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European Origins - Roehl Family

Roehl Family

European Origins

European church records available on the Mormon web site2-1 document the Roehl surname for over four centuries. It has been suggested that the surname “Röhl” was originally Dutch2-2. However, that name and various spelling variations (Roelichen, Roelich, Roel, Roelichs, Roels, Rohel, Rohels, Rohelichen, Roheles, Röhl, Rölichen, Rollicken, Rollken, etc.) were quite common in Germany, Russia, Switzerland, Austria, Bohemia, Poland, Holland, and many other countries. There is to this day a small village in southwestern Germany named Röhl. Perhaps a more likely origin of the name is as a shortened form of a well-known personal name, e.g., Rudolf (German: from a personal name composed of Old High German hrod ‘renown’ + wolf ‘wolf’, equivalent to English Ralph. This name is also found in Slovenia.) or Roland (French, German, English, and Scottish: from a Germanic personal name composed hrod ‘renown’ + -nand ‘ bold’, assimilated to –lant ‘land’.)2-3.

As individuals with the surname “Röhl” immigrated to America, some “Americanized” their name by replacing the German “o-umlaut” with an “oe” to form “Roehl”. Others simply dropped the symbol to form “Rohl”. Based upon the year 2000 census, there were more than 2200 individuals in the United States with a surname of Roehl or Rohl.

There is no exact sound in the English language that corresponds to the German “ö”, so there is an on-going disagreement about how to correctly pronounce the Roehl name. Some individuals with that name pronounce it “rail”, but others prefer to say: “roll”. In reality, the original German pronunciation is closer to “rural”. With all of these options for pronouncing the Roehl surname, it is not surprising that census takers in the 1800s became quite inventive in phonetically spelling the names they thought they heard from recent immigrants who could not read or write and who spoke only broken English. In 1870 Wilhelm’s surname was listed as “Rahl” and in 1880 his widow was listed as “Rhiel”.

The Röhl FAmily in Europe

Unlike many surnames in the 19th century, Roehl families could be found in almost every country in Europe. The Mormon web site contains church birth and marriage records for thousands of European Roehls, but, unfortunately, not for Joseph and Catherine’s family.

The manifest for the ship that brought Joseph and Catherine’s family to America was legally supposed to list the origin, destination, occupation, and planned activity for each passenger. In reality, every single passenger (even 6-month-old Frederich Röhl) was listed as a farmer coming from Wurtemberg and everyone was going to be a farmer in New York City. While this ship’s manifest is the only historical document found to list the city of origin for the Röhl family, it is not credible.

By the early 1860s, the oldest son, Wilhelm, owned a farm 5 miles southwest of the New Ulm settlement on the Minnesota River. That farm was located in Sigel Township, on the border with Cottonwood Township. While the original residents of the New Ulm settlement were predominantly immigrants from Wurtemberg, the farming population in both Sigel and Cottonwood Townships was almost exclusively Bohemian2-4. This social and ethnic divide has been very distinct, even into modern times. Wilhelm’s closest neighbors and friends were Bohemian; he fought in the militia with Bohemians; and he generally followed Bohemian tradition and customs. Based upon this information, it will be assumed in this document that the Röhl family very likely came from the western rim of Bohemia, an area that is now west of Prague in the modern Czech Republic.

Incentives to Leave Europe in the 1850s

 Central Europe in 1850As one can see, Central Europe in 1850 was a hodgepodge of small kingdoms, whose borders constantly changed as battles broke out between them. The recorded history of the Bohemian area spans more than 20 centuries. the Romans called the area Boiohaemia after the native Boii tribe. During the period of 1st – 5th Centuries, Slavic settlers, the Czechs, gradually displaced the Boii. Over the succeeding centuries, the country of Bohemia experienced many different rulers and many religious and political conflicts. The Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648) laid waste to Bohemia. The imposition of German culture and language, oppressive taxation, and absentee land ownership reduced the native residents to poverty and misery. The 19th Century brought a resurgence of Czech nationalism, culminating in the Revolution of 1848. Although the Czech peasantry was emancipated in 1848, absolute Austrian domination was subsequently imposed the very next year. Many of the young men were conscripted into the Army and sent off to fight and die in distant battles. It is not surprising that large numbers of now German-speaking Bohemians sought a better life by emigrating to other countries (Germany, Russia, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, Poland, and eventually America).

Opinions and Footnotes

As noted above, there has been a wide dispersion of Roehl families across Europe for several centuries. There is absolutely no reason to believe that groups of people who originally selected that surname several centuries ago in different cities or countries in Europe were even remotely related. Therefore, when individuals from these unrelated family groups independently immigrated to the United States, there is some possibility that they would settle or relocate into population centers with others who happened to share the same surname, but no family relationship. This condition is noted only because it has at times proven to be very difficult and time consuming to prove that two individuals in a given town at the same time with the same Roehl surname are totally unrelated!