George Sebastian Unruh and Catherine Simon

George Sebastian Unruh was born in 1738 in Ober Lustadt, a small village in southwest Germany, near the Rhine.1 When he was fourteen, he emigrated with his parents Johann and Apollonia and his older brother George Nicholas, sailing on the ship Brothers out of Rotterdam, stopping at Cowes, England on the way.2 They left no record of their travels, but their experience was probably typical of the many immigrants from the Palatinate at the time. They needed to get a passport from their local officials, travel downstream on the Rhine until they reached Rotterdam in the Netherlands, then switch to a crowded ship for the Atlantic crossing. The Unruh family arrived safely in Philadelphia in September 1752, when the father Johannes took the oath of allegiance at the State House, in front of justice Edward Shippen.3 Johannes could not sign his name, and signed with a mark.

There are no records of the Unruh family for the next six years. They probably lived in Bristol township, adjoining Germantown, working as farmers, either renting land or working for someone else. The two teenage sons were part of the labor force. There would be little time for them to attend school, although they must have gone to school in Germany, since Sebastian was able to sign his name to documents.4 They probably went to the Reformed church in Germantown for services, but some of their family events, such as the marriage of George Nicholas, were at St. Michael’s Lutheran.

In September 1760 Johannes bought a stone house and an acre of land on the Germantown road from Jacob and Elizabeth Dietrich for £200. The land was described as in his actual possession at the time, but he was also described as John Unruh of Bristol.5 In 1761 George Nicholas married Catharine Frank at St. Michael’s Church and settled in Germantown.6 Three years later George Sebastian married Catharine Simon, daughter of Michael Simon of Germantown. Michael Simon was a hatter who had immigrated in 1741, settled in the Cresheim neighborhood of Germantown, and had a large family. He died in 1758.7

George Sebastian and his wife Catherine lived in Bristol, probably with his parents on the 97-acre tract that Johannes had bought from Justus Rubicam in 1764.8 Ten years later Johannes sold the farm to Sebastian, but Johannes and Apollonia probably lived out their lives there. She died in 1776, two days short of her seventy-sixth birthday. Sebastian had reserved a small corner of the tract as a burying ground for his descendants, and his parents were probably buried there as well.9

In 1776 the Unruh family, like many around Philadelphia, were swept up into the chaos of the Revolution. That December, many expected the British to invade the city and thousands of people fled to the west.10 “Everybody but Quakers were removing their families and effects”.11 Many of them must have traveled up the Germantown road. The crisis passed and many refugees returned, but the respite was temporary. In September 1777, the British marched into the city and settled in to occupy it.  They were willing to pay for grain in hard currency, and many farmers chose to sell to them rather than to the Revolutionary forces.12 It is possible that the Unruhs, no matter where their real sympathies lay, sold their grain for British cash. General Howe set up his headquarters at Stenton, formerly James Logan’s country house. A fine brick mansion, it lay five miles north of the center of the city, and just one mile south of the market square in Germantown. Here Howe positioned his army and waited for Washington to attempt to regain the city.13 The land of Nicholas Unruh stretched in a long strip between Chew and Stenton Streets, just north of Vernon and south of Gorgas Lane. The land of his brother George Sebastian was further north, across Stenton Avenue. Both of them were within two miles of the British lines.14 They must have waited anxiously for the battle. Finally on October 4th the American forces advanced. Fighting raged up and down in the town. Wounded men were carried from the field of battle and some of them were taken to Nicholas Unruh’s house.15 The English soldiers occupied one of his houses, perhaps while the battle raged around Clivenden.16 “Back in the field [off] Gorgas Lane…is the old Unruh homestead. The house is still roofed with earthen tiles under the later covering of tin. After the Battle, wounded soldiers were quartered here. It is not known when the old house was built…On the opposite side of the railroad is another old homestead, with a pond near the house and barn. The tradition is that the retreating soldiers threw their muskets into the water to save them from being captured.”17 The battle ended with a defeat for the Americans and the British still in possession of the city. Two years later the brothers Sebastian and Nicholas served in the army, according to the lists in the Pennsylvania Archives, though it is unlikely that they saw active service.18

