The John Schmaltz family of Emmons County: from Ukrainian Steppes to Dakota Prairies

Schmaltz, Eric. "The John Schmaltz family of Emmons County: from Ukrainian Steppes to Dakota Prairies." Emmons County Record, 7 August 2008, 10.

(Editor's Note: This is part five of Eric Schmaltz's history of the John Schmaltz family.)

Early Schmaltzes from Kapsweyer and Steinfeld

At least dating back to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Roman Catholic Schmaltzes heralded from the villages of Kapsweyer and Steinfeld in the Bergzabern District in the State of Rhineland-Palatinate. They also spoke a local German dialect called Rhenish (or Rhine) Franconian, which to outsiders might sound coarse, uneducated and rather direct, but it also contains many colorful and insightful expressions and proverbs. At times the dialect is rather difficult to understand, especially for those more familiar with standard German, as I discovered during my travels there.

The family name is distinctly German in origin. Until the family’s arrival in North America in the 1890s, however, the surname was spelled “Schmalz,” without the “t.” In German, the “z” has a “ts” sound, but in English the “tz” better captures this pronunciation. One prominent variation of the name includes “Schmals.” For generations, Central and East European Jewish families adopted variations of German names, including “Schmaltz,” a Jewish name often found in New York, but that does not necessarily make them relatives. People commonly assume today that the surname comes from the musical term “schmaltz,” meaning “very emotional” and “sentimental.” The word’s true meaning, however, is “goose fat,” “chicken fat,” “butter,” “grease,” “lard,” and the like—indeed, farm goods or products often associated with familiar trades of the time. This local cuisine also appeared in Alsace-Lorraine as a kosher food among Jews during the Middle Ages. Kosher foods are those that conform to or are prepared according to Jewish dietary laws.

There are two different versions of the clan’s earliest known common ancestor. In either case, all of the Schmalzes came from the same communities and were indeed related. Such are the pitfalls of investigating the details of old local church records.

The first account cites as its earliest common ancestor Johann Caspar Schmalz, the first in a long line of John Schmaltzes. He was born around 1690 in the village of Kapsweyer. Kapsweyer no longer exists, unlike the neighboring community of Steinfeld, which literally lies on the French-German border. During this period, other families like the Flick, Mage, Matz, Roehrich and Starck (Stark) married into the Schmalzes.

Johann Caspar’s second wife Maria Margaretha (Mage) Schmalz gave birth to a son, Nikolaus, born in 1737 in the nearby small German community of Steinfeld. According to this version of the family story, Nikolaus’ son, Josef, was born in 1780 in Kapsweyer. Josef’s mother was Maria Margaretha (Starck) Schmalz of Kapsweyer, born in 1735. Josef proved to be the pivotal figure, because he decided that his young family would make the long journey to Russia during the first part of 1808.

Eric Schmaltz. The author is immigrant Johann Schmalz’s great-grandson.  Born in Minot, North Dakota, in 1971, he is Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, where he teaches Modern European and World History.  He expresses his eternal gratitude to old issues of the Emmons County Record as well as various extended relatives by blood or marriage who have assisted him with family history research over the past two decades, in particular Bro. Placid Gross, Mrs. Mary Lynn Axtman, Mrs. Nicole (French) Bailey, Prof. Amy Deibert, and Prof. Michael M. Miller.

The second family account, however, reports that the earliest known forefather was Franz Michael Schmalz, born in 1725 in Kapsweyer. His son was Johann Georg, born in 1752 in the same village. According to the alternative version, Johann Georg’s son was Josef, born in 1780 in Kapsweyer, the same who migrated to Russia in 1808. The first family version has incorporated additional archival details, and thus it might be the more accurate of the two. After this point, though, both genealogical studies basically agree with each other. Josef married Marie-Ursula Maire, who was two years his junior. Unless a misspelling in the records, her surname is probably a variation of Maier, Mayer, Meyer or Meier, whose origins are Latin meaning “manager of an estate.”

It is important to emphasize that Josef and Ursula left for Russia with new hopes following the tumultuous era of the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the devastating European-wide Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). They responded to Tsar Alexander I’s manifesto, with all its promises, to settle in Russia, but the decision to travel such a distance under primitive conditions was a radical departure from long-held tradition and what was most familiar to them. In their estimate, the benefits of immigrating must have outweighed the risks.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller