The history of German immigration to North America really began on October 6, 1683 with the arrival of thirteen Mennonite families from Krefeld, Germany on board the vessel Concord at Philadelphia harbor on the Delaware River. During the following three centuries over seven million German speaking people from Europe landed on the shores of America. Today, approximately 28% of all Americans are of German, or partial German, extraction; the highest of any ethnic group. Over the span of time it is noted that most of the immigration was motivated by the desire to obtain religious freedom, enjoy economic improvement and avoid the seemingly constant strife in Europe.
Until Otto von Bismarck united Germany in 1871, the country was composed of independent city states, duchies, grand duchies and principalities. The Rhineland-Elfel area was under Prussian domination and controlled by the Junker aristocrats and their armies who wielded absolute and complete authority. In the absence of any real leadership or strategy, the peasants suffered an appalling loss of life inflicted by the armies of territorial princes. Those who survived were taxed more heavily than ever by way of reparations. Thus, thousands of freedom loving people fled from the autocratic governed country to America.
Within the Rhineland-Eifel area of western Germany lies the small village of Kirchweiler. This is the locale of the Wirtz family and thus it is only fitting to describe it in detail. Kirchweiler is in Kreis Daun in the Eifel which might be somewhat tantamount to comparing it as being in the township or county of Daun. The village is situated about 42 kilometers, (25 miles), east of the junction of the Belgium-Luxemburg borders and about 52 kilometers, (32 miles), due north of Trier. Trier, Germany's oldest city, was founded by the Romans. Because of its tiny size, Kirchweiler usually appears only on local maps. If one is interested in spotting the general location on a large map it would he best to find Trier and then look for the smaller town of Gerolstein to the north. Kirchweiler
is in the immediate vicinity.
The Eifel terrain was formed millenniums ago and is of volcanic origin. The land combines woods and meadows over soft rolling hills. Here and there are small round lakes which are vestiges of ancient craters. The landscape is somewhat similar to northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
The Eifel is dotted with many small farming villages, all much the same in appearance as Kirchweiler. Most buildings are very old and little or no new construction has taken place over the years. The population of the villages has, for the most part, remained static. Today, Kirchweiler has a population of only about two hundred at the most. There is no industry other than Farming and until recent times the inhabitants were very poor and had to farm with implements that by today's standards would be considered rather primitive.
I can remember my Father saying, ``yes, they were just poor dumb Farmers,'' when telling me what he knew about his forebears in Germany. But, contrary to my father's statement, they were not dumb Farmers. Poor and uneducated, yes, but not dumb. For after America gained her independence from England, agents were busy in the farming areas of Germany encouraging peasants to emigrate to America to farm areas vacated by the Indians. It was known that Germans were good farmers. By 1839 Indians had been evacuated to the west of Illinois and Wisconsin as a result of their defeat in the Blackhawk War. The American government was anxious to settle the newly acquired, fertile land. Hence, German farmers from the Eifel began their trek to America.
It was after considerable research that I was able to track down Kirchweiler as the birthplace of my great-grandfather, Theodore Wirtz and his mother, Anna Oehmen. Correspondence with the records office in Daun produced Wirtz family lineage back to the late eighteenth century and, in addition, the name and address of one resident in Kirchweiler bearing the name of Wirtz. Contact by letter was made with Frau Katherina Wirtz who took an immediate interest in my query of possible long ago kinship. Indeed, her husband, Julius, who was killed during the war in 1944, was descended from the same Wirtz family line as I.
In the Spring of 1978, my wife and I journeyed to Germany to meet Frau Wirtz. She had made arrangements for us to meet the Wirtz and Oehmen families still living in the vicinity as well as viewing points of interest through a well planned itinerary. Her brother, Anton Schmitz, and his family took us on a motor tour of the Eifel all the while explaining the history of the area as well as answering our multitude of questions.
The structure still stands where Anna Oehmen was born in 1811. It was built in 1803 as indicated by the inscription over the doorway. At that time, the Oehmen's occupied an area about ten feet by twenty feet as their living quarters. The single room contained a brick oven for cooking, a small window and was carpeted with a dirt floor. Small wonder that Anna Oehmen decided to pack up and come to America.
Nearby is the house where Anna, then married to Franz Wirtz, gave birth to her first child, Theodore. It is almost as old as the building in which Anna was born. Franz and his brother, Theodore were also born in this same house. In December of 1944, the house was severely damaged along with several neighboring buildings due to fighting going on at the time. The structure was not profitably used for some time and since our visit has been demolished.
However, the building site is still referred to as the ``Wirtzenhaus'' by the villagers. At the time of our visit, Frau Wirtz resided in a close by building that had been the family home of her mother-in-law. It was built in 1839 and Frau Wirtz lived there alone until a few years ago when she moved to Bonn to live with her brother Anton and his family. It was interesting to note that all of the older buildings in the Eifel had small narrow windows and very few of them. This is due to the fact taxes were levied on the number and size of windows in buildings constructed at that time.
The name Kirchweiler literally translated means ``church village'' and the Catholic church lies in the center of the village with its steeple standing out as the highest point in town. The church building is, perhaps, the village's oldest structure, dating back to medieval times. Directly behind the church lies the graveyard, which, except for being much smaller, is not at all unlike the one behind St. Peter's Church in Volo. Indeed, many of the gravestones in Kirchweiler are inscribed with the same names you see in the cemeteries of McHenry, Johnsburg and Volo. Names such as Pitzen, Molitor, Weingart and Mies are just a few to mention.
