A People Protected by a Prince; A People Proffered by a Prince: Germans who came to America in the 18th Century – My Ancestors

In the 18th century, thousands of Germans crossed the ocean to settle in the British colonies, many concentrated in Pennsylvania, where it is estimated that by the 1770s they made up about one-third of the entire colonial population. There were many motivations for this emigration from Germany, but two of the most significant, religious persecution and military conscription, affected multiple branches of my family. In particular, two princely families can be said to have influenced my ancestors: the counts (later princes) of Sayn-Wittgenstein sheltered, then ejected a group of radical pietists in the early part of the century; only a short distance away, the landgraves of Hesse-Kassel made great profits from ‘renting out’ their trained militias to the British, especially during the War of American Independence. Two princely houses, two sets of German subjects, one devoted to peace, the other trained for war, Anabaptists and Lutherans. Both groups ended up in the New World and eventually mingled in the valleys of Virginia, my home state.

Old Order Brethren women

This post is in response to suggestions by various readers that I should write about my own family. I’m taking advantage of the Christmas break and some down time spent with my family in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Inspired by the sites of farms, churches and graveyards of several branches of my ancestors, and of course the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, it seems appropriate to write about emigrants from the central regions of Germany—the Palatinate, Westphalia, Hessen—and to weave in some fascinating stories of their lives here, from helping to fight in the Battle of Saratoga, to being unwittingly part of the battle of Gettysburg, and embarking on a bold and ultimately futile scheme to settle the wild and untamed Pacific Northwest. There are also some truly extraordinary first names in these stories, so watch out for these.

I will start in 2008. I was already living in the United Kingdom at the time, so it was easy to travel to Germany to take part in a grand celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Church of the Brethren (and other related Brethren churches) in a tiny village called Schwarzenau. It was great to be part of this historic commemoration, with speeches, hymn singing, and of course food, but a highlight for me was seeing one of the hosts, the Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein, whose ancestors had protected my ancestors back in 1708, and had allowed them to break the law by baptising adults in the nearby Eder River.

The Eder River near Schwarzenau

These lawbreakers were known as ‘radical pietists’, a group who broke away from the mainstream Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist) Protestant churches, in search of restoring the inner piety of the early Christian faith. In an era increasingly drawn to reason and science, these movements were inspired more by emotion and mysticism—they were ‘moved’ by the Holy Spirit (and similar groups in England were also so moved, thus calling themselves ‘Quakers’ and later ‘Shakers’), and they wanted to distance themselves from the world of war, materialism and religious intolerance that marked out the late 17th century in Europe. In particular, many were driven out of German-speaking parts of France by the increasingly intolerant Louis XIV (who expelled all Protestants in 1685). Many of these settled in the neighbouring German state of the Palatinate, with its capital at Heidelberg, a nominally Calvinist court, but with a reputation for toleration and ecumenicalism. But in 1690, the Protestant branch of the Wittelsbachs who ruled the Palatinate died out, and was replaced by a Catholic branch. Several Palatine Germans, and their Huguenot friends and allies, were forced to look elsewhere for a safe home. Some went to the New World, where they were given land by William Penn, a Quaker, in his new colony, Pennsylvania. Here they founded the town of Germantown in the 1680s.

But some did not leave immediately. A wealthy and educated miller from a town near Heidelberg, Alexander Mack (1679-1735), had been drawn to the radical pietists who had been settling there, and when they were deported by the local ruler in about 1706, they went down the Rhine valley and overland into what is now Westphalia, and found refuge in the small county of Sayn-Wittgenstein.

Gft (Countship) of Sayn (brown) and of Wittgenstein (orange). Westphalia to the north, Hesse to the east, and the Rhine valley to the west

Sayn-Wittgenstein was actually two Imperial counties, joined together by marriage in the mid-1300s. Sayn was itself located on a bend of the Rhine, across from Koblenz, but most of the county was a bit further to the north towards Cologne. The County of Wittgenstein was further inland to the east, in a remote area crossed by the Rothaar hills which formed a watershed between the rivers that flowed to the west (and Westphalia and the Rhineland) and those that flowed to the east (and the regions of Hesse and Hanover or Lower Saxony). So although it was remote and rural, it was strategic as a regional border zone.

