Much of a family’s history is tied up in places as much as in people. Both sides of my own family reach back to locations in Germany. My father’s side left the home country only in the early part of the twentieth century (and there is family lore that puts portions of it in the midst of the Russian Revolution a century ago), while my mother’s side — via the Marstellers — arrived in North America in the latter part of the seventeenth century, making them amongst the pioneer settlers of what became the United States.
While most of the places my family settled are in the States — including southeastern Pennsylvania, northeastern Iowa, and the central Pacific coast of California — the German locations are very interesting to me, and the most ripe for additional research. In this entry, I’d like to give some background on the region of present-day southwest Germany that was once ruled by the House of Hesse, centering on the town of Pfungstadt.
The English name “Hesse” originates in the Hessian dialects. The variant “Hessia” comes from the medieval Latin Hassia. The German term Hessen is used by the European Commission because their policy is to leave regional names untranslated. The term “Hesse” ultimately derives from a Germanic tribe called the Chatti, who settled in the region in the first century B.C. An inhabitant of Hesse is called a Hessian (Hesse (masculine) or Hessin (feminine).
As early as the Paleolithic period, the Central Hessian region was inhabited. Due to the favorable climate of the location, people lived there about 50,000 years ago during the last glacial period, as burial sites show from this era. Finds of paleolitical tools in southern Hesse in Rüsselsheim suggest Pleistocene hunters about 13,000 years ago. The Züschen tomb (Steinkammergrab von Züschen, sometimes also Lohne-Züschen) is a prehistoric burial monument, located between Lohne and Züschen, near Fritzlar. Classified as a gallery grave or a Hessian-Westphalian stone cist (hessisch-westfälische Steinkiste), it is one of the most important megalithic monuments in Central Europe. Dating to the late fourth millennium BC (and possibly remaining in use until the early third), it belongs to the Late Neolithic Wartberg culture.
An early Celtic presence in what is now Hesse is indicated by a mid-fifth-century BC La Tène style burial uncovered at Glauberg. The region was later settled by the Germanic Chatti tribe around the first century BC, and the name Hesse is a continuation of that tribal name.
The ancient Romans had a military camp in Dorlar, and in Waldgirmes directly on the eastern outskirts of Wetzlar was a civil settlement under construction. Presumably, the provincial government for the occupied territories of the right bank of Germania was planned at this location. The governor of Germania, at least temporarily, likely had resided here. The settlement appears to have been abandoned by the Romans after the devastating Battle of the Teutoburg Forest failed in the year 9 AD. The Chatti were also involved in the Revolt of the Batavi in 69 AD.
Hessia, from the early seventh century on, served as a buffer between areas dominated by the Saxons (to the north) and the Franks who brought the area to the south under their control in the early sixth century and occupied Thuringia (to the east) in 531.
The area around Fritzlar shows evidence of significant pagan belief from the first century on. Geismar was a particular focus of such activity; it was continuously occupied from the Roman period on, with a settlement from the Roman period, which itself had a predecessor from the fifth century BC. Excavations have produced a horse burial and bronze artifacts. A possible religious cult may have centered on a natural spring in Geismar, called Heilgenbron; the name “Geismar” (possibly “energetic pool”) itself may be derived from that spring.
The Chatti were eventually pushed out by another tribe known as the Hessi who, it is believed, established the town of Pfungstadt.
By 650, the Franks were establishing themselves as overlords, which is suggested by archaeological evidence of burials, and were building fortifications in various places including Christenberg. By 690, they were taking direct control over Hessia, apparently to counteract expansion by the Saxons, who built fortifications in Gaulskopf and Eresburg across the river Diemel, the northern boundary of Hessia. The Büraburg (which already had a Frankish settlement in the sixth century) was one of the places the Franks fortified in order to resist the Saxon pressure, and according to John-Henry Clay the Büraburg was “probably the largest man-made construction seen in Hessia for at least seven hundred years”. Walls and trenches totaling one kilometer in length were made, and they enclosed “8 hectares of a spur that offered a commanding view over Fritzlar and the densely populated heart of Hessia”.
Following Saxon incursions into Chattish territory in the seventh century, two gaus had been established — a Frankish one, comprising an area around Fritzlar and Kassel, and a Saxon one. In the ninth century, the Saxon Hessengau also came under the rule of the Franconians.
