The Unaccountable Weiser Letter

The Unaccountable Weiser Letter


The finding of an old letter is always a thrilling experience and when the salutation reads, “Dear Friend Conrad Weiser” there immediately looms the alluring prospect of unearthing long hidden morsels of history or at least important clues to such treasure. Consequently, the wide interest aroused by the reappearance of a message written at Heidelberg, Pennsylvania, in 1729, and dispatched to Weiser at Schoharie, New York, is readily understood. Eugen Schopf’s J. K. Weiser, Vater und Sohn, published at Stuttgart in 1938, quoted the letter as part of a much distorted account of the settlement of Tulpehocken in 1723, but without definite reference to its source. It fell to Doctor Preston A. Barba to discover the letter’s origin: L. A. Wollenweber’s Aus Berks County’s Schwerer Zeit, published at Reading Pennsylvania, in 1875. Under this title Wollenweber presented a number of stories, one of which, “Conrad Weiser’s Heimath,” includes the letter in question. Doctor Barba’s translation follows:

Heidelberg in Pennsylvania.
May 18, 1729.

Dear Friend Conrad Weiser:

You know when we left you in Schoharie in March, 1723, that we were very poor, yes, very poor, and since we realized that we would have to perish altogether there, we came to the courageous resolve to traverse the terrible wilderness hither, and with regard to the Indians we followed your advice which also proved to be extremely useful to us, for which we thank you heartily. We reached the North Branch of the Susquehanna without any unusual obstacles. There we tarried for a time to construct rafts and canoes, upon which we loaded our families and effects and then journeyed southward until we might find a suitable place which would serve us as a home. One group of us, to whom was assigned the care of our domestic animals, had to drive them down stream along the shore, and we agreed that those who arrived first at the mouth of a creek flowing into the Susquehanna should wait there until the entire caravan had arrived.

Everything proceeded fortunately and the dear God kept us all in good health until we came to the mouth of the Swatara creek, where we left our rafts and canoes, and then continued inland upon the advice of a hunter, to a creek, which, he said, flowed from west to east. We also soon found the creek and what the hunter had told us was confirmed. The land is beautiful, fertile, and has the best springs and sufficient water power. Each of us already has made sufficient land arable to support his family, and in addition a considerable surplus. Our stock of cattle is excellent and we already have several mills along the Tulpehocken and the Muhlbach. Because of its beauty we have called the region Heidelberg. Our anxieties about sustenance have ceased, but the Indians are beginning to cause unpleasantnesses. How happy we should therefore be if you would decide to come to us; we want to procure for you a splendid home. Come right soon!

J. Hehn, P. Fischer, A. Lauer, P. Anspach, C. Lowengut, J. Christ.

Whoever has read Doctor Barba’s timely presentation of “Conrad Weiser’s Heimath”‘ will be inclined to agree that the story follows the outline of Weiser’s brief “Autobiography,” amplified to satisfy the storyteller’s bent for color and detail. The inserted “letter” seems to derive from the story rather than being a primary source in the author’s mind from which his account of the Susquehanna journey emanated. In fact the letter reviews the previously known material without adding any new information to further illuminate the stirring events which must have characterized that hazardous undertaking. The plan for maintaining contact between the canoe party and the cattle drive, each awaiting the other at the mouths of streams, appears for the first time, but not without its suggestion of ingenuous invention. Six years had intervened from the time of the migration to the date of the letter. In that period the itinerant preacher, John Bernhard von Duebren, is known to have traveled back and forth between Schoharie and Tulpehocken. Therefore it is inconceivable that Conrad Weiser was not fully informed concerning every detail of the long journey and the progress of the new settlement in Pennsylvania. Yet the letter implies that in May, 1729, Weiser was being told for the first time that “everything had proceeded fortunately.”

