How Jersey Am I?

My ancestors arrived in New Jersey before General Washington set up his first camp. Trying to rake the leaves from my family tree is a full-time job.

I’m standing in my living room trying to find enough wall space to tape up all 46 pages of a Melick family tree, squinting at rows and rows of Johns, Marys, Elizabeths, and my favorite, Tunises. It’s a great recreational pursuit if you like following flowcharts, but a little more daunting if you’re squinting at two-point type, looking for the one name that will provide the connecting link between a tree dating to the 1500s and a simpler one crafted by my great uncle in the 1970s.

For years I’ve been asked Are you by any chance related to…? and mumbled my standard non-response, “Oh, we are probably fifth cousins, though I don’t know for sure.” You see, I’m a ninth-generation New Jerseyan, so coming up with an answer isn’t as easy as you might think. The question pops up often when I journey to Somerset, Warren, or Hunterdon counties, but it even arises outside New Jersey; the big family tree was given to me a few years ago by a Melick I met in New York on a chance encounter in my office building.

I am told that the family—Johann Peter and his brothers Johannes and Gottfried—came to America from Germany in the 1700s. According to one family legend, one of these brothers left the little town of Bendorf-am-Rhein “two steps ahead of the law,” turning up some years later as a New Jersey farmer. A more reliable source is The Story of an Old Farm, written in 1889 by Andrew D. Mellick, who took up writing after becoming crippled in a riding accident. In his account, the Moelichs (as the name was originally spelled), German Palatines, likely left the old country to escape political repression and religious persecution. What is undisputed is that there have been many farmers in the family, and the Protestant faith runs strong in my branch of it: Both my grandfather and my great-great-grandfather married daughters of Methodist ministers. The latter, Thomas H. Jacobus, preached in churches in Belleville, New Providence, Bayonne, Summit, Nutley, and Somerville, before dying in 1895 of a heart attack mid-sermon while preaching in Jersey City.

There seem to be three basic spellings of the name: Melick, Mellick, and Malick. By the late 1800s, Melick had apparently become the most common; George B. Melick of Oldwick has quipped, “There’s a standing joke in the Melick family that the Mellicks had enough money to afford two ls in their name.” The pronunciation of the family name has been a point of disagreement for as long as I can remember. The first syllable, as pronounced by most of the clan, rhymes with tree, but there are many dissenters. I clearly recall a wedding where two mee-licks were formally announced, followed directly by two meh-licks. Well before I was born, my father got so tired of correcting people that he cold-called twenty strangers to ask how they would pronounce M-E-L-I-C-K. The experiment produced only one correct answer. After that he became a meh-lick.

I am happy to report that, with the help of a magnifying glass, I finally found, on page seventeen, Edwin Melick (1824–1896), my great-great-grandfather and the elusive family-tree connection. But lest you think my roots here go deep, consider the case of a cousin of mine: he actually married a woman whose ancestors are also on that family tree hanging in my living room. Now that’s what you call being a New Jersey family.


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