Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Water Castles in Munsterland, Germany

On my recent post I talked about visiting a landlord’s house in Northwest Westphalia. It made me wonder who did the landlord answer to? He was the collector but was there someone over him. In some cases the landlord of a large farm was the collector for the noble family or church "owner" of the land. They would live in a larger castle or palace or ornate Residence House. So we traveled a little south into Münsterland to see some of these Castles or Wasserschloss (water castles) of the ruling classes.

The actual Münsterland: a settled landscape of woods, scattered farms, windmills, travel-poster villages with neat market squares, church spires, and a profusion of moated castles, fortresses, and manor houses all situated on islands in man-made lakes.

These Wasserburgen and Wasserschloss, as they are called, make the Münsterland one of Germanys most unusual and rewarding travel destinations. Nowhere else will you find as many old chateaus in such a small area.

What makes them all the more unusual is that, unlike other German castles, they do not perch atop craggy cliffs or steep mountains but simply pop out of the level plain.

Most of them have origins in the 9th and 10th centuries, after Münster itself had become a powerful church state ruled by prince-bishops who had ecclesiastical as well as worldly authority. Various knights and barons settled in the region as feudal lords and landed gentry. They never bothered trying to find a hill on which to build their castles because there are none. The land is as flat as a tabletop. But it is laced by innumerable waterways. Thus, the first sites, dating back 1000 and more years, were simply fortified houses on circular plots of land cut out of the fertile soil, surrounded by ramparts and moats, the water for which came from re-routing and damming the many creeks and streams. By the 12th century a more elaborate style evolved; man-made mounds of earth on which the castle stood, guarded by thick walls with towers and turrets, surrounded by artificial lakes. The chateaus, in effect, were on islands.

I had seen a picture of Schloss Nordkirchen in some travel brochure and Matthias agreed to take me to see it. Schloss Nordkirchen is called the "Versailles of Westphalia." The label is not just local bragging. Versailles was what Prince-Bishop Count Friedrich Christian von Plettenberg envisioned as a model when, in 1694, he bought the original moated castle of Nordkirchen from a local nobleman and commissioned architect Gottfried Pictorius to turn that modest property into a grand summer residence, replete with landscaped park and canals for pleasure boats.

Money, he said, should be no obstacle, so Pictorious spent what was then a king’s ransom, 240,000 thalers, to create a vast palace in the style of French chateaus. Neither the bishop nor his builder lived to see completion of the project and it was Plettenbergs nephew Ferdinand who retained Johann Conrad Schlaun to finish the job.

It is one of Germany’s largest, most lavishly appointed palaces: a complex of eight huge wings extending from a central tract in a strikingly harmonious juxtaposition of maroon-colored brick with carved sandstone embellishments. The 430-acre park surrounding the lake and canals is dotted with manicured lawns and flowerbeds, statues of Greco-Roman gods and goddesses, cupids, satyrs and figures of hunting dogs and charging wild boars. Chestnut trees, 200 years old, line the lanes and paths.

Though the building is now owned and used by Northrhine-Westphalia’s finance ministry as a training center for its tax agents, the ornate rooms and chambers, all splashes of intricate stucco work with gold leaf and ceiling frescoes, can be viewed on one-hour guided tours Saturday, Sunday and holiday afternoons. It so happens we were there during the week so no tour of the inside but it was gorgeous day weather wise, had some sun and it wasn’t as cold as it was the day before, so I enjoyed walking through the garden and seeing a Wasserschloss up close and personal. There were lots of people picnicking on the grounds, apparently since it is a public building the public can use the grounds. Nice day and all I can say is "It must have been nice to be the rich and powerful."

Monday, May 28, 2012

German trip May 2012

Well I am home from Germany now and I always have good intentions of blogging every day when I am there, but that never happens. Never enough time, although I do take train or car time to jot down a few notes.  So, I will try to write about things now as I look through the pictures.

We usually do a trip in May because Germany is such a pleasure to the eye in May. Yellow fields of rapeseed blooming in fields scattered over the hillsides looking like a patchwork quilt, tons of lilacs blooming and rhododendron and hydrangea.  It was gorgeous.

I had a few days before we met our clients for a personal heritage tour and we decided to visit a local “landlord’s” house called Schloss Hunnefeld, located near Bad Essen. In the olden days the landlord was the person who was in charge of collecting the rents and taxes from the small farmers.  In the 13th century Schloss Hunnefeld   was a moated “water” castle.  Today you come down a long lane into a large clearing and see the impressive residence. The building is a three-winged two story in the Renaissance style.  There is a small island in the moat now and behind it a beautiful English garden.  There also is French style dovecote from the 1700’s.  I could picture the small farmer walking his way down the long lane with his hard earned money or livestock or whatever he had as payment.

