Tag Archives: Schmidt

One of Dakota’s Pioneer Mothers

There can be no question that Christina Marie (Schmidt) Nelson was a strong and capable woman.

Born in Skrydstrup, Gram, Haderslev, Denmark on 11 October 1868, to Jens Madsen Schmidt and Anne Bramsen, Christina immigrated to America with her parents and older sister when she was just twenty months of age. A dugout on a homestead in Dakota Territory was her first home in America; it was from this homestead in Bon Homme County that she spent long hours tending her family’s cattle, experienced devastating prairie fires and blizzards, witnessed interactions with displaced Native Americans, and even once encountered General George Armstrong Custer when he stopped for a drink of water. She was fortunate enough to attend a one-room log schoolhouse through eighth grade, and, in 1889, when she was twenty-one, she married her neighbor and fellow Danish immigrant Frederick Nelson.

Over the course of the next twenty years, Christina gave birth to nine healthy children: Anna Sophie (1891), Julia Marie (1892), Ole James (1894), Andrea Mathilda (1896), Louise Christine (1899), Helena Margaret (1900), Mary Magdalene (1904), Frederick Andrew (1908), and Myron Alvin (1910). Education was of apparent importance to Christina and Fred, as he was known; although their oldest son attended school only through eighth grade, destined to become a farmer like his parents before him, their younger sons and daughters all attended school at least until the age of sixteen. They even saw to it that their four youngest daughters had the opportunity to attend a “normal school” in nearby Springfield, South Dakota, where they received the necessary training to become schoolteachers.

The Fred and Christina Nelson Family, Yankton County, South Dakota, 1912; digital image 2011, privately held by Lori Dickman. Back row, from left: Julia, Anna, Ole, and Andrea Nelson. Front row, from left: Mary, Louise, Christina with Myron, Fred with Fred Jr., and Helena Nelson.

A formal portrait of the Nelson family was taken in July of 1912, likely in Yankton, which was not far from the family’s home in Lakeport; the girls sport bare forearms for the season, their fabric colors light and featuring gingham, stripes, and lace. Christina, while dressed in a dark gown, wears a white collar and whimsical crocheted flowers at her throat. As to the occasion for the photograph, it was not a milestone anniversary year—Christina and Fred would have celebrated their twentieth anniversary the previous spring. However, Christina perhaps realized that, at forty-three, her childbearing years were behind her and now was the time to have a portrait taken of the entire family all together. Furthermore, as her eldest daughter had married in March of 1912, having her first child leave the nest might also have sparked sentimentality and a wish to document the fact that, at least for a short while, all nine Nelson children had been under one roof.

Christina and Fred would go on to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary in 1916, but two years later, a matter of weeks after her fiftieth birthday, Christina would be dealt several harsh blows in short succession. First, Spanish Influenza hit the household, and then, in a turn of events that shocked both the family and their wider community, she lost Fred to suicide, and, one month later, daughter Andrea to undetermined medical circumstances.

Christina persevered. She faced another trial when her father died the following spring, but it was a blessing that her eldest son was home from his service in the Great War and able to help manage the family farm while she continued to raise her two youngest sons. She continued to live on the farm with support from her sons well into her old age; even in 1950, when she was eighty-two, the census reported that she was still “keeping house” for her three bachelor sons. It was at this farmhouse that her children and grandchildren frequently gathered to celebrate birthdays and holidays.

Christina died on 23 January 1961 at the age of ninety-two and is buried alongside her husband and three of their nine children at the Elm Grove Cemetery in Yankton County, South Dakota. A brief biography included in a local history book several years prior had noted, “Mrs. Nelson is well-known by her many friends and relatives as a person who always has a warm welcome hand extended to all those who call at her home. Even today, at the age of eighty-five, she is active with her household duties and retains an active interest in what is going on about her. She is cordial and sympathetic with the many young people who come her way. She is truly one of Dakota’s pioneer mothers who still looks ahead and enjoys her home and family.”

