My (and maybe your) Salzburger Roots

Everyone’s heritage is extremely complicated and in my humble opinion, intimately personal. Nothing about a person’s ancestral heritage is black and white, and which parts of your heritage you decided to identify with is completely your choice. For example, my paternal line is almost entirely of Irish/British heritage. My ancestors have roots in those countries going back centuries. While I am certainly very proud of my father’s heritage, I am not nearly as immersed in it as, for example, my sister is. Between myself and my sister, we sort of cover the two sides of our ancestral heritage--she’s an artist whose work is heavily influenced by the folklore of Irish mythology. She also speaks and teaches Irish. Me, on the other hand--I’m much more involved on our maternal line, which is Austrian, Prussian, Lithuanian, and Polish. If you were to ask me what my heritage is, I would say I’m Prussian first, and Irish second--while my sister would probably say she’s Irish first and Prussian second. Neither one of us is wrong. It’s a personal choice.

 The East Prussian Coat of Arms. Source: Wikipedia. 

The East Prussian Coat of Arms. Source: Wikipedia. 

Why is this relevant to the title of this blog post (and its subject?) Because my own Prussian heritage is not black and white. Depending on how far back on my own family tree I wish to go changes the answer to the ‘what’s your heritage’ question. How you define heritage also changes the answer to the question. For example, my maternal grandfather’s family lived in a village called “Luki” just north of what is today Vistytis, Lithuania. When my great-great-grandfather Johann Andreas Heinrich Saleker immigrated to America in 1892, he was technically Russian, as Lithuania was ruled by the Russian Empire during that time. But his race was actually German seeing as his family originated in East Prussia before moving to Lithuania. And before that, in 1731, they came to East Prussia from Salzburg. He was a Russian subject, living in Lithuania, whose culture and way of life was Prussian, who spoke German, and who attended a German Evangelical Lutheran church. So, you see, depending on how you define heritage, and at what point in time you go back in your family tree, and how your family unit expresses its heritage all influence the personal decision you make when you answer ‘what is your heritage?’

So let’s get back to the broader subject: the Salzburg Protestants of 1731/32.

This is a subject that has taken up an entire chapter of my own family history book and one that has been studied and written upon for over 200 years. In the effort to save you an extremely lengthy blog post (which, surprise, I’ve done already) I’ll try to spark-notes it for you. Most of the information I present comes from Mack Walker’s The Salzburg Transaction which has proven to be a priceless aid in understanding the history of this diaspora.

 The infamous Archbishop von Firmian. Source: Wikipedia. 

The infamous Archbishop von Firmian. Source: Wikipedia. 

In 1731, Salzburg was an independent catholic church state ruled by the Prince-Archbishop  Leopold Anton von Firmian who was the subject of the Holy Roman Emperor. Of course, the Vatican wanted everyone in their domains to be Catholic but after Martin Luther’s reformation, many in Germany (and all over Europe) had begun to convert to Lutheran Protestantism including many of the rural citizens of Salzburg--many of who worked in the Salzburg salt mines.

Most of the Salzburg protestants were located in the region called the Pongau. It’s a picturesque part of Austria and one you probably recognize from the classic film The Sound of Music (particularly, the opening scene.) Under considerable pressure from the Vatican, Archbishop Firmian eventually issued an order on the 31st of October 1731 which ordered over 20,000 Salzburg protestants out of the area, leaving behind their land and possessions they couldn't take. Those who had children under the age of 12 were forced to leave them behind. They became known as the Salzburger Exulanten.

 King Friedrich Wilhelm welcomes the Salzburgers. Source: Wikipedia

King Friedrich Wilhelm welcomes the Salzburgers. Source: Wikipedia

Hundreds of miles up north in Prussian, King Friedrich Wilhlem I of Prussia had been monitoring the situation in Salzburg. His own kingdom had been decimated by the plague and his lands in the East (East Prussia German: Ostpreußen ‘oh-st-proy-sin’) were struggling economically. He soon realized there was an opportunity to populate his easternmost lands, and spark a better economy and so he formally invited those expelled from Salzburg to settle on his lands in East Prussia. And so a large majority of those 20,000 Salzburgers began the journey from the Pongau to Ostpreußen on foot through southern Germany up to the north into Ostpreußen. On their journey (through mostly catholic southern Germany) subjects in these land were told that those on the journey were officially Prussian subjects, under special protection of the King and anyone found interfering with them would have to answer to the King himself.

 Map of East Prussian districts. Gumbinnen is center right. Stallupönen bordered Lithuania. Source: Wikipedia. 

Map of East Prussian districts. Gumbinnen is center right. Stallupönen bordered Lithuania. Source: Wikipedia. 

Upon arriving in Ostpreußen, many of the Salzburgers who first arrived came to Ostpreußen’s capital Königsberg (Cone-negs-berg) while the majority of the rest settled in a district called Gumbinnen in Lithuanian-Minor. It was my own Saleker and Wiemert relatives who were amongst those in Gumbinnen, eventually settling around the areas of Stallupönen and then moved to areas within Lithuania (which was for a short time part of New East Prussia.)

Over the years, the Salzburger’s helped to build many Evangelical Lutheran Churches throughout Ostpreußen and Lithuania and even into areas of Westpreußen (West Prussia.) Even in areas of Lithuania, the Salzburger descendants continued to practice their Lutheran faith, learned to speak and write German, and identified themselves proudly as Salzburg descendants. Though as the years went on, many (especially those like my own family who moved to the United States) had forgotten about their Salzburger roots and their ancestor’s story was lost to time.

So how do you determine if your own Prussian family was amongst those from Salzburg? Surprisingly, it’s fairly easy to find that out--there are quite a few resources available online you can use.

Assuming you’ve already discovered your roots in East Prussia, West Prussia, or Lithuania, you then have to check the Gollub lists of East Prussian surnames to see if the name you’re looking for is amongst them.  The Salzburger Verein e.V.  was created in 1911 to bring Salzburger descendants together to share research, information, and stories. The association accepts members from all over the world, and as a part of your membership, you’re given access to endless files the association has collected over the years about different surnames and the family members.

 Entry from Gollub's Stammbuch for my family's own surname Salecker. 

Entry from Gollub's Stammbuch for my family's own surname Salecker. 

You don’t have to be a member to search Gollub’s list of surnames. The Verein has created a web page where all of the surnames in Gollub’s book have been transcribed and posted online for free here. If your ancestors came from East Prussia and their surname is listed on that page, there is a good chance that your own ancestors were Salzburger’s, too. Doing further research to find your ancestor who came from Salzburg may be more difficult, but there is a wonderful community of researchers and family historians associated with the Salzburger Verein that will be happy to help.

By the way, I wrote a blogpost on how to read Gollub's book entries here. 

For me, I lump my Austrian roots into my own Prussian heritage identity--and when pressed further by someone who is extra curious, I’ll explain my Austrian heritage as well. For me, my connection to my ancestors is uniquely Prussian--and one I’m immensely proud of. Expelled from their homeland in 1731/32 and again in 1945, my Salzburger roots are woven into my family’s story, and define a generation of my ancestors who survived unimaginable sacrifices. Their story is Austrian, Prussian, Lithuanian, and absolutely American, proving my point that one’s heritage is exactly that--one’s own.