The Hoffman Family: 200 Years in America

Shepherdstown, West Virginia is located in the Shenandoah Valley on the banks of the Potomac River. The land rolls gently in all directions and, as our visit was in late spring, everything was incredibly green.

The town itself is small (population less than 2,000) and very charming. Most of the buildings lining the main street are two-story brick or stone with an occasional wooden structure crowded in. IMG_3504They feature lovely wood trim, with details carved or painted, and appeared very well-maintained.

Our B&B anchored one end of the commercial district, and provided us easy access to the shops and restaurants in town, not to mention the cemeteries (Lutheran across the street from Reformed) which anchored the far end of town.

 

W. German St., Shepherdstown's main drag
W. German St., Shepherdstown’s main drag. We strolled around enjoying the lovely architecture, some old stone churches, and several views of Town Run, the burbling stream that ran directly through the town.

 

We had time to do some sight-seeing of the area for one full day, timing my visit to the archive to occur on our last morning before heading off to Annapolis. In addition to exploring the town (that didn’t take long) and visiting a portion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park just across the river, we visited the Christ Reformed Church graveyards and found a number of family headstones from the early 1800s. Some were so worn and eroded that it was difficult to read the names or dates. The stones made of granite had held up better and were easier to read. I was excited to be hot on the trail of my Hoffman ancestors, but really did not know what to expect from the archive. I tried to keep my hopes in check.

 

We arrived at the museum and archive promptly the next morning and were introduced to a young man who was finishing up an internship there, having just graduated from Shepherd University. He told me he had found a document on the Hoffmans and it was housed in the university library, so we walked the few blocks from the museum to the campus together.

 

The document he had unearthed was manually-typed, about 70 pages in length, bound with a cardboard cover. On the cover was a typed label which read: The Hoffman Family. Two Hundred Years in America. By Lloyd K. Hoffman.

 

Two hundred years of Hoffman history all laid out in one document. It was more than I had ever hoped. In addition to the American history, the author provided some European history of the Hoffmans and the Newcomers—these two families came to America within a decade of each other, initially settled in Pennsylvania, and intermarried—including their previous movements and reasons for emigrating. All my questions answered! Once again I have benefitted from the research of a distant cousin. The document appears to be the original. It has never been digitized so the only place to see it was right there at Shepherd University.

 

I was allowed to scan it, which I did using the Scanner Pro app on my iPhone. I couldn’t wait to transfer it to my computer in order to read it. When I did, I found it absolutely fascinating. From pre-reformation politics in France, Italy and Germany to the Pennsylvania Dutch to the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, my ancestors had been very caught up in major historical events. Once again history began to come alive for me as I saw the bright thread of my ancestors running through it.

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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.