Return of the Native

I’m still on a genealogy roll, this time targeting my daughter’s paternal line. We were surprised a few years ago to discover that one strain we had considered to be solidly German, rooted firmly in the Rhineland-Palatinate, was in fact predominantly Swiss. How strange that we had come to live in Switzerland in the early 1970’s without any idea at all of “returning to native soil”. 

I touched a little on the situation in the Palatinate in the seventeenth century in two posts a few years ago (here and here) and in my last post about the Huguenots I mentioned the Thirty Years War and the invasions of Louis XIV that had caused devastation in the area west of the Rhine. As the turmoil slowed down, Swiss and Tyroleans came in to repopulate the area and of course  they intermarried with the remaining inhabitants as well as among themselves. 

As I dived further and further back into our family history, I found more and more well-documented Swiss ancestors. There’s a minor challenge in sorting out who’s who, because not only are names spelled phonetically (Gut – Guth – Gutt – Guttan – Good is all the same) and quite often diminutives are used, so you need to know that in Swiss German Joggeli is Jakob and Welti is Walter, for instance. Women also sometimes have the suffix -in added to their surname (Guthin, wife or daughter of Mr Guth). 

Following some of these individuals back even further brought me to a single village in the canton of Zurich, not really far from our present homes, and eventually all the lines converged into just two couples who lived in the second half of the sixteenth century. 

Fridli Wydler – what a wonderful name! – (1566-1648) married at nineteen and fathered nineteen children that we know of. Eighteen of them were legitimate. His first wife died in 1604 giving birth to her tenth child, his mistress bore him a child in July 1605, and he then married another woman who gave birth to his twelfth child in December 1605. This was followed by another seven. There’s an age gap of thirty-six years between the youngest and the oldest. Presumably, he must have had income from somewhere, but apart from siring children I can find no record of his occupation. I think he was probably a farmer. Most of his children survived, married, and had children of their own so it isn’t surprising that so many lines lead back to Fridli Wydler.

The other gentleman whose name keeps popping up among the great-great-grandfathers is Hans Gut. We know quite a lot more about him, so first a little background.

Tax records have been kept scrupulously in Switzerland for many centuries and provide a surprising amount of information, so we know that a certain Rudi Guttan (Rudolf Gut), born in 1370 in Obfelden/ZH, had at least six children and was paying taxes on his farm, called the Meyerhof, in the village of Ottenbach in 1412. Rudi’s son Welti (Walter) and his grandson Klaus (Niklaus) continued to pay taxes on the same farm from 1450 to 1493. Klaus had two sons, Hans (Johannes) and Heini (Heinrich), who paid the taxes between 1505 and 1517. 

It would seem that Heini stayed at home and ran the farm while Hans went off to find adventure in the Swiss army. In 1513 he was a sergeant in the military march and siege of Dijon, Burgundy, by the troops of the Old Swiss Confederation, and in 1515 went to fight in the historic battle at Marignan in Italy where the Swiss were routed by the French (this was the last battle the Swiss ever fought on foreign territory, though there were a few internal skirmishes over the next few centuries). 

Hans survived all his battles and obviously did well as a consequence of his military exploits, as on his return he bought the large Jauch farm at Knonau in 1517, as well as paying tax jointly on the Meyerhof. 

He lost his second son, Junghans Gutt in 1531 in the religious battle at Kappel am Albis under the leadership of the Swiss Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, against the Catholics. Zwingli was also killed in this battle. 

Hans figures in the records as “Military Hans”, and died between 1536 and 1544. I can find no information about his brother Heini, who seems to have died without issue, so the Meyerhof farm remained in the hands of soldier Hans’ two remaining sons – another Hans born in 1495 and Heinrich born in 1500. 

This is the Hans Gut– often referred to as Judge Hans Gut, because he served as a provincial judge in Maschwanden bei Ottenbach for the district of Knonau – to whom all lines lead back. Either his wife or his mother had the unusual name of Marignons.

Judge Hans Gut had eight sons and three of these – Peter, Andreas and Paul – turn out to be ancestors of my daughter, as their descendants inter-wed. Untangling the births, marriages and deaths during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was something like those puzzles we used to get where you have several anglers with their lines tangled and you have to sort out who has caught which fish. The surnames Gut, Wydler, Meier, and one or two others, constantly recur: families were very large, and the village wasn’t. The same Christian names are also used over and over again, but fortunately there are some clever people on the internet genealogy sites who have figured it all out, so as they quoted their sources I’m pretty sure I have finally got it sorted.