Copyright © 2022 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

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A Danish Family Portrait

The Schmidt family left Denmark for America in 1870, when Jens Madsen Schmidt was thirty-five years old and his wife, Anna (Bramsen) Schmidt, was thirty-seven.1 With them were their two young daughters, Inger Marie, who was not yet three, and Christine, who was just twenty months old.2 Jens and Anna had married in 1866, not long after Jens was discharged from military service following the Second Schleswig War.3

Jens Madsen Schmidt, Anna [Bramsen] Schmidt, and daughters Inger Marie and Christine, ca. 1869-70; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2018. Image courtesy of Alvie Jorgensen as printed in A Few of my Grandchildren’s Ancestors (Massachusetts: Alvie Jorgensen, 1989).

This is the oldest known photograph of the Schmidt family, believed to have been taken shortly before they departed Denmark or soon after their arrival in America. Dated circa 1869-70, it is quite possibly a carte de visite, a small card-mounted photograph popular before the larger cabinet card format became more common in the 1880s.4 The family may have wanted to share copies with their family members at home; while Anna’s parents would later follow them to Dakota Territory, Jens’s parents would not.

In the photograph, Jens and Anna sit side by side in a carpeted studio, their daughters perched on their laps. Jens is heavily bearded, although his upper lip is clean-shaven. His hair is brushed back from his forehead and he wears loose trousers in a lighter color than his jacket, a similarly dark shirt buttoned underneath. Anna’s hair has a center part and is pulled back, although it seems that it may be looped over her ears. Her headwear looks vaguely medieval in appearance, something like a circular roll with a scarf at the back, although its true style is unclear as well. Additionally, few details can be distinguished of her dress, which is obscured by the child on her lap. The silhouette of the full sleeves gives the suggestion of Bishop sleeves, which would have been gathered at the cuff.5 There appears to be some detail at the neckline of the dress—perhaps a white collar with a bow tied above—and the skirt is long and full. Her attire, with the exception of her headwear, appears relatively modern and less like one tends to think of as traditional Danish folk attire.

Fair-haired Inger Marie and Christine appear to wear tot-sized versions of their mother’s overall style of dress. The scalloped hem of a petticoat peeks out from under Inger Marie’s skirt; Christine’s petticoat has a straight hem. Both wear stockings and shoes. It is possible that their dresses are made of matching fabric; less than thirteen months apart in age, the girls could almost appear to be twins.

This photograph appears in a spiral-bound volume entitled A Few of My Grandchildren’s Ancestors, researched and compiled by late Schmidt descendant Alvie Jorgensen nearly thirty years ago, as well as in the Yankton County Historical Society’s 1987 publication History of Yankton County, South Dakota.6 It would be exciting to view a high resolution scan of the image to observe more details and, perhaps, even learn the exact location that it was taken. The next known photograph of the Schmidt family was taken nearly twenty years later at their homestead in what is today Bon Homme County, South Dakota. Although they were by that time young women, Inger Marie and Christine wore matching dresses.

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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Remembering the Children’s Blizzard

Even seventeen Dakota winters could not have prepared the Danish immigrant family of Jens Madsen and Anna (Bramsen) Schmidt for what they faced in 1888.

January 12 dawned bright and clear in southeastern Dakota Territory. The weather was so pleasant that many children set off to school wearing only light jackets and wraps.1 In the Schmidt family, just twelve-year-old Mads was still in school; while he settled in with his classmates, his mother and older sisters, Mary and Christine, tinkered eagerly with the new sewing machine that had been delivered to them just that morning.2

Within a few hours, however, a dark cloud appeared on the horizon, bringing with it a wind so powerful that it roared as it whirled snow and ice into the air. The temperature dropped abruptly, and the snow and ice, said to be as fine as flour, made it impossible to see. Those unfortunate enough to be caught on the open prairie – or even in their barnyards – had little hope of making it to shelter.3

Through the remainder of the day and into the night, the Schmidt family waited in agony, a lantern burning in their window. They had no way of knowing whether Mads had taken shelter at school, or whether he had tried, in vain, to run for home. To search for him would be futile until the storm had ceased.

