My wife Susan’s great-great grandmother was Elizabeth Brenneman (1816-1890), who married Thomas Lee, Jr. (see “E-Gen: Lee”). Elizabeth’s parents were Daniel (1769-1842) and Maria Bender Brenneman (1782-1856), and her grandparents were Nicholas (1736-1789) and Barbara Kurtz Brenneman (c.1736-1770). Some believe that Nicholas’ parents were Jacob (b.1710) and Susannah Evans Brenneman (b.1714), but recently, German sources reveal that not only might Nicholas’ father have also been named Nicolas (1697-1785 according to McKenzie), but that Jacob and Susannah were probably his aunt and uncle and the Nicholas’ Jr’s grandfather was probably Adam (b.1673) who married Katharina Wurtz. Geberich, the most widely read family genealogist, agrees that our family’s earliest know ancestor was a Melchior Brenneman (b.1631), Adam’s father. Melchior married Christina Reusser (b.1636), the daughter of Steffan Reusser and Elsbeth Eicher of Stiffsiburg, Switzerland.
At this point we could relate how some of the first names appear again and again in our family tree: Nicholas, Susannah, Elizabeth [or Elsbeth], and Daniel. We could remind the reader that Bach and Handel were both alive and famous during the lives of our early Brennemans and that Beethoven was born the year Barbara died. All this is to impress upon the reader that these folks lived a very long time ago and yet they are a part of our family and we know something about them, at least their names. We are fortunate in this part of the United States to have the genealogical collection and early American pioneer life exhibit at the Springs Historical Society and Museum in Springs, PA, Their regular publications, The Laurel Messenger and The Casselman Chronicles, contains stories and photos of many of the Brennemans and other of Susan’s relatives. Without the distraction of modern conveniences, especially television, it seems that those Amish and Mennonites were particularly thorough in preserving family history. This introduction to this part of our family is simply a compilation of various articles that have been written about our Brennemans and some stories that have been handed down by word-of-mouth when the printed word wasn’t available. Let’s begin by attempting to answer the question, “Where did the name come from?”
According to the Geberich history, we can only guess, but traditionally at least six guesses are most popular:
• First, a distiller of alcohol, a “Brandy-man;
• A person from the Brenner Pass through the Tyrolean Alps of Austria and Italy;
• An extension of the name “Brandi”;
• A polisher or Burnisher of Armour, Brunni-man;
• A charcoal burner, Burni-man; or
• A resident of Brendi, a small town near Belp in Switzerland.
Bender believes that the final guess is likely:
There were Brenneman families living, since the 1600s, at Brendi, Canton Bern, and throughout the Aare Valley of Switzerland. The Bronnimann, Brennemann, and Brenneman families each had a [similar] coat of arms. (2)
Other spellings, including Broennemann, are perhaps a way of Anglicizing the umlaut. Bender goes on to answer the question of our supposed German heritage by reminding us that many Germans fled to Switzerland to avoid persecution as Anabaptists before coming to America. And don’t forget that German is still one of the four official languages of Switzerland.
Amish and Mennonite historians and genealogists, Geberish and Bender included, are quick to point out that the combination of large families, small communities, intermarrying, and duplicate names can lead to great confusion. For example, The Brenneman History contains 19 Samuels Brennemans and 24 Daniel Brennemans, many over several generations. When middle names or initials are not available, as is usually the case before the mid-19th century, exact birth and death dates are all there is to go on, and as you can see from our Nicholas, Adam, and Melchoir, we’re sometimes only guessing.
Let’s read what has been passed down about some of these earliest known ancestors. According to Bender, Melchior was a form of the popular name Michael. Gerberich lists 10 Melchiors and 4 Michaels in his book. He distinguishes our ancestor as “Melchior, the Refugee” [other translations refer to him as “The Exile”] and says:
On January 1, 1672, there was living in the colony of Swiss Mennonite refugees in the town of Griesheim, twenty miles north of the city of Worms in Germany, one Melchior Brenneman, age 40, together with his wife (aged 35) and seven children between the ages of 1 ½ and 15 years. His worldly possessions consisted of one horse, one trundle bed and bedding, and forty-three reich-dollars.He had been fortunate to escape with his life from the religious persecution then raging in Switzerland against his sect, and was but newly arrived.
