Research on my wife Susan’s Bender ancestors began on a bright, crisp autumn afternoon in the mountains of Western Maryland. As members of the Casselman Historians of Grantsville and as part of a bus tour of old Amish homesteads for the 2011 annual meeting, we climbed the rich, green hill where Maria “Mary” Bender Brenneman was laid to rest in 1860 at age 77. This area in Garrett County is known as New Germany. She had been buried in the middle of a bucolic pasture on her son Jacob’s farm. Unfortunately, her husband Daniel, who had died 18 years earlier, was buried on their family farm several miles away, as the crow flies, but much farther by way of the winding, gravel-covered country road between. He had been interred also atop a peaceful hilltop, but between a cornfield and the hedgerow. Unlike Mary’s, Daniel’s rough-cut headstone has been replaced with a new one that carries more than just initials. Look at the photo albums for both Bender and Brenneman.
This article is all about our Bender ancestors. What’s the meaning of the family moniker? Bender is an occupational name for a cooper or barrel maker first found in Baden. The unanglicized full name may have been “Fassbender,” and many other forms exist today, including Bennder, Bendder, Bander, Bannder, Bandder, and believe it or not, even Painter. British origins include in the Old English “Benden” and Benbow,” a bowmaker. Indeed, Robert le Bendare of 14th century Essex or Suffolk was just that. The logical occupational extension would be an archer. Ironically, in Hungarian, the translation of Bender is “Curl,” or someone with curly hair, much like our German Krause. (See “Introduction: Krause.”) The name is also fairly common in Wales.
We know that the first Benders came from Germany to America long before our immediate family, to New York in 1709 to be exact. We’ll consider some of the much more famous namesakes and other bits of information in this article a little later. But first, let’s trace the genealogical line from Susan’s great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Brenneman Lee (1816-1890), who married Thomas “Tommy” Lee (1816-1900), to Elizabeth’s mother Mary Bender Brenneman, then to Mary’s mother Helena, who was ironically also a Brenneman married to a Bender, in this case Jacob. If you’re confused, we’ll return to this genealogy also later. (See “Our Bender Family Tree.”)
Mary’s probable 3X great-grandfather Herman “Mannus” Bender (c.1675) may have been one of the first converts to the Anabaptist Amish faith, according to cousin Janice Lee. Ancestry.com’s “BENDER-L Archives” site is full of interesting possibilities. The notable cross-over of surnames in marriages, such as here with Bender and Brenneman, is not unusual among any of our earlier families. Three hundred years ago, social mobility was limited, especially among the Amish sect, thus limiting marriage partners. We don’t know what Jacob and Helena’s relative status was, perhaps some level of cousins, but such relationships were legal. We’ll see more of this practice in a minute, but now let’s have a look at Mary’s beginnings through her parents.
Maria “Mary” Bender of New Germany, MD, was born in 1783 in what was known as Prussia, today Darmstadt, Hesse, Germany, to Jacob, Sr. and Helena S. Brenneman Bender. Helena’s parents were Samuel K. (1759-1834) and Marie Schwartzentruber Brenneman (b. 1756). Some records show these family births in Bodenhausen. Mary had perhaps four siblings: younger brothers Johannes (1786-1833), who also came to America but died quite young, in his late forties in Butler County, Ohio; Jacob, Jr. (b. 1791), who immigrated to Canada in 1832; and Christian (1796-1830) who also went to Canada. Some records show an older sister Maria who died in 1812 at Fregenhagen. If she had been a sister and died as an infant, the family may have reused her name with our Mary, not an unusual practice then. This source does not discount the idea that this Maria was an aunt, perhaps Jacob, Sr.’s sister. We want to doubt any connection to an illegitimate child of the same name born in 1786 to Jacob, Sr. and certainly not to our Mary because she would have been only three years old then. Again, what seems most noteworthy is that all three brothers and Mary herself, as had their father, married Brennemans. Mary wed Daniel in 1803; Johannes wed another Marie; Jacob, Jr. married Magdelena; and Christian married an Elizabeth. This is certainly rare and remarkable. Were they all brothers and sisters who were cousins? As we said above, this was a somewhat common practice and the relationship is known as double first cousins: parallel or ortho cousins, where descendants of a common ancestor marry, in this case Brennemans. We hope to learn more at the next annual meeting of the Casselman Historians, set for September 2013, featuring the Bender and Brenneman families of Hesse. The program is entitled “Waldeck – A Last Stronghold of Amish Faith & Life in Europe” presented by Karl Westmeier, author of the new book, Picture Postcards from Waldeck.
More information on Mary and Daniel and their eleven children can be found in our Vitals section. All but one child was born in Darmstadt. Two died before they left Germany and the youngest was born in Berlin, Somerset County, PA, where they farmed before finally settling just south of the Mason-Dixon line in Garrett County, MD. The family had originally migrated from Eichof bei Rosenthal, Hesse, sailing to Baltimore in 1826. According to Casselman Historian archives, seven of the nine children who grew to adulthood lived the remainder of their lives in the New Germany-Bittinger-Frostburg vicinity, where many descendants abide today. Two others moved west to the Ohio and Iowa Amish settlements.
