Oberlin Family History
Steven D. Oberlin
6 March 2018
Until the mid 1980’s, I had assumed that our family immigrated just prior to the Civil War, and had little to do with the founding of America. My paternal grandparents provided me with some initial information, although they could only tell me about ancestors they knew – two or three previous generations. My first visit to the Allen County Public Library (Fort Wayne) yielded an additional generation. I also obtained considerable information about the Oberlins who settled in Pennsylvania during the early 1700’s. It was years later before I actually confirmed the lineage to the original immigrants.
The historical information has been gathered from several sources, and is basically correct. I’ve made some judgments concerning incomplete and conflicting information from multiple sources. In compliance with the requirements of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, the patriot lineage is verifiable. I’ve corresponded over the years with family members and others interested in Oberlin genealogy. I also conducted on-site research when I lived near Philadelphia. A recent visit to Liedolsheim, Germany proved to be very enlightening. Any and all comments, suggestions, and especially corrections are welcomed and encouraged.
OBERLIN – German (some Swiss) and French (Alsace): from an Alemannic pet form of the German personal name Albrecht, which is composed of Germanic adal ‘noble’ + berht ‘bright’, ‘famous’. (Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press, Inc. © 2006 Patrick Hanks). Literally translated, the name suggests “one who came from Oberlinden” (upper linden tree). Virtually all the records of Oberlins in Europe originate in Alsace, Baden-Wurtemburg and along the Rhine River near Karlsruhe and Strasbourg. The Black Forest, which has a considerable Linden tree presence is also in this region.
There are 3-4 known Oberlin crests allegedly originating as early as 1415. It’s difficult to determine which crest is most appropriate, if any, for specific branches of the family. The crest on the website is a known Oberlin crest, but it’s really only for illustrative purposes.
The first known appearance of the family name Oberlin in any public record was 1479, where Hermann Seitz, Jorg Faut, Hans Reiner and Hensel Aberlin (Oberlin) were mentioned as Burger (citizens) of Liedolsheim. In 1482, a farm was let for rent by the margrave of Baden to Henslin Oberlin. Henslin was listed as mayor of Liedolsheim in 1494. (Additional information concerning the Oberlin and associated families from Liedolsheim.)
Christian Oberlin, appears among a 1543 list of those who “were executed for their faith” in Berne, Switzerland. There was considerable strife throughout Europe during those times, primarily between Catholics and Protestants, especially in the Rhine River and Palentine regions. While we do not know Christian’s specific fate, the prominent means were drowning, beheading and burning alive.
Another early record is in the registry of the church in Sundhofen, a town near Colmar, Alsace. The entry in the registry states that one Jacob Oberlin, an emigrant miller and baker from Messkirch, had presented his son Johannes to be baptized on 7 June 1574. It seems likely that Jacob, also a Protestant, had gone to Sundhofen because there wasn’t yet a Protestant church in Colmar, where he resided. The Oberlin family tradition of Protestantism dates prior to when the faith was firmly established. They endured the Thirty Year’s War (1618 – 1648) when the region swayed back and forth between religions and leadership. This struggle between Catholics and Protestants is believed to have cost over 6,000,000 lives and virtually destroyed Germany, including the village of Liedolsheim.
In 1632, a second Johannes Oberlin, son of the Johannes baptized in 1574, moved his family to Strasbourg, probably because Protestantism was more firmly established there. Through two more generations the Oberlins were bakers. In the early eighteenth century, perhaps in a effort toward upward social mobility, Johann Georg Oberlin broke with family tradition and studied at the renowned Protestant Gymnasium in Strasbourg. He married Marie-Madeleine Feltz and fathered two daughters and seven sons. The second son, born in 1740, was Johann Friedrich Oberlin, the French clergyman and namesake of Oberlin College.
