Our Immigrant Heritage: Hunsberger

Written by Forrest Moyer on August 30, 2017

This series of posts highlights families descended from 18th-century Mennonite immigrants to eastern Pennsylvania, in connection with the MHC’s exhibit Opportunity & Conscience: Mennonite Immigration to Pennsylvania, on display through March 31, 2018. The stories reflect the enrichment brought to communities over centuries by the descendants of immigrants.

Hunsberger roots of Franconia and Souderton

Brothers Ulrich, Jacob, and John (Hans) Hunsberger were some of the first settlers in the area that became Franconia Township. They each at one time owned parts of the early Hunsberger tract, which today is the land surrounding the Dock Mennonite Academy campus at Godshall and Delp Roads. Ulrich, at least, was living there by 1723 and purchased the land from Henry Pastorius in 1726.

John is said to have owned the 50 acres on the northeast side of Godshall Road, and his estate inventory of 1733 does list a plantation. After his death, it was bought by his brother Jacob, who sold the land to neighbor Leonard Christler in 1736 and bought larger tracts nearby. Several years ago, the MHC purchased the 1736 deed on auction, and it is by far the earliest Hunsberger artifact in our collection.

Jacob signed his name “Huntzensperger” on the deed. This is also how Ulrich spelled the name when he signed as a witness to John’s will in 1733; yet the scrivener of the will, Henry Pastorius, spelled the name “Hunschberger” and in English “Huntsperger”. On this deed, the scrivener also dropped the middle syllable, spelling the name as “Hundsperger” and “Hunsberger”. A Google search for “Huntzensperger” brings up zero results; however, there is a name Hunzenberger, and there is a place called Hunzenberg near Oberwangen in Thurgau, Switzerland.

The Hunsberger family has a very thorough and useful genealogy book, yet many details about the immigrants are unknown, including their birth dates and place of origin. Some suggest their roots could be at the Hunsperg farm near Krauchthal, Bern, Switzerland, but this has not been proven. The identity of their wives is unknown (though John’s will refers to Jacob Landis as his brother-in-law), and their children have not all been identified.

There are many Hunsberger’s in the local area who have not been traced back to the immigrants, though certainly they are descendants. It is said that Ulrich had a large family of children, some of whose names are not known. John’s will does not mention any children, but he could have had some. More connections need to be explored. For instance, the will of Abraham Reiff in 1763 refers to a grandson Ulrich Hunsberger, who does not appear in the Hunsberger genealogy. He must have been a son or grandson of one of the immigrants.

In any case, the Hunsberger’s farmed much of the land in Franconia that later became Souderton, and their descendants have figured prominently in the borough’s history.

Some years ago, a court order and draft for a new road in Franconia Township, 1830, was found in the MHC collection, source unknown (pictured below). The new road is what became Main Street, Souderton, running from Cherry Lane (on the left in this picture) to Telford Pike. The draft shows land of Frederick and Christian “Huntsperger”, and Isaac Rosenberger, a later owner of Peter Hunsberger’s land in present-day Souderton.

Frederick Hunsberger’s daughter Hannah married Henry Souder (for whom Souderton was named). The diary of their grandson William Hemsing has been published, and some excerpts can be read on this blog. The Hunsberger and Souder families led the business community of Souderton, sometimes competing with one another. In 1886, William D. Hunsberger built this fabulously tall building for his hardware store on Broad Street. People used to climb the tower to view the surrounding countryside.

Revolutionary resistance

Oral tradition (as recorded in the Hunsberger genealogy) credits two grandsons of immigrant Ulrich with resisting Revolutionary American forces in two different ways. Both were named Abraham and born circa 1755.

“Hum” or “Ham”, as he was called for short, was the son of Ulrich’s oldest son Christian (of present-day Souderton). Hum was well-known for physical strength. At the age of seventeen, he is said to have knocked out two men who were verbally goading him while working in the field. Another time, a man in Philadelphia tried to start a fight with Hum, and replying that “fighting is only for dogs”, Hum pushed the assailant down so hard in a chair that the chair splintered.

During the war, officers of the Continental Army desired Hum for a soldier and sent a squad to press him into service. Hum was upstairs in his house and refused to come down. As the story goes, “The men went up the narrow stairway to bring him down. But as fast as a man came within reach, he was knocked over by Hum’s fist. Finally, the squad went away, came back with reinforcements and chains. They overpowered Hum, took him to camp at Valley Forge, and chained him in a cabin. During the night Hum broke the chains and went home.” The details of this story are questionable, but Abraham was likely taken by soldiers and escaped. Was this because of Mennonite convictions against warfare, or simply because Hunsberger wished not to be bothered?

Hum’s cousin Abraham – sometimes called “Singer” Abraham – was arrested by soldiers while taking farm produce to market in Philadelphia during the British occupation of the city in 1777-78. While in custody, the 22-year-old Abraham apparently sang hymns or other songs. In the colorful words of Philadelphia pastor and historian N. B. Grubb, “[Hunsberger] charmed and amused his guards with sweet strains of music. They were so delighted with his jovial nature that the next morning they let him go on his way home rejoicing.”

Musical heritage

“Singer” Abraham’s daughter, Magdalena (1787-1864), wife of Schwenksville Mennonite deacon William Z. Gottshall, reportedly knew and could sing every song in the Mennonite hymnbook of 1803, the Kleine Geistliche Harfe der Kinder Zions [Small Spiritual Harp of the Children of Zion].

Sister and brother, Magdalena and Martin T. Hunsberger.