The next morning, which dawned bright and beautiful, Mads trudged home over the sparkling drifts of snow. The joy and relief that he, his sisters, and his parents must have felt at this reunion can only be imagined. As it turned out, the schoolteacher at the Breezy Hill School had managed to convince all of the children to stay in the shelter of the schoolhouse overnight, which, thankfully, had been sturdy enough to withstand the winds and had had enough fuel to keep them from freezing.4


Schmidt Family Homestead, near Tabor, Bon Homme County, South Dakota, ca. 1888-1889; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2015. From left: Inger Marie “Mary,” Mads, Christine, Jens Madsen, and Anna (Bramsen) Schmidt.

Others had not been so lucky. Remembered as the “Children’s Blizzard” for the high number of school-aged victims, the storm tore apart some of the flimsier schoolhouses, forcing the teachers and children to flee into the storm, often in insufficient clothing due to the balmy weather of the morning.5 Others thought that they could beat the worst of it home, but on the open prairie where some children walked miles to reach school, many became disoriented in the storm or were forced by the wind in different directions. It became impossible for them to spot familiar landmarks either because of the fine and blinding snow or because their eyes had frozen shut.6

Later, two sewing machine salesmen, who had made their last stop at the Schmidt family homestead in Bon Homme County, were found huddled in the box of their bobsled just three miles to the west. They had frozen to death; their horses, tied in a grove of trees, survived. For years, locals referred to the area as Dead Man’s Grove.7

The Children’s Blizzard claimed an estimated two hundred fifty to five hundred lives across the Midwestern prairie, with the majority of the casualties in southeastern Dakota Territory.
8 As reported by historian David Laskin, “The pioneers were by and large a taciturn lot, reserved and sober Germans and Scandinavians […]. Even those who never wrote another word about themselves put down on paper everything they could remember about the great blizzard of 1888. Indeed, it was the storm that has preserved these lives from oblivion.”9

Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

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Dressing Well in Dakota Territory


Christine Marie [Schmidt] Nelson,  Yankton County, Dakota Territory, ca. 1886-1888; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

Christine Marie Schmidt, spelled “Christiane” on the back of this photograph and called “Dana” by her close friends, would not have remembered Denmark, as she was still an infant when she accompanied her parents to America in June of 1870.1 Her father homesteaded in Dakota Territory later that year, and Christine grew up a hardworking farm girl on the prairie near what is now Tabor, Bon Homme County, South Dakota.2

This photograph may have been taken in Yankton, the onetime capital of Dakota Territory located a dozen or so miles east of the family’s homestead. Christine’s hair is styled in true 1880s fashion with frizzled bangs – which could not have been easy to achieve – and a smooth high bun.3 She wears what looks to be a heavy pleated dress with velvet panels adorning the bodice vertically from shoulder to waist.4 The same velvet trims the collar and cuffs, where a white under-layer peeks out. No fewer than twelve large buttons adorn her dress, and a horizontal pin is affixed to the stylish high collar. Christine is clearly corseted to enhance her hourglass figure.5

Christine married in the spring of 1890 at the age of twenty-one; her wedding portrait suggests that she was a bit younger when this photograph was taken.6 My guess is that she was about eighteen, give or take a year, dating this photograph circa 1886-1888. Although green cardstock, as seen on this cabinet card, technically peaked in popularity several years earlier,7 another photograph from my personal collection with cardstock of the same dark green color dates to approximately 1889. Its popularity may well have been ongoing, at least in the Midwest.

Christine almost certainly sewed her dress herself, likely in the company of her mother and older sister, and she stands so as to display it to its best advantage. A subtle painted backdrop nearly touches the floor behind her as she rests her left hand on the back of an upholstered chair, gazing into the distance. In spite of her rural upbringing, Christine strikes an elegant pose, demonstrating that the latest fashions had found a place even in Dakota Territory.

