Life in Prussia: A Kucks Story

Time flies when you have too much to do. Between starting a new home remodel project, helping two friends establish lineage to their Revolutionary Patriot, work, and warming weather (yard work, yard work, yard work), it is difficult to make much progress on the genealogical front.

I continue to work through my Jacob Roth to Johannes Roth and beyond. I have stagnated on Marian B. Tucker. And progress is much faster on my friend’s line.  So, let me revisit a little more about what I have on the Kücks.

A Brief Recap

The last time we covered our Kücks line, I had just made a leap into German records and was able to extend our line several generations into the Hanover region. There is not much for me to piece together specific to these ancestors since I can’t read German.  The German handwriting is atrociously messy (in my opinion). Hence translation by myself is impossible, and many German records are not yet digitized anyway. So let us instead marry them to historical events and try to use our imagination for the rest.

Sixteen-year-old up-and-coming blacksmith Öhlrich Kücks (the younger) immigrated to the United States in 1870 following his Uncle Cordt Schröder, who arrived in 1865 and lived in Iowa. Öhlrich needed to make his way from New York to Iowa but seems to have gotten stuck in Chicago. He managed to either intentionally or accidentally enlist in the U.S. Army to defend the frontier against Native American tribes.  This happily brought him to Fort Omaha, Nebraska, just across the state line from his Uncle’s farm. 

But military conditions were harsh.  The work was hard, food was poor, the frontier was dangerous, and the pay was intermittent.  So Öhlrich, like so many of this time and place, deserted.  He fled across the border into Iowa, where he likely hid out at his Uncle Cordt’s farm, using an alias for a few short years.

The irony is that he most likely left Prussia to avoid military conscription into the Prussian Army, which had a much worse reputation than the U.S. Army.  His ancestors had endured war and famine in Prussia for generations, and the German lower social class was not fond of military conscription.

His father and stepmother did not immigrate for another 14 years. Perhaps they waited because Öhlrich’s stepmother was pregnant in 1870; or they were sending their sons one-by-one as they could afford the passage; or they were waiting for the marriage of the eldest daughter, Maria; whatever the reasoning, the parents did not immigrate until 1884. Newly married Maria Kücks, now Eckhof, remained in Prussia with her new husband and flourished.

Political Unrest

At the time of Öhlrich’s departure, his home country had just been annexed by the Kingdom of Prussia in 1868.  For years the two major powerhouses of the area, Prussia and Austria, had been trying to unify the various minor kingdoms under one nation, preferably ruled by one of them.  This put Prussia and Austria at odds politically, and fighting ensued.  

In the mid to late 19th century, Öhlrich’s family lived in the Land District (Landdrostei or High-Bailiwick) of Stade and the village of Ostereistedt, where his family continued to live.  The remainder of the family left Prussia the year before the government re-organizes the country from Landrostei to the more modern system of Government Districts and rural/urban counties. After their departure, the village of Osterestedt became a part of the Province of Hanover, Regierungsbezirk Stade, Landkreise Bremervörde, town or village Ostereistedt.

In the youth of Öhlrich’s father and mother, the area where the Kücks had long lived was in the Kingdom of Hanover.  The Congress of Vienna had restored the Kingdom in 1814, just five years before Öllerrich (the elder) was born in Godenstedt.  At this time, Godenstedt was in the district of Bremervörde (the future Landrostei of Stade, Landkreise Bremervörde). The Kingdom of Hanover had been ruled “in personal union” by King George III of Britain from 1814-1820, with Prince Adolphus as Viceroy over Hanover during the reign of the next two Kings of Britain.  The “personal union” ended with Queen Victoria’s ascension on the British throne and Hanover was turned over to her Uncle Ernest Augustus.  The rule of the Kingdom of Hanover remained in the Hanoverian line until King George V went into exile in 1866.

King George V was deposed after repeated political dispute with the Hanover Landtag (Parliament).  His demise came as a direct result of resisting the Kingdom of Prussia to submit Hanover troops over to Prussia against Austria.  King George V was supportive of Austria and refused Prussia’s demands, contrary to the parliament’s wishes.  King George V fled to Austria, where he continued to appeal for intervention from neighboring European nations.  His pleas were ignored, and Prussia succeeded in annexing Hanover.  

During these tumultuous times, military conscription was done by lottery for peasant sons of Hanover.  War was always a threat as both Prussia and Austria attempted to unify the various German nations under their own flag.  Did Öhlrich’s number come up? Were the Kücks opposed to Prussia in favor of Austria, as was King George V?  Were they opposed to a unified Germany?  Or were they simply opposed to military service under Prussian rule?

It is interesting to note that Öhlrich was the oldest son and was sent to America when he was 16 or 17, military conscription age.  His brothers followed, seemingly one by one, and as they were coming of age, themselves.

