• My Family History and the Performing Arts by Dawn Harvey

    I have been a performing artist for many years.  I started studying genealogy about three years ago after receiving my DNA results. I really did not know much about my ancestors since very little history had been passed down from both sides of my family tree. I certainly was not aware of any ancestors who made their living in the performing arts.

    As a result, I was thrilled to learn about my fourth great grandfather, Henry Herbener, who came to New York State from Hesse, Germany with his family to escape the cholera outbreak in Europe in 1832. Henry was born on December 14, 1797 in Stadtallendorf and began studying music at the age of 13 years old. He performed under the direction of famous German composer, Louis Sphor, at the royal palace in Hesse. Henry became a well-known musical director, composer and professor of music in Onondaga County, New York. He performed at theaters in Buffalo, Canada and also toured several US states. The violin was his favorite instrument and he also played the clarinet. Henry was well-regarded in his community as a kind, ethical and talented person. He passed away on December 28, 1884 at the age of 88 in Minoa, Onondaga County, New York and was survived by two of his daughters, Maria Christina Osborn and Elizabeth Schepp. Henry’s daughter (and my third great grandmother), Catherine Herbener Altenbrandt, died years earlier in 1865 at the age of 30 years old.

    Henry Herbener’s son (and my fourth great uncle), John Herbener, was also a professional musician. John was born in New York State in 1833. He relocated to Wisconsin Hill, Placer County, California sometime after 1850, most likely in 1853, to perform in theatres during the gold-rush era. There was a high demand for evening entertainment in these towns which created opportunities for professional musicians. Sadly, John Herbener died of disease on October 9, 1855 at the age of 22 years old and he is buried at the cemetery in Iowa Hill, Placer County, California.

    The Herbener family were my mother’s ancestors, but it turns out that there were professional performers on my father’s side of the family tree as well.

    James C. Welch, professional actor and writer, was my third great uncle. He was born in Philadelphia in 1850 and was the son of William Welch and Ellen Mulrey, my third great grandparents. The Welch family immigrated to America sometime around 1849, during the Potato Famine, and the family relocated to Philadelphia shortly after their arrival. The Welchs lived in the section of the city known as “West Philly” and owned an ice cream store/oyster bar/variety shop at 4632 Lancaster Avenue for many years.

    Philadelphia rivaled New York as a vibrant theatre city in the 1800s and was a “tryout” city for touring shows headed to Broadway. The Walnut Street Theatre located at 825 Walnut Street was founded in 1809 and is the oldest theatre in the United States and is the oldest continuously operating theatre in the English-speaking world. It is a wonderful establishment and I had the pleasure of understudying at the Walnut Street Theatre early in my performing career.

    I am still trying to locate more information about James C. Welch’s theatre career. I know that his personal life had its ups and downs. James’ six year old son, and his only known child, James Welch Jr. died of Pneumonia on April 27, 1883 in Philadelphia. Little James had been raised by his grandparents, William and Ellen Welch. I’m assuming that James and his wife, Maud, were unable to raise their son themselves due to touring and instability of employment. Little James Welch is buried at Cathedral Cemetery in Philadelphia. 

    Sadly, James C. Welch died of liver disease at the age of 51 on June 16, 1901 at the home of his brother (and my second great grandfather), John Charles Welch, at 4030 Cambridge Street in Philadelphia. James is buried alongside many of my Welch ancestors at St. Denis Cemetery in Havertown, Pennsylvania, located just outside of Philadelphia.

    I like to think that my love of acting has come from my Irish immigrant ancestors and that my love of music has come from my German immigrant ancestors. I thought I was the only person in my family to have pursued a career in the performing arts and I have often wondered where this strong desire to perform has come from. I guess it is in my genes.

    I will post another blog soon about how to research your ancestors.  In the meantime, feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions at mail@dawnharvey.com.





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