“English, Irish, French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, German.”
That was the mix of ethnicities that I could rattle off at a mile-a-minute whenever someone asked my heritage.
“And possibly some Cherokee and Mexican.” We added that later after learning that my mom’s side of the family might have included Native Americans, and my dad’s relatives lived in Mexico for a short while.
But we’ve never known specifics, percentages, or if any of what we’d been told about our family was true.
Take, for example, the story about how we got our last name. My dad’s parents told him that way back when, our German relatives were causing a ruckus in the tiny town of Bad Schwartau, all caught up in ‘bad things’ (What were these bad things? Gambling? Prostitution? Thieving?). The good people of Bad Schwartau told our relatives to get the heck out of town, they didn’t want such terrible people living in their city. Our relatives were pissed off, rightly so; they were kicked out of their home. So they said, “Fine! We’ll leave your stupid town! But we’re taking your name!”
I doubt very much that this story is based on any sort of fact, and even though it’s fun family lore, it doesn’t tell me anything about my ancestry or where I come from.
Where do we come from?
Turns out, not the places we originally thought. I’ve gotten DNA tests from FamilyTreeDNA and 23andMe, and though their results differ, it turns out I have some Scandinavian in me! (How much, though, is up for debate.)
With one claiming 48% Scandinavian and the other claiming 5.8%, something seems off. It appears I’m mostly British, (but that southern European influence is interesting and ties into where I think my great-grandmother came from).
How many are there?
My whole life, I’ve loved my unique last name. No one could pronounce it and the only people I’d ever known to share it were my immediate family members and the few people on my dad’s side of the family, namely his two half-sisters. These were the only Schwartaus I knew.
But several years ago, I met a Laura Schwartau through a Bad Schwartau Facebook group and discovered that there was a whole clan of Schwartaus living in Minnesota, and not only that but they know a ton about their family history and have regular family reunions.
I took up Laura’s offer to attend one of the reunions and headed up to Minnesota to spend a weekend with a bunch of strangers.
Luckily, Laura and I have a lot in common so hanging out with her was just like hanging out with any of my friends. We talked cats, musicals (Hamilton!), stress, nerdy hobbies, and Harry Potter over tiki drinks, while riding the train and exploring the Twin Cities.
As much fun as we had exploring the Twin Cities, I am most grateful for getting to meet the Minnesotan Schwartau clan and being welcomed to their family reunion. Tons of food, old photos, family stories, and a fashion show of the clothes worn by Laura Schwartau (whose family hosted this particular reunion).
This photo shows Carsten Schwartau and his many children, whose grandchildren and great grandchildren attended the reunion.
After studying their very detailed family tree, I’m certain we are not related through Carsten, but Carsten did have a brother, Adolph, whose family I need to learn more about. If we’re not tied to Adolph, then any connection must go back further.
And this family’s research goes way, WAY back. They have been able to trace their lineage back to a guy called Urbanus Rhegius, a Protestant Reformer back in the early 1500s!
We haven’t traced ours back quite that far yet… in fact, our tree is stuck on Hermann’s father because there are spelling and year discrepancies in the records I’m finding and I don’t know if Herman and Hermann, or Nicolas and Niklaus are the same person or not.
The most exciting recent discovery for me was learning my grandfather had two middle names, something my dad didn’t even know.
William Hermann Carlos Schwartau.
The son of Fernando Schwartau and Leonora Ronci.
Fernando is the son of Herman and was born in Mexico.
How did Herman end up in Mexico, marrying a Sofia Balderas?
We have a ton of old photos, from the early 1900s, of Fernando and Co. in Mexico. The back of that photo says, “Trip to Pachuca with Hereflich’s family, June 1915.” Pachuca is a city outside of Mexico City, which is where Ancestry.com has as Fernando’s birthplace. There are also quite a few photos of “Artilleros Federales” and men in Navy uniforms, so my next bit of research will be looking into whether or not Herman was in the navy. Perhaps that’s how he ended up in Mexico.
Neither of my DNA tests showed any Mexican heritage, but they both pulled up southern European heritage, so I’m guessing that my great-great-grandmother Sofia Balderas is Spanish, not Mexican.
(A) November 26, 2014: Thanksgiving at the American Hospital. I don’t know who worked there or why the dinner was at the Hospital, but the man second from the left is F. Schwartau
(B) The back of this photo is in German and very tight script that I can’t read. It might not contain any family members but I love the mens’ mustaches.
(C) My grandfather, William, as a kid.
(D) His passport photo
(E) My dad, William Lowson Schwartau, as a baby.
(F) Fernando and Leonora
(G) The back of my grandfather’s baby picture which reveals his full name, something my dad didn’t even know: William Hermann Carlos Schwartau
So what makes a Schwartau?
I’m still in the process of figuring that out.
There’s more research to be done, more DNA tests for my family members to do, more photos to go through, more reunions to attend. I want to learn as much as I can about my family history so I have more than just some uncertain story to pass down to future offspring. Not just my dad’s side, but also about my mom’s side since I’m half Poston, and then about my husband’s ancestry. We need to figure out where we come from, what makes me a Schwartau, what makes him a Bonnema, and together, what makes us Schwannema.
How far back can you trace your family roots? Which DNA testing services have you used? What stories exist in your family lore? When was the last reunion