My Paternal Grandfather Frank Rier and the Rier Brothers from Germany

Grandfather Frank was born in Lubec, Maine, in May of 1890. He died before I was born on December 21, 1946 at the age of 55, his date of death recorded in a family bible. Mom told me he had a stroke and was disabled for some period of time before that. According to the census, Frank was a mechanic. We know that he had a garage in Lubec beside his home, that he fixed and detailed cars. The photo, circa 1919, shows my grandparents Frank and Elizabeth (Keegan) Rier. Grammy is holding their son Paul, standing beside Marion and my father, James “Gene” Rier.

The Rier family did not keep much for records, not beyond my father and his eight brothers and sisters. There were only stories. I need to spend some time this summer in the cemeteries of Lubec. There, I must search for the first Rier in Lubec, who according to legend, arrived not long after the Revolutionary War. According to that legend, there were two Rier brothers who crossed the Atlantic from County Hess Germany to fight for the British. They “jumped ship,” defected to the American cause. One brother went to Canada, the other to Lubec, Maine, USA.

Now there are a couple of problems with this story. Yes, the Rier brothers may have defected – or been captured and put into service for the American rebellion. But, if so, both brothers would have remained in the US.

In my lifetime, another scenario emerged. The Rier brothers fought for the British and after the war took ship from New York City to Shelburne, Nova Scotia with other loyalists and British soldiers who did not wish to return to Europe. African slaves who served the British also were sent there by ship and granted their freedom. All met harsh conditions, white and black, overcrowding, starvation and disease. Eventually, one brother set out for Lubec, or perhaps it was his descendants that did so. After the first ship of loyalists arrived in 1783, the conditions in Shelburne rapidly deteriorated with a population that swelled to 32,000. There were race riots in 1784 and the economy collapsed by the late 1780s. A lack of agricultural land, a collapse of the whale fishery and poor inland trade routes led four fifths of the population to leave. Thus, one Rier brother may have sought safety and better conditions to establish his home. It would not have be too difficult for a former soldier who fought for the British to find his way to Lubec, a hop, skip and jump from nearby Canada. After all, Benedict Arnold took shelter across the bay on Campobello Island.

Residents of the Maritimes and the coast of Downeast Maine did not live by borders of countries, Canadian or American. Smuggling of goods and people was a way of life. American goods could be smuggled into Canada, British goods in the opposite direction, at great profit, for it seems neither the British nor the US customs could control Maritime residents and bend them to their laws. These people were bound to the sea and the land to eke out a living any way they could without dependence on country borders or their laws.

According to my cousin Frank, the original Rier homestead on this side of the Atlantic was in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. Had the first Rier in Lubec already left Canada? Was there one surviving family or two?

Well, for now, it is a mystery.

There could be practical reasons for maintaining the two family story. One day in the 1970s, my father got a call at his car dealership. The caller introduced himself as Robert Rier, a professor at Howard University in Washington DC. He had done extensive genealogical research, said he was a descendent of the Canadian branch of the Rier family, and was related to Dad.

This man paused and said, “I’m black.”

Dad replied, “Well, I’m white.” They had a long conversation and Dad stayed in touch with Robert and his family over the years. Dad was not surprised to find relatives of a different color. The family story was that the Riers held the genes of many races, Caucasian, African, Native American. Who knew? Robert had traced the Rier family back to Germany which matched our own stories, the name had been changed as many did in the Revolutionary War. His ancestor had married a black woman. Nearby Birchtown was the largest free settlement of  ethnic Africans in North America in the eighteenth century. Eventually, Robert’s family had immigrated from Canada to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, Rier descendants now scattered over North America, the Netherlands and a tropical island. Cool.

We don’t know whether the family of Robert Rier is our direct line of ancestors. As my brother David said, our own family must be traced back from Lubec to Germany. There is research to be done. I shall begin in Lubec cemeteries, documenting gravestones. In my memory, the first Rier there was Ingraham, a name of decided German origin. Dad used to point at his grave site as we drove by. Surely I can find it. Hopefully, I can still read the engravings on his stone. I’m guessing that the first Rier came to Lubec in the late 1780s to escape the conditions in Shelburne.

It is likely that Robert Rier’s ancestor and mine were brothers who came to America among 30,000 Hessian soldiers hired by the British in the Revolutionary War. One branch stayed in Canada, one came to Lubec. We know Paul Rier’s family lives in New Brunswick (who are white) and strangely own a car dealership as did my Dad, their names and facial features are similar to my family from Lubec, although there are no records to show that we are related.

Robert’s genealogical research is our first lead back to Germany – so valuable – and lends color and diversity to our family.

Photos. The family home of Frank and Elizabeth Rier in Lubec.

Photos of my grandparents, Frank and Elizabeth, and their family taken outside their Lubec home with Grammy’s sister Mary, and Dad’s younger sisters Patricia and Evelyn.

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One last story that Mom told me about Frank. Toward the end of his life, he was disabled by a stroke. Grammy had a special chair to keep him comfortable during the day. Before Frank went to bed each night, he said, “Put out the clock and wind the cat.” It is possible that only people from Lubec (or carry genes from there) understand this type of humor, twisting sentences around for fun. It gives me a peek into grandfather Frank’s personality.

Related post:

Ingraham and Mary Rier.

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