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A (Somewhat Lackluster) Homestead File

When I sent away to the National Archives for a copy of a homestead file, I was sure that I was in for a treat. I was aware that, in addition to the homestead application and final certificate, a homestead entry file would typically include proof documents in the form of testimony from the applicant and two witnesses. I couldn’t wait to read what this testimony would have to say about the home, family, and farm of Jens Madsen Schmidt of Bon Homme County, South Dakota.1 Jens had applied for a homestead on 23 November 1870,2 just months after his arrival from Denmark and less than a decade after the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862.3

As it turned out, I shouldn’t have gotten too excited. Apparently, on 8 June 1877, Luman N. Judd, Register of the Land Office at Springfield, had better things to do than to fill in the three blank lines meant to describe the home of Jens Madsen Schmidt, or the additional three blank lines meant to detail the improvements made upon his land.4 Of course, perhaps Mr. Judd isn’t to blame, and the witnesses – Peter Anderson and John Haase – were either unable to communicate these facts in English or were particularly reticent that day.5 To be fair, these men likely had crops to get back to and saw no reason to belabor the details, especially if they were equally well acquainted with Jens and knew that nothing stood in the way of his patent.


Jens Madsen Schmidt, Bon Homme County, South Dakota, ca. 1900; digital image 2003, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

All was not lost with the homestead file. I learned that, in 1877, Jens had cultivated about forty acres of land.6 I learned, too, that his inclination to Anglicize his Danish name to James Smith had caused some issues with the paperwork; in 1878, he signed a document swearing that the “correct orthography” of his name was, in fact, Jens Madsen Schmidt.7

Regardless of the details – or lack thereof – of the homestead file, Jens Madsen Schmidt became the proud owner of one hundred and sixty acres of land located in Section 1, Township 93, Range 58 of Bon Homme County, South Dakota.8

If you would like to order your ancestor’s own homestead file, I would suggest beginning with the General Land Office Records of the Bureau of Land Management, where you will be able to locate the necessary information to order the file from the National Archives. I used their online form, and found it quick and easy. Fifty dollars and a few weeks later, perhaps you will find that your ancestor’s neighbors had at least a few things to say about his living situation!

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Yearbooks of the Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, South Dakota

For fifteen years, from 1944 through 1958, the old settlers of Yankton County, South Dakota sponsored a yearbook that compiled their own fascinating stories of life in southeastern South Dakota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These yearbooks were later bound and filed with the local library and the state historical society. As written by Emma Meistrik, Secretary and Historian of the Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, “We dedicate this volume to the future old settlers of Yankton County and may call it Volume I, trusting that it will be continued indefinitely. It is upon the worthwhile things of the past that the future builds for ever increasing achievement.”1


Yearbooks of the Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, 1944-1958 (Yankton, South Dakota: Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, 1958); private collection of Melanie Frick.

My copy, once in the possession of an aunt, was not bound professionally, and I’m unsure whether all of the yearbooks are included. However, the stories within are rich with detail. Many of the settlers recount their experiences as immigrants, the establishment of their homesteads, and their survival of the deadly blizzard of 1888, as did Christine (Schmidt) Nelson of Yankton County, South Dakota.

She shared her recollections with her daughter, who wrote, “As an old settler of Yankton county she has many memories of the early years in her community. She recalls the old Indian trail which brought Indian traders to the home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jens Smith, early settlers of Bon Homme county. On the old stage trail between Springfield, Fort Randall and Sioux City, the Smith farm was used as a place to change horses for the carrying of the mail.”2

Of the aforementioned blizzard, it was said, “Mrs. Nelson attended the Breezy Hill school and recalls the blizzard of 1888 when her only brother, Mads Smith, spent the night in the schoolhouse. The next morning after the storm, the sun was shining brightly and the family were overjoyed to see the young boy walking over the sparkling hard drifts after his night’s vigil.”3

The brief autobiography concludes, in part, “Mrs. Nelson is well-known by her many friends and relatives as a person who always has a warm welcome hand extended to all those who call at her home. Even today, at the age of 85, she is active with her household duties and retains an active interest in what is going on about her. She is cordial and sympathetic with the many young people who come her way. She is truly one of Dakota’s pioneer mothers who still looks ahead and enjoys her home and family.”4

