Schoenthal kin at the Friedrichstal Museum

Schoenthal kin at the Friendrichstal Museum

When I started this blog in 2011, I had just received a grant to photograph the areas which inspired two different writers. I decided to call it “Legacy Hunting” because I wasn’t just trying to learn names and dates, but to really understand what made these people tick–to truly discover who they were. I was hunting for the legacy they left for us, and so this blog was born.

Since the grant, I have reported on incredible places and the phenomenal people connected with them (when possible), though it has not been about a specific person and the legacy he or she has left. But every once in a while, I get back to the original intent. Yesterday (7/28/13) was one of those days.

Comparing charts with the curator

Comparing charts with the curator

When we first planned on coming to Germany, my mom (who has worked with our family tree for decades) thought it would be an amazing opportunity to connect with our heritage as one branch of our family came from this region. Imagine her surprise when, as she was googling the map of the town, she noticed a business with the Germanic spelling of our ancestors surname (Schoenthal; Shindoll in America). She immediately Emailed the owner to see if there was a chance we were related. He said his brother knew more of the family tree, but we were welcome to visit or spend the night.

Meeting relatives with the family tree

Meeting relatives with the family tree

So, yesterday morning, we got up early and headed into Friedrichstal. We were greeted by Mike and his beautiful wife Tina and a friend Joerg, who would help translate, though Mike and Tina both spoke English better than they thought they did. They had also invited the town museum curator over to help us connect our information with theirs. Tina had made us an incredible spread of delicious sandwiches, and the work began. If you’ve never done family tree work, it involves a lot of finding names and dates and trying to match which person belongs where. In this case, we were trying to connect the Shindolls who came through New York with the Schoenthals who left Germany. After pouring over records and comparing dates, we discovered it was a match, and we were, in fact, related. Mike’s brother had thought we might be in two different lines since one of our ancestors had remarried after his first wife died in childbirth, but we were in the same line (Granted 7 “Greats” back.)

The family tree

The family tree

Mike had also contacted a number of Schoenthal relatives in the area, but the majority were in France at a sister city there. We did, however, get to meet his father and a few other relatives. One relative brought over a hand painted family tree with pictures of the houses our relatives lived in and family crests. Such an amazing treasure. Another point of interest is that in Germany, they only allow tombstones to remain for 25 years. Because of that, we wouldn’t be able to find any of our ancestral graves. They were impressed when mom showed them a picture of one of our relative’s gravestones from 1875.

Huguenots used these lamps to read the Bible in secret

Huguenots used these lamps to read the Bible in secret

One of the things I’ve discovered along my journeys is how rich history becomes when you allow the people to be flesh and blood. What I mean by that is that we often read history as just names and dates we have to memorize. To realize these are real people with real hopes and dreams, real struggles and challenges, who had to make tough choices and struggle against sometimes insurmountable odds–this is what makes history live for me. I had another experience with this when we went to the museum. I remembered learning about the Huguenots in high school and teaching about how they fled religious persecution. I had no idea that was my family. Our family started in Switzerland, moved to France, and finally, after the persecution were offered protection by a Margrave in Friedrichstal. It turns out he was not just being kind, but also knew they had a talent for growing tobacco, so he invited them to settle as a way to get money into the area. It turns out Friedrichstal had good soil for tobacco, and they were successful here.
Relatives

Relatives

They did, however, experience more difficulty when France swept through on various invasions. Having fled to Germany from France, they were considered traitors by the invading French and the enemy by those around them. This also made life difficult. Eventually in 1832, John Daniel Schoenthal, his wife and children, his widowed mother (who did the paper work), and two sisters booked passage to New York. One of John Daniel’s sons–just 1 at the time–was our great (x3) grandfather William Schoenthal.

New family and friends

New family and friends

After seeing the museum and visiting a few other family members, we relaxed and ate some more of Tina’s wonderful food for lunch. It’s an incredible experience to sit with complete strangers who are family–there truly is an instant connection in knowing you’re related, however far back. Such a blessing to just sit and share–to hear about struggles and joys and to learn about the talents that run in our family and see the similarities, even across so many generations. Truly a treat.

Sunset on the Rhine

Sunset on the Rhine

Then, we took a drive to see the sights of Friedrichstal, ending up having dinner at a cafe by the Rhine. Though it was around 10 when we made it back to their house, and we still had an almost two hour drive ahead of us, neither of us wanted to leave. It truly had been an incredible day where we were lavished with care by family we didn’t know we had. Definitely one of my favorite days so far.

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