Historical Background

Why did the Poncelet siblings and their wives and children pull up their roots and leave friends and relatives to undertake a difficult and hazardous journey to a strange new land? The short answer is that they were probably desperate and emigration may have been their best option.

During the late 1890's, Mrs. Kate Asaphine Everest Levi, who held a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin, wrote a paper entitled "Geographical Origin of German Immigration to Wisconsin." Her paper was published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1898 in Wisconsin Historical Collections, v 14. Pages 374-379 describe Luxembourg and the events which led thousands of its citizens to migrate from there, many of whom settled in Wisconsin.

Another excellent source is Nicholas Gonner's book entitled "Die Luxemburger in der Neuen Welt" which was published at Dubuque, Iowa in 1889. About 20 years ago, we made copies of the relevent pages from the book held by the library at Marquette University and laboriously translated the Gothic text. Since then, an edited English language version has become available. The re-edition, "Luxembourgers in the New World" was published in 1987 by Jean Ensch, Jean-Claude Muller and Robert E. Owen, the three editors. It is an excellent book with much new material and a complete index of Gonner's newspaper "Luxemburger Gazette" which was published between 1871 and 1918.

Much of what follows is taken from these two works and where they gave their sources, these are cited.

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is a small country (999 square miles) in Western Europe, bounded on the west and north by Belgium's Luxembourg province, on the east by West Germany's Rhineland province, and on the south by that portion of France called Lorraine. It is 62 miles from top to bottom and 37 miles across at its widest point.

Within the country, Luxembourg is called the Grand-Duche de Luxembourg but to be consistent, we will use the English form: the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Similarly, we will refer to Belgique as Belgium and Deutschland as Germany. Incidentally, a hundred years ago, the local form was Grossherzogtum Luxembourg because German was then the official language; today it is French.

Luxembourg is situated on the eastern slope of the Ardennes mountains. It is hilly and well-forested. Industry, agriculture, cattle raising and iron mining are the principal occupations. The northern wedge, which consists of broad tracts of table land, with an unfruitful soil and sparse population, is known as the Oesling; the southern portion bears the name of Gutland. Gutland, as its name implies, is a more fruitful region, with rich fields, well-watered meadows, and a denser population. The Moselle drains the country; and along its banks, as in the Rhineland, the wine vine grows in abundance.

Belgium's Province of Luxembourg is larger than the Grand Duchy: 1,705 square miles. The terrain is similar. Iron mining, slate quarrying and agriculture are the principal occupations.

Although French is the official language, most Luxembourgers prefer to converse in the "Letzeburg" dialect, a branch of the Moselle Frankish form of middle high German. it is strong and irregular, by reason of the peculiar pronunciation of the dipthongs, and is colored with neighboring idioms, especially the French. French is also widely spoken.

Racially, Luxembourgers are mostly of German descent. They are of Frankish origin, mixed with the Saxon stock which was introduced into this region by Charlemange; but they also contain some French elements, brought in to re-people the country after the devastation of the Thirty Years' War. See "Geschicte des Luxembourger Landes," by Shottes, v i, p 304.

Over the centuries, Luxembourg was constantly exposed to the rapacity of stronger nations. An independent country today; in the past, Luxembourg's ownership has changed frequently. Thus, the character and disposition of her people bear many traces of foreign influence. In spite of the variety of foreign influences, however, the Luxembourgers have remained a comparatively distinct people, possessing their own characteristics and customs, and have remained true to the Roman Catholic church.

As early as 1000 B.C., Celtic tribes settled the area. When the Romans under Caesar conquered Gaul between 58 and 51 B.C., they found the northern area inhabited by the Celtic Belgae. The Romans occupied the region until about 400 A.D. but did not actually colonize it.

During the fourth and fifth centuries, bands of Salian Franks migrated into northern Gaul and occupied the area between the Maas, the Schelde and Lower Rhine. The Franks were converted to Christianity during the period from the sixth to the eighth centuries. Frankish power reached its summit under Charlemagne, King of the Franks during the long period from 771 to 814.

