On the Trail of our Early Lee Family

Larry Pearce

(in celebration of the bicentennial year of Tommy Lee’s birth)

Lee cabin, moved to Niverton farm, where Annie was born

Lee cabin, moved to Niverton, Tommy Lee’s homestead in the 1880’s

Very few people are aware of the fact that Thomas [Tommy] Lee is dead, as none of the county newspapers made any mention of his death at or near the time it occurred, for the reason that no one reported the event. Mr. Lee died on the 21st of February last, after an illness of about three weeks. He was 83 years, 2 months, and 9 days old. He was well known throughout Somerset County, PA, and Garrett County, MD, as he was a very prominent, influencial, and wealthy member of the Amish church. Mr. Lee was born of Irish parents, but was reared by a Pennsylvania Dutch family, we are informed, from whom he learned the Pennsylvania dialect and also acquired the thrift and rugged honesty so characteristic of these people. Being naturally bright and industrious, he amassed quite a fortune, although he began life in pverty and obscurity. He was probably the richest man among the Amish in Elk Lick Township and was ever and earnest, faithful member of that church. (Newspaper article, 1900)

Few questions were asked over the years when many in the southern Somerset County, PA, Amish community referred to my wife’s great-great grandfather Thomas “Tommy” Lee as “the orphan.” In researching an article about him written a decade ago, I learned that his mother Catherine’s name was on the deed to his Elk Lick Twp. (now Summit Twp.) farm when it was transferred to him. So, technically, he was never an orphan, and the Amish should have called his boyhood association with Amish Bishop Benedict Miller an apprenticeship. I revised that article several years ago and wrote a brief “Introduction” to Our Lee Family Tree after hearing Jan Hutchinson, a Tommy Lee descendant, speak at an annual meeting of the Casselman River Amish Mennonite Historians and learning that, indeed, Tommy’s father and Catherine’s husband was most probably Thomas William Lee, Sr., of Milford Twp., Somerset County. What else I have discovered recently about the early Lees of the area is the subject of this piece, but it is may I say, a work in progress.

Over these past few years, I’ve located other Lee namesakes in early Somerset County: Riley Lee, a 1794 Elk Lick/Summit Township land holder; Alexander Lee, from the 1800 Federal Census for Turkeyfoot Township; and Ezekial Lee, part of the 1800 and 1810 Censuses for Turkeyfoot with six in his household for the later list. Nothing more has been uncovered with respect to Somerset County for Riley, but an Ezekial’s name appears when his administrator transfers land ownership in the years 1816, 1820, and 1871, no doubt after his death. Alexander, on the other hand, did leave a trace. He most certainly could have been Thomas, Sr.’s’ younger brother, born supposedly in Donegal, Northern Ireland, coming to America about 1790, marrying in 1799, naturalized in 1802, and dying in 1853. An internet message board dated August 12, 2007, says that Alexander and wife Martha Hammel (born 1775) lived in Turkeyfoot Twp., Somerset County, probably near her relatives John, John, Jr., and Thomas. Their names appear in property transfers with respect to Ezekial. Martha’s family had been in Somerset County as early as 1800. Alexander and Martha moved to Lee Township, Carroll County, Ohio, raising nine children: Mary, David, Sarah, John, Martha, James (Alexander), Thomas, Ezekial (R.), and William (Love). Martha possibly had family in Knox Co., Ohio, and Six Lakes, Michigan.

One Ancestry.com family tree includes an Alexander H. Lee born in Somerset County in 1820 of John and Susannah Warfield Lee. His father was John, born in 1790 in Baltimore, and his father was George. We don’t know where his 1760 birth took place nor if there is a relationship to our family. Other Somerset County-connected Lees of similar names that appear in family trees are both named John: one appearing in the 1790 Census for Bedford County (later split into Somerset County), and another born in the county in 1806. The second John Lee’s parents, George and Jeannette Dinsmore Lee, were born in Donegal, Ireland, in the mid to late 1760’s but had moved on to Ohio by the end of their lives. The Somerset County Deed Index (1816-1923) lists transfers by Thomas W. Lee in 1828, surely Tommy’s father. Tommy’s name is written only as Thomas Lee and begins to appear on the index in 1848, when he had reached the age of majority probably about eighteen years after the death of his father. An Elias D. Lee has property transfers from 1880 through 1923. His identity is not certain at this time.