Arms of Sayn-Wittgenstein

By the 17th century, the Sayn family was divided into several branches, with one ruling in the Rhineland at the family’s ancient seat, one in southern Wittgenstein with a seat at Hohenstein, and one in northern Wittgenstein, at their residence of Berleburg. Count Heinrich Albrecht of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Hohenstein (1658-1723), left his castle of Wittgenstein and instead established his residence at a modest hunting lodge in the village of Schwarzenau. This lodge, built in the 17th century, and remodelled in the late 18th, is still the seat of one of the branches of the family today.

The Hunting Lodge at Schwarzenau

Count Heinrich Albrecht was, like much of his family, a member of the Reformed Church, but from an early age he moved in more Pietist circles. His mother in fact was a Huguenot who had left France during the persecutions of the mid-17th century. By the end of the century, he had attracted religious refugees from all over the region, and he and his sisters involved themselves in the day-to-day lives and welfare of the radicals, including newcomers like Alexander Mack and his family, who arrived in 1706.

Count Heinrich Albrecht von Sayn-Wittgenstein-Hohenstein

Just a few miles away, the small court at the castle of Berleburg was raising the level of radical pietist activity even higher. The castle, originally built in the 1250s, but rebuilt as a Renaissance palace in the 1550s, was ruled over by Countess Hedwig Sophie (from the dynasty of Lippe, on the other side of Westphalia) in the name of her young son, Count Casimir of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg (1687-1741).

Berleburg Schloss

Countess Hedwig Sophie was herself a devotee of the new movement, and attracted preachers and theologians to her court. She sent her son to study at the University of Halle, a centre of pietist theology, then supported his travelled to England, where he learned about the ‘Philadelphians’, a movement of English dissenters with a particular emphasis on universal salvation and the importance of charity. Casimir was keen to import this ideal to his tiny state back in Germany, and when he took over the reins of government from his mother in 1712, worked to build a better society for his people.

Count Casimir von Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg

In particular, Count Casimir was keen to support the work of theologians, and opened a printing press in Berleburg in 1714. A resident of Schwarzenau, Christophe Sauer, was employed to print what is now known as the ‘Berleburg Bible’, printed in the 1720s, which was different from the Lutheran translation, and accompanied with significant pietist commentary. Sauer would later emigrate to Germantown, Pennsylvania, and would print the first Bible in any European language in the colonies (in 1743). Sauer also printed a journal in the 1740s with a broad circulation amongst the German community in and around Philadelphia.

Berleburger Bibel

By 1720, therefore the County of Wittgenstein had become a real haven for religious diversity. Not only the Brethren, led by Alexander Mack, but also some other Pietists, like the Moravians, and Anabaptist groups like those from the south, refugees from Calvinist Swiss cantons that were becoming increasingly conservative and intolerant. Anabaptists and Pietists co-mingled and shared many of the same ideas, notably adult baptism, pacifism, and general simplicity of life. This is where I begin to connect with the story of my own ancestry, but much is merely speculation—several of my family names seem to be Swiss or at least Swabian, notably Spangler, but also Flora (who may have even been French Huguenots—Fleuri). Today’s Austrian Spängler banking clan, for example, one of the wealthiest families in Salzburg and Vienna, came originally from the South Tirol, so a predominantly south German (ie, Swiss or Austrian) ancestry isn’t an unreasonable assumption. There’s also quite a significant ‘dark’ gene that runs through these families and still quite dominant in many of my cousins (a predominant gene for dark hair and dark brown eyes; and we all tan easily!). We’ll come back to these names later.

