Reinhold Hildebrandt Photo courtesy Beverley Glofcheskie
My dad and I used to tour Renfrew County visiting German settlements and pioneer cemeteries. Now it’s a tradition for me. This year I jokingly referred to it as my “Oktoberfest” tour to make a point. Valley residents may think Oktoberfest is an expression of local German heritage, but the beer festival which began in Munich in 1810 to celebrate a royal wedding is Bavarian, and dirndls and lederhosen have little to do with most Renfrew County Germans.
According to the 2016 Census, 22 percent of Renfrew County residents reported German ancestry. Closer to home, the percentage was 47 percent in North Algona Wilberforce, 41 percent in Brudenell Lyndoch and Raglan, 25 percent in Killaloe Hagarty and Richards, and 19 percent in Madawaska Valley.
Most of us are descended from emigrants from the provinces of Brandenburg, Pomerania and West Prussia in the Kingdom of Prussia who arrived in Renfrew County between 1858 and 1900.
A little history and geography
Until the formation of the German Empire in 1871, “Germany” was a generic term applied to the territory covered by four kingdoms, seven grand duchies, four duchies, seven principalities and three free cities. Two of these kingdoms were Bavaria and Prussia. The Kingdom of Prussia consisted of thirteen provinces stretching from what is now Kaliningrad, Russia in the east to the modern French border in the west.
Prussia’s heartland was the Province of Brandenburg, capital Berlin, which was home to a Slavic minority known as the Wends who had their own language and folk culture. Part of the Province of Pomerania was ruled by the Swedes in the 1600s, but it was almost entirely German with Catholic Kashubs near its eastern border with West Prussia. Yes, West Prussia was east, but it was west of East Prussia, and it had a large Kashub population. In Brandenburg the common language of the German people was variants of Plattdeutsch (German of the northern lowlands), but Hochdeutsch was the language of government and education. Prussia’s state religion was the Evangelische Kirche a blend of Lutheranism and Calvinism created by royal edict in 1817.
Wilhelm and Louise Boehme lived in Combermere. Wilhelm was a master tailor from Tauer, Kreis Cottbus, Brandenburg. His wife was born in Canada, but her parents were from Nelep, Kreis Schivelbein, Pomerania. Known as “Tailor Boehme” he drowned in 1912 in the sinking of the Mayflower on Lake Kaminiskeg. Photo courtesy Lynne Yantha.
Place of Origin database
This year I started compiling a place of origin database for German immigrants to Renfrew County between 1858 and 1900. I am drawing on immigration agent William Sinn’s list of Prussian settlers from 1860, the “saddlebag” register of births, marriages and deaths compiled by Lutheran missionary Rev. Ludwig Gerndt, and provincial marriage and death registrations. I compare that information with data from Hamburg passenger lists and Brandenburg emigration records. Once I have a specific location, I look it up on the online version of Meyer’s Gazetteer which lists every place name in the German Empire circa 1912. The final step is to find the current name for these places because West Prussia was ceded to Poland in 1918 and in 1945 the parts of Brandenburg and Pomerania east of the Oder River were ceded to Poland. At that time German residents who had not been killed or fled ahead of the Red Army were expelled.
Reinhold Hildebrandt’s parents lived at Mandelkow, Kreis Friedeberg before emigrating in 1882 and settling in Sebastopol Township. Three of Reinhold’s brothers married Kashubs and settled in Barry’s Bay. Photo courtesy Beverly Glofcheskie.
I would love to find the gut (estate), dorf (village) or stadt (town), kreis (county) and provinz for each immigrant, but sometimes I have to settle with only the province or kreis.
Currently I have 706 names in my database, and it is far from complete, but some important details are emerging:
- 96 percent of German immigrants to Renfrew County came from the Kingdom of Prussia.
- 43 percent hailed from the Province of Brandenburg with most from the following kreise: Cottbus, Arnswalde, Friedeberg and Soldin.
