Let me start by saying that I am not French. A few of my ancestors were once Parisian, oh, about 400 or 500 years ago, but that DNA has long ago been driven out. When I look at myself I see a combination of stubborn, freckled Scottish with strong Slovak cheeks and a steady German hairline.
One of those steady German bloodlines comes from a rare place that is actually in French hands today – the Alsace-Lorraine region. It’s easy to see, when looking at images of my Alsace ancestors, how the Alsatian people, with their distinct dialect and culture, straddled the line between what we consider stereotypical German and French people. My third great-grandmother must have been a beauty in her youth. Sophia Dambach was dark-haired with large, pale eyes, a strong jaw, and a distinctive nose. Sometimes I think she looks French, sometimes Rhinish, and sometimes I wonder if she’s the source of my grandmother’s mysterious trace of Ashkenazi Jewish DNA – a mere two percent. But whatever secrets her blood held, she was Alsatian above all else.
Sophia was born in the village of Pfalzweyer, in the Vosges Mountains of the Alsace bossue region, near the Rhine border, on August 23, 1823. The Alsace-Lorraine region was constantly being fought over by France and other entities, from being a dowry for the Kingdom of Germany in 1299 to being sold to the Archduke of The Holy Roman Empire in 1469. While Alsace was being divided and cut up into different pieces to suit others, Pfalzweyer itself remained under French control from the mid-17th century onward. By the beginning of the 19th century, Alsace had survived the French Revolution and was experiencing a post-war baby boom, which Sophia and her six older siblings were all a part of.
But the surge in population created a strain on the economy. There were food and housing shortages, and they were even felt in tiny mountain towns like Pfalzweyer, which doubled in population from 1801, with 181 people, to 1821, when there were 321 residents. Compounding this was a decrease in the value of the grain harvest, which resulted in a high cost and poor quality of bread, and a cholera outbreak in 1832. Then there were the ridiculous laws set down by the government.
In 1827, under King Louis XVIII, there was a new forestry law enacted, making the gathering of wood, leaves, acorns, beechnuts or any other items from the forest floor forbidden. Given that the village was located in the mountains, where the topsoil was thin and rocky, the forest was an essential component of everyday life. The farmers were dependent on its wood for building their homes, the dead leaves were used for stable litter and then fertilizer for the fields, their pigs were fed with acorns, and they even made an oil out of the beechnuts they collected.
The mayor of Pfalzweyer recorded this explanation for the departure of his residents, listing those families that left for more “fertile soil.”
“All these individuals have left this village for it is located on top of the Vosges mountains, where the soil is so unproductive that it needs plenty of manure, and these people are forbidden to collect the dead leaves in the forest surrounding the village,” he wrote.
The Dambachs (pronounced Dam-baugh) were part of this exodus. Sophia’s parents Christian and Juliana, aged about 60 years, packed up their family in 1838 and set off for the port of Le Havre, an epicenter for emigration in the early 1800s. During this trip there is a curious note in the family history, passed down by one of the Dambach children, who were all young adults at the time. Sophia was the youngest at just 14. The family paused on their journey in Paris to “see the wild animals in the zoo.”
The zoo they might have seen was the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, one of the first public zoos in the world. It had been formed after the French Revolution, when the the Paris police department ordered that exotic animals being exhibited on Parisian street corners be confiscated and handed over to the Museum of Natural History. These were such creatures as polar bears, mandrills, agoutis, tigers, vultures, and eagles. There the professors gave them a new home, opening the doors of the Ménagerie in 1793 to the public. It was free for everyone from the beginning, and by the spring of 1838 when the Dambachs walked through it, the Paris zoo housed as many as 400 species of mammals and birds, making it the largest exotic animal collection in Europe. In fact, 1838 also happened to be the last year that the Ménagerie was considered the premier zoo in Europe. That was the year that Frédéric Cuvier, the head zookeeper at the Ménagerie since 1804, died. The Ménagerie still exists today, and while it will never again be what it was when the Dambachs visited it in the 1830s, a walk through the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, with its historical buildings, is like stepping back in time.
It is surprising that with their adult children and increasing age the Dambachs didn’t just settle in Paris, like many of their Alsatian brethren did. But they chose to leave, putting France and Europe behind them and pressing onward, across the Atlantic to America.
The Dambachs arrived in New York City on July 18, 1838 on a ship named the Alliance. The trip had taken 40 days and they were part of a group of 210 steerage passengers. Their eldest daughter Catherine, who was thirty-six at the time, had married a man named Johannes Adam Zehner in France, so she arrived with him and their children separately, traveling through the Baltimore port. The family was destined for Ohio, the records show, but they stopped in Western Pennsylvania instead, settling to farm in what is now Marion township in Beaver county. In the small, German-Lutheran community where they had settled, Sophia met a neighbor named Philip Gelbach, a Bavarian who had also immigrated with his family through the port of Le Havre in 1832. They married in Butler, Pennsylvania in 1846, and had seven children together. The wedding blanket that was woven for her by a master weaver – emblazoned with her name and wedding date – hangs in a museum in Pennsylvania today. Sophia lived to see a new century, dying at the age of 81 on February 22, 1907.
She saw much in her life – starting in the Vosges mountains, visiting the famed Ménagerie in Paris, crossing an ocean, traveling through 1830s New York City and trekking across Pennsylvania to pioneer a new land. Her family withstood the Civil War and discovered “black gold” in the oil fields of Butler County, setting themselves up as gentleman farmers and wealthy bankers by the turn of the century. How amazing to be able to see such a transformation of your family’s fortune in just a generation.
One day I hope to walk the paths of the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in the footsteps of Sophia.