Three Oral Traditions About the First Zumbrun in America

The nature of family oral traditions is that they’re a little bit unreliable. Like an inter-generational game of telephone, details get invented, or are misremembered. Sometimes grandma and grandpa invent stories out of nothing to entertain children, that then get passed along as gospel. The story your friend tells you about how he’s 1/32nd Cherokee? It’s probably false.

Zumbruns don’t seem to believe they’re Cherokee Princes, but I’m aware of three oral traditions about the family in the 1700s. What follows are the legends I’ve found, and an analysis of their accuracy.

The Shipwrecked Boy

A genealogy of the Zumbrun family compiled by Merle Rummel includes the following story:

Many years ago a man and his wife, and a son eight years old, left Germany for America. They were shipwrecked and went down at sea except for the small boy who was rescued and brought to America and reared by a Quaker family. In some generations down there was a son named Henry. He grew to manhood and married Susan Ream. To them were born four sons and one daughter: Jacob, George, John, Henry and Elizabeth. Henry and Elizabeth were twins.

As to the authenticity of the Zumbrun name: at this point it is a guess. Was it the name of the 8 year old boy or the name of the Quaker family who reared him?

There was indeed a Henry Zumbrun married to a Susan Ream, but the rest of this story appears to be pure legend. In fact, the grandfathers of Henry Zumbrun and Susan Ream both immigrated to Philadelphia aboard the same ship! The records of the Ship Brothers, say that Heinrich Zumbrun was 36 when he arrived and Balthasar Reim was 40. The ship docked (without sinking) on September 30, 1754. Both men were certified in good health upon landing in Philadelphia.

Both Balthasar and Heinrich soon began attending the Zion Moselem Lutheran Church. Although women weren’t in ship records, Heinrich’s wife Eva also made (and survived without sinking) the journey, for she appears with Heinrich in church records on both sides of the Atlantic. Balthasar and Heinrich’s friend Wolfgang Mohring also arrived aboard the same ship at the age of 23. A friend of Wolfgang’s later married Heinrich’s son, Johann. These were close knit families for several generations with extensive proof showing they didn’t drown.

No birth record has been found for Johann so it’s theoretically possible that he was adopted. But the rest of the story is all-but-impossible. Shipwrecks were news making events and there’s no evidence of a shipwreck in this time frame. (There were apparently only four or five immigrant shipwrecks in the entire 1700s.)

Heinrich, Eva, Balthasar and Wolfgang quickly settled in Berks County, about 75 miles inland from Philadelphia, so it’s unclear how they’d end up adopting a shipwreck survivor. Finally, they were all Lutherans, both before and after arriving in America. Johann was Lutheran too, baptizing all his children at, and serving as a deacon for, the (German-speaking) Trinity Evangelical Lutheran church.

If Johann was adopted, it wasn’t after a shipwreck, nor was he adopted by Quakers. Like the distant Cherokee ancestors, this was probably simply a bedtime story told to amuse children, by someone who didn’t know any (actually quite interesting!) stories about the Zumbrun immigration.

The Zumbruns were both Germans and Swiss?

Some families seem to have been told the Zumbruns were German and some Swiss and some both. There may be a good explanation for this seeming contradiction.

Most genealogists have said Heinrich Zumbrun was born in Switzerland in 1718 and that his son Johann was as well, with a birth date typically given for Johann in the 1750s. I believe this is an oral tradition, because I’ve not yet found any records supporting Switzerland as their place of birth. Church records show Heinrich lived in Schwegenheim (part of modern Germany) before immigrating.

While the Zumbruns who immigrated to the U.S. certainly spoke German, the modern country of Germany did not exist at the time. The English called all German-speaking immigrants of the time Germans (or Palatines), even though many were Swiss, some lived under the French, some under the Austrians or Prussians and so forth. The name Zumbrun is certainly of Swiss origin, shortened at some point from Zumbrunnen. In fact, sources exist revealing interesting stories about the very beginning of the Zumbrunnen family in 1209, and stories about the first man named Heinrich Zumbrunnen.

The family of Heinrich’s wife Eva Lehr lived in regions that are part of modern Germany. It would certainly be right to call her a German. But before his marriage in 1749 to Eva, no Zumbruns had yet appeared in the German church records of Schwegenheim. It seems Heinrich only lived in Schwegenheim for a few years. Heinrich likely descends from the Zumbrunnen family of Uri (a Johann Heinrich Zumbrunnen born in Altdorf in 1668 is a strong candidate to be his grandfather).

Thus Heinrich spoke German, married a woman whose family lived for generations in land that is now Germany, and was a “Palatine German” immigrant. But either Heinrich or his very recent ancestors were likely born in Switzerland. (For Johann to have been born in Switzerland too, he would have had a different mother than Eva Lehr, and to have been born before 1749. It’s possible Heinrich was a widower when they married; Eva certainly was a widow). With this backstory it’s not surprising oral history would survive that they’re both Swiss and German.

The Hessian Mercenary

An oral tradition in some lines of the family was that Heinrich’s son Johann Zumbrun came to America as a Hessian mercenary. The Hessians were a mercenary force, hired by King George III, to fight against the Americans and for the British. This oral legend is mentioned in the Zumbrun genealogy compiled by Art Reierson:

David’s father Johounn, during the American Revolution and as passed down in family folklore, was a German Hessian Mercenary.

Note, first of all, that this oral legend completely contradicts the first one. There’s no way that Johann Zumbrun was both an 8-year-old shipwrecked orphan raised by Quakers and a Hessian mercenary. (the Quakers were pacifists!) In fact, I believe both these oral traditions are wrong.

About 75% of Hessian Mercenaries were recruited from a region of Germany (Hesse-Kassel) where Zumbruns are not known to have lived. Researchers believe only about 3,500 Hessian mercenaries ended up staying in the United States, and have identified over 3,000 of them. Johann is not among them.

As mentioned above, Heinrich Zumbrun immigrated in 1754 with friends like Wolfgang Mohring and Balthasar Reimer. Johann married a friend of Wolfgang’s and at least two of Johann’s children married two of Balthasar’s granddaughters. Hessian mercenaries were not recruited from German-speakers already living in America. (Any sort of post-War adult adoption story seems far-fetched.) The story that Johann was a Hessian mercenary appears to be completely wrong.

That said, I speculate that this particular oral tradition contains a kernel of truth. Members of the Swiss Zumbrunnen family really did serve as mercenaries in the 1600s and perhaps into the 1700s (though not for the British). Thus my speculation is that Heinrich Zumbrun could have told his children their ancestors had been mercenaries in Europe, and at some point this was mistakenly conflated with the Hessian mercenaries of the Revolutionary War (possibly because the Hessians may have been the only European mercenaries that his grandchildren knew about).

Some Questions for Further Research

  • Is there any evidence of early Zumbrun ties to the Quakers?
  • If Johann had been adopted, would there be records?
  • Does anyone know of any other oral traditions about the family in Europe or their earliest years in America?


  1. […] I’ve never seen an original source of the claim, aside from the oral tradition. It’s possible that Heinrich could have been born in Germany, and that his parents or even […]

  2. […] brought his regiment back to Switzerland. (Some Zumbruns in America have had an oral tradition that their ancestors were Hessian Mercenaries. Although not Hessian, the regiment referred to here is indeed a mercenary regiment that Johann […]

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