Bankhaus Spangler in Salzburg

Things began to change in the County of Sayn-Wittgenstein, however. Count Heinrich Albrecht died in 1723, and his younger brother and heir, Count August David, was not very interested in radical religion. He had been a leading government official in Berlin in earlier life, and was now determined to restore what he saw as ‘order’ and a proper Reformed church society. Mack and his family had already left the area (first to Frisia in 1720, then to Pennsylvania in 1729), and soon the rest of the radical community moved from Schwarzenau to Berleburg. But here too things were changing. Count Casimir had never formally left the Reformed Church, and his new wife was much more traditional, a Lutheran, and was directing the education of his son and heir, Ludwig Ferdinand (her stepson). Her father was a prominent official, an Imperial Minister of State and President of the Council in Vienna, Count von Wurmbrand-Stuppach. By 1737, the young count himself had a position in the Imperial High Court (Reichshofrat), and when he succeeded his father as Count of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg in 1741, his priorities were quite different. Old Count Casimir had not been very interested in economy or finance, so he left the county in a bit of shambles. His son therefore set out to restore order, which meant cleaning out the remaining religious radicals in his domain. As a product of his ‘imperial’ education in Vienna, he was also much more interested in high court culture, employing a full orchestra, and rebuilding the castle as a baroque palace (as we see it today). In 1792, his branch of the family were raised from imperial counts to princes (fürsten), though they were ‘mediatised’ (deprived of sovereignty) very soon after in 1806, and their lands annexed by the Grand Duchy of Hesse, and then transferred to the new Prussian province of Westphalia in 1816. The family was headed until 2017 by Prince Richard, who raised the family’s profile significantly through his marriage in 1968 to Princess Benedikte of Denmark, the sister of Queen Margarethe II.

Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg (d. 2017) and Princess Benedikte of Denmark

By the 1730s-40s, therefore, Alexander Mack, Christopher Sauer, and the rest of the Brethren (‘German Baptist Brethren’, ‘Dunkers’ or ‘Dunkards’, so named for their practice of adult baptism) were based in south-eastern Pennsylvania. According to older published genealogies and some mor recent online records, I have the suggestion that only one of my various family lines was directly linked to the original group from Schwarzenau. This was Casper Sherfig (as he spelled it in his will) who arrived on a ship from Rotterdam in 1751 as a Dunker. He settled a bit to the south of the border of the colony of Pennsylvania, in an area called Big Pipe Creek, in Frederick County, Maryland (now Carroll County), and he is buried in the Pipe Creek Dunkard Cemetery. This is only 4 miles south of Gettysburg, PA. Casper married Magdalena Heilmann, who had been born in America, and they had 15 children. Of these, three sons (now called ‘Sherfy’) moved south along the Blue Ridge and started branches in Tennessee and Virginia, where land was on offer by the colonial government—Governor William Gooch was keen to entice Germans to settle the frontier as a buffer between English plantations and the native tribes to the west.

German immigration in the 18th century. Staunton is close to where the Sherfys and later Crickenbergers (below) settled; Roanoke is where the Ellers and Floras (next section) settled)

A fourth Sherfy son set up a farm in Gettysburg, where, a generation later, these peace-loving Brethren folk found themselves right in the middle of one of the bloodiest battles in US history. On the afternoon of 2 July 1863, the second day of the battle of Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac tried to hold the high ground south of the town in the face of waves of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and clashed at an area called ‘The Peach Orchard’, part of the Sherfy farm, the home of a Brethren minister. Off to the west, only a short distance, was a wooded farm still known today as the Spangler Farm. I do not know how closely these Spanglers are related to me—some research remains to be done.

The Peach Orchard and Sherfy Farm, Gettysburg

Meanwhile, neighbours of Casper Sherfig at Pipes Creek, Maryland, were the Dunkard brothers Heinrich and Georg Michael Eller, from a family who had emigrated from the Palatinate in the 1740s. Heinrich bought a farm here in 1767, and Georg Michael an adjacent farm in 1773. Others of their family (brothers or cousins, it’s not clear), had left Pennsylvania, and journeyed south to settle the frontier in western North Carolina. One of the sons of Georg Michael, Jacob, also moved south, through the Shenandoah Valley and into a newly settled area of the headwaters of the Roanoke River. There’s evidence of a land grant for Jacob in the Roanoke Valley in 1790, in a county named for one of Virginia’s last royal governors, Lord Botetourt (we pronounce it ‘Botitot’). A few years later, in 1797, Jacob Eller purchased land on the side of a small mountain now known as Sugar Loaf. Roanoke County would be separated from Botetourt County in 1838, and Sugar Loaf would remain the heart of the Eller family for the next century and a half, with generations of kids (including my father) working in its abundant orchards of apple and peach trees.

