Megan Smolenyak
Feb 19 · 7 min read

Meet Your Great-Great-Grandfather, Matt Gaetz

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida recently made his debut on the national stage when he attempted to hijack the first House Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence in eight years to push the discredited notion that immigration is at the heart of violence in America — and for good measure, he tried to have two Parkland fathers who had lost their children to gunfire less than a year ago ejected from the proceedings.

Even for those familiar with Gaetz’s history — claiming that “illegal immigrants” are “sucking us dry,” asserting that attacks from “Muslim terrorists” are on the rise, speculating that migrant caravans were funded by Soros, inviting a Holocaust denier to the State of the Union, defending a staffer for soliciting legislative input from a conspiracy forum known for white nationalism, and most recently, supporting the declaration of a national emergency to secure funds to build a wall (reversing his position from just a month earlier) — this basic lack of human decency was startling.

It’s fair to say he’s not a fan of immigration or immigrants (to save us all time, anyone already formulating “illegal immigrant” commentary is invited here for a preview of my now standard response to this tired trope), and is not shy to share that perspective.

Always curious about the immigrant past of those who actively seek to slam the door today, I decided to take a look at Gaetz’s family tree, and found many of the usual ingredients so common to the immigrant experience.

1853 arrival of the Gaetz family (Ancestry). (Yes, 1853 arrival of the Gaetz family (Ancestry)
(Yes, it looks like ‘Gelz’ here, but intensive research matching names and ages of this tri-generational family against German baptism and a variety of other records confirms that this is the correct family.)

“Chain Migration”

It took a little digging, but I eventually unearthed his third great-grandparents, Philip and Anna Margarethe (Bruhl) Goetz (most opted for this spelling), arriving with her mother and four of their children in Boston on May 19, 1853. Their eldest son had traveled earlier to this country “with his aunt to join the large German colony at Manitowoc,” so if you’re thinking “chain migration,” you’d be right. But as I explained in a previous article, “chain migration” was once routinely practiced on a village or town level. That was true in this instance, and sometimes even today (e.g., Bedminster, NJ/Santa Teresa de Cajon, Costa Rica).

Chain Migration: What’s Changed

Why They Came

The Goetz family was from the town of Beilstein in present-day Germany. The map below features it along with a handful of other municipalities. The distance from Beilstein to Senheim is 2.7 miles, and if you were to meander from there to Grenderich, and then turn northeast toward the last three, you would have walked a whopping 11 miles by the time you reached Alstrimmig. In other words, they’re located in close proximity to each other.

Beilstein and neighboring villages (Google Maps)

It’s fairly rare to find specifics as to why your ancestors migrated from point A to point B more than 150 years ago, but in this case, a clue from an unexpected source — a 2003 article in The Sheboygan Press — provides some insight. A German gentleman reached out to a local historical society in Wisconsin for help finding the descendants of 500 emigrants who left the five towns clustered around Beilstein in the map above. He explained that in 1852, mayors of these towns developed a plan to send indigent people to America. A snippet from this article goes into more detail:

The Sheboygan Press, 9 March 2003 (Newspapers)

They were nothing if not efficient, and only months later — on July 16th of that same year — 500 poor people from this area arrived in America. Their destination? Manitowoc and Sheboygan counties in Wisconsin. Among them was a woman with the maiden name of Bruhl, the same as Gaetz’s 3rd great-grandmother.

Less than a year later, the Gaetz family from neighboring Beilstein arrived at the same destination. While they weren’t among the destitute who were more or less forced out in 1852, the fact that they arrived on their heels strongly suggests that they, too, came to escape poverty.

“Anchor Baby”

The only one missing when the family arrived in Wisconsin was Rep. Gaetz’s second great-grandfather, Anton. Why? Because he was their “anchor baby” (a term he approves of), born the year after his parents and siblings immigrated.

The current resident of the White House was born to an immigrant mother, but wants to do away with so-called anchor babies by ending birthright citizenship. Gaetz typically shares his views, though his family — like most of ours — certainly benefited from it, and I don’t believe he’s weighed in yet on the numerous Russians flocking to Trump properties in Florida for exactly this purpose.

