Category Archives: Geneaology

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.


German Ancestors From Near Wiesbaden

MY DAD became quite the genealogist in the last 30 or so years of his life. He would tell me some of the things he learned, but it was never as interesting to me as he probably would have liked it to be. Now, I wish I knew more.

How will it feel to visit a place my ancestors walked out of to find their way to a sailing ship to the New World?

Years ago I gave my dad Reunion genealogy software for the Mac. After he died in 2013, I got a copy of the family history file from his computer. As luck would have it, as the actual purchaser, I was able to download the software and confirm the file was intact. A few months ago I purchased the latest version.

I learned yesterday the base library has a subscription to This reminded me my dad had once told me we had some German ancestors. That surprised me, because I was under the impression that side of the family* was “all British.” Last night I started up the computer, opened the file and searched for German ancestors. I found a name and a town. I googled that combination. The top hit was for someone descended from the same person! (I’ve emailed her, waiting for a response.)

The town of Eisern in the German state of North Rhine Westphalia only had about 250 people when the whole Rehlsbach family left for Virginia in the mid 1700s and became the Railsback family. Some five generations later, I’m writing about it.  Eisern is about 1-1/4 hours from where I am now. Road trip!

I was born in the Navy town of Oak Harbor, Washington. We moved to Memphis, Tennessee when I was a month old. I’ve visited Oak Harbor maybe ten times since. Each time, I’ve thought “I should feel like I am at home here” but I don’t. It’s not my home, but it has significance. My brothers have all spent much more time there than me. Aside: This may be the only thing in my life I wish I could go back and do differently.

If my birthplace makes me feel odd, how will it feel to visit a place my ancestors walked out of to find their way to a sailing ship to the New World? There were no trains, planes, or automobiles in those days.

A screen capture showing back to my great-great-grandparents.

Back to the digital records. Each record includes some bit of information, at a minimum the person’s relationship with people before and/or after. The record also indicates my dad last updated his own record more than ten years before he died. Looking at it now it appears as if he were 83. It makes me feel sad to think about changing it, but it’s probably apropos his record is the first one I should edit as I take a small step towards learning about Genealogy myself.

*I had long known that I have a couple German great grandparents on my mother’s side. There’s not really enough German density in the family to explain why I like this country so much.