From Metz to Berlin in 9 Generations

The genealogy bug has begun inflicting its irresistible itch again, this time as a result of my investigations into the family background of my son-in-law. A year ago, I was following up the Swiss side of his family, but in the last week I’ve turned my attention to another aspect of his ancestry, his Huguenot lineage; in particular, those ancestors who made the remarkable trek from Metz and the “pays messin” in eastern France to Brandenburg, and settled in Berlin. Taking the various obligatory detours into account, that’s about a thousand kilometres. Usually on foot, sometimes on horseback or with a cart drawn by a donkey, ox or even a cow.

I didn’t know a lot about the Huguenots, just that they were French protestants who were persecuted under the Sun King Louis XIV and fled into exile. One of the positive side effects of genealogy is that it makes you aware of history and geography in a very personal manner. Why would more than 400 families, amounting to about 1600 individuals, undertake such a journey? Metz is close enough to the river Rhine and the German border: why didn’t they just settle in the neighbouring province of the Palatinate, which was tolerant towards protestants? Maybe some did, but French troops invaded the Palatinate with a scorched earth policy in 1688 so that wasn’t such a good idea.

Caravans of destitute refugees, desperately looking for a new home, aren’t a new phenomenon. 

This one was triggered in 1685 by Louis XIV revoking the edict of Nantes, which had allowed a certain religious tolerance to Protestants after the horrendous St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. Under the new Edict of Fontainebleau all Protestant ministers were given two weeks to leave the country unless they converted to Catholicism and all other Protestants were prohibited from leaving the country. Recollections of the massacre in the previous century inspired dread. In spite of the prohibition, the renewed persecution – including many examples of torture – caused as many as 400,000 to flee France at risk of their lives. About 20,000 of them relocated to Brandenburg.

The protestant community of the city of Metz and its surrounding area (the Messin) were invited by Elector Friedrich Wilhelm I to settle in Brandenburg which had been devastated by the 30 years war. In fact, most of what is now modern Germany had been laid waste by that war plus various other skirmishes in the first three-quarters of the 17th century. Friedrich Wilhelm offered all kinds of incentives to the Messin people and they were relieved to take him up on these. Fleeing with only what they could carry, but armed with plenty of skills and experience in their various trades and professions, the protestants of Metz made their way to Berlin. This was no holiday trip: various accounts of the hardships endured – especially vicious rejection, violence, imprisonment and persecution in the towns they passed through – are plentiful. Refugees are seldom welcome but Friedrich Wilhelm was happy to swell the numbers in his army and repopulate his ravaged lands.

The earliest forebear with the same surname as my son-in-law is first recorded in  Rauschenberg by Marburg, where he married on 21 October 1688. I haven’t been able to trace any antecedents either for him or his wife so I’m not sure which part of France they came from. The entry simply says they were refugees there. (NB: Correction – I have since found the names of his parents, so know that they came from Picardie.

However, once in Berlin the Huguenots formed a very close knit community and kept detailed BMD records in the church registers, which are written for the most part in clearly legible handwriting using the Latin script rather than the beautiful but hard to read old German script. After spending several hours reading the facsimiles of these on line, I discovered that some kind soul had transcribed the baptismal pages from 1685 to 1708, confirming much of what I had deciphered. 

These records are wonderful for their time: they give not only the names of bride and groom at weddings, but also their parents’ names and the men’s occupations, and death records often also show the time and cause of death, for instance: 

“Le 12° octobre à onze heures et demi du soir est mort d’hydropsie Guillaume Clavel âgé de 56 ans natif d’Orange. Il a été enterré le 16° au cimetière de la Fridericstadt.”

Baptisms include date of birth and mother’s maiden name as well as godparents’ names, such as:

“Mr Bancelin (père) a baptisé au temple de la Dorotheestadt Anne, fille de Pierre Claudeboulanger et de Judith Robert tous deux natifs de Metz. Parrain: Paul Thiriotbrasseur et Anne Claude, sa femme.”

The details in the entry above are useful to my research as there was another couple called Pierre Claude and Judith Robert, but he was a watchmaker. Both couples had a lot of children, so the father’s trade was decisive. In fact, I had a little difficulty sorting out Judith Robert, as there appear to be at least three women of this name and two of them appear in our family tree. Cross-referencing also confirmed that Anne Thiriot née Claude was the sister of the baker Pierre Claude. 

From these archives I was able to trace back other lines to three couples all born around 1650, who were the 8th great-grandparents of my son-in-law. Two of them are from Metz, but the third couple comes from Champagne: the husband from Dampierre and the wife from Château-Thierry in La Brie, which may go some way to explaining my dear SIL’s appreciation of fine wines and cheese.  

Later generations continued to use a mixture of French and German in their names, and if they had more than two Christian names they didn’t always list them in the same order. This complicates research, as Charles Frédéric Guillaume on his marriage certificate turns up as Karl Friedrich Wilhelm on his death certificate and Anne Marie Sophie Ernestine on her marriage certificate becomes Maria Anna Hedwig Ernestine on her death certificate.

One lady in particular caused me a headache. She was the first wife of a great-great-grandfather, and died in 1861. She was listed on the marriage certificate as Henriette Mathilde Büttner, daughter of Carl Büttner, born in 1822. The birth certificates of her children have both Henriette Mathilde née Büttner and Henriette Mathilde née Zuber. On her death certificate she is named as Agnes Mathilde née Zueber. Was this all the same woman, or were there two wives who coincidentally shared the name Mathilde, married and died in rapid succession? Then I found a baptismal certificate for Mathilde Henriette Felcke or Zuber, mother Felcke, father Zuber. Was she illegitimate? In the end, it turned out that her father Carl Büttner had died either just before or just after her birth, and her mother had remarried when she was 9 months old, so she was using the surnames of both her biological father and her stepfather. Where did the Agnes come from? No idea! Interestingly, after her death, her husband remarried: his second wife was Henriette Mathilde’s youngest sister who became my SIL’s  great-great-grandmother. 

Finally, I have to say that the nineteenth century German records are not only highly informative but that the clerks who filled in the forms usually had exquisite writing. My only problem is that the old German script is so elaborate that I can’t read it. Luckily, names are often written by the same hand in Latin script. Here’s an easy one:

10 thoughts on “From Metz to Berlin in 9 Generations

    • I’ve collected little potted biographies for so many people from these documents, looked up historical, political and geographical issues to clarify certain aspects, and even though I don’t have a clue in most cases what they look like, feel I know them. Military docs sometimes give physical details – I know one young man was 5’7″ tall, brown hair, blue eyes and a ruddy complexion!

  1. How interesting. I remember when at high school in Holland we were taught a bit of Alt Deutsch which was still around in the fifties. My daughters weren’t lucky in their choices of husbands, so I have no wish to dig into their pasts.
    The trouble that religions caused and still are causing.

    • Today we have identity politics causing just as much turmoil and hatred – I’ll never understand why humans can’t live together in peace. The Huguenots seem to have benefited every country they settled in – good old protestant work ethic!

  2. Oh gosh Catherine, you obviously have the patience of a Saint! Having tried to put some things together of my family, I give up readily. I’m lucky in that a cousin has done some extended research on one side of my husbands family and another cousin on my father’s side so I’m happy with that. Good hunting. Respect!

  3. I got on a roll when I discovered the wonderful Berlin Huguenot parish registers – so much detailed information and nice legible handwriting. I ended up with over a thousand records saved to the tree, and 334 individuals identified. Sadly, nothing prior to 1635 – but I’m not complaining!

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