A History of Alsace

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     A Little History of Alsace

During the course of researching of my ancestors, I have learned a little bit about the history of Alsace. What I explain here is drawn from many sources, and might not be entirely accurate.

The jurisdiction of Alsace and Lorraine have switched back and forth between France and Germany many times in the past 150 years. They were part of France until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, then annexed to Germany, then back to France after World War I, and then taken by Germany during their occupation of France in 1940-1945. Since the end of World War II, they have been part of France.

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the Catholic Settlement of Alsace

Let's go back a few hundred years earlier. In 1600, the concept of a nation was not as well defined as it is today. There were kingdoms, such as the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire, also known as Austria-Hungary. Princes and dukes might give their allegiances to these kings, although sometimes only nominally, and many regions and cities were fairly independent of central rule. In those days, there was no nation of Germany, but the term Germany was used to describe the area in Europe where the people spoke German. In the year 1600, most of Germany was under control of the Holy Roman Empire.

As far as I can tell, Alsace was independent in 1600, although maybe it was considered part of the Holy Roman Empire. Most of its inhabitants were Protestant and spoke German. Spain, which was a major world power in those days, had designs on the territory.

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) caused dramatic changes in Europe. Germany and Alsace were especially affected. The war involved many of the countries of Europe, and was primarily a contest between Catholic rulers and Protestant rulers. Alsace was among the battlegrounds. By the end of the war, Germany was more splintered than ever. Its many principalities, such as Bavaria, Westphalia, and others, became completely independent states and remained that way for two centuries. The nation of Germany never fully reunited until 1871.

Perhaps one third of the people of Germany lost their lives during the war. Many Alsatians lost their lives, and I believe many others fled. As a result, by 1648 Alsace was largely unpopulated. During the next couple decades, new people moved in from southern Germany and from Switzerland. Many of the new settlers of Alsace were Catholic. It seems very likely that my own ancestors came to Alsace during that period, and no doubt I have a large dose of Swiss blood in me. I have seen some evidence that the names Voegele and Ott originated in Switzerland.

The treaty that ended the war granted control of Alsace to France. However, France did not exercise very strong control, and most of Alsace acted as independent city-states. Alsace did not become fully a part of France until the era of the French Revolution in the 1790's. In 1793, the French government divided Alsace into two departments (provinces), Bas-Rhin ("lower Rhine") in the north, and Haut-Rhin ("upper Rhine") in the south. Stundwiller and Soufflenheim are both in Bas-Rhin.

Some of the people researching the Staebell family history have an interesting theory about where Wendelin Staebell, the "first Alsatian Staebell," came from. The Scandinavian countries were active in the Thirty Years War, and their armies crossed through Alsace. Perhaps Wendelin or his father was a member of the Norwegian Stabell family, and came to Alsace as a soldier in the Scandinavian army

The French Revolution and the "Great Flight" from Alsace

The French Revolution in 1789 affected Alsace no less than it affected all of France and all of Europe. In Alsace, many citizens were executed in the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. The church was suppressed. In Soufflenheim, the church was burned. Among other things, most of the church records were destroyed, leaving gaps in the family histories which stymie researchers today. (See "The Destruction of Soufflenheim Church Records.")

In October 1793, Prussia and Austria invaded northern Alsace, as part of their campaign to restore the French monarchy. The French Army drove the invaders out, and then the French Revolutionary goverment threatened reprisals against the Alsatian population, whom they accused of being German collaborators. Alarmed, many people left their homes in Alsace and headed east and north into German territories such as Baden and the Palatinate. This is known as la Grande Fuite, "the Great Flight." Perhaps 40,000 people fled, which would represent nearly 10% of the population of Bas-Rhin (northern Alsace). Most of the refugees were from the districts of Wissembourg (which includes Stundwiller) and Haguenau (which includes Soufflenheim). The French goverment made several half-hearted decrees allowing the refugees to return, but many conditions were specified which made returning unfeasible for many. Finally, in 1799, the French goverment allowed the unconditional return of the refugees, but most returned impoverished and unable to reclaim their former property.

It is possible that my ancestors, the family of Joseph Voegele (1759-1832) and his wife Marguerite Goetz (?-1794), were among the Great Flight refugees. Although Marguerite died in 1794, there is no record of her death among the records of Soufflenheim. As far as I can tell, the Soufflenheim records have no mention of the Voegele family after the April 1793 birth of their third child, until the January 1799 marriage of the widower Joseph to his second wife.

Vincent Falter has written an account of the Great Flight, based on various sources. The account can be found on the "Historical Information" page of Robert Wideen's web site, at http://www.soufflenheimgenealogy.com.

