The tragedy of Daniel Bender

Another one-hour drive in the region of Hesse took us from Bad Berleburg to Langendorf, where Bender’s brother Daniel, my great-great-great-great grandfather, lived. Langendorf is quite a contrast to the gray-slated, aristocratic vibe of Berleburg. This agrarian village is rugged and surrounded by fertile fields. The architecture consists of half-timbered buildings of cement with an exposed wood framework. The streets are very narrow and curvy. One source I’ve consulted says that “in many respects, Langendorf must look like it did when the Bender family left it in 1842 to find a home in America.” Indeed, the village’s population in 1840 was between 350 and 375 persons, almost exactly matching what resident said the current population is.

Langendorf sometime in the nineteenth century
Langendorf today

Daniel Bender was not tossed in a dungeon like his brother, but he was still socially marginalized and probably quite poor. As a member of the Amish Mennonite congregation in the area, he nurtured convictions against joining the military in an area where military service was mandatory. His son Wilhelm was sixteen years old, very close to the age of induction, and so Bender felt some pressure to make a move so that the family could maintain its conscience against killing.

According to my grandfather, David I. Miller, this belief combined with a general interest among the poor in Hesse to think about America as a land of better prospects. Here are the lyrics of a song popular among farmers in this region:

Now have come the time and hour

To travel to America.

The wagon by the door now stands;

With wife and children we will go.

And when we come to Baltimore,

We’ll hold our hands upraised.

And shout a word of victory

Now we’re in America!

Daniel Bender, who didn’t have enough money to pay cash for a ship’s passage to America, sent his son as an indentured servant. Wilhelm would serve someone for five to seven years to pay off the passage. When he landed in Philadelphia in 1830, an Amish bishop in Grantsville, Maryland, heard about this Amish boy serving out his time working for a nursery proprietor in Baltimore. Bishop Benedict Miller rode 160 miles on horseback, redeemed young Wilhelm, and brought him back to live in a real Amish community. When they arrived, the bishop’s daughter Catherine joked, “That boy may become a husband for one of us.” Eight years later, Wilhelm and Catherine married.

Wilhelm worked hard, saving enough money to bring his younger brother Joseph to America. Then Wilhelm and Joseph together worked to pay passage for their father, mother, and four younger brothers to join them. From across the ocean, the Bender family sold their possessions and prepared to leave. Tragically, Daniel died unexpectedly, and the family buried him just before departure.

The year was 1842. Twelve years had passed since Wilhelm had left. He had married the bishop’s daughter and was raising a calf to be eaten when the rest of his family arrived. But the expected date came and went. Discouraged and hungry, he killed the calf to feed Catherine and his children. Amazingly, later that very day, he saw a group of people trudging down the National Road (now U.S. Route 40) through the fields. He thought, “They look like my family but there is one too few.”

He was exactly right. During the bittersweet reunion, Wilhelm discovered the tragic news—and learned more about their fraught journey, which ended with a twenty-seven-mile walk from Cumberland, Maryland, a sleepless night in a barn, and provisions provided by a kind farmer who took pity on the penniless German immigrants.

Wilhelm’s youngest son, Christian W. Bender, who is my great-great grandfather, interpreted his father’s migration and legacy this way: “We deeply appreciate the evidence of Christian faith and life among the descendants of our ancestor Daniel Bender. But it cannot be denied that the results of weaknesses and unworthy living, permitted by some, are all too evident on every hand. What of the future? As an aged man, who has seen quite a bit of life, and one of the remaining seven of my generation in the Bender family, I would warn us of the danger of departing from the Christian faith. Perhaps God’s warning to the Israelites would be profitable here. ‘For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water . . . When thou hast eaten and art full. . . . Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God.’ (Deut. 3:7)”

Of Daniel Bender’s descendants, only one child—Christina—did not migrate to America. The last living descendant—Catherina Schoenbeck—died in 1875 at the age of twenty by suicide. Her three-year-old sister Elizabeth had died when she was one. Her one-month-old brother had died when she was five. Her father had died when she was ten. Her mother had died when she was nineteen. A year later, she was found hanging in the house of a merchant named Plitt in Marburg.

Driving into Langendorf

Things have changed. Anabaptists are tolerated in Germany now, and the land seems very productive. During our visit in Langendorf, many buildings had a house and barn connected in the middle of town. There were lots of solar panels on houses, but also a lot of manure piles. There were as many tractors as cars—and more bicycles than tractors. It seemed like a “good land.” It also seemed familiar. As we drove around Hesse, it reminded me of Grantsville and Lancaster County and other places in the United States where Amish and Mennonites, no doubt reminded of their homeland, settled.

And the people were very friendly. We engaged two elderly German-speaking women in conversation—which led to sparkling water on their patio, which led to one of their daughters riding her bicycle twenty minutes to translate for us, which led to them identifying where Daniel Bender had lived, which led to an unlocking of the village church house, which led to another patio invitation with chocolate snacks and more sparkling water, which led to a delighted man making us look through photo retrospectives of Amish bus tours through Langendorf from the 1990s.

From the Daniel Bender Family History book

Then we went to nearby Wohra, a larger town just one mile to the east. We visited the cemetery where Daniel Bender had been buried. They have a system of recycling graves that I don’t completely understand, so there were no gravestones dating before the 1950s. Next door was the Lutheran church. As an Amish Mennonite, Bender did not attend here, but there were significant connections. In honor of his Lutheran employees who attended the church (and perhaps to make his family more socially respectable and tolerated), he had paid for the church’s pews. Sadly, the door was locked, so we stood on our toes to peek at the pews through the side windows.

Based on an essay written by my grandfather, we also know that inside the church (or maybe the parsonage) is a register laid out in columns across two facing pages that holds information from the early 1800s. It shows that Daniel lived in house #56 in Langendorf at the time of his death on January 15, 1842. A translation of a part of the record reads as follows: “Daniel Bender, Mennonite, was married first to Helena Schlabbach; second to Elizabeth Bauman.” The column with the heading “Place and Time of Birth” says: “Hof Reseif by Berleburg; reportedly 77 years old.” He is listed as a “Mennonit.” His death record is in these records too.

The Daniel Bender death record that we didn’t get to see

I want to give tribute to my grandfather, now eighty-nine years old and living in London, Ohio. He helped spark my love of history as a child, and we’ve been talking family history for over four decades now. He is also responsible for uncovering much of the history above. I only wish he could have made this trip with us. A three-generation pilgrimage is pretty cool. Four generations would have been amazing.

Grandpa David I. Miller and Grandma Erma Bender Miller with me as a baby
My Miller grandparents with me and my sister
A genealogy book given to me at Christmas by my grandparents
An inscription from my grandparents

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