As with A Yearbook from the Southern State Normal School, Springfield, South Dakota, 1916, copies of the compiled Yearbooks of the Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, 1944-1958 are likely not widely available to most researchers. Although my copy may not be complete, I would like to offer look-ups to anyone seeking information about the individuals named below as featured settlers:

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A South Dakota Thanksgiving

How did your ancestors celebrate Thanksgiving? As the cooking commences, I can’t help but wonder when Thanksgiving truly became a tradition among the different branches of my family tree, and how the celebrations might have varied.


Fred and Christine (Schmidt) Nelson Family Farm, Yankton County, South Dakota, ca. 1911-1917; digital image 2013, privately held by [personal information withheld].

I do know that the family of Fred and Christine (Schmidt) Nelson of Tabor, Yankton County, South Dakota celebrated the holiday more than a century ago. In 1908, their daughter Anna, seventeen, wrote in her diary, “Nov. 26, Thanksgiving day. Uncle Andrew, Aunt Mary and little cousins, also John S[ch]neider came down and had dinner with us and spent the day. It was cloudy most of the day and a rather cold wind.”1

Her guest list indicates that they had quite a crowd for dinner. By 1908, the Nelson family numbered ten,2 so with the addition of John Schneider and Andrew and Inger Marie “Mary” (Schmidt) Schmidt, who came with their three young children,3 the number at the table was brought to sixteen.


Turkey Valley School, date unknown, Turkey Valley, Yankton County, South Dakota; digital image 2010, privately held by [personal information withheld].

As the Nelson children grew and completed school, several of the six daughters scattered about the county on teaching assignments. In the fall of 1916, Andrea, age nineteen, boarded with the Skov family in Turkey Valley. Andrea was in the midst of her first term as a schoolteacher, having recently graduated from the Springfield Normal School.4

On 18 November 1916, Andrea wrote to her parents, explaining that she had spoken to the members of the local school board to ask if she could take off the day after Thanksgiving:

“Mr. Hinseth said that for his part he didn’t care how many we took off as he had no kids to send and Mr. Mikkleson said sure we could take the day then could see later about making it up. […] I haven’t asked Mr. Andreason about the day but it won’t do him much good to kick as it’s three against one.”5

Andrea was pleased, as this meant that she could return home for Thanksgiving and the three days following. No doubt she was eager to show off her new overshoes, purchased the previous afternoon in Irene. Although she reported woefully that they had made a dent in her monthly “warrant,” she continued, “Mr. Skov gave his ‘womenfolks’ a scolding because we hadn’t gotten overshoes a week ago Sat. when we were in town so I thot [sic] I had better get me a pair yesterday or I’d be scolded again, ha!”6

With these overshoes, Andrea would have been prepared for the blustery winter days on the eastern South Dakota prairie, and she would have stayed warm for the duration of the forty-mile journey home for the holidays. Now, if only we knew what was served for dinner!

1 Nelson, Anna. “Diary.” MS. Yankton County, South Dakota, 1908. Privately held by [personal information withheld].
2 1910 U.S. census, Yankton County, South Dakota, population schedule, Township 93 Range 57, enumeration district (ED) 447, sheet 2-A, p. 186 (stamped), dwelling 24, family 24, Fred Nelson; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 26 November 2013), citing National Archives microfilm publication T624, roll 1489.
3 1910 U.S. census, Yankton County, South Dakota, population schedule, Township 93 Range 57, enumeration district (ED) 447, sheet 3-A, p. 187 (stamped), dwelling 46, family 48, Andrew Schmidt; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 26 November 2013), citing National Archives microfilm publication T624, roll 1489.
4 The Echo, Vol. 1, “Andrea Nelson,” Springfield, South Dakota, 1916; privately held by [personal information withheld].
5 Andrea Nelson to Fred and Christine (Schimdt) Nelson, letter, detailing Thanksgiving plans, 18 November 1916; privately held by [personal information withheld].
6 Andrea Nelson to Fred and Christine (Schmidt) Nelson, letter.

