Origins and expansion of the Guelchers in the 17th and 18th centuries
Main dwelling areas
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Gilcher families expanded strongly in the western Palatinate, in the triangle between Kusel, Lauterecken and Kaiserslautern, especially in the Essweiler valley. They had been dwelling in the hamlet of Liebsthal at least since the second half of the 16th century , where early written traces have been found dating back to the years 1609 and 1610.
A marked point of concentration of the Gilchers, so-to-say the nest from where all the Gilchers known today have come, may be seen in the village of HORSCHBACH. From there they developed important branches in the neighboring villages of NERZWEILER, ASCHBACH, ESSWEILER and a bit further off in the Kusel area in the villages of OBERALBEN, KOERBORN, RUTHWEILER and EHWEILER.
Today we find the largest numbers of Palatine Gilcher families still in Essweiler, Oberalben, Koerborn, and finally in the cities of KUSEL and KAISERSLAUTERN because in the 19th century the rural population exploded due to improved health conditions and because of the general trend of moving to the cities where the developing industry lured poor laborers.
Spelling varieties and meaning of the name
This surname was exclusively spelled "Gülcher" (with u-umlaut - "u" with the two dots, transcribed here because of different computer systems by "ue" : Guelcher) at its first appearance in the Palatinate. Only later on, from around 1800 onwards, spelling changed towards "Gilcher", according to the general rule of the local western Palatine pronunciation which invariably transforms Northern German "ue" into "i". Sometimes the name was spelled with a "g" instead of the "ch", still representing the same sound ("ch" like in "church"); thus we find "Guelger" and later on also "Gilger" in church books.
Nowadays it is safe to say that this surname derives from the placename
of JUELICH, which topographically may refer to the town of Juelich itself
or also the earldom (later duchy) of Juelich (area about 20 miles west
of Cologne). Unfortunately this name has wrongly been explained by Hans
Bahlow in his encyclopedia of German surnames as a patronym of Aegidius
= Gilles, Gilg, Gilch.(1)(see annotation #1 at end of
Yet the existence and exclusive use of the u-Umlaut in all the 17th and 18th century documents within a dialectal area in which "ue" is invariably replaced by the simple sound "i" ( vowel pronounced like engl. "hit") gives evidence enough that this family's name does not derive from Aegidius - where should the u-umlaut come from in this word ? - but from the above-mentioned placename. This holds true at least for the family dealt with here, the West-Palatine Gilchers.
In the registers of the reformed church of Hinzweiler, where the first Guelcher entries of the village of Horschbach were made, there is a clear hint at the synonymity of Guelcher and Juel(i)cher: under 29 Oct 1667 we find a marriage entry there of "Johannes, son of Bernhard Ohmbach from the "Guelcherlandt", now a shepherd at St Julian". By "Guelcherlandt" the parson meant, without any doubt, the area (=land) around the town of Juelich. The same process of omitting the "i" in the middle can be found in the well-known word "Zuercher", short for "Zuericher" (from the town of Zuerich). The "Guelchers", who appear so often in this church register, come, in the last analysis, from the "Guelcher-land".
We can find more evidence by looking at the Mauchenheim Guelcher
family established there since 1594. The first entries in the reformed
church book of Mauchenheim still show the name form of "Guelicher
and "Guelich". Even the spelling of "Juelich", i.e. absolutely the same
spelling as the town of their origin, can be detected there. "G" and "J"
were often used synonymously at that time; think of the name of "Georg"
which was often written as "Joerg". The town of Juelich was spelled "Guelich"
up to the end of the 18th century, as the Juelich city archives communicated
In the 16th and 17th centuries it was still common practice to skip the last syllable "-er" in names which designated the origin of a person from a place . Thus a man coming from Juelich could either be called "Juelicher" or also plain "Juelich" without the affix -er.
The Mauchenheim Guelchers had kept the "i" in the name, but lost it in the course of the 17th century. The spelling changed into the main form Guelcher with the variants "Guelch" and "Guelger". In the Mauchenheim/Alzey/Eppelsheim (3) area, there are, still today, the Guelcher families who have kept their "ue" and have not undergone the sound change from "ue" to "i", which is typical of the western Palatinate.
