The Heraldry of My Forefathers

Hey everybody, Mike here. I was going through my family tree and thought I’d see if I could find some more information online. Now, my family tree is already pretty extensive. Erin always laughs at me because every time one of those commercials comes on TV I always chuckle and say “Awww you traced your family tree back to the Civil War? That’s so adorable. My family records go back to the 1400’s.”

I realize that I am very lucky to have these records.

Before I get into my family history, I’d like to very quickly go over what a family coat of arms is. The first thing you should probably know is that a family coat of arms doesn’t exist in the way you likely think it does. Don’t waste your time on those websites that offer to sell you your family coat of arms because they’re fake. There is no coat of arms for all the people who share your last name. Just because your last name is Johnson, doesn’t mean that the coat of arms you found online belongs to you. In fact it almost certainly doesn’t. A coat of arms belongs to an individual. Only one person has the right to bear a particular coat of arms at a time. If a man has a son, that son can adopt his father’s coat of arms with the addition of a symbol to denote that he is the first-born son and not his father. The second born son can adopt the father’s coat of arms with yet another symbol. When the father dies, the eldest son has the right to inherit the father’s arms if he wants to.

Remember what the purpose of heraldry is; it is to identify you on the battle field. If wouldn’t do to have an entire family running around with the same heraldry on their shield. Everyone’s coat of arms is unique to them. So unless you can prove that you are the first son, of the first son, of the first son, etc of the person who originally bore that coat of arms you found online, you don’t have the right to claim it. It doesn’t matter if you share their surname. The good news is that, in America, everyone has the right to bear arms (yes, pun intended) so you can make your own coat of arms and you can even make it official by registering is with the American Heraldry Society. I did, but I’ll get to that later.

The family on my Dad’s Mother’s side comes from Switzerland. More specifically, they come from a small canton in the dead center of Switzerland called Obwalden; one of the original three cantons that formed Switzerland in 1291.

The coat of arms of Obwalden looks like this:

My great grandparents lived in two different cities from each other and, as far as I know, they never met while living in Switzerland. Despite living about 16km from each other, they wouldn’t meet until they independently moved to America. I think that’s pretty amazing.

One lived in Sarnen, the capital of Obwalden.

And the other lived in Lungern.

I knew all of this already, but reading one of my favorite Heraldry blogs tonight, I got to wondering if there was any record of any of my ancestors’ coats of arms. After a little digging I found [THIS WEBSITE]

I searched for Schallberger (my great grandfather’s last name) and found two variations:

Without a name or date attached to these coats of arms, I can’t cross reference with my records to see if they belonged to any of my ancestors. But there is a bell theme going on here so I can’t help but wonder if any of the Schallbergers that I’m related to had a bell on their coats of arms.

And the I searched for Imfeld (my great grandmother’s maiden name) and found this:

JACKPOT! In the early portion of my family tree, the men are all named Niklaus and Johan in an alternating pattern each generation and the date in this image roughly corresponds to a Niklaus Imfeld in my records. Was this his coat of arms? I can’t know for sure but it seems almost certain that his coat of arms would have at least followed this theme because the website has 4 other variations belong to 4 other Imfelds and they all have common elements. All but one of them are red, most use the white or yellow T shape, many of them have stars, etc. I might never definitively know if this belonged to my ancestor but it would be reasonable to assume that his looked similar to this; and that makes me very excited.

So after all that, you should now be able to see why I chose the elements I chose when I made my coat of arms:
Coat of Arms

Well, technically just the design on the shield is the coat of arms. All of the neat little do-dads around the shield constitute my full achievement of arms.

The hammer represents my last name, Smith, and my love for creating things. The white chevron represents the Alps in Switzerland, and the backwards facing key represents Obwalden (Remember the arms of Obwalden above?) It’s backwards facing because shields were generally carried in the left hand.

The crest (the part on top of the helmet) is an anvil (more smith imagery) with a raven on top of it (my favorite animal and in norse mythology it could either be Hugin who represents thought or Munin who represents memory). And again the raven is clutching a key in his beak and facing backwards towards the past. The crossed pole-axes or Halberds are iconic Swiss weapons. And the motto on the scroll at the bottom is going to say “Ubi libertas ibi patria” which means “Where there is liberty, there is my country.”

So that’s my adventure for the day.


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