Assimilation

The White House has also announced its intention to vet refugees based on their ability to assimilate, and the best indication we’ve had of what that might mean is when then-Chief of Staff John Kelly, said of undocumented immigrants:

“They’re overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English — obviously that’s the big thing. They don’t integrate well — they don’t have skills.”

This is the same kind of attitude that Anton Gaetz would have encountered. He spent his early years ensconced in the largely German community in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, and then as a young man moved to Minnesota. There he married a young woman of Prussian heritage who also happened to be her family’s “anchor baby.”

They lived initially in Wadena, Minnesota where Anton worked as a blacksmith, but then moved to Melrose in Stearns County in the same state. Any number of factors might have drawn them there, but one of them no doubt was the fact that, “Stearns County had the highest density of German-American Catholic parishes of any settlement in the country.”

In Melrose, they had their own church, St. Boniface, and school classes and religious services were all conducted in German. This remained the case all the way until 1921 when the town finally relented to pressure stemming from World War I. As explained in MNopedia (a Minnesota history resource), “Nativism during this period was a “patriotic” attitude that saw recent immigrants — particularly those of German descent — as potentially traitorous.”

But Anton was American-born. Certainly he was assimilated, so none of this would have pertained to him, right? That’s a reasonable assumption, but his obituary suggests otherwise. Though he was born in Wisconsin, lived to 64, and spent his entire life in America, his obituary was in German. This was only 100 years ago.

Anton Gaetz’s obituary, Der Nordstern, 2 October 1919, Minnesota Historical Society
rough translation of Anton Gaetz’s obituary (Google Translate

Violence: Perpetrator or Victim?

I mentioned previously that Anton worked as a blacksmith, but if you’re eagle-eyed, you might have noticed that his obituary states that he had been a policeman for 12 years. Contrary to Rep. Gaetz’s opinion that immigrants contribute to an increase in violence, this quasi-assimilated, “anchor baby” ancestor of his joined the police force in Melrose, and was indeed involved in a violent act, but was on the receiving end. In fact, it may well have hastened his death.

Anton was assaulted by a suspect during an arrest in 1919 and died two and a half months later. Because he was discovered to have had cancer, there was some debate as to whether his death was in the line of duty or not, but the Minnesota Supreme Court decided the injury was a contributing factor and his widow was awarded $2,241, a substantial sum in those days.

Star-Tribune, 5 May 1923 (GenealogyBank)

In 2008, Anton Gaetz was recognized during National Law Enforcement Memorial Day in Minnesota (Melrose police officer who died in 1919 finally honored), and as recently as 2016, the police department in which he served acknowledged his service and sacrifice.

Melrose Police Department Facebook post about Anton Gaetz, 18 May 2016

A Stain on the Family Name

So Rep. Gaetz’s family came to America from Prussia in a chain migration fashion due to poverty. They promptly had an “anchor baby” who would live in German communities and speak German his entire life. This man would work first as a craftsman and then serve his fellow Americans as a policeman, and in so doing, shorten his life.

In spite of all this, Rep. Gaetz — whose family was a victim of the same kind of prejudice he espouses — is confident in asserting that the reason so many people are being killed in America is “an immigration system that allows people to come here violently,” rather than the conspicuous epidemic of gun violence that plays out in our lives in an accelerating thoughts-and-prayers cycle. And somehow, he has convinced himself that this far-fetched belief justifies belittling bereaved parents who journeyed to Capitol Hill to help ensure that others would never know their pain.

Meanwhile, in an otherwise sleepy cemetery in Melrose, Minnesota, Anton Gaetz rolls over in his grave.

¹ A more accurate translation of the obituary is provided here by Glenn Fleishman: “Anton Gätz, who served as a policeman in our city for 12 years, died in the middle of last week at St. Mary’s Hospital, where he had had an operation. The deceased was 65 years old, and he leaves behind his much-suffering wife, 5 daughters, and 3 sons. The funeral had a large turnout of mourners, and took place on Saturday morning following a requiem at 9 a.m. at St. Bonifatius Church. To him, eternal rest, and to the bereaved, proper condolences.”

Megan Smolenyak

Written by

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! 6 books, 20+ TV shows, former Ancestry.com Chief Family Historian, cold case sleuth for many.

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