Sugar Loaf
Sugar Loaf in context, with the much larger mountains of the Blue Ridge behind

In this area of Virginia, the southern end of the Great Valley, the Ellers became neighbours to several other German families in neighbouring Franklin County, including Floras, Naffs and Brubakers. Joseph Flory (or Fleuri) immigrated to Philadelphia from the Palatinate, 1733, aboard the ship “Hope”, and died in 1741. His elder sons established branches that flourished in Lancaster, PA, while a younger son Jacob (who spelled his name Flora), moved to Franklin County (created and named for Benjamin Franklin in 1785); his sister Catherine moved south too, having married Jacob Naff, a recent arrival Philadelphia, originally from Kappel, Switzerland (in the Aargau, a northern canton). Jacob and Catherine settled in Boones Mill, Franklin County, on land granted by Governor Randolph in 1782.

the counties of southwest Virginia, notably Roanoke, Floyd, Franklin and Henry

The next several generations show lots of intermarriages between these Ellers, Floras and Naffs. They also married some of the local Scots-Irish immigrant families, notably Montgommery, but mostly they kept to themselves and away from ‘worldly’ affairs. Photographs are rare, even more so than usual for the 19th century, since they were considered too ‘worldly’ for the ‘plain folk’ that defined the German Baptist Brethren in this area. These ‘Dunkards’ were in many ways similar to the more well-known Amish communities in Lancaster, PA, and after a serious split amongst the Brethren in 1881, some chose to retain the more conservative lifestyle—to this day some of my more distant cousins in south-western Virginia dress simply and rely on horse and buggy for transportation.

An Old Order Brethren buggy

In 1888, the daughter of one of the deacons of the Brethren church in Franklin County, Amanda Flora, married Benjamin Spangler, whose family was from neighbouring Floyd County. Ben’s family had similarly come down the ‘Great Wagon Road’ from Pennsylvania to Virginia sometime in the late 18th century. There’s more research I would like to do someday to establish the link with the Spanglers in Gettysburg (above), or with those who moved west to Ohio and set up the Spangler Candy Company at the start of the 20th century (makers of Dum Dums, Christmas candy canes, and unfortunately, those marshmallow Circus Peanuts that everyone hates). There is indisputably a tradition of making candy and sweets amongst German Anabaptist families of Pennsylvania and Ohio (Hershey and Smucker—both Mennonites).

There are some stories that get told at family reunions about the origins of the Spanglers. One which is intriguing, but I suspect fanciful, is that Georg Spengler served as a cup-bearer (a prominent court officer) in the household of a prince-bishop of Würzburg in the 12th century, and accompanied him and the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa on Crusade where he died and was buried in Antioch. This may have some basis in fact, as other sources indicate that Spanglers were indeed from Franconia (where Würzburg is located), and that their surname was derived from their profession as workers of lead or tin (a spengler is still the term used for plumber in Switzerland and Austria), who also sometimes worked as bracket-makers of fine jewels (a Spangemacher) and could therefore make quite a good living, even entered the service of princes.

Ancestry.com suggests there were Spanglers in Nuremberg, also in Franconia, as far back as the 15th century. At some point in the mid-17th century they moved to northern Switzerland, the Aargau (like the Naffs, above), so I assume they were members of the Reformed Church who had to leave the mostly Catholic areas of eastern Franconia (today part of very Catholic Bavaria). Their names are consistently Johann (or Hans) and Jacob. By the end of the 17th century, they had moved again, to Weiler, a town in the Palatinate close to Heidelberg. But Jacob Spengler, of Weiler, having emigrated to America, is listed as buried at the Alsace Lutheran Chapel in Reading, Berks County, PA, in 1756. Berks County had been formed as recently as 1752, by Germans who wished to have a county separate from Lancaster County to the south. His son Daniel is said to have fought in the Revolutionary War, but certainly migrated south to Virginia, as he is buried in 1787 in what is now the Pigg River Primitive Baptist Cemetery, in Franklin County. Primitive Baptists were conservative separatists from the general English Baptists, who were themselves separatists from the more mainstream English Protestant churches. The movement arose in the early 1820s as a means to purify their communities from the increasing worldliness of other Baptists, so they would have appealed to the German Pietists now settling amongst them in the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge.

Daniel’s son, Daniel, Jr, moved across the ridge into Montgomery County, and was buried in 1823 in Pine Creek Primitive Baptist Cemetery, near his home, known still as ‘Spangler Mill’ on Pine Creek, which he purchased in 1792. The miller Daniel Spangler was evidently a prominent member of his community, for when the locals petitioned the Commonwealth of Virginia for representation separate from the County of Montgomery, initial separation meetings were held at Spangler’s house in 1819, and when the new county (named Floyd, for the then current governor of Virginia, John Floyd) was eventually created, in 1831, the county court met in the Spangler house, now belonging to his son David, until a courthouse was built a few years later.