The Unruhs went on with their lives, paying taxes on their properties, attending church, adding to their families.19 They appeared in the first national census.20 They witnessed the signing of wills and served as executors for friends’ estates.21 In September 1776 Sebastian and Catherine buried a son Sebastian, just one year old. In 1783, some of Sebastian and Catherine’s children were growing up. With six living sons to provide for, he needed more land. He bought a two-story house on Germantown Avenue, a seven-acre tract in Bristol, three more lots east of the Chew house, and a stone house and 67 acres in Bristol.22 In 1804 Sebastian was growing old. To settle his affairs, he and Catherine made a series of gifts to their sons.23 They gave a stone house and two lots in Germantown to Abraham, and a house and 62 acres to Philip.24 At the same time they gave a house and 97 acres in Bristol to Philip as part of an agreement that he would take care of them.25 They were to stay in the “new room and dwelling” with use of the garret, kitchen and cellar and outbuildings. He was to pasture their cows and provide a yearly annuity.

On October 6, 1806, the next generation was shaken by a tragic accident.26

On a militia training day after the mustering had been answered and the companies dismissed, two Unruh brothers, William and John, sons of Sebastian Unruh, and Sebastian, a son of John, having charge of the cannon, on their way home with the gun halted on Church Street (then called Bone Lane), at the rear of St. Michael’s Lutheran churchyard, to fire a parting salute, one of them remarking in a jestingly way, it was said, that ‘now we will raise the dead.’ While ramming home the cartridge, the vent became so hot that the thumb of the holder was taken therefrom and a premature discharge of the cannon resulted. William’s left arm was blown off, John lost his right arm and Sebastian was killed outright, his head having been blown off.27

The United States Gazette reported the accident five days later.28

We are told that on Monday last, the Artillery of Germantown, being out to exercise agreeable to law, one of the pieces went off in the action of ramming the cartridge, whereby three persons of one family were injured, viz: the father had his two hands shattered in such a manner, that one of them was amputated on the field, one of his sons was killed on the spot, and one other so much wounded that his life is despaired of.

Later that month two of the sons of Sebastian Unruh went to the Orphans’ Court in Philadelphia with a petition, stating that they were above the age of 14 years but not yet 21, and that they had no guardian to care for their estates. They petitioned the court to choose a guardian for them, and the court chose John Unruh.29 A petition like this to the court would normally be done after the father’s death, but George Sebastian was still alive.30 Had he been incapacitated, perhaps by a stroke? Was this connected to the accident earlier in the month? As the two youngest brothers and the only ones yet unmarried, they would not have received their portion of their father’s estate. The court action may have been to safeguard this.

George Sebastian died in 1813 at age 74.31 By then he had been living with his son Philip for eight years, while Philip and his wife Barbara had their children in the same household. Sebastian was probably buried in the family burying ground on the 97-acre tract in Bristol. He did not leave a will. Catherine died in 1818, at age 72. They lived to see six of their children married, and numerous grandchildren.

Children of George Sebastian and Catharina Simon:32

John, born 1765, married about 1785 a woman named Elizabeth.33 He sold 240 acres of land in Pennsylvania, and took his family west to Warren County, Ohio in 1816, perhaps to leave memories of Germantown behind after the cannon accident.34 The farm was not successful, and his son Joseph later returned to Germantown.35 Children: Sebastian, Elizabeth, Catherine, Susanna, John, Joseph, Maria, Ellen, Sarah. John and Elizabeth died in Warren County, Ohio.36

Philip, born 1769, died 1835, married about 1794 a woman named Barbara. She may have been the daughter of Jacob and Barbara Meyer.37 They lived in Bristol on land given to him in 1805. He was a farmer. His parents lived in a room in the house and privileges of the garden and outbuildings. Children: John, Catherine, Maria, Jacob, Anna.38

Elizabeth, born 1772, died 1846, married William Hergesheimer in 1795. They lived in Germantown, where William died in 1840. Elizabeth died in 1846. They had nine children, including a son Samuel who administered the estate.

A child, born Jan 1773, died in infancy

Sebastian, born 1775, died in infancy

Michael, born 1780, died in 1804, unmarried, named five brothers and a sister in his will.39

George, born 1782, died 1825. He married in 1804 Margaret Rohrer, daughter of John and Margaret, and had children with her.40  After he death he married in 1817 Maria Castor, and had more children. Both marriages were at Germantown Reformed Church. He died intestate.41  Children of George and Margaret: Samuel, Mary, Charles, George, Edward, William.42 Children of George and Maria: Hannah, Lewis, John, Eli.

