When Tommy Lee, an Irish orphan boy, found his way into the Amish community at the foot of Negro Mountain, he could not speak German and was apparently taken advantage of by some of the local residents. Benedict learned of his plight and paid Tommy’s debts by giving his creditor corn and eggs from his own farm. He no doubt allowed Tommy to earn his provender by working for him, for Tommy seems to have learned his skill in woodworking in the Miller shops. (Miller & Schrock 23)
So begins the original family narrative (OFN) of the Thomas Lee family of Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Many details are covered in the articles and photos found in the Table of Contents of this site, but it seems to the author that there are several ironies attached to the OFN of our patriarchs, “Tommy” Lee (1816) and his father Thomas, Sr. (c.1780-before 1840). The first is that the OFN proclaims them to be Irish and with that the possibility that they could have been Roman Catholic. Imagine such creatures on the American frontier of those days among German Amish Mennonite Anabaptists! The second is that upon the death of Tommy’s elder father, and coming from a household of at least 9 persons, Tommy was taken in by the Bishop of that community, his debts were covered, he was protected from the teasing of the German-speakers, and he was given a life skill that would make him somewhat famous as an Amish craftsman. This article begins with the young Tommy and speaks to the possible origins of our Lee family, in Eastern Pennsylvania and other states in the New World as well as several countries in the Old World. We’ll look at the various religious persuasions of the early Lees and list some of the more famous Lees in American culture.
Philadelphia is nicknamed “The city of brotherly love,” after the early Quakers. Just up the Schuylkill River is a small town named Leesport. Among the early Quaker Lees in that part of Colonial America and who had English origins, were Anthony (1679-1763), Samuel, William (b. 1740), John, Ellis (1763-1838), Andrew (b. 1776), Jeremiah (b. 1787), Martin (b. 1793), Josiah (b. 1794), and Israel (1823). Although history tells us that there are still a few Lees left in nearby Berks County, where most of our Tommy Lee and descendant’s wives came from, some ventured west into the wilderness of “Indian Territory,” Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. Israel landed in the more friendly Fayette County, PA, as a lad in 1840. But our search is for the origins of Thomas, Sr., who stopped in Northern Appalachian Mountains of Somerset County in 1825. We may never know which family produced him, nor might we ever find out his religious faith, we admit. The English or Irish surname “Lee” appears simple enough, as in Christopher Lee of Franklin and Cumberland Counties, but consider some other spellings, perhaps wrongly assigned by immigration officials to those who were probably Germans:
- Christian Lieh (b. 1774) of Shippensburg, of the Lutheran Reformed traditioin
- Casper Lay (b. 1740) on early tax roles
- John Loe, of Bucks County, mentioned in our “Tommy” Lee article
Our search continues and the internet, especially with the help of genealogy forums like Ancestry.com and GenForum.com, has made the quest easier and a lot more fun. What does the mother of all research sites, Wikipedia, say about the Lee name? Plenty! In fact, too much to include here, so have a look for yourself. But, to summarize, the first American Lee, Colonel Richard Lee, came to the New World in 1639 from Shropshire, England, one of the most rural and sparsely populated counties there. Ironically, two of our most famous Americas, General Robert E. Lee and President Abraham Lincoln, who served on opposite sides in the Civil War, were both descendants of Richard (Johnstone 280). Also, let’s not forget others: Thomas Lee (1690-1750), Founder of the Ohio Company and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses; Thomas Sim Lee (1745-1819), Roman Catholic Governor of Maryland; and John Lee (b. 1788), an aid to famous Revolutionary War General Lafayette, to name a few.
What does the surname “Lee” mean, and where did it come from? According to Meaning of Names.com, the name signifies a “dweller at, or near a meadow or an open place in a woods.” Behind the name.com adds that it came from the Old English “Leah.” Crossword puzzle fans know that the word “lea” is still common in the British Isles, meaning “meadow.” Family Education.com has some interesting history of the Irish use of our name:
Reduced Americanized form of Ó Laoidhigh ‘descendant of Laoidheach’, a personal name derived from laoidh ‘poem’, ‘song’ (originally a byname for a poet).
Cairney lays out some fascinating Lee accomplishments in his Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland:
The O’Lees were chiefs [who] settled in Connacht [see map of Ireland in “E-Gen Tools”]. The O’Lees were hereditary abbots and produced a number of distinguished ecclesiastics. They are better known as a medical family, and were for many centuries hereditary physicians to the O’Flahertys, and sometimes to the Royal O’Connors as well. As early as the fifteenth century the family had produced a complete course in medicine, written in Latin and Gaelic. [The family] was widely dispersed towards the end of the sixteenth century, and in north Connacht used the form MacLee. (100)
In summary, our Lee family could have had English, Irish, or German roots, despite what the OFN tells. Despite the tradition that he was Irish, Thomas Lee could have worshipped as a Lutheran, German Reformed, Quaker, or one of several other British Protestants. Our research continues, but what truly matters is that he and his descendants blended with the genetics and cultures of many peoples over the last 230-plus years. Today we still celebrate our Lee heritage and seek to know more throughout the generations to come.
Cairney, C. Thomas. Clans and Families of Ireland & Scotland. Westminster, MD: Willow Bend Books, 2000.
Davis, Mark. “Abraham Lincoln was a Lee.” 19 Nov. 2010 http://genforum.genalogy.com/lee/messages/13229.html
Johnstone, William J. Robert E. Lee, the Christian.
Miller, Olen L. and Alta Elizabeth Schrock. Joel B. Miller History. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1960.