News From Terre Haute, Indiana


October 27, 2013

GENEALOGY: Father of Dreiser brothers was Terre Haute spinner

TERRE HAUTE — Terre Haute is the birthplace of two men — brothers — who achieved fame in the creative arts. These were Paul Dresser, songwriter, and Theodore Dreiser, novelist. Both left Terre Haute and Indiana, but their early lives here shaped each man’s artistic expression.

Their father was Johann Paul Dreiser, born Sept. 9, 1821, in Mayen, Germany, in the Rhineland-Palatinate state. One researcher/descendant says Johann Paul did not know the names of his true parents. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1847, landing in New York. He moved to Ohio, and in 1851 married Sarah Maria Schnepp in Piqua, Ohio. Sarah was the daughter of Henry Schnepp and Esther Schaub, and was from a Mennonite community in the Dayton area. She was reportedly disowned by her family for marrying Johann Paul, who was a strict Catholic.

The family can first be found in the Terre Haute city directories in 1858. Johann Paul always went by his middle name, Paul. He is listed as a spinner, working for G.F. Ellis, and living on First Street between Walnut and Poplar streets. His surname is misspelled as Dresser. The next available entry is in the 1863 directory. He is a foreman at the Ellis Wollen Factory, living at 56 S. Second St.

The Dreisers had three boys who died in infancy. On April 22, 1858, John Paul Dreiser Jr. was born at one of the two above addresses, the oldest surviving child of the family. He also went by the name Paul and did not use his first name. The 1860 census of Vigo County shows the family living in the third ward in Terre Haute. Another son, “Raymond” (actually Roman), was just four months old. Also in the home was Ellen A. “Swep” from Ohio, presumably Sarah’s younger sister.

Children continued to be born. Dreiser is not listed in the Terre Haute city directories of 1868 and 1871. The family had moved to Sullivan County. They can be found living in the town of Sullivan on the 1870 census. The elder Paul was a wool manufacturer from Prussia, parents foreign-born. Mother Sarah was keeping house, now with eight children in the household: Paul, Roman, Mary, Emma, Tressa, Cecelia, Alphons and Clotilda.

By 1872 they were back in Terre Haute, living on the southwest corner of 12th and Walnut streets. When they returned to Terre Haute, they had apparently first lived at 523 S. Ninth St., because this is where their son Theodore was reportedly born. The house at 12th and Walnut streets was purchased two weeks after Theodore’s birth on Aug. 27, 1871. The city directories reflect that the family lived at 203 S. 12th St. from 1872 through 1877. Their father continued in the woolen industry as a spinner and wool sorter. During the 1870s, some of the older children began to work. By all reports, their lives were ones of poverty with so many mouths to feed. The family moved to a different home nearly every year. In 1878, they moved briefly to Vincennes. By 1879 they were back in Terre Haute, living at 533 N. Seventh St.

The year 1880 was one of more moves, and the last year the family is listed together and in Indiana.

 The 1880 city directory shows them all residing at 205 N. 13th St., but that was a brief stay. There are two nearly identical 1880 censuses for the Dreisers, one taken on June 6 with the family living at 326 N. Ninth St. in Terre Haute, and the second one dated June 23 with the family living in Sullivan County.

They had moved back to Terre Haute by 1881, and from this point on, Paul the father is the only one listed in the city directory, boarding at 128 S. First St. in 1881-2 and 118 S. First St. in 1883-4 (unless this is a typo and actually the same address). In 1888 he was boarding at the Anderson House in Terre Haute. By this time he and his wife Sarah had separated.

This story will continue next week.

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