Magnificent as the Carolingian empire was, it rested too much on the power and ability of one man, and covered too much geographical diversity to survive very long after Charlemagne died. In 843, with the treaty of Verdun, the Kingdom of the Franks was partitioned. New East and West Frankish kingdoms were created, separated by a vast "Middle Kingdom" called Lotharingia or Lorraine which stretched from the mouth of the Rhine river to northern Italy. Eventually, France evolved from the West Frankish Kingdom and Germany from the East Frankish Kingdom. Present day Luxembourg was part of Lorraine.

The territorial wars continued and in 870, by the treaty of Mersen, Lorraine was divided between France and Germany. Thus, that part of Lorraine which included present day Luxembourg became German territory. After the dissolution of the Carolingian empire, numerous principalities were set up. The county or countship of Luxembourg emerged as one of these principalities in the 10th century.

The various principalities attempted to establish their power by frequently changing alliances, and thereby to weaken their dependence on their suzerains, the neighboring great powers. For example, the duchy of Lower Lorraine was established about 1060. At the beginning of the 12th century, Limburg became a duchy as part of Lower Lorraine. In 1221-6, Limburg was united with Luxembourg. Lower Lorraine became Brabant and in 1288 Limburg united with it. In 1355, Brabant united with Luxembourg.

In 1308, Henry VII, then Count of Luxembourg, ascended the German imperial throne with the title of "Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire". His reign ended in 1313. In 1354, Luxembourg was raised to the rank of a duchy. Three dukes of Luxembourg also served as emperors: Charles IV and his sons Wenzel and Sigismund. Sigismund's reign ended in 1437.

Meanwhile the duchy of Burgundy, established in 884, became in the 14th and 15th centuries, the most powerful state between France and Germany. Beginning in 1384, the smaller states were conquered one by one: Flanders in 1384, Namur in 1420, Brabant in 1430, Hainault and Holland in 1433, Luxembourg and Limburg in 1447. When Luxembourg became a fief of Burgundy, several centuries of self rule ended.

When Duke Charles the Bold, the richest and most ambitious of the Burgundian princes fell in battle at Nancy in 1477, Maria, his heiress married the Archduke Maximillian of Austria, a Habsburg prince. When his successor, Charles V abdicated in 1566, his territories were divided and Charles' son Philip II of Spain received the Netherlands, including Luxembourg. As a result, Luxembourg and its citizens became pawns in the various European wars including the devastating Thirty Years War and the wars of Louis XIV of France.

In 1714, at the conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Austrian branch of the house of Habsburg gained the Spanish Netherlands, including Luxembourg, during the peace negotiations. As a part of the Austrian Netherlands, Luxembourg and its citizens suffered during the periodic wars in Europe. After the French revolution in 1789, the Austrian Netherlands also revolted and declared themselves an independent republic under the title of the United Belgian States. Emperor Leopold II then restored civil rights and Austrian troops were able to reoccupy the area in 1790.

Beginning in 1792, the new French republic waged war on the Austrians and eventually took possession of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. Luxembourg became a French department while the Netherlands and Belgium were initially united as the Batavian republic, then became the kingdom of Holland and finally were incorporated into the French empire. As a part of France, Luxembourg and its citizens again suffered during the ensuing wars, particularly the Napoleonic wars.

Following Napoleon's defeat in 1814, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 united Holland and Belgium as the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Luxembourg was erected as a Grand Duchy, made a member state of the German confederation, but united with Holland through a personal union. The Grand Duchy was ruled by the King of the Netherlands, who also used the title of Grand Duke of Luxembourg.

In 1830, Belgium revolted and declared its independence. The Dutch tried to suppress the uprising but failed. In 1839, Belgian troops occupied the Wor Walloon part of Luxembourg and then annexed it as well as the western portions of Limburg. That same year, the Great Powers agreed to guarantee Belgium's neutrality. The Wor Walloon area of the old Grand Duchy thus became part of Belgium's Province of Luxembourg.

In 1842, the Kingdom of Prussia annexed the Grand Duchy and its capital city was garrisoned by Prussian troops. When the German confederation was dissolved in 1866, Luxembourg severed its connection with Prussia and in 1867 the Great Powers agreed to guarantee the neutrality and independence of the Grand Duchy. In 1890, the Luxembourg crown was inherited by the German line of the house of Nassau and when Adolf of Nassau acceded as grand duke that year, he broke the connection with the Netherlands.

