2 — THE MOTHER
MARIA ELISABETHA DIEFFENBACH

 

As in several of these studies, there are very few documents that relate directly to a given family member. So it is for the young woman who married Michael Ernst, Maria Elisabetha Dieffenbach, usually called Elizabeth, even by her intensely German father in his 1737 will.24 The only document of major significance for her is that will. He identifies her in the third paragraph as one of his "Daughters, Maria Elizabeth Ernst...." A search of data and studies referring to the Tulpehocken settlement from its beginning to the time of the will discloses but one Ernst, a near neighbor named Michael Ernst. Although at least one other Ernst family would come into a neighboring area several years later, from the time the first 1710 immigrant Palatines from the Schoharie arrived about 1723, the basic Tulpehocken settlement was home to Michael Ernst and the Dieffenbach family. Michael's name appeared with that of Johann Conrad Dieffenbach on the 1725/6 and 1726/7 lists of tax assessments in Tulpehocken Township, and on the Oley Road petition of 1727.25 Not too surprisingly we suppose, not another single extant document contains Elisabetha's surname. Only Michael's 1779 will contains her name at all, and then it is only her given name, anglicized as Elizabeth.26

Once we have found her as Elizabeth Ernst, and know of her father, what, then, do the documents tell us about this Maria Elisabetha Dieffenbach? First, one tells us that she was baptized on 8 July 1705 at the Reformed Church in Wiesloch, Baden, Germany,27 and that she left Wiesloch for America with her family on 15 May 1709.28 Others show she was one of the 3 children with the family in the 4th party on Capt. John Sewell's ship in Rotterdam in 1709;29 and she was the 4 year old daughter with her family among the 4th arrivals in London that same year.30 Still others indicate she was the one person under 10 in the household of her father in New York on 1 July 1710; and the one person under 10 on 4 Oct 1710 and on 25 March 1712, still in New York.31 Finally, she was one of the family recorded by Ulrich Simmendinger at the Palatine village of Neu-Ansberg up the Hudson River in 1716/7.32 From this time on, based on what we know of her father's movements and his identification of her in his will as Ernst, we are comfortable saying that Elizabeth and her mother and siblings were with her father for a few years along the Schoharie River in New York; and, of course, when they made their way with their belongings, about 1724, from the Schoharie, by way of the Susquehanna River and the Swatara, to their final destination, Tulpehocken Creek, in what then was Chester County, Pennsylvania.33

Although there is no way of knowing when, Elizabeth and Michael Ernst (Johann Michael Ernst Hoerner) must have married between 1720 and 1725, either on the Schoharie River or on Tulpehocken Creek. The only other evidence of that marriage is indirect: her sister, Anna Dorothea, coming from Tulpehocken to the South Branch to sponsor an Ernst daughter at her baptism in late 1743. Also, although there is no specific proof to be found, some of their children, perhaps as many as six, must have been born on the Tulpehocken.34 Elizabeth rather disappears from view after her mention in her father's 1737 will. The next mention of her is in Michael's will of 1779, in which she is guaranteed, by given name, her dower rights and two named slaves.35 Six years later, in the year of Michael's death, 1785, she is referred to for the first time, in the rather new Personal Property Tax Lists, as "Widow Harness." 36 Each year through 1796, she was listed in the new Hardy County as Elizabeth Harness, who paid taxes on horses, cattle and one or two slaves.37 It has been the author's experience in using these particular tax records that they are accurate in reflecting the departure and arrival of individuals in these two counties. Since there is no reason to believe that Elizabeth Harness, then at age 90, moved from Hardy County in 1796 to another state or region; and, because her name does not reappear in the tax books, we may conclude that she died in the latter half of 1796, or before April or May of 1797. This is the only clue we yet have to her time of death.38 Therefore, we know very little about Elizabeth Ernst, nee Dieffenbach, from documents.

It is instructive, from time to time, to reexamine the extent to which people will go, without a shred of evidence, to provide an identity for an ancestor. No scrap is too nebulous to be used, no lack of reality too extreme. Such would seem to be the case with what descendants have said about Elizabeth Ernst. The absence of knowledge about her has not deterred Harness descendants from developing brief accounts of her life and lineage. It is quite apparent from a review of the known collections of Harness family material and known published works that no serious or knowledgeable research was done previously on the subject of Elizabeth Dieffenbach Ernst.39 The widely known Helen Yoakum Black letters to America Ann Anderson and Jesse Cunningham illustrate how quickly Elizabeth's particulars were forgotten or ill-remembered. Mrs. Black, a great-granddaughter of Michael and Elizabeth, through these letters, has passed on to other Harness descendants much of the good data they have had about the first two generations of that family. See The Letters of Helen Yoakum Black Transcripts and Footnotes by Sara Stevens Patton (November 1999); and a third one, thought to be a nearly uncorrupted version of Patton's "1878" letter, but clearly dated May 30, 1873. Unfortunately, too many descendants use these as "gospel." All three contain many errors of fact and cannot be used to document anything without corroboration. Nothing she says about Elizabeth is quite correct. First, the only thing that might have been correct was that Elizabeth and Michael were married in Pennsylvania; but, this has not been documented. Then, Helen wrote that Elizabeth had been born in that state, was a relative of William Penn, that her mother had descended from European royalty, and that Elizabeth's surname had been "Tephebogh," or "Tapheby" or "Jephebe," or even Zephebe."40