The explanation of "Gilcher" as a name meaning the origin from the town or area of Juelich is further backed by church register entries of yet another Guelcher branch in the South of the Palatinate, in Godramstein near Landau. There we find the main spelling "Guelcher" and the variants Gilcher, Gilger, Guelch, Guelich, Juelch, Juelich, and here we are again, exactly at the name of the town of origin.
Recently a church register entry has been detected in which the origin of a Guel(i)cher person from the Juelich area has explicitly been stated: in Osthofen (reformed church): on 20 July 1675 Peter, son of Jann Guelicher, citizen of Melik, district of Wassenberg near Juelich, marries Maria Eva Schneider from Bermersheim (4). This find gives a firm basis to the explanation of the Guelcher name as a designation of origin, even if this particular Peter Guelicher is not directly related to the Western Palatine Guelchers. It is typical of this later immigration into the Palatinate that in Melik near Wassenberg close to Juelich, the letter "i" was kept longer in the name because of the vicinity to the town which has always kept its "i". Thus the name of "Guelicher" (with the "i") came into the Palatinate at a time when those who had immigrated earlier had already lost the "i" in their name and by losing it had taken the first step towards forgetting their origins.
The earliest Guelcher entries in registers of the Kusel area
The earliest entries of a bearer of the name of Guelcher in the church registers of the reformed church of Kusel - one of the few 16th century church books that have survived all the wars in this region - refers to a certain Job Guelcher (1610 in Eisenbach near Matzenbach) and Nickel Guelcher (1615 in Wahnwegen). Job and Nickel Guelcher came to these two villages around that time and had married a little earlier (Job in or before 1610, and Nickel before 1615). Neither their first marriages nor the deaths of their parents are to be found in the Kusel church book. Where might they have come from?
Well, another Guelcher document of the year 1610 from the vicinity of Eisenbach and Wahnwegen is extremely interesting inthis respect: 16th century Zweibruecken bills show that in Liebsthal a certain Appolonia, widow of Peter Guelcher, had to give her best head of cattle to the government after her husband 's death, a kind of early inheritance tax (5). Now Liebsthal is situated exactly midway between Wahnwegen and Eisenbach. I thought it should be a good idea to look for Job and Nickel Guelcher's origins in this little hamlet of hardly more than five houses. Liebsthal people were members of the church of Konken, whose church registers of that early time no longer exist. All we have of this time is the minutes (protocoll) of a church visitation of 1609. And under the heading of Liebsthal we find there: "Peter's widow" with "six orphans", among them Nickel and Job listed as the two eldest children, thus giving clear evidence of the filiation assumed above(6).
Already in the 15th century: the traditional Guelcher first name Niclas/ Clas
The earliest written trace of the Guelchers in the Palatinate found up to now dates from 1494 and refers to the village of "Winsheim" (today "Weinsheim", part of the city of Worms). It's the list of subjects in the district of Alzey in the electorate Palatinate. There it reads: "Guelcher's Clas, Mueller Henn and Guelcher's Henn have to pay their taxes to the Lord of Speyer. Guelcher's Clas has a wife who belongs to my Lord the Earl of the Palatinate"(7).
It is interesting that already in this early trace the first name of Clas (short for Niclas) appears, exactly as in the first Western Palatine Guelcher family in Liebsthal, where the first-born child was called that name and another child "Clos", which is another short form for Nicolaus, and exactly like in the Wahnwegen Guelcher family and in their descendancy, where Nickel (Niclas) stays a well-established first name for first-born children for many generations.
Although there are three generations (or around 90 years) between the 1494 find and Nickel Guelcher's birth in Liebsthal, the distance between both villages is not too far to take a possible relationship into consideration. It is equally interesting in this respect that the first Guelcher who founded the Mauchenheim branch in 1594, coming from Kriegsfeld, also bore the name of Niclas and was the son of yet another Niclas who must have been born around 1540/1550. Against the background of my studiesof the tradition of first names in my own family, I am convinced that it was no accident that almost at the same time, within a radius of 40 miles in Kriegsfeld, Liebsthal and Wahnwegen and Horschbach, exactly the same first names (Nickel/Niclas) were given to the first-born sons in the Guelcher families who had their first appearance here and there. My conclusion is that they were very closely related and derived their tradition of calling the first male child Niclas from an ancestor of that name.
