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Written by Harold M. Wiest 

On October 5, 1809, after an arduous six-month journey from the Rheinpfalz in Germany, Franz Wiest with his wife Eva Margaretha and their six children arrived in the new village of Rohrbach, South Russia. On their journey Franz and his family were accompanied by two of Franzís nephews, Daniel and Peter, who were the sons of Peter Wiest.

The trip was not easy. The Wiests had joined others who were fleeing the forced conscription of their sons into Napoleanís army. Along the way, many had died due to the hardships of the trip. Various diseases such as cholera and typhoid also took their toll. In fact, it appears that Franzís son Michael, born early in 1809, died while in route to their new home.

The Wiests were one of 26 families who settled the village of Rohrbach in 1809. To call it a village at this point would have been a misnomer, for there was nothing built nor established at that time. The first settlers were conducted to the Zerigul valley in the fall of 1809 by the mayor of Grossliebental. The following spring, another 69 families who had wintered in the colonies in the environs of Odessa, Russia, came to this place of settlement. Of these 95 families, 56 had emigrated from Alsace and the Palatinate. Since a large number of the earliest settlers were from the Palatinate, the settlement was named after the town of Rohrbach, in the district of Bergzabern.

The story of the earliest known ancestors of the Rohrbach Wiests begins not in Germany as one might suppose, but in the little village of Kuettigen in the Canton of Aargau in Switzerland. Today this village is a suburb of Aarau, which is the capital of the Canton of Aargau. The document which includes our earliest known ancestor is found in the register of weddings in the Kirchberg Church. On September 27, 1620, Jacob Wuest and Barbara Frey were united in marriage. During the next 15 years, 8 children were born to this couple. How many of them lived to adulthood we do not know. We have information on two of the children: Samuel Wiest born 10 April 1631 (the ancestor of the Rohrbach Wiests) and Katherina Wiest born 12 May 1622 who married a Hans Bircher.

At the time of this writing, we do not yet know who Jacob Wuestís parents are. A professional genealogist is researching the Wuests from Kuettigen, and has found two possibilities so far [Note: The baptismal records between 1570 and 1601 are missing for Kuettigen]. A Verena Wuest was baptized in 1602. Her parents were Heinrich Wuest and Anna Dietiker. Further research has also found an Adelheit Wuest born about 1600 whose father was Heinrich, and a Anna Wuest born abt 1594 whose father was Heinrich. The other possibility of a father for Jacob Wuest is found in the baptismal records from 1603 for a Hans Wiest, whose father was Samuel Wuest and whose mother was Dorothea Mueller.

And to make things more interesting, we have also found an Elisbeth Wuest born abt 1563 in Kuettigen who married a Hans Bircher born 1563 in Kuettigen. There is a good possibility that this Elisbeth Wuest is an aunt of Jacob Wuest. It also appears that it was their grandson Hans Bircher Jr. born 3 September 1620 in Kuettigen who married Katharina Wuest, daughter of Jacob Wuest and Barbara Frey.

According the extensive work done by Brian Barr Wiest, he states that the earliest record anywhere that includes the name Wiest appears in the Canton of Zurich, Switzerland, a mere 20 miles from Kuettigen. In an entry dated 30 April 1330, a Heinrich Wuest is mentioned as having become - by popular election - one of the 12 overseers of the forests of the town of Zollikon. References to the Wuests of Zollikon indicate that they were a renowned family of that time. From Zollikon, the Wuests spread to neighboring towns, including Zurich. Records from 1370 speak of a Claus Wuest and his brother who became burghers in Zurich. Other Wuests appear in the early records of the Cantons of Luzern, Freiburg, Thurgau, and Aargau, as well as in the city of Basel.

What caused the Wiests to move from Switzerland? As Arthur E. Flegel has stated so well in his article entitled "A summary of German Migrations Eastwood into Poland, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Russia" for the Germans from Russian Symposium in 1990:

Since the beginning of time, man has moved from place to place under two primary compulsions: duress or the opportunity of self-improvement. Therefore, within that context the three major reasons for migration may be more narrowly defined as: (1) economic (2) political and (3) religious.

In 1525, the Protestant Reformation in Zurich was completed under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli, pastor of the Great Cathedral in Zurich. Within a few short years, the Canton of Bern had also sided with the reformers, as well as most of northern Switzerland. During the next 130 years (before Samuel Wuest left Switzerland with his family), Switzerland was plagued by wars and religious quarrels.

Meanwhile, in the Palatinate, Elector Fredrick V enjoyed a prominent place among the German princes. His territory along both sides of the Rhine, with Heidelburg as the capitol, was the garden spot of the country. In 1613 Fredrick had married Elizabeth, daughter of James I of England. At the urging of his ambitious wife, Fredrick accepted the crown of Bohemia, which was then in religious and civil revolt. This move precipitated the Thirty Years' War in which the Palatinate was overrun in succession by the Catholic Army under Tilly and by the Spanish, Swedish, and French armies, all of whom stripped the land so completely that famine and disease decimated the population. By one estimate, only two percent of the people remained. When the war ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westfalia, new settlers were welcomed to augment the few remaining survivors of the war and famine. The Protestant Elector of the Palatinate of the Rhine offered lands at reasonable rents in order to entice settlers to repopulate his devastated territories.

Why did our Wiests wait until 1657 to leave Switzerland for the Palatinate? In January 1656, the Protestant forces from the Canton of Bern were defeated by the Catholics. The Wiests, who had joined the reformers, undoubtedly were troubled by this event. As well, land would have been at a premium in Switzerland. The decision to leave was made a lot easier with all of the rich farmland available in the Palatinate.

But did our ancestors jump from the proverbial frying pan into the fire? A weakened Palatinate was no match for the growing French interest in the region. In fact, there was so much international concern that Britain led a coalition of forces to oppose France. These struggles that occurred between 1688 and 1697 are known by a number of names: The War of the Palatinate, the War of the Grand Alliance, the War of the League of Augsburg. One major effect of the war was the large scale emigration that took place then, and was the precursor to the major emigration to the U.S. that took place in the early to mid 1700ís. (Note: Brian Barr Wiestís book chronicles the history of the Wiests that went to the U.S. during that time.)

Not only did war take its toll. A major freeze during the winter of 1708/1709 happened in the Palatinate. On 10 January 1709 the Rhine River froze, and was closed to river traffic for five weeks. Wine froze and vineyards died. Cattle also died in their sheds. Living in the comforts of the 21st century, we have no idea what our ancestors had to face from day to day just to survive.

The everyday lives of our ancestors are hidden in the pages of time. But only one century later (1809), with Napoleon Bonaparte on the move in Europe, our ancestors moved their families once more, this time to South Russia, where there was a promise of a new and better life for them.

It didnít take long for members of the family to move again. In 1843, Franz Wiestís son Johann Jacob Wiest and his family moved to Bessarabia from Rohrbach, South Russia. In subsequent years, with the change in the political climate in Russia, many Wiests began leaving Russia. Major destinations were the U.S. and Canada. A few of them also went to South America.

For those who stayed, very difficult times were soon to arrive in Russia. WWI brought extreme hardship to the Germans who had moved to Russia. And with Stalin coming to power, many of our ancestors either died of starvation, died in labor camps, or died before a firing squad because they were a threat to Stalinís tyranny.

The "Rohrbach Wiest Family Tree" lists the names of many individuals. With each one there is a story, but the pages of this book are not able to tell them. Hopefully other books will be written which tell the stories of those who moved from country to country, and sometimes from continent to continent, seeking a better life for themselves and their children.