03 June 2003

Introducing the family: Gotthard Witzell

Over the past two or so years I have been doing a fair bit of genealogical research into my ancestry on the maternal side. With the advent of the internet this has become remarkably easy to do. In the course of this I, along with many others, have made the startling discovery of the familial interconnectedness of virtually everyone on earth. I will write more about this in the future.

Among my Finnish ancestors is a particularly interesting man, my 6th great grandfather, named Gotthard Witzell (1694-1756). Witzell was an inhabitant of Livonia, now the northern part of Latvia, but then part of Sweden. The inhabitants at that time spoke the old Livonian language, a Finno-Ugric language now close to extinction. At the age of about eighteen he joined the army of King Charles XII of Sweden at Hämeenlinna, Finland (better known as the birthplace of composer Jean Sibelius), in 1712 and remained there until 18 October 1728 with the rank of sergeant-major.

His brother Ernest Witzell was also in the army, achieving the same rank, until 1761, after which time he lived in the Finnish village of Kalajoki. Gotthard and Ernest were on the battlefield in Norway in 1718 and managed to survive, while many of their colleagues froze to death. Their father may have been Lieutenant Daniel Johan Witzell, who fell to the Russians at the Battle of Lesnaya in 1708. But there is no hard evidence of this.

The period coinciding with the Witzells' military service saw the Great Northern War between Sweden and Peter the Great's Russia. Russia won a decisive victory at the Battle of Poltava in 1709. Finland was occupied by Russia from 1714 to 1721 in a time known to Finns as the "Great Wrath." In 1714 Russian soldiers occupied the village of Alavieska and reputedly treated the inhabitants badly, going so far as to subject the mistress of the Tanhuala farm, Anna Nilsdotter (Anna Niilontytär), to a beating so severe as to send her to bed. Sweden lost the war to Russia, which gained considerable territory in the Baltic region, including the land on which St. Petersburg was built. (This year marks the 300th anniversary of that city's founding.) But most of Finland remained in Swedish hands for another century.

At the time he resigned from the army, Gotthard Witzell was fortifying the new, less favourable border with Russia. After his resignation, he retired to Tanhuala, near Alavieska, where he married. Judging from his surname, Witzell's ancestors may have been Baltic Germans, possibly arriving with the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century, but this is of course merely speculative. However, he himself likely spoke old Livonian.

The Lutheran Church of Finland kept meticulous parish records from the beginning of the 17th century, which makes genealogical research in that part of the world remarkably easy. Many of these are now being posted at internet sites.

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