The indication in the 1494 subjects' list stating that these two Guelchers had to pay their taxes to the Lord of Speyer gives us a hint at their origin, namely from the free imperial city of Speyer on the Rhine, which belonged to the Bishop. A glance into the oldest church registers of Speyer shows us that still in the 17th century, there were a number of Guelcher families (also spelled Guelch, Guelchen, von Guelchen, von Guelcher). Some eminent doctors of law who worked at the highest imperial court came from these families (8).
After all it seems as if the Palatine Guelchers migrated from the Juelich region up the River Rhine to Speyer, where they settled for some time and then came into the electoral Palatinate and then into the duchy of Zweibruecken, crossing the borders because of marriages with women who belonged to other dominions.
But as the example of Osthofen shows, there were, undoubtedly, several migrations from the Juelich area into the Palatinate at different periods of history.
Anyhow, I consider the Western Palatine Guelchers closely related to those of Mauchenheim, Eppelsheim and Weinsheim, because of the vicinity, the same traditional first names, the common protestant (reformed) religion and because of the fact that all three branches were especially active in serving their respective villages as mayors and church elders.
Other appearances of Guelcher families in the Palatinate
Besides the above-mentioned earliest Guelcher families and the Western Palatine Guelchers who all have their origin in Nickel Guelcher's family (Wahnwegen/Horschbach), there are some other early Guelcher appearances in the Southern Palatinate (in and around Klingenmuenster) and in Trier, which I have not researched in detail yet. These are catholic families of the end of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Another Guelcher family in Enkirch on the River Mosel has already been researched and well documented : this was a calvinist family that migrated there from Haan near Duesseldorf around 1650 (9).
In Godramstein the reformed church registers start in 1637 and show a Guelcher family from the beginning in many different spelling varieties, among others Juelch, Juelich and Juelicher. This may hint at a relatively recent immigration , the place of the name still being known - at least to the minister who entered the name in the church register. Descendants reach into the 19th century there.
Another Guelcher branch lived in Weissenburg/Alsace at the end of the 17th century. This place is quite close to Godramstein and Klingenmuenster and not very far from Speyer (10).
A single appearance of a Weyrich Guelcher is known at Kaiserslautern around 1600/1620; he appears twice in the city magistrate's minutes, but without any hints as to his origin.
Emigrants of the Western Palatine Gilcher families
There are numerous Gilcher emigrants to America - the emigrants' index of the Institute of Palatine History alone contains 40 names of known Gilcher emigrations, and the new Ellis Island internet catalog of immigrations between 1892 and 1924 contains 43 Gilcher entries, though not all from the Palatinate.
Today in the USA the name is spelled partly Gilcher and partly Gilger, for a few families also Guelcher (those who descend from the Mauchenheim Guelchers who have kept their u-umlaut also in Germany).
The first of the family to emigrate to America was Thomas Guelcher from Nerzweiler (born in 1703), who sailed to "the new land" in 1744 with his wife, 6 young children and "his old father Jacob", born in 1671 and already astonishing 72 years old when starting into this adventure.
There was a second early immigration of a Guelcher family member around 1749 that I will deal with a little later. First let's have a look at the year 1764, when Theobald Guelcher from Berschweiler near Lauterecken, second cousin to the above-mentioned Thomas, together with his wife Elisabeth Catharina Rhein and his son Johann Adam went "to the new land", as the minister noted in the church register of the reformed church of Lauterecken. A short time before their emigration, Theobald (= "Dewald") had his son Adam confirmed prematurely on 19 Feb 1764, when Adam was only 11 years old. Usually children were confirmed at the age of 14. The boy was confirmed so early in case something should happen during the dangerous sailing adventure to America. On 20 Oct 1764 Theobald reported to the courthouse of Philadelphia, stating that he had come aboard the ship "Richard"(11). In one source (Sons of the American Revolution, soldiers' list by Heber Gearhart, Northumberland County Historical Society) he is mentioned as a soldier of the Revolutionary War; he is also mentioned in the 1790 Census in Pennsylvania (in the same unnamed township as his son Adam), but no longer in the 1800 Census. Obviously he had died in the years between the two Censuses, at the age of between 67 and 77 years. Descendants of his son John Adam report of a tradition saying that young Adam had to serve as a redemptioner for seven years in order to work off the costs for the unpaid crossing of the Atlantic. He took part in the Revolutionary War as a soldier as well and later lived as a pioneer, settler and innkeeper at Bear Gap near Shamokin, Northumberland Co., where he gathered a considerable fortune, which he left to his four sons and seven daughters in his will of 1823 (12).
