The Gores’ homeland, part 3

Oldest photograph of Schönecken (ca. 1880–1890)In Part 1 of this series, I covered the history and prehistory of the Gores family’s ancestral home of Schönecken, Germany, from when Neanderthals called the area home in the Middle Paleolithic (roughly 200,000–40,000 years ago) until Charlemagne had himself crowned the new Emperor of the Romans in 800 AD. In Part 2, I covered the history of the Schönecken area from the death of Charlemagne in 814 AD until the Trier Witch Trials that began in 1581.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll cover the history of the Schönecken area from the Cologne War of 1583–1588 until the period of great hunger (the Great Famine of 1815–1816 and the Potato Failure of 1845–1846) that preceded my Gores forebear’s emigration from his ancestral homeland.

The Peace of Augsburg from 1555 required that if the leader of an ecclesiastic territory (such as the Electorate of Trier) converted to Protestantism, he should resign his position instead of forcing his subjects to convert. This principle was tested in December 1582 when the Prince-Elector of Cologne converted to Calvinism. Instead of resigning, he effectively became a Protestant Archbishop of the Catholic Church, and he extended the same standing to Calvinists that Catholics enjoyed and sought to convert the Electorate to a secular Duchy, angering the Catholic powers within the Electorate. A competing Archbishop was elected, and the competing archbishops and their supporters initially waged a series of fierce battles, but due to political alliances and feoffments1In feudal system of the European Middle Ages, a feoffment or enfeoffment was the deed by which a person was given land in exchange for a pledge of service, often military., as well as the larger implications of a religious war, the conflict quickly grew into a regional war (the Cologne War of 1583–1588) that involved the Netherlands and Spain, with Dutch, Scots, English, Bavarian, and papal mercenaries.

While the city of Cologne was nearly 60 miles from Schönecken, the Electorate of Cologne had extensive land holdings, including land in the Eifel that was less than 19 miles northeast of Schönecken.

In the early months of the conflict, the two warring armies rampaged through these southern portions of the Electorate that were closest to Schönecken. The fighting was brutal and nearly all the villages near the Rhine were burned. It was recorded that whatever villages were spared by one side were burned by the other side. Villages, abbeys, convents, and even several towns were plundered and burned. The conflict expanded to the west into the Eifel as Spanish and Dutch armies fought through the northern parts of the Eifel, attacking and burning the Rur and Urft areas, as well as destroying Münstereifel and Tomburg. The violence continued until the spring of 1588, when the Catholics forces prevailed.

The famines of the 1570s are thought to have been a motivating factor for the Trier Witch Hunts. But despite the zeal with which the witch trials were prosecuted, famine returned within five years. The famines of 1594–1598 and the famines of 1569–1574 were both driven by climatic factors related to the Little Ice Age. Cold winters, late frosts and strong, untimely rains caused harvest failures year after year.

Schönecken on a map of 1607

Schönecken (Schoinecken) and its castle along the Nims River (Nymß flu:) on the 1607 map “Trier & Lutzenburg. Per Gerardum Mercatorem Cum Privilegio.”

The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1638)

While Protestantism continued to expand within the Holy Roman Empire and beyond its borders over the next 30 years, the people of the Eifel had a break in major hostilities until 1618, when another Catholic leader (this time Ferdinand II, the Holy Roman Emperor) was replaced by a Protestant leader (Frederick V of the Palatinate). The ‘Bohemian Uprising’ started over 350 miles to the east of Schönecken with the ‘defenestrations’ of royal governors in Prague, but quickly spread to become a religiously motivated destructive civil war within the Holy Roman Empire. In 1635, the conflict expanded beyond the Empire to become an international war as France, Sweden, Spain, and Denmark-Norway joined the war.

By the time the war was over, between 4.5 and 8 million soldiers and civilians had died from disease or been killed by the conflict, primarily in what is today Germany, where it has been estimated that 50% of the entire population died because of the war. The scale of the destruction was immense—205 towns, 327 castles and forts, and 2,033 villages were destroyed in the Rhineland alone.

The Thirty Years’ War spared no village in the Eifel. Those not felled by the sword were stricken by hunger and sickness, including the plague. During the war, the Eifel experienced 30 years of uninterrupted pillaging. The people of the Eifel, while they themselves were on the brink of starvation, were commanded to provision the armies with wheat, bread, beer, and meat.

