How the Vitters Got to Clerval

Although they've never met in person, Jeffrey Scott Vitter and Jean-Pierre Vitter, who are 4th cousins 1x removed, feel a special kinship through their shared passion for genealogy. In 2002, Jean-Pierre put together a comprehensive and entertaining account of the Vitter generations, entitled A tous les Vitter du monde (To All the Vitters of the World).

The story starts with their ancestor Hérard Vitter/Witter, who moved from "l'Autriche antérieure" to the town of Clerval in the Doubs region of France in the spring of 1799. Hérard's father in the old country was Mathieu Vitter, and Hérard's son Pierre is the one who emigrated from France to New Orleans in 1843, as described in the history "The Aha! Moment That Led to This Website."

Jean-Pierre chronicled many of Hérard's descendants as well as some family legends. One legend concerned two brothers who came to Clerval from Austria en route to America. One brother fell in love and stayed behind, and the other brother continued onward, reportedly to the Galápagos. Another legend recounts that a Vitter ancestor was an illegitimate son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles Quint (Charles V)! The big mystery that remained was exactly where Hérard Vitter came from originally. All we knew at the time was the cryptic information Franche-Comté, France genealogist Roger Chipaux found in August 2000, namely, that Hérard was from "Biethiruge (canton de Chafferesse Suenchingen)" according his 1799 marriage record and from "Süenchingen (canton de Schaffhouse (Bade))" according his 1833 naturalization record.

Jean-Pierre solved the mystery 17 years later in a follow-up account, Le sang qui coule dans nos veines (The Blood That Runs in Our Veins), which revealed that Hérard Vitter was actually born as "Erhardus Wider," and in Spring 1799 he moved to Clerval, France from Bietingen (near Gottmadingen), Germany, which is on the Swiss border, three miles north of the Rhine River and five miles northeast of the northern Swiss village of Schaffhouse. He changed his name from the German "Wider" to the similar-sounding French spelling "Witter" and eventually to "Vitter." We now know of a long line of Hérard's Wider ancestors in Germany, such as his father Mathieu (Mathaeus Wider), grandfather Joannes Wider, and great grandfather Simon Wider. More is yet to come.

Bietingen was formerly part of "l'Autriche antérieure" ("exterior Austria"), thus relating to the family legend about Austria. Hérard got married six months after arriving in Clerval, so presumably Hérard is the brother who fell in love and stayed behind; we haven't yet resolved the part of the legend about his brother and where he went. Knowing the actual family names and birthplaces is leading to lots of new information about Vitter/Wider relatives throughout Europe and America. There is also a family connection 1,300 years ago with King of Francs Pépin le Bref and his son, Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne! But we still haven't found the connection to Charles Quint ;-)

BietingenToClerval 150-mile train route from Bietingen, Germany to Clerval, France (click to zoom on Google Maps).

One big open question is whether there is any relation between the Vitter line from Clerval (to which Jean-Pierre and Jeff belong) and the Vitter line from the Ardennes region (to which, for example, Yves Vitter and Valérie (née Vitter) Mouradian belong). Jean-Pierre believes that the name change from Wider to Witter Vitter makes it improbable that the two lines of Vitters are related since they would each have had to make the same name change independently. Making the same change independently is certainly feasible, since "Vitter" in French is pronounced essentially like "Wider" is pronounced in German (though with the emphasis on the second syllable rather than the first), but it still does raise questions.

A family story suggests that the Ardennes line of the Vitter family originally lived in Alsace and relocated to the Ardennes when Germany appropriated Alsace during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Perhaps the story of "the other brother," when resolved, may shed light on the connections to other parts of the family.

It's interesting to note that Jeff Vitter's spouse Sharon (née Weaver) Vitter, who grew up around Paola, Miami County, Kansas, had a 1st cousin 2x removed in nearby Johnson County, Kansas named Evelyn Leona Morgan, and Evelyn married Forest Ellis Witter, whose ancestors came from the Strasbourg, France area, not far from Clerval and Bietingen, Germany. For example, Forest's great great grandfather Michael Witter was born in Hattmat, Bas-Rhin, Alsace, France circa 1784. His son John emigrated to suburban Kansas City, Missouri, just east of Sharon's home town of Paola, Kansas.

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