One great challenge in genealogy is trying to make sense of conflicting records, knowing full well that one can never have a definitive, fully documented answer, but must instead make the most educated guess that can be deduced from the available information. Such is the case with my eighth great grandfather Hans Herr. There are not only disagreements over who is wife was, but also over his birth year, his immigration year, and the birth years of some of his children.
I will start with a presentation of Hans Herr’s basic history, and then move on to the disputed facts of his life.
The Swiss Anabaptists
Hans Herr (also known as John Herr) was born in Switzerland. Most histories give his birth date as September 17, 1639, but he may have been born as late as 1651. Members of his family were part of the non-resistant Anabaptist [meaning re-baptized] movement, later to be known as the Swiss Mennonites [named after Menno Simons, one of the early leaders of a peaceful Anabaptist group, in order to distinguish them from the more radical, revolutionary Anabaptists in Münster, Germany]. Other than the fact that the Anabaptists did not believe in infant baptism, the main difference between the non-resistant Anabaptists and the prevailing Catholic church was that the non-resistant Anabaptists firmly believed in the New Testament principal of “turning the other cheek.” They were pacifists who did not believe in warfare and refused to become involved in military conflicts.
After the bloody 1534 Easter Sunday uprising by a group of radical Münster Anabaptists led by Jan Matthys, Lutheran and Catholic leaders alike began enforcing strong sanctions against all Anabaptists throughout Europe. Many legal documents went unrecorded because of the participants’ refusal to repudiate their religious beliefs. Many births, marriages, and deaths are undocumented because of this, probably including many records of the Herr family.
The governments of the Swiss Cantons of Zürich and Bern were particularly hostile to the Anabaptists in the 1600s. Many Anabaptists were brutally executed, but the Swiss leaders soon realized that these executions were making celebrated martyrs of the executed men. After that, imprisonment of Anabaptists and confiscation of their property became the common punishment for their religious beliefs, especially for their refusal to bear arms and swear an oath of allegiance. It seems surprising that Switzerland, historically known as a more tolerant country, treated the Anabaptists more brutally than other localities. This is probably due to the fact that Switzerland depended on a national militia for its defense, rather than the paid mercenary armies utilized by other countries, and therefore saw pacifism as a serious offense.
At the invitation of Dutch Mennonites, along with their financial help, many of the Swiss Anabaptists escaped from the persecution in Switzerland and relocated to the German Palatinate. Hans Herr and his brother Christian and their families are mentioned in an April 6, 1672, letter detailing expenditures by Dutch Mennonites on behalf of the Swiss Anabaptists in the Palatinate. It was mentioned in this letter that Hans and his wife were able to support themselves by their linen weaving. At that time, Mennonite linen had become recognized as some of the finest in the world, mostly due to the industrious nature of the Mennonites.
No records can be found from the next few decades, so we don’t know whether Hans Herr and his family remained in the Palatinate or returned to Switzerland or moved somewhere else during that time.
Life in Pequea
No documentation of Hans Herr can be found again until June 24, 1710, when he and his son Christian Herr were two of six signatories on a letter from London prior to their departure for Pennsylvania, thanking their Dutch benefactors in Rotterdam for help in financing the trip with a donation of 200 florins. They arrived at Delaware Bay and then Philadelphia aboard the ship Mary Hope in September 1710, and founded the Pequea Colony in Pennsylvania near Pequea Creek and the Conestoga River. This was the third Mennonite settlement in Pennsylvania, and they received aid in surviving their first winter from the local Pequea Indians as well as from the earlier Mennonite colonists at Skippack and Germantown. The land in Pequea was deeded to the settlers by William Penn, who had purchased it from the Pequea Indians.
In 1712, Madame Marie de la Warembur Ferrée, was granted 2,000 acres in Pequea, a part of which was settled by her daughter and son-in-law, Catharine and Isaac LeFèvre [see The French Connection: LeFèvre and Ferrée]. Philip G. LeFèvre, the son of Catharine and Isaac LeFèvre, married Maria Catherina Herr, the granddaughter of Hans Herr, to become my sixth great grandparents. Although they were not Mennonites, the Ferrées and the LeFèvres probably worshiped with the Mennonites, since that was the only denomination in Pequea at the time. Many of their descendants later became Mennonites, probably due this influence; and many became Quakers, probably out of respect for William Penn, who had introduced Marie Ferrée to Queen Anne in England. Queen Anne was said to have helped finance the Ferrées’ journey to America.
The Swiss Mennonites were mostly farmers and had no use for a city. They were not known to keep journals or records of their everyday life, so most of the information we can find about them comes from land deeds. Their modesty in many cases even kept them from placing headstones on their family graves. Most of the usual sources of personal history are missing from this colony.