A chronicler in Münstermaifeld described the effect of the war in his area, 40 miles east of Schönecken: agriculture had completely ceased to exist; once-prosperous herds of livestock had been completely wiped out; and most of the people had starved, had fled, or had died. Whole villages disappeared forever. The priest at Deudesfeld (just 12 miles east of Schönecken) reported that he left his parish because not even one of his parishioners remained alive. Allied German soldiers were feared as much or even more so than the enemy soldiers from France and Sweden.

While the Peace of Westphalia marked the official end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, archbishop Philipp Christoph von Sötern of Trier continued his own private war for several years. He had sided with France against the Emperor during the Thirty Years’ War, allowing France to occupy Trier during the war. Spanish forces drove the French from the city and occupied Trier until nearly the end of the war. In 1646, he forged a new treaty of protection with France that brought soldiers from Lorraine into the Trier region, where they stayed for many years, burning and looting settlements around Trier.

Louis XIV’s wars (1667–1697) and the devastation of the Eifel

After turning France into an absolute monarchy, Louis XIV of France sought to make France the most powerful state in Europe. To that end, he launched a series of predatory wars to expand his kingdom. The first, the ‘War of Devolution’ from 1667 to 1668, saw France invade and attempt to conquer the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium) in order to control the Rhine delta and the left bank of the Rhine.

The Dutch Republic aggressively and successfully repelled the French invasion, and in doing so, devastated large portions of the Nordeifel and Hocheifel regions of the Eifel mountains.

The Franco-Dutch War (1672–1678) represented Louis XIV’s second attempt to conquer the Spanish Netherlands, and it made the citizens of the Eifel uncomfortably close to the action. Despite being remote, the Schönecken region had a front seat to the hostilities as it was less than 10 miles from the Spanish Netherlands (part of which is now Luxembourg) and only about 20 miles from the Kingdom of France. Louis XIV prevailed in this war, and the Spanish Netherlands became French territory in 1678.

The third of Louis XIV’s wars—the Nine Years’ War from 1688 to 1697—began with the Rhine campaign from 1688 to 1689, in which the French army crossed and captured Alsace and Lorraine, then crossed the Rhine River at Strasbourg and proceeded to besiege and capture the Elector of Trier’s fortress at Philippsburg. Louis XIV’s goal was to extend the French border to the Rhine and beyond. Louis’ ambitions were halted by the Grand Alliance (a coalition of German, English, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian kings and princes), and the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick gave Alsace to France but required the return of Lorraine and much captured land in the Rhineland.

During the Nine Years’ War, if German villages or towns that the French occupied put up resistance or made insufficient contributions to the French army, they were destroyed. While the result was nearly complete destruction of the captured German lands, the retreat of the French was equally devastating. The French wanted to leave nothing for the German Empire, thus creating a large buffer area between France and Germany. Louis XIV’s War Minister, Louis François Marie Le Tellier, advised the complete destruction of all resources and fortifications in occupied German lands, especially in the Rhineland-Palatinate. Castles, churches, and monasteries were burned and demolished throughout the Eifel. After the French left the Palatinate in 1697, they left behind a ruined land where existence was nearly impossible.

With the death of Charles II of Spain in November 1700, war again came to the Eifel as the contenders to the Spanish throne fought fierce battles for the Spanish Netherlands in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). In the summer of 1705, the English Duke of Marlborough, in support of the Dutch and Germans, had marched his army from France to Trier and then decided to continue marching his army north to Maastricht, through the Eifel. He sent his artillery and infantry on the old Roman road that led through Steffeln, but he marched his calvary on a more direct route north. They followed the road from Bitburg to Prüm, which passed directly through Schönecken. According to the Taylors’ account,

In miserable weather, and through the bleak hill-country of the Volcanic Eifel, which could barely sustain its own inhabitants, his columns pressed forward with surprising diligence. They had little inducement to tarry. Privation and desertion thinned their ranks; the unseasoned horses perished in great numbers; but in spite of all hardships the spirit of the army as a whole continued to be excellent.

The Taylors’ account is an example of English understatement, minimizing the actual hardships the army faced on their march through the Eifel—after 12 days, half of his army had died of starvation.

Two more wars would be fought in the Eifel over the next 40 years, but there was little more that could be done to the Eifel that 150 years of war, famine, fire, poverty, and disease had not already done.

