[Note: We are indebted to Wittgenstein historian Gustav Schneider of Bad Laasphe for most of the information presented here and in the following sections on Abraham of Balde and his descendants in Wittgenstein.]
The majority of the Dreisbach/Treisbach place-names in Germany are concentrated in a relatively small area somewhat east of the Rhine River where the federal states of Hessen (Hesse), Nordrhein-Westfalen (North Rhine Westphalia) and Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland Palatinate) meet. Places called Dreisbach are for the most part hamlets and villages.
Today a number of persons bearing the family name Dreisbach are still found in this part of west-central Germany, particularly in the district of Wittgenstein. As for the Dreisbachs who emigrated to the New World in the 18th century, some were asked upon arrival to state their place of origin. In the few cases where this was recorded in the official documents, the only place of origin which Dreisbach immigrants cited was Wittgenstein. This does not exclude the possibility, of course, that certain Dreisbach immigrants may have come from other German-speaking regions.
The district adjoining Wittgenstein to the west, Siegerland, was also home to Dreisbachs early on. Here, up to about 1600, the name was often written "Dreispe", "Dreispecher" and "Dreispach." This form of the name occasionally occurs in the 18th century ships' lists. Later the name was generally spelled "Dreisbach". Just south of Wittgenstein and Siegerland, and still in the same geographical area, lie the towns of Dillenburg and Schönbach. Dreisbachs are known to have lived here from at least the 17th century onward. There is another, smaller, concentration of Dreisbachs in southern Hesse, centering around the town of Flörsheim, which is situated between Wiesbaden and Frankfurt. Here Dreisbachs have resided since the 1500s. No record has yet been found showing Dreisbach emigration from this area to North America.
What is this Wittgenstein which is not found on most modern maps and which is the place of origin of so many American Dreisbachs? On a relatively detailled map of Germany, find Cologne (Köln) on the Rhine River. Look eastward until you find the city of Siegen, principal town of the Siegerland district. A bit farther east still is the town of Laasphe, now known as Bad Laasphe. North of Bad Laasphe is Bad Berleberg. You have now located the two main towns of Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein, once an Imperial County ruled by the Counts of Sayn-Wittgenstein, was always somewhat out-of-the-way. It had no large cities, its agriculture was marginal and there were no raw materials to speak of, only endless stands of beech and oak covering the steep slopes of its hills. The amount of land that could be farmed has always been limited. The valleys which lie between the wooded slopes are not broad, and even today forest covers 60% of Wittgenstein. Villagers combined a little farming, some pasturing and woodcutting and perhaps a trade. Life in Wittgenstein was literally life at the edge of the forest. It was a countryside that could not possibly absorb large increases of population.
The neighboring principality of Nassau-Siegen (today's Siegerland) now forms one administrative district together with Wittgenstein: Kreis Siegen-Wittgenstein. In the 18th century Siegerland had iron mines and forges. Forges need high-quality fuel to smelt the ore, and it was Wittgenstein that provided the fuel in the form of charcoal. There were many charcoal burners' huts in the forests of Wittgenstein, and the charcoal they produced was transported westward, overland to the forges of Siegen (in the 18th century up to 6000 wagon loads per year.) By decree of the Count, some forges were established in Wittgenstein too, including one in the village of Balde where several lines of Dreisbach emigrants originated. However, most attempts at implanting industry into Wittgenstein failed.
By the end of the eighteenth century many of the hills were totally denuded. These naked hills could not be farmed, but they could be quarried for slate. Such were the hills around Raumland,where Martin Dreisbach was born. Today slate has lost its economic importance, but many Wittgenstein houses are still sheathed in slate shingles arranged in decorative patterns. Thus Wittgenstein has several traditional types of houses, the half-timbered houses with their white plaster and dark beams, the slate-covered ones and various combinations of the two.
In 1603 the county was divided between two brothers of the house Sayn-Wittgenstein. The seat of the southern half remained at the centuries-old Castle Wittgenstein near Laasphe. The northern half was ruled from Castle Berleburgin the town of that name. In 1801 the Counts were elevated to the rank of Prince. (Today Castle Wittgenstein is a boarding school, and the head of the southern line, Prince Bernhart of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Hohenstein, lives in a smaller castle in Schwarzenau. Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein, head of the northern line, resides at Castle Berleberg. He is married to Princess Benedikte, sister of the Queen of Denmark.)
At the time when families began to emigrate to North America, Wittgenstein was still a feudal state. Martin Dreisbach of Raumland and his forebears in Balde were subjects of the northern counts. The parents and grandparents of Simon Dreisbach lived in villages ruled by the southern Counts. The Counts had enormous power over the personal and economic circumstances of their subjects. Most villagers did not own sufficient land to earn a living, and therefore they leased extra land for eight-year periods from the Count and/or from the parish. Taxes and revenues were levied not only on the land owned by the villagers, but also on their cattle, poultry and other livestock. They had to pay firewood fees and charges for the Count's messengers, watchmen and threshers. One tenth of their grain, hay, sheep and calves went to the Count. Moreover they had to perform certain services involving hunting for the Count, transporting wood for him and working for set periods on the Count's farms. Taken separately, these obligations to the Count were not excessively burdensome, but when put together they were a crushing weight on the villagers of Wittgenstein, who had to live from their marginal agriculture and auxiliary trades. Even emigration was linked to a fee which had to be paid to obtain official permission to leave. Several Dreisbachs, including Simon, are recorded as having left without permission!
For more information on Simon Dreisbach leaving Wittgenstein, see all issues of the DERR, available on this site.
View of Laasphe and Laasphe Castle
1. Balde, home of the earliest known ancestors of emigrants to the New World.
2. Feudingen, St. Martin's Church: records of Simon Dreisbach, his wife and their forebears.
3. Raumland: birthplace of emigrant Martin and George Dreisbach. St. Martin's Church: records of the Dreisbachs of Balde, Raumland and Berghausen
4. Amtshausen: birthplace of Daniel Dreisbach (Threisbach), grandfather of Simon Dreisbach.
5. Steinbach: birthplace of Georg Wilhelm Dreisbach (Threisbach), father of Simon Dreisbach
6. Oberndorf: birthplace of Simon Dreisbach.
7. Holzhausen, birthplace of Maria Katharina Keller, wife of Simon Dreisbach.
8. Berghausen: location of the "New Mill" operated by the Dreisbach ancestors of 19th century immigrants George Heinrich and Christian "Oscar" Dreisbach.
Krombach in Siegerland: birthplace of Anna Eva Hoffman, wife of Martin Dreisbach.