Sunday, December 17, 2023

How Colonist John Smith changed his name at the age of 147

This is Captain John Smith, one of the founding fathers of Jamestown Colony, Virginia, and my cousin by marriage (to be specific, he is my children's 5th cousin 13 times removed.  My kids and Captain John Smith actually share 29 common ancestors based on data retrieved from WikiTree on 17 Dec 2023).

This is a family history biography of my great-great-great grandfather John Smith, colonist who left his home country and made a new life in the New World.  But it is NOT about the guy in the engraved illustration above.  And it is not about Jamestown Colony, Virginia.  It's not even about a man named John Smith—a least not until he was 147 years old.  And lastly, it's not about founding a colony in the New World, but about leaving one in the Old.

Interest piqued? Here's the rest of the story:

Biography of Johann Schmidt and Louise Behnke

Johann Schmidt was born on 15 June 1808 in Schmilowo, Kreis Flatow, Province of West Prussia, Germany. now called Śmiłowo, two miles east of Vandsburg, which is now called Więcbork, Poland. He was the third of nine children of Daniel Schmidt and Maria nee Tesmer.

Louise Behnke was born to Martin Behnke and Eva Rosine nee Thom sometime between 1819 and 1821, also in West Prussia, probably in Jastrzembke Colonie, 4 miles ENE of Vandsburg.

TOURIST DETAIL: Jastrzembke Colonie is now an empty field. It can be visited by following directions to “Jastrzebiec k Wiecborka, Poland” about 8km ENE of Więcbork. Also please note that a Google Map Search for Śmiłowo will give you the wrong location – a larger town with the former German name of Schmilau, about 50km to the west. The correct Śmiłowo is also on the map, just two miles due east of Więcbork.

These two grew up during a turbulent time in this part of the world. This territory was historically Polish, and only relatively recently had Germans begun to arrive during a period when Poland’s government was weakening and under pressure from all its neighbors. 

The map below (courtesy of Wikipedia) shows the historic migration of Germans eastward in a movement that became known as Drang nach Osten, translated as the “Urge to push to the east” with Drang also connoting a sense of discomfort or stress.

Vandsburg, marked by the red arrow, was located in what came to be known as the ‘Polish Corridor’ because although Germans populated the areas to the west and east, a Polish majority population persisted in the gray areas. (See also the 1910 census map below). To put complex history in a nutshell, the dispute over the Polish Corridor was the core cause of World War II.

The area had been under the control of a weak Polish government until 1772 when the stronger neighboring powers of Prussia, Austria, and Russia forced Poland to cede lands, marked in the lighter shades on the map below (with Vandsburg again marked by a red arrow).

Map attribution: Wikipedia:

The Polish corridor thus came under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Prussia. It didn’t last. Thanks to the invading French armies of Napoleon, Vandsburg was again officially under Polish rule (Treaty of Tislit, 9 Jul 1807), so Johann was born Polish (or maybe French? I have no idea how formal citizenship was conveyed, if at all). The area was under the control of the short-lived Duchy of Warsaw from 1807 until the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, when Vandsburg again came under Prussian control, so that Louise was born Prussian.

Following the defeat of Napoleon, the Prussian Kingdom was on the ascendancy, consolidating power and gaining military superiority, joining the German Confederation in 1815, gaining further superiority as the outcome of the 1866 Austro-Prussian war, which led to the German Empire in 1871, and becoming increasingly militaristic in a century-long build-up to The Great War – World War I. All this while, the Prussian government continued to promote German settlement in the east.

Below is a public domain map of Prussia at near its greatest extent in 1905, with Vandsburg again marked with a red arrow.

It was in the midst of this inferno of political change and a local atmosphere of ethnic tension that Johann and Louise grew up, met, and married in the church in Vandsburg on 23 Aug 1835. Louise was no more than sixteen years old at the time of the marriage.

Now, here comes the part about Johann being a 'Colonist'.  Soon after their marriage, Johann and Louise settled in Zakrzewke Colonie about four miles WNW of Vandsburg.  There Louise gave birth to eleven known children between 1837 and 1866.

The fact that the place they lived was called a ‘Colony’ speaks directly to the political and ethnic conflict that surrounded them and to the sense that these German settlers were pioneers (intruders), taking root in a hostile land. As seen from the public domain Census map from 1910, shown below, Vandsburg (again marked with a red arrow) stood in the midst of an area of very mixed ethnicity with small enclaves of German settlement in that ‘Polish Corridor’. Census districts that are colored Green are majority Polish districts, where those in orange-red are predominantly German.

