Specific Schmitt

Specific Schmitt: An Origins Biography

Recovery after disaster is a cyclical theme in human history. Picking up from natural disasters, such as earthquakes or volcanoes, are bad enough, but human nature adds self-inflicted catastrophes. The wars of the 1600s, that decimated the population of Europe, still echo today through their genealogical effects.

But rebuilding did allow a fresh start. The pre-industrial pioneers of 1700 Germany displayed an unrelenting optimism. The environment that they built tells the tale of their journey, commitments, and survival skills. What remains are their stories in wood, plaster, and stone.

1700 must have even seemed like the dawn of a new era. The ancient mountain town of Züsch Germany was revitalized as one center for an ironworks renaissance, just beginning. (“Ore and Origins” tells the story of diverse convergence, and building from the ashes.) The population boomed, and new towns sprouted up throughout the Rhineland valleys. Each created community, such as Damflos, Geisfeld, or Zinsershütten, reflected the uniqueness of their residents, who clustered around the Züscher-Hammer ironworks plant. But instead of fulfilling their hopes of a prosperous future, they reinforced themselves an attractive target.

It is an unfortunate characteristic of human nature to want what neighbors have. As the Germans were busy creating a new infrastructure, the French were not quieted by the recent treaties. They kept their eyes on the Hünsrick Mountain industrial resurgence—let others pay for the rebuilding, and then go in and take it! Louis XIV was expert at such a strategy.

Unlike the recent wars (Thirty Years War 1618–1648 and the Nine Years War 1688-1697), the aggression of the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) washed over Southwestern Germany again with what must have felt like a violent hurricane of French wrath. This time, rather than coping with all of their towns burned down, many structures survived, and industry limped along despite repeated interruptions.

The ten families that characterize the community surrounding the Züscher-Hammer worked together for almost 200 years. They offered a blend of trades that were responsible for the area’s success. Following representative residences of one surname ancestor line, in this case Schmitt, demonstrates their journey. These illustrations are of real houses that survive from that time, and are on the scale of where a black smith may have lived. As a progression, they serve as a symbolic visual biography.

Origins in Meisenheim: There was one place that escaped the ravages of war—today the whole town is like a living museum. This Schmitt branch lead to this ancient village, recorded there to the beginning of recorded history. So it is unfortunate that the industrial-minded Schmitt family did not stay in this safe hamlet, as did extended family (who probably still live there!). Maybe this river town was bypassed by invading armies due to their strong city walls. Even today, they boast of preserved walls including the large city gate towers, built in the 1400s. Visiting Meisenheim is a true step back in time, as many streets haven’t changed in centuries. The Schmitt ancestors would still know the place.

Obergaße 15 in Meisenheim was built in the late 1600s, and could have been the home of tradesmen. This drawing represents the style and charm of all the antique buildings. There are larger examples on either side of it, but this narrow little fachwerk dwelling boasts of its modesty.

From the large anchored family, Simon Jacob Schmitt (born 1659) steps out of time’s mist as a hardworking lumber provider to the forges. Accessing the Black Forest, lumber was plentiful, albeit expensive. It was used for everything: building, fuel for furnaces or stoves, and consumed in large quantities to harvest charcoal for forges. Born just after the 30 Years War ended, Simon Jacob was from a family of black smiths—confirmed by the “Schmitt” name. Each town only needs a certain number of black smith shops, so the Schmitt family members tended to move around in the region. Simon was probably related to most of the black smiths in the area, with whom his fortunes would rise or fall.

Centrally located: Simon’s son, also named Simon, found opportunity just west of the family home, near Züscher-Hammer. It was one place who was hiring tradesmen as the economy struggled to recover. There were a lot of forges around Sötern, on the border of Saarland and the Rhineland, including Birkenfeld and Abentheuerer Cottage. When the forges were powered, life was good. But when the forges went down, when the crops failed, when armies were thieves, life was not good. Sadly, the residents found more of the latter and less of the former, but they persevered. Simon was married with four young children when the French invaded in 1734. Family documents describe the difficulties of life for these four sons. The youngest, Johann Georg, was only four years old when the town was occupied.

Choosing to illustrate Haupstraße 16 in Sötern represents the most typical of the town’s older modest homes—plastered over timber, two stories, and clustered together.

All the trades involved physical labor—especially for the professions involved in the ironworks. Harvesting and processing wood was particularly hard labor. Like other tradesmen, the journey of residences displayed the path of opportunity. Following the Schmitt family focuses on, Johann Georg, who had three older brothers. Most youngest sons worked to make advantageous marriages. Johann Georg moved to Züsch when he married, having found an in-law family that were developers and builders. His mother-in-law’s father, Johann Peter Zinser, built Zinsershütten, a hamlet to house and service the iron workers. But things didn’t seem to improve much, even with this change. His children began the region’s exodus to emigration—primarily to the American Midwest.

Close Proximity:
Descriptions from the family records describe tragic difficulties of this era. Production at the iron mills was interrupted continually by political conflict, which then took a toll on the economy. The Schmitt family in Sötern struggled, so moving to Züsch probably added a more efficient access to Züscher-Hammer. See the introduction “A Boast of Modesty” for notes on this illustration.

The family migration through the three towns shows a contrast in character—from the more eclectic to the most stoic. Züsch is a prim little mountain place, serious, frugal, and understated, though ancient. It is a place to work more than to have fun. So it set the tone for the restless generations that wanted more.

Any transplant adapts to the new environment. It is impossible not to be changed by acquired cultural influences. In the family migration from the first known records in the late 1500s to the mid-1850s emigration, the Schmitt story exemplifies what millions of German citizens experienced—a progression in pragmatism. —always inspired, Liane

The Story of Schmitt: The Series

The history of the Schmitt family is ubiquitous. As their “Schmitt” name is common, they also share experiences that are part of almost every American’s family tree. Schmitt descendants left the oppression of their homeland for the freedom of choice. The patterns of prosperity and devastation had become intolerable—especially when there was an escape. All immigrants to the United States want the same things: opportunity, prosperity, and a better life for the next generations.

The Schmitt family is unique in how much they exemplify these qualities. As people with deep convictions, they stood up for their beliefs and helped to shape their communities. Their achievements, versus their names, can be found in the history books. Theirs is a story of building, developing industry, following opportunities, participating in change, and taking risks. They hold a mirror up to ourselves, as their past is our past. Their story is both worth remembering and honoring:

Symbolic Schmitt” gives an overview of the series and how it developed.

A Boast of Modesty” shows the first Schmitt house that I drew, representative of where the family lived the longest.

Pioneer Schmitt: A Visual Biography” follows the courageous journey of a Schmitt family to the wilderness of the new world.

Biography in Buildings” summarizes the Schmitt Story in six images—the first three representative and the second three documented.

Please see the overview of the series Ore and Origins: A Biography.



Liane Sebastian wears an artist’s hat, designer’s coat, and editor’s shoes.

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