Prussian military expansion and the potato

Frederick the Great of Prussia ruled over Prussia from 1740 until 1786, leading Prussia through a period of great military and territorial expansion. To maintain a large military, the troops would need to be fed. The majority of a Prussian soldier’s rations came in the form of just under 2½ pounds of bread per day. The French blockaded Prussian grain imports after their clash with Prussia in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), leading Frederick to promote the potato as a crop:

One special concern, almost an obsession, was the promotion of the potato as a field crop… This was eminently sensible, for the potato was European agriculture’s most powerful weapon in breaking the age-old overdependence on grain as the staple crop.

As a result, farmers in the Eifel began growing potatoes almost exclusively in the mid-1700s. Their over-reliance on the potato would prove disastrous a century later when a strain of potato blight sparked the European Potato Failure that led to famine in northern and western Europe in the mid-1840s.

Under French occupation (1792–1814)

Capitalizing on the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, German armies invaded France. German forces were not just repulsed, but also suffered defeats on their own soil. The Electorate of Trier and all lands west of the Rhine found themselves under French rule because of the 1797 Treaty of Campo Formio. Schönecken became part of the Canton of Prüm, which in turn was part of the Arrondissement of Prüm in the Department of Sarre. French rule continued until the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and the Battle of Waterloo the following year, which put a definitive end to the Napoleonic Era.

Central Europe after the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797

Central Europe after the 1797 Treaty of Campo Formio. Note that portions of Germany (including the Schönecken area), Switzerland, Belgium, and Luxembourg west of the Rhine River are now part of the French Republic, including Schönecken and all of the lands of the former Electorate of Trier. From Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912, Map 84.

In 1791, two years into the French Revolution, large numbers of French nobles immigrated to Schönecken and surrounding areas and became a nuisance to the local populace. While the Treaty of Campo Formio was signed in 1797, Schönecken had been under French occupation since 1792.

While under French occupation, the Eifel witnessed something of a small renaissance as old class barriers were discarded, civil rights were introduced, and new markets were created for the old Eifel industries of iron, lead, and stone mining, encouraging a surge in production.

In 1798, France’s Council of Five Hundred passed a law ordering the conscription of all men between the ages of 20 and 25 in all French territories for compulsory military service. The law went into effect in late September 1798 and sparked the Peasants’ War (October 12–December 5, 1798). This uprising started in Belgium and Luxembourg, but quickly spread throughout West Eifel, almost certainly including Schönecken. In addition to the mandatory conscription, France introduced several new taxes on its new subjects in the Eifel and other newly acquired territories.

1802 map of the French Département de la Sarre

An 1802 map of the newly formed French Departement de la Saare, to which Schönecken belonged. Schönecken is approximately at the bottom of the ‘R’ in Prum at the north end of the map.

In 1801, France annexed all territories of the Archbishopric of Trier west of the the Rhine, including Schönecken. Adding to the chaos, the town of Schönecken burned down in 1802. In 1806, Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, and in 1815 the Treaty of Vienna created a Germanic Confederation of German states led by Austria. The Kingdom of Prussia was one of these German states, and at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, all of the former lands of the Archbishopric of Trier were ceded by France to the Kingdom of Prussia (according to Schö, Schönecken didn’t become part of Prussia until 1818: “1818: Schönecken kommt an Preußen.”).

Schönecken and the surrounding Eifel mountains were already in the grip of poverty and famine after 250 years that seemed filled with war, foreign occupation, crop failures, food shortages, seed shortages, livestock diseases, and deforestation of the ancient forests of the Eifel. In 1814, the war with Napoleon ended and France agreed to cede the Rhineland to Prussia. 40,000 Russian troops returning home marched through the area and took what provisions they needed, further impoverishing the region. The new borders to the west reduced the area’s historic trade with France and Luxembourg, worsening the area’s economy.

The Eifel’s system of roads had been devastated by decades of military overuse, and the Prussian government promoted a laissez-faire attitude towards repairing such vital infrastructure. The Eifel’s charcoal-fueled smelters were no match for more modern coke-powered blast furnaces, but without reliable roads or railroads to transport coke, the people of the Eifel had to continue using charcoal.

The Prussian government took a laissez-faire attitude towards forest management, so in a desperate bid to avoid utter poverty, the people of the Eifel cut down the last of the old beech forests that once covered the Eifel mountains to make charcoal to fuel their iron smelters. When the last of these old forests were gone, the Eifel iron industry collapsed, and thousands lost their jobs.