TOURIST DETAIL: Zakrzewke Colonie is now abandoned, but there is a historic marker at the former train station. To visit it, follow directions to “Dawna stacja Zakrzewska Kolonia, Zakrzewska Osada 34A, 89-410 Zakrzewska Osada, Poland”. The historic marker is not along a road, but on the abandoned Świecie nad Wisłą – Złotów railway line right-of-way about 7.5km WNW of Więcbork.

In an amazing coincidence, a professional quality video of this train station at Zakrzewski Colonie was posted on YouTube just as I began researching this topic in January 2023.

What caused the Schmidts to emigrate to America is not certain. Many of our ancestors were just seeking opportunity—a better life. Perhaps life in Zakrzewke Colonie was hard and getting harder. But in late June 1876, Johann and Louise and their four youngest children boarded the S.S. Oder in Bremen and sailed for New York by way of Southampton, England. They arrived at Ellis Island, on July 8th 1876, just four days after the Centennial of United States independence.

The trip from New York to Milwaukee is not documented, but most travelers used the Erie Canal corridor, traveling either by boat or on the adjacent railroad line, then got on another ship at Buffalo and sailed to Milwaukee.

Either in Milwaukee or perhaps in New York Johann and Louise and children were probably met by sons August and or Fritz, who had preceded them in emigrating. Son Fritz was the pioneer in 1869. He left his wife and children in Germany and came to America sailing aboard the Bark Bremen, arriving in July. A year later his wife and four oldest children joined him, traveling by steamship (a much faster transit). Son August followed in 1873, traveling as a young single man alone. Finally, son Carl and his young family joined them in 1885. To date I have no record of the fate of three of the other four children. A daughter Justine died in Germany as a baby in 1853.

Johann and Louise settled in rural Waukesha County and farmed near Muskego. (The area is now suburban, and part of the Greater Milwaukee Metropolitan Area.) Johann and Louise eventually retired and moved into a small home or apartment on the farm of daughter Louisa and her husband Herman Schultz. Johann died there on 29 Jul 1895 at the age of 87. Louise passed away on 5 Apr 1901 at the age of 82.

They were buried together in the town of Muskego in the old Muskego Center Cemetery. But their story does not end there. This old cemetery had filled up and was falling into neglect. In 1955 the owner of an adjacent amusement park proposed to purchase the cemetery and relocate the graves in order to expand the amusement park. (These clippings courtesy of Whitney Gulbrandson from Waukesha Daily Freeman, 9 Jun and 4 Oct 1955)

The property transfer was approved. As result, Johann and Louise’s remains were disinterred and reburied at Vernon United Presbyterian Cemetery, Vernon, Wisconsin, about five miles to the west.

Photo: Whitney Gulbrandson, at Find-a-Grave.

The new grave marker names them John and Louise Smith. I do not have any evidence that they changed their names. In the 1880 and 1900 US Census records they are listed as ‘Schmidt’. Even the cemetery records transcribed in the 1955 newspaper article above (lower right) name them as “John Schmidt and ____ Schmidt, his wife.”

There is only one member of the family who formally used the name Smith—youngest son Rufus, who died in 1959, and who just happened to live in the town of Vernon. Family oral history says that Rufus’s wife Emma Peffer preferred the name Smith over Schmidt. This couple’s census records, and their grave marker all use the Anglicized version of the name. At the time of the grave relocation, Rufus was the only remaining living child of Johann and Louisa, and he was already well into his 80’s.

It appears that Johann and Louise Schmidt’s name change did not take place until they were buried in Vernon in 1955 when Johann was 147 years old.

And perhaps that is, at last, the end of the story.


1. Wilhelm (1837- ) – no issue (?) 
2. Friedrich “Fritz” (1838-1926) – m. Amelia Fedder, 9 children 
3. Henriette (1842- ) – no issue (?) 
4. Johann Julius (1843- ) – no issue (?) 
5. Carl Ludwig (1847-1933) – m. Johanna Bahr, 10 children 
6. August Julius (1849-1941) – m. Louise Lumpe, 4 children 
7. Justina (1852-1853) – no issue 
8. Edward Gustav (1855-1946) – m. Minnie Witt, no issue 
9. Emilie Mathilde (1858-1946) – m. John Richter, 2 children 
10. Louise Auguste (1862-1938) – m. Herman Schultz, 3 children 
11. Rudolph Gustav (1866-1959) – m. Emma Peffer, no issue

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