My wife Susan’s paternal ancestors include the 14th century Kimmel family of Hesse, Germany. Some were community leaders back then, while others became military mercenaries for the Polish and the British armies. After coming to America, some found their way to Somerset County, PA, as part of the peaceful Brethren community and farmed the tableland of the Allegheny Mountains. In this article we’ll begin with the marriage of Michael Kimmel (1760-1836) to Elizabeth Zimmerman (1763-1823), our first American natives and Susan’s 4X great-grandparents. From there, we’ll work backwards to as early as the late medieval period before returning to modern day Kimmels in America. We’ll present several conundrums and ironies along the way. The first is that there is some confusion as to whether two generations of Kimmels and Zimmermans intermarried, probably cousins, but with similar given names, John, Michael, Catherine, and Elizabeth, the research findings leaves one scratching his head and always questioning. Also, it’s tempting to confuse the dates of birth and death which are so close to one another. Nevertheless, Michael Kimmel’s grandfather, Johann Philip, Sr., left a wonderful narrative, preserved in a German family Bible and related by another grandson, Gen. Anthony Kimmel. You’ll find a synopsis to follow. And finally, we’ll consider the various spellings and meanings of the surname and list some of the more famous Kimmels in history.
At one time we believed that Michael and Elizabeth Kimmel Zimmerman’s son J. Michael III (1798-1878) married another Kimmel, but now we know that the “K,” the middle initial in Catherine’s married name stood for Kuntz, Koontz, or one of many spellings at that prominent family. That confusion came from several intermarriages of Kimmel and Zimmerman cousins of their Quemahoning Township, Somerset County, PA.This may be ironic but was not unusual and was certainly legal in those days, with large families living in close proximity to each other. Social mobility was somewhat limited and therefore the gene pool. One of the products of that marriage, Elizabeth C. (Catherine?), connected to Susan’s paternal Millers by marrying Noah J. (Joseph?). From there forward the genealogical record is clear, but let’s return to Michael Kimmel and look at his ancestors.
We know that Michael’s father was Johann Philip Kimmel, Jr. (1724-1796) of Gimbshein, Hesse, Germany, but we don’t know if he fought in the American Revolution. He would have been in his mid to late forties at that time. Here is what Dr. H. K. Stoner’s 1937 report says, based on letters written by General Anthony Kimmel (1798-1871) of Baltimore, son of the Anthony who had come to America with his brothers and father Johann Philip Kimmel, Sr. in 1755:
My grandfather, [Johann] Philip [Sr.], resided, after his marriage [Anna Elisabeth Voltz], in Darmstadt, and owned and cultivated near Darmstadt thirty acres of land, most of which was vineyard. He was represented as wealthy. He received a large estate through his wife. An epidemic passed over Germany and he lost his wife and two daughters, which sorely afflicted him and discouraged him. He then sent my Uncle Michael to hunt up and visit his brothers Jacob and Valentine [who had arrived in America in 1751], which determined the said Philip to emigrate. Michael arrived on the ship Edinburg, Sept. 19-1752, James Russel, Captain. [Johann] Philip [Sr.] landed at Alexandria, VA, then called Belle Haven, in the spring of the year 1755, at which time Gen. Braddock and Col. Washington were concentrating their forces in order to make a demonstration on Ft. Duquesne, then occupied by the French. As a matter of convenience and safety, they came with the army as far as Frederick City, Md. and thence to his brother Valentine on Bermudian Creek, York Co., PA.
My grandfather resided and kept house until the dispersion of the boys by marriage. During the time, however, the whole concerns of housekeeping and farming were admirably attended to by the men as they had no female among them; one farming; one cooking; one baking; etc. My father, Anthony, being the youngest, did all the knitting and washing.
My father was the last married, and as was natural, my grandfather remained with him to his death, which occurred in his 82nd year, after an illness of seventeen weeks.
What became of our Johann Philip Kimmel, Jr.? He married Anna Christina (nee Hennz) and moved first to Antrim Twp., Franklin County, PA, then to the “Bruederthal,” later known as Brothersvalley Twp., Somerset County, where he organized the Stoneycreek Township Church of the Brethren “Meetinghouse” community before 1770. That group began with only 17 members. We know these Kimmels’ Brethren roots went back to Europe, but according to D. Brian Kimmel’s website, “Kimmel Family Genealogy,” they were no longer the public, mercenary figures of centuries before:
These plain people (Dunkards) were so persecuted in Germany that they were forced to hold their meetings in hiding, and after moving from one place to another, with still no freedom of religion, many of them came to America. It is stated that Johann Heinreich Lohmann, who also came to America in 1751, on the ship St. Andrew, and Jacob Kimmel [Johann Philip, Jr’s brother], 1751, were the chief men in the “Awakening” at Gimbsheim in the Palitinate.