Wollenweber introduced the letter with the statement: “Since these disorders with the redmen seemed to come to no end the pioneers along the Tulpehocken held council and concluded to send two men to Schoharie with the following letter to Conrad Weiser (the original letter was up to a few years ago in the possession of the Honorable Henry A. Muhlenberg).” At the time of Wollenweber’s publication, 1875, the Honorable Henry A. Muhlenberg, ambassador to Austria in 1838, had been dead thirty-one years. His distinguished son, Henry A. Muhlenberg, had been dead twenty-one years. As a member of Congress he, too, may have been accorded the title “Honorable.” Which of these gentlemen Wollenweber intended does not concern our case, as the Weiser manuscripts were possessed by both in turn. Wollenweber migrated to the United States in 1832 and lived at various times at Philadelphia, Womelsdorf and Reading. He was engaged in printing, newspaper publishing, and steam-ship agency work until 1855. Had he copied the “letter” during the lifetime of one or the other of the mentioned Muhlenbergs, or did he compose it from memory, or hearsay, tinged with imagination and helped by bits of information gleaned from various sources?

Daniel Rupp published his History of Berks and Lebanon Counties in 1844. In the preface he acknowledges information received from many persons, among them the Honorable Henry A. Muhlenberg, who also was listed as one of the subscribers. Rupp had access to the Weiser manuscripts as his account of “Conrad Weiser” attests. It seems unlikely that so important a letter as that presented by Wollenweber would have escaped his attention had it been in Mr. Muhlenberg’s possession. This is not to question Wollenweber’s veracity. Montgomery speaks of his genial and sociable disposition and upright deportment. Doctor Barba points to the fact that “he was the first to see in the history and legendry of the Pennsylvania German people a rich material for literary exploitation.” So, it becomes a delicate proceeding to question the authenticity of material quoted by a writer of undoubted personal integrity. However, in former days the lines were not so rigidly drawn and the modern conception of historical exactness did not apply. The quite innocent fabrication of letters and events entirely for literary effect was not uncommon and often such contributions have proved an unintended stumbling block to those engaged in historical research. The point to be remembered is that Wollenweber was not writing history; rather, his narratives might be termed historical novelettes, permitting all the latitude of invention the story-teller requires. He knew that many of Weiser’s letters were preserved by Mr. Mublenberg; probably he had had access to them. Accordingly, in later years he may have composed the letter to give life and reality to a story which was especially planned to arouse public interest in the restoration of Conrad Weiser’s neglected grave at Womelsdorf.

Wollenweber seemed impatient of the limitations imposed by the scant knowledge available and unhesitatingly filled in the gaps with lively events and improbable localities, pictured by a vivid imagination. For example, his account of the relations between the young Conrad and the Mohawk chieftain, Quagnant, seems largely adventitious. Modern historians are still searching for the abode of Quagnant, who instructed the German youth in the ways and speech of the Iroquois. Wollenweber cursorily places the village “near Niagara Falls,” west of the land of the Senecas; far beyond the limits of probability. Not satisfied with the dreadful impediments of the Susquehanna shore passage, he has the Palatines build rafts for the transportation of unruly cattle. He introduces Indian hostilities at Tulpehocken with “bloody scenes, plunderings and destruction of buildings by fire,” a state of affairs all too true in 1754 but not known to apply in the peaceful time of 1729. These and many similar historical discrepancies are sufficient warning to apply discretion in appraising his narratives as historical sources.

The letter itself exhibits many peculiarities of expression and content. “Schoharie” and “Swatara” were not so spelled in 1729. As late as 1745 Weiser himself called these localities “Schochary” and “Suataro;” other usual spellings were “Schory,” “Swattarra,” and so on. That the composers of the letter had been “very poor, yes, very poor, ” to the verge of perishing, would have applied at Schoharie in 1713, but not in 1723. The impracticability of the cattle drive all along the shore of the Susquehanna has been discussed sufficiently in previous articles. But the added improbability of each party awaiting the other at the mouths of streams entering the Susquehanna has every appearance of innovation. Whoever has paddled a canoe down stream on the spring flood must cringe at the thought of timing such a voyage to the snail’s pace of a herd of cattle. Then, there is that offhand dismissal of one of the most adventurous episodes of our early history, contained in the expression “everything proceeded fortunately.” Could any participant in so arduous and dangerous a journey write of the experience without mentioning a single item of hazard, of casualty, or sudden death?

