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  • Hessian Descendants

    Kenneth S. Jones

    Published Date : August 1986
     In New England genealogy there has long been a need for more thorough ethnic research.  Pennsylvania scholars, however, have emphasized over the years the importance of the German element in American history.  By the time of the American Revolution about 250,000 German immigrants had settled in the New World as farmers, tradesmen, artisans, clergymen, and teachers.  Over three centuries, starting in 1683, more than seven million German-speaking Europeans came to America.  The important part played by German soldiers during and after the American Revolution has not been sufficiently recognized.  Some Germans fought for the British and others in the Continental Army.  For historians the word Hessian is a generic term describing all German auxiliary troops fighting for England during the Revolutionary War.  The King of England hired 30,000 Hessian auxiliary troops to support his army. Many eventually deserted and joined the side of the Colonists.  Over 6,000 of them remained behind in our young republic to build new lives for themselves as farmers and craftsmen.

    The Johannes Schwalm Historical Association was originally started in 1974 by a handful of Hessian descendants who were separately researching a common ancestor.  Combining efforts in 1976 they published Johannes Schwalm the Hessian for the Bicentennial.  A feature article on this book in the New York Times brought international acclaim and recognition of a need for further Hessian-American research.  Thus developed a non-profit association dedicated to helping living descendants register and document their Hessian ancestors.

    About three years ago an author’s query in the New York Times asking for names of living descendants brought over 100 replies asking for guidance in Hessian genealogical research.  More recently author’s queries were placed in a few select genealogical columns.  Hundreds of replies were received from all parts of the United States, Canada, and some foreign countries.  Interest was also generated when distant genealogical societies ran unsolicited queries and directed answers to our association.  This approach brought to light military records of ancestors who eventually became American citizens.

    The association has access to Hessian military records in Germany as well.  The majority of descendants do their own research and by using both American and German records are usually able to document their ancestors.  Volunteer researchers on the Association’s staff are not genealogists but are dedicated to preserving the Hessian heritage and can offer extra help to association members.  In a two-year period over 300 living descendants registered proof of their Hessian ancestry, and over 200 more are in process.

    Descendants are everywhere. New England, Canada, and Pennsylvania were the predominant starting points for Hessian soldiers to become assimilated into American life.  Early town and county histories often mention Hessians as new settlers.  After the battles of Trenton, Bennington, and Saratoga, for example, Hessian prisoners, due to lack of adequate living quarters, were encouraged to work for local residents. Inadequate supervision plus the guiles of local lassies persuaded many to join the American forces or become a part of the welcoming citizenry.

    In only a decade the association has published many important discoveries.  Two have appeared recently. One, included in the 1985 Journal, is a copy of the official list of 1,000 Hessians captured at Trenton in December 1776.  This list, the original of which is kept in the Marburg Archives in Germany, had not previously been published in the United States.  Researchers now have at their fingertips the name, rank, and destination of these prisoners, many of whom never went back to Germany and have descendants living here today.

    Also of interest is a monograph documenting the story of a Hessian helmet captured at Trenton by Captain Oliver Pond of Wrentham, Massachusetts.  This helmet is one of only two intact Hessian helmets now in existence.  Bequeathed to the Worcester Historical Society (now Museum) in 1930 by one of Captain Pond’s descendants and appraised for estate purposes at $10.00, it was bought by the Smithsonian Institution in 1978 for $10,000.  A monograph co-authored by this writer and distributed by the association documents the helmet and the genealogical history of Captain Pond.  Captain Oliver Pond’s Hessian Fusiliercap tells how Captain Pond, a minuteman at Lexington, later became a general in the Massachusetts militia, headed a company in Shays’ Rebellion, and was the progenitor of a large group of Massachusetts citizens living today.

    Starting with the bicentennial Schwalm book, the association has published an annual Journal and special monographs which include case histories, translated Hessian diaries, bits of local Hessian history, hard-to-find primary manuscript material, Hessian cemetery records, and a wide variety of newly discovered Hessian memorabilia.  Together these publications constitute a valuable Hessian library; some issues have become collectors’ items.  Each year there is a large picnic meeting at Valley View, Pennsylvania, where Hessian descendants can meet and talk with qualified researchers, writers, and experts on Hessian history.

    The 1985 Journal and the 1986 monograph are available from the Johannes Schwalm Historical Association, P.O. Box 99, Pennsauken, New Jersey 08110.  The Journal is priced at $8.50 per year and the monograph at $5.50, both postpaid.  Membership in the association is $15.00 per year and includes the Journal.

    By Kenneth S. Jones
    Worcester, Massachusetts

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