The Cliffords, Part 1: Brick Wall Immigrants

AF_Vollmer_Hamburger_Hafen_1840 wikicommons

Featured Image: Hamburger Hafen (Port of Hamburg) by Adolph Friedrich Vollmer, 1840.

Ah, yes. Clifford. Kliefoth. The family that made me want to study German Genealogy in college. And I studied for four years and still didn’t find them. But they will be found. Someday. They originated in Germany as Kliefoth (pronounced like “klee-fote”), and the spelling of their surname varies from record to record, but by the second generation in America, they had settled on “Clifford” as their Americanized name.

The earliest record I have is a ship record from Hamburg, Germany in 1854. At the time, Hamburg was a self-ruling City-State and part of the German Confederation. It was a very popular seaport as well. L. Kliefoth, born in “Tehsendorf,” Mecklenburg (Mecklenburg was another state in the German Confederation), and his wife Sophie (which in German would be pronounced like “Sophia”), departed Hamburg on the ship Aurora on 16 September 1854. New York passenger lists have them arriving on 23 November 1854, as L. Klieforth, 35 years old (born about 1819), and Sophie 30 years old (born about 1824). The approximate birth dates calculated from those ages match up quite well with other records. Sophie’s obituary says she was born on 8 January 1821, and census and tombstone records indicate that Lewis was born in about 1819.

Kliefoth Hamburg Shiplist

The Cliffords in the Hamburg shiplists.

The Hamburg passenger record mentioned above says that L. Kliefoth was born in “Tehsendorf” in Mecklenburg. This is apparently a misspelling of “Teschendorf.” There are three places called Teschendorf` in Mecklenburg.  Some other researchers and I looked through microfilms of church books in Mecklenburg in these three Teschendorfs and surrounding cities to look for any birth or marriage records that might be L. Kliefoth and Sophia. The search was not very successful. We did find a child named Johann Friedrich Ludwig Kliefoth born in 1821 in Goldenitz, but there was no way to tell if this child was our Lewis J. Clifford or not. We looked in the 1819 Mecklenburg Census as well, and there were a lot of Kliefoths, but since Lewis J. was born around 1819, it’s possible he wasn’t even alive during the census, and we couldn’t find any record of him there. We also wrote to the Schwerin archives to see if they had a record of him in their immigration records. They found no Kliefoths except for one named Johann Friedrich Christoph Kleefoth from Hagenower Heide. That didn’t seem to be a match.

If I were to do a search in Germany again, I would try and find a marriage record in Hamburg. Other records indicate they were married in about 1853, and I know they were married in Germany because they were married when they got on the ship. We couldn’t find any marriage records for them in the places we searched in Mecklenburg, so maybe they were married in Hamburg. The problem is, Hamburg is such a big place, there are a ton of records and they are not indexed. I need to find more information from American records to narrow down where to look in German ones.

Buffalo, NY 1855 The Ladies Depository vol 15

Buffalo, New York, 1855. The Cliffords were living about 10 miles away in Lancaster.

I have been able to find a lot of info on the Cliffords in America. They arrived in New York Harbor on 23 November 1854 and by June 1855 they were living in Lancaster, New York, on the northern part of the state near Buffalo. The population of Lancaster in 1855 was 5,489. There were a lot of other Germans living in the area. Lewis and Sophia were living in a shanty with their six month old daughter. Lewis was working as a “laborer,” meaning he did odd jobs for a living. Five years later he was still a laborer and they were still living near Buffalo, this time in West Seneca. They had two children, Mary and Frederich. The 1870 Census shows their third child, Charles, was also born in New York. Sometime after his birth in 1863, they moved to Iowa.

Marengo Barn.jpg

An old barn in Marengo, Iowa. Photo via Flickr user Carl Wycoff, CC license.

I have a copy of a deed stating that Lewis and Sophia “Cleiforth” purchased 40 acres of land near Marengo, Iowa in May 1867. This may have been when they moved there, or they may have moved earlier and boarded somewhere before they bought the land. in the 1870 census they were living in the same area with Mary, 16, Fred, 12, and Charles, 7. Lewis was a citizen at this time according to the 1870 census (he was not a citizen in 1855 and it was not recorded in 1860), but I have not seen any naturalization records for him. If I could find his naturalization papers, they might have some more information about his origins in Germany.

I found Lewis in the 1870 Agricultural Schedule which tells a little bit about the family farm. He owned 3 pigs, 2 milk cows, and 3 other cattle in 1870, and produced 30 bushels of wheat and 25 bushels of corn. His land included 6 acres of unimproved woodland. In comparison with the other farmers in the area, his looks very small.

Lewis J Clifford gravestone

Lewis J. Clifford, tombstone, photo via

Lewis J. Clifford died on October 15, 1873. He was buried in Bishop Cemetery, Marengo, Iowa. He was 54 years old. His children were all under the age of 21 when he died. Sophia married again a few years later to a William Bonatz, but they were later divorced. Bonatz was also from Mecklenburg, but I have not done much research on him. He might be worth looking into.

The same year Lewis died, his daughter Mary, age 19, married Heinrich Schumacher. They had several children and most of their descendants remained in Iowa. Many of them are still there.

This story will be continued in a future post: The Cliffords, Part 2: Family Scandal.


5 thoughts on “The Cliffords, Part 1: Brick Wall Immigrants

  1. Thanks Leanna! I’m glad I could bring their story to life. Hopefully someday I can trace them back to Germany and learn even more about their history.

  2. Mary, I finally got to sit down and read this. Thank you for your genealogy work on our family. Reading about our ancestors and where they come from is so very interesting. I look forward to Part2.
    Joyce Wakefield ( your mom’s cousin)

  3. Pingback: The Cliffords, Part 2: Family Scandal | The Handwritten Past

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