There is hardly any documentation that gives any clues as to who my ancestors actually were apart from the name itself and the family coat-of-arms. However, there were Grandma’s inexhaustible stories. I recall them as they were told to me when I was only a little, preschool boy.
First, let me clear up the confusion of my last name, which is hyphenated, but not a double name. Often, people in North America seem to feel a need to correct my name, addressing me as “Herr von Cap”, although that may not be far off the mark as the ruling member of my ancestors was indeed called the “Lord of the Cape”, ‘cape’ (in German: Kap) referring to a piece of land jutting out into the sea, usually a high rock surrounded by water on three sides. In ancient times, ruling knights built their fortified castles on the top of a hill or, as in our case, on the top of a cape in the Baltic Sea. Although, now that I think about it, that stretch of coastline does not sport any high cliffs… it might have been on the Swedish side of the Eastern Sea. In any event, the Lord (in German: Herr) and his sons were, therefore, called ‘Kap-Herr’.
Our coat-of-arms is diagonally divided into two fields. The upper left section contains a “rocky, grass-covered, water-surrounded cape”. The right lower section contains, an “armoured, cocked arm holding in its right fist a marshal’s baton fitted with silver crowns at each end”. It is not the peaceful insignia of an honourable merchant. On top of the shield rests a knight’s helmet from which sprouts an ostrich plume. On our seal ring, the helmet and surrounding leafy decorations are replaced with the seven-pointed crown of a Baron.
As was the case in the Middle Ages, these Lords were the rulers over the country, but had to be on their defensive more often than not, thus building their castles high up, to be defended easily and to have a good vantage point to monitor the highways and their land (or water) from their ramparts as far as the eye could see. For the Lords to spot distant invading columns of armed men, as well as travelling merchant caravans, was essential, to prepare for battle as well as to intercept and extort their toll from innocent travelers. These Lords, living in fortified castles, would often be branded as highway robbers, and those who occupied fortified islands or capes, as pirates. My Grandma was not sure whether our ancestors were of the notorious highway robbers or pirates or, perhaps, both.
In any case, the family appeared to strive for respectability, since the first recorded member in the seventeenth century was a Lutheran pastor in a city called Ramkarsleben (or Renkersleben). However, within a few generations, the first recognized Kap-herr exerted his ancestral energy to regain formidable powers, this time in finance. He established his financial supremacy in the Kingdom of Saxony, where he had a magnificent mansion constructed for himself, and acquired and had several estates built for his offspring.
One thing has always puzzled me. This first Kap-herr, my great-great-grandfather, was knighted by the Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt (on July 27, 1868), and was named Hermann Freiherr von Kap-herr; a rank of nobility recognized in northern parts of Germany equal to the title of Baron in the southern principalities and in the Austrian empire. However, his seat of operation was in Dresden as well as in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he must have spent most of his time, being the financial advisor to and banker of the Czars, including the last one, Nicholas II. His children were born in St. Petersburg – Karl Johan (1827), Hermann Friedrich (1830), and Johann Christian (1837), and one daughter, Marie, who will make an important appearance in a later family story.
The connection with the house of Hesse-Darmstadt must have come through the service my great-great-grandfather had given to Nicholas II, who fell in love with and ultimately married Alexandria Feodorowna (1872-1918) in 1894, the daughter of Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Alice, who had married the Grand Duke Ludwig IV (1837-92) of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1862. Apparently, the cultivation of the relationship between the houses of Romanov and Hesse-Darmstadt included some financial transactions facilitated by the Baron von Kap-herr.
In the nineteenth century there was a lively connection between Germans and the ruling class in St. Petersburg. As in Canada, where the very long winter makes the “snowbirds” migrate to Florida, so did the St. Petersburg people desire to spend the cold months in the subtropical Crimean on the Black Sea. To enable this annual migration, the Russian government ordered the construction of a 2,000+ km railway from St. Petersburg to Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula, and authorized the Baron von Kap-herr to organize a construction consortium and its financing.
The powerful industrial empire of the Siemens family in Germany wished to be awarded the contract, so the founder of that enterprise sent his son, Karl Siemens, to Russia, where he organised the subsidiary company in 1853, but was unable to obtain the railway contract. According to my grandma’s story, Karl wrote to his father that in the several months he’d been in Russia, he was still unable to arrange a meeting to speak to the Baron von Kap-herr, who held all the strings in his hand. The father responded with a short telegram ordering Karl to marry the Baron’s daughter. After a short courtship, Karl was received by the family to ask the Baron for permission to marry his daughter. The Baron gave his permission and, in addition, gave him the contract for the railway.