The proximity of southern Somerset County to Garrett County, MD, opens the possibility of family ties there. One Irishman with an unusual name, Dudley I. Lee, was born in Belfast in 1759, married twice and fathered eleven children before his death in Ryans Glade, MD. Dudley was one of eight children to William and Mary Catherine Russell Lee, born and residing in County Down, Ireland, after the 1720’s. Other Garrett County Lees in the 19th century deed book index include: Frederick, Robert, George D., Eva, Abraham, Andrew J., James H., David A., Susannah, and Alta Virginia. A quick search of the adjacent Allegany County, MD, deed book for that century includes: Dudley, Abraham, John W., James W., Emily, Robert, Alexander, Thomas, Maurice, Margaret, and others.

Just recently, after an inquiry by a reader of my webpage as to another early Somerset County Lee, Joseph (Marion?), I researched one born in 1812 in Milford Twp., the same jurisdiction as our Tommy Lee. This Joseph died in 1899, in Stewart Township, nearby Fayette County, PA. The 1840 Federal Census for Milford Twp., Somerset Co., lists him as head of household with a wife and child. He wed a Mary Little, according to a death certificate of (Harriet?) Rebecca Hillen, probably their daughter. Could this Joseph have been our Tommy Lee’s brother?

Other Joseph Lees with ties to the county are Melvin Joseph Lee, born in Somerset in 1823 to Joseph Ellis and Lydia Burdick Lee of New York and Canada. Melvin’s occupation was that of “locomotive engineer,” and this family was apparently also just passing through because they all ended up in Erie, PA, and the American Mid-west.

Let’s interject at this point those southern Somerset County Lees whom we believe are definitely connected. In the 1820 Census for Elk Lick Township, W. Thomas Lee is head of a household of six. Tommy would have been only four-years old at that time. By the Census of 1830, the father’s name appears as Thomas W. Lee, he has moved (back?) to Milford Township, and heads a family of 10. Thomas, Sr. is not heard from again after this. The household of Catherine Lee, his widow with four children, is listed in the 1840 Census for Elk Lick. Those children in the house could have included Thomas “Tommy,” Jr. (age 24), Levi, Mary, Katie, Lizzie, and/or Rachel. Catherine was still in Elk Lick in 1870, at age 76, we believe. She probably passed away before the 1880 census, but there is no record of where either she or her husband is buried. Also in that 1840 township census is Daniel Lee (age 21?) with his wife (age 16?). Was this a brother to Tommy, born in 1819?

That year, in the nearby hamlet of Addison, was yet another household with a Rachel Lee (age 25) living with a man with another surname, possibly her father, age 50. Could she have been a widow to a Lee or was she an unmarried sister to Tommy, possibly a servant or caretaker?

We know that Tommy and Elizabeth Brenneman were married in 1842, and indeed, they are in the 1850 Census for Addison with three small children and a 16-year old girl, possibly a relative or a housekeeper. This young woman is gone by 1860, but Tommy and Elizabeth have their full compliment of six children living with them in Addison. The 1870 Census lists the family’s residence as Elk Lick Township with only three children remaining at home. By 1880, our Tommy and Elizabeth, both 63-years old, are recorded as still living in Elk Lick. Also in the household is whom we believe to be Tommy’s unmarried children Mary (28) and Christian (21). Mary would later be wed to the Rev. Daniel Yoder, and Christian would marry Laura Speicher three years later to produce our line.

One of the things that stands out, not unlike the other Scots-Irish Grays and Campbells in my family and the traditional Scottish naming practices, is the repetition of given names from generation to generation, some after biblical names, some after royalty in the old country, but certainly after aunts, uncles, parents, and grandparents. This makes tracing family origins very difficult. For example, we know that a Sarah Lee married a Peter Geary in Turkeyfoot Twp, Somerset County, before 1867, the date of the birth of their son Daniel Lee Geary in Greene County, PA. With a Sara(h) in every generation in almost every Lee family, the question has persisted on internet message boards as to whether Peter Geary’s wife could have belonged to Alexander, Daniel, or Ezekial Lee. According to a descendant of the Daniel and Elizabeth Lee mentioned above, Linda Lacich, Sarah and Peter Geary are of our line and are buried in Milford Twp. with Peter’s family. We’ll share the sad story of another Sarah Lee in just a minute.