Spangler Mill in the 19th century

David Spangler’s son, Christian, was born in Floyd County, and in about 1890 took his family (at least one son and one daughter) to the newly established (1889) state of Washington, with the promise of fertile lands on the north side of the great Columbia River. It must have been quite the journey, nearly 3,000 miles, though this was no romanticised covered wagon ordeal, since by 1887, there was a spur of the Union Pacific Railroad that connected travellers from the East to the Oregon and Washington territories. In fact, it was the railroad company that sold land to about a half a dozen Dunkard families from Floyd County to entice them to settle the valley of the Klickitat River, named for one of the local native nations, on the eastern side of the Cascade Range in Washington State, in the shadow of Mount Adams.

Mount Adams, Washington

That region of the Columbia river valley is known for its rich apple orchards, so these Virginia families hoped to bring their seeds out west—inspired perhaps by tales of Christian missionaries-with-seeds like ‘Johnny Appleseed’. The very name of the closest town was in fact Appleton. But the eastern slopes of the Cascades—in sharp contrast to the western slopes—are high and dry, so they were initially not very successful. They turned instead to timber and cattle. But the community did not survive for long, and the Dunkard cemetery is today abandoned, high up on a hillside deep in the woods. My parents found it one day several years ago, but only after quite a bit of struggle with poor maps, multiple local inquiries, and some rugged hiking. I visited Klickitat town (population today about 400) a few years ago on a trip to see friends in Portland, Oregon, about an hour away.

the town of Klickitat and the Klickitat River
Dunkard Cemetery in Appleton

Christian, his son, Benjamin (called ‘Bennie’, aged about 25), and at least one of his daughters, Ella—who was married to the Rev. John Simmons, the leader of the community—arrived to start their families in Klickitat. Ben and his new wife Amanda Flora soon were parents of a daughter and three sons, including my grandfather Carl. In 1898, Ben was charged with taking the community’s taxes to the county seat (Goldendale), and was robbed and killed somewhere on the way—either by natives or by bandits, the stories vary; one says he was drowned in the river; another that a native brought back his body and his horse. Whatever the truth, young Amanda, with four children under the age of 10, decided she’d had enough and packed up her family and returned to her family in Virginia. Ben’s sister, Ella Simmons remained in Klickitat, but died only a few years later (in 1901), and his father, Christian, moved away, to Washougal (closer to Portland) and remarried, but when he died in 1925, was buried back in the Dunkard cemetery in Klickitat.

Ben and Amanda, 1890

Back in the southern end of the Great Valley of Virginia, Amanda’s son Carl Spangler, wanted to become a preacher and a teacher, so was encouraged by some of his Flora elders to attend the Brethren junior college at Daleville, in the Roanoke Valley. Here he met and married an Eller, Sadie, whose father owned the Sugar Loaf farm we encountered earlier in this post.

Ben and Amanda’s four children, 1912 (my grandfather Carl seated at left)

Carl and Sadie were distantly related, both having Flora and Brubaker cousins. Sadie’s father, Christian (or ‘Crist’), was not just a farmer, but also a Brethren preacher, and started a new church near his farm in the southern end of Roanoke County called Oak Grove. He had married in 1897 a non-German, Rebecca Henry (though her mother was a Grisso, also German immigrants, whose farm was just over the ridge from Sugar Loaf). I think my Dad’s Grandma Becky is quite beautiful in this photograph (from about 1905), itself an indication that the Ellers were on the more progressive side of the Brethren religious split, still fresh in people’s minds.

