Ehrstine origins

The arrival of Eliza. Erynstein at Philadelphia on August 19, 1729, aboard the ship Mortonhouse from Rotterdam provides the best bet we have for now of the origins of the earliest Ehrstine family in America.

To have this family be headed by a woman would be only all too appropriate for a lineage that would be doomed to reproducing a preponderance of females over the consequent generations. It is possible that she embarked as a married woman whose husband then died at sea and left her with children – minors were not recorded in the lists of passengers. The Mortonhouse carried 122 persons, according to one tabulation, and 180, according to another. In neither case is everyone named.

This was one of the early arrivals of Palatines in Philadelphia, a stream of German migrants primarily from the Rhine Valley, motivated largely by the opportunity of religious liberty – Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren, as well as Lutherans, German Reformed, and Roman Catholic – tapering off by the time of the American Revolution. Many of the ships originated in Rotterdam, downstream on the Rhine, and stopped in Scotland, where the Germans essentially lost their possessions through taxation. The Atlantic crossing of several months was hazardous, a virtual death sentence for children under 10, and passengers disembarking in the New World are described as resembling emaciated concentration camp survivors after World War II. Some of the Mennonites’ passage had been underwritten by wealthy coreligionists in the Netherlands. Other passengers contracted to periods as indentured servants. And yet they kept coming. All of them, no doubt confused and disoriented in a strange land.

For many of the arriving ships, three parallel lists of passengers exist – usually males over the age of 16 or 18 and female heads of the household. The spelling of surnames can be maddenly freeform, even from one list to another. Thus, Erynstein for Ehrstine is tantalizingly close, especially coming as it does in a period of Brethren migration.

An article, “Mortonhouse, a Ship of Mystery,” in the Winter 2003 issue of Brethren Roots, notes that several of the passenger names are Brethren. “Whether or not they are the ancestors of several well known Brethren families is not personally known, but it is interesting that they arrived in America only a month earlier than Alexander Mack.”

Mack, founder of a denomination known variously as Dunkers, German Baptist Brethren, or simply Brethren, among other names, brought most of its members from Europe to America within a few years. They originated in Germany in 1708 and relocated to America in 1719 (20 families), 1720 (Mack leading about 200 Brethren), 1729 (Mack with about 120 other Brethren aboard the Allen), and, four years later, when John Naas sailed with more Brethren, settling in New Jersey, in effect completing the Brethren move to the New World. By 1790, membership grew slowly to about 1,500 members. “Taking into account family members who had not joined the church, their fellowship would have totaled roughly five thousand persons,” Carl F. Bowman observes in Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a “Peculiar People” (Baltimore, 1995). Considering the Brethren predilection for marrying within the faith, and for moving together when settling on the frontier, this relatively small populace – probably fewer than a thousand households – greatly narrows the focus when considering this Ehrstine ancestry in America. Indeed, as I try to unearth the Ehrstine wives’ full names for several early generations, I suspect many or maybe even all of the answers will be found in the families of the Great Swataro and Codorus congregations in Pennsylvania – many of them showing up a half-century later in Montgomery County, Ohio. At the time, these congregations were small enough that their worship services, like those of the Amish today, were conducted in the homes of members.

Precisely where the Ehrstines originate in Europe and when the line first arrives in the New World remain matters of speculation. In the end, though, I’ve concluded that the name really was Ehrstine all along – ehr, meaning “honor,” and stein, meaning “stone.” The combination, producing Honor Stone, baffled, especially when I found the town of Erstein on maps of the Alsatian region of France. But when I mentioned these two facts to a friend who was born and raised in Germany, her eyes lit up. “It makes perfect sense,” she said. “They took their name from the village. The Honor Stone was the high place of the baron’s castle,” set overlooking the land.

Erstein is situated just south of Strasbourg, not far from the Rhine River, and just east of Markirch (Sainte Marie-aux-Mines), where the Amish set themselves off from the Mennonites in 1693. It would have been part of the Palatine, where many Anabaptists fleeing Swiss persecution had resettled before moving on to America. Erstein itself is possibly a Gallic rendering of the German spelling. There are, in addition, a few villages in Germany named Ehrenstein. Census records for later Ehrstine arrivals in America give their place of origin variously as Germany or France, a fact that might reflect a change of governments over the same locale. One line, using the Ehrstein spelling and arriving in 1851, migrated from Birkenhordt, in Germany’s “royal Bavarian Rhine country.” This Roman Catholic family settled in Rochester, New York, and then in St. Clair County, Illinois, and its genealogy begins with a Jacob Ehrstein born in 1706 and died in 1753 in Germany. Whether their roots go back to the Honor Stone baron’s castle is open to conjecture. The Palatine, after all, underwent great turbulance during the religious wars.