There remain several mysteries in Pennsylvania and Maryland Lee family research. Who was the Corp. William Lee mentioned in the History of Bedford County (Ch. 10, p. 83) who fought in the American Revolution under Capt. Robert Clussage? At that time Somerset County was part of Bedford County, so it’s not known exactly where this William lived. Another mystery involves a Lee woman or women named Catherine. The first was born in York Co., PA, in 1789, and died in 1850, in Ohio. She married a man named Abraham Freed and spent time in Bullskin Twp., Fayette Co. Another Catherine is said to have lived with the above mentioned Joseph Lee’s family in Fayette County. Could either of these women have been related to our Thomas Lee line?

Another internet inquiry involves the parents of a Clyde Lee (born 1882), James and Caroline Keffer Lee, of Somerset or Fayette Co., PA. Was this possibly the James, son of Alexander and Martha Hammel Lee cited above? Still other early Lees of Somerset and/or Fayette County are named Pleasant, Francis, and Jane. We know that Jane was the daughter of Israel Lee (born 1814 in Maryland), a Chester County, PA, carpenter, and wife Rebecca (born 1820 in Pennsylvania). Jane married Joel McNutt, a Fayette County coal miner. Were any or all of them related to our Thomas Lees? Many of the dates and names are similar and the Pennsylvania roads west go through Somerset County, so the possibility of familial relationship is great.

Finally, a local genealogist, who had helped me with my wife’s Amish-Mennonite Saylor family, asked why five Lee children are listed in the 1850 Milford Township Census household of Anthony (1825-1902) and Sarah Shultz Growall (1815-1880). The Lee children are: Harriet (17), Caroline (10), Phebe (8), Perry (4), and Jonathan (1). Given the difference in Anthony and Sarah’s age, could the children have been Sarah’s from a previous marriage to a Lee, even his obituary doesn’t mention the step-children? A February 28, 2015, response to Stewart Saylor’s inquiry suggests the possibility that Sarah (Sallie) Shultz had been married to one of the Joseph Lees mentioned above. A later death certificate lists the maiden names of the oldest child, Harriet, who married John Nicholson in 1853, as Growall and Lee. In fact, Harriet’s younger sister Phebe Lee was living with Harriet and John in the 1860 Addison Twp. Census, which seems to confirm the Lee connection.

Amid the joy of genealogical discovery are those stories that recall tragedy in our family lines. The life of the above Sarah [Lee] Shultz Gowall ended on just such a note, and we reluctantly share it with you here, not for any sensational effect but because we believe that she should be remembered as part of our Lee family, a strong woman who always wanted the best for her husband and children. The following story ran in the Somerset Herald in March, 1880:

One of the most sickening accidents it has ever been our duty to record happened at a steam saw mill in Rockwood last Friday. Mrs. Anthony Growall, an aged and esteemed lady of the place, was at the mill gathering chips and kindling. For this purpose she had gotten under the table on which was fastened the circular saw. The miller, not noticing her, started the engine. Just as the unfortunate lady was directly under the saw, a woolen hood, which she wore, caught in the teeth, and in an instant the rapidly revolving saw had penetrated her head from the crown to the chin, literally sawing it in two. Of course, death was instantaneous.

Boiler explosion at Growall's Planing Mill Rockwood, PA (1900)

Boiler explosion at Growall’s Planing Mill
Rockwood, PA (1900)

Sarah’s husband eventually remarried, but tragedy was to strike again twenty years later as that same sawmill was destroyed when the steam boiler exploded. Anthony survived the blast but died only two years later and is buried with Sarah.

In conclusion, this article has included a lot of names and dates, but as my research continues, I believe it is important to get them out “on the table,” so to speak. My primary research questions began as, “Who was our Thomas Lee, Sr.?”, and “Where did he originate?” While we still can’t answer those questions with any certainty, surely at least some of the great number of Lees living in and passing through Somerset County in the late 18th and early 19th centuries must have been ancestors to our Lees. We believe that, not only was Thomas William Lee, Sr’s son Tommy not an orphan, and certainly not a Swiss-German Anabaptist, but must have had relatives close by and to the West where many of his adopted Amish in-laws eventually migrated. With 200 and more years to sift through, our questions here only generate more questions. Hopefully, our readers and relatives will help turn over a few stones, making the trail of our early Lee family smoother, more scenic, and full of adventure, especially in honor of the bicentennial of Tommy Lee’s birth.


Karen Gerlach. “Hammel-Lee.” 7 May 1997. http://www.pagenweb.org/~somerset

“Pvt. Anthony Growall.” Blogspot.com. July 2011. http://142ndpainfantry.blogspot.com/2011/07/pvt-anthony-growall-co-c.html

Cindy Leonhardt. E-mail & attachments. 4 May 2011

James L. Yoder. E-mail & attachments. 25 Sep 2015

Shirley Teets. “Elk Lick & Summit Townships Land Warrant Dates.” Forney-L Archives. 17 Feb. 2001.

