Die Familie Böll aus Xanten

I’m tempted to start this piece by declaring that, as a child, my parents taught me not to question my elders, but the never did. They weren’t that sort of parents. However I’m faced with a rather large emotional challenge as I think one of my ancestors got their family-tree wrong. I really don’t want to disagree with the dead. But first let’s re-wind a bit.

As you may have guessed this post is about the Böll family from Xanten. They’re interesting for me as wife is descended from one of them. Let’s start though with Xanten itself, a small old-Roman town on the lower part of the Rhine, close to the Dutch border. I have to say the town itself is an interesting place. It was first established as a colonia by the Emperor Trajan in 110 AD. After the Roman Empire collapsed the original settlement also disappeared, however “In the second half of the 8th Century a church was built on the grounds of an old cemetery of the ancient Roman colony and called Sanctos“. This was assumed to be where the grave of Xanten’s very own St Viktor lay. As a result of these events Xanten has a fabulous open-air Roman museum (I’ve been) and Sankt Viktors Dom (a church, yet to visit), said to have the largest towers between Köln (Cologne) and the sea. Finally Xanten appears to be unique in that it’s the only town in Germany beginning with an X. That I find exceptionally cool, I just wish my ancestors from Santon, Norfolk had managed to sneak an X at the start of their village name.

St. Viktor's Dom, Xanten. Its towers are so tall they don't even fit in the postcard.

St. Viktor’s Dom, Xanten. Its towers are so tall they don’t even fit in the postcard.

Going back to the Bölls I should explain a little of their background. According to a family story the Bölls come from a Catholic family of ship-builders from England that moved to the Netherlands and then upriver to Germany to escape persecution.

Im Jahre 1720 wurde in Xanten am Niederrhein ein Haus gebaut, das seither als Stammhaus der Bölls gilt. Die in der Familie überlieferten Geschichten zur eigenen Herkunft geben als Ursprungsland die englische Insel an, von wo sie, ihrer katholischen Glaubenstreue wegen, vertrieben worden sein sollen nach den Niederlanden. So kamen sie dann vielleicht als Schiffszimmerleute rheinaufwärts bis nach Xanten.”

Taken from “Weibliche Figuren und ihre Rollen in ausgewählten Werken Heinrich Bölls” by Hyesook Seo (2007) . The source of this quote is cited there as “Böll, Viktor (Hg.): Heinrich Böll und Köln. Mit einer Wanderung durch Heinrich Bölls Köln von Martin Stankowski. Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch 1994, S. 12-13”

Roughly speaking this translates as “The original house of the Böll family was built in 1720 in Xanten, Lower-Rhineland. The oral tradition is that the family were originally from England, but moved to the Netherlands because of their Catholic faith. From there they moved up the Rhine to Xanten, possibly as shipwrights”. 

A further twist on this story is that the family were originally called Bell, which was corrupted over time into Böll. As yet I’ve yet to find any proof of either the name or the Bölls’ English origins.

My wife’s great grandmother was Maria Sophia Böll, the daughter of Johannes Böll and Johanna van Acken. We know this as we have the records gathered by one of my wife’s ancestors. These records were required so that they could get their Ariernachweis, a certificate proving their Aryan ancestry, which was required during the time of the Nazi regime. Here is one of the many certificates the churches in Germany were required to issue as part of this process.

Marriage record for Johann Böll and Johanna van Acken 11-Feb-1868. Issued by the Pfarre St. Johan Baptist, Essen 18-May-1933

As you can see from this document Johann Böll was the son of Theodor Böll and Kathar. (Catharina) Bullhorst. The next logical step would be to find the parents of Theodor Böll, and this is where the problem begins.

Shown below is part of a hand-drawn Böll family-tree, which I thought answered my question. I’m not sure who created this tree, but it was someone who clearly was interested in the Bölls and had access to the old records of Xanten. The last date I’ve found on the tree is 1930, so it must have been made sometime after then. I’m guessing it may have been made by Maria Böll, or her husband Friedrich Wolff.

Family-Tree of Johannes Böll b.1740 Xanten

Family-Tree of Johannes Böll b.1740 Xanten

 The problem here is that Theodor’s parents are recorded as Heinrich Böll and Sybille Maria Rüttermanns. This is unfortunately wrong. I have recently tracked down both the marriage certificate for Theodor Böll & Catharina Bullhorst and Theodor Böll’s death certificate. Both state that his parents were Heinrich Böll and Adelheid Buskes. (Note: To  make things a little more confusing, Heinrich is sometimes referred to as Johann Heinrich.)

Having researched the Bölls over the last few week I believe I know how this error came in. If you look at the Xanten records there were two Bölls born in 1797. One was Johan Theodor Böll, the son of Heinrich Böll and Maria Ruttermanns, the other Theodor Böll the son of Heinrich Böll and Adelheid Buskes. I guess whoever put the tree together got the wrong one. So to re-cap the correct tree should look like a bit like this:

Family-Tree of Heinrich Böll

Family-Tree of Heinrich Böll

One thing to note here is that, rather like my British ancestors, this family were fairly fast and loose with the spelling of their surnames, so Anna Catharina Bulhorst is sometimes seen as Büllhorst etc.

