The long search for my grandmother’s roots

When I was a child, many of our family gatherings took place at the Binkley farm about ten miles northwest of Dayton, Ohio. At the time, I had no awareness of how deeply the western half of Montgomery County is rooted in Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Yes, I would overhear mention of dishes such as scrapple or panhas, but they weren’t served on our tables. Admittedly, my Hodson grandparents had little to do with earlier traditions; they had, after all, left the farm for the city and had even joined Masonic organizations, the secret societies the Old Ways had forbidden. Even when we passed one of the pristinely stark, white-frame Old Order German Baptist Brethren meetinghouses on our way to the Binkley farm, none of this German presence clicked in my awareness. We weren’t they. Ehrstine? Maybe it was Jewish. Now, of course, I have clues to the extent to which the First World War obscures our appreciation of how widespread German influence is in American history. To a surprising degree, the search for my grandmother’s roots makes visible what’s been hidden in plain sight. The Old Order German Baptist Brethren, dressed in a Plain style resembling the Amish, are far from an anomaly in this land; they are a visible remnant of a much more pervasive heritage. Nearby cemeteries have surnames identical to those in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Driving from the farm to Brookville, my sister and I pass a Lutheran church in Phillipsburg; its original cornerstone, moved to a newer front on what had been a simple meetinghouse, is in an elaborate German script, an indication that ours is not the only Germanic culture in this place.

The search for my grandmother’s roots, then, originates with her parents – Henry Ehrstine and Susie Rasor – great-grandparents gone before my recollection.

Recently, my sister gave me a photo of Henry and Susie standing in front of their porch in their retirement years in Brookville. They are about the same height (my impression is that he’s a slight man; probably the entire Ehrstine line was slight). He looks straight ahead, with a content expression. The fact that he wears a tie, and either a high-buttoned sweater or suitcoat with a thin lapel, suggests it was Sunday. Susie, her hair tied back in a low bun, looks affectionately at him, apparently in mid-sentence. Whatever she was speaking draws a gentle smile to her face. She is solid, not fat but fit for her age. (Later, I come across them two decades earlier, where she is decidedly slender, and her husband has a mustache and is already bald.) Here, Henry is clean-shaven and, yes, bald, as my father would be, unlike our Hodson relations. In fact, both my elder stepdaughter and I are surprised to notice how similar the faces of Henry and my father are – this, despite Dad’s strong resemblance to the Hodson line as well.

Henry and Susie embody a pedigree of Palatine roots. That is, their ancestors came to Colonial America from German-speaking Rhine country that includes Alsace in France, with many of their lines originating in Switzerland. While many of the Palatine families are of Lutheran or Reformed churches, Henry and Susie come from third stream of the Protestant Reformation, the Anabaptists, who believed that water baptism reflects an adult decision. While Susie’s line moved into the United Brethren in Christ denomination early on, Henry’s stayed close to the source as German Baptist Brethren, or Dunkers, and then, after the divisions, Church of the Brethren.

*   *   *

The Dunkers originated in Germany in 1708 and relocated to America in 1719 (twenty families), 1720 (Alexander Mack leading about 200 Brethren), 1729 (Alexander 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 notes 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 Henry Ehrstine’s earliest 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 – many of them showing up a half-century later in Montgomery County, Ohio. At the time, these congregations were small enough that their meetings for worship, like those of the Amish today, could be conducted in the homes of members.

Outside the Lower Stillwater meetinghouse, an Old Order German Baptist Brethren man tells me simply, “They were Pietists. My ancestors were Pietists.” The large-scale description covers a range of denominational particularities. This, on land reportedly donated by Ehrstines, perhaps a quarter-mile down the road from the Ehrstine Cemetery.

* * *

Where the Ehrstines originate in Europe and when the line first arrives in the New World remain matters of speculation. 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.

I see nothing in the passenger lists of the ships bringing the Brethren movement to suggest an Ehrstine was among them. Nor have I been able to find anything definite in the later lists of passengers, which name heads of households or males over the age of eighteen, although those spellings can be maddenly freeform. Thus, I will consider the arrivals of Elizabeth ERYNSTEIN on the Mortonhouse from Rotterdam in 1729 (along with Jacob Reysor and Elizabeth), Peter STEIN from Hoppstadten, Beyern-Pfalz, aboard the Edinburgh in 1748, Peter ERNST on the Two Brothers in 1748 (along with Conrad Keller and Conrad Keller Jr., among others), and Hans Ulrich EHRENSTIEGER on the Crown in 1749 (among its five hundred passengers) as distant possibilities.

I have also pondered the possibility that the name might have another root.

Also listed is Jacob EHRESMAN (Reformed, 1782- ), cousin of Hans Hafziger, Amish, and son-in-law of Jacob Schenk.

I have even weighed the possibility that the Ehrstines would have the family instead originating in the Netherlands. From Immigrants to America Before 1750, Volume I:

Also reported are a Cornelius ARISSEN in New Jersey, 1638, and under ESSELSTYNE, Cornelius M., Jacobus, and Richard B.