William, born April 1785, died 1823, married Esther Rohrer in 1807, daughter of John and Margaret. They lived in Germantown. Esther was still there in 1860, as a widow with her daughter Emeline. William and Esther were buried at Ivy Hill. Children: Harriet, Adaliza, Margaret, William, Maria, John, Emeline, Esther.

Abraham, born 1788, died 1872, married in 1811 Catharina Fisher.43 They lived in Germantown. He sold a tract of 78 acres in Germantown to his brother Philip in May 1821.44 They were still in Germantown in 1830 when a son George Washington Unruh was baptized at St. Michael’s Lutheran. In 1870 Abraham was living with his son Abraham in Kankakee Township, LaPorte County.45 He and Catherine were buried at Rolling Prairie, LaPorte County.46 Children: Jacob, Mary Ann, Catherine, Abraham, John, William, George.47

 

  1. Records of the Reformed Church in Ober Lustadt, in Annette Burgert, Palatine Origins of some Pennsylvania Pioneers. A good summary of the early Unruh family can be found in Hannah Benner Roach, “Detective work among the Benners”, Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, 1950, volume 7(2), p. 140.
  2. Strassburger and Hinke, Pennsylvania German Pioneers, vol. 1.
  3. Strassburger and Hinke, vol. 1, page 481.
  4. He signed his name on deeds, for example in 1805 (Philadelphia County deeds, Book IC 2, p. 327 and IC 3, p. 626).
  5. Philadelphia County deeds, Book GWC 114, p. 482. It was not recorded until 1831.
  6. They went on to have eight known children: Apollonia, Catherine, George, Elizabeth, Nicholas, Barbara, Mary Magdalene, and Daniel. All but Apollonia and Daniel were known to marry.
  7. Hannah Benner Roach, “The Back Part of Germantown”, PA Genealogical Magazine, vol. 20. Michael Simon’s first wife, whom he married before immigrating from the Saarland, was Anna Elizabeth Cloessing. Some years later he married a woman named Anna Margaretta. The mother of the his younger children is uncertain. (Records of Germantown Reformed Church; Philadelphia County wills, Book T, p. 138).
  8. Philadelphia County deeds, Book H 8, p. 149; “Detective work among the Benners”, p. 143.
  9. Philadelphia County deeds, Book IC 3, p. 626.
  10. Russell F. Weigley ed., Philadelphia: A 300-year history, 1982, p. 129.
  11. Robert Morris letter, quoted in Weigley, p. 129.
  12. Weigley, p. 134.
  13. Weigley, p. 135. Howe’s troops were spread out on either side of Germantown Road, south of the market square and School House Lane. See a map at phillyh2o.org/backpages/Maps/20040210083_BattleofGermantown.jpg.
  14. See the excellent mapping tool at http://maps.archives.upenn.edu/WestPhila1777/map.php.
  15. S. F. Hotchkin. Ancient and Modern Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, page 325.  Hotchkin got his information about the family from William Butcher, a great-grandson of George Sebastian. Some of it was garbled, for example the list of children of Nicholas and Sebastian. Anything there must be verified against other records.
  16. Hotchkin, pp. 324-325.
  17. Guidebook to Historic Germantown, 1902. In “Detective work among the Benners”, Montgomery County Historical Society Bulletin, 1950, vol. 7(2), p. 149, Hannah Benner Roach wrote that “Mr. Williams recalls being told that because the battle of Germantown was fought over this as well as the surrounding farms, its barn—probably the ‘old stable’ of the 1807 tax return—served as shelter for wounded soldiers.” This building stood on land owned by Nicholas Unruh on Gorgas Lane near Chew Street.
  18. Pa. Archives, Series 6, vol. 1.
  19. Tax lists of 1774, 1779, 1782, 1783. In 1782 taxes were paid for Nicholas Unruh’s estate. Pa. Archives, third series, vol. 14-16. The term “estate” does not mean that the owner died; more often his land was rented out. The renter was responsible for the taxes. (Cf. Introduction to McNealy and Waite, Bucks Co. Tax Records)
  20. 1790 Census records: Unrue, George seven males and four females, in Phila. Co, Bristol township, and Unrue, Nicholas four males and five females in Phila. Co, Germantown.
  21. In 1786 Sebastian, along with his son John, was a witness for the will of Jacob Fisher in Bristol. In 1790 Sebastian Unruh was an executor for the estate of the Rev. Johann Helffenstein of Germantown, along with Jacob Engle and Johann’s wife Anna Catherine.
