|Ostpreußen: The Great Trek
On April 30, 1732, the very first 843 Salzburgers arrived at their new home but the bulk of them
came between May of 1732 and November of 1733.
Throughout their trek through Prussia until they poured into East Prussia, pealing church bells and
free meals, even for their animals, greeted them in a wave of enthusiasm and moral support
everywhere they went. The journey from Salzburg to Königsberg from June 2 until August 22,
amounted to 1,500 km. and was covered in just three months at about 20 km per day. 805 people
died while on the arduous journey.
Those who survived the journey were grateful, humble and well-received. The efficient King set up
districts where citizens were appointed to distribute four horses, four oxen, three cows and grain for
the first sowing to everyone who had previously possessed a house and land in their former
homeland, with all goods temporarily remaining in possession of the State. Whoever farmed
satisfactorily could buy them back and purchase more. Devastated East Prussia was renewed with 6
cities and 332 new villages. 180,000 parcels of brushy land were newly cultivated. 3,569 farmhands
and farm servants found work as well.
The town of Gumbinnen was the center of the East Prussian Salzburger settlement with 15,000
craftsmen and farmers assigned to the town who swore an oath of allegiance to the King. The town
had been depopulated by plague and famine before their arrival, and this excited the King's
compassion. The oldest part of of Gumbinnen was the market with old highway leading to it, and the
old city church was first created around 1545. The basic plan of the city was drawn up by a
Königsberger building master and approved on December 18, 1723. In 1739, the hospital the King
planned for Gumbinnen was finally established, offering 40 beds.
Shortly, part of the former Royal Prussia was merged with the former Duchy of Prussia. The newly
annexed lands were to be known as the Province of West Prussia, with former Ducal Prussia and
Warmia becoming the Province of East Prussia in 1733, around the time when our story with the
Salzburgers begins. The Exiles were offered a home in East Prussia by King Friedrich Wilhelm 1.
One cannot separate the story of the Salzburgers from the heart and soul of this contradictory and
odd Prussia king with his passionate commitment and his intense personal involvement.
Friedrich Wilhelm 1, der Soldatenkönig, came to throne in 1713, and developed an early passion for
military life. A frugal man with simple tastes and a bad temper, he took religion very seriously and,
although a devout, almost puritanical Protestant, he was extremely tolerant of his Catholic subjects
and he detested religious quarrels. His lack of frivolities made him an able administrator, and his
policies were upheld for generations after his death. He established village schools, which he visited
personally. In 1717, he decreed education compulsory in Prussia. The Soldier King and the Pietists
In spite of his harsh reputation, he was much beloved by his subjects and respected for his honesty,
practicality and strong sense of charitability and justice. Far from unintelligent, he hoped to build a
feared army to act as a deterrent to the other formidable powers.
Friedrich Wilhelm's response to his ministers’ recommendation to banish the Catholic religion from
Prussia in 1724: "I have a lot of Catholic Lithuanians in the Tilsit lowlands as colonists. If I take
away their church services those people will run away. This is a mistake that Louis XIV made
(banishing the Huguenots), and I will not copy him. I am populating my land, not depopulating it."
Despite his generousity, one dare not mess with the King: He had one Baron Schlubhut hanged for
embezzling funds intended for the Salzburgers.
From 1722 to 1740, his army grew to 80,000 well disciplined men, gaining him the title of "Soldier
King." He was devoted to his army, which suddenly made Prussia the third greatest military power in
the world. He "collected" the tallest men from all over to be part of his Potsdam Guards and he
enjoyed personally reviewing his troops. He also liked socializing and smoking with friends in his
nightly get-togethers called the Tobacco College.
|THE SALZBURGERS: EAST PRUSSIA
East Prussia was an area which had been devastated with whole villages deserted in the terrible
plagues of the Middle Ages and catastrophic famines which followed. Over 30,000 people from the
Memel area alone perished and in some areas around Tilsit, not one soul survived. Then, during the
Thirty Years War, 13 cities, 249 villages and 37 churches were plundered or destroyed. 23,000
humans were killed and 34,000 had been sent into the slavery. 80,000 more perished as a result of
hunger and plague which hit East Prussia again from 1709 to 1711, costing the lives of 240,000
children and 40 per cent of the general population.