Gerberish cites a letter written from Griesham, where 53 families lived in equally “destitute conditions.” Apparently, from research done in thee cantonal archives at Bern, our Melchior was born in Switzerland and lived at Ober-Diessbach on the north slope of the Buchhalterberg. Gerberich says that the appendix of the book found in the archives contains “a complete collection of interesting references to the Brenneman family in Canton Bern, going back as far as the year 1479.” He reminds us of the persecution this family faced by following Menno Simons’ beliefs, including adult baptism, opposition to the state church, and refusal to take oaths or bear arms. Not only were they condemned, but some faced execution by drowning, burning, and beheading. Under state law they could be legally sold to other countries as galley slaves. He says, “The mildest sentence was exile and confiscation of property, forbidding a return to Switzerland on fear of death. Melchoir Brenneman refused to abjure his beliefs, was warned, and finally imprisoned in the castle of Thun in 1659.” He fled to Germany in 1671, probably at the invitation of Ludwig of Heidelberg, whose lands had been devastated by the Thirty-Years War [see “From Germany to America: From Persecution to Opportunity” under Krause]. McKenzie says, “Although not enjoying full privileges in their new land, the Mennonites were allowed to worship freely,” Gerberich believes that he was living in Griesham in September, 1677, when William Penn visited that part of Germany announcing a plan to found a colony in the new world, a “haven of refuge for the persecuted.”
One of Melchior’s other sons, who carried the same name as his father, has been referred to as “Melchoir, the Pioneer.” He settled in Lancaster County, PA, in 1709 and built a large estate there. Two other sons, Christian and John, received their inheritance before their father died. One story says that a sister had bright red hair, and the Native Americans “stood in awe of her.”
Gerberich says of our earliest known Brenneman:
Because Melchior [The Pioneer] Brenneman stood like a rock while the flood of terror and bigotry swirled around him, and because his wife stood at his side with unflinching loyalty, we are able to say with pride that our ancestors participated in the founding of the American nation.
Another of Melchior’s sons mentioned in his will was Adam, probably Nicholas’ father and our ancestor, but we know little about either of them. McKenzie’s German sources tell her that Adam was born in Enkenbach in 1673 and married Katharina Wurtz. On the other hand, we know that a Nicholas Brenneman was born in 1736 and lived on the family estate, or Hofgut, Braunshardt near Damstadt in Germany. McKenzie believes that there were two Nicholases, a father and a son. The younger Nicholas was married twice. Our ancestor was Barbara Kurtz who produced six children: Jacobina, Samuel, Jacob (probably died in infancy), another Jacob, Johannes, and our Daniel.
According to Gerberich, these children’s names and a knowledge of naming customs in Germany may suggest that Nicholas’ father was Jacob. He named his daughter AND two sons after Jacob. Wife Barbara died in 1770 and Nicholas remarried a year later. His second wife, Mathalena Untzinger [or Magdalena Unzicker], produced another half a dozen children for the household. Apparently, our Daniel was the only descendant of Nicholas and Barbara who came to America. Records indicate that the rest remained and died in Germany. No research has been done on the six half siblings, however. McKenzie’s German sources tell her that Nicholas and Barbara moved to Braunshardt in 1760 and that his father, who was also named Nicholas, was originally from Karlshauserhof in Hurlauch (Karlsruhe) but spent his last days on his son’s farm. He died in 1785 at age 88.
Nevertheless, Daniel D. Brenneman was the father of our Elizabeth, who married Tommy Lee. He was born in Hessen-Darmstadt, Germany, in 1769. He married Maria Bender of Bosenhausen in 1803. They had eleven children: Jacob (who died in infancy), Jacob, Maria, Anna, Katrina, Johannes, our Elizabeth, Lena, Christian, Daniel, and Barbara. The family sailed to American and settled in Berlin, Somerset County, PA, where, as the story goes, the youngest child, Barbara, was born in a hotel. Their first farm was in what is known as “The Glades” in Elk Lick Township, a lowland, perhaps even swampy during some parts of the year. Having worked hard and saved enough money, Daniel bought a farm of 100 acres just over the Mason-Dixon line near Grantsville, MD. Gerberich tells Daniel’s story this way:
With pluck and sturdy energy he proceeded to clear it and put it under cultivation. Long before his death he had done so and had also provided well for his children. Daniel Brenneman was of a retiring disposition and somewhat taciturn, but known as a good friend and neighbor.
