library in Columbia, South Carolina; photocopies are available for public use upon request.

There are two published translations/transcriptions of the Giessendanner parish register. The first was included as a major part of Alexander S. Salley, Jr.’s History of Orangeburg County, South Carolina, from its First Settlement to the Close of the Revolutionary War (1898; reprinted by the Genealogical Publishing Company in 1978). Salley himself did not understand German, and so relied, for the German-language entries, upon translations that had been made several decades earlier by a Rev. Bachman and a Dr. Bernheim. This was the only version of the Giessendanner record available to the public until the 1970s. Bachman’s and Bernheim’s translations, however, contained many errors, and Salley compounded them, in his book, by delicately avoiding evidence for the mixed-race heritage of certain prominent South Carolina families.

These shortcomings are partially addressed by the second translation/transcription of the Giessendanner record, which was done by Dr. Lothar Tresp of the University of Georgia, and published in Mary Bondurant Warren’s periodical, The Carolina Genealogist, in several installments between 1971 and 1975. Tresp had a better understanding of the quirky Germanic script used during the Giessendanners’ period. His version corrects many errors made by Bachman, Bernheim and Salley, especially in their rendition of people’s names. Curiously, however, it does not address some of Salley’s deliberate suppression of evidence; in these and other areas it merely copies Salley’s book uncritically.

A third translation and transcription of the Giessendanner record is currently being undertaken by Joop Giesendanner of the Netherlands. Those interested can follow the progress of this project on his Web site. One interesting feature is Joop’s effort to decipher some of the nearly-illegible entries (torn or faded) that neither Salley nor Tresp attempted to read.

The Giessendanner record is the most important, but not the only source of information for Orangeburgh in the eighteenth century. Land records are available at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia, South Carolina, and are indexed in the department’s Combined Alphabetical Index. Clara Langley has also abstracted them in her three-volume work South Carolina Deed Abstracts 1719-1772.

The Department of Archives and History holds the Journal of the South Carolina Council, the chief governing body of the province before the Revolution. Many Journal entries have been abstracted in various issues of the Newsletter of the Orangeburgh German-Swiss Genealogical Society. Brent Holcomb has collected those Journal entries that pertain to land petitions in Petitions for Land from South Carolina Council Journals (1998).

Quitrent records for the years 1772 to 1774 have been published by Theresa M. Hicks and Frances S. Osburn in South Carolina Quitrents 1772-1773-1774 (1998); this represents only a small fraction of the quitrent records held by the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. A few of the earlier quitrent records have been communicated privately by Theresa Hicks to the Orangeburgh German-Swiss Genealogical Society. Mrs. Hicks has also published several ship lists on the Web: “Arrival of Some Ships and Settlers, 1751-1756”.

The Orangeburgh District Courthouse was burned during the Civil War, resulting in the loss of nearly all county-based records up to 1865. This, unfortunately, included wills, probate and other court records. Only a handful of wills and court papers that, by chance, were recorded elsewhere, are available today.


Early Ott Family Records

One of the more positive effects of the attempt to lay claim to Martin Ott’s wealth was to inspire Ott families in South Carolina and Louisiana to gather and compile family information from Bibles and other family records. Several of the children and grandchildren of Jacob Ott (b. 1774), patriarch of the Louisiana Ott clan, took up this challenge; you can see a bit of their story here. At the same time (1880), Siberia Ott, of the New York Ott family, corresponded with Dr. Oliver H. Ott, of the Branchville, South Carolina, family; you can read their correspondence here. This ferment of genealogical activity did not die down after Martin Ott’s estate was settled. Many members of the next generation of Ott descendants extended and published the information that had been gathered around the turn of the twentieth century.

