How the City of Rhinelander Got Its Name

Feb 13, 2019

In this week's A Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tell us how the city of Rhinelander got its name.

The name Rhinelander is tourism manager’s dream.  It is a name that evokes images of the German Rhineland, of crisp Riesling wine, and of boisterous beer halls filled with joyous polka music.  Of course, as anyone versed in local history will tell you, the town of Rhinelander was not named for the German Rhineland.  Rather, it was named for Frederick W. Rhinelander, who was president of the Milwaukee, Lake Shore, and Western Railroad.  Anderson and Webster Brown bestowed Rhinelander’s name on the new town in a bid to induce the railroad to extend a spur to their location in order to benefit their lumber business.  Nevertheless, the railroad is long gone, but the name remains, so for the benefit of the tourist industry is there a connection to the German Rhineland?  As it turns out, if we trace the Rhinelander genealogy back far enough, there is indeed a connection.

From 1618-1648 Europe had been racked by religious warfare between Protestant and Catholic Christians.  The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ended the Thirty Years War, but it did not end religious strife.  In 1685 King Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes.  The Edict of Nantes had been in place since 1598 and was designed to grant religious tolerance to Calvanist Protestants, known as Huguenots, in France.  The German Rhineland, although part of the loose confederation known as the Holy Roman Empire, was falling under the sway of the powerful French king, and some German Calvinists decided it was time to leave.

One of these Calvinists was Philip Jacob Rhinelander, who was born and raised in the village of Oberwesel on the Rhine River.  In 1686, one year after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Philip Rhinelander left Germany and sailed for America.  That same year he arrived in the small colony of New York and quickly established himself in the local community by purchasing real estate in lower Manhattan.  As New York grew in size and importance, the Rhinelander family grew wealthy and became one of New York’s “old money” families.  It is from Philip Jacob Rhinelander that the Rhinelander family is descended and the town of Rhinelander gets its name.  Frederick W. Rhinelander’s mother, Mary Lucretia Lucy Ann Stevens, was the daughter of General Ebenezer Stevens, who commanded the U.S. artillery at the Battle of Saratoga during the American Revolution, so the family is quite distinguished.  But it is not just railroads, old New York money, and distinguished connections that gave Rhinelander its name.  There is a very real link over time to old world Germany in it too.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio and the web by Mackenzie Martin. Music for this commentary came from Ludwigs Steirische Gaudi and Podington Bear. The photo above belongs to the Library of Congress and can be found online here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.