Both Daniel and Maria had been members of the Amish Mennonite church since their youth. That community of faith continued to grow near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border as other German families joined them. The National Pike (now Rt. 40 and I-68) was bringing settlers to Pittsburgh 25 years before the first railroad was built in that area. One of the famous stops was the tavern at Little Crossing, just beside the arched bridge below Grantsville. Bender says that Meshach Browning, a noted hunter and woodsman, had built a cabin and a mill there. Later, the Stone House farm was constructed with slave labor and mail service began between Cumberland and Uniontown. History records that of the remaining Indians left in the area, 15 were converted to Christianity at the nearby Blooming Rose Catholic Mission and Grantsville got it’s first full time worship center, the old log Methodist Episcopal church.
But, the Brennemans maintained their Amish Mennonite faith and convictions. They dressed in plain fashion as their ancestor had for centuries. They drove horse and buggy, did as much work as possible by hand, and rejected the “worldly” or “English” ways. Daniel Brenneman, it is said, “knew the old ways of growing flax and making linen” (Bender 4), Perhaps he was practicing his Great-great grandfather Melchoir’s trade as a weaver. Supposedly, some pieces of the “Daniel Brenneman linen” still exist in that area, possibly among the Amish community.
Daniel and Maria, having lived a happy and productive life, died before the American Civil War, in 1842 and 1856 respectively, some 14 years apart. They are buried on a hill overlooking the land that he worked and the little town of New Germany, MD. The cemetery is adjacent to what are known as the “Twin Churches.” Esther Bender says:
Come from the church house door and walk straight ahead to the edge of the field. Look to the left at the fencerow of trees that march across the top of the hill at the far end of the field. The tombstone is not hard to find if you simply walk to the fencerow and search on the near side of it in the field where the hill curves out of sight.
Our story of Daniel and Maria’s daughter Elizabeth resumes with her marriage or Thomas Lee (see “E-Gen: Lee”), but the Somerset, PA, and Garrett County, MD, phones books contain dozens of Brenneman descendants. Ask about that name in these parts and someone will probably mention Mark Brenneman, the Amish harness maker along Rt. 669 near Springs. Several years ago he received national attention for constructing a special set of competition harnesses for Bob Decker’s famous Clydesdales. Another Brenneman, Nelson, was known as “The Blacksmith of Springs.” He opened a shop there in 1902 and his first customer was David Keim who paid 15 cents for services rendered. In those days, according to his ledger, the price of a cold chisel was 10 cents and a set of four horseshoes was one dollar. Nelson would also trade his services at the following prices: potatoes, 50 cents a bushel; beef, 8cents a pound; pigs, two-dollars a head; and hay, 12-dollars a ton. Nelson had worked on the first steam automobile in Somerset County before setting up shop for himself. Four years later, however, he moved his family to McHenry, MD, to begin farming. He was elected to the State House just before World War II and served eight years. He lived to be 87 years of age.
As many as eleven generations of Brennemans from Melchior in early 17th century Switzerland [12 generations if you count Christina’s parents, Steffan and Elsbeth Eicher] to my children born in late 20th century Somerset County, PA, is as long a list as our family’s genealogy holds. New information is being unearthed continuously. For example, author Richard W. Davis has announced a new subscription website, www.MennoSearch.com, with over 2800 pages of news and data on Swiss and German Mennonite emigrants and their families. Davis’ books include Emigrants, Refugees and Prisoners. And, of course, don’t forget the Brenneman Family Genealogy Forum for daily chatter and updates. Not all sources agree, but the Internet has made the quest practical and convenient, and someday most of our information will come together.
Barb. Posting on “Brenneman Family Genealogy Forum.” 14 May, 2001<http://genforum.genealogy.com/brenneman>.
Bender, Esther. Samuel D. Brenneman Family History and Directory. Grantsville, MD: McClarin Printing,1993.
Brenneman, Webster. “Nelson Brenneman: The Blacksmith of Springs.” Casselman Chronicle spring and summer, 1968: 12.
Gerberich, Albert H. The Brenneman History. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1938.
McKenzie, Peggy. Posting on “Brenneman Family Genealogy Forum.” 28 October, 2002 <http://genforum.genealogy.com/brenneman>.
Schrock, Alta. Ed. Casselman Chronicle, 1961-1970. Berlin, PA: Berlin Publishing Co., 1970.