The first of these was Effie Norwood Jones, a descendant of Joel Ott of Louisiana. In 1954 she privately published her book Norwood-Ott and Allied Families, which traces the descendants of Joel Ott. The book also lists Joel’s ancestors; Mrs. Jones assumed that Joel was the legitimate and eldest son of Jacob Ott and Margaret Jackson. She read Salley’s History of Orangeburg County and Faust and Brumbaugh’s Swiss Emigrants in the Eighteenth Century, and deduced from them (correctly) that Joel’s immigrant ancestor was named Melchior Ott, and (incorrectly) that Melchior’s grandson, Jacob Ott (born 1755), was the husband of Margaret Jackson and the patriarch of the Louisiana Otts.

At the same time, Dr. William Oscar Ott and his sister, Ruth Ott Wallis, were compiling the Bible records and other family information that their aunt, Sarepta Ott, had gathered during the heat of the Martin Ott scramble. Dr. Ott died in 1963, but Mrs. Wallis privately published their work two years later under the title Descendants of Jacob Ott of South Carolina and Louisiana. The book contains over two thousand descendants, carrying most lines down into the 1960s. Mrs. Wallis was familiar with Effie Norwood Jones’s book, and even credits her with much of the information about Joel and his descendants. Mrs. Wallis also believed that the Jacob Ott born in 1755 was the one who married Margaret Jackson and moved to Louisiana. However, she differed from Mrs. Jones in treating Joel as an illegitimate half-brother of the other children of Jacob Ott and Margaret Jackson, and in identifying the immigrant ancestor as another Jacob Ott, rather than Melchior. She apparently based this latter belief on the now-lost Charles Ott Bible.

Meanwhile, John Henry Knight, a descendant of the Alabama branch of Otts, was attempting to incorporate his family into the schema of Mrs. Jones, with whose work he was familiar. Unfortunately for the Alabama Otts, John Henry Knight was a rather poor genealogist. He knew that the progenitor of the Alabama line was named Jacob Ott, and so he assumed that this Jacob was the same man who married Margaret Jackson and fathered the Louisiana Otts. It seems never to have occurred to him that these were two different Jacobs. He therefore shifted the birth dates of the Louisiana Otts back into the eighteenth century, in order to leave room for his Alabama line. He then submitted his “findings” to the International Genealogical Index (IGI) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with the result that his bogus birth dates have been found and cited by unsuspecting Ott researchers ever since.

Knight made other errors as well. In Faust and Brumbaugh’s Swiss Emigrants in the Eighteenth Century, he found the reference to Melchior of Guttannen paying an emigration tax; the document cited was the Oberhasli Amtsrechnung that is, the financial accounts of the Oberhasli district. He copied this as “Oberhasle, Amtsrechming”, and somehow thought that “Amtsrechming” was a place name in Switzerland. Again he submitted this gem to the IGI. Someone (perhaps Knight himself) circled the word Amtsrechming and wrote the letters “ZH” (for Zurich) above it, perhaps having found some town with a similar-looking name in the canton of Zurich. And this is the origin of the belief, still widespread among Ott researchers, that the family originated in Zurich. In fact, the Oberhasli district from which both Melchior Otts came is in the canton of Bern.

In South Carolina, Janette Ott Lowery and her husband, Eugene D. Lowery, began in the 1960s and 1970s to collect copies of Bibles, family trees, and old people’s stories, with a view to determining how the Ott families of Bowman and Branchville, South Carolina, descended from the eighteenth century Otts. Mrs. Lowery was the first researcher to go beyond the Giessendanner record, and to notice that there was an extra generation in between the Jacob Ott born in 1755 and the Otts who emigrated to Louisiana. Like all researchers of that period, she was confused by the Alabama Otts, who didn’t seem to fit neatly anywhere. Mrs. Lowery is also probably the source of the theory that Melchior Ott of Meiringen brought his own children and those of his brother, Jacob Ott (born 1703), to South Carolina. This story seems to have been an attempt at reconciling the early South Carolina records, which show the earliest immigrant to have been named Melchior, with the Charles Ott Bible, which (Ruth Ott Wallis thought) named him as Jacob. To my knowledge, the Lowerys never published their research, even privately; but their collections of records have proven invaluable to all subsequent researchers.