They found life in Pequea to be so idyllic that they wanted to send a representative back to Europe in order to enlist other Mennonites to join them there. They drew lots to decide who would return to Europe for this mission. The lot fell to Hans Herr, but as he had been chosen as the preacher for the Pequea Mennonites, his departure would have caused some anxiety among the others, so Martin Kendig volunteered, and was approved by a vote, to go in his place. The colony grew quickly with the influx of families of the original settlers.
In 1719, Hans Herr’s son Christian Herr, my seventh great grandfather, built what is now one of the oldest still-standing houses in the country. Built of sandstone, it is known today as the Hans Herr House and Museum, located at 1849 Hans Herr Drive in Willow Street, Pennsylvania.
The Mennonite colonists lived peaceably with the native Conestoga Indians for nearly fifty years. Most historians attribute this to two circumstances: The first was the treaty that William Penn had originally made with the Indians, and the peace-loving Quaker leadership of the Pennsylvania colonies following that treaty. Although Penn had received the colony from King Charles II as repayment for a debt owed to Penn’s father, he wanted to ensure that the indigenous people receive fair payment for their land, one of the few cases where land was actually purchased from the Indians rather than just taken. The second circumstance was that the Conestoga Indians were often at war with the Tuscarora Indians, and the Conestogas were afraid that they would be blamed if the Tuscaroras happened to attack the colonists. The Conestogas, fearing for the safety of the Mennonites, went out of their way to try to protect them.
In 1754, a political group of Pennsylvanians—including Benjamin Franklin, who in his early publications referred to the German Pennsylvanians as “Palatine boors”—ousted the Quaker legislature and enacted an aggressive war policy. The French and Indian War erupted later that year, which ended the decades of peace the Mennonites had enjoyed. The Mennonites would not be safe again until the war ended, at which time the Indians were forced to move westward.
Most histories give 1725 as the year of Hans Herr’s death.
Sources of Information
The most commonly used source of information about Hans Herr’s life and family seems to be Genealogical Record of Reverend Hans Herr and His Direct Lineal Descendants, compiled, arranged, indexed, and published by Theodore W. Herr, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1908. I have discovered through other sources that many of the facts in this book are wrong, which makes me question many other facts that don’t have corroborating sources. Many of the relationships in my family tree are based on the information in this book, but I have noted that many of them may be uncertain.
Another useful source is Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, the quarterly journal of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. Their articles are scholarly in nature and well referenced, so their sources can be easily double-checked.
Some genealogical information comes from the on-line Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society Genealogical Database. Much of this information comes from the family trees of member and may not be completely accurate.
There is also an ancestry.com on-line database, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Mennonite Vital Records, 1750–1940, containing many genealogical records. This database is a digital copy of the Genealogical Card File of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. Like the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society Genealogical Database mentioned above, much of the information comes from the family trees of members and may not be completely accurate.
The Groff Book, Volume 2: A Continuing Saga, by Jane Evans Best, published by Masthof Press, Morgantown, Pennsylvania, 1997, is a study of the Groff family in Pennsylvania, and it contains a section about Hans Herr’s related family. Jane Evans Best has also authored several articles in Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, which in my opinion lends her a great deal of credibility.
Much of the information about the Mennonites in general comes from The Mennonite Immigration to Pennsylvania in the Eighteenth Century, by C. Henry Smith, published by The Norristown Press, Norristown, Pennsylvania, 1929.
Additional information about the Mennonites comes from History of the Mennonites, by Daniel K. Cassel, published by the author, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1888.
Even more information about the Mennonites comes from Historic Background and Annals of the Swiss and German Pioneer Settlers of Southeastern Pennsylvania and of their Remote Ancestors, from the Middle of the Dark Ages Down to the Time of the Revolutionary War, by H. Frank Eshleman, published by the author, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1917.
Information about Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, comes from History of Lancaster County, by I. Daniel Rupp, published by Gilbert Hills, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1842.
Some information about individual families has been taken from A Biographical History of Lancaster County, by Alex Harris, published by Elias Barr and Company, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1872.
Text and translation of the 1672 letter from the Dutch Mennonites in the Palatinate was found in Documents of Brotherly Love: Dutch Mennonite Aid to Swiss Anabaptists, Volume I, 1635–1709, introduced, transcribed, translated, and annotated by James W. Lowry, edited by David L. Rempel Smucker and John L. Ruth, published by Ohio Amish Library, Millersburg, Ohio, 2007.
Although I have not yet been able to reference it, there is also said to be a translation of Valentine Hütwohl’s December 14, 1671, letter in Letters from Our Palatine Ancestors 1644–1689: Pennsylvania 300th Anniversary Issue, compiled by George Frederick Newman and Clyde Lester Groff, edited by Ann Louise Newman, published by Hawbaker, Hershey, Pennsylvania, 1984.
