By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —
A man walked into the museum. Handing me four folded documents he said, “These are German. Do y’all want them?” A thrill moved through my fingertips to my brain as I took them.
The documents were written on vellum. By vellum, I don’t mean the paper you buy at Hobby Lobby. I mean REAL vellum: calf or sheepskin that has been soaked for days and then scraped clean of flesh and hair. Skin that has been stretched and then scraped with a special curved blade to a smooth, even thickness and dried. Skin that has been rubbed to prepare a surface that will accept ink.
The documents, even folded, screamed “official,” “expensive,” and “old.” And old they were, for written on the front were the dates 1607, 1614, 1620 and 1630. My hands shook as I gingerly unfolded the oldest one. The vellum felt soft like a lamb’s ear but also stiff and resisted being opened. The handwriting, in a warm brown ink, was as clear as the day it was written. A large ornamental capital “I” began a sentence, that surprisingly, I could read — “Ich, Susanna Von der Tann, geboren Von Waiblingen, Witwe…” (I, Susanna von der Tann, nee Waiblingen, widow…). And then the writing went into an archaic German script that I could not decipher.
“Yes,” I said, “we do want them, but I want to send them home.” I explained to him that the Sophienburg Museum’s purpose is to collect, preserve and tell the true stories of New Braunfels and Comal County. These documents were very precious and important to someone … in Germany.
He explained that he found them in his dad’s things. His father had been an engineer at Los Alamos, New Mexico. One day, his superior had handed him a box that had been left by whomever had the office before him; it contained the documents. My donor’s dad had just held onto them.
So many questions! My mind raced from thought to thought. How did the documents get to Los Alamos? Were they perhaps war booty from WWII? More importantly, who is Susanna van der Tann? Obviously, I would never know the why and how of their trip to Los Alamos, but maybe I could find out about Susanna.
I spent the next few hours googling and collecting information on Susanna von der Tann nee Waiblingen. Working at the Sopheinburg, I have become familiar with the threads of family information that have to be untangled in order to weave a complete story. It didn’t hurt to have a basic reading knowledge of German.
No one knows Susanna’s (or Osanna’s) actual birthdate; she began life after 1532. We do know that she officially married Eberhard von der Tann the Younger April 20, 1563. Later, in November of 1564, she and Eberhard had a very fancy wedding in the new Protestant church in the village of Tann. It was still in the process of being built by Eberhard’s father, Eberhard the Elder. A chef and a cook were brought in from abroad to prepare food. And what food! Expensive spices for the special dishes had been purchased at the Lenten Fair in Frankfort. They served 168 pounds of fresh pike from Riedesel and one ton of herring. An unknown amount of carp was sent as a gift by Ludwig von Boyneburg. As was customary, several individuals provided wild game: deer and wild boar from the Landgraf of Hesse, the Dukes of Saxony, the Counts of Henneberg and the Abbot of Fulda; a wild boar from Frau von Schachten; and rabbits from the Lords von Stein, von Basthiem and the von der Tann cousins. This was all liberally washed down with 395 gallons of wine from Kiedrich, 3 barrels from Würzburg, 4 barrels from Münnerstadt and 332 gallons of new wine from the von der Tann vineyards. The ceremony included 3 trumpeters, some pipers and an organist. Minstrels provided entertainment at the reception. The important guests arrived with many horses and stayed for several days — big fat German wedding style in the 16th century.
The newlyweds first lived in the household of his father, Eberhard the Elder, in Coburg and then in Weimar. They moved to the town of Vacha in November of 1568, and began construction on a large home with a loan from Eberhard’s older brother Malchior Arnak. Two sons and a daughter were added to the family.
And then on June 5, 1573, Eberhard the Younger died. He had contracted a violent “pestilence fever.” This was a form of petechial fever that lead to the 1560s and 1570s rendition of “The Plague” and one that proved “chiefly fatal to men of robust constitution.” Eberhard’s cousin described him as “a handsome, willing young man. I looked at him to become the older one in our family, because he was healthy of body.”
Susanna, now a widow, stayed in Vacha. Her father-in-law, Eberhard the Elder, gave her the family land and business at Dietlas for her sons’ inheritance. Her brother-in-law, Melchior Anark, was given guardianship over the three children and Susanna remained close to the von der Tann Family.
So what did I learn? That the von der Tanns were an important family and probably still had descendants. I always read the footnotes and bibliographies of the sources I find, and from a book on the family, I found references to a Tann Archive in the Hessian State Archive. I emailed them and was told that the library houses the von der Tann archives for the family but did not own it and gave me two descendants to contact. It was January 2020. I played email tag with Baron Michael von der Tann and he decided he’d rather I not mail the documents but that he was coming to the US for business and would pick them up.
And then there was March 2020.
This March, 2022, Baron von der Tann is finally making a trip to the US and, yes, he is coming to New Braunfels to pick up the 17th century vellum documents.
Susanna von der Tann’s papers are going home.
Forschungesergebnisse zur Tannʼschen Familiengeschichte im 16. Bis 19. Jahrhundert; Hans Körner, 2018; Geschlechts-Register Der Reichs-Frey-unmittelbaren Ritterschafft Landes zu Francken Löblichen Orts-Than und Verra, 1749; http://www.welt-der-wappen.de/Heraldik/aktuell/galerien3/galerie2492.htm.