German Noble Descent in American Family Tradition
by Friedrich R. Wollmershäuser, 2000
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
- 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 committed a crime (killed the king's deer,
fell out of favor with the king, was a democrat etc.) and had to flee to
- 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
descended from the Hohenstaufen) or a surname which resembles a rank of German
nobility (e. g. Kaiser, Markgraf).
- 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
occurred to the emigrant.
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.
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 nobi-
lity. 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 des-
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, K”nig, Herzog, Fürst, 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, Württem-
berger). 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 Bülow and Bülow, 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
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 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
- 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
- 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 pre-
ferred 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 recog-
nized 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 genealo-
gists 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
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,
Šand 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 disproved without knowing the exact place of origin. Some people even immu-
nize their claim against being disproved with arguments such as:
- The emigrants were expelled from the family and entries about them were dele-
ted from the records.
- 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 con-
sidered valid as long as it has not been disproved. 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 other reasons.
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 thou-
sands 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
Only one of these claimed cases has been verified by me so far - it con-
cerned a baron Hartmut von Beulwitz who earned his living as a beerbrewer in a
country town in Württemberg, 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
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 belief:
(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 origi-
nated in the 18th century when many families just assumed a title of nobi-
lity without being legally authorized to do so, or in the age of romanti-
cism, 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 "Il Trovatore "by Verdi (1853),
known and only eventually discovered "Fiction and Fancy of German Romance
in the course of the story (Das Käthchen 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 old story of Romeo and Juliet,
the man her family has chosen and resumed in "The Secret Marriage" by
elopes with her dearest Cimarosa (1792), "Tristan and Isolde"
by Wagner (1865) or "Pique Dame" by
Tchaikovsky (1890) in the opera,
in E. Marlitt's novels such as" Coun-
tess Gisela" (1869) or in a relatively
unknown play as "Marriage or Fortress"
(Hochzeit oder Festung) (1859).
A nobleman wants to marry a common "The Gunsmith (Der Waffenschmied) "by
girl, which is not appropriate with Lortzing (1846), "The Mastersingers
his rank. of Nürnberg" 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 literary 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 influ-
enced 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
(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.
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 Württemberg claimed that their progen-
itors 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 anti-
quity. - During the ancient regime, the Lutheran church was a main power in the
Duchy of Württemberg. - 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
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
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
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.