||Friedrich R. Wollmershäuser,
Oberdischingen, Germany (1988)
Noble Descent in American Family Tradition
1. The claims.
Many American families claim to be descended from German nobility, usually by one of the
following ways (roughly in the order of frequency):
- Noble lineage not known, noble descent just claimed.
- The family lived in a castle, sold it and moved to America.
- A Hohenzollern princess did not want to marry the man her family wanted, but rather fell
in love with the gardener (stableboy, soldier of the bodyguard etc.) and eloped with him
to America. Her name was deleted from the family records.
- Nobility was renounced on arrival in the United States.
- The emigrant acted like a noble when he arrived in the United States.
- The ancestor was a nobleman who commited a crime (killed the king's deer, fell out of
favour with the king, was a democrat etc.) and had to flee to America.
- The title of nobility was sold by an ancestor.
- An ancestor was a lady in waiting and had a child by the ruling nobleman.
- Members of the family look similar to members of a noble family (for example: by having
the Habsburg lip).
- The family has a similar surname to an existing German noble family or a country (e. g.
members of the Rissland family claim their descent from the emperors of Russia,
"Russland" in German, or the Stauffer family is said to be decended from the
Hohenstaufen) or a surname which resembles a rank of German nobility (e. g. Kaiser,
- Archival records on German ancestors show terms indicating nobility (e. g. the word
"von ", the term "nobilis", or the term "grandducal" which
may but need not necessarily refer to the ancestor or not).
Whenever the step down from nobility was indicated, it was said to have occured to the
emigrant, but not to a preceding generation. Written documentation is never shown,
but in all cases family tradition or recent conclusions are given as the source of such
claims. Whenever the informant of oral tradition is indicated, it is an elder female
member of the family (grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt).
This article investigates the possibilities of such a noble descent and tries to answer
the question why unsubstantiated claims of this type (as most of them turn out to be) are
so frequent and where they may have originated.
2. Indefensible positions.
Some of the conclusions above can be ruled out immediately. The word "von"
(from) in a German record usually denotes the origin of the family, and even when it
occurs as a part of a surname, it does not necessarily indicate nobility. In some
instances, the word "von" was used legally in Germany after the award of
personal nobility (Personaladel), and although it was just an addition to a surname and
not inheritable, it was eventually used by the American descendants.
Terms as "nobilis et spectabilis" (usually found in parish register entries of
the 17th and 18th century) just denote a respected person, whether noble or not. Terms
like grandducal indicate that the person is in the service of a grandduke, for example as
an officer or an official. Almost every title of nobility (Kaiser, Koenig, Herzog, Fuerst,
Landgraf, Graf, Edelmann, Ritter, and others) appears as a surname of many common German
families and thus does not indicate any nobility. This is also true for surnames derived
from geographical names, such as towns or countries (Berner, Wrttemberger). Even the
fact that an ancestral surname is identical to the name of a noble family does not
necessarily indicate ancestral nobility, because for almost every noble surname, there are
some or even many non-noble families with the same or a similar name (von Buelow and
Buelow, von Adelmann and Adelmann etc.). In most cases they are not related.
After ruling out such conclusions, there are still a large number of cases relying on
family tradition. As mentioned above, none of these families has written documentation for
its claims, however some refer to papers which were formerly in the possession of the
family, but were lost by a fire or some other event or were discarded in order to conceal
the illegitimate descent of an ancestor. In addition to this nonexistence of documents,
the verification of such claims is impeded by the missing knowledge about the exact place
of origin of the emigrant.
3. The possibility of noble descent.
Is there a possibility at all that an emigrant was a nobleman who had lost or abandoned
his title? More generally, how can a German noble rank be lost or diminished? In actual
fact, there is a long list of ways through which this can happen:
- Revocation after being condemned for a crime.
- Not using the title for generations.
- Renouncing nobility.
- Marriage of a member of the high nobility to a person of lower rank or a commoner.
- Morganatic marriage.
- Adoption of a nobleman by a commoner.
- Illegitimate descent.
All this refers to the time before 1919, the year when nobility as a preferred rank of
citizenship was waived in Germany. Since then noble titles only exist as an addition to a
surname, and dropping such a title may be done by the procedure of a surname change.
All possibilities listed above happened quite rarely and can be documented through vital
records (Zivilstandsregister, Personenstandsregister) and in many cases by the rolls of
noblemen (Adelsmatrikel) which were kept by most of the German states in the 19th century.