In the building where the café is now was the counting house, or the place where taxes and rents were collected.   I guess a little history of the “farm system” in Germany is in order.  Of course this is a generalization, different areas had different laws and different systems but the farm system had been around for centuries, its roots go back to the Germanic tribes, who were nomads and whose economy was based on summer military campaigns, in which the men earned the tribes living by plunder.  When they settled down to more agricultural pursuits versus the nomadic lifestyle, they needed the protection against other marauding tribes so they pledged service and fealty to their warrior overlords.  By the end of the Middle Ages, military protection by the overlords was not needed as much, so the overlords settled down too.  Land and income from agricultural products replaced plunder as their primary source of income, and the relationship of overlord and peasant farmer became firmly established.  At least this is what I have read and I am sure there are probably more complicated reasons but this serf and lord system was around for centuries and German villages and farms used to “belong” to someone that they owed taxes and rents too.  We have found records for some of these big farms that list all the small farms they owned and how much they collected etc.  Sometimes (not sure how often as I have not personally seen that many) they might list the farmers names that were under their control.  Of course in the Northwest of Germany the larger farms had the names and whoever lived there took that name. But that is a story for another day.

So, as it was a cool day we stopped in the café and had a hot, steamy bowl of spargel soup. Spargel is white asparagus which is also a big deal in May in Germany; you will get it everywhere and in every way imaginable.  But it was warm and tasty and I like to look out the window and transport back to centuries ago and imagine what would have been going on that cool, spring day.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

WDYTYA & Hessian Soldiers

Did you watch last week's WDYTYA and follow Rob Lowe’s journey of finding his ancestor that had been a Hessian soldier that fought in the American Revolutionary War?  Do you have or think you may have a “Hessian soldier” in your background?   Then here is a site from the Archives in Marburg, Hesse, Germany that has a database for Hessian Troops in America.  First a little background on Hessian involvement in the Revolutionary War from Wikipedia.

During the American Revolution, there were many German states loosely unified under the Holy Roman Empire. Many of these German states were officially Protestant, making them traditional allies of other Protestant nations, such as the United Kingdom of Great Britain, whose king, George III, was also the Prince-Elector of Hanover. King George III came from an ethnic German line, and was the first of the House of Hanover to speak English as his first language.[1] Great Britain formed strong German alliances during the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756, and had combined forces with Frederick the Great during the Seven Years War to form a coalition that functioned as one Army.[2] When the British colonies in America rebelled a decade later, several German states contracted for the temporary loan of German soldiers to the British Army. Although the leasing of German soldiers to a foreign power was controversial to some Europeans,[3] the German people generally took great pride in their soldiers' service in the war.[4]

Americans were alarmed at the arrival of German troops on American soil, viewing it as a betrayal by King George III. Several American congressmen declared they would be willing to declare independence if King George used German soldiers.[5] German soldiers provided American patriots with a propaganda tool; they were derogatorily called "mercenaries," and were referred as such in the Declaration of Independence:

"He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat [sic] the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation. [6]"  

Despite American propaganda, contemporary writers suggested that German soldiers were well respected and well cared for, both by Americans and British.[7] At the conclusion of the war, Congress offered incentives for German soldiers to stay in the United States.[8] Great Britain also offered land and tax incentives for German soldiers willing to settle in Nova Scotia.[8]

Here is the link:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

You Must Go Home Again

When you are researching your German ancestors don’t forget to mine all the resources from the towns they lived in.  Perhaps before they settled someplace permanently they lived in several states and there were major life events that happened in that town.  Marriages, births, deaths or maybe just a mention in the local paper, these are all things you need to check out for the mention of a past hometown in Germany. 

Your first objective is to find them in every U.S. and State census since they arrived in the country.  This will show you all the places they lived and give you the town, county and state. (Find census images at or your local library may have a subscription to Ancestry or Heritage Quest, also has free access to US census records).   I would then do a Google search for the town’s local Historical Society or Genealogy Society and see what is available on their website.  A lot of these societies are putting indexes and even some documents online. They also give information on local resources, perhaps where the vital records are kept, or links to other resources in the area.  These societies also have a wealth of information that probably is not online. For years people have donated their time to index local records or the people that volunteer there have lived in that town all their life and know many family names.  It is worth the time to contact them.

You may try your local library. Do they have a genealogy section?  Maybe you live near a larger library that does.  These institutions may have collected books or microfilms from other states and counties that are genealogy related and you can find what you are looking for close to your home.