Thus, Luxembourg can hardly be said to have had any national life prior to 1867 and even then, it did not have a native ruler until after 1900. It neither shared the French nor the German regeneration of national feeling in the 19th century. The result of this was a degree of cosmopolitanism not generally found in Germany, and a hatred of military service, which had never been called out in behalf of their own country, but only for a foreign ruling power.

In its political history, however, Luxembourg did share the experience of Europe in the 19th century. Until the French Republic proclaimed the sovereignty of the people and the destruction of feudalism, Luxembourg had retained the feudal conditions of the middle ages. The reforms of Maria Theresa, the Austrian ruler, were not introduced into the Hapsburg's possessions in the Netherlands, and the old privileges of the orders and cities were not interfered with. See "Austria (Oncken Series)" by Wolf, p 118.

During the union with Holland (1815-30), Luxembourg had much to suffer from the attempt to unite opposing elements in such differences as public spirit, religion, language, and industries. An attempt was made to introduce Dutch as the national language. New taxes were laid, which fell heaviest on the agricultural classes. It was these taxes, with a duty on wine, that started the emigration of Luxembourgers across the sea, initially to Brazil.

In spite of these wrongs, Luxembourg owes to the union with Holland the restoration of local government and the building up of education, both of which had suffered from French influences. The democratic constitution adopted by Belgium, in which freedom of the press and direct elections were established, and equality proclaimed, had a profound effect upon Luxembourg. When a restricted constitution was granted to the Grand Duchy in 1840, complaints grew so loud that it was revised in 1848. In the revision, censorship of the press was removed, and the suffrage greatly enlarged. See "Handbuch des Oeffentlichen Rechts," by Marquardsen.

Emigration from Luxembourg was largely the result of economic conditions, which especially affected farmers and craftsmen in the rural areas. Within one generation following the Napoleonic wars, the rural middle class became impoverished. The causes included:

  • Excessive partioning of the farms due to new inheritance laws.
  • High interest rates which exceeded the rate of return that could be obtained from farming the land.
  • Poor harvests.
  • Declining infant mortality.
  • The gradual disappearance of opportunities for extra income from handcrafts and manual labor.
  • High taxes.

Excessive partioning of the farms resulted from two changes in the laws governing inheritance and transfer of farm land during the 1780s. From the time of the middle ages, the farms were nominally the property of the local lords. The communal lands did not belong to those who used them and therefore could not be sold. The right to use these communal lands and the farms passed from the occupant on his death to his oldest son. This practice meant that the younger children, as a practical matter, could not become farmers. They had to become craftsmen, tradesmen or laborers, join a foreign army, become a priest, monk or nun, or marry a person who owned land. During the 1780s, the communal fields and pastures (but not the forests) became the private property of the farmers whose ancestors had long used them. Moreover, division of the farms among all the children became first the custom and then the rule. In less than 50 years, the farms became plots so small that economies of scale disappeared and farming became a subsistence occupation.

Those farmers who attempted to acquire more land in order to achieve economies of scale learned to their sorrow that the interest rates charged by the money lenders exceeded the income they could earn from the land. The result was foreclosure and loss of everything.

The 15 years from 1841 to 1856 were hard times, due primarily to poor harvests. When the farms became small, crop rotation was abandoned. This wore out the land and contributed to the string of bad harvests. Bad harvests due to weather had a devastating effect because the margin of safety dropped below the subsistence level and famine ensued. Those with larger farms were unable to make their interest payments and lost their land to the money lenders.

The year 1841 brought a poor harvest. 1842 was better but then a potato rot developed and prices skyrocketed. The state had to support the poor in the cities. A mild early winter in 1844 was followed by a harsh late winter season. Terrible floods innundated the Mosel valley, causing severe damage. In 1845, grain failed. Prices rose dramatically in 1846 and 1847 and famine broke out in the land. While the harvests of 1851, 1852 and 1853 were not failures, they rarely exceeded the historic average. In 1854, the harvest failed totally along the Belgian border as crop yields reached only one tenth of the average. Fortunately, the potato infestation receded in 1853; otherwise, there would have been no end to the misery. The harvest remained far below the average in 1855 and 1856 and only after 1856 did it exceed the average.