Emigrations Out of Alsace During the 1800's

I have noted two large emigration movements out of Alsace in the 1800's. The first was a movement to the Odessa region of southern Russia in about 1800-1820. This included some families named Voegele. About 100 years later, some of these "German Russians" later came to America, which I think was a better choice as a home.

The second wave of emigration was from Alsace to America. It seems to have begun in the late 1820's, and reached its peak in the 1840's and 1850's. An entire industry emerged to encourage people to make the move. Agents traveled through Alsace advertising the opportunities in America. Carriage services transported families and individuals to the coast, where the travelers boarded ships to the new world. Le Havre in France was the favored port of departure for people departing Alsace for America.

After reading hundreds of internet messages from people whose ancestors came here from Alsace-Lorraine in the 1800's, I have noticed a couple of patterns about the immigrants. Almost all came from Alsace; fewer came from Lorraine. Many, maybe a majority, settled in Western New York, especially in Erie County. Many others stayed in the Buffalo area for a short while before moving farther west, to places like Ontario and Ohio.

Why was Western New York such a popular destination? That is easy to explain. The Erie Canal had opened in 1825. It made Western New York easily accessible from the Atlantic coast for the first time. For an immigrant arriving at New York harbor, looking for cheap unoccupied land to settle, Western New York was the easiest place to reach.


From History of the city of Buffalo and Erie County: with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers, by Smith, H. P. (Syracuse, N.Y.: D. Mason & Co., 1884), Volume 2, pages 150-15?:


"German immigration to America since the beginning of the present century has been a powerful element in the growth and prosperity of the country. From no other foreign land has there come to us a class of people possessed in so great a degree of the characteristics necessary to render them peaceable, loyal and intelligent citizens of a free country. Industry, thrift, economy, patience in the toil necessary to procure for themselves homes, sociability, general temperance and intelligence above average of our citizens -- these are the marked features of the German character that is so numerously represented in all of our large cities; they readily adapt themselves to our form of government, adopt our language, connect themselves with our institutions while perpetuating their own, take an active and intelligent part in our politics, and by the general exercise of the traits of character above noted, soon gain a foothold and occupy a position of prominence wherever they make their homes...

"There are few Northern cities where the German element forms a larger proportion of the population than in Buffalo. In 1880, the nationality of the parents of all the pupils registered in the public schools of the city, was as follows: American 4,612; German 9,088; Irish 2,834; Other Nationalities 2,072...

"At the present time it is probable that the Germans of Buffalo number more than 75,000 (50,000 of whom were born in this country), little less than one-half of the entire population of the city...

"The early settlers of Teutonic descent in Buffalo came almost entirely from Alsace (then under French rule) and southern Germany. This is accounted for by the fact that those sections of the Fatherland had been devastated by wars and were ruled in despotism and ruinous extravagance, which tended to drive the industrious peasantry to seek homes where their labors would be justly and permanently rewarded. Although northern Germany was at the same time under rigid despotic rule, it was of a vastly more humane and intelligent character. In Prussia especially, the peasantry were made to feel a strong confidence in their government and contentment with their position. As a consequence the settlers of Buffalo who came from northern Germany were later arrivals than their more oppressed southern brethren.

"The first considerable body of Prussians who came to Buffalo to settle were the old Lutherans; they reached here in 1839, under care of their persecuted ministers, Johann Andreas, August Grabau and L.F.E. Krause, from Erfurt, province of Saxony, having been driven from their native land on account of their religion.

"The Mecklenburgers constitute another important element in the north German migration. The Seventh ward is largely populated by them, and they form an intelligent and successful class in the community.

"Alsace contributed largely to the earlier emigration from southern Germany. The Alsatians have allied themselves, in the broadest sense, with the great mass of the German population of the city, and were foremost in the establishment of German churches and schools, in organizing societies, and in other ways fostering the welfare of their countrymen...

"The first German settler in Buffalo was John Kuecherer, who came from Pennsylvania in 1821... In 1822, Jacob Siebold, the second German settler in Buffalo, arrived. He came from Wurtemberg and afterwards became a successful and prominent business man...

"Michael Mesmer emigrated from Alsace in 1829 and settled in Buffalo. He was for thirty years engaged in the grocery, flour and feed business, and later was a member of athe well known firm of furniture manufacturers and dealers, Weller, Brown & Mesmer. Other prominent Germans who settled here in 1828-29 were Jacob Roos, a successful brewer, Philip Beyer, George Goetz, George Metzger, Michael Hoist, George Hoist and Christopher Klump; the last six named were the first Germans who purchased homes of the Holland Land Company. Besides Mr. Mesmer, there arrived from Alsace in 1828-29, Joseph Haberstro, whose son was afterwards sheriff, Anthony Feldman, George Gass, George Lang, Joseph Suor, Sebastian and Friederich Rusch, George Urban, George Pfeifer and others..."


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