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"Gene" is the traditional name of the eldest immigrant ancestor of the Illinois Eighners. His given name as Gene actually appears on a few documents, but he is John in census records and his own burial record.
According to legend Gene fought (or at least served) in Napoleon's cavalry (dragoons) before coming to America. There is a portrait of Dragoons which has been inscribed with Gene's name and "1850."
The timeline of history is not very kind to this legend. In 1850 Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte had been elected president of the Second Republic, but the coup which resulted in his becoming Napoleon III did not occur until 1851. By all accounts, Gene was a generation too late to have ever served Napoleon or Napoleon II. However, it can be assumed that France maintained some armed forces throughout the period, so although "fought under Napoleon" is unlikely to be correct for any of the Napoleons, "served in a unit established by one of the Napoleons" is perfectly possible.
Remarkably enough, there is yet another legendary portrait of Gene, from Joe Eighnor's branch of the family, which depicts Gene as a French infantry man. Clearly the idea that Gene had some connection with the French military goes back to the family's first appearance in Illinois.
A footnote to the legend is a story that the family records were burn in a dispute over the spelling of the family name. This, very conveniently, explains why the legendary story cannot be proved and why the family origins are obscure.
The only official document found so far that actually includes the name "Gene Eighner" is Amelia Matson's death certificate which lists "Gene Eighner" as her father. Louise's death record, or at least its Family Search transcription, shows her father as "John Eiyhuer." Many mysteries are resolved, however, by John Eighner's Obituary. Gene's son's obituary ties the brothers and sisters together. Oddly enough, the register of the son John's death states his father is "Samuel" (or so the Family Search transcription claims). We know Gene existed from Amelia's death certificate. We know he became known as John because John is Frank's father in the 1900 census. And we know Frank and Amelia are brother and sister from their brother John's obituary.
A major question is that of John's age (or date of birth). In his death record he is 93 in 1918, which would make his birthdate 1825 or 1826. In the 1900 census he is reported as being born in May, 1835. In the 1880 census he seems to be 55, which would make his date of birth 1825, give or take. Claudia puts it at 1828 in her Mormon records. All of these seem plausible in light of the ages of the children.
My father's second wife Claudia, without the benefit of census records, seemed also to think that Gene's immigration was later, for she has entered in her Mormon record submissions that John, the son, was also born in France. In the 1900 census John (Gene) is reported as having immigrated in 1860. That would make Louise and George born overseas too.
It seems possible Gene did not immigrate at all, or at least immigrated much earlier, perhaps as a child himself. The children are fairly consistent in reporting their father came from France and spoke French and their mother Frances Smith was born in Alsace or Germany or Austria and spoke German. Most of the children most of the time are reported to the census as being born in Ohio, but occasionally it is Kentucky.
The preponderance of the evidence suggests Gene was born in 1825, within one year more or less, he immigrated about 1850, and died in Indiana in 1918. John, his son, was born in Ohio or Kentucky, in either case growing up on an Ohio farm, and moving to Illinois about the time of his marriage in 1875.
We still know next to nothing about Gene's wife Frances. Most of her children, most of the time, say she was born in Germany, but occasionally it is France or Alsace. If we accept that John, the son, was born in America, as I do, then it is possible that Gene met and married her in America. One researcher has guessed her maiden name might have been Schmidt or Smith. "Frances Smith" is listed on Amelia's death record, and like "Gene Eighner" this is the only official document I have found so far that bears Francis's maiden (or possibly previous married) name. So here it is Frances Smith. Joe had only daughters, but George had a son Birchel who used the spelling "Eighnor." Whether this was his choice, his mother's choice, or George's preference at the time is not entirely clear.
Apparently there was a dispute concerning the family name. Colorful lore aside, Joe consistently spelled his name Eighnor and George's name is so spelled occasionally. (This is aside from bureaucratic misspellings all of us who bear the name are used to.)
The spelling thing is a constant hazard. Louise's death certificate has her father's name spelled "Eiyhuer." Amelia's name is spelled "Igner" in the Illinois marriage index (and her husband's name is different too, although he may have changed it deliberately). The family name is spelled "Ayner" on one census sheet and "Eighmie" on another, perhaps because there is a family that really has the name Eighmie in the vicinity.
Photo: Bonnie Kamps Collection
|820||1068||John Agner||33||M||.||"[day Labor]||.||.||France||.||.||.||.|
"Population schedules of the eighth census of the United States, 1860,Ohio" Retrieved 07 April 2016. Archive.org https://archive.org/stream/populationschedu979unit#page/n35/mode/1up and https://archive.org/stream/populationschedu979unit#page/n34/mode/1up
|— Louise||W||F||23||Wife||/||/||keeping House||Ohio||France||France|
|Agner George||W||M||19||Son||/||Worker on Farm||Ohio||France||France|
|— Frank||W||M||17||Son||/||Worker on Farm||Ohio||France||France|
|— Joseph||W||M||12||Son||/||at School||/||Kentucky||France||France|
Census Image Detail excerpted from Archive org United States. Bureau of the Census; United States. National Archives and Records Service. 10th census, 1880, Illinois [microform] ([197-]) Reel 0254 - 1880 Illinois Federal Population Census Schedules - Tazewell (cont'd: ED 253, sheet 3-end), Union, and Vermilion (part: EDs 1-207, sheet 4) Counties; detail Butler Township, Vermilion County, sheet 213 A. https://archive.org/stream/10thcensus0254unit#page/n583/mode/1up
|— Laura||Daughter||W||F||Jun||1888||11||S||Illinois||Ohio||Sweden||at school||8||yes||yes||yes|
|Surname||Given Name||Age||Month||Day||Year||Where they died||Book||Page||Vet||Cemetery|
|Death Date:||11 Nov 1934|
|Death Place:||Milford Twp,|
|Race or Color:|
|Estimated Birth Year:||1853|
|Birth Date:||17 Jul 1853|
|Father's Birth Place:||France|
|Mother's Birth Place:||Germany|
|Spouse:||John N. Reed|
|Burial Date:||14 Nov 1934|
|Digital Folder Number:||4008372|
"Illinois, Deaths and Stillbirths, 1916-1947," index, FamilySearch: accessed 12 Sep 2012), Louise Reed, 11 Nov 1934; citing reference 43878, FHL microfilm 1712220.
Birth year is clearly wrong as all the censuses are consistent with birth in 1857, and 1853 is before her parents immigrated. "Amisty" should read "Aminty." "Eiyhuer" should read "Eighner." "Goodwine" is an unincorporated area. Google Maps now says the cemetery is in "Lovejoy IL". Spouse most likely should be "John W Reed."
Relationship to Lars: GGreat Grandfather
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Index of Surname Lists extracted from the Social Security Death Master file (aka SSDI)