Meanwhile, back in Berne, the Oberlins were still having problems with the Church. In 1710, Margaret Oberlin, and 29 others, were imprisoned because of their religious endeavors. Margaret later escaped through Holland and became the first known Oberlin in America. In 1711, she emigrated to New York aboard the ship “Oberlander.” (Amish Mennonites saw their share of persecution then, and were often called “Oberlanders.”) This was the beginning of a mass exodus of 30,000 Palatinate Protestants to the Colonies. Thousands of others were lost at sea seeking a new life in a new world. All of this kind of personalizes the reasons why the United States of America was founded on the principle of religious freedom.
While the name Oberlin seems to be the original spelling, several other forms are prevalent in early American records. These variations were due to the interpretations of the mostly English scribes entering the records. Oberlin, Oberly, Oberle, and Oberli are the principle variations, with Overly and Overley also appearing for the same individual identified in other records by the previous names. (Hearing the name pronounced during visits to Switzerland, France and Germany confirmed this reasoning.)
Prior to 1760, there appears to have been three original ancestors of the Oberlins in America. There was also a John Francis Oberlin who lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania from about 1760 to 1780. John Francis was in charge of the church store, which was located on the north side of Market Street, opposite the graveyard. He was a vehement Tory, and remarked that he had sufficient rope in his store to hang all of Congress. The official history of Bethlehem describes John Francis Oberlin as a “crotchety and often troublesome man, with whom the authorities of the place more than once came into unpleasant conflict about various matters.” In 1781, he, along with his wife and four children, returned to Europe.
In 1759, a John Martin Oberlin, reputedly from Wurtemburg, Germany, married Eva Nagel in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Around 1779, with their sons Christopher, Casper (Gasper), Henry, Boston, and Frederich, they moved to Westmoreland County, where many of Christopher’s descendants still live. In 1792, John & Eva and most of their sons moved to Bourbon County, Kentucky. In 1797, leaving Henry behind, the family moved to Ross County, Ohio. Most later records show their name as Overly or Oberly. Many of their descendants live in southern Ohio, Indiana, and Kansas.
In 1751, Michael Oberlin arrived on the ship “Brothers.” Michael was from Alsace and reputed to be a relative of Johann Friedrich, the Alsace clergyman referenced above. Michael’s descendants settled and prospered in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania. Michael’s grandson, Frederick Oberlin married Maria Schaeffer, daughter of the town’s founder, Henry Schaeffer. Most of Michael’s family remained in the Schaefferstown, Lebanon County, Pennsylvania area into the late 1800’s.
The third group descended from two brothers, John Michael Oberlin and John Adam Oberlin. They came to America in 1738 with their father, John Martin Oberlin, from Liedolsheim (east of the Rhine River north of Karlsruhe), Germany. The Oberlin (Stober and Fry) families are listed as “pioneer families” in the 1883 History of Lancaster County. (A Martin Overle appears on the 1726 Conestoga Township tax roll.) It’s believed John Martin died shortly after arriving in America. Referring to Martin and his sons, in his 1901 publication, Memorials of the Huguenots in America, Reverend A. Stapleton writes: “The Oberlins were distinguished in the history of France, notably the Reformer of Ban-de-la-Roche (Johann Friedrich Oberlin), who was a relative of the Pennsylvania Oberlins.” (The physical resemblance my grandfather and brother bear to Johann Friedrich’s pictures is remarkable.) They probably traveled by boat on the Rhine River to the Netherlands where they boarded a Dutch ship, which brought them to the new world.
John Michael was born in Germany on 27 September 1717. Michael married Christina Barbara Zwecker 19 November 1742 at Trinity Lutheran Church, New Holland. One of the oldest and most historic churches in that area is the old Bergstrasse Church, which Michael co-founded 13 May 1752. Wendle Zwecker, Barbara’s father, was a founder of Trinity Lutheran Church. Michael died 17 May 1787 in Earl Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. His will lists the following children: John Jacob, Adam, Margaret, Christina, Rebecca, Elizabeth, and Hannah.