Most probably, Theobald's younger brother Jacob Guelcher, born in 1725, had emigrated to Pennsylvania before him. So far, we have no documents about his emigration, but we find the marriage of a Jacob Gilger to Margarethe Wolf in 1753 in the same church in Philadelphia in which Theobald and Jacob Guelcher's cousin Catharina Guelcher appears. She was married to Peter Klein from Berschweiler and had emigrated on ship "Leslie" in 1749. This marriage can only have been the one of Jacob Guelcher from Berschweiler, because all other persons of that name were still living in Germany, whereas there is no further mention of Theobald's brother Jacob in Palatine church registers. On the other hand, it was a common pattern in emigration cases that people of the same family or of the same village went to the same place in America, because the start in the new country was easier, when family or friends were already there and one could help each other. This Jacob Gilger served in the Revolutionary War as well. This is mentioned in the same source (SAR, list of Heber Gearhart) as Theobald and John Adam.
The larger number of Gilcher emigrations took place in the 19th century within the great wave of German immigrants into the US. In 1833 several Gilcher brothers and cousins from Essweiler went into the Sandusky OH region, in 1847 Friedrich Gilcher from Wahnwegen moved to Fearing OH and more Gilchers followed in the middle of the century and later.
Many Gilcher sons of the Essweiler valley later chose the profession of musicians and earned good money in different European countries and in the USA, as it is documented in the large collection of passport applications on exhibit in the musicians' museum of the castle "Burglichtenberg" near Kusel. Some of these Palatine traveling musicians stayed in the US for ever. Yet there are at least three cases of Gilcher musicians who disappeared for ever after their departure to the USA and whose families waited for their return in vain (13!).
The Gilchers in the "odd Alsace" (France)
In the area south of Bitsch and east of Sarreunion near La Petite Pierre (Luetzelstein), which has always been called "the odd Alsace", there are a considerable number of families by the name of Gilger, and Gilgert, about whose origin nothing was known so far. In printed sources, Saxony as well as Switzerland had been assumed as possible places of origin, the first because the first Gilger there was a potter by profession, the second because he was of reformed religion among Lutheran neighbors. Both guesses were wrong, as it turned out now. In a request to the Palatine genealogical society, Henriette Gilger of Puberg asked for assistance in her family research. Her ancestors could be traced back to a certain Hans-Peter Guelcher who had died at the age of 67 years and 15 days on the 22nd of August 1748 in Butten. The man could be found among the descendants of the early Western Palatine Guelchers. Only his baptization and his confirmation (in 1696) were documented in Hinzweiler church registers, nothing after that. Now we know why. He had migrated to Butten/Alsace at a relatively young age. There he could make a living as a potter and married a lutheran woman in 1707. His descendants continued the pottery business successfully well into the 19th century, especially in Butten and Diemeringen. One of his four sons, Friedrich Gilgert, took part in the great migration of the first protestant settlers to Hungary in 1785 and migrated to Sekitsch in the Batschka. Johannes, great-greatgrandson of potter Peter emigrated to the USA in 1838. His descendants (spelled Gilger in the US) have got in touch again with their Alsatian relatives.
The spelling of the family name in Alsace appears in many variations: Gilcher, Gilger, Guelger, but also Gilchert, Guelchert, Gilgert and Guelgert. This remarkable number of variations may be explained by the fact that this family name was new in the area and only one person bore it in the beginning. A new (and historically wrong) spelling variant was acceptable for the parson who had no possibility of comparing it to existing families there or to other entries in the registers. The ending -t in the name once wrongly added and entered into a church register was then copied time and again, and as nobody knew the origin of this family name any longer, it was accepted and passed on through the generations.