  22. Hannah Benner Roach, “Detective work among the Benners”, Montgomery County Historical Society Bulletin, 1950, vol. 7(2), pp. 144-145.
  23. By contrast, his brother Nicholas, who died in 1807, left multiple pieces of land which were divided by his heirs in a series of deeds.
  24. Philadelphia County deeds, Book EF 17, p. 674 (to Philip);  Book GWR 18, p. 312 (to Abraham). A son Michael had died in 1804 unmarried. The sons John and William must have been provided for separately.
  25. Philadelphia County deeds, Book IC 3, p. 626.
  26. United States Gazette on 11 Oct 1806.
  27. Hotchkin, p. 326.
  28. Text sent by researcher Brenda Antal in 2005, not available in the issues of the Gazette on Newspapers.com.
  29. Philadelphia County Orphans’ Court records, Oct 27 1806. The court closed the guardianship with an account in September 1809, when both William and Abraham were of age. (Orphans’ Court records on microfilm, Historical Society of Pennsylvania). William was born in April 1785, so he was actually just over 21 in October 1806, but he may not have realized that, or may have chosen to go to court to support his brother Abraham.
  30. There is no other Sebastian Unruh old enough to have sons in this age range. Sebastian, son of George Sebastian, was born in 1775, but died young (and would not have been old enough in any case). John’s son Sebastian was a generation too young. The other side of the family, children of George Nicholas, did not have John, William, or Abraham as a cluster.
  31. Records of Germantown Reformed Church.
  32. “Detective work among the Benners”, Hotchkin, wills, church records. In the 1790 census this family was reported with seven males and four females.
  33. Some Ancestry trees have a last name for her, with no evidence.
  34. Hotchkin.
  35. Hotchkin. The census listings confirm this story. John is listed in the census of 1800 and 1810 in Germantown, but is gone in 1820. In 1820 a John Unruh appears in Franklin Township, Warren County, Ohio (image 4 on Ancestry) with a man and woman over 45 and seven younger people. A John Unruh, probably the son, is next door with a younger age profile.
  36. Roach, “Detective work among the Benners, p. 146.
  37. Jacob and Barbara Meyer had a daughter Barbara baptized at Germantown Reformed at about the right time. She was not Barbara Cooker or Cockery. That was the wife of a younger Philip Unruh, the grandson of this Philip and Barbara.
  38. The first four were baptized in 1802. E. Roberts, Biographical Annals of Montgomery County, 1904, includes a profile of William Unruh, son of Abraham and Margaret.
  39. Philadelphia County wills, Book 1-A, p. 207.
  40. Margaret and Esther Rohrer were both daughters of John Rohrer and Margaret Young. Other children of John and Margaret married into the Levering, Castor, and Engle families.
  41. Philadelphia County deeds, Book GWR 12, p. 326. Nine of the children were still alive, under 21.
  42. There is a sad story about this Samuel, recounted in the Philadelphia Press in November 1860. He was wealthy and well-known in his neighborhood, but this did not save him. In the winter of 1860 a group of locals went onto his property to steal some of his chestnuts. The next morning he procured warrants for their arrest. They were held in jail, pending a hearing. It turned out that one of those held, Morris Idell, was not involved in the theft and he threatened to sue Samuel for false imprisonment. Some friends tried to persuade Samuel to drop the charges by playing on his fears of much trouble and expense. He became so fearful that he went into town and drowned himself in the Delaware.
  43. He should not be confused with his nephew Abraham, born 1809, the son of Philip and Barbara.
  44. Phila County deeds, Book IW 9, p. 490.
  45. 1870 census, Kankakee, Laporte County, image 4 on Ancestry. For some reason Catharine was not listed, but she was probably there too, since she did not die until two years later. Abraham was 82 years old.
  46. Findagrave has photos of their tombstones.
  47. Some Ancestry trees assign a second wife to him, but this is unlikely since his wife Catherine supposedly did not die until 1873. (This date might be wrong.)

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