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Genealogy & The Hessian Soldiers - Part II
By Fred Vickerson
Published June 11, 1999
"He is, at this time, transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in most the barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation."- In the February 24th issue of the Global Gazette Vol. 3 Number 04, I gave a brief background on the role of the German Auxiliary forces (referred to for the sake of simplicity in this article as "Hessians") in the American Revolution. I will now try to give some pointers for those interested in establishing a Hessian connection in their family history research. I will also provide links to some important reference material. Often, families will have a tradition that an ancestor fought in the American Revolution on the side of the British or perhaps a reference to a Hessian ancestor will be found accidentally, such as in a church record. I heard as a young child that our family had an ancestor that was from Hessen-Cassel and that had fought in the revolution. Although Vickerson appeared not to be German, nobody really knew what the German surname was. I hope the following discussion will help others sort out Hessian connections as I was able to do.
1. FIRST STEPS
Probably the most critical step in genealogical research of the Hessian soldiers is the ability to connect ones ancestor in North America with the name of a Hessian soldier found in one of the many lists of such individuals. Many, if not most of these soldiers, when they chose to remain in the U.S. or Canada had their names altered, sometimes to an unrecognizable from. Often local officials who had no knowledge of the German language or pronunciation made these changes. In my case, my ancestor's name in Hessen-Cassel was Johann Georg Weckesser. In Canada, his name was anglicized to George Vickerson.
It is very helpful to gain an understanding of German pronunciation in order to try and decipher the names and possible changes. In many cases a local official on this side of the Atlantic would write down the name as he heard it and perhaps converted it to an English/French name which sounded similar to the German one. Check your local library for books on German.
You should carefully examine every source document where your ancestor's name might appear. Variations in spelling in these documents may give clues as to the actual German name. Also bear in mind that the second name was often used where we would use the first name. Most male children had the first name of Johann so a name of Johann Friedrich would take the English form of Frederick. An exception to this rule would appear to be the first name "Johannes". Check church records, land records, wills, court records, military records, including militia etc. These can all produce important information on your ancestor. Leave no stone unturned. I found an entry in theLand Recordsin PEI where George Vickerson's name was spelled Vickasser. In German, the W is pronounced as a V, so you can see the connection with Weckesser. I also found a marriage certificate for one of his daughters, that she actually signed "Weckersser". Church records, especially catholic records in Quebec (see the series "Nos Racines Francaises" in the Global Gazette) often will record the German and military origin of the groom. Once you have some name possibilities, you can check some lists of Hessian soldiers (I will discuss these below).
It is also important to recognize that not every individual from a German state was associated with the German military contingent in the revolution. German settlements in North America often predated the American Revolution. As an example, a German colony was established in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in 1753. Therefore the establishment of German ancestry is not enough to indicate he was a Hessian soldier.
2. SOURCES FOR HESSIAN SOLDIERS
Undoubtedly, one of the major events in genealogical research into the descendents of Hessian soldiers occurred in 1976 with the publication of the "HETRINA" (Hessische Truppen im Amerikanischen Unabhangigkeitskrieg). This is a compilation of the names of soldiers by Dr. Inge Auerbach of the Staatsarchiv (State Archives) in Marburg (Hessen) Germany. The soldiers' names were drawn from the "mass und rangierliste" (the regiment lists from 1776 and 1785) and the regiment monthly reports of personnel changes. The information included gives the soldier's name, town, approximate year of birth, rank, regiment, date and type of event. As an example, if the soldier deserted, this would be indicated along with the date of the desertion. The first 4 volumes (organized by regiment) provide the names of the Hessen-Cassel regiments, volume 5, the Waldeck troops and volume 6, those of Hessen-Hanau. The HETRINA series (on microfilm) can be accessed through one of the LDS Family History Centers. The film numbers are shown below.
I have volume 3 of this series and would be happy to do a lookup for anyone interested.
An important resource for those whose Hessian ancestors settled in Canada is the series of books by John Helmut Merz entitled "The Hessians of Upper Canada", "The Hessians of Nova Scotia" and the "Register of German Military Men who remained in Canada after the American Revolution". Mr. Merz has spent a good portion of his retirement years tracking down Hessian soldiers who settled in these regions. His books contain a biographical sketch of each soldier.