- 38 percent originated in Pomerania but the greatest numbers came from four kreise: Neustettin, Saatzig, Schivelbein and Belgard.
- 11 percent were natives of West Prussia especially the kreise of Deutsch Krone, Flatow, Berent and Marienwerder.
- 4 percent came from the Prussian provinces of Silesia and Posen.
Chain-migration, relationships and mobility
There is clearly a pattern of chain-migration. The earliest immigrants like Brandenburgers Martin Buderich, August Schroeder, J.G. Weber and Wilhelm Luloff must have encouraged family, friends and neighbours to join them. Pomeranians followed in the footsteps of Johann Boldt, Friedrich Schutt, Carl Sommers and Christian Wasmund.
Harvey Schutt’s parents Christie and Annie ran a general store in the community which bore their surname in Raglan Township. Harvey’s great grandfather Friedrich Schutt arrived in Wilberforce Township in the Spring of 1859 from Wackerow, Kreis Greifswald, Pomerania. Harvey’s grandmother Wilhelmine Krueger was born in Buessow, Kreis Friedeberg. Photo courtesy Howard Schutt.
Another thing that is becoming obvious is the kinship between Renfrew County German families. Some family ties pre-dated immigration, others were made in Canada. For example the Wendish folks from Kreis Cottbus (a kreis is an area about the size of a Renfrew County township) likely had had kinship ties before emigration. After they settled in Renfrew County they intermarried with Germans from Prussian and non-Prussian territories. I encourage Renfrew County Germans to complete ancestry DNA tests to discover unknown links especially since many documents in the old country have been destroyed or lost in the wars. I recently found Weiland and Klingbeil relatives that way. They are descended from my great-great grandfather’s brother who settled in Wisconsin and of whom we knew nothing.
Eunice, Ron and Clifford Lisk at their farm in Hagarty Township in 1941 or 1942 before Cliff went oversees in World War II. The Lisk family is Wendish and originated in the village of Drachhausen, Kreis Cottbus, Brandenburg. Photo courtesy Brad Lisk.
In my research I have also noted that individuals’ birth places in the marriage register might not be the same as the place of origin on the passenger list, or that siblings might have different places of birth. This reveals more movement than we might expect of our ancestors, but If he was an arbeiter (labourer) or a landsmann (tenant farmer) the prospective emigrant may have moved around to find work on estates or farms.
Back to Oktoberfest
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against Oktoberfesting. I enjoy the beer, the food and the music. For many years I celebrated with friends in Kitchener-Waterloo, and this year I spent a very entertaining evening at the Killaloe Lion’s Oktoberfest. But, I am aware that Oktoberfest is not part of my cultural heritage.
But what is my cultural heritage as a descendant of Germans from Brandenburg and Pomerania? While I have a pretty good handle on the history, I don’t know much about the culture and I am the second generation in my family unable to speak German. I am not alone.
Most Renfrew County Germans have lost most if not all of their language and culture. My grandfather, who spoke no English until he attended school and was married in a German-language ceremony in 1913 used to say, “Two World Wars took care of that.”
Brenda Lee-Whiting noted in Harvest of Stones that Oktoberfests for “people of German descent (or those who wish they were)” signalled a change in attitudes. Non-Germans were getting over suspicion and resentment, and Germans themselves were less reluctant to self-identify and promote their heritage. Even if wasn’t theirs.
Oktoberfest and the Bavarian care-free attitude may be more palatable than the stereotype of the serious, disciplined Prussian. Nevertheless, it’s time for Renfrew County Germans to explore their past, pool their knowledge, establish a cultural centre and discover the language, food and traditions of their ancestors.
About the author: Descended from railroaders and hotel keepers, Mark Woermke has deep roots in the Madawaska Valley. A high school teacher in Ottawa, Mark spends as much time as he can in the Madawaska Valley gardening, writing and enjoying its cultural wealth and natural beauty. Mark also blogs at https://prussianhillsblog.wordpress.com and manages the group Renfrew County Germans on Facebook.