When Elizabeth O’Neal announced this month’s theme for the Genealogy Blog Party – Immigrant Ancestors – my first thought was that this would be a really simple choice. Then, I stopped to think more about it and I actually had a hard time deciding which immigrant on which side of the family – my husband’s or mine – about whom to write.
Eventually, Johannes Wittmer made the cut for three reasons. First, the Whitmers, as they came to be called, were from the Palatinate area of Germany, as were the Stufflebeans. Somehow the two lines managed to find each other almost two centuries later when Earl Stufflebean married Pearl Brasher in 1916 in Norman, Oklahoma. I doubt that Pearl, my husband’s grandmother, had any idea about her Palatine ancestors.
The second reason I chose Johannes Wittmer is to explain the lengths with which I had to go to break through the brick wall between Frederick County, Maryland and Barbelroth, Germany.
Lastly, like many immigrants, Johannes Wittmer had a hard life, but left his homeland in the hopes that his family would improve their circumstances. I’d like to share his family story.
Johannes Wittmer was baptized 28 Decemeber1710 in Barbelroth, Pfalz, Germany, the son of Benedict and Anna Christina (Estermann) Wittmer. The family knew the common heartache of losing children, as Johannes was one of two sons and three daughters. However, only his brother, Benedict, and Johannes survived to adulthood, married and had children.
Johannes married Maria Elisabetha Holtz on 2 February 1740 in Barbelroth. Maria Elisabetha was baptized on 7 October 1716, also in Barbelroth. She was the daughter of Johann Michael and Catharina Elisabetha (Scheer) Holtz.
Like their parents before them, Johannes and Maria Elisabetha had a number of children. Juliana, Susanna, Margaretha, Anna Maria and Johannes were all born in Barbelroth, but only Johannes lived to make the trip to their new home in Frederick County, Maryland.
Three more children were born to the couple in Maryland – Eva, Elias and Johannes Michael. No further record is found for Elias aside from his baptism and it is likely he died very young.
Children of Johannes and Maria Elisabetha (Holtz) Wittmer:
- Juliana Margaretha, baptized 3 November 1740, Barbelroth, Germany; buried 29 March 1741, Barbelroth Germany.
- Susanna Margaretha, baptized 27 October 1741, Barbelroth, Germany; buried 30 Oct 1741, Barbelroth, Germany.
- Margaretha, baptized 2 December 1742, Barbelroth, Germany. No further record and she likely died young.
- Anna Maria, baptized 6 December 1745, Barbelroth, Germany; buried 9 August 1747, Barbelroth, Germany.
- Johannes, baptized 27 June 1751, Barbelroth, Germany; died 10 December 1828, Muhlenberg County, Kentucky; married Catherine (MNU), c1778, probably Frederick County, Maryland.
- Eva Margaretha, born c1755, probably Frederick County, Maryland; married (1) Henry Meyer, c1776 (2) David Schultz, 28 September 1783, Frederick County, Maryland.
- Elias, baptized 20 February 1757, Evangelical Reformed Church, Frederick County, Maryland. Sponsors were Elias and Albertina Brunner. No further record.
- Johannes Michael, born 2 April 1760 (born Wednesday before Easter 1760); baptized 7 April 1760 (Easter Monday), Frederick County, Maryland; died by 20 October1805, when the administration of his estate began; married Catherine Steckel.
On 22 May 1764, “John Whitmore” recorded a deed between himself and Daniel Dulaney of Annapolis, MD for Lots 230 and 231 in Frederick Town. This John Whitmore signed the deed as “Johannes Wittmer.” No further mention is made of Johannes in court, land or church records after this date, although wife Maria is on communion lists in 1766, 1773, and 1778. Also, a membership list of the Reformed Church in Frederick dated 1775 includes Margaretha, Maria Elisabetha and Johannes Wittmer. This Johannes is John, the son, as he was confirmed and received communion in 1768.
It is therefore likely that Johannes Wittmer died within a couple of years after the 1764 land deed was recorded. Maria Elisabetha lived a long life, passing away on 6 June 1794 in Frederick County, Maryland.