Note that John Michael is referred to as Michael. It was common practice to name children with the same first names as their parents. Usually the middle name then became the name most often used. John Adam was known as Adam, John Martin was known as Martin. This common use of the name John and frequent use of the same middle names occasionally creates challenges when researching.
John Adam Oberlin is probably the ancestor of the majority of the Oberlins in Stark and Williams Counties of Ohio, and northeastern Indiana. He was born about 1715, in Germany and married Catherine Agatha Stober (Stover) 8 January 1740, at Muddy Creek Lutheran Church in Lancaster County. He was naturalized in 1762, and died in 1780, leaving a very large estate. Mentioned were the following children: Christopher, Adam, Jacob, Michael, Eva, Barbara, Christina, Henry, and Frederick.
John Adam’s older sons were active members of the Lancaster County Militia during the Revolutionary War; Captain Michael, Sergeant Adam, Sergeant Christopher and Jacob. Several Lancaster County Associators (militia), including Adam and Christopher, were placed in “Continental service” for a period of two months and sent to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, 13 August 1776. They were among the 10,000 Colonials opposing 30,000 British regulars and Hessian mercenaries in the Battle of Long Island, August 22-28. Cousin Valentine Stober was deployed in the same unit under Captain John Jones. According to Valentine’s pension, they were in the field at least one month, before Valentine joined the Continental Army artillery in Philadelphia.
Lancaster troops were involved in the 26 December 1776 crossing of the Delaware River and subsequent assault on Trenton, New Jersey. (Another patriot ancestor, James Huston, lived in Trenton and participated in the battle.) The following year, virtually the entire Lancaster County Militia was activated during the defense of Philadelphia. Several Lancaster County units participated in the Battles of Germantown and Brandywine Creek with General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Lancaster militiamen accompanied, then British officer, George Washington during the 1763 siege of Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) and virtually all of the American Revolution.
Many of the Hessian mercenaries captured at Trenton were immediately marched to Lancaster County with specific instructions from Washington that “good principles be infused into them.” All indications suggest they were treated well by their Lancaster hosts. Seventy Hessian prisoners were subsequently moved to Brickerville to participate in the construction of an irrigation ditch, which supplied water to the Elizabeth furnace. The furnace was then being used to process iron ore for use in the war effort. The barracks, a converted horse barn, where they were housed was still standing in 1988 when I last saw it. The Lancaster Militia was tasked with guarding their “brethren” Germans. After the war many released prisoners remained in Lancaster and became part of the community. Brunswick Dragoon Conrad Newstetter’s daughter Catherine, married Adam Oberlin’s son, John.
Family lore and several published accounts indicate that the Oberlin brothers served as “bodyguards” to General Washington. One source further states the Oberlins were all over six feet tall. It’s well documented that militiamen were considered to be undisciplined, and although many were excellent fighters, they were not necessarily good soldiers. Washington’s bodyguards would have certainly been disciplined soldiers. 10 March 1776, Washington ordered that each regiment provide four trusted men to serve as his personal guards. Since a regular army did not yet exist (The first two Continental Army units were commissioned in Lancaster County, 25 June 1776.) the Oberlins, who were already “minutemen” in the Pennsylvania Military Association, may have been selected within their regiment to fulfill this request or serve as interim guards. Analysis of the Pennsylvania Archives and surviving records do not list any Oberlins as members of “Washington’s Life Guard,” which the men themselves referred to as “body guard.” All of the Life Guard’s official records were destroyed in an 1815 fire. While it’s unclear in what capacity, the Oberlins apparently had some association with Washington.
In the autumn of 1776, during the siege of New York, Washington established his headquarters in the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Brooklyn. Another family member, Peter Wyckoff served in the New York Militia and was at the Battle of Long Island. According to his pension record, he “…acted as sentry before the door of the house in which Gen. Washington was…” Given the Oberlins were also serving in New York during this time, they too may have been delegated to such sentry duty.