Thanks to improvements in hygiene, the population rose substantially due to improved infant survival rates. But this meant more mouths to feed from the harvests of smaller farms and still smaller farms in the next generation due to more heirs subdividing the ancestral lands. Marriage customs required elaborate weddings but more daughters meant more expense with fewer resources to pay the bills.

Traditionally, there were opportunities for extra income, either from handicrafts or from labor performed for pay in neighboring countries. As the population rose, the larger number of potential workers exceeded the need for such laborers. Work became harder to find and wage rates fell, as well. Income from handicrafts declined because industrialization brought a flood of lower priced competing products made by machine.

High taxes, of course, only compounded the problems. The inheritance taxes wiped out savings and forced heirs to borrow from the money lenders. Even the regular annual taxes could not be paid because the small farms could not produce enough surplus to be sold to pay the taxes. The extra income normally earned during the winter months from handicrafts or migratory labor was not available either.

In addition to the economic factors, the discontent that followed the restoration in 1839, and the restricted constitution, doubtless added to the emigrating impulse. Another cause was the dislike of military service, which was the result of foreign rule, and the unwillingness of the people to expose their lives for a foreign nation. For that reason, many young men deserted the Holland and later the Belgian military services during the wars that occurred between 1830 and 1839.

Another interesting factor was the reaction of the devout Roman Catholic farmers toward moral and theological liberalism among the younger clergy. Many of the clergy embraced the new doctrines espoused by Karl Marx and as a result, religion and morals began to decline, particularly in the cities. By going to America, a bastion of conservative Catholicism, one could save one's life and one's soul.

The heaviest emigration from Luxembourg began in the 1840's, primarily from the villages of Türpen, Selingen, Flaxheim, Battincourt, Herzog, Kleinelter, Guirsh, Küntzig, Offen, and Sterpenich. In 1842, New York and Ohio received most of these immigrants, but in 1845, large numbers came to Illinois and Wisconsin.

Settlement in Wisconsin was due to the favorable reports which had been circulated. A letter quoted by Gonner from the Luxembourger Wort, says: "The State of Wisconsin is the region which the Luxembourgers prefer for settlement. The soil is productive, the climate similar to that in the Grand Duchy, the necessaries of life are cheap, and employment can be obtained." According to Gonner, another inducement for the settlement was the Luxembourger preference for the forest. In New York, Ohio and Wisconsin, Luxembourgers chose woodland. Aside from the desire to obtain fuel and building material, this preference was due to the fact that the forests had become scarce in their native land, and a piece of woodland was regarded as a treasure; it marked the difference between the small and large peasant estates.

The first arrivals in Wisconsin settled at Port Washington, in Ozaukee County, which had an excellent harbor. In the early days a busy trade was carried on there. Ozaukee County was a dense, hard-wood forest then, but the soil was good and it was soon cleared. At that time, however, the area which now comprises Ozaukee County was part of Washington County. Ozaukee County was created 7 March 1853 from Washington County.

The Eberhard Agnes family from Folschette and the Johann Weyker family from Flaxheim are believed to have been the first Luxembourger settlers in the area that is now Ozaukee County. Johann Weyker's passport showed that he and his wife and four children sailed from Antwerp on an American ship, the Sylvanus Jenkins, and arrived at the Port of New York on 3 July 1845. See "The History and Directory of Ozaukee County" by W. B. Krause published in 1899. About the same time, John Longeley arrived and opened a hotel and tavern at Port Washington.

The Johann Weyker family settled in the wilderness now called Holy Cross (Helleg Kräiz" in Luxembourgish) in the Town of Belgium, six miles from Port Washington on the road to Fredonia. Later that same year, a group of families joined the Weyker family in the Holy Cross area. They were:

Peter Biever ...................................Kleinelter (Autelbas) Belgium
Johann Bourton ............................Turpange Belgium
G. Dornbach ...................................Guirsch Belgium
Theodore Feireisen .......................Sterpenich Belgium
J. N. Gosche ....................................Offen (Fouches) Luxembourg
Peschong brothers .........................Küntzig (Clemency) Luxembourg
Joseph Poncelet .............................Battincourt (Bettem) Belgium
Nicholas Poncelet ..........................Battincourt (Bettem) Belgium
Nicholas Reding .............................Herzig Luxembourg
Christian Samuel ..........................Offen (Fouches) Luxembourg
J. Wagner ........................................Strassen Luxembourg
J. B. Wagner ...................................Strassen Luxembourg
Johann Peter Watry .....................Sterpenich Belgium
Nikolaus Watry .............................Sterpenich Belgium
Wolff brothers ................................Selingen Belgium ?