Crist and Becky Eller and their first four children, 1905. My grandmother, Sadie, is in the older daughter in the centre. The others are Orien, Henry and Gertrude

Rebecca Henry’s ancestry is interesting—though off topic, as I’m keeping this post about the Germans—in that she is probably (or we wish it was so?) related to Patrick Henry, one of the leading fathers of the American Revolution. The Henrys were Scots-Irish, from Franklin County (the same as the Floras). They had been early settlers of Pittsylvania County, formed in 1767 and named for the British Prime Minister William Pitt. The Scottish and the Irish settlers came to Virginia later than the English, and missed out on the prime real estate of the Tidewater region, so many went west and settled the Piedmont, the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. (This is The Waltons territory too, by the way). Patrick Henry was from Hanover County (near Richmond), but did purchase land in Pittsylvania, and built a plantation, Leatherwood. In 1777, a new county was carved out and named Henry County (to honour Patrick Henry, by now Virginia’s first independent governor). In 1785, the northern part of Henry County, where Rebecca Henry’s ancestors lived, was shaved off to create Franklin County. So the Henrys didn’t really move, the county boundaries did. (see the map of Virginia counties, above).

Crist and Becky Eller had a large family, six boys and four girls—several of them became or married Brethren ministers. Most of them had large families of their own, but they spread out all over the country, and today, I have dozens and dozens of Eller second cousins from California to Maine. Many are talented musically and remain deeply involved in the church of the Brethren and its national leadership. For me, church, family and singing have always gone together hand in hand. But though they spread out across America, the homestead remained Sugar Loaf in Roanoke, until the farm was finally sold for suburban development in the 1950s. There is still a heavy presence of my Spangler, Eller and Flora relatives in the southern end of the Great Valley of Virginia.

So we need to turn to the northern end of the Great Valley, my mother’s side of the family, and the other princely house named in the title of this post, the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. This part of Virginia is more properly called the Shenandoah Valley, an anglicised Native American term, though its origin and meaning are now pretty much lost. The romantic ‘beautiful daughter of the stars’ (connected to the Pocahontas story) is unlikely; instead it may be an Iroquois word for ‘river of high mountains’, attributed before these northern peoples were driven out by more southern peoples (like the Catawba) in the era just before European settlement. Settlement started in the late 1720s, notably by Adam Müller, who, interestingly, came from the same town in the Palatinate as Alexander Mack. By the 1790s it is estimated nearly 30% of the central Shenandoah was settled by Mennonites and Brethren and other German groups, and even today it’s estimated at about 10%.

A typical Shenadoah Valley view

But in the 1780s, a new settler arrived in this area, another German, but of more traditional Lutheran stock, not Anabaptist or Pietist. His name was Johannes Crickenberger (or Krickenberger, Kriggenberger, Krukeberger, Krueckeberg or Cuckenberg—all in various church records), and it is thought he was a Hessian soldier, captured at the Battle of Saratoga (October 1777), and freed by the American army, as many German prisoners were, with the promise of land and great opportunity if they would help settle the western frontiers of the new nation. In popular culture, Hessian soldiers have a gruesome reputation, as bloodthirsty killers in the American Revolution, or, more specifically, as the Headless Horseman in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (published in 1819). Not many Americans know really who these German immigrants were.

The Headless Horseman!

Hessian soldiers were highly trained professionals hired out in various wars of the 18th century by the landgraves of Hesse-Kassel, primarily Friedrich II (1720-1785). The House of Hesse, whose early history is told in my post about travelling across central Germany, is one of the oldest ruling dynasties in the Holy Roman Empire, but were never amongst the wealthiest, not having clear access to the sea, or the rich mineral resources to the east in Saxony. But they did have good dynastic connections with neighbouring states: in 1740, Landgrave Friedrich II married Princess Mary of Hanover, the daughter of King George II of Great Britain, and personally brought some of his soldiers to Scotland in 1745 to aid his father-in-law in suppressing the Jacobite rebellion there. As a ruler, Friedrich was an ‘enlightened despot’, keen to improve his state and the welfare of his people, so he concentrated on education and public works, but needed revenue to pay for this—he therefore rented out his well-trained soldiers to whoever would pay (sometimes even meaning his soldiers fought on opposite sides of a conflict, as in the Seven Years War when they served in armies of both Austria and Hanover/Britain). He ensured that Hesse-Kassel manufactured its own weapons and stimulated the cloth industry so they were self-reliant for military uniforms. By the 1760s-70s, his endeavours were so successful that, in spite of his building projects, he actually lowered taxes (something the French king could only dream about!).