Christianity had been introduced into the area by the famous missionary to St. Boniface. The Benedictine monks established a monastery twenty-five miles to the south of Pfungstadt, which would become famous as the cloister of Lorsch. Lorsch lies about 5 kilometers west of the Bergstraße in the Rhine rift just west of the Odenwald between Darmstadt to the north and Mannheim to the south. The abbey was one of the most renowned monasteries of the Carolingian Empire, founded in 764. Even in its ruined state, its remains are among the most important pre-Romanesque–Carolingian style buildings in Germany and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
Though the town of Phungstadt was under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Mainz (the territorial capital for the Holy Roman Empire), the first mention of Pfungstadt as “a village with three mills” appears on the site of the present Evangelical Lutheran Church.
In the ninth century, Charlemagne made the area his headquarters during his campaign against the Saxons. Then under Louis, the German, Pfungstadt was a part of the Duchy of Franconia. In the War of the Thuringian Succession (1247-1264), Hesse gained its independence and became a Landgraviate within the Holy Roman Empire.
The House of Hesse originated in 1264 with the marriage of Sophie of Thuringia, daughter of Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia and Elizabeth of Hungary with Henry II, Duke of Brabant from the House of Reginar. Sophie was the heiress of Hesse which she passed on to her son, Henry upon her retention of the territory following her partial victory in the War of the Thuringian Succession in which she was one of the belligerents. Originally the western part of the Landgraviate of Thuringia, in the mid thirteenth century it was inherited by the younger son of Henry II, Duke of Brabant, and became a distinct political entity.
When the Landgrave of Hesse became a prince of the Holy Roman empire in 1292, the history of Pfungstadt properly began, and, from then through the period of the Marsteller habitation, the town’s fortune followed the rise and fall of Hesse.
The church in Pfungstadt was built between 1277 and 1291, the church tower of which was known to the Marstellers is the same as it stands today. During this period, the town grew and fourteen mills along the Modau River made the town a center of milling in the midst of a wealthy countryside.
During this time, the House of Hesse rose to primary importance under Landgrave Philip the Magnanimous, who was one of the leaders of German Protestantism. After Philip’s death in 1567, the territory was divided among his four sons from his first marriage (Philip was a bigamist) into four lines: Hesse-Kassel Hesse-Rheinfels, and the previously-existing Hesse-Marburg while the youngest son inherited the area around Pfungstadt and made the city of Darmstadt, some five miles to the northeast, the capital of the newly formed Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt. As the latter two lines died out quite soon (1583 and 1605, respectively), Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Darmstadt were the two core states within the Hessian lands. Pfungstadt was the location of the horse stables for the Princes of Hesse.
The Hesse-Rheinfels line became extinct on Philip’s death in 1583. When, in 1604, the childless Landgrave Louis IV of Hesse-Marburg died at Marburg Castle, a succession dispute to his lands, along with the sectarian differences between Calvinist Hesse-Kassel and Lutheran Hesse-Darmstadt, led to a bitter, decades-long rivalry. Because the University of Marburg had become Calvinist under the rule of Landgrave Maurice of Hesse-Kassel, his cousin Louis V of Hesse-Darmstadt founded the Lutheran University of Giessen in 1607.
The inheritance conflict was continued in the broader contest of the Thirty Years’ War, in which Hesse-Kassel sided with the Protestant estates and Hesse-Darmstadt sided with the Habsburg emperor. The Hesse-Homburg and Hesse-Rotenburg estates seceded from the opponents in 1622 and 1627. Though Hesse-Darmstadt and Hesse-Kassel reached an agreement in 1627, the quarrels rekindled, resulting inter alia in the Siege of Dorsten and culminating in a series of open battles from 1645, when the Kassel Landgravine Amalie Elisabeth besieged Marburg. The conflict was finally settled on the eve of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, more than eighty years after the division of the estates. Large parts of the disputed Upper Hesse territory including Marburg fell to the elder Kassel line, while Hesse-Darmstadt retained Giessen and Biedenkopf.
