German Origins of John Whitmer, Muhlenberg Co., KY, Part 1

NOTE: The intent of what I am calling my family tree experiment is to encourage all genealogists to treat on line information as possible hints, clues or answers to empty branches on their family trees. I have been researching for 35 years and I still remember hearing stories about mistakes in books published in the 1800s(!) and how family historians were continuing to perpetuate myths that had been debunked years before. That was long before the internet was around. Errors abound in family histories found on line because the same thing is happening that happened in the 19th and 20th centuries. The difference is that the internet provides instantaneous contact with mistakes. My hope is that many of John Whitmer’s on line family trees will be updated so that future researchers have the benefit of accessing cited documents that they can read for themselves.

Although genealogy, as a hobby, is more popular today that it has ever been, I am disappointed with the number of people claiming to be “researching” their family history. That is because researching now usually means finding your family in someone’s tree and importing the information, right or wrong. Dave, my husband, is descended from John and Catherine Whitmer, whom I have blogged about before.

However, I have never told the story of how I discovered the ancestral home of John’s family. Back in the early 1990’s, I hunted down every clue I could find about the family and eventually discovered their European home. I wrote up the story of my genealogical adventure and submitted the article to the Kentucky Genealogical Society, which published it in the summer 1993 issue.

John Whitmer, Page 81

I was later contacted by the Society and told that I won second place for the best researched article submitted that year. I am proud of the work I did on the Whitmer family.

Today, John Whitmer has hundreds, if not thousands, of descendants. I looked just on one website and found 358 family trees that contained my John Whitmer. Of those 358 trees, only three had John’s parents correctly named as Johannes Wittmer and Maria Elisabetha Holtz. One of those three trees was mine. A fourth tree had Maria Elisabetha as his mother, but still incorrectly identified his father as Michael Whitmer. I’d say the remainder of the trees were split quite evenly, with some showing no parents known and the other half naming Michael Whitmer and his wife, Barbara from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania as his father and mother.

I’ve decided to conduct an experiment and do a good genealogical deed to start off 2015. First, I am going to post the Whitmer article in its entirety here on my blog. The original article was eight pages long and there are 85 footnotes, which I will include on the blog. Next, I am going to begin contacting the Whitmer tree members letting them know that his origins have been identified. Perhaps in about one month’s time, in early February, I will check to see how many trees have been updated. I will check again in the beginning of March. I am most curious to see if I can make a difference so that others will have the correct information.

So, as of 3 January 2015, the count (excluding my own tree) is 355 trees with wrong parentage or unknown parentage for John Whitmer and 2 trees with  correct parentage for a total of 357 trees. I wonder what the count will be in March??

Here is the first part of my article:

John Whitmer of Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky

When I first began researching my husband’s family history, and rather quickly came upon the line of John and Catherine Whitmer, it appeared to me that it would be relatively easy to trace this family back for at least a couple more generations. The name did not seem terribly common and a maiden name of sorts (Valde) was given for Catherine. It could have been a corruption of “Welty.” What followed became a classic lesson in documenting all information firsthand, rather than accepting the word of others.

I began my search with the information about John Whitmer in Muhlenberg County, KY. Census records, land deeds, tax rolls, and John’s will provided more than enough primary documentation. However, I wanted to take him out of Kentucky back to his parents. A friend of mine saw an ad for a genealogical book titled The Family History of Eula Mae Miller Fisher.1This Miller family was from Muhlenberg County and included some information on other local German families, such as the Shavers, who had ties by marriage to the Whitmers in Kentucky. I was very interested in this book because the Whitmers and other German families in the area appeared to be very clannish, intermarrying for at least 200 years. The Shavers had been traced from Botetourt County, VA. A while later, I also found a book called The Whitmer Family Genealogy2 about John and his Muhlenberg County descendants, put together for the Bicentennial by Dallis and Ann Whitmer. The Whitmers opened with an introduction that records had been compiled from cemeteries, court records, censuses, obituaries, marriage records, Bible records and archival information in Philadelphia. It also made the statement that there was an old Whitmer family Bible, written in German, that was given to John Whitmer by Frena Whitmer Nesbitt in 1809. This book also placed John Whitmer in the family of Michael and Barbara Whitmer of Manor Township, Lancaster County, PA.