In addition, most German noble families were listed in the pertinent issues of the Gotha,
which covered contemporary family members and sometimes their lineages back into the past,
too. These sources help to ascertain whether a presumed noble emigrant was indeed a member
of a noble family or, as in most cases, was not so. The Gotha does not include all noble
families, however, and especially omits those who lived like commoners and just carried on
their former names (von Bank, von Olnhausen etc.). This incompleteness of the Gotha and of
the rolls of nobility makes it impossible to use these sources as a definite proof that an
emigrant was not an offspring of a noble family.
The problem becomes even more complicated if illegitimate descent from a nobleman is
claimed - a question of interest to American as well as to German family researchers.
Besides those cases when a nobleman expressly recognized a child as his natural son or
daughter and may have taken care of his or her education, there are no strict rules
as to what evidence is demanded to make such a claim of descent credible. It can be
observed that German genealogists set the threshold for such evidence quite low and
acknowledge a noble descent even if the proof seems far-fetched, in order to supply
themselves with an access to noble ancestry, and one should not blame Americans for
copying this behaviour.
At any rate, the social field of the child's mother must be thoroughly investigated before
claiming that the unknown father oæ her child was a nobleman, and even then it is hard to
find out who the child's father really was - a lady in waiting to a ruler may become
pregnant not just by the ruler, but by any other male adult at the court as well. As a
provisional result it turns out that, unless the argumentation of the supposed noble
descendant is very primitive, it can neither be proven nor be disproven without knowing
the exact place of origin. Some people even immunize their claim against being disproven
with arguments such as:
- The emigrants were expelled from the family and entries about them were deleted from the
- Entries have been falsified.
- The noble descent was reported by a family member who is now dead. Such an immunization
is based on the conviction that the claim is to be considered valid as long as it has not
been disproven. Even when it was possible to find the German place of origin and the
records showed clearly that the family was not noble, some people maintained their claim
by arguing that the wrong family was found, that the records were incorrect, or by using
4. The probability of noble descent.
It seems impossible to calculate how many German noblemen lost or abandoned their titles
and went to America. Probably there were far less than ten thousands of them, as compared
to some 10 million German immigrants during the 19th century, so the story may be true in
fewer than one in a thousand emigration cases. Only one of these claimed cases has been
verified by me so far - it concerned a baron Hartmut von Beulwitz who earned his living as
a beerbrewer in a country town in Wrttemberg, participated in the revolution of
1848, escaped to America with his mistress and their son, and who later returned to his
wife and children while leaving the other woman and their child in America.
However, many Americans are likely descended from German noble families through an
illegitimate descent of one of the emigrants' ancestors, which occurred many generations
ago and may not even have been known to the emigrant himself.
5. The sources for the idea of noble descent in America.
Those who claim noble descent must have a basic knowledge that such a process really
occurred in history. There seem to be three sources from which Americans derived such a
(a) From their German relatives. Many German common families around the turn of the
century thougt they had a noble origin. This belief may have originated in the 18th
century when many families just assumed a title of nobility without being legally
authorized to do so, or in the age of romanticism, or in the activities of so-called
heraldic bureaus which, between 1890 and 1920, supplied a coat-of-arms with an
accompanying description. The American Salbach family, for example, derives its descent
from the legendary Barons from Salbach through a German ancestor's saying to his sons in
front of some ruins in Salbach: Oh if you stones could speak! - The American Alzeyer
family has a coat-of-arms with a German notation that they ruled the Alzey area in the
Middle Ages, but eventually impoverished and became honest commoners. It goes without
saying that the story about noble origins, if told by German non-noble relatives, can only
refer to some ancient time.
(b) From the German media. Let us put movies, radio and television aside and consider
theatre and literature. Surprisingly, many of the claims given in the first chapter can be
found in the arts. Here are a few examples:
The descent from nobility is not known and only eventually discovered in the course of the
* "Il Trovatore "by Verdi (1853), "Fiction and Fancy of German Romance
(Das Kaethchen von Heilbronn)" by Kleist, (1810), "The Old Mam'selle's
Secret" by E. Marlitt (1868) or in the traditional Swabian story "The Mutiny at
Kuchen" (Die Meuterei bei Kuchen) (19th century).
* The girl who does not want to marry the man her family had chosen and elopes with her
The old story of Romeo and Juliet, resumed in "The Secret Marriage" by
Cimarosa (1792), "Tristan and Isolde" by Wagner (1865) or "Pique Dame"
by Tchaikovsky (1890) in the opera, in E. Marlitt's novels such as" Countess
Gisela" (1869) or in a relatively unknown play as "Marriage or Fortress"
(Hochzeit oder Festung) (1859).
* A nobleman wants to marry a common girl, which is not appropriate with his rank.
