When the Holy Roman Emperor died without a son in 1685, the French king, Louis XIV, jumped at opportunity. First, he waved strategic family marriage contracts around the political landscape to make deals (that were later not kept). But that was not enough to convince the German leaders in the Rhineland to pledge allegiance. So next, he invaded.
The French army crossed the Rhine River at Strasbourg in 1688, marched into Baden, and headed north. They devastated the villages in their path in a wide band, virtually unopposed. The French King declared that this offensive was meant to intimidate the population to acquiesce.
Watching from his castle perched on an ancient volcano, Prince Ernst Ludwig von Hunolstein, was powerless to stop the French Army. As the enemy burned and pillaged north along the Rhine River up to Mainz, they aimed directly at Hunolstein, which they attacked in 1689. After destroying the Princes home and town, they kept going west to destroy Trier, where they left a population of only 2500 survivors. Finally, the marauders were stopped further north at Niederrhein, on the Meuse River.
Once the French retreated, Prince Ernst Ludwig looked around at what was left of his kingdom. It wasn’t much. Villages not destroyed by the recent tide of invasion were already in bad shape. The entire region had not yet recovered from the larger Thirty Years War, 34 years earlier, when towns and farms were burned to the ground, the economy collapsed, and then plague claimed half the population. Hunolstein knew that it would take generations, and lots of help, to recover. He had to start—or watch his people starve—while resources remained unused.
Hunolstein’s neighbor, the Count of Sponheim, was a friend. They often did favors for one another, especially because the Sponheim ruling family lived in Bavaria and depended on Hunolstein to help protect their interests. Some of Sponheim territories had also suffered at the hands of the French and so both leaders were desperate to remedy common tragedies.
These aristocratic allies each owned part of the fertile Hunsrück Mountains. Once a wealthy area, the border between the fiefs split the ancient mining village of Züsch: Sponheim land to the south and Hunolstein to the north. All around were the reminding ruins of a once prosperous iron industry—but the forges were burnt down, mines abandoned, and foundations left to erode and be retaken by nature.
Since the time of the Celts, the area had been dotted with ore mines, facilitated by navigable streams, and fed by rich forests. The community was also located at major trade crossroads between Trier and Mainz. The region was a resource for power since prehistory—helping to launch the Bronze Age and Iron Ages! The Romans invested heavily in the infrastructure and also became rich from production, these remnants under excavation.
As a major center for ironworks, the ancient town of Züsch was a producer of nails, horseshoes, wheels, and cooking vessels. Knives and swords were made by the forges chiefly in Herrstein and Rhaunen. Remains of the first blast furnace in the region, Abentheuerer Cottage, was a glaring example of what was lost. But a clean slate was also an opportunity. Hunolstein, with support from the Sponheim family, had a plan.
First he assembled the remnants of resources, which included anyone with ironworking expertise. Several of my ancestors stepped up to this challenge. Mathias Driessler moved from the Saarland north to become “mayor” of the workforce. Several French-speaking ironworking families had survived the devastations, including Johannes Mathieu, who was a tradesman. Those from nearby towns who could help relocated to Züsch to not only rebuild the ironworks, but the towns that supported it.
Once the local resources were organized, Hunolstein knew this was not enough. To rebuild also meant to improve, and any current innovations that could help must be employed. This meant importing experts and workers from Wallonia (today, it is the southern half of Belgium, also an iron-rich area.) Joseph Remacle de Hauzer, from Liège, was a visionary genius of mining technology. Hired with a thirty-year contract, the Belgian engineer became headquartered in Züsch to manage the region’s development.
Following Hauzer’s leadership, many Wallonian families moved to the Züsch area and balanced the workforce.
Prior to 1670, my ancestors Johann Detemple, plant manager from Florenville, Johann Peter Delveau, blacksmith from Chassepierre, and Lambert Monneau, from Mellier, appear in the work records. It is notable that the next generation changed their names: Delveau to Dellwo and Monneau to Muno. Many of the Wallonians settled in Geisfeld, and I suspect had their own clustered community. They became a minority, and found assimilation difficult. But after four generations, they became intertwined into the local families.
With the population infusion, the local Germans rose to the occasion by building new towns: Damflos, Neuhütten, and Zinsershütten. Johann Peter Zinser moved from nearby Birkenfeld to manage housing for new families. Simon Jacob Schmitt came as blacksmith and lumber provider from the Black Forest.
Each of these workers represent a different station in the system—none are the same. From the top of management to the lowest furnace-feeder, each contributes like a spoke on a wheel of industry. The intermingling of these seven families lasted almost 200 years. So when my great great grandfather immigrant stepped off the boat in Milwaukee, his DNA was from one community that worked for the same enterprise—and was a blend of German and Belgian. (It is no surprise that my father designed steel plants!)
Conflicts in the Rhineland continued as these seven surnames made unions. They produced many descendants that came to the U.S. between 1830 and 1860. So many young people left Züsch during that time— only a minority remained. Now, there are four or five generations since, and we gaze at each other from across the Atlantic, wondering the fate of each! (I will write more about this.)
In retrospect, the story shows that to be pioneers is not an American attribute, but that those who emigrated had experience in survival and rebuilding.
—always inspired, Liane
Liane Sebastian wears an artist’s hat, designer’s coat, and editor’s shoes.