Walking in my ancestors’ footsteps

I HAD AN interesting, unique, special experience this weekend. I visited the town my 7x great-grandfather and his family left about 275 years ago. There are still buildings there they would have seen!

Several weeks ago I had looked at my dad’s digital genealogy records. I searched on “Germany.” I shared part of this story already. I was able to contact the head of the historical society in Eisern, Germany, in the state of Nordrhein Westfallen and set up a visit. Sunday I drove to Eisern.

Eisern was once an independent village. German government was simplified/flattened a number of years ago, so it’s now part of the university town of Siegen.

I missed an exit on the Autobahn because of a construction site. The GPS fixed the error via narrow roads and tiny towns, but brought me back on track. I arrived with a few minutes to spare.

I’m happy, even if it doesn’t look like it. It’s just hard trying to compose a good picture.

Eisern was the site of large iron ore mines until the 1970s. The current population of 2,500 is ten times its size in the 18th century. I don’t know what he did or why he left, but Johann Heinrich Rehlsbach ended up in Virginia with his family as (John) Henry Railsback.

Eisern as viewed from the top of a hill upon leaving the Autobahn for the village.

I said above I had a few minutes to spare. I could have been a bit earlier, but after I left the Autobahn to drive the last few kilometers in to town, there was a spot with a great view from a hilltop down into the valley. I stopped to take a few pictures before driving down into the valley and town.

I wasn’t sure where to go exactly, so I parked and called Klaus Eckhardt, my point of contact in town. He said, “Get out of your car and turn around. I’m right behind you.” There he was!

The heimatverein is located in this former chapel/school building.

Klaus is the head of the “Heimatverein,” which translates literally as “Home Club” but would be a local historical society in American usage. The heimatverein has a museum in a former chapel school and adjacent bakery.

The chapel / school was built in the late 18th century on the remains of a previous building.

There are interesting artifacts dating into the late 1500s. Klaus drove me around town showing me the fire department, the school(s), a former mill, the iron mining sites, and where the train station used to be before driving up a hillside to show me the town from above.

This is the end of the church you see as you walk up. My ancestors would likely have been baptized or christened here.

The chapel the historical society uses a museum and meeting room was built shortly after my ancestors left, presumably on the foundation of an older building. The church in which people of that era were baptized is about three kilometers away. It is an interesting building; it has two naves back-to-back with a single common entrance between them. One side is Protestant and the other Catholic. They were ecumenical long before it was “in.”

A view of the countryside from the church.

Do I have any relatives in Germany? On my dad’s side the German connection is a long time ago. On my mother’s side, though, it’s just a few Generations back. Maybe I can find someone. I do have some relatives in England to see if I can meet one day.

Klaus Eckhardt and me as we explore the village.

If I did the math correctly, I am 1/256 of Henry Railsback and his wife. I wonder what it would have been like in their village in their era? I’ve crossed the Atlantic four times on a ship, but I can’t imagine doing it on a sailing ship back then. Klaus told me the German spoken then was much different from today both in vocabulary and accent/pronunciation. I wouldn’t be who I am today w/o that journey all those years ago.


3 thoughts on “Walking in my ancestors’ footsteps”

  1. Terry, I’d be very interested to hear your experience of hring a German geneaologist. I’ll search through your posts for more (highly engaging!) accounts of your experience with them. But if you have any quick tips für Anfanger, feel free drop me a note.

    My cousin and I engaged a Genealogist when searching for my father’s family in Slovakia, and he proved invaluable.

  2. Wow! Thanks so much for the pictures and stories! I hope you don’t mind if I share your blog link with my Railsback cousins/brother.

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