Prussia eventually encouraged reforestation of Eifel with pine trees, but it was too little, too late for the people of the Eifel.

The Great Famine (1815–1816)

The catastrophic eruption of the Mayon volcano in the Philippines on February 1, 1814, injected ash into the stratosphere that caused a slight reduction in summer temperatures in 1814, possibly affecting the reduced crop yields in 1814 and 1815. On its own, this might not merit a mention in the history of Schönecken, but it was compounded by a second eruption a little over a year later that devasted the local harvest.

Schönecken’s crops failed in 1815 due to heavy rains and frosts, and seed was in short supply for planting the next crop in spring 1816. As it turned out, any seed planted was wasted, as 1816 was known globally as the Year Without a Summer. 7,600 miles to the southeast, a volcano in the Dutch East Indies that had been dormant for several centuries started to rumble to life. On April 5, 1815, Mount Tambora violently erupted, accompanied by thunderously loud sounds of explosion that were heard 870 miles away. This continued for five days, darkening the sky with volcanic ash that fell on Indonesian islands to the east of Mount Tambora. As violent as this eruption was, it was only getting started.

The real eruption began at 7:00 pm on April 10th and was so loud that it sounded like a cannonade to listeners 1,600 miles away. From to an eyewitness account, we know that three large columns of flames soared to a incredible height, the “whole mountain…appeared like a body of liquid fire extending itself in every direction,” the ejected ash plunged the sky into darkness within an hour, stones of pumice rained from the sky, a violent whirlwind flattened houses and tore even the largest trees up by the roots and blew them and people and livestock far out to sea, which itself surged 12 feet higher than ever recorded. The eruptions continued at full violence for 24 hours and then continued at a diminished scale for the next three months.

Mount Tambora’s eruption column was massive, sending ash and tephra 26.7 miles, injecting the material into the stratosphere, which caused short-term global climate change. These aerosols remained in the stratosphere, obscuring the sun during 1815 and 1816, and causing a reddish haze to remain in the sky for a few years.

The effects on climate worldwide varied, with Germany being hit particularly hard. For Schönecken, 1815 and 1816 were years of terrible famine and hardship. According to Schö (translation mine),

After the failed harvests of 1815 and 1816, grain prices rose by more than 100% in 1816, and wheat was no longer traded on the market in Prüm. People baked bread from rotten potatoes and overcooked turnips. Extreme famine broke out in the districts of Daun and Prüm. In those years, the infant mortality rate was very high. Poor associations were formed everywhere and in the Trier district donations were made for the needy Eifel population. Prussia even bought wheat from Russia to alleviate the need, but the deliveries came far too late.

Following on the famine and disease of 1815 and 1816, wolves began to prey on the devastated towns of the Eifel mountains. One source2Govaerts, Sander (2022) Wolves and Warfare in the History of the Low Countries, 1000-1800. BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review 137(1):4–27. DOI: 10.51769/bmgn-lchr.7038. speculates that wolves grew accustomed to human flesh due to the Napoleonic wars of 1805, 1806–1807, and 1809. In 1810–1811, wolves along the Belgium-German border (75 miles north of Schönecken) began eating children, killing 11 children and wounding several more before locals stopped the attacks by shooting several wolves3“Rondom Roermond” (2018) De wolvenplaag rond Roermond (1810-1811)


“Petits paysans surpris par un loup” (Little peasants surprised by a wolf) by François Grenier de Saint-Martin, 1833. Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, Paris – Dépôt du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes.

People of the Eifel began to be terrorized by wolves around 1818, perhaps as the last remaining wolves were pushed further into mountainous refugia like the Eifel. The wolf attacks on people in the Eifel continued for 20 years, until in 1838 an official order was decreed that required entire communities to take part in wolf hunts to stop the attacks.

After the Great Famine of 1815–1816, the wolf attacks of 1818–1838, and the European Potato Failure of 1845–1846, the people of the Eifel began to emigrate to foreign destinations that offered the hope of a better life. Around this same time, the Eifel became known as the “Prussian Siberia” due to its harsh weather and its hungry citizens living in utter poverty.

Given the grim history of the Schönecken region over the decades and centuries before siblings Franz (Francis) Gores, Johann (John) Gores, and Margaretha (Maria) Gores emigrated from their homeland in 1854, one hardly has to wonder why they left. The question left unanswered is why they waited so long to leave.

See more about the Gores who left here.

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