1/22/11 & 11/12/12
Many of my wife Susan’s earliest known maternal ancestors were 16th century Anabaptists who originated in Switzerland. Thanks to the discovery of the research of Richard W. Davis by Susan’s cousin Cindy Leonhardt of Wyoming, as pertains to their Musser family, we can now go beyond the 1754 docks of Philadelphia, site of their Musser entry into America, and back 200 years earlier to the valley below the Jura Mountains in Switzerland. Gilgan Moser was born near the village of Langnau in the canton of Bern around 1550. This young farmer married Rosina Muller/Miller in 1579 and together they reared three children. Thus was the beginning of thirteen generations of descendants, ending with Susan and my off-spring born in late 20th century Northern Appalachia. (See the “Our Musser Family Tree.”) One website has a Joseph “Yost” Musser (c.1692–1761) arriving in the City of Brotherly Love even earlier, coming on the ship Molly in 1727. He settled in Lampeter Township, PA. Was he a relative? We’ll explore this and other questions in this article.
Musser is one of those old German family names that seems to easily cross time and space and demographics. For example, my wife Susan’s father and mother each have Mussers in their backgrounds, and we’re still trying to figure out that connection. Her dad’s ancestor, Hans Musser (1704-1752), was the son of Baron Benjamin Musser, born about 1675. A century later, Susannah Musser (1785-1818) married into our Somerset County, PA, Millers and her daughter married a Baer, whose great granddaughter married back into our Millers. (See “Miller” associated family tree in top tool bar.) We believe that, amazingly, at least four Protestant denominations were involved over four generations as these young Americans with Swiss and German lineages intermarried: Lutheran, German Baptist (Brethren/Dunkard), Amish-Mennonite, and Reformed.
On Susan’s mother’s side (see “Krause” associated familes), the Mussers go back to the above mentioned Gilgan Moser. On this maternal side, the religious persuasions of the early ancestors were primarily Amish-Mennonite, eventually marrying Lutherans later on. With transportation at a minimum in those days, courtship and marriage partners were limited to nearby families and faiths nearby, and in the case of Somerset County families, the pickings were almost 100-percent other German Protestants.
What does “Musser” mean? The original name was probably the German “Moser,” as in Gilgan Moser already mentioned. The German “o” with an umlaut and the English “u” sound similar and so no doubt the anglicized “Musser” was registered by American immigration officials. In Europe, the Middle High German word “mos” referred to a certain type of swamp, and thus the name was originally assigned to a family who lived near a peat bog. Our word “moss” has similar connotations. In the North, the Middle Low German word, with long “o,” refers to a vegetable, and thus the reference to one who grows or sells vegetables. Perhaps our first Mosser/Musser ancestor sold produce beside the bog.
Today the Musser name is sprinkled about the Somerset County demographics, from Musser Engineering, whose involvement in the Quecreek Mine Disaster of 2002 is still in question, to Dr. Harold Musser, a prominent physician. But, if one goes back to John Musser (1738-1828), who resided in Eastern Pennsylvania before coming to Stoneycreek Township, one sees a brave and humble mail carrier during the Revolutionary War who delivered letters to General George Washington. Still, our Mussers were overwhelmingly farmers.
In the mid 18th century, Gilgan and Rosina’s third great-grandson, Nicklaus (1722-1783), was, according to Davis, among “a group of Mennonites who received aid from the Bern Government to emigrate to Pennsylvania from the Jura district of Switzerland.” However there is some confusion as to when the journey took place. A Nicklaus and Hans Jacob Musser, earlier thought to be Nicklaus’ father, sailed on the ship Phoenix in 1749. But Davis believes, after searching Swiss church records, that our Nicklaus, was born and baptized in the village of Nodes, in the shadow of the Jura Mountains, after his father Hans moved from Langnau. Could the Hans Jacob who sailed in 1749 have been Nicklaus’ older brother, born in 1712? Never the less, Davis claims that our Nicklaus was on the 1754 Phoenix that landed in Philadelphia. He settled in Londonderry Township, Lebanon County, to farm. Another source has Nicklaus living in Lancaster County. We know that boundaries change and people move, but we believe that he had married the daughter of Christian Schwartz from Corgemont in the Jura region around 1751, before sailing to America. Interestingly, Nicklaus was not called an Anabaptist when his son Nicholas V. was born in 1753, just before the sea voyage. It was only after he became associated with other Anabaptists on the Phoenix and had to pay an emigration tax that he was identified as such. Faust & Brumbaugh say of the collection of émigrés, “All [were] people from the Mountains near Corgemont, Jura, most of them very poor” (20). After his death in 1783, his widow Catherina moved to Mt. Joy Township, Lancaster County, to be near her family. It is believed that she lived into the 19th century.
Church and tax records from then until now can account with near certainty the whereabouts of all of our ancestors. Most remained on farms in southeastern Pennsylvania until the late 18th century, after which new treaties with the Native Americans made settlement west of the Alleghenies safe. Some stayed to live and farm in Somerset County and western Maryland, while others continued across the Ohio River into Holmes County, Ohio, known as “Little Switzerland.” Rebecca Musser (1829-1892), the great granddaughter of Nicklaus, married Joseph Speicher (1797-1862) in southern Somerset County in 1847 and maintained the Amish ways. Their daughter Laura Catherine (1859-1919) married the son of what family tradition called “the Irish orphan,” Thomas “Tommy” Lee. Speaking not a word of German, he was apprenticed by the Bishop Benedict Miller, and later with his wife Elizabeth (nee Brenneman) raised a large family, including Christian F. Lee (1858-1906), my wife’s great grandfather.
My wife and I have been to the beautiful Ementhal region in the foothills of the Jura Mountains twice. That idyllic area is as serene and scenic today as it must have been back then, not terribly different than our own Somerset County. The grain still ripens in the summer sun and the hay still waves amid the rolling hills. Cows are milked several times a day to supply the nearby cheese factories and dairy facilities. How could so little have changed in these parts of the world over four and a half centuries? Will this way of life still be with us in yet another half century? We hope so, and we hope that the descendants of Gilgan and Rosina will continue to appreciate and research and publish the fascinating story of the Mussers and their families.
Richard W. Davis. “Nicklaus Moser of the Jura.” MennoSearch.com. Web. 19 Jan. 2011.
Albert B. Faust and Gaius M. Brumbaugh. List of Swiss Emigrants in 18th Century to the American Colonies. Google Books. Web. 1920.
Cindy Leonhardt. E-mail. 18 Jan. 2011.
“BIOS: Jacob Musser.” USGenWeb Archives. 8 Nov. 2012
“Musser.” FamilyEducation. 9 Nov. 2012