“Thomas Lee.” Welfley Obituary Scrapbook. V. 3, P.175.

Various Ancestry.com Public Member Family Trees & other sources

11 Responses to On the Trail of our Early Lee Family

  1. Genealogist Manfred Jose Nissley says:

    Ah! So we are descended from the Irish according to that obit! I will need to examine the rest of the information again later. Thank you for your hard work!

    • admin says:

      Hi Manfred,
      I’m just quoting that old newspaper clipping, but Lee can be an Irish name. I still find Lees in the tri-state area on a regular basis. Stay tuned, and thanks for the compliment.

  2. Genealogist Manfred Jose Nissley says:

    Hi! So, I talked to my grandmother (a Lee) a few nights ago. We got to talking about our Lee ancestry. She mentioned a stunning rumor she had heard about Thomas Lee Sr. She says, according to a rumor, that he was Irish, but that he had first migrated to Germany before he migrated to North America.

    • admin says:

      Good to hear from you again. This is all VERY interesting as we believe that Thomas Lee, Sr’s wife, a German-American, came up to Somerset County, PA, from Preston, WV. Had he met her and/or the family in Germany: the Millers and Stambach’s of Baden? Do you have a transcript of the interview with your grandmother. Perhaps we could write an article on that conversation. I’ll pass this along to the Grantsville Historians, who unfortunately didn’t meet this year, but follow the Lee family closely. Thanks again,

  3. Genealogist Manfred Jose Nissley says:

    Sooo… I think I know who our Lee ancestors are now! I took an Ancestry DNA test and matched with two Lee descendants of a specific Lee, but they themselves were distant cousins of each other. This line is traced through all the way to Ireland and into the 13th century.

    Their common Lee ancestor is also the father of a mysterious Thomas Lee who was born in 1761.

    I also note that you mentioned in the Thomas and Catherine vitals page that you have a source which states he had a brother that fought in the revolution and moved to the Midwest. Well, this matches what I found perfectly.

    Could you send me an email at the email address I used for this comment? Thanks!

    • admin says:

      Manfred, you’ve been hard at work! I’ve answered you directly via e-mail, asking for any other specifics I can share with our readers. Sure is interesting.

  4. Jocelyn Lee says:

    Hello Larry, I found your post interesting to read. While I don’t see any connection to my Lee family, I’m wondering if you have any suggestions for my searches. My Francis Lee I believe came from Somerset Pennsylvania, possibly near Davidsville, and likely travelled to Ontario, Canada around 1804 or 1807 with other mennonite families. I have his mother as Cruicy Russel Ligh showing up on some other documents. Francis married Elizabeth Grainger in Markham, Ontario, Canada. The names Francis and William have come down through the family several generations. I believe Jacob Berkey and Veronica Blough also came from this same area and I know they travelled in 1807. If you have any suggestions on where to look for my Lee family in Somerset I would be very grateful. With thanks.

    • admin says:

      Hi Jocelyn, as I’ve said, our Lee origins are a mystery. Most of the early American Lees were Irish or English. Thomas stayed pretty much in Southern Somerset County after he married into the Amish. The Berkeys mostly stayed north, in or near Cambria County, (Johnstown began as “Schantztown, an Amish village) although the Berkey Church is near Windber and is Church of the Brethren. Please let me know if you find anything more. Regards and thanks for sharing,

  5. Cynthia H Levenhagen says:

    I am from a Joseph Lee born in 1812 and died 1899. He lived in Stewart Township, PA, and he was married to Mary A Little. We heard that Mary was born “on the ocean” while her parents were coming to the USA. Joseph and his wife do not have headstones by their graves due to them being buried close to the road. Also heard that Joseph’s father may have come the Germany way. Sure would like to know how he fits in with your Lees. I also have McNutt (Ruhan, Joel’s sister) Rebecca Lee Hillin (Joseph and Mary’s daughter) as my ancesters. If you could help sure would be grateful. Joseph may of had 3 brothers Daniel, Levi and Thomas and 6 sisters.

    • admin says:

      Hi Cynthia. Very interesting! While I can’t be certain, and Stewart Twp. is in nearby Fayette County close to WV where our Thomas, Sr’s wife originated, I’m wondering of your Joseph’s brother Thomas was our Thomas, Sr. We have almost nothing on this family patriarch. Maybe someone can help. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.