These settlers were mostly from the Cantons of Redingen and Capellen in the Grand Duchy, and from Belgium's Province of Luxembourg. Most of them may have come over together, though one of the company had previously resided in Ohio. See "Die Luxembourger in der Neuen Welt", pp 93-99 and 262-268, and "The History and Directory of Ozaukee County", published by W. B. Krause in 1899.

At that time, the Holy Cross area was a wilderness, an endless forest. Indians still roamed the area and their presence stirred fear among the white settlers. Their first homes were log huts and transformation of the dark, silent virgin forest into green, fertile fields and pasture required hard work. The group lost no time, however, in constructing a parish church of logs. The present stone church was built in 1861. In the early days, there was no money for a church bell; the Ave Maria was sounded with a shepherd's horn.

The year 1846 brought many more Luxembourgers. The first to buy land around Lake Church in Town of Belgium included Nic Weiler, Th. Reimen, M. Ellenbecker, Th. Welter, D. Traufler and D. Knaff who arrived aboard the sailing vessel Tallerand which reached the Port of New York from Antwerp on 3 August 1846. By 1848, a log church was built to serve the new parish of St. Mary am See.

Also aboard the Tallerand were Franz and John Gengler, John Warling and Adam Even who settled in Port Washington. In the same year, many families from the Belgian Province of Luxembourg settled in the Town of Belgium, and gave the township its name.

Also in 1847, Luxembourgers from the Mosel settled in Port Washington, and with them were several families from the German areas near Luxembourg: the Rheinland, the Eifel, Hunsrüch, and from the Gâ, or region between the Sauer and Mosel.

Others settled near Dacada, where the log church of the Roman Catholic parish of St. Nicholas was built in 1847. The present stone structure was built in 1861. Dacada is just over the Ozaukee County line in southern Sheboygan County. By 1848, there were nearly 80 Luxembourger families in that area.

In 1848, about eight families from Machthurn and Niederdonven, on the Mosel, in the Canton of Grevenmacher, settled in Pewaukee, Waukesha County.

Thus, between 1845 and 1848, perhaps 150 or more families, chiefly from the Belgian frontier and the region of the Mosel, had settled in Wisconsin.

Due to the crop failures in 1854, emigration was especially large from 1854 to 1857. It is estimated that 6,000 people left Luxembourg during that period. While a few settled in New York and Ohio, most went to Wisconsin. A large number settled near Milwaukee and along Lake Michigan; some joined the small colony in Pewaukee, and small groups located at Luxembourg in Kewaunee County, St. Joseph's Ridge in LaCrosse County, and in the mineral region near Potosi in southwestern Wisconsin.

During the next 30 years, emigration from Luxembourg continued and Wisconsin received a considerable part of it.

By 1890, Luxembourgers, both from the Grand Duchy and from the Belgian province, were found scattered throughout the state. The largest settlement was in the neighborhood of Port Washington.

The settlement extended northward for several miles into Sheboygan County, west from Lake Michigan into Washington County, and for several miles south of Port Washington By the mid 1890's, there were about 500 Luxembourger families belonging to the four Catholic congregations of St. Mary's at Port Washington, Holy Cross and St. Mary am See in Town of Belgium, and St. Nicholas at Dacada.

The early settlers in Ozaukee County were young men with little means, and nearly all of the peasant class. They brought with them some tools such as axes, plows, hoes, even wagons -- but they were unsuited to the soil. At first, times were hard and wages low. The settlers sold cord wood at the piers along the lake shore. Wheat, at first their only product, brought 40 or 50 cents a bushel.

Before the turn of the century, the Luxembourger farmers around Port Washington had become prosperous and well-to-do even though their farms tended to be small; first because initially they could not afford to buy a lot of land; and secondly, because they retained the old Luxembourg custom of dividing their land among their several sons.

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