I have been delving into the stories of my ancestors again, and the last few days I was researching my great-great-great grandparents, Johann Nepomuk Heisler (b. 1781 in Westerstetten) and Barbara (Zeller) Heisler (b. 1788 in Tomerdingen). They lived in the small town of Westerstetten, in the Swabian Alb, now a part of Germany.
Johann was a shoemaker and farmer. They were married in 1805, when he was 24 and she was 17, and moved into their house at Haupstrasse 19 in 1806. [The house was built in 1757 and was still there at the turn of this century.] The first of their children was born in 1806, when Barbara was 18. They had 14 children, but several died in childhood, and Barbara herself died at the age of 37 in October of 1825, one week after the birth of her last child. I would say it is likely that she died of childbirth related issues. At that time, only eight children were still living.
Four years later, in 1829, when Johann married his second wife, Magdalena Rimmele, who was 45, only six of the children remained: Jacob was 20, Martha was 13 (and died 5 years later), Nikolas was 11, Johann was 9, Augustin was 8 and Anton was 4. The youngest four boys would eventually emigrate to the United States—but I will talk more about that in separate stories. [One of which can be found here.]
It is uncertain how long the family ancestors had lived in Westerstetten. Their parents are just identified as “German,” in the records I have. But we might conclude that they were from the area of the Swabian Alb, because Johann Nepomuk Heisler’s grandfather Johann Leonhard Heisler is listed as born in Essingen in the north part of the Swabian Alb. His great-great-grandfather is also listed as born in Essingen, and that one’s wife was born in Westerstetten. So the family were most likely of Swabian heritage.
That whole region was part of the Swabian Alb, centered in the city of Ulm, but including both Westerstetten, and Tomerdingen which were each perhaps 15-17 kilometers north of Ulm. Their small town at that time however was on the edge of rival political entities, and they would have experienced many transitions in the early 1800s.
From 1414 to 1803, Westerstetten, and Tomerdingen as well, were part of the territory of Elchingen Abbey, a Benedictine monastery. For much of its history, Elchingen was one of the 40-odd self-ruling imperial abbeys of the Holy Roman Empire and, as such, was a virtually independent state that contained several villages aside from the monastery itself. This meant it was independent of the jurisdiction of any lord, and answered directly to the Holy Roman Emperor. Perhaps the devout Catholicism of the Heislers is related to their connection to the Abbey.
Like all the imperial abbeys, Elchingen lost its independence in the course of the German Mediatisation in 1803 (a secularisation and land redistribution process put in place by the French conquests of Napolean) and the monastery was dissolved. When this happened, the village of Westerstetten was given to the “Elector (and then Kingdom) of Bavaria” along with Elchingen, and the city of Ulm. Seven years later, in 1810, the border between Bavaria and Württemberg was re-negotiated and Westerstetten and Ulm both became part of the “Kingdom of Württemberg.”
The Heislers were most likely struggling villagers during all of this. According to one Wikipedia entry, life was extremely hard in the Swabian Alb. There was a lack of water and the soil was poor in quality. For many villages fetching water required a long journey by horse. Since water often needed to be stored over a long time, it became stagnant. Thus disinfection via alcohol was very popular: “Most” (cider) was mixed with water and even given to babies.
I wonder how much the decision to send four sons to the United States was influenced by these difficult conditions, and by the tumultuous political landscape. As it turned out, only one son remained behind, of all of the 14 children. In 1978, my grandmother Lucille Heisler Johnson wrote to her sister, “I remember Papa (Thomas Heisler) telling us about his father and two brothers coming over from Germany. They all had to be under twenty-one because they left Germany to avoid military service.” The last brother came later on his own. I am beginning to imagine these ancestors.
Map of Württemberg before the French Revolutionary Wars, showing the Free Imperial City of Ulm, separating the two parts of the Imperial Abbey of Elchingen, with the Danube shown running through the centre of the image. Cropped from German States Before and since the French Revolution: II. Wurtemberg, from The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923, from the Perry-Castañeda map collection. Public Domain