Friedrich II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel

So in 1776, Fredrich II made a deal with his cousin, George III of England, to send about 17,000 soldiers to America as auxiliaries to the British Army. Friedrich’s son, Wilhelm, who was already his own master as Landgrave of Hesse-Hanau (a bit to the south, near Frankfurt), also contributed some soldiers, as did the Duke of Brunswick, the Prince of Waldeck and the Prince of Anhalt. It’s estimated about 30,000 German soldiers in total were sent to North America, about a quarter of British land forces.

Hessian soldiers

Soldiers from Hesse were gathered at the inland port of Karlshafen on the Weser River, located at the border between Hesse, Hanover and Westphalia. This port was developed in the 1710s by Landgrave Karl I, in an area previously settled by French Huguenot refugees (and in fact, not at all far from the religious refuge of the County of Wittgenstein, discussed above).


Perhaps Johannes Crickenberger came from this area. Family records suggest he came from Reinsdorf in the County of Schaumburg, an exclave of Hesse-Kassel, to the north, near the city of Hanover—which was a Lutheran area which might explain why, or if, Johannes was a Lutheran, since Hesse-Kassel was officially a Calvinist principality. By coincidence (or is it? maybe Johannes didn’t have a surname, so borrowed one from a local landmark?), just across the river from Karlshafen was a large castle called the Krukenburg—an ancient fortress built by the bishops of Paderborn to guard a monastery complex there. It had been conquered by Hesse in the 15th century but by the 18th century was already a ruin.


The Hessian soldiers sailed down the Weser to the sea, and in August of 1776 had arrived in New York where they helped the British Army secure Long Island. They then took part in the Battle of Trenton, New Jersey, in December, in which about 1,000 Hessians were captured. The next summer, in the lead up to the two battles of Saratoga (in September and October), there was a skirmish at the town of Bennington (in upstate new York just across the border in Vermont), 16 August, in which another thousand Hessians were killed or captured. Could this have been where Johannes was captured by the American Army?

The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, by John Trumbull

Almost immediately, the United States Congress authorised its Army to offer up to 50 acres to German soldiers who would switch sides. Many of these prisoners were interned in a camp in Lancaster, PA, where they were encouraged to mingle with loyal German-Americans living in the area. It is estimated that about 5,000 chose to remain after the war. For whatever reason, Johannes did not stay in New York or Pennsylvania, and in 1782, he married Teckla (or Thacula) Hockman, in Staufferstadt in the Shenandoah Valley. Staufferstadt was one of the earliest settlements in the Valley, named for Peter Stauffer (or Stover, as it is more commonly spelled today). It was soon renamed Strasburg, after the town in Alsace where many German religious refugees had come from (Stauffer himself was from Mannheim, in the Palatinate). Teckla’s father was Peter Hockman, a Swiss Anabaptist settled nearby on a bend of the Shenandoah River near what’s now Tom’s Brook. An interesting note I found on a genealogy website says that Peter Hockman was fined in 1761 for not responding to a military muster during the French and Indian War—so it seems his pacifist beliefs were intact.

By about 1802, Johannes and Teckla bought a farm several miles to the south on the North River, on the border between Rockingham and Augusta Counties (named for another British Prime Minister, and the mother of King George III, respectively). This is near the town of Weyer’s Cave, near the point where the North, Middle and South rivers converge to form the Shenandoah River. They attended the local Lutheran Church, called the Friedens Church, considered one of the oldest Lutheran churches in the Valley. It’s thought they are buried there, and although there are dozens of tombstones there with German inscriptions, we didn’t see either name on a visit there a few years ago.

Friedens Church

German remained the primary language of their son David, who as late as 1812, when he served in the war against Britain, was said to only read and write in German. By the 1830s, he had left the farm on the North River and was living a bit to the east, up on the Blue Ridge in Brown’s Gap. But when he died in 1855, he was buried back in the valley, only about a mile up the road from his father’s farm, at a place called Melanchthon Chapel Cemetery. This Lutheran cemetery would be the resting place for several generations of Crickenbergers, and indeed the name Melanchthon—one of the leading Lutheran reformers of the 16th century—appears again and again in family names. My great-great-grandfather was Philip Melanchthon Crickenberger, and his second son was Peter Melanchthon (his elder son was named William Luther, and indeed, his own younger brother was Martin Luther). Even more extraordinarily, Philip’s older brother, George Washington Crickenberger (yes, that’s his name), had seven sons who made it into the Guinness World Book of Records as the ‘alphabetical sons’: Arthur Benton, Clinton Dewitt, Earl Floyd, George Herman, Ira Jethrow, Kennie Luther, and Minor Newton (born between 1879 and 1895). On the topic of extraordinary names, my mother also had a great-uncle called Orange Presley Harris (called ‘Jack’, understandably), but he’s part of my English ancestry, so not part of this story. These were big farming families with lots and lots of children: Philip Melanchthon Crickenberger married the 18-year-old Lottie Shiflett in 1876, and over the next 21 years they had 17 children, including three sets of twins. Poor Lottie died, aged only 39. Shiflett is another name common to this area of Virginia, though more so on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge, as all my friends who went to UVA know: every policeman, postman or sales clerk in Charlottesville seems to be named Shiflett.