I’ve added two of Johannes’ brothers to this tree, and for good reason. Theodor Böll and his wife Maria Kemkes (or Kempkes) were the parents of a fairly large family of Bölls who moved to the the Pittsburgh area in the US. Interestingly two of their children; Elizabeth Boell (1859-1929) and Marie Boell (1860-1919) married two brothers; Henry Janssen (1851-1902) and Hermann Janssen (1856-1917). The Janssen boys parents’, Peter Janssen and Johanna Böll, were both from the Xanten area. I think it’s safe to assume that Johanna was related to the rest of the Böll clan.

The last brother to be mentioned here is Heinrich Böll. Now if you vaguely recognise the name Heinrich Böll it is because the grandson of this Heinrich was the Nobel Prize for Literature winning author Heinrich Böll. This link is acknowledged in the book “Die Bölls – Bilder einer deutschen Familie” written by Alfred Böll, the brother of author Heinrich. Here he states “Großvater Heinrich wurde zum 3.Juli 1829 in Xanten geboren.” (Grandfather Heinrich was born in Xanten on the 3rd July 1829). Rather nicely the book also has a picture of the three bothers, reproduced below:

Theodor, Heinrich und Johannes Böll um 1897

Theodor, Heinrich und Johannes Böll um 1897

The text says “Theodor, Heinrich and Johannes Böll around 1897. This is our grandfather with two of his brothers. It is a farewell picture. Theodor then emigrated to America. After the Second World War a cousin contacted the family and received a Care Packet, but with the message that due to their own tight situation, no further help was possible.”

Taking the Bölls family further back in time has not been possible. There is possibly a birth certificate for Heinrich Boll (1797-1855) but it isn’t online. I’ve yet to find the marriage certificate or death certificates of either of his parents. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to inspect the original documents, although annoyingly the records can’t be viewed in the LDS Family History Centres in Germany.

That pretty much wraps up our visit to the Bölls. If you need any further information on them, please feel free to contact me via the comments section.

Sources and Notes

  • I have to admit that researching these German roots has been quite challenging. Naturally I’m having to research in German, but on top of this:
  1. Reading old German text is challenging in itself. Most of the documents are written in the old-style Gothic Script, although this blog posting may help.
  2. The German language has evolved since the early nineteenth century, so some of the text may look strange. For example the marriage certificate is a Heiraths-Urkunde, rather than the current Heiratsurkunde.
  3. The Böll family have managed to keep the spelling of their surname consistent, or at least until they moved to America. Many of the other Xanten families have not been so lucky. So, for example, Adelheid Büskes is also Adelgrunde Boskes. according to some records. Since I’ve no idea which is the correct version, you may find some inconsistencies in my own spelling of their names. Wherever possible I’ve tried to record what I could read.
  4. To further complicate matters, the Bölls were great fans of re-using first names. As you may have spotted from the family-tree Johannes, Heinrich, Theodor and Maria were some of their favourites.
  5. At the start of the 19th century the area in which they lived, on the left side of the Rhine was in political turmoil. When Theodor Böll was born in 1797 in Xanten the Left Bank of the Rhine had been annexed by French Revolutionary Army. It was the very year the Cisrhenian Republic was declared. One result of this was that documentation was rather haphazard during this period. When it was produced dates were recorded according to the new French Republican Calendar.
  • The task of researching German ancestors is normally made challenging due to the lack of available sources. Many records were lost as a result of damages during World War 2. More were lost in East Germany during the time of Communist Rule. What records are left are managed at a regional level, so that finding the right records is very much a case of hit-or-miss. We are therefore lucky that the records for Xanten have been digitised and made available on the web through the site www.ongen.de. This site is amazing and annoying in equal parts. The records are available, and at 2.50 €/sheet incredibly good value, however the site looks like the cutting edge in web design from the late nineties. Even more frustrating is the odd charging structure. After a short trial period the site switches to show you edited details of only the first 20 results for any particular search. It’s like going into a book shop but not been allowed to browse the books. – OK, rant over. Interestingly the civil ,”Standesamt”, records for Xanten are much more comprehensive than the church records. Birth, Marriage and Death certificates include spouse and both parents of the person.
  • The hand-drawn family-tree in this article was originally scanned as a pdf file. I used the free web-service www.pdf2jpg.net to convert each page to a jpg picture file. Rather fortuitously I had scanned both of the A4 pages that made up the tree, along with a scan of the centre section. This meant I could use the Microsoft Image Composite Editor to stitch the family-tree images together. I have a tutorial on how to use the editor here.
  • Rather than lose all the information on the family of Heinrich Böll and Maria Ruttermans I’ve put up a separate family-tree over at ancestry.com. If you have an account with them then you should be able to access the tree here. As and when I can piece together more of the Böll family I will add then to this tree.
  • The book published by Alfred Böll is “Bilder einer deutschen Familie Die Bölls” ISBN 3-7857-0257-2.
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3 Responses to Die Familie Böll aus Xanten

  1. René Böll says:

    see also the page: http://www.heinrich-boell.de
    Best wishes
    René Böll

  2. Beth M. says:

    Marie Boell & Herman Janssen were my paternal great-grandparents!! Thank you for the research you’ve done. I will pass the information down in my family.

  3. René Böll says:

    This year is the 100th anniversery of Heinrich Bölls birthday in 1917.
    See our page: http://www.boell100.com
    We will publish his diary from wartime 1943-1945. and a new biography.
    Best
    René

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