Son’s of Öllerrich and their ages at immigration
Öhlrich immigrated in 1870 at the age of 16
Henry/Hinrich immigrated in 1874 at the age of 19
Louis/Lütje (half-brother) immigrated c. 1881, he was 20-21*
John/Johann (half-brother) immigrated c. 1880 when he was 17*
Diedrich (half-brother) may have died in Nebraska at the age of 19, placing his immigration before 1883*
Clause (half-brother) immigrated in 1884 with his parents at the age of 17.  He is the youngest of all the brothers.
* These brothers may have immigrated together.

Bremen-Verden Before the Congress of Vienna

The region that was Hanover was a part of the greater Holy Roman Empire from 1180 (or earlier – I haven’t read any further back yet) until 1618 at the start of the Thirty Year’s War between Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics over land.  That’s actually a fascinating history, but it is quite dry to recount and not directly relevant to our Kücks …yet.

Anyway…the war drew the European powerhouses (France, Sweden, and Denmark) into the drama and ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.  The Treaty created two hereditary monarchs over the Duchies of Breman and Verden, respectively (the ancient region where our Kücks ended up.)  While these were two separate Duchies, The Holy Roman Empire awarded both as “personal unions” with the Swedish monarch, Queen Christina.  Locally they were ruled by separate Prince-Bishoprics (the hereditary monarchs mentioned earlier).  The Swedish Government re-established the City of Stade as the government seat.  At the same time the Duchy of Bremen moved its capital to Bremervörde and the Duchy of Verden moved its capital to Rotenburg.  Then the Great Northern War occurred between 1700-1721, resulting in Danish occupation, which ended with the Treaty of Stockholm.  Again more interesting history…dry, blah, dry, blah…

Meanwhile, over time, George Louis of the House of Hanover was the heir of the Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (aka Hanover).  This is the region surrounding Bremen and Verden and remained separate from Sweden.  His mother, Sophia of the Palatinate, was a granddaughter of King James I of England.  After much political positioning, Protestant George gained support in the British parliament and inherited the throne of England from his deceased and distant Catholic cousin, Queen Anne of the House of Stuart, through his mother’s claim.  George Louis became King George I of England and created a new “personal union” between Hanover and England.

Back to Sweden’s hold on the Duchies of Bremen and Verden, which were geographically surrounded by Hanover.  In 1719 King George I of England and the House of Hanover purchased Bremen-Verden from Sweden in the Treaty of Stockholm at the end of the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia in the Baltics.  The title of Prince-Electorate [of Hanover] was inherited by King George II and then King George III, who were all lines of the House of Hanover and subsequent Kings of England.

Anyway…war, war, government turnover, more war.  The history books tell us that the Palatinate region (south of Hanover, think Alecks, Roths, and Geiger’s) is decimated and repopulated with immigrants from Switzerland.  But up in Hanover, they seem to fare a little better, or did they?

The lives of our Kücks ancestors

We all know and have read some things on the society and life in 18th century Europe, but western Germany was not the center of the European super-powers.  While the region was a part of the Holy Roman Empire, it was a mixture of multiple poor minor kingdoms.  The Princes of these governments attempted to fashion their higher society after that of the major European kingdoms, but with less long-term vision, and often at the cost or discomfort of its lower classes.  Historians compare the activities of the minor Princes in the east as more juvenile and petty next to the greater houses in the west.  These Princes enacted policies and levied taxes for personal interests rather than national interests, and routinely fought with the Holy Roman Emperor.  This left the Bremen-Verden region a little “backward” compared to what we’ve read about wider Europe.  Our Kücks were likely in the pool of “heavily taxed,” and conscripted into military service against their will.  They were hard-working but without the right to vote or hold public office.

Before becoming a soldier, a farmer, and then a saloon bartender in the United States, Öhlrich listed his occupation as a blacksmith on his passenger credentials.  Öllerrich identified himself as a shoemaker (as did his youngest son).  The society of their forefathers consisted of noblemen, clergy, peasants, and serfs (simplified, there were sub-levels of social standing within these four categories).  The serf class was abolished by the time Öhlrich and Öllerrich left Prussia.

Öllerrich was the fifth child and second son of Ulrich Kücks (I know, right?).  Ulrich was born on 7 October 1778 in the village or town of Godenstedt in the parish of Selsingen, which capital was Bremervörde within the Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg of the Holy Roman Empire.   He married Anne Catherine Brandtjen (some records say Brandt) on 24 November 1809 at the Lutheran Church in Selsingen, just like their children after them.  Anne Catherine was the daughter of Lütje Brandt and Anne Borchers, and was born on 6 March 1785 in Sassenholz, also in the parish of Selsingen.

Bremervörde area shown on an 1757 map.