There’s also the possibility of Amish connections. For example, an Amish directory drawing upon the descendants of Martin Bontrager, the immigrant of 1767, includes an Amanda Erynestine, either born or marrying on February 2, 1869, the wife of Andrew M. Smith, and Charles Erynestine, 1842, the husband of Eliz. Hostetler.

I have even considered several inhabitants of New Amsterdam: Adrian Aersten came from Tielderweent, Gilderland, in The Faith March 24, 1662. Huyck Aersten came from Rossum, Netherlands, and was elected one of the two schepens of the newly formed town of Breuckelen (Brooklyn) in June 1646. Jan Aersten from Amersfoort came in The Faith December 23, 1660; and Willem Aersten from Wageningen came in The Faith December 23, 1660. There is also a Cornelis Aertszen, who used the name “Van Schaick,” born in Holland and died about 1669, who came to New Amsterdam 1664.

What we do know is that when the record picks up, the Ehrstines were Dunker, or German Baptist Brethren – followers of Alexander Mack. This identification would shape their lives at home and in a faith-centered community. Along with the Mennonites and Amish, they were part of the Anabaptist strand of the Protestant Reformation, churches that were pacifist and insisted that baptism was an adult decision. Later, there would be the Mennonite offshoot River Brethren and its newer Brethren in Christ.

Theirs were dissenting churches, or “believers’ churches,” rather than government-supported denominations; here, intense religious debate was taken earnestly. Vicious persecution, after all, had compelled them to undertake harrowing ocean crossings in their effort to remain faithful to their convictions. For them, church membership was not a matter of family tradition or convience, but an adult decision and a cross to bear. To be baptized was a personal resolution leading to a public declaration of joining fully with a particular circle of faith and its disciplined life. This was not something parents could do on behalf of their children. Among the various churches, small differences often carried major consequences. The term Dunker, for instance, came from the Brethren insistence on immersion, rather than sprinkling or pouring; their baptism was triune, three times forward, usually in the icy water of winter. This was, obviously, serious business – for eternity, not just a lifetime.

Complicating the picture was the development of the United Brethren in Christ, essentially a German-speaking Methodism founded in 1800 by German Reformed minister William Phillip Otterbein of Baltimore and Mennonite bishop Martin Boehme of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; while strictly speaking not Anabaptist, it initially embraced the many varied practices of its ecumenical membership, much of it drawn from the Mennonites and Brethren.

Growing up in Dayton, I knew none of my family roots. We were Evangelical United Brethren, as the newly merged United Brethren and Evangelical Association called themselves.

Only later, when a cousin related that my grandfather had confided to his half-brother Samuel, “Ermie’s line was Dunker, way back,” did I have a clue, and even then it gave me no idea how far back or how recent that identification. Grandpa was speaking of his wife, who was born Erma Olive Ehrstine, the daughter of Henry Ehrstine and his wife, Susie Rasor.

The Mortonhouse passenger list of 1729 also names Jacob Reysor, Elizabeth Reysor, Valtin Reiser, and Johannes Binklee as Philadelphia arrivals – tantalizing possibilities for later Ohio connections. Grandma’s sister, Edna, for example, married Arlie Binkley, suggesting how interwoven this Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch, or German) legacy could be, even removed to Ohio.

Some traditions would be carried on subconsciously long after any awareness of their place remained in the family. For instance, the German practice of naming the eldest son after his grandfather appears in the Ehrstines in the Peter/John/Peter/John rhythm. Yet when the outward custom ceased with the birth of Zena Zella Ehrstine, who went to work for Cadillac Motors in Detroit in the 1920s, he carried the nickname “Pete,” for no apparent reason. Or when I asked an Amish woman about the name Orpha, I was told it’s from the German translation of Orpah in the Book of Ruth. The custom among Mennonite and Amish families was for a mother named Naomi to name a daughter Orpha, who would, in turn, name a daughter Ruth. When I mentioned that to my cousin Orpha (Binkley) Justiss, she was astonished: her mother’s middle name was Naomi, and “when it came time to name my daughter, I just knew her middle name had to be Ruth.” This, without any knowledge of the German translation or the tradition.

Until the 1840 Census, ours appears to be the only Ehrstine family in America, originating in a single household in Colonial Pennsylvania and becoming two households in Montgomery County, Ohio.

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