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Genealogy & The Hessian Soldiers - Part I
By Fred Vickerson
Published February 24, 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."- American Declaration of Independence
Who were these "foreign mercenaries" and what relevance do they have to our pursuit of genealogy. These are the questions I will attempt to answer in this and future articles.
George III of Great Britain, in 1775/1776, desperately seeking to retain control of British North America, signed treaties with a number of German states to supply troops to defend the English interest in this part of the world.
The significance for the genealogist in North America is that approximately 6000 soldiers remained on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, some 2,400 in Canada and the rest in the U.S.A. It has been estimated that several tens of thousands of Canadians can trace the ancestry back to one these soldiers. It has been estimated that 1,400 Hessians settled in Quebec and about 1000 in the Maritime Provinces and Ontario. For those fortunate enough to be able to connect an ancestor to one of the German troops, there is a wealth of information that can be accessed, such as diaries outlining troop movements, regiment lists, which can give the soldier's place of birth, height and wealth, general reference material on the American Revolution etc.
As a side note, many authors have suggested that, if it were not for the presence of the German forces, Canada would not exist as a separate nation today. The German contingent in North America was about as large as the British, and despite the British defeat and loss of the 13 colonies, England did retain control of the northern territory.
As indicated earlier, the military strength of Britain was inadequate to suppress the American uprising. It therefore turned to its former allies of the Seven Years War for support, several German principalities. In the 18th century, Germany was a patchwork of independent states, each with its own ruler. Many of the heads of these states were related to British Royalty in one fashion or another. George III signed treaties with six German states, Braunschweig (Brunswick), Hesse-Cassel, Hesse-Hanau, Anspach-Bayreuth, Anhalt-Zerbst and Waldeck. As Hesse-Cassel provided the largest contingent of troops, the German forces became known generically as "Hessians". The attached map reprinted from Prof. Lothar Zimmermann's article (German-Canadian Yearbook, 1981) shows the approximate location of these principalities
Hesse-Cassel supplied the largest number of troops by far. Approximately 17,000 soldiers were sent America, representing about 1 out of 4 able bodied men of military age of the population of that state. The Hesse-Cassel troops were considered superior to those of the other German states. They were well trained on the Prussian system and in good health. The treaty signed between George III and Frederick II, Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, was a lucrative one for the German Prince. He would be paid an estimated 3,000,000 English Pounds over an eight year period for the services of his army. It was also the 6th time in 100 years that the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel had rented out his troops. Thus the common soldier could hardly be considered a "mercenary". He received his regular soldiers pay from the Hessian army; the Landgrave received the benefit.
Hesse-Cassel sent 15 Infantry regiments; each consisting of 5 companies and the strength was 650 officers and men. Also sent were 4 Grenadier Battalions, 2 Yager companies and 2 Field Artillery Companies. Regiments were often named after their "Chef", but not always. Thus you will find references to the von Knyphausen regiment (named after Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen) or the Mirbach regiment (named after Major-General von Mirbach). Each regiment, when stationed in Germany, was located in its garrison town. For example, the garrison town of the von Knyphausen regiment was Ziegenhain. This can be important for genealogical research, as the church records for the garrison town could contain information on your ancestor.
The Hesse-Cassel forces spent most of their time in the 13 Colonies. They arrived in New York in August 1776 and departed in August 1883. They participated in every major battle of the war, including the battle of Trenton where many were killed, wounded or captured in the American victory. In September of 1779, the British fearing an attack on Quebec ordered the von Kynphausen and von Lossberg regiments to Canada. The fleet was struck by a severe storm and many ships were lost or captured by the Americans. The remainder of the fleet found its way to Quebec, although not until the next June. One part of the von Knyphausen regiment had to spend the winter in Prince Edward Island and then resumed its voyage to Quebec the following spring. The von Lossberg regiment remained in Quebec for the remainder of the hostilities and the von Knyphausen regiment returned to New York in 1781. The regiment von Seitz was stationed in Halifax from late 1778 until 1883.
The Duke of Brunswick, also related to the British Royal family dispatched about 5,700 troops throughout the Revolution. These forces were organized into 7 regiments or battalions and 1 Yager company and were stationed in Quebec.
The first division arrived in the summer of 1776 and the troops left Quebec in the summer of 1883. They were under the command of General von Riedesel who is given credit for erecting the first North American Christmas tree in Sorel in 1781. Riedesel's forces participated in General Burgoyne's campaign in 1777 and most were captured at Saratoga, with only the Prinz Friederich regiment escaping that fate, having been left behind to defend Fort Ticonderoga. It is estimated that 700-800 of these soldiers chose to settle in Canada.
Hesse-Hanau, Anhalt-Zerbst, Waldeck and Anspach-Bayreuth
The treaties signed with these principalities called for far fewer troops than with either Hesse-Cassel of Brunswick. Hesse-Hanau contributed about 2000 soldiers, Anspach-Bayreuth about 2300, Waldeck 1200 and Anhalt-Zerbst about 1100. Only those forces of Hesse-Hanau and Anhalt-Zerbst were stationed in Canada.
Most of the soldiers who settled in Canada or the U.S.A either deserted from the British side or were allowed to remain behind by their superiors. There are an unknown number of soldiers, my own ancestor Georg Weckesser being one, who returned to Germany only to return to this side of the Atlantic at some later date. George Weckesser, his friend Wilhelm Fischer deserted after a few years in Hesse-Cassel, escaped with their wives and children (emigration was forbidden) and returned to settled in Prince Edward Island. Their desertion is shown in the military records of Hesse-Cassel.
Soldiers who chose to settle in the country were often given land grants, and depending on the jurisdiction, were treated as well as the Loyalists.
In the next article I will discuss sources which can be used when searching for "Hessian Soldier" ancestors.
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