In the Name of the King by Peter von Lipinsky

A long time ago, I saw an old English movie depicting several knights on horseback arresting some poor peasants. The arresting knight would say "In the Name of the King, you are under arrest". It all sounded so authoritative that no resistance would be expected. Little did I suspect when I watched that movie, that some 50 years later I would read that same saying "In the Name of the King" over and over again, from a most unlikely source. It was not this time in a movie theatre, but on film nevertheless; to be specific, on several rolls of microfilm from the LDS Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. These words gave me an idea on how to expand my genealogical research. After having viewed many, many rolls of church and civil records and also explored other avenues of research, I then started to study old Prussian court records on microfilm from the FHL, in hopes of shedding a little more light on the lives of my ancestors. Were they a bunch of thieves, defending themselves in a Prussian court of law? No, they were not. Many of our ancestors, possibly yours as well as mine, went to court to take on the Prussian government in order to protect their "privileges", granted to them long before the Prussian government became the official ruler of Kaszubia. "Privileges" had been granted to many of our ancestors as far back as the 1600s and 1700s for outstanding service to the Polish king, or the Fürst (Prince), who could also hold the title of Wojewoda and Starosta in charge of a district, or the whole land. Many "privileges" were granted to our Kaszubian ancestors, who were often rather poor and owned little or no land at all, and had almost no political influence. But the Kaszubs were a proud and a free people in their land which still struggled under the burden of serfdom.

Many privileges were granted by Fürst/Prince Michael Casimir Radzwill, the Fürstin/Princess Ann Radzwill and Fürst/Prince Carl Stanisław Radzwill circa 1730-1764, indeed, even before that time. Many of these privileges had been granted long before the first partition of Poland in 1772. That was the time when the Prussians came and removed the white eagle from all public buildings and replaced it with the black Prussian eagle. Now the Prussian government started to challenge many of the privileges granted to our ancestors long before. There was a wide variety of privileges which could be granted by the Wojewoda or Starosta, such as being able to own some land, perhaps varying in size from family to family, and from village to village.

Other privileges might enable one to fish with large or small fishing gear for one's own table only, or to obtain free firewood from the crown forest, free logs for cutting into lumber to build houses and other farm buildings, and being able to use the cut lumber to repair their farm buildings. Operating a flour mill would require a privilege being granted to the miller. A privilege was needed for brewing beer for your own table, and also one to be able to hunt deer, elk, moose and game birds. Even to be able to collect forest products, such as berries, mushrooms, bark, willow branches, moss, wild flowers and pine cones, came under the same stipulation.

In the olden days, our ancestors had to make a minimal yearly contribution to the Wojewoda or to the Starosta, but many things were free to them. We complain nowadays about having to pay income tax and other special taxes and surcharges, and also having to comply with a raft of rules and regulations in order to operate a business. From reading the old Prussian court records and granted privileges, we can see that our forefathers had to deal with much the same bureaucratic mess as we have today. Of course, the Prussian government tried to revoke some of the previously granted privileges. The government needed money to pay for its military services and consequently, nothing was free anymore under the new rulers. Interestingly enough, not all court cases were lost by our ancestors; sometimes they successfully fought the Prussian bureaucracy and won. But NOTE! Each written verdict, regardless of being found guilty or not guilty, was headed up "In the Name of the King".

A written verdict could be one page long, or as in the case of Anton Rekowski, 30 pages long. Some of the names in the Prussian court documents under study are: Anton Rekowski and Johann Zabrocki from the village of Schodna; Joseph Wysocki and the "Besitzerfrau" (lady who owns property) Pauline Gowan from the village of Squirawen; Jacob and Franz Oszowski from the village of Teerofen. There are also two Trzebiatowskis from Briesen mentioned in correspondence regarding privileges granted them dating back to 27 April 1727 and 15 June 1764. (Please note: the names of the villages are spelled here the same way as they appear in the court documents).

Following is the translation of one such court document.

“Wladyslaw Donhoflf, Voivode of the Koscierzyn Pomeranian Starosty (Domain), Peace Courtier.We are making it known, to whom it may concern, that I (have) three klotzens (parcels) of land in my starosty, by the Piechowskiline (border). This land is unused (empty) and is of no use to me and was held already in possession of the ancestors of one Dymitr Piechowski. I can see that I don't really need this land, so I grant these above-mentioned klotzens of land to this Dymitr Piechowski, son of Piechowski and he shall keep this land and use it forever. He will give a tribute to Saint Marcin, to the Koscierzyn Castle, every year, in the amount of two zloty. Also, he is to know about the border between the land of Mr. Piechowski and my starosty. With these klotzens of land, he can do whatever he wants and use them however he chooses to - he can give them away, sell them, or trade them, and make the best use of them (unable to read) and for his posterity. To make the matter valid and in force I sign this document with my own hand and order that it be sealed with my own seal. This took place in Koscierzyn, twentieth day of December, year of our Lord one thousand (unable to read) fifty (?) three. (probably 1753).”

So, the moral of the story is, if you encounter a "road block" in your genealogical research, (and who among us has not?), try a different approach to the church and civil records you have been searching. Check to see if there are any court documents available from the village or area in which your ancestors lived. You just never know what you may find.