When Ancestry Travel Guides You

Here’s why, if you have a little extra time in Europe, and if you have ancestry there, you might want to make an off-the-beaten-trail pit stop. My ancestry travel has taken me to a couple tiny towns, and not-so-tiny towns where the experience of walking in the footsteps of those who came before me took my breath away.

Ancestral tracking

One of the things I enjoy most about living in Europe are the little moments when the long circles of generations fold back on themselves. I’m lucky enough that in addition to me, several other members of my family past and present have taken an interest in genealogy and have traced many branches back a long, long way. I made a list of all the areas in Germany into which all my German branches reach. Then I put them on a Google Map as little yellow stars. Then I made an ancestry travel plan to stop off, if I can whenever I get near those places.

These are generally from the matrilineal branch – my mother’s mother’s mother being a Rifenburgh and coming from an area of NY State in which many German farmers and vine tenders emigrated in the early 1700s to escape poverty and the French.

Mary Helen Reifenburgh Corbett

The Great Palatine Migration

Southwest Germany was still recovering from the 30 Years War, when bam – there came the Nine Years War, and widespread devastation and famine all over again. Like so many over time and across the planet, the desperately poor became so desperate that they pulled up stakes, left everything they knew, and headed into the unknown in the hopes of a better life.

In the 1600s, Flemish painter Sebastiaen Vrancx painted a scene of French soldiers plundering a German town during the 30 Years War

Between May and November of 1709, large numbers of families migrated from Southern Germany, along the Rhine River valley, to Rotterdam, Holland. From there they traveled by boat to England. They lived there for a time as wards of the Crown, first in crude huts on the beach, and then for three months on a ship in the harbor. Finally, a convoy of ships set sail in March of 1710 for the New World. 6,520 Germans left England, 450 died on the journey, and 30 children were born along the way. They arrived in America on June 13, 1710.

They encountered problems with their original land patent, and this saw the destitute immigrants move yet again. This time, they headed up the river to settle in New York and Pennsylvania, an area which in some ways reminded them of the place they had left. Many Americans descended from those thousands of Palatine Germans who landed on our shores sixty-seven years before we were even a country.

When it Starts to Get Personal

Now, wind the clock back to 1657 in a little agricultural village called Erbenheim, quite close to the Rhine River. Born that year to parents who had relocated there from a village about 50 miles to the north, was Johannes Edmundus Saalbach. He grew up on a farm in Erbenheim, at 21 married Anna Maria Schuler from up north in his parents village of birth. The ceremony took place in the old village. It must have been quite a celebration and reunion. That trip is an hour by car on the autobahn today.

The Saalbachs had 9 children together – some were born in Erbenheim, a couple in the old village, one in a new village, and even one in Alsace which is today in France. They moved around a lot, seeking a permanent home. And in the early 1700s they made the monumental decision that the family, including Johannes’ father (also Johannes) should seek their fortunes outside Germany and join the “Great Palatine Migration,” moving to Rotterdam, then England, and eventually with the promise of land and work from Queen Anne, to New York state. They and thousands of others settled in what became known as Germantown, and Rhinebeck in Columbia and Dutchess Counties.

Who Were America’s Earliest German Refugees?

Three Rivers
History From America’s Most Famous Valleys

The Book of Names
Especially Relating to The Early Palatines and the First Settlers in the 
Mohawk Valley
Compiled and Arranged by Lou D. MacWethy
Published by The Enterprise and News
St. Johnsville, NY., 1933 

Further Classification of London List by Occupation, by Religion

Hs. & V113113456262944
Clo. & Lin. weavers815271565
Stocking weavers1236
Coopers & Br.2323
Wool weavers22

In the New World

The older Johannes died very soon after they all arrived, and the younger Johannes died only 3 years after that on Christmas Eve at the age of 54. Anna Maria made it another 10 years and I suppose felt lucky during that time to have had children around. Undoubtedly, even though they lived in a community of Germans, they were still strangers in a strange land.

Their son (wait for it) Johannes, married and had children and survived into his forties, and on and on it went until their granddaughter married a Rifenburgh who fought in the Revolution, and generations rolled on from there, until my mother’s mother’s mother, my mother’s mother, my mother, and me (the first non-New Yorker of that line for hundreds of years).

Eight Generations Later, I Return

This is a very long way of saying that being able to know how these chapters unfolded is a privilege, and when I’m able to pay a visit to the old stomping grounds of these people it makes me catch my breath. And when there’s some structure or location that still exists today in a way that I know would be immediately recognizable to those people – well, I have to seek it out. This is ancestry travel at its most exciting – an unknown destination waiting for discovery.

The Watchtower

Meet the Erbenheim watchtower, built in 1497 as part of a lookout system to protect the Electorate of Mainz (one of the 12 electors who would choose the next Emperor). It was already well over 100 years old when the Saalbachs decided to start over in Erbenheim, on that first 50-mile journey that turned out to be a baby step, and would lead their family, eventually, across the English channel, and then thousands of miles and an ocean away to lands unknown.

I was hoping we’d be able to go into the tower, but sadly it was closed up. But I stood there, and looked at it – taking in its form – and walked around it and rubbed my hand over the rough painted stones. And as we drove away I saw it on the horizon like the Saalbachs would have seen it as they left, and I don’t even know the name for the emotion, but it made my chest tight. And it made me feel grateful for all the strange twists of fate across the centuries, both good and bad, that led me here.

Find Your Place With Ancestry Travel

It’s great to see the Eiffel Tower, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and I encourage those things. But sometimes ancestry travel reveals the most personally meaningful travel destinations can be a little blip on a map. An old church. A town hall. A little white watch tower.

That tower is great, yes, but it’s hardly a tourism hotspot. But for me, it was powerful. Some ancestral research and a good Google Map can make a trip something profound.