Lastly, a quick check of the LDS Church IGI showed a listing for Jacob, John and Catherine Whitmer, children of John and Catherine, baptized in the German Reformed Church of Frederick, Maryland. The baptismal dates corresponded closely to birth dates on their gravestones in Kentucky, leading me to believe it was the same John Whitmer family.

There appeared to be quite a wealth of information about John Whitmer and his origins and enough information was provided in the various publications to being to prove this information to my own satisfaction, using primary sources.

However, as I wrote to confirm these facts, I quickly ran into stone walls. My only initial success was taking a guess that since the families were closely tied together in Kentucky and the Shavers came from Botetourt County, VA, perhaps John Whitmer followed the same route. The Botetourt County clerk found a marriage record for Martin Miller and Catherine Whitmer, identified as the daughter of John, married on 7 Jan 1808,3 although this marriage was omitted from the published volume of Botetourt marriages. My next venture proved that Frena Witmer Nesbitt could not have possibly given the Bible to John in 1809, as she had died by the time her father wrote his will in the 1790’s. Frena Witmer, wife of Nathaniel Nesbitt, was the daughter of Peter and Anna Catharine Baughman Witmer of Lebanon Township, Lancaster, PA, now Lebanon County, PA. Peter left a will dated 31 Oct 1794 which was probated in Jan 1795 in Dauphin County, now Lebanon County, PA.4 In it, he left equal shares of his “movables” to four living children and to children of deceased daughters Veronica (Frena) and Catharine. Finally, I traced the old German Whitmer family Bible (published in 1736 in Basel, Switzerland) to Christus Gardens in Gatlinburg, TN, where the clerk made a photocopy of the handwritten material in the Bible5 I sent a copy of the writing to a translator for the German Genealogical Society of America,6 telling her only that I wanted to know if a typed translation done in the 1940’s did, indeed, match the original Bible inscription stating that John’s wife’s name was Catherine Valde. Her reply was that the original writing was a list of names which, unknown to her, were the names of the children of John and Catherine Whitmer, apparently in birth order. The third child named was Catherine, my husband’s ancestress. For this fourth child, a son, Valentine, John wrote “Valde”, probably meaning the nickname “Velty” or “Felty”, frequently used for Valentine. No mention of John’s wife was made in the writing of the Bible, and apparently from the 1940 translation came the misinformation that his wife was “Catherine Valde”, which was actually a combination of the names of two of the children linked without a comma.

I had now disproven John’s parentage and Catherine’s maiden name. On the positive side, I could place him in Frederick Maryland in the late 1770’s, in Botetourt County, VA in 1808 and in Muhlenberg County by the 1810 census. By sheer coincidence, I could also prove John’s residence in Rockingham County, VA before he moved on to Botetourt County. I saw a biography of a grandchild of John’s that stated that Valentine Whitmer was born in Rockingham County.7 While talking to a genealogy pal, she mentioned that she was working on a German line in Rockingham County and that there were some church records still in existence for the 1780’s, when Valentine was born, because she had a copy of a baptismal record for 1786. We were both shocked when she got out the photocopy of the record which fit into her line and found that the last entry on the very same page (the only page she had from those records) was the baptism of Valentine, son of John and Catherine Whitmer, on Christmas Day 1786! A check of those records, to be explained more fully later on, also showed the baptism of a daughter, Maria Elizabeth, on 4 Oct 1788. This daughter apparently died soon, but her name turned out to be a piece of evidence linking John to his parents.

Finally, while looking at Maryland records, and eliminating Benjamin Whitmore of Frederick County as a father of John, I came across an obscure statement on early Frederick settlers that a John Whitmore emigrated from Barbelroth, Zweibruecken in 1753.8 At this point, I left the published secondary sources on John Whitmer and worked solely from primary sources. The remainder of this article will document some of the ancestors and descendants of John Whitmer, born Johannes Wittmer, and baptized in the Evangelical Reformed Church of Barbelroth, Pfalz, German on 27 June 1751.9

Barbelroth is a small village in the Palatinate. It is not in Zweibruecken, as stated by Schildknecht, but is instead about halfway between Landau and Karlsruhe. Although the Barbelroth Evangelical Reformed Church records begin in 1596, the Wittmer family does not appear until 20 Oct 1672, when the baptism of Susanna, daughter of Johannes Jacob and Christina Wittmer is recorded.