Johannes and Maria Elisabetha were part of a migration of Barbelroth citizens to Maryland in the 1750’s. This small group didn’t migrate because of religious issues, as they were members of the Lutheran church. However, life was difficult in the Palatinate with various factions waging wars for control, followed by political strife after the wars. Obtaining and keeping well paying jobs was also very hard to do, so it is likely that life in the colonies offered a more secure political future and the opportunity for economic success.
Maria Elisabetha’s relatives, the Holtz family, also settled in Frederick County, as did several other Barbelroth villagers. It was this FAN club that helped me identify their ancestral village in the 1990s, before the internet age.
Whitmore/Whitmer and Wittmer were not common surnames in Frederick County, Maryland in the mid 1700s. However, there were at least two John “Whitmores” – one part of the English-speaking family of Benjamin Whitmore – and the other my Johannes Wittmer, who was most definitely part of the German community.
It was quite simple to separate out the English and German speaking Whitmores and Wittmers/Whitmers. It was definitely not so easy to uncover clues to the ancestral home of Johannes Wittmer and his family.
This actually turned out to be a lengthy process conducted through library visits, microfilm readings, posting queries to genealogical societies and reading local genealogy newsletters and magazines. I also read every single book I could find about Frederick County, Maryland and Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where the Whitmers, actually Johannes’ and Maria Elisabetha’s son, John, next settled.
The Whitmer name did not seem terribly common and a maiden name of sorts (Valde) was given for John Jr.’s wife, 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, the son, in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. Census records, land deeds, tax rolls, and John’s will provided more than enough details about his family. 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. This 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. 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, Virginia.
A while later, I also found a book called The Whitmer Family Genealogy about John and his Muhlenberg County descendants there are tons of them), put together for the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 by Dallis and Ann Whitmer. The Whitmers opened with an introduction and made the statement that there was an old Whitmer family Bible, written in German, that was given to John Whitmer of Muhlenberg County) 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, Pennsylvania.
Lastly, a quick check of the old IGI in the Family History Library showed a listing for a Jacob, John and Catherine Whitmer, children of John and Catherine, baptized in the German Reformed Church of Frederick County, 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.
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 (through) Botetourt County, Virginia, 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 January 1808, (although this marriage was coincidentally omitted from the published volume of Botetourt marriages – a warning to check county courthouses, too.)
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 County, Pennsylvania, not of Michael and Barbara Whitmer.
Peter left a will dated 31 October 1794, which was probated in January 1795 in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. 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, Tennessee, where the clerk made a photocopy of the handwritten material in the Bible. I sent a copy of the writing to a translator for the German Genealogical Society of America, 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 the 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 in that 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 in between the names.
I had now disproven John’s parentage and Catherine’s maiden name. On the positive side, I could place him in Frederick County, Maryland in the late 1770’s, in Botetourt County, Virginia in 1808 and in Muhlenberg County by the 1810 census.
By sheer coincidence, I could also prove John’s residence in Rockingham County, Virginia before he moved on to Botetourt County. I saw a biography of a grandchild of John’s that stated that Valentine Whitmer (John’s son) was born in Rockingham County.
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 also included the baptism of a daughter, Maria Elizabeth, on 4 October 1788. This daughter apparently died soon, but her name turned out to be a piece of evidence linking John to his parents, given German naming patterns, which John and Catherine (MNU) Whitmer followed. (First son named for father’s father, second son for mother’s father, first daughter for mother’s mother, second daughter for father’s mother, etc.)
Finally, while looking at Maryland records, and eliminating Benjamin Whitmore of Frederick County as a father of John, I came across an obscure footnote on early Frederick County settlers that a John Whitmore emigrated from Barbelroth, Zweibruecken in 1753. (C.E. Schildknecht, Editor,Monocacy and Catoctin, Some Settlers of Western Maryland and Adjacent Pennsylvania and Their Descendants 1725-1988, 2:106.)
This was the vital clue I needed. I quickly came across the Wittmer family recorded in Barbelroth church records (on microfilm) back as early as 1672. It is actually a very old village.
The Wittmer FAN club was also found in those same records. All disappear from Barbelroth in the 1750s and appear in Frederick County, Maryland. Success! 🙂
To summarize all this in one sentence: When looking for the ancestral home, leave no stone unturned for possible clues!