Another great find is to do some searching on Google Books.  I did some searching for Germans in Ohio, and found some great books available on line to read.  One was Franklin County, Ohio history, which gives the founding of the county plus early settlers and hometowns.  So I suggest playing at this site with family names, county names, German immigration etc.  You may have a fantastic find.

The internet makes it easy for us to travel the world from our living room but you also must remember to look for printed items that are not on the internet yet.  You need to work the town they lived in for all possible resources.  Good luck!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Finding Your German Ancestral Hometown in Church Records

In our first blog in this series we gave an overview of different ways to find your Ancestral hometown but one thing I want to go into more depth about is the importance of looking at all church records your ancestor may have created. Especially look for those first immigrants. Where they married in the U.S.? Check the church record for this entry. Many of the early immigrants would have gone to a church that others of German heritage would have belonged to. This makes sense as they wanted to hear their own language and feel comfortable with people probably from their same village or area.

A lot of times in these first marriage documents they may give their hometown. Some cities have early marriage indexes for marriage licenses but don’t stop at these, get the license and see who married them. It should give either a pastor’s name or the dreaded Justice of the Peace (probably no more info if he married them). Then find the church that pastor was at and check the church books. Or if there is no marriage index, you will have to check churches around where they lived. Find them in a census and then start looking for churches in the area where they lived. Maybe the local library or historical society could help you with finding a church more popular with a certain ethnic group.

Also, always check for the children’s baptisms. In some cases they may have asked where parents were from or of course you need to get the sponsor’s names. They could be a sibling of your immigrant or a family friend from the old hometown village, you should research them if all else fails. If your ancestor came as a child and they were born in Germany but in the States by the time they were old enough to be confirmed, make sure to check the church books for confirmations (about the age 12-14). A lot of times it is just a list of names but some pastors asked where they were baptized, so there could be a hometown.

And lastly, make sure to always check church records for death entries too. Not only the civil record (death certificate) or obit will tell a hometown the church record could also say. I have a friend whose gr-gr-grandfather’s place of birth was mentioned in his death entry even though he had been in the country for over 50 years. So you just never know.

Hometown information is more prevalent in Protestant records but by no means should you not look at Catholic records too. They are usually written in Latin but may give you parents’ names if not a hometown. This is one of the most important steps in German research and not to be overlooked.

Happy Hunting.

Resources for Finding Your German Ancestral Hometown

Today I would like to start a small series of postings on German resources and how to find your hometown. Often people say to me: “I know that my ancestors emigrated from Germany and I would love to go on a trip, but I don’t know how I can find their hometowns. "

I was telling my German business partner about this and he offered to write his thoughts on some ideas of where to check for that elusive hometown.

Before you think about doing research in German records have you looked at everything that is available in the U.S.? Have you looked in the local church records where your ancestors went to church? Often at the Protestant churches (especially in death records and marriage records) the Pastor may have written down, from what area or town come they came from. But be prepared that this church book can be written in German. The following page gives you a little bit help with that.

Also if the hometown or area is not given don’t be upset. Often people from the same area in Germany moved to the same settlement in the U.S. You must imagine what a big step it was to move to a new country by yourself or with your family. To settle next to other family members, friends and neighbors who had emigrated before made the start and life in the new world much easier. You could still speak your mother language, local dialect, keep your traditions and got help with the papers for the government etc. Keep this in the back of your mind and with this knowledge look again at the church records. Where did the other people in there come from? Is there any information given for that? If your ancestors lived in the parish with all these folks, could be that he came from the same area or town. Try to map the towns you find in the church books on a map, to get an idea where the people came from.

Take a look at your local library. Have they got microfilms for the local newspapers, possible a German one from early years. Try to find the obituary for your emigrant. Have you ever taken a look at his gravestone, the funeral home or cemetery records to find more information? What about the death certificate and family bible. Try to find the family member who has the family bible of the emigrant. Maybe this person also has old letters that will you give more information. Don’t forget the probate records.(Kathy: Even for the women too, I found a hometown mentioned in a great-grandmother’s will when she left her clothes to her oldest daughter still living in Germany. Even down to the street address.)

If your ancestors owned land look at the land records of course, or military records, you never know what surprise you will find there. Try also to locate the papers for citizenship and if you can the ship records. Often groups and families from the same village emigrated together. If you are lucky the ship records tell you the hometown and not only Germany, but be prepared always for misspelling in every record. Again, it might be a good idea to research some of the other people on a ship’s record to find where they came from as they may have been your ancestor’s neighbors.

I hope this gives you a fast overview of where you could find information to help you find your ancestor’s hometown.