Johannes Katronnes Wilhelm
Johannes Katronnes Wilhelm is a legendary figure in Wilhelm family lore. Click the discussion tab above for more info.
Johannes Katronnes Wilhelm was a single man in the Prussian Army, probably in the 1760s or 70s. The army compound where he was assigned was bordered on three sides by a high barbed fence, but was bordered on the other side by the Rhine River. It was not considered possible for anyone to swim the river.
Johannes became unhappy and dissatisfied with the army and devised a plan to escape. He saved some bread from every meal and hid it in a knapsack in his bed. When he thought he had enough bread to sustain himself, he took the knapsack and a 14" straight edge razor, and with only the clothes he had on his back, he slipped out of the barracks in the night and succesfully escaped by swimming the river. When he reached the opposite shore he was in a foreign country. He was able to make his way to the seacoast where he became a stowaway on a steamship bound for America. He arrived in New York City.
According to the Wilhelm family, he met and married an Englishwoman by the name of Mercy Farrington. Wilhelm was resourceful and had natural business instincts. He amassed a sizeable fortune, raised a large family and eventually became a farmer in the Finger Lakes district of New York.
When Johannes died his family squabbled over his properties. John Benjamin (our ancestor), became so disgusted with the squabbling that he ignored his inheritance. He married Clarissa Hardin and joined the Mormons in Nauvoo and started west with them.
It is said that Uncle Haight, Johannes' great-grandson, had the straight edge razor and used it until it was stolen by outlaws when no one was home.
The second version of the story comes from a cousin, Verda Foutz. The way the story is told in her family is that two Wilhelm brothers stole passage to America. When they arrived they couldn't speak English and had no money. They stole food and clothes and were spotted. They were being chased and decided they would have a better chance if they separated. One of them slipped away in the crowd while the other swam the Potomac and changed his name to Williams.
In the Wilhelm family you'll sometimes hear the expression "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." This legend may have a number of facts as its basis, but has probably been exaggerated for entertainment value.
The first version of the legend states Johannes Katronnes Wilhelm is the father of John Benjamin Williams. So far all research shows that John's father was John Andrew Williams who was born in Germany as Johann Andreas Wilhelm. When an oral legend such as this is passed down over several generations, it's quite possible that the name "Johann Andreas" morphed into "Johannes Katronnes," especially when you consider that the eldest of John Benjamin Williams' children was only 10 when John died in 1851 on the plains of Missouri, far from any other relatives who may have been familiar with the story.
The story starts to fall apart, however, when you consider that Johann Andreas Wilhelm likely came to America with his parents when he was very young, based on existing family group sheets for his parents Justus and Clarissa. If he came to America as a toddler, then it is very unlikely he was a member of the Prussian Army. More research needs to be done to determine if, in fact, he did immigrate with Justus and Clarissa. There always remains the possibility that he was left behind for a time, and later joined the Prussians, or possibly was a part of the Hessian forces sent to America during the American Revolution. For that matter he could have been a member of the American forces, as he would have been 16 in 1776. He did marry Mercy Farrington, but she is not an Englishwoman. Her family did come from England, but they arrived in Massachusetts in the 1600s. Not much is known about his early life, or any fortunes he may have amassed, but he was indeed a farmer in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. John's son John Benjamin did indeed join the Mormon Church shortly after John died, but John Benjamin had married Clarissa nearly fours years before that, so that part of the story is not entirely accurate. As for any family fighting over inheritance, Clarissa's journal mentions nothing.
Roy: Well, the furthest I know is tradition about this old man, now it was handed down that his name was Johannes Katronnes, but I don't think there ever was such a man. I think he was trying to be funny, for his grandkids, making up a name for himself see because John A. Wilhelm is the old man that is buried back there.
John: Back in New York?
Roy: Yeah, and the descendents claim him as, you know the other descendents, not ours that came out west, that that's the old man.
John: So do you suppose he's the one that deserted the Prussian Army and swam the Rhine River and all that, hitchhiked across the Atlantic?
Roy: Well he might have been, kind of color up his stories.
John: Yeah, some of that may have been entertainment value.
Roy: Yeah that's right because some of the things that they've handed down an it's leaked to me around by other people, like some guy named Carroll up there that's...
John: Paul Wayne Carroll
Roy: Yeah and people like that, they don't have this swimmin' the Rhine story. But the hell of it is, the old man, the tradition come down through our family said he has a knapsack full of bread, he'd saved it so he'd have stuff to eat when he deserted and a razor, a big razor. And I didn't see the razor, somebody stole it from the ranch up there before I was big enough to know there was a razor. My dad said the blade on that razor was that long ( Roy indicates ten inches), just a giant thing, and the old man swam the Rhine River with that.
John: Which your Dad had and he got it from his Dad, along with the story.
Roy: That's right. But the rest of them, they didn't get it that he swam the Rhine and was a deserter. He worked his way over on a freighter. Maybe if he was on the docks when the German Army, I don't suppose he'd wear a sign around on his back saying, "I'm the old boy that deserted the army and swam the Rhine River with a razor and a knapsack full of bread and I've got me a job now and I'm goin' to the States."
Roy: Yeah, oh yeah John Benjamin was John A's son or whoever that old man's name was. He probably got two or three names. In fact, look at Wilhelms now, we don't know whether we're Wilhelms or Williams. We've kicked it back and forth playin' ping pong with the name. But he probably did that, being a deserter, he probably had two or three titles that he swung back and forth. That's what fouls it up.
Johannes Katronnes Wilhelm may very well be Johann Andreas Wilhelm, with some embellishments tossed in for entertainment value. Until more is learned about his early life one can not really dismiss the story out of hand. While there are certainly inaccuracies in the legend that may have been introduced through several generations of oral tradition, there are also some grains of truth. It is hoped that as more of this man's descendents contribute to this site, we will learn who he really is. If your branch of the family has any lore handed down about him, please use the discussion tab above to document it.