How did Ulrich of Godenstedt meet his future wife, Anne of Sassenholz?  All religious functions of the Kücks family took place at Selsingen Lutheran church.  Every Kücks born in the region of Hanover was baptized at Selsingen, and every elderly family member dying there was buried in Selsingen.  The church was the center of peasant village life.  Holidays, festivities, public social functions, and such were organized and sanctioned by the church.  Perhaps Ulrich met Anna on Sundays at church or at a large church function.  But Ulrich must also have been in the same trade as his father or something similar.  His profession could have brought him on business to Sassenholz.  But then, maybe it was a combination of both.

Ulrich was the second (known) son of Johann Hinrich Kücks.  Johann was born about 1744 and came to Godenstedt with his parents some time before his mother’s death in 1771.  Johann married Mette Borchers probably in the same unknown town from whence they came.  Mette was born about 1749 and died on 15 June 1821 in Godenstedt.

Johann died on 11 November 1815 in Godenstedt.  In the baptism record for Ulrich, Johann’s occupation is recorded as a Häusling und Rademacher, or a cottager and wheelwright (carpenter and blacksmith as wheels had outer metal rings around the wooden wheel).  

Johann Hinrich was the youngest son of Hinrich Kücks.  Hinrich’s birth is estimated as around 1709, and he died on 18 June 1782 in Godenstedt.  His wife Gesche (maiden name unknown) was born around 1707 and died 1 April 1771 in Godenstedt.

As wheelwrights, shoemakers and smiths, the Kücks would have been members of a guild.  Guild training also involved travel or journeys (the origin of journeyman).  Our Kücks tradesmen would have been apprenticed out as young boys to a master craftsman for a minimum of three years.  The master craftsmen would test the young apprentice before issuing him a journeyman’s certificate.  Journeymen would travel about the country or town and work for several different master craftsmen in the same trade.  At the end of a journey’s itinerary, our Kücks journeyman would have either had to pass another examination to become a master craftsman or would just be accepted as a master.  This depended on the processes of their particular guild.

This plate published in a volume of Encyclopédie in 1769 shows both methods of shoeing a wheel. In the centre the labourers are using hammers and “devil’s claws” to fit a hoop onto the felloe, and on the right they’re hammering strakes into place. Wikipedia: Wheelright.

The process of craftsman training was recorded on the certificate mentioned earlier, which was also a Wandersettel or Wanderbuch (see Xavier Aleck).  This was similar to a passport and recorded the certification or confirmation of legitimate birth, residences, training, and work record of the journeyman or craftsman.  Oh, if only we had one of these Wanderbuch’s in our private collection – that would be soo neat!

Worldwide Wheelwright Phill Gregson fitting Iron ‘strakes’ to a traditional wooden wheel. Wikipedia: Wheelright

Like blacksmiths and shoemakers, wheelwrights would have worked in a shop environment with other wheelwrights, carpenters, and blacksmiths under a Master Wheelwright.  Craftsmen often worked in an assembly line-like business or teams in post-industrial factories or shops.  

Here’s something interesting: I often wondered why Öllerrich didn’t call himself a cobbler.  As it turns out, shoemakers were not cobblers.  There is actually a class distinction between the two in the old world, and a cobbler may have been very low on the social ladder, and undesirable.  Another interesting note is that placing the metal ring on the wheel was called “shoeing a wheel.” Hmmmm…was Öllerrick then a shoemaker of wheels, not humans?  This would account for his son being a blacksmith.

So, were Öhlrich’s ancestors serfs or peasants pre-18th century?  Based on their occupations of blacksmith, shoemaker (of either humans or wheels), and wheelwrights, I like to think they were peasants. They were tradesmen who learned valuable skills that hopefully kept them out of some nobleman or clergy’s fields. 

My musing is not to be confused with vanity.  The work of a tradesman or craftsman was hard, probably as hard as, or harder than, serf laborers.  But in an autocratic agrarian society such as old Hanover, class was your identity, and it was defined by your occupation.  Being part of “the right” class was a matter of being considered a full citizen, partial citizen, or non-citizen.  Not to be confused with alien or immigrant.  A non-citizen, or serf, was a native-born who had absolutely no rights and, therefore, few creature comforts.  This class system was a leftover of the old Roman Empire.  Perhaps if I managed to dig far enough in history, though, I will find that they were once serfs who simply managed to rise to peasant status through indenture of a child to a tradesman.  This did occasionally happen within, or near to, their established social class of birth.

Regardless, academically, I imagine the Kücks were citizens of the hintersassen or beisassen class (rough translation is behind or seated situation. There were two sub-classes of peasants, I believe.) These citizen classes were non-property owning and had no voting rights in village matters, though they were considered free men (aka not serfs). I believe them non-serf because in the early to mid 18th century (before the serf class was abolished), they could move from an unknown village to Godenstedt, probably in search of work during Johann’s journeyman training. Serfs did not have this freedom. They were tied to their lord’s property as laborers in the field or wherever their lord commanded.

My dear family. I am going to close this chapter on our Kücks line. From here the research is near impossible to continue from U.S. soil without assistance from professional genealogist abroad.

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