Empires in the Rhineland

As I explore my Germanic ancestors,  I have been struck by the repeated rise and fall of empires in Europe, somehow timely during these days in the United States when it seems that the impulse to empire is battling the impulse to democracy.  I didn’t study much European history during my educational exploits, so much of this has been new information. But most important to me, it seemed that the places where my ancestors lived were deeply shaped by the struggles of empires.

My grandfather Hochreiter’s birthplace, Linz, Austria, for example, was first named “Lentia” during the Roman Empire, one of the many frontier fortifications along the Danube River.  The Rhine River was also pivotal to the Roman frontier, and the Gerling’s town of Osterath was near the old Roman frontier settlement of Novaeseum, now Neuss.

The fall of the Roman Empire saw the rise of the Frankish Empire, the center of which was in the Rhineland. From Wikipedia:

Julius Caesar conquered the Celtic tribes on the West bank, and Augustus established numerous fortified posts on the Rhine, but the Romans never succeeded in gaining a firm footing on the East bank. As the power of the Roman empire declined the Franks pushed forward along both banks of the Rhine, and by the end of the 5th century had conquered all the lands that had formerly been under Roman influence. The Frankish conquerors of the Rhenish districts were singularly little affected by the culture of the Roman provincials they subdued, and all traces of Roman civilization were submerged. By the 8th century, the Frankish dominion was firmly established in western Germania and northern Gaul.

On the map below, the dark green area of “Austrasia” is centered in the Lower Rhineland. (Note that the city of Cologne is just south of where my ancestors were from many centuries later. They lived on the west/left bank of the Rhine.)

Frankish_empire

I somehow had always thought of Charlemagne as French, but he was actually Frankish, and likely born in the lower Rhineland area as well. The center of his court was in Aachen. The Franks were precursors to both modern France and Germany. Perhaps this explains something that my grandmother Johnson said about her family being both German and French. The Rhineland where they were from was Frankish, and went back and forth in later days between Germanic and French rule.

Soon after Charlemagne, his empire was divided into three parts.  I will skip right over the “Holy Roman Empire,” which was mostly a Germanic coalition of many kingdoms and cities that persisted through to the time of Napoleon. (My apologies to all true historians!)  But moving closer to the time before my own Gerling ancestors emigrated, the whole of the left bank of the Rhine was taken by Napoleon’s empire for France in 1795. I found out more about this time from a very helpful website describing the Rhineland Under the French.

The “Rhineland” only emerged as a united political entity in the first half of the 19th century. Before 1794 the area on both sides of the Rhine, between the river Moselle and the Dutch border, comprised a patchwork “rag-rug”, made up of many different territories and princedoms. …The French Revolution of 1789 was the event which influenced the political landscape in that epoch, beyond the borders of France and also in the longer term. …In 1794 revolutionary France conquered the regions left of the Rhine, which Napoleon subsequently annexed in 1801. They were systematically brought into line with the legal, administrative and political conditions in France. In 1802 the French constitution, le Code Civil, was introduced. The achievements of the revolution enacted in the Code Civil included the equality of all people before the law, an independent judiciary and the universal right to vote. However, “people” were still only defined as men; women were regarded as the chattels of men and were not recognized as independent persons.

It seems that the forces of empire and the forces of democratic ideals were beginning to wrestle with each other in those times, and I am very curious what my Gerling ancestors might have made of it all. Gerhard Gerling is described as a “hotel meister” (manager?) so he would have fit into the newly emerging class of small business people–whether by owning or working in a hotel.

In 1815, Prussia gained control of the area, and it became the new Prussian Rhine Province, but it had been irrevocably shaped by the prior years.

In 1815 the time of French influence was over, but had left behind far-reaching changes, which had been appreciated as a change for the better, especially in the areas of commercial law and administration. Therefore the population also resisted having to sacrifice such achievements for the sake of Prussian citizenship.

One thing that I wonder about. When sources say, “France took control,” or “Prussia took control”–they don’t mention the armies or the battles or what human cost might have been part of these shifts of power. It must have been difficult to live on the edges of these empires. In 1840, France threatened once more to claim the west bank, but it did not materialize. That was the year that the Gerlings, and many in their town of Osterath left it all behind to come to Missouri.

 

Life and Death in the 1800s

(Content warning-tragic deaths)

Theresa Gerling Heisler

Theresa (Gerling) Heisler 1886, the year of her marriage.

Continuing with my study of ancestors, I want to talk about the family of my great grandmother, my dad’s mother’s mother, Maria Theresia (called Theresa) Gerling. Earlier, I spoke of her marriage to Thomas Heisler in 1886 in St. Thomas, Missouri. Her parents were Heinrich (Henry) Gerling and Sibella Agnes Hahn. They were both born in what is now part of Germany, but came to Missouri before they met and married. They were devout Catholics.