General Washington was also known to frequent Curtis and Peter Grubb’s iron works in Lancaster. Colonel Peter Grubb was the first commander of the Oberlin’s militia battalion. The Oberlins may have therefore been involved with the General as a result of their militia duties. Also, Captain Henry Schaeffer (Schaefferstown) was reputed as “close” to George Washington. While it’s uncertain to what extent, it’s evident the Oberlins likely had the distinct opportunity to serve the General in some personal capacity.
For three generations, the Oberlins were typical Pennsylvania “Dutch” farmers. They lived in the heart of German America and probably spoke German as well as, or better than, they spoke English. (How convenient for communicating with the Hessian prisoners.) It is mostly in these generations that the names Oberly and Oberle are found instead of Oberlin. The German pronunciation is ‘Oh-bare-leen.’
Sergeant Adam Oberlin (born 31 May 1745) and his wife Mary “Eve” Ensminger were the first Oberlins to move west from Lancaster County. In about 1795, they moved to Hopewell Township, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. In 1811, they followed their son Frederick to Stark County, Ohio. Adam and Eve were among the pioneers of Tuscarawas Township, Stark County. Adam’s handwritten will is dated 6 March 1825. He’s buried in Stanwood Cemetery near Massillon. A brass grave marker, placed several decades later, denotes his year of death as 1812. Eve died 13 March 1824 and is allegedly buried beside Adam, but without a marker.
As was common during the period, many families within the same community would intermarry and migrate with each other. This was certainly true among the Oberlin, Wagoner and Shilling families. The same names are found in Lancaster and Cumberland, Pennsylvania; Stark, Richland and Williams, Ohio; Dekalb and Steuben, Indiana.
Adam and Eve had eight children: Barbara, Margaret, Peter, Eve, Frederick, John, Catherine, and Elizabeth. Many of the Oberlins in Stark County are descendants of Peter and John. John, owned a coalmine in Stark County. Those in Richland and Williams Counties are from Peter. Two of Peter’s sons, Joseph and Isaiah, successfully pursued California gold from 1853 to 1857, and then returned to Stark County. Frederick’s descendants reside mostly in northeastern Indiana.
The other son of John Adam Oberlin who was also an ancestor of many of the Oberlins in Stark County is Michael. He was born about 1757 and spent all of his life in Cocalico Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. About 1779, Michael married Anna Mentzner. They had eight children who were mentioned in his will; Christina, Catherine, John, Jacob, Michael, Susanna, George, and Adam. Being unmarried at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Michael became a gunner in the early army. Later he was appointed Captain of Company 6, Battalion 3, Lancaster Militia. His brothers, Christopher and Jacob, served in his unit. He was a founder and trustee of the Reformed Mennonite Church at Shoeneck, Pennsylvania. He died September, 1818, leaving a considerable estate, which was divided equally among his children.
Adam and Eve’s son, Frederick (born 1775), moved to Stark County in 1809, two years before his father and brothers. He and his wife, Mary, had at least five sons and five daughters. There is little known of Frederick. He lived for a few years as a member of the “Friendly Association of Mutual Interests” (Kendall Community, Society of Friends) near Massillon, Ohio. This communal group broke up in the late 1820’s. Frederick died 1828 in Massillon. His wife, Mary (Heffelfinger), along with sons, Adam (Mary Wagoner) and John (Rachel Duch), and a daughter, Sarah (John Kennedy) moved to Dekalb County, Indiana in 1847. Frederick’s youngest son, David (Mary Van Horn) moved there a few years later. Mary died in 1871 and is buried in the Hamilton, Indiana cemetery.
Adam Oberlin and Mary Wagoner are my ancestors. Adam was born in Shippensburg, Hopewell Township, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania in 1801. Anthony Meyer married Adam and Mary 9 September 1825 in Stark County. Adam cultivated the first pear trees in Stark County.