Friedrich Huettenberger, April 2001
1. Hans Bahlow, Deutsches Familiennamenlexikon, Muenchen, 1967 (=Encyclopedia of German surnames)
2. This term (Guelcherland= area of Juelich) might still have
been topical here at that time, because in 1614 the town of
Juelich had come into the dukes of Zweibruecken's possession after the so-called" Juelich- Kleve heritage quarrel".
The dukes of Zweibruecken also possessed Liebsthal and the Kusel area.
3. Nierstein reformed church: 17 Apr 1691: Peter Guelcher,
churcheldest and citizen of Eppelsheim
and his wife Gertruda have a child baptized Andreas. Most probably this is the same Peter Guelcher who holds
the office of mayor in Eppelsheim 1698 and is mentioned in the list of subjects as Peter Gilcher by Kilian-Neumer
4. Published by Dr.Udo Krauthausen in Pfaelz.-Rhein. Familienkunde, vol 13, p.350
5. Rheinland-Pfalz archives Speyer; section B III, number 1723,
sheet 83; quoted from Hermann Schneider in
Pfaelzisch-Rheinische Familienkunde, vol 16, p. 85.
6. Palatine Church Visitations 1609, p. 77 (English translation
of the lost original)
p.199 verso: "Hoff Liebenstall":
number 5 of 5 families: "Appelonia, Peter's widow, 6 orphans: Nickel, Job, Wilhelm, Clos, Maria, Catharina."
Children are always noted in the order of their age, starting with the eldest; usually their age was indicated,
unfortunately not so for the 5 families in Liebsthal.
7. Kilian-Neumer: Untertanenliste des kurpfaelzischen
Oberamts Alzey (List of subjects of the Palatine district of
Alzey) , Ludwigshafen 1995, p.87.
8. Cp. The detailed report in Pfaelzische Familien und Wappenkunde vol.2 1955, p.156 ff.
9. Cp. Peter R. Guelicher, Genealogy of the Protestant Guelicher, Juelicher and Guelcher families, Cologne 1987,p.42
10. Note by Dr.Udo Krauthausen in Pfaelz.-Rhein. Familienkunde,
vol.12, 1992, p.391
I did not consider the Guelcher families who lived far away from the Palatinate in Rhenania , e.g. in
Krefeld, Mettmann, Solingen, Wald-Solingen, Laurensberg, Moers, Nuembrecht, Barmen, Benrath, Haan,
nor those in Westphalia: Elsey, Wiblingwerde, Harpen, Herne, Castrop, or Horn-Lippe,
nor those in Stuttgart and Baumerlebach, Wuerttemberg
Most of these families are well documented in Peter R Guelicher's quoted work.
11. Strassburger, Pennsylvania German Pioneers 1727 - 1808,
p.695: Dewalt Guelcher, Ship Richard
(captain Chas. Younghusband), coming from Rotterdam.
12. As communicated by Mary Alice Shulman and Arlene Gilger
Copy of original draft of the will on microfim # 1697646 of LDS church "Gilger family records".
13. One of these cases concerns the musician Peter Gilcher,
brother of the author's grandmother. Born 24 Apr 1868,
married in 1898 to Karolina Kreischer, in Lohnweiler, he went to the US and was never heard of again.
The latest find in this case is his immigration in Ellis Island on 7 Dec 1909, where he declared first he wanted
to go to Carl Geminn in Brooklyn NY, and then changed his destination to John Bleiler in Roxbury, Boston.
The author of thsi study would be happy to get further hints about the further fate of this man in America.
He traveled together with a 17-year-old relative Otto Gilcher, also a musician.
Other members of his band entering the USA in 1909 were Heinrich Eckardt, Julius Dech, Theo Suss,
Johann Schneider, Peter Greilach and Carl Bieck. They all declared Brooklyn as their destination and
gave addresses of friends and cousins in Brooklyn: Peter Hoenes, Anna Koehler, Peter Poor (or Porr),
Mrs. Mueller Barbay Street 523, Brooklyn, NY.
Contacts via e-mail: FF.Huettenberger@t-online.de