Haven’t You Finished That Family Tree Yet?

Haven’t you finished that family tree yet?
I’d love to see it when it’s finished.
Send me a printout when it’s done.

They sound like reasonable comments, but not to me. A family tree, like a living tree, is never finished. There will always be new rootlets and twigs.  It’s like a Mandelbrot set, the more you zoom in, the more detail appears. The information on my online trees at ancestry.com would fill quite a book already – and that’s without all kinds of extra links, photos, documents and additional anecdotes. Moreover, I have been focussing on past generations, ignoring the thousands of descendants currently alive today.

I’m still working on our West German forebears. It’s notoriously difficult to trace the lives of ancestors who lived in the area of Germany to the west of the Rhine bordering France, because for centuries this was the constant theatre of war, and always lay in the path of armies moving from one battle to the next as they marched up and down the Rhine, living off the land, plundering and pillaging on the way.

The Romans marched in, settled, and were driven out again by the Alemannic tribes, who in turn succumbed to the Franks. Dukes, bishops, barons and counts bickered and fought amongst themselves, and their subjects always suffered most.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth century, marauding mercenaries wreaked havoc, and in the seventeenth century plague and pestilence combined with almost unceasing military conflict, first with the Thirty Years War and then as the Sun King sought to extend his domains to the banks of the Rhine. Those who survived frequently emigrated to Eastern Europe or America. Swiss and Tyroleans were brought in to repopulate the region, and finding reliable information earlier than 1700 is a challenge.

Interestingly, however, once you get back to the seventh or eighth generation of grandparents, the same names keep appearing in different family trees, and you realise just how closely the population of the Palatinate is related! Families with ten or twelve children were not uncommon and there was a great deal of intermarrying among cousins. Someone, somewhere, must have built up an enormous family tree showing how we are all one huge happy (?) family.

Now and then, an interesting character or story emerges from my Dead Peasants Society that moves or surprises me. I’ve already written about some of these, and another one turned up yesterday. Among the farmers and millers, linen weavers and innkeepers, I discovered some sixteenth-century scholars.

When the Duke of Zweibrücken converted to Lutheranism, all the catholic priests in his duchy were replaced by Lutherans.  Our ancestor Johann Gelan or Glahn (latinised to Gelanus) born in 1503, became a protestant priest and schoolmaster in the village of Pfeffelbach bei Kusel, which was Lutheran from 1523.Pfeffelbach pfeffelbach2

In 1532 Johannes and his wife Katherina had a son, Johann Abraham, who followed in his father’s footsteps and also became a pastor and schoolmaster. His career is recorded as follows: 1553-54 schoolmaster in Obermoschel, 1555 student in Marburg, 1556 student in Strasbourg, 1557-58 student in Wittenberg, where Martin Luther had famously posted his 95 theses. In 1558 he clashed with one of his superiors, Heinrich Besold, at the convent in Kusel, over the question of consubstantiation, resulting in Johann Abraham being sent to serve under the well-respected theologian Cunmann Flinsbach in Zweibrücken, in order to clear away his Zwinglian ideas.  From 1558 until his death he was pastor in nearby Nünschweiler, where he died on 15 July 1591.

His son Johannes Georg, became Schultheiss or mayor of Nünschweiler, and his grandson Franz Ruprecht was also a well-revered pastor.

However, our family is descended not from Franz Ruprecht but from his brother, Johannes Nickel, a farmer. He and his wife Ottilia had a dozen children, all born during the Thirty Years War. The chances of survival were probably higher for the children of a farmer than for those of a pastor in those hard times. Not surprisingly, these were the ones who became millers, farmers, weavers and innkeepers rather than scholars. And lived long enough to have children and grandchildren of their own.

8 thoughts on “Haven’t You Finished That Family Tree Yet?

  1. Another fascinating story! We’re so lucky to have you in a position to be able to do this kind of research with the necessary language skills (German, French AND Latin!) ;O I think a lot of investigation is limited by language for many people when they begin investigations (particularly those in the US!). So far, it’s no holds barred for us…!! Wow.

    • I hadn’t realised quite what turbulent times the 16th and especially the 17th centuries were in the Paltinate – things got so bad that there are even allegations of cannibalism. Certainly no dogs and cats left. I’ve learnt a lot of history and geography on the way.

  2. Capturing it all in your blog us such a great idea, only the interested will visit and you’d be surprised by who they might be.
    I’d love to see a list on how you’ve gone about it, how your sources have expanded and how you access for instance parish refoyrces and tax records from so long along, albeit with the advantage of being a linguist. Your perseverance is to be admired and a real motivation.

    • Thank you Claire. Sometimes I think I’m all by myself down a rabbit hole, then discover I have company! So yes, maybe I could give a few pointers on how to find your long lost family. It certainly helps to have the relevant languages, but it is also a very enriching pastime in many ways. There is so much online nowadays, no need to go sneezing through dusty archives!

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