Recent Ott Researchers

Leo Ott (1924-2001), a descendant of the Bowman, South Carolina, Otts, spent half a century assembling information on his family. His entire database is available online at his Ott History Web site. There are some errors in the early information from Switzerland; he has linked Ott families from several different towns and countries based solely on similarities of given names and birth dates. However, his database of South Carolina Ott families is extensive and based on census records and family Bibles, and so serves the same function for South Carolina Otts that Ruth Ott Wallis’ book serves for the Louisiana Otts.

Peggy Ann Easterling Miller has performed a similar service for the Otts of Branchville, South Carolina. Mrs.Miller took Janette Ott Lowery’s material and added her own research into Orangeburgh land and census records, along with some notes from various other genealogists which she found in the Calhoun County Museum in St. Matthews, South Carolina. She put these together into three books, all privately published, only two of which I’ve seen: The Ott Family of Orangeburg District (1985) and Otts in America (1993). The latter book, in spite of its title, deals mainly with the South Carolina Otts and their offshoots. It contains some scattered references to other Ott families in the United States, but Mrs. Miller does not attempt (wisely, in my opinion) to link them all together. Both books have a wealth of information, not only on the Branchville Otts but also on those of Bowman, South Carolina, and Ott families in Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama. Like Mrs. Lowery, she assumed that both the Alabama and Louisiana clans were descended from the same Jacob Ott, and that there was only one immigrant named Melchior Ott.

The first Ott researcher to take seriously the idea that there were two immigrants named Melchior Ott was J. Wayne Hilton. He went to Switzerland in 1994, partly because he recognized some of the errors in John Henry Knight’s IGI submissions from that country, and engaged the services of a local genealogist named John Hüppi. Together, they demonstrated convincingly that no single Melchior could account for all of the South Carolina data; and they traced the likely parents of both Melchiors. John Hüppi’s translations of the Oberhasli parish register entries is the single most important resource for understanding the Swiss origins of the South Carolina Otts. Mr. Hilton has not published his findings, but he has generously shared Mr. Hüppi’s transcriptions.

Julian D. Kelly has written, but (to my knowledge) never published, an article entitled “Otts of Orangeburg, South Carolina: The Early Generations” (1994). He uses Wayne Hilton’s material and also evidence from the Giessendanner record, land, census, and Revolutionary War records to put together a brief outline of the two families of the immigrants named Melchior Ott. Of all the research and publications about the South Carolina Otts, Dr. Kelly’s paper is the first one to attempt a serious historical analysis of the data, and the first to do a proper job of citing his sources. The Web site that you are now reading is largely an effort to expand on Dr. Kelly’s excellent paper, and to connect the first two generations that he outlined to the later families in South Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana.

In addition to Mr. Hilton and Dr. Kelly, there are several Ott researchers presently active. Credit is due to Joyce Bradley for first determining the age of the Jacob Ott (born in 1776) who established the Alabama line; her evidence has made it possible to straighten out the knotty problem of the Alabama and Louisiana Otts, and to show that it was the Alabama line, not the Louisiana one (as everyone had thought), that is descended from Melchior Ott of Meiringen and Jacob Ott (born in 1755). Jo Ann Slaten has concentrated on Jacob Ott (born in 1774) and his arrival and early activities in Louisiana, and on his relationship with her ancestor, the elusive Joel Ott. These and several other researchers exchange information on two RootsWeb mailing lists: OTT-L, animated by Cora Ott and Don Ott (two descendants of the Pennsylvania Otts), and ORANGEBURGH_SC-L, the mailing list of the Orangeburgh German-Swiss Genealogical Society, created by the Society’s chief genealogist, Gene Jeffries.


[ Main Ott Page | Melchior Page | Jacob Page | Millionaire Page | Siberia Page | Bibliography | Notes ]


Copyright © 1999-2003 T. Mark James
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Bibliography Page revision 1.04, last updated on 30 September 2003.

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