Adam and Mary had at least ten children, nine of which were born in Stark County. Eight of the children moved to Dekalb County with them. Their daughter, Elizabeth, died in 1840 as an infant and is buried in Mudbrook Lutheran Cemetery north of Massillon. The tenth child, William W. was born in Indiana about 1850. Their other children’s names were Frederick W., John W., Joseph W., Catherine, Jacob W., David W., Samuel W., and Adam W.. The middle initial, “W”, was representative of their mother’s maiden name, Wagoner. This was a common practice of the time. Sons Samuel and Adam both served in Company F, 44th Indiana Volunteer Infantry and saw considerable action during the Civil War.
Frederick W. Oberlin was born 21 September 1826, in Massillon, Ohio. When he was an infant his family moved to a farm where he had limited educational opportunities. He became a successful businessman, and at one time owned the entire block on the west side of Broadway in downtown Butler, Indiana. “Oberlin” is still prominently displayed in the building’s facade.
Adam and Mary continued to raise their family on a farm in Franklin Township, Dekalb County. Adam sold the farm in 1872 to Frederick Oberlin for $2,000. He then moved to Williams County, Ohio, and lived with his son John until he died 13 February 1881. He is buried without Mary in West Buffalo Cemetery near Bryan, Ohio. I do not know what happened to Mary, nor do I have proof of her parentage. John and Philip Wagoner were members of the Kendall Community along with Adam’s father, Frederick. Adam’s sister, Margaret, married John Wagoner in Dekalb County. Son Adam and Phillip Wagoner were administrators of Frederick’s estate. Based on this and other evidence, I strongly believe Phillip and John were Mary’s brothers.
David W. Oberlin was born 10 August 1841, in Stark County. He married Hannah L. Dirrim 22 June 1861, in Steuben County, Indiana. David and Hannah raised three sons: Richard D., Henry M., and Arthur D.. David owned and worked a farm near the Dekalb-Steuben County line just east of Hamilton, Indiana. He was active in the United Brethren Church for over 50 years. Hannah Louisa Dirrim was born in Wayne County, Ohio, March 15, 1843. At the age of two, she with her parents Isaac and Eleanor, moved to near Hamilton. She lived the last year and a half at her son Arthur’s home in Hillsdale, Michigan, where she passed away 8 April 1918. David and Hannah are buried together in Hamilton.
Richard D. Oberlin was born in Otsego Township, Steuben County, Indiana, on 11 December 1862. In 1886, he was converted and joined the United Brethren Church. On New Year’s Day, 1889, he married Isrealla Brown, the daughter of William Brown and Elizabeth Gunsenhouser. The Gunsenhousers were among the very first settlers in northeastern Indiana. Richard and Ella lived in Bryan, Ohio, until 1892 when they moved to a farm near Hamilton. Elizabeths’ brother, Captain John Gunsenhouser, was killed 20 September 1863 during the battle of Chickamauga.
Richard and Ella raised three sons: Clayton, Floyd, and Glenn Dale. A fourth and youngest child, Florence, died of dehydration in 1908 at the age of two. Ella’s mother, Elizabeth passed away 5 March 1908, and tuberculosis took Richard, 3 May 1908 Ella died in 1956 and is buried with Richard in Hamilton.
Glenn Oberlin married Mary Geneva Hagerty, the daughter of Commodore Hagerty and Ada Viola Wyckoff, 19 April 1924. Commodore’s mother was Mary E. Dirrim, the younger sister of Hannah, David W. Oberlin’s wife. Mary’s and Hannah’s mother was Eleanor Wyckoff. Eleanor and Ada have common ancestors several generations back in New Jersey in the early 1700s. Our “patriarch,” Glenn, passed away on Father’s Day, 2000.
(There is considerable published Wyckoff genealogy information available. Eleanor Wyckoff’s mother, Elizabeth Bruce, was a descendant of Robert the Bruce, first King of Scotland, portrayed in the motion picture Bravehart.)