There are conflicting stories about the precise heritage of my 7th-great grandfather, Augustin, a protestant minister born in 1661 in Germany. One claims he was rightful heir to an ancient well-known noble lineage; the other alleges he was the grandson of a common miller and an aristocratic pretender. Neither can be conclusively substantiated because the Thirty Years’ War, which ultimately and messily involved most of Europe, has permanently muddled the records. But no matter: either way, his story remains fascinating.
Whether he was of well-to-do birth or not, Augustin did marry well—to the youngest daughter of the Danish Count of Waldeck and Pyrmont, and began climbing the social ladder. And in the passions and patterns of the day, they settled down to raise a large family. At first, because of the warring French, they were forced to flee with their young children several times to new cities of refuge. In Vacha, while serving in a promising position in the Reformed Hessian Church, and soon after the birth of his sixth child, the preacher also fathered a girl born to the neighboring farm maid—thus forfeiting all his upwardly-mobile ambitions. Augustin lost his post, his profession, his future in Hesse, and his freedom. After serving a prison sentence in the city hall tower, he relocated his family to Brandenburg, Prussia, for a new vocational start, where he was appointed minister in Drossen.
But there he was poorly housed and paid,and the young family continued to suffer while Augustin worked, wrote, schemed, and strived; yet the blessings failed to reappear. While hunting, Augustin accidentally shot a boy. So the family moved again, this time to Berlin, where he attempted living as a traveling lecturer. Another child was born and the family remained impoverished.
The persistent preacher eventually removed to Drechen, where, as one of the historical accounts maintains, in this smallest province of Prussia, far from Berlin, he began his new aristocratic life as Senior Pastor. Three more children were born to the preacher and the Countess, and he began his life’s work on an exhaustive exposition and commentary of the New Testament. Sixty-five years old by the time he completed it, he presented a leather-bound, gilt-edged copy of the great book with his personal dedication to each of the two protestant European monarchs: King George I of England, and Frederick I of Prussia.
His calculated gift paid off. In gratitude, the Prussian Soldier King appointed Rev. Augustin as the Royal Supervising Preacher to the Reformed Church in Brandenburg; accepted his two eldest sons into privileged military service; and became godfather to the minister’s grandson in 1730, even bestowing his own name to the baby: Friedrich Wilhelm. The child grew up to serve his king, Frederick the Great, as Aide de Camp in the Seven Years’ War, and was later appointed Inspector General of the struggling Continental Army at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: the Baron Von Steuben, recognized paradigm of military leadership and profound difference-maker in world history.
So apparently it doesn’t matter if you have a particular ancestry or not. Nobody’s past is pure, nor free from troubles or bereft of opportunities to excel. Everyone has just one lifetime—his or her own— and no one else’s— to create a lasting legacy.
As for Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Gerhard Ludolph Augustin Von Steuben, he’s credited with instilling the high standards required by General Washington for his soldiers: integrity, knowledge, loyalty to conscience, and aversion to fraud and waste—and his legacy endures even today as a modern model for civilian professionals. He’s my first cousin, seven times removed. He’s in all the history books.