It is possible that Johannes Jacob (aka Hans Jacob) Wittmer was born in Altnau, Thurgau, Switzerland. There is a baptismal record there for a child of his name dated 12 Aug 1644, which matches the age of Hans Jacob at his death. If they are the same person, his father is recorded as “Widmer” and his mother is listed as “Anna Pejerin.” There is a second Hans Jacob Widmer baptized there a few years later on 2 Feb 1647. Father is listed as Hans Jacob Widmer and mother as Anna Widmer. It is not known whether this is the same set of parents, who likely lost their older son or if these records represent two different families. No death record has been found in Altnau for the elder child.

There is a gap in births of the Wittmer children. It is not known whether Susanna Wittmer happened to be a daughter of an earlier Johannes Jacob and Christina, whether the couple lost several young children in a row, or if they removed from the area for several years. The mortality rate among children was high in Barbelroth, as can be seen from the gaps in births, burials of young children and the lack of marriage dates for this family, so they may well have lost three or four children.

No other records have been found to document the lifestyle of the Wittmers in Barbelroth. They were most likely peasant farmers who had a difficult life. Why they settled in Barbelroth is not known, although they probably didn’t move because of religious persecution. The Reformed faith was the accepted church of the majority. Perhaps they sought a better life in Germany and then for the same reason emigrated to the New World almost a century later.

Johannes Jacob Wittmer married Christina Konigs on 26 Sept 1671 in Barbelroth, Germany. Johannes, or Hans Jacob as he appears in Barbelroth records, was likely born in the 1640’s, as was his wife. She was the daughter of Jacob Konigs, but a birth record has not been found for her.

Bold font number citations correspond to footnotes at the end of the article.

Children of Johannes Jacob and Christina (Konigs) Wittmer:9

i. Susanna, bapt. 20 Oct 1672, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; married Nicholas Wild, 10 Jan 1701, Barbelroth, Germany
ii. Hans Adam, bapt. 2 Aug 1679, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; married Anna Maria Joly, 6 Jan 1705, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany.
iii. Benedict, bapt. 5 Mar 1682; died 24 Jan 1753, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; married Anna Christina Estermann, 28 Jan 1706, Barbelroth, Germany.
iv. Maria Sarah, bapt. 8 June 1684, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; married Hans George Scherr, 21 Nov 1713, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany.
v. Elisabetha Catharina, bapt. 24 Nov 1686; died 10 May 1687, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany.
vi. Johannes Nicholas, bapt. 10 Aug 1689, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; died 31 Oct 1721, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; married Maria Barbara Daum, 15 July 1720, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany.
vii. Johannes Jacob, bapt. 9 Aug 1693, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; died 3 June 1730, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; married Margaretha Elisabetha Estermann, 19 Jan 1717, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany.

Benedict2 (Johannes Jacob1) was baptized 5 Mar 1682, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; died 24 Jan 1753, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; married Anna Christina Estermann, 28 Jan 1706, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany. Anna Christina was likely the daughter of Abraham and Anna Catharina (Lind) Estermann, baptized 3 Aug 1684, Mannheim, Baden, Germany, which was only about 40 miles from Barbelroth. The Estermanns may have removed to Barbelroth sometime after the birth of their daughters, as Abraham died in Barbelroth on 28 Apr 1721. Abraham was the son of Hans Wendel Estermann, as he reported at the time of his marriage, but no further information has been found about his family. Anna Catharina Lind was a widow when she married Abraham. Her deceased husband was Conrad Wacker, no further information found.