Once again, during the process I learnt a lot of history. 

The three Gut brothers in our tree appear to have been Anabaptists, especially Andreas who was the leader of the local Anabaptist community. This is interesting because their grandfather had fought with Zwingli, who was strongly opposed to the Anabaptists and even persecuted and executed them (by drowning – ironically and cruelly referred to as “their last baptism”). And as the idea of a division between religion and state was unheard of at the time, I don’t think their father would have been allowed to be a Judge if he had been an Anabaptist.

I was saddened to read the accounts of how badly the Anabaptists were treated by their countrymen who claimed to be Christians but it’s nothing new – nowadays this ugly face of intolerance wears the mask of identity politics. My first impression had been that the Swiss who emigrated to the Palatinate had done so chiefly for economic reasons, but as I looked at the events during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries I realised that religion must also have played its part. Some of those who travelled up the Rhine stopped and settled on the way, and these include some of my daughter’s forebears. Others continued, spreading out as far as Russia and the Ukraine to the east, or undertaking the perilous journey to the New World to the west. 

The following was posted by Axel Gut (Canada) in 2011:

“During a cantonal census of Zurich in 1634, seventeen GUT families were recorded, all of them from Ottenbach parish and the five surrounding villages. When the Anabaptists or Dunkards appeared in the Zurich cantonal area, many GUT families were involved from the beginning as they were during the uprising in the Zurich lowlands around 1550.

At that time, a Melchior GUT was recorded as a Dunkard and under pressure of opposition, emigrated from the Zurich area to the village of Finsterthuelen. From this Melchior GUT probably originate all the Mennonite GUTs/GOODs in Germany and America.

The persecution of the Anabaptists in Switzerland resulted in large emigration out of the country. A great grandson of this Melchior GUT by the name of Jakob GUT [born 1639] was arrested as a Dunkard in 1660, taken to prison in Bern Canton, and together with ten comrades, shipped down the Rhine River and out of Switzerland. Jakob with his wife Barbli settled in Kraichgau in northwest Wuerttenberg, Germany.

Many GUT families also emigrated to the Alsace and the Rheinpfalz/Palatinate [Southwest Germany], where the Thirty Years War [1618-1648] devastated the area. After the war, settlers from other parts of Germany and Switzerland were attracted to help repopulate the area. Then in 1674 and 1675 the French invaded the area. Again from 1688 to 1689 the War of the Palatinate occurred, and the French General Melac laid waste to the whole area, making it almost uninhabitable. People were driven from their homes in the dead of winter. In addition the people were taxed excessively, so that the German Princes could emulate the French court by building palaces and gardens. The religious persecutions took many forms. The Electors-Rulers of the Palatinate changed their religions four times in as many reigns. With each change the people were expected to follow the lead of their rulers. An extremely cold winter in 1709 brought much suffering and was the last straw for many.

Did the GUT/GUTHs arrive from Switzerland as settlers in the Palatinate and did they, as did many others, find life there unbearable, and left?”  

(This last sentence links with my post From the Welsh Border to the Palatinate. 

21 thoughts on “Return of the Native

  1. This is great work, Cat! It is quite amazing how much you were able to find out so far. That people had so many children, is quite remarkable. Some people had to be willing to die in fights. When people ran out of room, they had to migrate.
    “Fridli Wydler – what a wonderful name! – (1566-1648) married at nineteen and fathered nineteen children that we know of. Eighteen of them were legitimate.”
    In those days women that were able to bear children and were married had to just continue bearing children. How could a woman stop her husband to make her pregnant over and over again? And when the first woman died in childbirth, it was normal for the husband to marry again and have more and more children with the second wife as well. And this Fridli had in between a mistress who was good enough to bear him a child, but of course he did not have to marry her, he married another women instead! 🙂
    I think, one reason why large families were not discouraged maybe was, that it could happen, that not many children survived the first five years of their lives.

