The Swabian Alb

As I researched my Swabian roots, I realized that one eighth of my ancestral heritage is most likely tied to that place. One aspect of the decolonization process is for those of us with non-native ancestry to explore our roots in other places across the globe, places in which our ancestors might hold their own Indigeneity.  I found myself strangely moved yesterday as I watched Youtube videos about Swabia. See here is the thing:  before this week, I had never even heard of Swabia.  This is the forgetting that comes over so many families through several generations in the United States.

We begin to amalgamate, and make reference to a vague Germanic ancestry. But the more I learn, the more I realize that each of my various family lines came from distinct cultures and landscapes that are now considered “German.”  I want to record some things about that Swabian culture and place–nothing that can’t be found in Wikipedia and other online sources–but new to me. (Most of this is just copy and paste or mildly edited from public domain sources.)

Germany was slowly becoming unified over the 18th and 19th centuries (mostly after my ancestors had emigrated.)  This process was politically dominated by the northern Kingdom of Prussia, and therefore “Weimar Classicism” became the expression of German national “high culture.” As a consequence, southern Germany and by extension both the Swabians and the Bavarians came to be seen as deviations from a generic standard German, and a number of clichés or stereotypes developed about them.

These portrayed the Swabians as stingy, overly serious, or prudish petty bourgeois simpletons, for example as reflected in “The Seven Swabians” story published by the Brothers Grimm. On the positive side, however, the same stereotypes may be expressed in portraying the Swabians as frugal, clever, entrepreneurial and hard-working. Realistically, they lived on a land with thin soil and difficult access to water, so likely they had to be frugal and hard-working to survive.

The Swabian Alb (or Swabian Jura) occupies the region bounded by the Danube River in the southeast and the upper Neckar River in the northwest. In the southwest it rises to the higher mountains of the Black Forest. The highest mountain of the region is the Lemberg (1,015 m.). The area’s profile resembles a high plateau, which slowly falls away to the southeast. The northwestern edge is a steep escarpment covered with forests, while the top is flat or gently rolling.

The geology of the Swabian Alb is mostly limestone, which formed the seabed during the Jurassic period. The sea receded 50 million years ago. Since limestone is soluble in water, rain seeps through cracks everywhere and forms subterranean rivers which flow through a large system of caves until they emerge. Thus there are hardly any rivers, lakes or other forms of surface water on the plateau.

Many different types of beautiful caves can be found there, from dry dripstone caves to caves that can only be entered by boat. Sometimes the discharge of the water from subterranean rivers can be spectacular, too, for example, the Blautopf, (“Blue Bowl”) a source for a tributary of the Danube.Blue Pot

Also because of the porous limestone, the Danube nearly disappears near Immendingen only to reappear several kilometers further down. Most of the water lost by the Danube resurfaces in the Aachtopf, a spring for a tributary to the Rhine.

Much of the Swabian Alb consists of gentle to moderate hills often covered with forest or cleared for small-scale agriculture. The traditional landscape was grass fields with juniper bushes. Today this has become a comparatively rare sight. However, in certain places it is protected by the government (the province of Baden-Württemberg.) The soil is not very fertile, the humus is often as thin as 10 cm (4 in). Many small limestone pebbles are found on the surface.

Fossils can be found everywhere in the Swabian Alb. In a number of caves (including Vogelherd, Hohlenstein-Stadel, Geißenklösterle and Hohle Fels), all just a few kilometers apart, some of the oldest signs of human artifacts were found. Best known are: a mammoth, a horse head, a water bird, and two statues of a lion man all more than 30,000 years old. The oldest known musical instruments have been found here, too: flutes made from the bones of swans and griffon vultures, some 35,000 years old, and a flute carved from the tusk of a mammoth dating from the Ice Age, around 37,000 years ago. Perhaps most astounding is the oldest representation found so far of the human body, the Venus of Hohle Fels.648px-VenusHohlefels2

This Goddess figure, carved from mammoth ivory, and likely worn as a pendant, was found in caves that my very ancient ancestors may have frequented. Of course, people moved around between those ancient times and more recent times, the Celts and the Gauls intermarried with Germanic tribes, but some of the ancestors of the Swabians may have been present even then.

