Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles

Origins of the German Settlers in Schwartz and Ladysmith

Volume 14, page 5

Gunda Lambton

Inhabitants of the Gatineau Valley can trace their place of origin if family history has been carefully preserved, through records in parish churches, or at the National Archives of Canada. It is unusual to be able to determine an exact place of origin through research into language or dialect alone. However, if a community has remained fairly isolated and, in addition, if the language has been carefully preserved in the home, church and school, sometimes such origins are indeed possible to trace.

All these prerequisites were met in a couple of small communities: Schwartz lies about fifteen miles west of Low, and Ladysmith is five miles to the southwest of Schwartz. The original inhabitants of the latter town once planned to name it Danzig, but until March 1st, 1902, the village was known as Upper Thorne Centre. During the Boer War, it was named Ladysmith.

The focal point of Ladysmith is the beautiful stone church of St. John (anglicized from St. Johannes), which overlooks the village from a splendid situation on a hill. On old gravestones in the carefully kept churchyard — stones with names like "Bretzlaff", “Schwartz” or “Steinke” — you can read the words of old German hymns, such as:

Es ist bestimmt in Gottes Rat
Dass man vom Liebsten das man hat
Muss scheiden1

The family names on gravestones in the churchyard of Zion Church in Schwartz do not differ greatly from those at St. John's. The village was named after one of the first settlers in the area, Julius Schwartz who immigrated in 1862. Three other families settled in the vicinity that year: Wilhelm Rose, Fritz Schone (a name often distorted into Shane) and Johanne Vhor. A year earlier, in 1861, the first German families had arrived in Thorne township: Ferdinand and Daniel Steinke (sometimes spelled Stanky) and Friedrich Wiegandt.

I first heard about these communities from a now-retired official of the Quebec Forestry Department who came to our farm south of Low. He told me of the hearty welcome he always received in Ladysmith, and of the huge wholesome meals which were an indispensable part of the warm hospitality there. When I heard that the settlers were from the Danzig area {now Gdansk in Poland) where my own ancestors, Scottish Davisons form Aberdeen, had settled in the seventeenth century, I was particularly interested.

It was fairly easy to move from the great, free Hansa towns like Danzig, but it was different for the agricultural tenants. Up to the middle of the nineteenth century it was almost impossible for any tenant on agricultural land to leave without the express permission of his feudal landlord, which was usually denied. Between 1860 and 1870 Prussia was involved in several wars, first with Denmark and then with France. Once young men were in military service it was easier to escape feudal laws. Bismark, whose military draft some of the young emigrants were trying to escape, was responsible for a number of reforms in Prussia, one of which was the greater freedom of agricultural tenants.

Either through this freedom in the latter half of the 19th century, or because once they were in military service it was easier to move on to greener pastures, emigration to Canada suddenly became easier. Some of the men who settled in Thorne township are said to have come directly from the siege of Paris in 1870. In the 1840s, the township was named after a village near Leeds, England. Strangely enough, however, there is a town named Thorn in West Prussia (now Poland) not far from the area from which most of the German families who came to Thorne township in Quebec emigrated.

This is not the only German settlement in the Ottawa Valley or in the province. Earlier settlers remained from the German regiments used extensively by the British during the American War of Independence (1776-83). Others were brought to sparsely-populated areas like Renfrew County by the Canadian Government2, and some settled in Labelle County, (formerly part of Ottawa County) between the Gatineau and Lievre Rivers. I have heard people in Gatineau communities say that after the German settlers in Labelle were threatened by the dam for the Whitefish Lake reservoir, that they moved to the Ladysmith area but there is no evidence for this, since the German population in Thorne township has declined steadily since 1921.

The decline started between the 1901 and 1911 census, but proportionally was less rapid than the general decline in population throughout Pontiac County which was once more densely settled than today3. In 1881 the number of German immigrants to Thorne township reached 225, (445 for all of Pontiac County); in 1971 the number of Germans in the township was 125, whereas in Pontiac the figure rose to 655. The nucleus from West Prussia had spread, but there were also new immigrants from Austria and other parts of Germany. Comparatively few came after World War II, when larger numbers than ever before left the eastern part of Prussia, (the former regions of West and East Prussia), which later became part of Poland.