The Marsteller branch of my family came chiefly from Pfungstadt — today a town of 25,117 inhabitants, in the district of Darmstadt-Dieburg in the state of Hesse, located about 30 miles south of Frankfurt and five miles from Darmstadt in the twenty-mile wide Rhine river valley. The Modau river flows through the town and it is situated just west of the Odenwald, a rugged hill region which rises to 1,965 feet. one of the closest of these hills is Frankenstein with its castle ruin of monstrous fame (Mary Shelley) on its summit. It is said, Shelley used the name after asking a sailor on a Rhine trip to tell her the name of “this yonder castle”.
The Marstellers saw the old church remodeled in 1550 and church-sponsored schools begun in 1571. They built the town hall on barrel vaulting across the Modau from 1614-1618. During the Thirty Years War, the town was destroyed except for the town hall, the church and a few homes. From the start of the war in 1618 to its completion in 1648, the population of Pfungstadt plunged from about 800 people to 150.
The historical town hall is the center of the old part of the town, which in 1664 was being developed with a view to allowing the river Modau to flow above ground as basis for a promenade. Pfungstadt is most famous today for its beer, Pfungstädter, which can be found all over Germany. The Brewery has a long history. The town is also notable as being the birthplace of the great Anglo-Jewish synagogue composer Julius Mombach.
The town today is primarily a small farming and milling community. The “old town” can be seen in the southern sector of the city. It covers an area of two by five blocks north of the Modau and an area of twice that size to the south of the river. Perhaps a hundred homes, the church and the city hall exist from prior to the Thirty Years War.
The town hall looks exactly as it did when the Marstellers left Pfungstadt in the eighteenth century. The church, however, has undergone renovation. The ancestors of the American Marstellers left Pfungstadt prior to the second renovation of the church in 1750, so the interior and the top of the bell tower would no longer be familiar to them. Three of the four bells, which rang for their weddings and funerals still ring today, however. There is an ancient cemetery directly behind the church where the Marstellers were buried, but their graves can no longer be located. By the middle of the twentieth century, the old cemetery had long since been filled, the inscriptions of the tombstones had become illegible, so the stones were removed and the old stone-walled cemetery was turned into a children’s playground.
Phungstadt is served by the Pfungstadt Railway (Pfungstadtbahn) and Odenwald Railway (Odenwaldbahn) to and from Darmstadt Hauptbahnhof as well as several buses. The town lies to the east of the Bundesautobahn 5 and Bundesautobahn 67 freeways.
The Marsteller name is a trade name deriving from the word Marstall which means “Hostler” or keeper of horses in a royal stable. The original spelling of the name was Marstaller. The spelling was changed to Marsteller sometime prior to the 1500’s, based on research by Dr. Susanne Mosteller Rolland. The Marsteller surname has appeared only among people of Germanic descent and, in comparison with other Germanic surnames, it has been born by a relatively small number of people according to Stumbling Toward Zion: A Mosteller Chronicle by Dr. James Lawton Haney Jr.
The oldest record of a Marsteller is one Johann Von Marstaller as listed in the records of a medieval scribe. The scribe noted that Johann took part in the First Crusade to the Holy Land in the year 1096 AD sponsored by Pope Urban II. A Hen Marsteller is mentioned in a Pfungstadt letter dated 1514. This is the oldest documentation of a Marsteller in Pfungstadt that can be found at this time therefore Hen is considered the patriarch of the family. He was probably born around the 1460’s, based on a copy of a letter dated 1532 from the town of Pfungstadt in the possession of Mr. Robert Bornschein, a historian there.
In addition to those Marstellers that are my ancestors (the “Pfungstadt Marstellers), there were also a number of notable Marstellers residing elsewhere in Germany during the sixteenth century. There is no evidence linking any of these non-Pfungstadt Marstellers to my family, but there is always the possibility.
These include Michael Marsteller, a wealthy and influential citizen of Nuremberg (d. 1533) who was instrumental in establishing the Lutheran faith at the official religion of Nuremberg and a personal acquaintance of Martin Luther; Michael’s son Leonard (d. 1603), a doctor of theology and a professor at the University of Ingolstadt; several authors or historians (Gervasius Marstaller of Braunschweig, Martin Marstaller — son of Gervasius, 1561-1615), Johann Marsteller who wrote about the revolutions and uprisings during the reformation period, and Christoph Marstaller. My favorite of the seemingly-unrelated Marstellers is Joachim Marstaller, a corporal in the Bodyguard of the Holy Roman Emperor who was awarded a coat of arms by the Emperor, Rudolph II, in Prague on February 13, 1579. He was reported to have been raised to the imperial nobility on June 10, 1596. Both the son and grandson of Joachim are known to have been active in the affairs of Wurttemburg and the city of Augsburg in southwestern Germany.