Philip and Lottie Crickenberger in the Melanchthon Chapel Cemetery near Weyer’s Cave

My mother also had some great-aunts on the Sherfy side with fantastic names: Tennessee (‘Tenna’) and Timaoczema (‘Timey’). Several of the lines of the Sherfy family (from above) had moved down the Valley and settled in Johnson City, Tennessee. Others stopped in the way in the Shenandoah Valley, and April and December of 1903, two of these Sherfy sisters married two Crickenberger brothers, Peter and his younger brother Henry (who went by his second name, Neff), thus drawing them in to the Church of the Brethren, and drawing together the lineages being outlined in this story.

Neff Crickenberger and Hattie Sherfy (and witnesses at their wedding), 1903

Pete Crickenberger’s family moved up to Northern Virginia, and I knew some of his descendants where I grew up there. Neff’s family remained in the Valley, and moved around, but ultimately settled near a town called Mount Jackson. His eldest son, Frederick Melanchthon, had been born near the original family homestead near Weyers Cave. His second daughter, Olivia, my grandmother, had the wild idea of going to college—none of her siblings even finishing high school—and she did. It is through this experience that all the lines of my family were eventually drawn together to produce me.

Crickenberger siblings, 1945 (my grandmother Olivia third from left)

Bridgewater College was founded in 1880 by the Church of the Brethren (by Daniel Christian Flory—undoubtedly related to those Floras and Florys so far encountered in this tale). Olivia Crickenberger enrolled in 1927. I asked her how she had managed to get a loan from a bank to pay for college, as the daughter of fairly poor farmers, and she said, quite nonchalantly, ‘I just asked my preacher for a note to take to the bank that said, “Ollie is a good girl”’. Oh what times they were! She also suggested to me that she had gone to college to get away from the marital aims of a neighbouring farmwoman in Mount Jackson, Mother Jordan, whose two (of three) sons had already married two of Ollie’s sisters.

Olivia Crickenberger’s photo in the Bridgewater College yearbook, 1928

But she only finished two years, then married a city slicker from Washington, DC, converted him too to the Church of the Brethren (in fact the minister at their wedding was a cousin, Ernest Sherfy), and sent her own daughter, Carol, my mother, to Bridgewater College. Here she met a track star from Roanoke, Wayne Eller Spangler, my father. They were married in 1954, and decided to travel the world, spending time as teachers in Japan and France, and as missionary teachers in Nigeria, before settling down to raise their family back in Virginia.

Olivia Crickenberger looking a little shy in her class portrait, Bridgewater College, 1928

(images from Wikimedia, or personal collections)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

7 thoughts on “A People Protected by a Prince; A People Proffered by a Prince: Germans who came to America in the 18th Century – My Ancestors

  1. Just read the one about our family. Fascinating! But poor Ralph Compton, non-German that he was, wasn’t even mentioned by name as a contributor to your existence!


    1. Nope. But maybe next year I will do something on English (and apparently Scottish) Comptons and Aldertons. We did find his high school yearbook, and there’s a cartoon of him (very recognisable) which his classmates had labelled ‘sleeping beauty’.


  2. Just finished reading your recent writing about our family history. Thank you for taking the time to do this. I’m old enough to remember the Eller farm at Sugarloaf and our family home was just miles from there when I was a teenager.


  3. Thank you for this wonderful article about my 5th great grandfather. My mother was Josephine Crittenberger Nall. She did genealogy since the 1960’s and I have just started to do it this year.


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