    • I think in the Western world, it’s only in the last 70 years or so that women have been freed from the onus of permanent child-bearing. My great.grandmother gave birth to 14 chidden, of whom only 4 survived to adulthood. My parents both came from large families, but the latest generations are fortunate in having a choice. I feel deeply for all those poor women in the past who were almost constantly pregnant and/or nursing, and either died in childbirth or worn out as soon as their childbearing years were over. I can’t help disliking Fridli Wydler!

  2. Wow what a knowledge you have gleaned and such an interesting one, totally fascinating. I love that like a magnet you’re drawn back full circle.
    I only know a little about my family (and I’m the illegitimate one adopted out) but 10 years ago I was at a family wedding on my biological father’s side ( in Northern Ireland) and met a family member who told me the family can be traced back to France. I too found it an incredible but life affirming coincidence that I too had come full circle back to an origin of sorts. I’d love to investigate it further.

    Fabulous work!

  3. Wow. This is fantastic stuff. How in the world could Fridli Wydler have time for a career–aside from planting seed? Good grief. But yes, I agree that large families were the rule in previous centuries because so many offspring died before reaching adulthood. But oh, those poor women. Ugh.

  4. Maybe he had a lot of property and had other people working for him! How many of his children did reach adulthood? If many of his children had a lot of surviving children, wouln’t this show a great gene pool?

  5. It”s a great gift to be able to bring these people back to life by considering the social history aspects meshed in with the historical fact. Absolutely gripping!! ❤

  6. Hello, I’m your daughter’s friend Helen! Mel suggested I read your lastest post – it is absolutely fascinating, particularly as I have been reading a lot about the history of Zürich, Zwingli and the Anabaptists in the last year. You have done a fabulous job! Incidentally you have also inspired me to go back to my own genealogy research, which has been on the back burner for a while – not so exciting, mostly farm workers, sailors and minors in the NE of England and lowland Scotland!

    • Hi Helen, welcome to my blog! You may be able to throw some more light on that dark time. I also have a bunch of ag.labs and miners – no sailors so far – whose lives can prove just as interesting when you look at their situations. Go for it!

  7. Yes, and with all those enormous unsustainable families in the past, there was the catholic Church egging the women on to ‘Let the little ones come’. Any form of contraception was frowned upon, even including ‘leaving the church before the end of the Mass’. ( withdrawing before the ‘happy’ end)
    Religion has a lot to answer for.

    Very interesting article, I loved reading all of them.

  8. It appears we are distant relatives! I found your blog through a google search for Fridli Wydler, our oldest proven ancestor. My last name is Weidler, which was changed from the Swiss spelling when Fridli’s son, Jacob Weidler moved to germany. If you search Amazon for the book: “michael weidler, antecedents and descendants” you will find a book that details the lineage of Fridli wydler and even his assumed (but not proven) parents and grandparents all the way back to 1475!

      • I am currently living in Minneapolis. The majority of my extended family remains in Lancaster, Pa, where the first Weidler’s settled after moving to the colonies from Germany.

      • Interesting to know. I looked up the book, which looks very informative for all the Weidlers in the USA. Are the Weidlers in Lancaster Amish? As far as I can tell, Fridli Wydler is our most recent common direct ancestor, as your ancestor Michael was descended from Fridli’s son Jakob. Our line comes from Fridli’s son Johannes (1597-1661). Fridli’s putative father may have been Hans b. 1542 in Albisrieden – prior to that I have no information about the family,.

      • Catterel,

        Yes the book is mainly about my line of lineage but it goes back all the way to Fridli. No we are not amish, from what I know some of my ancestors may have been Anabaptist, however. The amish are very prevalent in Lancaster, and my relatives there have them as their neighbors. Very Interesting! I did not know Fridli had so many children, was Johannes from his second wife? I wish we knew more about them and their lives, I find it all so fascinating. My sister has moved to Munich and is not far from where Jakob moved to in Bavarian from Switzerland, she loves it there.

      • I have no information on the Wydler family prior to Fridli, except that his father was Hans. Jakob (or Jacob) was the son of Anna Schnebli, Fridli’s second wife (married about 1605). Jakob was born in 1622- died 1679 , married on 12. November 1644, in Ottenbach, Zürich (Switzerland), to Barbara Hofstetter 1623-1678. I can give you more information if you let me have your e.mail address, it’s too much to write here! Your sister obviously also has a “homing instinct”!

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