October is celebrated as German-American Heritage month. Since this past October marked the 340th anniversary of the first German settlers to arrive in Germantown, PA, coming into the port of Philadelphia on a ship named the Concord, I want to share my distant connection to the Germantown settlement.
The exact date of the first Germans’ arrival was October 6, 1683. In 1983, 300 years later, the US Postal Service and the German Bundespost simultaneously issued stamps commemorating the establishment of the small town, now annexed as a neighborhood of the city of Philadelphia. The layout of the small village is shown on the land map here with the names of the settlers in the year 1689. (US postage stamps are copyrighted, but an image of both the US and German issued stamps can be found here).
What was Germantown?
Originally part of 5,700 acres that William Penn sold to two groups from the Rhine region of what is now Germany, German Township was a processing center, made up of a diverse group of craftsmen and cottage industries, where raw materials from outlying counties were turned into finished goods for sale at market in Philadelphia. The development of Germantown laid the groundwork for two great constants in Germantown history—continual change in its population and a sense that Germantown was its own place, separate from Philadelphia. These constants have persisted from its earliest days to its current state as a largely African American community. These elements of change, however, have not always been reflected in the community’s “memory infrastructure,” its museums, monuments, and public memory. Recent research initiatives, though, have begun to produce new understandings of the history of Germantown.
Where does my family fit in?
While I have no direct line family lines I can trace back to the original Germantown settlers, almost all of my family lines arrived in Philadelphia in the 1700s. The one line that I hadn’t been able to trace was that of my mother’s grandfather on her mother’s side. I didn’t have much luck researching beyond him and that line in my family tree was a big question mark. I felt sure that given the name, Wissler, the line was of Germanic origin, but that was sheer conjecture on my part.
I was fortunate enough to attend a family history conference at the Lancaster (PA) Mennonite Historical Society (now Mennonite Life) some time ago and had decided that while I was in Lancaster County (the county where I grew up), I would focus my research on this missing line, the Wisslers. And that was indeed a wise decision!
The conference included field trips to various research sites in the Lancaster area. While at the Lancaster Historical Society, a woman in our group asked me what names I was researching. I obviously told her Wissler, to which she immediately proceeded to tell me that there was a Wissler family history published several years earlier. She didn’t remember the exact title, but would do a little digging overnight and bring the name of the book to our session the next day. And so she did! The name of the book was Compilations of Early Wissler, Whisler and Whistler Families, Revised in 1988, by Oby J. Bonnawit.
Luckily for me, the next day’s session was in the library of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society (Mennonite Life) and the book was in the collection! Needless to say, I now have the Wissler line as shown on the chart here traced back to their arrival in Philadelphia in 1720. Surprisingly, the family appears to be of Swiss Mennonite origin and followed the same route as many of my Palatine ancestors of the 18th century: down the Rhine to Rotterdam and then on to America.
The Family Legend
So while I was able to fill in quite a few blanks of that part of my family tree, the best was in the legend that was told about this Swiss immigrant Jakob Wisler and his wife Magdalena. This story was first printed in The Wissler Family Record published in 1904 at Elora, Ontario, Canada by Henry Wissler, and was retold by Bonnawit in his book in the 1980s.
As the story goes, Jakob and Magdalena married in 1720 and departed immediately following their wedding for Rotterdam. Once there, they boarded a vessel for America. Not long into their voyage, the ship was overtaken by a man-of-war and all the able-bodied males on board were conscripted into naval service. Those remaining on the ship, including Magdalena, continued their journey to Philadelphia.
When Magdalena arrived in Philadelphia, she went to work for a farmer in nearby Germantown. When Jacob’s navy service ended, he came to Philadelphia in search of his new bride. As the tale continues, he had a “presentiment,” a hunch, that he would see his wife soon after landing. And so upon arrival on the dock, he set out to find her along the road to Germantown. And as luck would have it, Jakob indeed came upon Magdalena, carrying two pails of milk to Philadelphia for her employer. Jakob ended up working for the same employer for a time and ultimately bought 150 acres in what is today Upper Hanover Township, which later became part of Montgomery County.
Any truth to the story? Who knows? But it certainly is much more interesting to me than the fact that Jakob was born in Emmental, Switzerland in1700, married in 1720, died in 1752 and is buried in Pennsburg, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. So while I have recorded the normal genealogical information, I will certainly more remember Jakob Wisler, my Swiss Mennonite ancestor, and his chance meeting with his wife on the road to Germantown!
Do you have Pennsylvania ancestors? Do you know any of their stories? Let us know in the comments!
As a native Pennsylvania Dutchman, Ken Weaver can trace most every line of ancestors to an 18th century German or Swiss immigrant, so it was only natural that he learn to speak German and did so in high school under the tutelage of an inspiring immigrant German teacher. Majoring in German at Millersville University, he also studied at Philipps-Universität and upon graduation began a career as a German teacher. He went on to become a principal, but continued his language studies by earning certification in ESL. Upon retirement from the public education, he taught at the university level until recently moving to Florida. Now he works on his genealogy, and as a member of several different societies, spends considerable time teaching language tips to any genealogist who’ll listen! He can be reached at email@example.com
For more information about Germantown, see here.
For more articles by genealogist Ken Weaver here at Germanology Unlocked, see It’s All About Context – How Knowing What to Expect Will Help You With German Records and Wassersucht, Schwindsucht, und Altersschwäche: Researching Your Ancestor’s Demise. Thanks for sharing your expertise, Ken!