Posts Tagged ‘Johann Mattias Hutwohl’

A Family Story: Death on the High Seas

(Photo taken from “By the Grace of God” by Nancy Burkholder Hess)

When you dig into your family history, you find some fascinating stories about your ancestors. Some are sad and devastating, others are amazing stories of surviving over impossible odds.

One such story is about Johann Matheus (sometimes written Mathias) Hutwohl, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.  My family can trace it’s roots back to 1545 in Morschbach, Germany to Georg Hutwohl.  Johann is the 9th generation down from Georg.

Johann, who often went by his middle name Matheus, was born in 1711 and is known as the first Heatwole  (Hutwohl) immigrant to America.

On February 11, 1744, when he was thirty-three years old, he married Anna Christina nee Heiderich and they were blessed with two daughters, Christine Elizabeth (October 16, 1745) and Anna Susanna (October 17, 1747).  Religious persecution and the Thirty Year War had ravaged Europe making life bleak and difficult.  During the winter of 1748, Matheus and Anna began quietly making plans to give up their German homeland and sail to America in search of religious freedom.  By mid-summer they said goodbye to their families and homeland, went to the port in Bacharach, loaded a few personal belongings onto a ship and set sail down the Rhine River which branched into the Waal River. After docking at Dordrecht in the Netherlands, they traveled a short distance overland to the Dutch seaport of Rotterdam, arriving in late July.  The party of four booked passage on a vessel christened as the “Two Brothers” and began their journey to a new life in America. Leaving Holland,  they first docked in England where the immigrants obtained proper documentation to continue their advancement to North America.

The conditions on the ship were horrible and the food was bad and rationed.  We do not have the details of their voyage but history records that the conditions on the ship and the mistreatment of the passengers is beyond our comprehension. Passengers were so densely packed together that one sick person had to enhale the breath of another. Because of the stench, filth, and lack of food many developed scurvy, yellow fever, dysentery and other infectious diseases.  It was noted that a ship that could hold 400 would be stuffed with 1200.  The captains would ration food under the pretense that they must guard against famine, allowing only half rations of moldy bread and salt meat. The water was often black, thick and full of worms so that even with the greatest of thirst they could not drink it without disgust.  The mortality rate was high. The Hutwohls were ill prepared for the journey. (More of this story is written in “By the Grace of God” by Nancy Burkholder Hess, pages 63-66).

Three and a half months later on September 15, 1748, Thomas Arnott, Captain of the ship, docked at Mud Island Fort in sight of Philadelphia, PA. Matheus, a Lutheran, was one of the ninety-six German emigrants to sign the ship’s register. When the plank was lowered, he walked down the plank with a broken heart to the New World, alone. He had buried his wife and two little girls, ages 3 and 1, somewhere at sea.  It was reported that children seldom survived the journey across the rough Atlantic Ocean and no records were kept of those buried at sea or under the age of sixteen.

At the age of thirty-seven, he faced a new life alone in a strange land, an unfamiliar language, and very little personal belongings with a bitter grief. He found his way to the Conestoga Valley in Pennsylvania along with some of his other European friends and German neighbors and apparently was taken in by a kind-hearted family until he could get started on a place of his own.

When he arrived in America he had little money, only a good back and strong arms. He soon found land and began the back-breaking task of clearing the land by ox and axe. After the hard task of clearing the land and building shelter was done, God steered a good woman to him.

Around 1765, at the age of 54, he married a Miss Haas and they had six children: David, Jacob, John, Christian, Mary and Anna.  It is through this family that the Heatwole descendants in America can trace their family lineage.

About eleven years later (around 1776), Matheus died suddenly leaving a widow with six small children. He was trying to get a calf into the stable but the animal refused to cooperate and ran off into the woods. Matheus followed but did not return. He was later found in a sitting position, leaning against a tree, dead.

Times were difficult and because of the dire circumstances, it became necessary for his anguished widow to put the children out among strangers. David, through whom my ancestor line descended, was farmed out to work for Mr. Bear.  David’s story will be posted in another blog.


I can not take credit for any of the information in this post. It is a combination of information from “History of the Heatwole Family” by Cornelius J. Heatwole, 1907, and from “By the Grace of God” by Nancy Burkholder Hess, 1979. Some is quoted and some rewritten. Permission from both parties was granted for the story to be retold in my book “The Story of Melvin Jasper Heatwole and Mollie Grace Coffman” by Patricia H. Hertzler, 1983. The Heatwole Coat of Arms also comes from “By The Grace of God” page 66.

If you want a fascinating read….

I highly recommend the “By the Grace of God” by Nancy Burkholder Hess. She vividly and poignantly tells the story of the Mennonites in Germany, the devastation of the wars that ravished Europe.  She tells the story of immigrating to America and the unimaginable deplorable conditions of sailing on a boat to America.  Faith was such an important part of the settlers and that faith is woven into the stories.

Additional blog posts:

A Family Story: Triumph Over Tragedy