My wife Susan’s maternal Speicher ancestors go back some ten generations to Switzerland and Germany. While the parents of Ulrich (c. 1712-1785) and wife Maria are unknown, the earliest recorded use of the surname was Konrad who was living in Konstanz in 1388, a duchy of Swabia in southeastern Bavaria, one of the original German provinces, now Alsace, France. This article will reveal the meaning of the surname and trace our family from Swiss-Germany to various parts of Pennsylvania.
As with many surnames, Speicher has many spellings and could have originated from a place and/or occupation. Other spellings include “Speichert,” “Speicker,” ‘Spycher,” “Spigher,” and “Spiker,” all usually pronounced with a hard “c,” as a “k.” However, the soft “c,” as in “spice,” is another pronounciation. The word “spicher” in Middle High German means “granary” (or the verb “speichern,” meaning “to store up”), so a Speicher could have been a grain grinder or a person living near a gristmill. Indeed, both West Germany and the Swiss Alps today have such towns.
One fascinating original family narrative (OFN) was published by Paul Speicher in 1941 and involves the origins of his Wabash, Indiana family. Sometime between 1558 and 1603, when Elizabeth I was Queen of England, a young Catholic priest fled the Isle for Switzerland to avoid persecution by the Protestants. He took refuge in an old barn and granary, or as we said, a “speicher.” The owner of the farm, perhaps an Amish-Mennonite, fed him and to aid in his cover, cut his hair and gave him work clothes and the customary wooden shoes of a farmer. While his real name is not known, the young man took the name “Speicher” in honor of the building where he hid and which had saved his life.
Speicher, a well-educated cleric, soon became the village schoolmaster, spiritual leader, and preacher. The story goes that eventually he married the daughter of one of the area’s high ranking rulers, and a son served as a body guard in the castle. When the elder Speicher died, tradition says that his body was given state-of-the-art embalming and entombed for a century before it was taken out to view in remembrance and celebration of his life. As was the custom of Royalty, his descendants, in the case his grandson, kissed his face. Others in that Speicher line married into the ruling family but were not wealthy.
The next part sounds neither like the early priestly Speicher nor the possible Amish-Mennonites who protected him, but as historian Paul Speicher recorded:
During the Austrian Invasion into Switzerland, a descendent of the first Speicher broke ranks when the Swiss were about defeated. He turned back to his comrades and said, “Remember my family if I fall”. He rushed forward with his rude instrument, which was something like a spear, mowing down the enemy until he was standing alone, waist deep in blood and dead bodies. His companions, seeing his bravery and courage, rushed forward and the Austrians were defeated.
It is true that one of the finest avenues in the City of Berne, Switzerland, today is called Speicher and that a Speicher was mayor of the city of Berne for many years. In the family of Mayor Speicher, there were three boys and two girls, but for some reason, he decided to give all of his wealth to his youngest son, Benjamin. The others, having to fend for themselves, went to Germany and later to America. After the death of the father, the children, by contending to it, received one thousand dollars each, according to Paul Speicher.
It is the descendents of the youngest son, Benjamin, who are now to be found in Switzerland. A relative of the writer, Joseph Speicher, visited Switzerland and found the family still occupying the old castle and family buildings. But, that Speicher family, once having been extravagant with servants, coaches, parties for the rich and powerful, etc. were now without much income and reduced to poverty.
After John Speicher, another son of the Mayor, probably sometime in the early 1800s, had served in the army, he emigrated to America, having heard stories of freedom, plenty, and opportunity. He first went to Germany, then to France, and there took passage on a three-masted schooner. After a perilous voyage lasting sixty days, land was sighted and the grateful passengers gave a prayer of thanksgiving.
John Speicher went at once from New York City to Holmes County, Ohio, which by this time had been settled by the Amish-Mennonites of Berks, Lancaster, and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania. We don’t know his religious persuasion, but he secured a job in a gristmill and remained four years, learning the trade, and learning the English language.
He soon determined that America was the land of opportunity and he thought of his friends at home who were toiling against adverse circumstances, so he returned to Switzerland. With glowing accounts, he induced about one hundred people to return to America with him. Among those returning with him was his sweetheart, Elizabeth Kreps. He married her soon after reaching Ohio. This was October 11, 1834. In a short time he purchased forty acres of land in Holmes County and built his own gristmill, where he soon came to be know as “Honest John, the miller”.
In 1852 he disposed of his property in Ohio and moved farther west to the State of Indiana, locating in Wabash County, where he founded the Speicher settlement. He made this journey westward via the Erie and Wabash Canal. He purchased about two hundred acres of slightly developed land about a mile east of Urbana. John Speicher made this his home where he died in 1879.
To read this entire OFN, go to “A Brief History of the Speicher Family.”