Her brother Martin Hunsberger (1804-1872), the youngest of Abraham’s thirteen children, became a schoolteacher and music instructor, teaching not only vocal music and harmony singing, but also organ, piano and violin. His book of “select manuscript music” from the 1860s is on loan to the MHC from the Hunsberger Family Association.

Though raised Mennonite, Martin probably found little appreciation for his musical gifts in the Mennonite Church and he was not a member. Nor did he embrace his family’s pacifist beliefs during the Civil War. His book contains more than one song about the glory of fighting southern rebels. For example, he transcribed these lines from “The Pennsylvanian Battle Cry” that was published as a broadside in 1861:

Traitors have betrayed the nation, but we will by the Union stand;
Let every Patriot seek his station, with the gallant warlike band.

Long [the flag’s] folds shall float above us, while we shout our battle cry;
“We will fight for those who love us, but let every traitor die.”

Pennsylvanians to your station, boldly meet the Traitor foe;
Fight as bravely for the nation, as you did in Mexico.

Then your name shall live in story, and echo’d be from strand to strand;
Then fight for Liberty and Glory, the Union and your Native Land.

Very different sentiments from those in the Mennonite hymns his sister and father sang. Mennonites, like all immigrants to America, faced a marketplace of ideas that sometimes resulted in family rifts.

Other descendants who have made significant musical contributions include Isaac R. Hunsberger (1848-1925), who sold organs in Hatfield and built a few himself, one of which can be viewed at the Lansdale Historical Society; and Donald R. Hunsberger, a well-known 20th-century orchestral conductor and music professor who has been called the “father of the modern wind ensemble”.

Hunsberger’s in the Oberholtzer Division

Going back a few years, to the dramatic conference of eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites on October 7, 1847, when Franconia and Eastern District Conferences separated, there were Hunsberger’s on both sides of the tension.

The leader of the progressive (later Eastern District) group was John Hunsberger Oberholtzer (1809-1895), bishop of the Swamp congregation near Quakertown. He had on his side the influential Hunsicker family of Skippack, including John Hunsicker, the senior bishop of the conference, who would normally function as moderator.

On the other side was old bishop Henry Hunsberger (1768-1854) of Blooming Glen, who had been elevated to the position of moderator because of Hunsicker’s alignment with the progressive faction. At the meeting, which was attended by many lay people in addition to ministers, the progressives (who sat as a block) hoped to gain a hearing for their innovations. Henry Hunsberger did not allow it, and the progressives walked out. Unwilling to submit to the demands of the conservative majority, they formed a separate conference that continues today as the Eastern District Conference of Mennonite Church USA.

In 1860, John Oberholtzer met with progressive Mennonites in Iowa to lay plans for what would become the General Conference Mennonite Church. Historian John Ruth described the meeting in his book Maintaining the Right Fellowship (p. 315):

That night [May 28, 1860] the eastern printer [Oberholtzer] and the four Iowa farmer-preachers drew up six resolutions on the topic of union. It was “humiliating,” they observed, that though “there are about 128,000 Mennonites” in the United States and Canada, “they have never been raised to the position of a church.”  It was time to take a new stance. “All branches” were now called on, in the very first resolution, to “extend to each other the hand of fellowship.” No accusation of “heresy” or “transgression” should be considered “valid” unless it was “established on unequivocal scriptural evidence.”

Another supporter of the new conference was Ephraim Hunsberger (1814-1904), who had been ordained by Oberholtzer (possibly his cousin) at Hereford in 1849 and as bishop in 1852 for a new congregation at Wadsworth, Ohio, where several members of the Hereford congregation had moved. The General Conference held their second meeting at Wadsworth in 1861 and asked Ephraim to find a location in Ohio for a Mennonite school of higher education. The Wadsworth Institute was built five years later in a field across from Hunsberger’s house. It operated until 1878, when due to various conflicts and debt, the General Conference abandoned the project.

John Hunsberger Oberholtzer and Ephraim Hunsberger in senior years.

Wadsworth Institute, circa 1870. Allen M. Fretz Photos, Mennonite Heritage Center; gift of J. Herbert Fretz.

As stimulating as the innovations of Oberholtzer and Ephraim Hunsberger were, let us not forget the quiet life of conservative bishop Henry Hunsberger, who must have struggled with disappointment over a division he was unable to prevent in his later years. Who knows how many conflicts he had helped to resolve earlier in his ministry. We don’t know much about him, except that he farmed on the southeast corner of Broad Street and Upper Church Road in Hilltown Township, and the MHC holds his family Bible (gift of great-granddaughter Susie Hunsberger Godshalk) and a lovely fraktur made for his daughter Catherine by a relative (see this post on the Clemens family).

Sources on the Hunsberger family

Fretz, J. Herbert. “Oberholtzer, John H. (1809-1895).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 30 Aug 2017. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Oberholtzer,_John_H._(1809-1895)

Hunsberger Family Association. The Hunsbergers. Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1995. This is a large three-volume genealogy. Earlier editions were published in 1941 and 1969. All are available in the MHC library. The Family Association also maintains a website at http://www.hunsberger.org/

Munro, Joyce Clemmer. Early and Successive Land Owners in Franconia Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and a Brief History of Their Activities. Franconia Township, 1981.

Ruth, John L. Maintaining the Right Fellowship: A narrative account of life in the oldest Mennonite community in North America. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984.

Souderton-Telford Main Streets. “Souderton History” Web. 25 Aug 2017. http://www.stmainst.org/souderton-history

Wenger, John C. “Hunsberger family.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 25 Aug 2017. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hunsberger_family&stableid=120814