The Brethren Encyclopedia records that in the 17th and 18th centuries Alsace was

a semiautonomous province located in eastern France along the Rhine River. It has a largely German-speaking population. Strasbourg, the principal city, was known in the 16th century for its religious tolerance; it allowed Anabaptist activity for a long time and did not execute dissenters. The Pietist leader Philipp Jakob Spener was Alsatian by birth. But Pietist conventicles in Alsace were suppressed early in the 18th century. Many people were expelled, including Michael Eckerlin and his family, who were later associated with the Brethren and the Ephrata Community in Pennsylvania. Another important Pietist personage from Alsace was Johann Friedrich Haug, an editor of the Berleburg Bible.

Again, from The Brethren Encyclopedia:

Palatinate, a territory in central Germany, straddling the Rhine River. In 1356 its ruler was made an elector of the Holy Roman Emperor, hence the name Electoral Palatinate (Kurpfalz). The area was also known as the Rhenish Palatinate. Another region in Germany, east of Nurnberg, was known as the Upper Palatinate (Oberpfalz). During the early 1560s the rulers of the Electoral Palatinate became staunch defenders of the Reformed (Calvinist) faith, as witnessed in the creed that took its name from the chief city of the Palatinate (Heidelberg Catechism). The land had previously suffered during the Schmalkaldic Wars (1546-55) because of its Lutheran loyalties. In 1618 the elector accepted the Bohemian crown, precipitating the Thirty Years’ War. This terrible conflict devastated the Palatinate, the scene of much of the fighting.

The land had hardly recovered under the tolerant rule of Karl Ludwig (1648-80), who encouraged separatists to settle in his territory, when the French repeatedly invaded. As they retreated, the French systematically burned and leveled buildings and destroyed crops and livestock. The Treaty of Rijswick (1697) ended the wars, but it included a clause perpetuating the Catholic religion where it had been introduced. This made for bitter struggle between the religious groups, or confessions.

In the early 18th century an unhappy mix of waste at the court, mismanagement, serfdom, heavy taxation, bad weather and crop failures, and oppressive state churches caused many desperate peasants and townspeople to migrate to America. Fully one-third of the population left under the misrule of Karl Philipp (1716-42). Palatine became the generic term for all Germans arriving in America.

Many in the Palatinate responded to the radical pietist movement, especially under the preaching of E.C. Hochmann von Hochenau after 1706. Dissenters emerged in such villages as Eppstein, Frankenthal, Lambsheim, Nordheim, and Schriesheim and in such cities as Mannheim and Heidelberg. Some of these separatists later became Brethren. Because pressure from the government made it difficult for religious nonconformists to live in the Palatinate, most found refuge in Wittgenstein or in the Marienborn area of Ysenburg-Budingen. Johannes Naas is known to have held meetings and baptized in the Rheinderken (Rhein-Durkehim), but no Brethren congregations persisted. Other towns under the jurisdiction of the Elector Palatine included Julich, where the six Solingen Brethren were imprisoned.

As my sister and I discovered, shortly after passing the Lutheran church just mentioned, my Ehrstines were Dunker from Colonial times up to Henry’s parents. I suspect he, too, was inclined toward that denomination, though married to a United Brethren family. Susie left her imprint, all the same: we were raised Evangelical United Brethren, its merged incarnation, before a successive alliance produced the United Methodist Church.

* * *

Some of my Ehrstine conclusions were first published in issues of Brethren Roots, the journal of the Fellowship of Brethren Genealogists.


5 thoughts on “The long search for my grandmother’s roots”

  1. If you want know where your family comes from, you just have to look for Ehrstein, which is the correct form for Erstine, which is half English spelling (stine for Stein).

    This map clearly show, where the Ehrsteins in Germany come from:

    The result is that your family most probalby originally comes from area around the “Südliche Weinstraße”, Landau, Germersheim.

    3/4 of my family originally comes from that area too.

    With the German telephone directoy on can find easily some 45 entries of the name Ehrstein in that area.

    1. Thank you for the perspectives. I’ve long assumed the “stine” was a variant of “stein,” but the crossover must goes back a long way in my line.
      Maybe this will be the key to unlocking more.

      1. Ehrstine looks totally un-German. It’s not uncommon that -stein becomes -stine, when adapting German names to an English speaking environment. It’s not as common as transforming -mann to -man, but it’s not unusual.

        The change probably goes back to the arrival of your ancesters in North America.

        An origin in the region between Landau and Germersheim would also fit very neatly with your German Baptist heritage.

        On the map at this site you can see the concentration of Ehrsteins between Landau and Germersheim:

      2. I just saw that the name was also spelled “Arestine” and “Airstine” which is a clear proof for me, that somebody tried to write down the German name “Ehrstein” with an English spelling.

      3. That part, in early Ohio, was obvious. The earlier part may also have something to do with the French influence in Alsace, which created many spelling variations. Consider Kreisler/Chrysler for one.

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