Genetic genealogy has matched me with another 5th cousin, Byron, from Ohio. We are both descended from Christian Ritschhart (1738-1809) and his second, much younger, wife, Sophia Mitz (1780-1855).
It's always nice to confirm the paper trail through DNA, however this is yet another one of those important branches to me. The Ritschharts are the longest branch in my family tree, thanks to the efforts of Bettye Anderson Ritchhart. In the early 1990s, Bettye flew to Switzerland and, with the help of professional genealogists and family, traced back the family tree to 1503 and recorded many interesting details, such as the family relationship with Oberhofen Castle. It's good to know that my connection to the Ritschharts is a real one.
My earliest known ancestor is my 11th great grandfather, Melchior Ritschard, born 1503 in Hilterfingen, a small village of three hundred people, on the shores of Lake Thun (Thunersee), nestled within the highlands next to the Swiss Alps. Over the previous two centuries, Bern had gained control over the five valleys of the Bernese Oberland through purchase and conquest. Bern had also entered into a web of treaties with neighboring cities and cantons to form the Swiss Confederation (Alte Eidenossenschaft)
In 1527, 24 year old Melchior married Margarethe, a 20 year old woman from his village. Melchior and Margarethe were born Catholic and likely married under the auspices of the Catholic Church. Not being noble, Melchior and Margarethe probably chose each other, rather than their families arranging their marriage for political or inheritance purposes.
After the couple agreed to marry, the family would have made formal arrangements regarding dowry and inheritance, culminating in a engagement ceremony, where contracts were signed. Following the ceremony, the family registered the marriage with the civil authorities and posted notices of the marriage on the church doors for three days. During this period, anyone could file an objection to the marriage.
Medieval Swiss weddings were often rowdy affairs. The day began with the bride and groom partaking in “morning soup” at the home of bride, which often left them both tipsy. They then strolled to the church, followed by family, friends, and well-wishers, to exchange vows in front of the doors. In the middle ages, blue was the colour of purity so they may have both worn a blue sash or ribbon.
After the vows, the single men of the village might affably rough up the groom before the two newlyweds followed a flower-strewn path back to the bride’s family home, where they would spend the night and consummate the marriage. The next day would be filled with rowdy celebrations and drinking.
While Melchior and Margarethe likely had several children, I so far only know of one: a boy born in 1539, whom they also named Melchior.
This was a tumultuous period in the Swiss Confederation. The Protestant Reformation sparked uprisings in most cantons and even set cantons at war with each other. Bern secularized the church in 1528, taking control of monasteries and schools. This sparked an uprising across the Bernese Oberland, which lasted for several years.
This was also the age of witch trials in the Swiss Confederation, which started in the mid-fifteenth century and lasted more than two hundred years. Tens-of-thousands of people were put on trial, often by ordeal, with as many as five thousand people (three-quarters were women) burned, beheaded, drowned, and hanged.
Despite the many wars that enflamed Europe at this time and the religious upheaval, the Swiss Confederation was considered a bastion of stability. The Swiss army was very effective and Swiss mercenaries were highly valued and employed across Europe. In addition to the difficulty, the major nations knew that the conquest of the Swiss Confederation would not be tolerated by other larger powers and any attempt would cascade into a larger conflict.
There is no evidence that our ancestors fell victim to war or faced trial for witchcraft, but these events would have loomed large in their lives.
In 1560, Melchior II married Anna Staeli in Hilterfingen. Anna was the same age as Melchior, born in 1539. Three years later, in 1563, Anna gave birth to their son, Melchior III. Melchior was christened the day after Christmas, on December 26, 1563. Like his family for generations, Melchior lived his whole life in Hilterfingen, marrying Barbara Rupp (b. 1571) on February 13, 1592. Together they had several children, the youngest of whom was Michel (b.1605).
Very close to Hilterfingen, on the shores of Lake Thun, was Oberhofen Castle (Schloss Oberhofen am Thunersee). Built in the 13th century, Oberhofen Castle had had many owners. The Hapsburg dynasty owned the castle in the 14th century but, after they were driven out of the Bernese Oberland, the castle fell under the control of the Scharnachthals, a powerful Bern dynasty. In 1590, the last Scharnachthal, Niklaus III, died without issue and the castle passed to his nephews, the von Erlach family.
This transition was beneficial for the Ritschards, as the von Erlachs raised Melchior to the position of bailiff for Oberhofen Castle. Traditionally, bailiffs were outsiders to region so this appointment was unusual. As bailiff, Melchior served as the von Erlach’s representative and would have overseen the lands and buildings of the castle, collected rents and kept the books.