As stated earlier, war and strife were not uncommon in the Eifel over the centuries, and Kirchweiler was not spared during the second World War. American forces fought a brief skirmish in the village as they drove deeper into Germany. Casualties were suffered among the combatants of both sides. For such a small population, Kirchweiler lost many of its sons to the tragedy of war. Two monuments stand in the churchyard; one inscribed with the names of sixteen persons lost in the First World War, and the other with the names of twenty-four killed and ten missing in the Second. Among the names is that of Julius Wirtz who lost his life to French resistance fighters while he was a customs officer at the Swiss border in occupied France. A brother of Julius fell in Russia.
Frau Wirtz, who has a wonderful sense of humor, told us an interesting anecdote, which occurred during the American forces thrust through the Eifel. She had been housing German officers who were commanding the troops defending the village. She was aware that the Americans were near and was apprehensive of what would happen if they came to the village while it was still occupied with German troops. One day she asked the officer in charge about it and was told not to worry, that the Americans were still ten miles away. Glancing out of a window, she happened to notice some tanks coming over a hill not too Far away. She asked the officer whose tanks they were if the Americans were still ten miles away. Immediately, the officer alerted his men and the battle began. The next day, after the Germans were routed, two American officers ensconced themselves in Frau Wirtz's house. One of the officers, who spoke German, asked her why she kept it so cold in the house. She escorted him to the rear of the building and pointed out a gaping hole caused by the explosion of an American artillery shell.
The name Wirtz is still very much in existence in Eifel communities and is a Fairly common German surname. Until the year of 1843, depending on dialect, the name was spelled in various ways; such as Wirz, Wierz, Wurtz, Wu*rz, Wuertz, and Wiertz. Then a law was enacted which allowed no further changes in spelling without special permission and only under certain circumstances. Elsdon C. Smith, author of ``American Surnames'' writes; ``During the Middle Ages' the innkeepers and tavern keepers were prominent men. Apart from monasteries and other religious houses, inns and taverns were the only places of refuge for the weary traveler. Quite naturally, the owner or operator of an inn acquired the word as a surname. The German publican became Krug, Krueger, or Wirtz." Thus some where in the dim past, one of my fore bearers must have been a tavern-keeper in Germany. For sure, some of the Worts family were here in America.
Birth, death, and marriage records for Kirchweiler are kept in the registry office in Dockweiler, a village in the immediate vicinity, but only go back to the year of 1815. Earlier records may probably be found in the Archives of Trier. However, For this writing only the records found in Dockweiler will be used.
From these records, it can be determined that Johann Wiertz, born circa 1750, married a Maria Oehmen. They were farmers and lived in Kirchweiler. How many children were born of this marriage, I do not know. However, the records indicate they did have one son, Mathias, who was born 1772. He married a Margaretha Baur and they too resided in Kirchweiler as farmers. They had at least two children, Theodore and Franz. Mathias died October 22, 1833 at the age of sixty-one years.
Mathias' sons married in 1835: Theodore to a Margaretha Pauls in Gerolstein, and Franz to Anna Oehmen in Kirchweiler. The marriage of Franz and Anna culminated with the death of Franz after only three short years. During that time, two children were born, Theodore and Hubert. Theodore, the elder, was named after his father's brother who was Theodore's godfather. The practice of naming a child after its godparents was then, and still is, a Christian tradition in the Eifel area. As will be noticed later, this traditional practice was carried on by those who emigrated to America. The second child of this marriage was named Hubert, but he survived for only about six months. Twenty-nine year old Frau Anna Wirtz must have been a very sad and distraught woman in 1838 after having first lost her husband and then her son within six months. Surely she must have spent many hours pondering what to do. Certainly the poor farming village of Kirchweiler did not appear to hold a bright future for her being that she was a young widow with a two and one-half year old child. Surely her red hair must have sprouted a few gray ones.
In any event, about one year later, on March 6, 1839, she entered into marriage with Johann Michael Winkels. He was a thirty year old farm hand at the time of their wedding. He was born on August 13,1808 in Dohm, (now called Dohm-Lammerdorf). On December 24, 1839, the first child of this marriage was born and given the name of Hubert. Then on December 19, 1841, a second child, named Nicholaus, was born. Up to this time, the Winkels and five year old Theodore Wirtz were still living in the family Wirtzhaus in Kirchweiler.
Sometime after the birth of Nicholaus, the Winkels changed residence, perhaps moving to Koblenz, before emigrating to America. Why or when the decision to move was made is unknown, as is the fate of Hubert Winkels for he did not accompany the family to America. The decision to come to America included bringing young Theodore with them. One wonders if they gave any thought to letting him remain in Kirchweiler with the family of his uncle and godfather. Franz's brother, Theodore, moved to nearby Hinterweiler after Franz died and many of his descendants remained in the Eifel vicinity. On the other hand, many members of Anna's family, the Oehmens, came to America in later years. It was probably a wise decision for the Winkels to leave the Eifel when they did, for a severe famine struck the area in the 1860's.
During our visit to Germany, our gracious hostess, Frau Katherine Wirtz, introduced us to many members of the Wirtz and Oehmen families. They were as pleased to meet us as we were to meet them. We were welcomed to their homes and enjoyed many hours of "gemutlichkeit" with them. Conversation ranged among many topics, but they were mostly interested in what happened to those that left the Eifel so long ago. Also remarkable were certain physical resemblances between the Worts family here and the Wirtz family there, especially after so many generations. Indeed, it was quite a festive occasion in that after one hundred and thirty-five years, a "Wirtz" had returned to the land of his forefathers.