"The Gunsmith (Der Waffenschmied) "by Lortzing (1846), "The
Mastersingers of Nuremberg" by Wagner (1868), "Silence in the Forest" (Das
Schweigen im Walde) by Ganghofer (1899), "The Complications of Life" (Irrungen
und Wirrungen) by Fontane (1888) or "Stine", also by Fontane (1890), where the
young suffering count Haldern wants to emigrate to America with his poor sweetheart.
A sale of the rank of nobility sounds impossible, but there is at least one case when
someone tried to purchase a title of nobility in 1866.
Even the loss of documents has literaty roots: In the novel "The Trip for the Old
Parchment. Stories and Pictures from the Life of an Emigrants' Family" (1902), August
Sperl tells about an old Lutheran minister, who burned deeds and pedigrees proving noble
descent in order to prevent the religious conversion of his descendants.
One may ask how these European operas, plays and novels could have influenced a widespread
American belief in noble ancestry. The question can be limited to the German-Americans, as
only they would claim German noble descent, and the answer lies in the close cultural
connections between Germany and the Germans in America until 1917, when the United States
declared war on Germany. The family journal "Die Gartenlaube", for example, in
which the novels by E. Marlitt were first published, was read by Germans all over the
world. Marlitt's novel "The Old Mam'sell's Secret" was published in three
different translations by at least 16 American publishers, and in the German version by
two more. Even in San Francisco of the gold rush in 1853, a German lending-library with
18,000 volumes was opened, and around the turn of the century, 675 German newspapers were
published in North America.
(c) From domestic American tradition: From the 1890s onwards, the American genealogists
became aware of the fact that many Americans had noble ancestors. This coincides with the
foundation of several lineage-societies (Order of the Crown in America, 1898; The Baronial
Order of Magna Charta, 1898, The National Society oæ Americans of Royal Descent, 1908,
and others). Although they usually rely on English avenues into nobility, they certainly
made German Americans wish to also prove such a descent.
6. Why do people want to have noble ancestors?
During the late 1400s and early 1500s, German noble families propagated their descent from
patricians of the ancient Roman Empire. During the 18th century, several families in the
Duchy of Wrttemberg claimed that their progenitors were driven out from Austria for
their religious beliefs. Around the turn of our century, many people started to claim
their descent from German nobility. Between 1933 and 1945, many Germans were proud to have
just German or, in a wider sense, "Aryan" ancestors.
Why does someone want to be descended from a certain class of people? The renaissance was
the age of rediscovery of and admiration for classical antiquity. - During the ancien
regime, the Lutheran church was a main power in the Duchy of Wrttemberg. - In the
German Empire from 1871 onwards, the aristocracy had no more importance in economy and
science, but its social prestige remained unchanged. Even the uneducated and impoverished
section of the German nobility enjoyed social importance. - During the Nazi period,
non-Aryan "blood" was seen as inferior.
It is hard to develop a general theory of descent claims from this small number of cases,
but an explanation may be found through a backdoor: Statements about the legendary origins
of ethnic groups have been explained, and these explanations may be transferred to the
claims of legendary origins of individual families.
According to an observation of Leon Poliakov, human groups or cultures have a general urge
to claim a distinctive origin, an ancestry which is both high-born and glorious. Hugh A.
Macdougall has observed that the English people seeked identity and pride by means of
their early myths. Arno Borst collected various examples in which the own family, the own
clan, the own tribe or the own people is seen and described as especially prominent and
ancient. What about applying this desire to individuals? It would mean that everybody has
the desire to be and/or appear better than the rest of the world, by one's own
achievements and/or by displaying status symbols. In retrospective periods of history,
these could include a coat-of-arms on the wall of the home and, for one's personal
satisfaction, the consciousness of being descended from a very prominent family. According
to an observation by John H. Kautsky, the most prominent feature of an aristocratic
philosophy of life is the claim to superiority based on birth. This claim to superiority
agrees perfectly with the individual's desire to be better than others.
Around the turn of the century, noble lifestyle included gambling, hunting-parties, duels
and the command of several languages. The rich and successful had the opportunity to
become members of this aristocracy by ennoblement, others just had the choice of being
satisfied with their position in society or pretending to a higher position, for example
by claiming to have noble ancestors. Such a claim was and partially still is the
inexpensive middle class way to participation in the admired upper class.
As Arno Borst has also observed, people usually realize that the present condition is no
longer or not yet the status of permanent existence, and that the devotion to earlier
generations idealizes something lost. Applied to our question: those who believe in their
noble ancestors believe in the nobility of the family as the permanent status, with their
personal existence as an exception; and they idealize noblemen by withdrawing all evil
characteristics from them. Then it is no longer a contradiction to claim descent from
nobility and at the same time be proud of the American Revolution of 1776 which waived the
rule of nobility.
Friedrich R. Wollmershäuser 1989.