From Rags to Riches

This week I have been allowed to borrow some very precious old documents with the family trees of my son-in-law, including a particularly ingenious arrangement of heirs in 1886 showing their consanguinity. This brought me back to the Eggs, who occupied my attention for a while a year ago, and it has finally allowed us to fill in some vital missing links as well as solving a few mysteries where several people shared the same name.

Digging around online in the roots of the tree, I came across the story of one of the earliest forebears, a man known as Pierre Arbensen  or d’Albenson – until he arrived in Zurich, at which point he became Peter Arbenz. 

I have mentioned before that many people in the olden days had a very cavalier attitude towards names, maybe because most of them couldn’t read and write so it was all phonetic. Pronouncing your name in a certain way probably created a more positive impact on the group you wanted to impress, or if your name sounded foreign to them they would translate it or say it as they perceived it. Clerks would then write down what they thought they heard.

Pierre Arbensen/d’Albenson aka Peter Arbenz was  born in 1543 in Torgnon in Châtillon, a French-patois speaking village high up in the Aosta Valley on the Italian side of the Matterhorn. The name seems to come from their pasture, called Albenson (which seems strange for a French-speaking area of Italy, but that’s another investigation!). 

The family scraped a living, with Pierre and his father selling satin, silk and coral, and his two brothers trading ironware, but life for this family was very hard in their desolate alpine village, especially in winter. After his father died in the mid 1500’s Pierre packed up his wares, crossed the Alps and made his way to the canton of Zurich to seek his fortune.

On 23 August 1567 “Peter Arbensen” appears as godfather at a baptism in Zurich cathedral (Grossmünster) and on 24 October 1567 he is “Petrus Arbesun” as godfather to another child in Winterthur. Eventually he arrived at the town of Elgg near Winterthur, where on 10 May 1570 he married Ursula, the daughter of a successful cloth merchant in the Vordergasse (High Street) who sported the splendid name of Pantaleon Mantel. This man – locally known as Pantli – was also from Torgnon but had been a citizen of Elgg since 1538. He may have been a friend of Peter Arbenz’s father, or simply a business acquaintance.

Their first child, Jacobea, was born on 21 October 1571 in Elgg but they soon moved to the town of Rapperswil where in 1571 Peter Arbenz paid 200 guilders to obtain citizenship. This wouldn’t be Swiss nationality, by the way, or even cantonal citizenship, but only that of the town of Rapperswil, allowing him to settle there and have the same rights and obligations as the native-born citizens. Their second child, Pantaleon, was born there in 1572. Also during their time in Rapperswil, Pantaleon Mantel died. In those days a wife’s property belonged to her husband, so on his father-in-law’s death Peter Arbenz inherited 3,200 pounds of which he had to render 300 pounds as inheritance tax to the canton of Zurich. 

In 1577 the young family moved to Andelfingen, a village in the centre of the canton, where Peter was charged 160 pounds as an “admission fee” and 80 pounds “Schirmgeld” or “protection fee” giving him the right of citizenship with permission to settle there and buy land. At first they lived in the “Kloster” which means monastery, but was in fact a farm later known as Felsenhof, and then they  bought the upper mill in Andelfingen. Peter and Ursula Arbenz had three more sons, Peter (1577), Martin (1580) and Antoine (1582) all born in Andelfingen. 

Peter Arbenz had at least two brothers back in Châtillon. Perhaps his success inspired his younger brother Petitpierre (Little Peter), who had been selling ironware in the Aosta Valley. In 1580 this young man also arrived in Andelfingen and set up as a merchant in the nearby village of Dorf. He married a local girl but had no children. However, in 1589, Antoine (Anton) the son of the third brother, another Panthaleon, also joined his uncle in Dorf bei Andelfingen where he married and fathered the Arbenz dynasty in Dorf.

I have to say that I was a bit confused by the name of Dorf, which means village, until I consulted a map and realised that there is actually a village called Village. This is also a family that likes to use the same names over and over again, so that has also been challenging. However, I think I’ve got it right now and have spouses and offspring, mills and farms, all correctly assigned.

Peter Arbenz’s son Pantaleon inherited the Kloster farm and the mill, but died in 1629 of the plague, which was ravaging the country at the time. Millers were especially vulnerable, as many rats were brought in with the sacks of grain, and it was the rats that spread the disease. In another branch of the Egg family tree, one miller lost his wife and five children to the plague in that same year.

However, on the whole the family was prospering.  Pantaleon’s eldest son, another Pantaleon or Pantli (1594-1645), is recorded as “Obermüller, Bärenwirt, Klosterbesitzer” (Miller of the Upper Mill, Innkeeper of the Bear Inn, Owner of Kloster farm) on his death record. When the farmers brought their grain to the mill, they would sit around waiting for it to be ground and during this time the miller would sell them a glass or two of beer or wine. Opening an inn was thus a logical progression and an opportunity to expand the miller’s business. It was also an chance for the miller and his family to glean all the local gossip and various insider tips, which gave them an advantage over the rest of the village.

Prosperity led to social rank and importance: mills were a lucrative business, millers married their sons and daughters into other millers’ families, and so the Arbenz family advanced, acquiring farms, mills and inns in Andelfingen. Not to mention wealth and status.

Pantaleon’s two sons, Pantli III and Hans Jakob, each had a farm and a mill, and seem to have kept the Bear Inn together. The records get a bit tricky at this point, as each of these brothers and most of their descendants kept using the names Pantaleon, Hans Jakob and Ursula in every generation of their families – quite discombobulating! After hours of comparing names and dates in various records and family trees – plus a lot of head-scratching! – I have figured out who’s who, and have managed to trace the descendance of Hans Jakob down to Ursula Arbenz who married Hans Caspar Egg in 1763, and was the daughter of Hans Conrad Arbenz, miller of the Halden Mill in Andelfingen. 

In more recent times, Jacobo Arbenz turned up as President of Guatamala in the early 1950’s, ousted in a coup organised by the CIA in 1954. Is the name a coincidence? No: he was the son of a Swiss immigrant, and also a descendant of Pantaleon and “our” Hans Jakob Arbenz from Andelfingen.

8 thoughts on “From Rags to Riches

  1. Consanguinity. Yes, people sharing names and bloodlines was very common not all that long ago. Back in 1965 when I was In Finland I was surprised that my late wife Helvi had the same surname ‘Tyni’ as the name of the village she was born and grew up in, ‘Tyni’. Not just that, but most of the villagers also shared Tyni as surnames.
    Finland is a huge country still thinly populated, and during the past centuries famine and plagues would thin the population routinely. Villages were winter bound and growing boys and girls had limited conjugal choices. Sharing bloodlines was normal.
    Helvi’s village was populated by perhaps a dozen or so farming families, all related in one way or the other. Helvi knew of no one that had adverse health problems. I understand if the stock is without genetic faults inbreeding between cousins, nephews and nieces is relatively safe.

    • In the middle ages and even up to a few centuries ago, the common people in Switzerland were bound to stay in their villages because if they left they had to pay a fee to their feudal lord. If you moved to a new village or town, you had no rights unless you bought citizenship of the place. Even today, there are remnants of this. I’ll have to write another post about it, I think!

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