In 1720, the King of Prussia, eager to repopulate this bleak and barren landscape, published an
immigration patent which drew in Swiss Mennonites, settlers from Pfalz, Franconia, Swabia, Nassau,
as well as some Dutch, Swiss, Bohemians, French Huguenots and even a group of Scots who settled
around Danzig and Elbing. The Historian Lucanus stated in 1748: "In no European landscape was a
greater mix of so many foreign nations."
On February 2, 1732, the King granted permission for the weary Salzburgers to emigrate. His
commissioners were sent to arrange care for the exiles' transport and protection. Long lines of
refugees left together, many singing Schaitberger's throughout the long, perilous trek from their
mountain homes to this distant and alien frontier. Only 6,000 refugees were originally expected, but
over 20,000 applied. Their exodus was divided into 32 journeys or treks. The displaced took three
routes to Prussia: One way via Frankfurt, a second via Magdeburg, Stendal and Stettin on the Baltic
Sea, and the main route which took them through Berlin. From Berlin, they continued to their
destination in northern East Prussia in two ways, by land to Königsberg or by water from Stettin.
10,780 Salzburgers chose the sea, and from there they took 66 vessels in 79 transports.
5,533 exiles chose the land in 11 horse treks with 1,167 horses and 780 loaded carts
The local aristocrats were reluctant to hire Salzburgers and few families could afford a good home.
There was disease, lack of familiar food, a foreign environment and flat landscape. They had to
adapt and create a new culture to replace the one which had been destroyed.
The king also sent accomplished commissioners to Salzburg to assure the sales of the goods of the
emigrants and recovery of their assets, and the Archbishop had been unable to refuse these officials
entry. Extra money was used for the Salzburg Institute. The settlers' hard work and diligence paid
off. The once depopulated plains blossomed with successful farms and villages. Within a very short
time, their unique dialect and old mountain customs vanished as they formed a new culture, the only
remaining distinct signs of a Salzburg ancestry being their surnames. Combined with the other
immigrants, the total East Prussian population between 1713 and 1740 rose from 400,000 to 600,000
inhabitants. It would be home to the Salzburgers for over 200 years.
Of 15,508 Salzburgers who initially settled in the province, nearly 12,000 were first received at the
expense of the state and were placed in field, farm or timber cutting work. They received a 3 year tax
exemption, generous credits, subsidies to their various construction costs and a release from military
service. The King personally developed the highly sophisticated and advanced social program.
While the majority of Salzburgers made their new homes in the rural countryside, 715 Salzburgers
made a home in the city of Königsberg itself, including 59 woolspinners, 28 woodcutters, 8 shoe-
makers, 2 butchers, 53 carpenters, 2 flax binders, 1 coppersmith, 1 draughtsman and a farmhand.
The craftsmen enjoyed full freedom of city trade. The new citizens were self sufficient, economical,
careful and frugal. Many would become educated and prosperous in the future.
Over three thousand Salzburgers found refuge and a new home in Memel, a region sorely devastated
by plague before their arrival, and they were greatly welcomed. Memel, near the lower reaches of the
Neman River in East Prussia, is a name found in sources from even before the 13th century.
Two hundred or so exiled Salzburgers also found a new home in Tilsit and mingled with French,
Scottish and Dutch refugees already settled there. Tilsit had grown up around a Teutonic knights'
castle known as the Schalauner Haus which was founded in 1288, receiving its city privileges in
1552. It sets on the left bank of the Niemen between Memel and Konigsberg. At this time, Tilsit had
a lively trade with ports as far away as Russia. Never very large, Tilsit was a peaceful place with a
variety of churches. Other Salzburgers settled in Pomerania and in the East Prussian region called the
Masurian Lakes area, comprised of the German rural districts of Osterode, Neidenburg, Ortelsburg,
Sensburg, Lyck, Lötzen, Johannisburg and parts of the districts of Angerburg, Rastenburg and
Goldap. Some Salzburgers also made their way to Danzig, Elbing and parts of Pomerania.
Although most public accounts carefully painted a rosy picture of the new inhabitants, some officials
in charge of helping the Salzburgers adjust to their new East Prussian homeland were not so
generous, and there are several accounts of mischief and bad behavior among some of the exiles.
Sources close to the King complained that they were "excessively stubborn, lazy and pig- headed"
and prone to gambling, excessive drinking, promiscuity and chronic complaining. It was said that the
young people would often flippantly run off to go looking for old friends. Sometimes described as
"discourteous, insolent and coarse, especially when drunk," they were not employed at the estates of
the Prussian aristocrats, some of whom viewed the Salzburgers as "hillbillies."