Newcomers? Names and Migrations

Most of the information that follows is taken from Lloyd K. Hoffman’s research which he compiled in a document entitled The Hoffman Family: Two Hundred Years in America, housed at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV. According to this document, the Hoffmans and Newcomers arrived in Germantown (Philadelphia) around the same time, in the 1720s and ‘30s, and intermarried.

 

When I first started researching the Hoffmans (my mother’s father’s family) I began encountering the name Newcomer—initially as a middle name. My mother had an uncle christened Worthington Newcomer Hoffman. I developed an instant fondness for this delicious mouthful of a name. (In Colusa County he was just “Uncle Worth.”) As a newbie genealogist I was puzzled by the possible origin of this name, Newcomer. Focused as I was on the migration of my family into California, I wondered, did the name Newcomer somehow relate to their recent arrival in California? Turns out my instincts were correct about the name being connected to being new arrivals. I was just a continent and a few centuries off in the particulars.

 

According to Lloyd Hoffman, our Newcomer ancestors spent many years fleeing religious persecution and wars in Europe prior to emigrating to America. They apparently were part of the Waldensians, a pre-reformation religious movement originating in Lyons, France early in the 14th century and led by Peter Waldo (or Waldes or Valdes). The Roman Catholics were eager to wipe out this hotbed of controversy with various persecutions and wars that went on for centuries. Many Waldensians left Southern France for the northern valleys of France and Germany, and by the 1500s many were hiding in the Cottian Alps, which border on Switzerland. Apparently my early ancestors left France and their French name (probably for security reasons), adopting Nei Comers, or New Comers, when they landed in Switzerland. Peter Newcomer was the first of my branch of Newcomers to emigrate, coming from Switzerland in 1720, and landing in Germantown (Philadelphia).

 

My Hoffman ancestors were, as I suspected, immigrants from Germany. As to the Hoffman name, a hoff refers to a settlement, farm or house, so Hoffman refers to a man who either owned his own house or farm or was a steward of a settlement or farm. Peter Von Hoffman is named as an early ancestor whose family was originally from the Old Grand Duchy of Baden, a German state and a historical territory of the Holy Roman Empire. Prior to emigrating to America this branch of the family had moved further down the Rhine Valley to a part of Germany very near the Holland border, where the Reformed faith was embraced. Many inhabitants of the Upper Rhenish states left their homes and farms after the Protestant Reformation and the 30 years of war that followed (the 30 Years War ended in 1648), and my ancestors appear to have been among them.

 

Prior to emigrating to the American colonies, the Newcomers and Hoffmans had been slowly moving and relocating through parts of Europe, crossing mountains and crossing borders. For generations and through centuries, they sought to escape the ever-exploding violence of the religious conflicts that made peaceful living impossible. The 16 week sail from Rotterdam to Germantown, Pennsylvania was only one of the more recent in a long list of moves made by the Hoffman and Newcomer clans. Apparently, the German families tended to send a family member off to a potential new region to check on conditions, and if they were favorable many more family members followed.

 

Adam Hoffman, from whom I am descended, was the first of three brothers to emigrate to America. He sailed from Rotterdam, Holland on the ship Winter Galley in 1737.  When he arrived in Germantown in the early days of 1738, he was 23-years-old. It was a full decade (1747) before the second brother, Michael arrived, also in Germantown. A third brother, Robert, followed two years later in 1749. Adam and Michael settled in Pennsylvania and raised large families. It was Robert who led a group of his nieces and nephews from Pennsylvania to Maryland and Virginia where many of them settled, including one of Adam’s sons, John Hoffman. (This is in conflict with my understanding that John Hoffman was born in Virginia—I now believe he was born in Pennsylvania but moved with other family members to the Shepherdstown, WV area.) John Hoffman married Sallie Newcomer, the great-granddaughter of the above-mentioned Peter Newcomer. John and Sallie are my 4th great-grandparents. The Newcomer name was handed down to my 2nd great-grandfather (the one who came west to California, landing in Sutter County) Samuel Newcomer Hoffman, and on to one of his three sons, the afore-mentioned Worthington Newcomer Hoffman.