The biggest unanswered question is that of Hans Herr’s wife. Most on-line family trees identify his wife as Elizabeth Mylin Kendig, daughter of John Jacob Kendig and Jane Mylin, but I am finding more and more sources suggesting that this information may be mistaken. Others who are said to have been his wife are: (1) Elsbeth Lötscher, daughter of Hans Lötscher and Anna Kammer; and (2) Barbel Kundig, daughter of Jörg Kundig and Barbel Huffelberg.
The main source stating that his wife was Elizabeth Mylin Kendig is Theodore Herr’s Genealogical Record of Hans Herr, but I don’t tend to accept information from this book without another corroborating source. There is also a granite memorial in the Willow Street Mennonite Cemetery (formerly known as the Herr Family Graveyard) listing his wife as Elizabeth Mylin Kendig, but this monument was erected many years after the fact. C. Henry Smith’s Mennonite Immigration to Pennsylvania says, “Hans Herr is supposed to be buried in the oldest of the church cemeteries … and recently a monument was placed near the spot where he is supposed to lie.” Since this book was published in 1929, the word recently leads me to believe that the memorial was placed there in the early 1900s and may have even used Theodore Herr’s book as its source of information.
In “Martin Kendig’s Swiss Relatives,” an article by Jane Evans Best in the January 1992 issue of Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, there is a mention of an Elizabeth Kundig, daughter of Hans Jagli Kundig and [unknown first name] Meili. These names are so similar to those of Elizabeth Mylin Kendig and her parents, that I believe they may be the same persons but with variations of their names in various records. This Elizabeth Kundig was said to have been born about 1668, making her too young to be the wife of Hans Herr, and was said to have been married to Anstett Volken.
Barbel Kundig is mentioned in the same Jane Evans Best article as a possible wife of Hans Herr, but only as a possibility. In one section of the article, she says, “Barbel Kundig … may be the Kundig who, tradition says, married Hans Herr.” In another section, she says, “John Jacob Kunidg had a sister Barbara, who fits very well as a possible wife of Hans Herr.”
Jane Evans Best also mentions Elizabeth Mylen Kendig in her article, but only to say that she was listed in Theodore Herr’s book as Hans Herr’s wife.
In The Groff Book, Jane Evans Best lists Elbeth Lötscher as Hans Herr’s wife. She also gives Hans Herr’s birth date as ca. 1651, twelve years later than the birth dates given in most other sources. She cites a December 14, 1671, letter from Valentine Hütwohl listing Swiss Anabaptist arrivals in the Palatinate, quoting, “Christian Herr, aged 30; wife Grietgen Lötscher, 28 … Hans Herr, aged 20; wife Elbeth Lötscher, aged 22; no children. Have linen sheets.” Since this letter says they had no children at the time, Best also gives the birth date of Hans Herr’s son Abraham as ca. 1672 rather than the 1660 listed in most references.
James W. Lowry’s Documents of Brotherly Love shows a translation of a letter from Valentine Hütwohl, a Mennonite minister in the Palatinate, dated December 17, 1671, describing the hardships of the Swiss Anabaptists who had recently arrived in the Palatinate and asking for aid. This book also shows a translation of a letter from Franz Beuns, Johannes Andriesz, Dr. Johannes de Bakker, and Antony Rooleeuw, detailing the aid given by the Dutch Mennonites to the Swiss Anabaptists. This letter mentions Hans Herr and his brother Christian and their wives: “Christian Herr, 30 years, Grietgen Lötscher, 28, have [missing text] of which 1 is in Switzerland. They have 1 mattress made of chaff and one blanket. 1 mattress and blanket, 31 florins. Hans Herr about 20, Elsbet Lötscher his wife, 22 years. No children. These people can feed themselves from their linen weaving.”
For many years, my family tree has given Hans Herr’s birth date as September 17, 1639, his wife as Elizabeth Mylin Kendig, and the birth year of his oldest son, Abraham, as 1660. After a more thorough review of all the available documentation of the subject, I have decided that Jane Evans Best’s conclusion that he was born around 1651, that his wife was Elsbeth Lötscher, and that his son Abraham was born around 1672 seems to be the most logical scenario. The letters from the Palatinate are the only available documents that were actually written at the time, and in my opinion they carry more weight than the things that were written more than a hundred years later. I will be changing my on-line family tree to reflect these changes, but will include a notation that my opinion may not be the most widely accepted.
I do this with some degree of sadness, because it is troubling to me that the beautiful granite monument erected at Hans Herr’s place of burial might have misinformation permanently chiseled into it.