Children of Benedict and Anna Christina (Estermann) Wittmer:

i. Benedict, bapt. 12 Apr 1708, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; died 28 Feb 1760, Zeiskam, Bayern, Germany; married Maria Elisabeth Weinheimer, 14 Feb 1736, Zeiskam, Bayern, Germany. Zeiskam is only about 33 miles from Barbelroth.
ii. Johannes, bapt. 28 Dec 1710, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; married Maria Elisabetha Holtz, 2 Feb 1740, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany.
iii. Anna Maria, bapt. 26 Nov 1713, Barbelrith, Pfalz, Germany; died 18 Jan 1735, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; unmarried.
iv. Anna Christina, bapt. 15 Dec 1715, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany. No further information.
v. Anna Margaretha, bapt. 22 Apr 1724, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; died 22 Aug 1734; unmarried.

Johannes Wittmer was baptized 28 Dec 1710, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; died between 1764-1775, probably in Frederick, MD; married Maria Elisabetha Holtz, 2 Feb 1740, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany. Maria Elisabetha was baptized 7 Oct 1716, Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany; died 6 June 1794, Frederick, MD. She was the daughter of Johann Michael and Catharina Elisabetha (Scheer) Holtz of Barbelroth. Johann Michael was baptized 30 Dec 1691, Barbelroth. Her paternal grandparents were Johannes and Anna Christina (Schaffer) Holtz who married 25 July 1691 in Barbelroth; her maternal grandfather was Joh. Nicholas Scheer, born 1650 and died 20 Apr 1726, Barbelroth.

Children of Johannes and Maria Elisabetha (Holtz) Wittmer:

i. Juliana Margaretha, bapt. 3 Nov 1740, Barbelroth, Germany; buried 29 Mar 1741, Barbelroth Germany.9
ii. Susanna Margaretha, bapt. 27 Oct 1741, Barbelroth, Germany; buried 30 Oct 1741, Barbelroth, Germany.9
iii. Margaretha, bapt. 2 Dec 1742, Barbelroth, Germany.9 No further information.
iv. Anna Maria, bapt. 6 Dec 1745, Barbelroth, Germany; buried 9 Aug 1747, Barbelroth, Germany.9
v. Johannes,
bapt. 27 June 1751, Barbelroth, Germany9; died Muhlenberg County, KY; married Catherine, c1778, probably Frederick, MD.
vi. Eva Margaretha, born c1755, probably Frederick, MD; married (1) Henry Meyer, c1776 (2) David Schultz, 28 Sept 1783, Frederick, MD.
vii. Elias, bapt. 20 Feb 1757, Evangelical Reformed Church, Frederick, MD. Sponsors were Elias and Albertina Brunner.11
viii. Johannes Michael, born 2 Apr 1760 (born Wednesday before Easter 1760); bapt. 7 Apr 1760 (Easter Monday), Frederick, MD12; died by 20 Oct 180513; married Catherine Steckel.14

Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

9 thoughts on “German Origins of John Whitmer, Muhlenberg Co., KY, Part 1”

  1. You’re very kind to try to help descendents of your ancestors, who may or may not appreciate your input. Put on your raincoat and dance anyway!

  2. Linda, this is a great blog. You are such an inspiration. I believe I will start my tree over. There are a number of things wrong in it. I am looking forward to your next post.

  3. I appreciate your work and your letting people know that corrections need to be made, but I also understand the efforts of family history enthusiasts who see the information from other trees as being better than nothing and as a place to start verification. Most family historians preface their trees with admonition to verify all material. There is a wide range in skills, talents and sources of individual researchers. I appreciate the generosity of all who share and will evaluate the work before ultimately using or discarding it.

  4. I’ll have to Set The Example….I don’t know anybody really that is SERIOUSLY researching my African Slave Ike Ivery his 3 wives and 23 children. So I will be mindful and dutiful not to do those things for him and future Historians for his Line. I have a lot of Responsibility and you just made me Mindful of that. Thanks for this.

  5. It’s several years since you published this, but you’ve convinced me. I’ve deleted the erroneous info from my tree and will work from your information. Thanks for sharing all your hard work.

    Incidentally, I’ve visited the Grundy Cemetery where John and Catherine are buried. It’s in poor shape and deteriorates more each year. Sure would like to form a group to put a new fence around it and do some conservation on the remaining grave stones.
    Kim (Whitmer) Munsterman

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