Our ancestors, Ulrich Speiger (or Speicher) (1712-1785), sons Michael and Peter, and other family members, including Ulrich’s wife Maria (b.1717) also came to America. Some were not listed on the ship’s register. The Charming Nancy, known as Charming Polly in Switzerland, arrived in Philadelphia on October 8, 1737, with a sizeable number of Amish passengers so we believe that they were Anabaptists. The Speichers had lived in Koniz, Canton Berne. One internet source claims that an Amish-Mennonite Speicher had served time in the prison at Thun for the crime of “praying in a group.” Apparently, the Protestant Canton Bern wanted some control over religious gatherings, and this infraction was one way of keeping the non-conforming and independent fundamentalists in check. Suffice it to say that the Anabaptists were deeply persecuted for their beliefs. We don’t know the financial state of the family nor if the men had indentured themselves to pay for their passage, but eight years later they received a grant of land for 193 ½ acres, ironically in Bern Township, Berks County, PA. Another irony was that the Amish immigrants were awarded land adjacent to the Himmelbergers, their old neighbors back in Switzerland. Seven years after that, aging father Ulrich sold the farm to his son, 21-year old Michael. To view the actual contract of sale, the oldest document from our family on record, go to “Purchase of Land Agreement.”
In 1771, the westernmost portion of Bedford County, PA, still very much wilderness, became Somerset County and warrants were issued to many Berks County farmers whose large families were outgrowing the original Eastern Pennsylvania land grants. Ulrich and Maria’s oldest son Joseph Christian (1738-1797) and his wife Christina Mishler (1734-1817), my wife’s direct ancestors, joined other Amish-Mennonites on the old Forbes Road, now US Rt. 30, and the Glades Pike, now US Rt. 31, for the trek into the Allegheny Mountains and Brothersvalley Township, Somerset County. The Glades are between the villages of Berlin, famous for it’s part in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, and Shanksville, known now for the tragic crash of Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. The area was so named for the its lush vegetation owing to it being the headwaters of the Stoneycreek River, a tributary to the Conemaugh, Kiskiminetas, and Allegheny Rivers. According to “The History of Stoneycreek Township”:
The township was settled at a very early day. If the traditions of the German Baptist Church are correct even within a couple of years, there were settlers already here before this region was open to legal settlement: Israel Burket, John Rhoads, Martin Suter and Christopher (or Christian) Yoder and his sons were here as early as 1775, or perhaps even earlier. Christopher and Abraham Miller Godfrey Raymon, Cristopher Spiker [Joseph Christian], Samuel Spiker, Jacob Smith John Yoder, James Ross, James Black, Henry Hess and Jacob Lambert were all here in 1783, and in that year the families of these and others known to have been here numbered 116 persons.
We don’t know with certainty that Joseph “Christian” Speicher converted from Amish-Mennonite to German Baptist, or “Dunkard,” but some of his descendants, including my wife Susan’s paternal great-grandparents Abraham and Sarah Miller Baer, converted later to Brethren, probably over the issue of full immersion. Someone once joked that perhaps the mountain streams were just too cold for that Baptist practice. We do know that other descendants married Amish, moving north to the Conemaugh District (Johnstown) or south to the River District (Casselman Valley). The 1767-1785 map of the Amish of Brothersvalley Township includes both Speichers and Mishlers.
Christian Speicher died in Stoneycreek Township, Somerset County, in 1797. His Last Will and Testament gives some insight into his life and family. My wife Susan’s maternal ancestors are also descendants of Ulrich and the three generations of Joseph Christians who followed. We believe that the last Joseph (1797-1862), her great-great grandfather, settled near Accident, Garrett County, MD, close to Susan’s Lutheran Grandfather Charles Krause’s home in what is known as the Cove. Charles’ father-in-law, Amishman Christian Lee, married Joseph’s daughter Laura Speicher. A brother, John P. Speicher, built a barn in Accident (1877) that is recognized in the Maryland State Historical Archives. Our annual Krause Reunion is held on the portion of the Speicher farm that was donated for the establishment of St. John’s Lutheran Church. How did the Lutherans get involved? We don’t know, but among all my wife’s Swiss-German ancestors, we have most all of the religious persuasions covered.
The story of the Speicher family truly parallels the story of America. Often persecuted for their beliefs in the Old World, risking their very lives in traveling to the New, and working hard amid diversity of persons, convictions, and occupations, these strong people of faith survive and thrive across our great land even today. We’re reminded of how the original meaning of the surname “Speicher – a granary” is captured in the sacred song “America” and the phrases, “O’er amber waves of grain” and “Crown they good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.”
A History of the Speicher/Spicher/Spycher Family (1737-1983). Speicher Family Association, 1983
“History of Stonycreek Township.” 6 Oct. 2012 http://www.pagenweb.org/~somerset/stonycreek/history.html
J. Virgil Miller. Anniversary History of the family of John “Hanes” Miller, Sr. Morgantown, PA: Masthof Press, 1998
Paul Speicher. “A Brief History of the Speicher Family.” 2 June 1941. http://boards.ancestry.com/localities.northam.usa.states.indiana.counties.wabash/798/mb.ashx?pnt=1
“Speicher Crest & History.” 27 Sept. 2012. http://www.houseofnames.com/speicher-family-crest
Lucinda M. Miller and Kolba Deitman. “Ulrich Speicher.” 6 Oct. 2012 http://genealogyresearchcentral.com/Speicher/ulrich.speicher.html
“Ulrich Speicher.” 6 Oct. 2012 http://www.ancestry.chezhorton.com/phpGedView/individual.php?pid=1612&ged=Wawok.ged