Tombstone Tuesday: Paulus and Elisabeth (Schmidt) Thoma

July 009

Grave of Paulus Thoma (1801-1882) and Elisabeth Thoma (1804-1862), Garnavillo City Cemetery, Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa; digital image 2007, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.

The mid-nineteenth century saw what could be considered a virtual exodus of families who left their home village in Bavaria for the farmland of northeastern Iowa. Paulus and Elisabeth (Schmidt) Thoma of Weißenstadt, Wunsiedel, Bavaria, Germany were among them. Paulus was a weaver by trade,1 and together, he and Elisabeth raised eight children: John Conrad, William Henry, Anna Rosina, Frederick, Anna Sabina, Maria Magdalena, Ursula Pauline, and Anna Margaretha.

In 1852, Paulus and Elisabeth traveled with seven of their children from Bremen to New Orleans, undoubtedly an exhausting journey. They were accompanied on the Uhland by ten others from Weißenstadt, a small sampling of the immigrant families who had likely been linked for generations and chose to resettle together in America.2 Upon arrival in New Orleans, the Thoma family traveled by way of the Mississippi River to reach their destination of northeastern Iowa.3 Several years later, Paulus and Elisabeth were joined by their eldest son and his family.4

Once settled, Paulus apparently put his weaving aside for a farmer’s life in Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa. I thought perhaps he would have raised sheep for wool, but, at least as of 1860, crops of wheat, Indian corn, and oats seem to have been his primary focus. At this time, he farmed over two hundred acres of improved land.5

Elisabeth (Schmidt) Thoma passed away in 1862, after only ten years in Iowa.6 Five years after her death, Paulus, now well into his sixties, remarried to Maria Krueger.7 By 1870, Paulus was declared on the census to be an “invalid” due to “old age.”8 He survived for more than a decade longer, however, although his “old age” was noted again on the 1880 U.S. census.9 Ultimately, he survived his first wife by twenty years; Paulus passed away in 1882, and he and Elisabeth share a headstone at the Garnavillo City Cemetery in Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa.10

1 “New Orleans, Passenger Lists, 1813-1945” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 November 2013), manifest, Uhland, Bremen, Germany to New Orleans, arriving 18 June 1852, Paulus Thoma; citing National Archives microfilm M259, roll 36.
2 “New Orleans, Passenger Lists, 1813-1945” digital images, Ancestry.com, manifest, Uhland, Bremen, Germany to New Orleans, arriving 18 June 1852, Paulus Thoma.
3Diane Haddad, “Riverboat Migration Records,” Family Tree Magazine (http://www.familytreemagazine.com/article/Whatever-Floats-Your-Riverboat : accessed 1 November 2013).
4 “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 30 October 2013), manifest, Anna Delano, Bremen, Germany to New York, arriving 23 June 1855, J.C. Thoma; citing National Archives microfilm M237, roll 153.
5 1860 U.S. census, Clayton County, Iowa, agriculture schedule, Garnavillo, p. 5 (penned), line 11, Paul Thoma; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 October 2013), citing “Selected U.S. Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880.”
6 Grave of Elisabeth [Schmidt] Thoma, 1804-1862, Garnavillo City Cemetery, Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa; digital image 2007, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.
7 “Iowa, County Marriages, 1838-1934,” index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 01 Nov 2013), Paulus Thoma and Mary Krueger, 1867.
8 1870 U.S. census, Clayton County, Iowa, population schedule, Garnavillo, p. 17 (penned), dwelling 116, family 114, Paul Toma; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 October 2013), citing National Archives microfilm M593, roll 383.
9 1880 U.S. census, Clayton County, Iowa, population schedule, Garnavillo, Enumeration District (ED) 133, p. 362 (stamped), dwelling 207, family 218, Paul Thoma; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 October 2013), citing National Archives microfilm T9, roll 333.
10 Grave of Paulus Thoma, 1801-1882, Garnavillo City Cemetery, Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa; digital image 2007, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.