We can see in these ill-remembered surnames a reflection of the problems encountered by her father during his years in North America. The first following list is a sequence of actual attempts English clerks, with no knowledge of German, made to convert what they heard him say, in German, was his surname -Dieffenbach:41

1702 -Dieffenbach (Wiesloch)1717 -Dieffenbach
1709 -thirffenback (Rotterdam)1718 -Divebak (on Hudson R.)
1709 -Tieffenbach (London)1725 -Diffenbach (PA)
1710 -Dievenbach (NY)1737 -Tiffebough (PA)
1716 -Jefbach (NY, Albany)1737 -Tiffebogh, John Cynraed(PA)

This was the exact clerk/copyist sequence of their writing of the surname of one Dieffenbach family in Bedford County, Pennsylvania:

1750 -Dieffenbach (Germany)1784 -Tevebaugh
1772 -Defebaugh (PA)1785 -Diefenbach
1773 -Devabaugh 1790 -Devenbaugh
1774 -Develbaugh 1792 -Davinbaugh
1775 -Twinbaugh 1799 -Deffenbaugh
1776 -Davebaugh 1799 -Deffenbach
1779 -Devonbaugh 1800 -Defibaugh
1783 -Devebaugh 1800 -Devebaugh

One might say that Helen Black may have remembered the vowel and consonant sounds in a way similar to the record-keepers. The initial consonant sound would have been either "D" or "T.;" the "ie" would have a long "e" sound and be spelled that way; the "ff" would carry an "f" or a "ph" sound, which a speaker of Celtic background might write as a "v;" and the "bach" a Celt would write as "bogh" or "baugh." Therefore, Helen Black or an 18th century clerk using "Tephebogh" or "Devebaugh" should be neither too surprising nor too confusing. It should be kept in mind, however, that all such spellings derived from Elizabeth's surname, not the other way around. None preceded it.42

The foregoing somewhat detailed exploration of what county record-keepers of the 18th century did to this immigrant surname is offered to help explain why Harness descendants might have had difficulty with Elizabeth's surname. Another factor probably was more significant, that no one had put her maiden name in circulation after 1797, if they ever were clear about it in the first place. Then, along came Black's attempts at it, which coincided with the great outburst of interest by Americans in their origins. In the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s, publishing companies scoured the countryside for customers for their biographical and historical accounts of one or more counties. Buy a book, write your own history of your family! In them, comfort and success became easily attributable to the character, fortitude and "blue blood" of their ancestors. Grandiose family traditions blossomed on every page; a foreign name stirred visions of noble ancestors. One such desperately imagined story about Elizabeth was sent by a Moorefield Harness descendant to the Virkus, Abridged Compendium of American Genealogy, which identified her as Elizabeth "Jephebe," and went on to "clarify" that this surname was a shortened version of "Jejeebhoy of India." Elizabeth was now adorned with greater mystery and a connection with the far-flung British Empire. We suppose it must be said, however, that all such statements about her place of birth, her descent from royalty and relationship to William Penn have no documentary basis whatever, and sound more like late 19th and early 20th century dreams of small town social climbers who needed more status from family traditions, and so "improved" them.43

Contrary to the reflected glory of an illustrious and imaginary ancestor, Harness descendants now know who Maria Elisabetha Dieffenbach really was. This wife of Johann Michael Ernst Hoerner was born in 1705, a daughter of a German cooper from Baden, who brought her, her mother and her siblings to New York in 1710. They moved on to the banks of the Tulpehocken, a small stream in southeastern Pennsylvania, early in the 1720s. She married another German immigrant and, by 1740 or so, resided on the bank of the South Branch of the Potomac River. She gave birth to 13 children, lost 3 or 4 to Indian attacks during her middle years, survived her husband by over a decade, died in the mid-1790s, and soon was forgotten.44

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3. —The son, Michael Harness, Jr.


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