Johann Philip, Jr. had received his education for his role as church leader first in Germany and then at Germantown, PA. He was ordained in 1764 and served the Church for 30 years. The Stoneycreek congregation began in members’ cabins. Just attending church was risky with the woods full of bears and wolves and Indians still a threat. Today the Brethren Church and its many off shoots in Somerset and surrounding counties still thrives.
The Brethren were pacifists and many had left the eastern Pennsylvania counties to escape the pressure to fight in the war. They were not far, geographically nor ideologically, from the Berks/Lancaster/Somerset Counties Anabaptist Amish-Mennonites. When compared to today’s Christian Evangelical tea-toters, Johann Philip, Jr. and his wife present yet another irony, claims Charles Messner:
They moved to Somerset County, PA, about 1762 where they took up a large tract of land. He lived about five miles North of Berlin and the property is still in the hands of his descendants. Besides farming he had two stills and made whiskey, as did many other farmers, for they had no road over which to take their grain to market.
First, it was not unusual for fundamentalist German Christians, even preachers, to brew or distill alcohol in those days. Even the pious English-Dutch Pilgrims consumed alcohol. Probably the American evangelical revivalist movement of the late 19th century is what made such practices among many American Christians taboo. But, even more interesting is that it was this practice of converting grain to alcohol by farmers on the Western Pennsylvania frontier, without paying Federal tax, that forced our first president, George Washington, to recall his battle-worn troops to enforce the law. The Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, as the protest was called, is still celebrated each autumn in the tiny town of Berlin, Brothersvalley Township.
D. Brian Kimmel offers one final impression of our towering 6’, 2” Rev. Johann Philip Kimmel, Jr:
He was said to be one of the strongest men in the area at that time. He could stand inside a hogs-head [a large wooden barrel or cask used to hold grain alcohol, ranging from 63 to 140 gallons], lift a bag of grain in each hand and then straight out, and then place them on each shoulder and let them down again to the floor. Lifting great weights, wrestling, boxing, etc, were all very popular in the early pioneering days. It was a show of manliness and strength to be strong and have bulging muscles.
We now look at the origins of our modern Kimmel name, going back to late 14th century Germany. First, consider Johann Phillip’s father, Johann Phillip, Sr. (1695-1777), referred to in the Gen. Anthony Kimmel letter above. One family historian speculates that perhaps half of all American Kimmels descend from this patriarch. A look at the article, “German Naming Customs,” reveals that first names were usually that of saints and/or Bible figures. For example, “Johann” is John and we had at least three such generations. But, often the second, more often used name, can be different, so Senior’s father was Johann Michael (1662-1734). Perhaps the younger Michael was named for him. But, what do we know about this rather prominent German family? This is what Messner says about our Kimmel family and the elder Michael:
An ancient family of Frankfort on the Main, and Member of the Guild, one member sat in Parliament 1701. He was a mercenary soldier in Poland in his younger days and later a Judge at Gimbsheim and is known as ”Stammvater des Amerikaner Stamms”, Father of the American family. Michael’s childrens’ surname was changed to Kimmel after immigrating to America.
Our published Kimmel Family Tree goes back from Johann Michael, Sr. over 250 more years to Dilmanus of Neuenkerken (b. 1391), and again, the spelling of the surname changes greatly: From Kummell to Koemmel to Komel to Kumel.
Historians believe that family names were not generally used until the late Middle Ages, about the time of our Dilmanus. This practice had begun when nobility took the names of their ancestral seats and, in Germany, often took the prefix “Von,” meaning from. The “Kimmel Family Genealogy” reports:
The German surname Kimmel and its more common variant Kimmich are both derived from an old German word “Kramer”, literally meaning ‘a spice seller’. Thus, the names are occupational in origin, deriving from the name of a trade or profession once pursued by the original bearer. During the Middle Ages, with the growth and development of towns and a market economy, it was common for small shops to specialize in the selling of a particular item. One who sold herbs and spices for a living was known as a “Gewurzkramer,” which was later abbreviated to “Kramer.”
We see in our family history three generations of Kimmels with the given name “Konrad” from 1583 to the late 1600s. In fact, an old German record book, The Wurttembergisches Viertelsjahrhefte fur Landesgeschichte, lists a “Cuonrad der Kumich.” Instead of the noble “von,” the common “der,” or the, indicates the man’s occupation, literally “Konrad the spiceseller.” Today we call him our ancestor, Konrad Kimmel.
Another possible origin of the modern Kimmel name comes from the German word “Kummel,” meaning a caraway seed, and is one of the early spellings in our family tree. When used as a surname it becomes “a gatherer of caraway seeds,” not terribly far from “a seller of spices.” Genealogists are quick to point out that several of the coats-of-arms awarded to family namesakes in Hesse contain caraway plants.