The six signatures are strangely ambiguous; not one of them permits identification of the individual with any degree of certainty. Initials in place of given names was not the custom in those days. Moreover it is doubtful whether several of the family names belong to Schoharie despite the implication that all six of the signatories had participated in the Susquehanna adventure. Hehn (Hahn, Ham), Fischer and Anspach are well known Tulpehocken names of New York Palatine origin. The first two families came from Schoharie; but the Anspachs had remained on the Hudson, at Hunterstown, and were still there in 1717. They may have moved to Schoharie sometime later, but the name does not appear in Schoharie records. In a list of names associated with Tulpehocken, given by Rupp, the name Peter Anspach appears; probably a son of the original Balthaser Anspach, who sometimes gave his name as Paltus. Therefore “P. Anspach” might refer to either the son or the father. Georg and Veronica Hahn had eight sons and, as was usual, they used John as a prefixed name -John Christian, John Georg, and so on. The youngest son was Joseph Hahn, but he was not born until after 1724. It is unlikely that any of those sons would have signed indefinitely as “J. Hehn.” “P. Fischer,” by a stretch of imagination, might have been the son of Sebastian Fischer, although none of the available lists names him.

The names Lauer, Löwengut and Christ are not traceable to Schoharie. The Palatine immigrant, Peter Lauer, remained on the Hudson and was there as late as 1724. He had two children, names and sex unknown. Christian Lauer who settled at Tulpehocken some time later, landed at Philadelphia, September 18, 1733. The name Löwengut, frequently credited with Schoharie origin, does not appear in the New York Subsistence Lists nor in Simmendinger’s Register of the Schoharie Dorfs; and the same must be said of the name “Christ.” On the other hand, Jery Heine (Hahn), Sebastian Fischer and Palsus Onspach (Anspach) appear in an indisputable list of the thirty-three first settlers of Tulpehocken, the date of that list being January, 1726. The names Lauer, Löwengut and Christ do not appear. This solid evidence rather definitely excludes three of the signers of the questioned letter from participation in the migration of 1723. If only one of the six signatories could be identified beyond doubt it might be taken as slight evidence in support of the letter. But left without a single identification one’s uncertainty concerning that curious message is brought to the verge of disbelief.

Finally, the date of the letter, May 18, is far from convincing. By the most direct route it could not have reached Conrad Weiser at Schoharie until after June 1. If, as implied, it was the cause of his moving to Tulpehocken, it occasioned a much later start than that experienced woodsman and farmer would have relished. The insect pests prevalent in June and July would have inflicted untold misery upon himself and family throughout their wilderness journey. In some of his letters he expressed in no uncertain terms his disfavor of travel in the early summer for that very reason. However, Wollenweber allows that he arrived at Tulpehocken in the fall of 1729. Of first importance was the planting of the garden and the fields of grain indispensable to the support of his family in the new location. Accompanied by his wife and four children (Wollenweber added an extra child), he hardly would have expected good friends and neighbors to supply shelter and food throughout the ensuing winter and spring. Unfortunately, we do not know the month of 1729 selected for the journey but can surmise from many circumstances that he would have left Schoharie as early in the spring as weather conditions permitted.

At best we have only an apparent transcription which, for obvious reasons, must he held unaccountable, pending discovery of the original letter, or more convincing proof of its onetime existence. The two known repositories of Weiser records, letters and manuscripts are the Library of Congress and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Both have been consulted and have disclaimed possession and knowledge of the letter. However, there is always the possibility that unpublished records or well founded family traditions may be forthcoming, presenting new facts and probabilities such as would help dispose of the uncertainties we have enumerated. As outstanding events of local history, the migration of 1723 and settlement of Tulpehocken warrant extended research and discussion toward enlargement of our regrettably meager knowledge. But questionable and unproven information tends only to distort the dim picture. Hence this analysis of hopefully studied material which bears a stamp of origin, yet presents seemingly revamped accounts of doubtful acceptability. We invoke the ghosts of Weisers, Hehns, Fischers, Anspachs and other actual participants to give conclusive testimony in the case of Wollenweber’s unaccountable “letter,” and, while on the stand, to relate the whole truth concerning their long journey in the spring of 1723.

This article originally appeared in the October 1945 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County.