Heinrich Gerling was born 18 April 1824, in Osterath, in the Lower Rhine region (in German, Niederrhine).  Osterath is now part of the town of Meerbusch, west across the Rhine River from the city of Dusseldorf.  His parents were Gerhard Gerling and his first wife Anna Christina Wilms (or Wilmes), who were married Oct 23, 1821 in Osterath. They had three children: Wilhelm (1822), Heinrich (1824), and Maria Catharina (1830).

When Heinrich was five, his 7 year old brother died.  When he was nine, his mother died, and some months later, on 22 Oct 1833, his father married Maria Christina Kronen (b. 1800-1805?). Heinrich’s sister also died the next year, but three more children were born to Gerhard and Christina: Joseph Herman (1834), Ludovicus (1836), and Michael (1839).  I am moved by how many children died at such a young age, in the stories of these families of the 1800s. This was also true for the Heisler family during a similar time frame.

Gerhard Gerling was identified as a “hotelmeister/hotel master” in Osterath.  In any case, they decided to leave, apparently along with several other families from their town. I found a great story of another family from Osterath who came over on the same ship at the same time.  They left from Havre, on the ship Edmund Perkins, and arrived in New Orleans on November 7, 1840.  They came with their children, Heinrich, who was 16 1/2, Herman, 6, Ludwig, 4, & Michael, 1.  One source said they were “early Niederrhine settlers in the Loose Creek area.” Another source said, “They were the second group of settlers that arrived in the St. Thomas area.”

Perhaps they started in Loose Creek, but they did end up in St. Thomas, where both Gerhard and Christina eventually died (Gerhard about 1852 and Christina 1885-6) and were buried.  Heinrich, it is said, had red hair! He married Agnes Hahn October 21, 1851, at St. Joseph Church in Westphalia, MO, but all their children were born in St. Thomas.  (All of these small rural towns are within 30 miles of each other.)

Agnes was born in July of 1833, but I don’t have much more information about where in Germany it was, or when she came to Missouri.  Her parents were Mathias Hahn (1778) and Margaret Durst (1788) and they remained in Germany, but her brother Philip also came to Missouri. It might be most likely that she was also from the Rhineland/Westphalia region, since people tended to congregate with those from similar regions.

Agnes apparently had an earlier marriage to a John Peter Loethen, but he must have died quite soon, since she was only 18 when she married Heinrich (26). She and Heinrich had nine children together, three of whom had died in childhood, when another tragedy struck, just a few months after baby Theresa was born. We have a letter from Heinrich’s second cousin Heinrich Koersches to family in Germany, loosely translated:

May 24 1868

I received your letter on April 20th. I’m so late in answering your letter because on the following Sunday an accident happened to Heinrich Gerling when we had divine service. In the afternoon after the divine service he wanted to mount his horse. Having one foot in the stirrup, he went to swing his other foot over the saddle. As he did so the horse jumped and threw him off so that his right leg hit on a tree stump that was cut about one foot above the ground and broke his shin, so that the bone could be seen from the outside. There lives in St. Thomas a German physician who was close to the church where the accident happened. They carried Gerling to a house where the bone was set. In the evening eight men took him to his home. There they had to put cold water and compresses on the leg every five minutes. The leg wound didn’t bleed.

Heinrich was a big, thick and heavy man. The compresses and water were put on as long as the doctor ordered it to be done. The doctor came on horseback every day. One day Heinrich would complain of backache, on another he would complain of chest pains. He had to cough up what looked like pus. He asked the doctor for medicine. The chest pains were increasing. The doctor ordered more medicine. On the ninth day it got so bad that the doctor said that he did not think that Heinrich would live another 48 hours. Then they asked for the priest to give him the Last Sacraments. Heinrich lived until the 15 of May.

Heinrich’s accident happened on April 26, 1868.  The following year, the 35 year old widow Agnes married his cousin Heinrich Koersches. They had four more children together, two of whom died in infancy. Then two more of her children died of illness in 1872, leaving only six of 13 to survive to adulthood.  Heinrich Koersches died at the age of 45 sometime after 1877.  I wonder how Agnes carried all of the grief she must have felt from so many deaths, and whether she found a balance to appreciate the joyous moments of life.

I also wonder what life was like for her daughter Theresa Gerling, my great-grandmother? Her father died when she was just a baby, and her step-father died when she was still a young girl. She never knew her grandparents, though her step-grandmother was alive until she was about 17. She married just before her 18th birthday, and had twelve children of her own, my grandmother the sixth of those twelve.  Perhaps the strength and sternness of my grandmother was somehow the inheritance of the grief and survival of those who came before?

Great-great grandmother Agnes herself died on Sept 14, 1901, at the age of 68. I want to close with this photo of Agnes from the 1890s.

Agnes Hahn Gerling-g-g-grandmother

Agnes Hahn Gerling Koersches

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