Friday, January 25, 2013

Maria Magdalena and An Emerging Theory

Maria Magdalena Summers (Sommer) is our 5th great-grandmother, and was the wife of Ernst Menge (aka Earnest Man). Over the past couple years, we've been able to piece together that Ernst came from Sodel, Hesse, Germany, arriving in Philadelphia in 1754 aboard the ship Edinburgh. We know that Ernst married first a widow named Catharina Klockner, and shortly after she died in 1766, Ernst married Maria Magdalena Summers. She would later be referred to in both her father's and her husband's will by her Americanized name, Mary.

But we have never known much of anything about Maria Magdalena (MM). We have no records indicating either when/where she was born or when/where she died. We have solely a marriage record in Philadelphia in 1766, and four subsequent baptismal records for 4 of her 8 known children with Ernst. In addition to her own children, she was also step-mother to a daughter from Ernst's previous marriage, as well as several young children from the first wife's previous marriage to Johann Georg Ernst. It's fair to say MM had her hands full.

Now that we think we're zooming in on the Sommer origins as Freistett, Baden, Germany, we've been using old church records from the village to piece together the story. We think we have established that her father, Johann Georg Sommer, married Anna Barbara Ruben in 1745. We have found baptismal records for three children born to them in Freistett, one of which was Maria Magdalena, born 11 Feb 1749. Great! So now we know when MM was born.

But wait.  If MM was born in 1749, she was 17 years old when she married Ernst Menge, who was, according to our best guess, exactly twice that age, 34, at the time of his second marriage. There are plenty of examples of older men marrying younger women, especially during that era.  But still, it seems rather young to me. 

Then I noticed there was another Maria Magdalena Sommer born in Freistett.  She was born 21 Aug 1740, the daughter of Georg's older brother Matthias. So here's that story. Matthias' wife, also named Maria Magdalena, died in 1741, a year after her daughter was born. It's not entirely clear whether or not Matthias remarried. But the idea suddenly comes to me that maybe the girl was adopted by Matthias' brother Georg and his new wife Anna Barbara. Well, maybe!

So now let's try this on for size. If MM was born in 1740, then she was 26 years old when she married. Let's add to that some new evidence we have found in Philadelphia church records. One record in 1762 says that MM was 21 years old and had been in the country for 11 years. The second record in 1763 lists her association with somebody named Mr. Hooks.

What might I conclude from these records? Well, the 1762 record confirms an arrival around 1752, which is when Georg Sommer arrived in PHL. And an age of 21 in 1762, means a birth year of about 1741, a date that is closer to 1740 than 1749! As for the 1763 record, I suspect that MM was a servant, and quite possibly a Redemptioner, meaning that she had to work to pay for her passage to America. Perhaps that obligation kept her from marrying until she was in her mid-twenties.

And what does all this mean for our family story?  For one thing, it could mean that MM was not the daughter of Georg Sommer, but his niece. Certainly he referred to her as a daughter in his will, but I don't think he would refer to her any other way if he adopted her from his brother at an early age.  Our family story would have to be rewritten slightly to say we are descended from Matthias Sommer rather than Johann Georg Sommer. And yet, does changing the family tree change the fact that Maria Magdalena Sommer came to America with Georg and Anna Barbara, and they were her only family?  No, it does not.

We certainly have a long way to go to prove any of this theory, if indeed it can ever be proved at all.  But it's once again amazing to me how our family stories continue to evolve the more we just keep being curious.


  1. We have gone through the Soedel death records from 1740-1755 and not found one for any Maria Magdalena Sommer. To support the theory presented in the above post, the hope was that we would find a death record for the MM born in 1749 to Georg and Anna Barbara, thus supporting the idea they adopted the daughter of Georg's brother Matthias. But no. In addition, it appears that Matthias might have remarried shortly after his first wife died. So either this theory doesn't hold water, or the supporting documentation either doesn't exist or is still waiting to be found.

  2. Regarding above comment, it should say FREISTETT records, not Soedel. The Sommer family was from Freistett, and the Menge/Mann family was from Soedel.

  3. We are in the midst of realizing that the oldest Freistett brother, Matthias, probably also came to America, probably slightly before the other three brothers came in 1752. And it looks like Matthias brought the children born to him in Freistett, which seem to have included his daughter MM. So I believe this means there were two young women named Maria Magdalena Sommer who were first cousins and navigating their new life in PHL.