Additional sources for soldiers who settled in Canada are the articles by Herbert Wilhelm Debor in the German-Canadian Yearbook, volumes II (1975) and III (1976) published by the Historical Society of Mecklenburg Upper Canada Inc.
The Journal of the Johannes Schalm Historical Association, volume 2, number 1 gives a composite list of German prisoners of war held by the Americans for the period of 1779-1782.
Sources which I have not examined but are referenced are the German-American Genealogical Research Monographs edited by Clifford Neal Smith and the work of Stadtler, E., Die Ansbach-Bayreuther Truppen im amerikanishen Unabhangigkeitskreig 1777-1783 (1956).
It is also worth noting that there were also Germans, who fought with the British forces, known as the "von Scheither recruits" and perhaps others.
An important organization for Hessian research and one that is well worth joining is the Johannes Schalm Historical Association. Originally founded in 1975 as a family society for descendents of the soldier Johannes Schalm, the JSHA has grown into a prominent organization dedicated "…to researching, collecting and disseminating data related to German Auxiliaries to the British Crown who fought in the Revolutionary war and their descendents." They publish a very nice annual journal, part of which is dedicated to Hessian Research in general and part to the descendents of Johannes Schalm. They maintain a registry of the Hessian soldiers and known descendents and also issue a certificate to those researchers who can document scientifically their descent from one of these soldiers. They can be reached by mail at JSHA, Box 99, Pennsauken, NJ 08110.
3. WORKING IN GERMANY
Once a connection has been established to one of the Hessian soldiers, it is time to consider further work in Germany. A useful tool in this regard is the LDS research guide for Germany. A copy can be found on their web site. As there is ample information in this guide, I will only touch on a few points here.
All the original documents of the German forces in the revolution are held in the various State Archives.
The records for the Hessen-Cassel, Hessen-Hanau and Waldeck forces are held in the State Archive in Marburg, Hessen, Germany. Hessisches Staatsarchiv Marburg, Friedrichsplatz 15, 35037 Marburg, Postfach 540, 35037 Marburg, Tel.: 06421/25078, Fax: 06421/161125
Those for the Brunswick forces at Niedersächisches Staatsarchiv Wolfenbüttel, Forstweg 2, 38302 Wolfenbüttel, Tel.: 05331/72061, Fax: 05542/3649)
Those for the Anhalt-Zerbst troops at Landeshauptarchiv Sachsen-Anhalt Magdeburg, Hegelstr. 25, 39104 Magdeburg (Postanschrift. Postfach 4023, 39015 Magdeburg), Tel.: 0391/5664-3, Fax: 0391/5664-440
As mentioned previously, there is a wealth of information on the activities of the German forces, some of which has been translated. Regimental diaries are valuable as they give the movements of the regiment and document the battles fought. Many of these have been translated. Many senior officers also kept journals, which provide interesting insights.
Once a soldier has been identified, it is usually possible to locate the town of origin through the military records. That being accomplished, church records can be accessed by writing to the parish or the respective church archive. Be sure to check the church records for the "Garrison Town" for the regiment.
Reading and translation of old German documents can definitely be a challenge. The old handwriting used different characters (see the LDS German Guide) so not only do you have the language problem, but also the problem of deciphering the letters. When it comes time for translation be careful whom you ask. Even if the individual is German, he/she will not be able to read it unless they are from an older generation or have a particular interest.
4. GENERAL REFERENCES
There are, as one might expect a plethora of general reference material on the American Revolution and the role of the German Auxiliaries. Global Genealogy & History Shoppe is worthwhile consulting as they have an extensive and interesting collection of American Revolution and Loyalist books for sale.
The following books are suggested:
Atwood, Rodney. The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution. Cambridge UP 1980. This is a scholarly examination of the role of the Hessen-Cassel troops in the American Revolution.
Von Eelking, Max. The German Allied Troops in the North American War of Independence 1776-1783. Genealogical Publishing Company 1969. This book is an English translation of the original German book published in 1863. It gives the German perspective of the auxiliary forces.
Wilhelmy, JP. German Mercenaries in Canada. Maison des Mots 1984. This is an interesting account of a French Canadian who discovered that his "strange" surname derived from that of a Hessian soldier.
Researching Hessian soldiers is definitely a fascinating experience. It takes time, patience and perseverance, but the rewards are there. The wealth of information to be found on your ancestor coupled with the interesting time period in history makes for many exciting moments. Good luck in your research!
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