Our Immigrant Heritage: Cassel

Written by Forrest Moyer on May 10, 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.

Viewing comets in Kriegsheim

Hupert Cassel, an immigrant bachelor who came to Pennsylvania in 1717, and his brothers Yellis and John, who came ten years later, were from a pious Mennonite family of Kriegsheim, Germany. They brought with them writings of their grandfather (or great-grandfather) Yellis [Julius] Kassel, a Mennonite minister. In 1665 he expressed apprehension about three comets he’d seen recently:

These three stars or comets were visible within the space of a quarter of a year. I am concerned about their signification. Many may learn it to their own sorrow. I also saw the great comet in the year 1618, and soon after that the great misery and affliction in Germany commenced [the Thirty Years War]…. God warns from time to time, if man will turn not he will whet his sword; he hath bent his bow and made it ready…. [English translation from D. K. Cassel’s Cassel Family in America]

In the 19th century these papers were in the possession of a descendant, antiquarian Abraham H. Cassel of Lower Salford, and they are now preserved in the Menno Simons Historical Library at Eastern Mennonite University.

Hupert and Yellis Cassel settled with their families at Skippack; John went to Lancaster County. Most of the Mennonite and Brethren Cassel’s are descended from these brothers; but they also had other relatives in early Pennsylvania — Henry (possibly an uncle), who served as deacon in the Germantown Mennonite congregation; and uncle John Cassel of Germantown, who had converted to Quaker faith in the old country, annoying some Mennonite relations such as preacher Hinrich Kassel of Gerolsheim, who wrote a pamphlet against the Quakers in 1681.

A superior fraktur artist

Immigrant Hupert’s grandson, also named Hupert Cassel (born 1751), was a fraktur artist of superior skill and precision. He learned penmanship from schoolmaster Christopher Dock in the Skippack Mennonite school, and his script bears similarity to Dock’s, but Cassel’s decoration exceeded that of his teacher.  Cassel also became a teacher, and several fraktur pieces by him are in the Heebner Family Collection at the Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center at Pennsburg.

Hupert Cassel created the Vorschrift (writing model) above in 1772 for his student Abraham Heebner; he then started a second copy (below) that Abraham worked to complete. Some of the lettering, the birds and large tulip were done by Cassel. The text is a Pietist hymn: “My Jesus, sweet desire of the soul….”

Hupert’s younger brother Christian (born 1755) also created a Vorschrift (below) for Abraham Heebner to copy. These examples at Schwenkfelder Library are valuable evidence of how fraktur Vorschriften were used to teach penmanship.

In the Mennonite Heritage Center collection, there is a fraktur created by Hupert and Christian’s nephew, Joseph O. Cassel (1799-1868), who was later ordained a minister in the Plains Mennonite congregation. Joseph’s fraktur, like many of the 19th century, is more whimsical in style, though it incorporates motifs from uncle Hupert’s work. Joseph’s Indian weather vane, also in the MHC collection, reflects similar whimsy.

Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville

Abraham Harley Cassel

Hupert Cassel’s grandson, Abraham Harley Cassel (1820-1908), gathered a vast library of more than 50,000 books, pamphlets and manuscripts, in his farmhouse near Vernfield, Montgomery County. He was a member of the Indian Creek Church of the Brethren, but was well aware of the Mennonite sensibilities of his Cassel ancestors. He owned the 17th-century manuscripts of ancestor Yellis Kassel, as well many old Bibles and books documenting the life of Germans in early Pennsylvania.

After his death, Cassel’s collection was dispersed to various repositories and private collections. Significant portions are preserved at Juniata College and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. A few items passed down in the family, including family letters and Cassel’s memorandum books from the 1840s, and have been donated to the Mennonite Heritage Center for preservation in his native Salford-Franconia neighborhood.

The watercolor painting is by artist Isaac Clarence Kulp, imagining Cassel in front of his Lower Salford farmhouse. The painting is in the collection of the Muddy Creek Farm Library, Ephrata.

The Kolb Cassel’s

Two other bookish descendants of the Cassel family were brothers Daniel Kolb Cassel (1820-1898) and Samuel Kolb Cassel (1826-1891).

Daniel was a school teacher in his youth, and published a book of prayers and songs, as well as a catechism. Later in life, he moved to Philadelphia, where he served as a deacon in the Germantown Mennonite congregation and compiled a History of the Mennonites, published in 1888, the first such work by an American author.

Samuel, also a school teacher, published a small nondenominational hymnbook–Der Christliche Sänger [The Christian Singer]–in 1855, before marrying and moving to Hilltown Township, Bucks County, where he was a member of the Blooming Glen Mennonite congregation. He worked to compile a genealogy of the Cassel family, but due to ill health ultimately handed it to his brother Daniel who completed the work. Daniel also published genealogies on the Kolb-Kulp and Rittenhouse families.

Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville

Sources on the Cassel family

Cassel, Daniel Kolb. A Genealogical History of the Cassel Family in America…. Norristown, PA: Morgan R. Wills. 1896. Available online at https://www.archive.org/details/genealogicalhist00cass.

Durnbaugh, Donald F.  “Abraham Harley Cassel and his Collection”.  Pennsylvania History, Vo. 26, No. 4, pp. 332-347. Online at https://journals.psu.edu/phj/article/viewFile/22694/22463

Fretz, J. Herbert. “Cassel, Daniel K. (1820-1898).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 10 Mar 2017. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Cassel,_Daniel_K._(1820-1898)&stableid=144927

Gingerich, Melvin. “Cassel (Kassel) family.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 20 Mar 2017. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Cassel_(Kassel)_family&stableid=119450

Hershey, Mary Jane Lederach. This Teaching I Present: Fraktur from the Skippack and Salford Mennonite Meetinghouse Schools, 1747-1836. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2003, pp. 78-81, 169.

Ruth, John L. Maintaining the Right Fellowship…. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press. 1984. Especially chapter 1, pp. 25-51. The title of the book comes from the writing of minister Hinrich Kassel, 1681.