Tim and Brian Kimmel relate some humorous stories surrounding the variations of the surname in America on a Kimmel website:
The most common American variations are Kimel, Kimmel and Kimmell. Cimmel was used in a few early cases but never caught on. A few Germans coming to America took on the old German version Kummel. Most of the time a spelling change was intended to make the family more accepted or to give it status. Generally a Kimmel adopted the surname Kimmell because it had more status; for example, professionals and gentlemen were more likely to be Kimmells in public records than common farmers and workers. In one case an “l” was added (Kimmell) to distance the family from whiskey-producing relatives. Adopting the spellings Campbell, Keehmle, Kiemle, Kimbel, Kimble and Kimmal made the name more “American” and therefore more acceptable in the United States. For a time the Philadelphia doctors and lawyers in the Keehmle family went a step further in claiming status by using the spelling Keehmlé, making it more French, which at the time was the language of aristocrats. An Illinois Kimmel family dropped an “m” (Kimel) for a practical reason–it fit better on the bags of flour at their mill, but the reason for the Kimel family in North Carolina is unknown. In another instance the military dropped the last “l” in a Kimmell family members’ record and the Kimmel spelling was kept so he wouldn’t risk losing pension benefits.
Read “The Kimmel Name: Its Origin, Meaning, and Evolution” by Timothy W. Kimmel for more on this controversy.
No matter what the origins, meanings, or spellings, our family can be proud of some of the more famous namesakes, beginning with several from Somerset County, PA:
- Dr. Henry S. Kimmel (b.1857) was a well-known family physician in Somerset County, PA. Several other Kimmels followed his medical career.
- Jacob Kimmel served as a justice of the peace, and for three years as registrar, recorder of deeds, and clerk of the Orphans’ court of Somerset County. Several other Kimmels followed his legal career, including Hon. Francis M. Kimmel, County Judge, two associate judges, and a sheriff. Attorney William L. Kimmel still practices law in uptown Somerset.
- Lewis Kimmel organized the Plum Creek Normal School in 1859, which led to the formation of Juniata College, at Huntingdon, PA.
- Henry H. Kimmel, McLouth, KS, developed a hardy variety of corn, known as, of course, “Kimmel Corn.”
- Adm. Husband Kimmel (1882-1968) was known for getting the American Naval forces in shape for their war in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. He insisted that sailors wear formal uniforms when on leave to the point that they referred to their hats as “Kimmels.”
- Henry Kimmel is the filmmaker and TV producer responsible for TV’s Funniest Home Videos on ABC.
- Jimmy Kimmel (b. 1967), comedian and TV celebrity, is best known as the host of Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC.
Today, in Germany, the name “Kummel” is perhaps best known as a brand of cherry-flavored brandy, and so one who becomes intoxicated is said to be “kimmeled,” or in German, “verkummelned.”
In Somerset County, PA, today the Kimmel name is still quite common. Several small businesses carry the moniker. Driving northeast of the county seat along Rt. 281, a person sees signs for a little village named Kimmelton, once a stop on the railway line and portal for the Kimmelton Mines. Several men lost their lives in those dangerous pits and a physical memorial has been established in the town as well as a virtual tribute on the internet. The History of Quemahoning Township, Somerset County, PA, mentions George Kimmel as one of the first settlers, saying that he established the first gristmill there. We can’t place him in our line at this time, but he must have certainly been related. We do know that Susan’s ancestor Joseph “Yost” Miller (1748-1811) is credited with operating an early grist mill nearby.
We don’t know all our Kimmel connections yet, but from what we’ve found so far we do know that this family has contributed greatly to both the life of our county and the vitality of our country. One statistic is sure to impress anyone with Kimmel roots: as of 1953, our branches of the American Kimmels have produced forty ministers, forty-four school teachers and college professors. Can you imagine the increase by today? As our research continues we can’t wait to see what other discoveries involving the Kimmel name we can find.
Church of the Brethren Network. Martin Grove Brumbaugh. A History of the German Baptist Brethren. Mt. Morris, IL: Brethren Publishing House,1899, reprinted 1961. Web. 19 Sept. 2012
“Hessian Mercenaries.” 19 Sept. 2012
E. Howard Blackburn, William H. Welfley, and William H. Koontz. History of Bedford and Somerset Counties Pennsylvania with Genealogical and Personal History, Volume III, 1906, by pp. 32-34
“Johann Philip Kimmel.” 10 Sept. 2012
“Kimmel Family Genealogy.” 19 Sept. 2012
Timothy W. Kimmel. “The Kimmel Name: Its Origin, Meaning, and Evolution.” 2 August 2011
H.K. Stoner. “Genealogy of the family of John Philip Kimmel, Jr. (Mar. 2,1724 – Aug. 7, 1796); Oldest of the six sons of Johann Philip Kimmel, Sr. (1695-1777).” 1937
Charles A. Messner. “A Brief History of the Early Kimmel Family.” Buffalo, NY, np, nd
Last revised 3/16/18