So as I think about my place on this earth, this is one of my places!

 

 

Swabian Roots

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.

Abbey of Elchingen

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 

 

Osage River Bend

Thomas & Theresa Heisler wedding

[Thomas Heisler and Maria Theresia (Theresa) Gerling at their wedding 2/16/1886]

I am continuing my exploration of my own ancestors settling in America, and how they may have participated in the colonization of this land.  My dad’s mother, born Lucille Mary Heisler in 1897, was the daughter of Thomas and Theresa (Gerling) Heisler, originally of St. Thomas, in Cole County, Missouri.  Thomas’s father (and my great-great-grandfather) was Johann Heisler, who came to Missouri about 1850, where he lived in St. Thomas with his wife Elizabeth (Koetzner) and was a farmer. They became a “well-known” Cole County family.

The first post office in St. Thomas was dated 1855.  It was a small German Catholic farming community, named for St. Thomas the Apostle, which is also the name of their church.  It was one of several Catholic communities founded by the Belgian Jesuit priest, Ferdinand Helias, who was known as the father of mid-Missouri German Catholics.

According to Russel Gerlach, in “The German Presence in the Ozarks,”

Some Germans were attracted to the Ozarks seeking religious freedom. Osage County attracted several thousand German Catholics whose principal reason for emigrating from Germany was religious. Their spiritual leader, Father Helias, established a parish in Westphalia in 1834, and in subsequent years seventeen settlements, composed primarily of Rhinelanders, were established in Osage, Cole, Miller and Maries counties.

I read that because the immigrants from various regions in Germany carried those tensions with them to these lands, he helped to settle them in communities which were ethnically differentiated. By the way, it was eye-opening for me to learn that in the German ancestry of my dad’s family, at least four different cultural and linguistic communities were represented–the East Frisians, the Rhinelanders, the Swabians, and the Westphalians.  The Heislers were from the Swabian culture. (But more on that in another post.)

What about the Indigenous peoples who had lived in Cole County before?  Well, their name remains in the river that winds through the area–the Osage River.  St. Thomas was formed in a fertile bend of the Osage River.  It was Osage Nation land before the settlers came. According to the website of St. Thomas the Apostle church:

The Indian Territorial Government established Cole County in 1821, paving the way for eager settlers to purchase this fertile land.  Perched above the river bottom and close to today’s parish cemetery, German immigrants built a small log church for the families that lived in the area.  Fr. Ferdinand Helias, S.J. began ministering to the needs of Catholics in this area in the early part of the 19th century.  A larger frame church was built to support the Indian Bottom Settlement.  As the city of St. Thomas took shape further east of the river, Father Peter Eysvogles, S.J. persuaded the families of Indian Bottom to move the church to this growing community.

I was struck by how the names “Indian Bottom” and “Osage River” spoke to the history of the land, even after its people had been removed. My own ancestors came a full generation after that removal, but definitely were among the settlers eager to purchase this newly “available” land.  The Osage Indians had a wide ranging territory that included land now in the five U.S. states of Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.   The first Europeans to meet them were the French explorers Joliet and Marquette in 1673.Osage Ancestral TerritoryIn 1803, when the United States made the Louisiana Purchase agreement with France, they claimed ownership of Osage territory. According to educational materials of the Osage Culture Traveling Trunk,

Between 1808 and 1872, the Osages had little choice but to cede all their lands in present-day Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas, and most of their land in Oklahoma, to the U.S. Government. The last land cession was in 1872, when the Osages ceded their reservation in Kansas and moved to a new reservation in Oklahoma. This is the current Osage reservation.

You can find out much more information about the Osage on that website, which is dedicated to educating children in Missouri.  I want to include one more map from that program to emphasize the extent of these ceded lands. osage_ceded_lands_poster

Special thanks to my cousin Jim Pattyn for sharing his genealogical research into our Johnson family.