At least 3 Ritschards served as castle bailiff: Melchior (mentioned above), Melcher b. 1584, and Michel (1605-1658), my 8th great grandfather. It was during a period of state ownership of Oberhoffen that Michel (b. 1605) was recorded by the Bern archives as being “Klosterammann”, a Cloister Bailiff.
In 1652 the state took over the castle and used it as a seat for its District governor until 1798. It was then that a French invasion put an end to the Republic of Bern and the entire Alte Eidenossenschaft.
My ancestor Ritschards continued to live in the village of Oberhoffen until 1750, when Christian Ritschhart (1709-1790), the great-grandson of Michel and my 5th great grandfather, took his family, including his son, my 4th great grandfather, Christian (1739-1809), and left Switzerland on a perilous journey to America, on which he lost his fortune but survived to spread the family name to a whole new continent.
I've confirmed many branches of my family tree by finding a genetic cousin with whom I could find a common ancestor. The Simpsons, Berlinguets, Coumbs, Hethcots, Dakus, Shillitos, Woods, Nicholsons, Fergusons, Harpers, and Nortons have all been confirmed through the wonderful technology of DNA relative matching..
While there are still many branches to confirm, one family in particular has given me worry. The descendants of Joseph Henry Davis, who emigrated from Wexford, Ireland to Hastings County, Ontario are a large family, fond of genealogy and big family reunions, yet I had not found a single genetic match among them. I knew that my great grandfather, Charlie Davis, had passed down his Berlinguet DNA to me but where was my Davis DNA?
Davis is a patronymic, meaning son of David. Several hundred years ago, when people in Wales and England were adopting surnames, many unrelated families chose the Davis surname. These families then went on to do very well, especially those that emigrated to the Americas. They did so well that Davis is now the 6th most common surname in the United States.
Consequently, every time I pursued a genetic match with someone who said they had the Davis surname in their family tree, I quickly discovered that their Davis's were completely unrelated to my Davis family. Sigh.
However, finally, I've found someone with the right sort of Davis in her family tree. Among my autosomal matches on the Family Tree DNA site, I discovered a woman named Shari, who said that she had the Davis surname in her ancestry. After emailing her, I discovered that her great grandmother was Debbie Ann Davis from Maynooth in Hastings County, Ontario. Happily, Debbie Ann is also in my family tree as the first cousin to Charlie Davis.
Shari and I are 4th cousins. Our most recent common ancestors are Joseph Henry Davis and Sarah Bolton, the progenitors of the prodigious Hasting's Davis clan.
My next challenge is to confirm my great-grandmother Emily Campbell's ancestry through DNA. Alas, like the Davis surname, Campbells are everywhere. This may take a while.
In feudal times, a hundred may have been a unit of land capable of fielding a hundred men-at-arms. When Great Britain first settled Delaware, a hundred was simply a subdivision of a county, much like a township. My earliest Simpson ancestor, John Simpson Sr., born about 1729, farmed in one of the early Delaware hundreds, the Mispillion Hundred of Kent County.
When John Sr. died about 1775, he left land for two of his sons, John Jr., my ancestor, and Robert Simpson. I can find both these men, farming close to each other, on the 1800 U.S. census. However, that census has another Simpson, named Thomas, farming in the Mispillion Hundred, right next door to John Jr. Who was this Simpson?
Some research on Ancestry.com quickly showed that Thomas Simpson was the son of Moses. On many Ancestry.com family trees, people have placed Moses as the brother of John Sr. and the son of William Simpson. This would make some sense with their sons farming right next to each other. John Jr. and Thomas inherited their farms from John Sr. and Moses, who would have also would have farmed right next to each other. It isn't much of a leap to imagine that John Sr. and Moses both inherited their farms from a common father.
However, there was no paper record that these two men were related. Worse, after reading the will of William Simpson, born about 1708, I found that he had left land and goods to Moses, who was also the executor of his will, and to three of his daughters, but did not even mention John.
So were John and Moses related? There was only one way to know for sure. I found a descendant of Moses, Lee Simpson, who was interested in genealogy and I asked him to take a Y-DNA test. Since Y-DNA does not recombine each generation, only mutating very slowly over centuries, Lee and I should have mostly identical Y-DNA.
And we do. John Sr. and Moses were certainly related. Given the lack of any other Simpsons in the area, it is probable that they were brothers. It turns out that these unsourced trees on Ancestry.com were right after all.