 

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“Gramps” was written at the top of this photo by my grandfather, John Wade Hoffman. I believe it is his grandfather, Samuel Newcomer Hoffman.

 

I spent some time researching the Waldensians and pre-reformation history. It is complicated and there is much conflicting information, not surprising when religious claims are involved. But what I do know is both the Hoffman and Newcomer branches of my family were part of the reformation movement centuries before what we know as “the Reformation,” as initiated by Martin Luther (his 95 Theses was published in 1517). The early branches of these families in America were Mennonites and Dunkards. In Shepherdstown, WV, they were members of the Reformed Church.

 

They came to America to be able to escape religious persecution, and in this they were successful. They did not find freedom from war, however. For the next 150 years they and their descendants endured the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the War of 1812 (1812-1815), and, most devastatingly, the Civil War (1861-1865).

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The Hunt for Hoffmans in Shepherdstown, West Virginia

When I was a kid I didn’t think about who my Grandpa John Hoffman’s grandpa was. Grandpa seemed far too old to ever have had a grandpa himself. But Grandpa John did have a grandpa, and his name was Samuel Hoffman, and he was the first of my branch of Hoffmans to come out west.

Hoffman Headstone, College City Cemetery
Hoffman Headstone, College City Cemetery

Samuel was born in 1834 in the state of Virginia, and he came to California sometime between 1870 and 1880 with his wife Elizabeth Jane Wade, and their three sons: Harvey W. Hoffman, Alvey Wade Hoffman, and Worthington Newcomer Hoffman (that name piqued my interest, and I did eventually learn about its origins). Those three boys were born in Maryland, just across the Potomac River from where Samuel grew up in Virginia.

 

Samuel’s oldest son, Harvey W. Hoffman (1864-1930) was my great-grandfather. He married Nancy Bole (1868-1950), a native of California, in 1892 and they produced two sons: Harvey Virgil Hoffman (1893-1960) and John Wade Hoffman (1904-1975), who was my grandfather.

 

I was able to trace the Hoffmans two generations further back from Samuel to a John Hoffman who was born in Shepherdstown, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1760.

map locating Shepherdstown WV
click on map to enlarge

This is where I had gotten stuck in my Hoffman research about a year ago, so I had set it aside and concentrated on other branches of the family.

 

When my wife and I recently started planning a trip to the East Coast, I revisited my Hoffman research. I had always assumed Hoffman was a German name, so I was intrigued to learn that Shepherdstown, West Virginia, was an area that had had a large German population, many of whom were crafts people. As usual, I wanted to know the stories of my predecessors. Did they emigrate from Germany? From what part? When and why? Did they have a craft? What was it?

 

Well, here it is 2016 and we don’t have the promised jet packs. But we do have the internet, so I plugged the desired information into the Google search engine and learned that modern-day Shepherdstown is a charming, historic college town. It is near the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, now a National Historic Park (all 184.5 miles of it) as well as other historic sites such as Harpers Ferry and Antietam. IMG_3501 Shepherd University is there, and has been there since 1871 when it was established as part of the state normal school system. The more I read, the more I wanted to go there, and as it was within a couple hour’s drive of our other planned destinations—Annapolis and Washington D.C.—we booked a couple nights at the Thomas Shepherd Inn (a B&B within walking distance of many points of interest). IMG_3506 (1)I contacted the Shepherdstown Museum and made an appointment to visit their archive. I emailed information about what I had discovered thus far about my family in the area, including family names I was looking for. I also knew (from the website Find A Grave) that any number of Hoffmans were buried in the Reformed Graveyard in Shepherdstown, so we planned to visit the cemetery as well (cemeteries have become a common destination in our travels). I crossed my fingers and hoped I might gather a few more scraps of information about the Hoffmans from the Shepherdstown archive.

 

In the end our trip was wildly successful. Not only did my wife and I have a great time exploring, we learned some fascinating history about the area, and the documentation I found on my family was far better than I could have imagined—a real genealogical coup! Even in this age of the internet, it turns out there’s nothing as good as going right to the source.