The history of the church that helped to preserve the language of the original immigrants goes back to about 1870, when the German Lutherans of Thorne township joined the Anglicans of the area in an attempt to build a church to accommodate both denominations. Around the same time a small school was started where German children were prepared for confirmation. However, most of the German language instruction must still have come from the home, or else the original dialect would not have been preserved as much as it has been. By 1875, differences between Lutherans and Anglicans were too pronounced to continue the original effort of a joint church. The Lutheran Synod of Canada promised to send a German-speaking minister and the parish was named St. John’s (St. Johannes‘) Lutheran congregation. The part of the construction contributed by the Anglicans was bought to complete the new church of St. John's. This was dedicated in 1878 and a parsonage built where a German-speaking minister resided from 1879.4 The little school stood just beside this parsonage; older residents of Ladysmith remember going to it three times a week before confirmation. Some children may have gone more often, for a few old inhabitants of the area seem to have had their entire schooling in German. Throughout this region in the 19th century, schools were closely connected with churches and were maintained by subscription.

Lutheran parsonage in Ladysmith
The first Lutheran parsonage in Ladysmith. Standing in front are Pastor Hamm and his two youngest sons. Centennial Committee, Township of Thorne.

The small Lutheran school had the reputation of being very strict. If the minister did most of the teaching, he had a full schedule, for the resident minister at Ladysmith also served the second Lutheran church located five miles away in Schwartz. This church was named Zion and was built in the early 1900s.

The present St John's Lutheran Church in Ladysmith was constructed between 1896 and 1899. In "The History of the Founding and Continuation of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, Thorne Centre Quebec, 1912" the rapid succession of ministers in the two parishes is blamed, by one incumbent at least, on the “wickedness and worldliness of the people”. But it is more likely that the isolation of the small parishes (and the demands made by them} made Thorne township a place where a young minister fresh from the seminary might start his career before moving to a larger, more concentrated and perhaps less demanding congregation. Not all ministers can have come from the home area of the immigrants. Their influence maintained the German language in general, but lay members of the congregation must have done a considerable part of the teaching to keep the original dialect so well preserved. It became increasingly difficult to find a German-speaking minister and in the late 1950s church services were even discontinued. As soon as an English-speaking Lutheran minister began to serve the two congregations, German survived only in the home, on tombstones or in Christmas hymns. The third generation that settled on the land in Thorne township was the last for whom German was the mother tongue; their children no longer have the same command of the language.

In 1976, Dr. Werner Bausenhart of the University of Ottawa made a careful study of the dialect spoken at Schwartz and Ladysmith. He interviewed four descendants of original German settlers and compared his recordings to the German dialects spoken in an area which lies between Danzig. Marlenwerder and Lauenburg, when they were recorded for the German Linguistic Atlas5. As a basis for probing into language changes, the atlas gives 41 standard German sentences which were pronounced with considerable differences in various parts of Germany when the language maps were drawn. Simplified forms of these sentences were read to the older Thorne township inhabitants of German origin in Standard German; they would then repeat them in their own way, with their own inflections, omissions of endings or flattened vowels. If the conversation dealt with technical subjects or local politics, anglicisms crept into the text and later had to be discarded. A fine ear for differences was necessary for they are subtle.

The dialect of the original settlers turned out to be “Mittleres Ostniederdeutsch" (Middle-Eastern Low German). "Niederdeutsch" (Low German), is in itself much closer to Anglo-Saxon than Standard or South German. For example, "oil" is not an anglicism but the true dialect word for “old” ("alt" in Standard German); “solt” is the dialect word for “salt” (“salz" in Standard German}; and “broda" means “brother” ("bruder" in Standard German).

Dr. Bausenhart then compared four regional maps to examine how the words of the sentences he recorded coincided with those marked in the German Linguistic Atlas. He took into account demarcation lines known as isophones - instances where a sound changes, as “machen” does to "maken" in Low German - as well as isoglosses, where a word changes to an entirely different one. He then shaded the areas and narrowed down his search to a small district where all dialect words were spoken the same way. It turned out to be a very small geographical region about 35 km west of Danzig. At the time the German Linguistic Atlas was compiled, this pure “Mittleres Ostniederdeutsch” (Middle-Eastern Low German) was spoken there exactly as it still is by third generation inhabitants of Thorne township.

Author's note: My thanks to Dr. Werner Bausenhart, of Wakefield and Ottawa University, for permission to use his study. published in the I978 German Yearbook.

  1. It is God's Will that we must part from those we love most.
  2. This group resettled from Waterloo County in Western Ontario.
  3. The l97l Census states a smaller total number than that taken in 1881.
  4. The wooden building, once the old parsonage, stood near the present post office, down the road from St. John's church; the school was beside it.
  5. George Wenker, Deutscher Sprachatlas, Marburg, 1927-56.

List of articles - Volume 14