The “BENDER-L Archives” site relates the narrative of a Daniel Bender (1764-1842) of Langendorf, Germany, possibly our Mary’s uncle because his son Wilhelm’s U.S. immigration papers list his birthplace also as Darmstadt, Hesse. The family had decided to send young Wilhelm to America before he reached German draft age. Because such passage was unaffordable to this poor Amish family, a friend names Kinsinger paid the way with the understanding that the debt would be repaid when Wilhelm reached the New World and could become indentured, or sold into servitude, a common practice. Upon reaching Baltimore, Wilhelm’s tab was picked up by a nurseryman and, having been repaid, Kinsinger proceeded westward over the National Road, now U.S. Rt. 40, to the Amish settlement near Grantsville. When he got there and told his story, the kindly Bishop Benedict Miller got on his horse, rode to Baltimore, bought Wilhelm’s redemption from the nurseryman, and brought him back to live with that community. A similar story his told still today of Tommy Lee, the supposedly Irish “orphan,” also adopted by Bishop Miller. (See “Table of Contents: Lee.”) In the Bender case, Wilhelm repaid the Bishop through hard work and marrying Miller’s daughter some years later. He also sent money back to his homeland to allow his brother Joseph and their mother to come to America. Unfortunately, father and husband Daniel had died by then. The story of this family continues, though, as they arrive in Baltimore with only enough money to take the stage to Cumberland. Penniless, they spent the night in a barn without having eaten. The generous landlord brought them bread and potatoes, and the next morning they walked the final twenty-seven miles to Wilhelm’s farm.
Local history books tell an interesting story of a John (Johannes) Bender (1831-1912) who came to America at age 20 and also found his way also to Garrett County, MD. This John was not Mary’s brother, who moved to Ohio, nor her son, who died in infancy. But, as did the rest of the Amish Benders, he farmed. This John, however, was a bit more well-known, engaging in the business of brewing beer and distilling hard liquor. In fact, he patented a medicine he called “Bender’s Tonic Elixir Vitae,” or remedy for life. Old bottles are still available at antique sites online and Ebay.
As we said, many Benders may be found in Western Maryland, Allegany and Garrett Counties today. One in particular comes to mind, but we don’t know if there is a familial relationship: the Billy Bender family of automobile dealerships of Cumberland, Frostburg, Grantsville, and the tri-state. Their advertising keeps the family name before the public.
Other Benders are also still living and operating businesses just north in Somerset County today. Some businesses, however, have changed but are still fondly remembered for what they once were. Bender Shoe Company, for example, once employed 135 workers in Somerset Borough. Begun in 1948, they were internationally famous for their work shoes and cowboy boots. Producing as many as 2,000 pairs per day, plant ownership was transferred to B.B. Walker Company of Asheboro, NC, in 1965, but went bankrupt in 2002 despite having $8.3 million in assets. Several former employees purchased the enterprise later that year and reorganized under the name, The Abilene Boot Company. Today, they boast, “Classic Western Boots – Affordable Quality Made in the USA.”
Another still thriving county business is Bender Implement, a wholesale dealer in farm machinery and home appliances in Somerset. Founded in 1991 and employing 11 people, this company grossed $1.2 million last year. The most recent Bender family endeavor in the area is Bender’s Computer & Network Solutions, a lucrative technology sales and service company supporting many local homes and businesses. We have been unable to learn the original Bender family connection for any of the Bender businesses, but research continues. Suffice it to say that the old German work ethic lives on in this part of America.
Are there other Benders who have gained fame? A quick internet search reveals many, including:
- Russ Bender (1910-1969), American actor and screenwriter
- Robert Bender (b. 1962), American children’s author and illustrator
- Staff Sergeant Stanley Bender (1909-1994), recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in WW II
- Lawrence Bender (b. 1957), American film producer
- Hans Bender (1907-1991), German expert on parapsychology
Wikipedia.com lists dozens more, if you’re interested.
Our Bender genealogical road reaches as far back as Hermann “Mannus” Bender, perhaps one of the first converts to the Amish sect in Germany. You are invited to read the complete story of our non-conformist ancestors in the background section of The Amish-Mennonites of Tazewell County, IL. If some of the names there look familiar, it’s because they are many of the same names of persons who struggled for freedom of conscience in Europe, who sailed to America and Canada, and who still live and farm and work otherwise in Amish communities from Pennsylvania to the West. It’s a rich and proud heritage, but pride is not something to be coveted in the faith. So, in closing, let’s just use the original meaning of the family name and say such struggle and such faith has “shaped” the Benders as Godly examples fit for Heaven.
“BENDER-L Archives.” Rootsweb.Ancestry.com. Various dates
E. Howard Blackburn and William H. Welfley. History of Bedford & Somerset Counties, PA. v3. New York: Lewis Publishing, 1906. P. 223
C.W. Bender. Descendants of Daniel Bender. Berlin, PA: Berlin Publishing, 1948/80
Jacob R. Bender. Genealogy of Jacob & Magdelena Bender. Tavistock, ONT, nd
Find-a-Grave. “Maria Bender Brenneman.” Online
“Bender Family Crest & History.” 27 Sept. 2012.
“Bender (surname).” 27 Sept. 2012.
Cindy Leonhardt. E-mail. 7 Nov. 2010