With the conversion from the Roman Catholic Church to the Lutheran faith, the town of Pfungstadt began to record significant personal events in the church such as birth, baptism, marriage and death information. The written records of Pfungstadt begin in the middle of the 1500s primarily through three volumes kept by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Pfungstadt. These books have several gaps, especially through the Thirty Years War, but generally cover the years 1552 through 1795.
The Marsteller family was one of the oldest and most prominent families in Pfungstadt. They were craftsmen by profession; ironmongers (blacksmiths) and they belonged to the influential Ironmongers Guild. Several members of the family also served in various civic positions such as on the town council, as burgermeister (mayor) and as military commander of the town militia.
The Marsteller family appears in the Lutheran church records (the Kirchenbuch) from the very first years of record keeping. Documentation exists from 1514 through the middle of the 1800s showing the Marsteller family living in Pfungstadt. The name disappears from the town in the 1800s as the last male remaining in Pfungstadt with the Marsteller surname died without issue. However, many relatives remain in the town descended from the Marsteller women who married townsfolk. By the early 1700s, the area of Germany around Pfungstadt had seen almost one hundred years of war. The state government was ineffective and taxation was very heavy. Death due to accusations of practicing witchcraft was also very common.
In the years following William Penn’s acquisition of a vast territory on the American continent in 1681, the Rhineland had been flooded with tracts, pamphlets and letters describing the glories of what is now Pennsylvania. Penn’s agents and the agents of enterprising ship captains distributed the written materials and used every possible persuasive means to convince the disgruntled natives they could find their dreams in the “New World”.
Starting in 1727, and during the next twelve years, six members of the Marsteller family, four males and two females, some including their families left Pfungstadt to seek their futures in America. The trip led initially from Pfungstadt to Rotterdam or Amsterdam. Along the way, it is now known that each town collected tolls from all passengers. In addition, all passengers had to buy all their food and water for the lengthy voyage to the New World. The voyage itself was known to be a miserable experience for most passengers and deaths during the voyage were common. It was not unusual for passengers to arrive in America in debt to the ship’s captain or agent with no money. In all over 30,000 people from the west-central part of Europe (an area referred to as Palatine) became part of what is now known as the “Palatine Migration”.
If a passenger arrived in debt and had no waiting relative or sponsor they typically had to enter indentured servitude contracts, usually for up to four years to whomever would pay their ship debts. It is probable that this was the situation that some, if not all of our ancestors faced on their arrival in America. All six of the Marstellers who came to America from Pfungstadt left from Rotterdam or Amsterdam and arrived in the port of Philadelphia beginning on October 2, 1727, initially settled in the southeastern counties of Philadelphia.
One of the first Marsteller immigrants, Frederick Ludwig Marsteller, sponsored Heinrich Melchoir Muhlenberg, the Lutheran pastor considered the father of the Lutheran Church in America. The Marstellers were instrumental in building the first Evangelical Lutheran churches in America and helped form the first Lutheran Synod in America.
Over the first few generations the spelling of the Marsteller name took many forms as the German immigrants struggled to adjust to the English language. The most common spellings are Marsteller, Mosteller and Masteller. From the four male Phungstadt Marstellers are descended virtually all of the Marstellers, et al. found in the United States today.
Most of their descendants were initially farmers and blacksmiths. Later generations entered various professions but were primarily farmers, teachers, and ministers. Many entered the military. As we will soon see, One descendant, Philip Balthasar Marsteller — my cousin, seven times removed — served as a colonel in the American Revolutionary War and became a close friend of George Washington. He served as a pallbearer at President Washington’s funeral and he purchased a pair of matched flintlock pistols from Washington’s estate. Those pistols remained in the family for several generations until their eventual sale. These pistols are now on display in the West Pont museum in New York. One of Philip’s sons helped lay the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol building.
Marsteller descendants have fought in every American War including the Revolutionary War and Civil War. The current descendants of the Marsteller’s of Pfungstadt represent the tenth and eleventh generations in America over 270 years after the arrival of Johann Georg Marsteller on October 2, 1727.