Settling Berne's History

From Helderberg Hilltowns of Albany County, NY

Settling Berne's history

By Harold Miller

"Our Heritage," the history of Berne produced by the Town of Berne Bicentennial Commission in 1977, begins: "As nearly as can be determined, it was 1750 when Jacob Weidman led a small band of settlers along an old Indian trail through the Helderbergs. Weidman, Ball, Bassler, Deitz, Hochstrasser, Knieskern, and Zeh — where or how did they meet? Probably we shall never know."

This story of the settlement of Berne was basically taken from "The History of Albany County, NY," written by Howell and Tenny in 1886. One difference between the two versions is that Howell and Tenny also listed a Shultes family as traveling with these earliest arrivals. "Our Heritage" left the family off the list because they knew that Mathias Shultes, the patriarch of the family, was only 10 years old at the time. Interestingly enough, as explained below, he is the only one on the Howell and Tenny list that actually arrived with Jacob Weidman!

A careful study of the genealogy of these early Berne families reveals that these early settlers arrived individually over a period of more than two decades. The purpose of this article is to cite one or two records for each family, which led to this conclusion, and to provide more precise information, if possible, about when each of these families actually arrived in what is now Berne.

In 1710, the British brought hundreds of Palatine refugees from Germany to settle their New World colonies. They were initially confined to work camps along the Hudson River, and made to produce pitch pine tar to make watertight the ships of the British navy.

When this project failed in 1712, many of these families moved to the Schoharie Valley, where they were welcomed by the local Mohawks. Among these first European settlers in Schoharie were the Knieskerns and Zehs, some of whose children or grandchildren later moved a few miles east to Berne; so these two families were already in the general area long before Jacob Weidman arrived in 1750.

William Barker, in his "Early Families of Schoharie," says that Jacob Weidman was undoubtedly the Hans Jacob Weidman, born in Switzerland Oct.22, 1720, son of Felix, who was unmarried when he emigrated from Bachs, Switzerland to America circa 1738 to 1743. Jacob's marriage record to Elisabetha (Dietz) Shultes was recorded in 1743 in Greene County.

Their first three children were born before 1750 in the Catskill area, whereas the baptism of their fourth child was recorded in Schoharie in 1751. With them, when they moved to Berne, was Jacob's 10-year-old stepson, Mathias Shultes. A deed drawn up and signed by Jacob Weidman refers to Mathias as the son of his wife, Elisabetha. Jacob Weidman built a milldam above the falls on Fox Creek in what is now the hamlet of Berne. This powered a sawmill he constructed below the falls. His son Peter added a gristmill.

A 1787 Van Rensselaer survey map shows the house in which he and the family of his son, Peter, lived as being on the bank of the mill pond. The house built by Jacob Weidman Jr. on Tabor Road is still lived in by his descendants.

Weidman may have moved from Greene County to be nearer his wife's family. As evidenced by numerous marriage and baptism records in the Schoharie churches, some of her brothers and sisters had moved to the area from the Catskill region as early as 1740.

I believe that the Dietz brothers initially settled on land on the east side of a small knoll half-way between the present hamlets of Berne and West Berne, where the Van Rensselaer survey map shows Johan Jost Deitz living in 1787. On the west side was a large beaver pond formed by a dam on Fox Creek. Its prominence caused the area to be called "the Beaverdam." About 1865, a small log church was built on the knoll. This was "The Reformed Protestant Dutch [German] Church of the Beaverdam." Today it is the site of the Berne and Beaverdam Cemetery.

A study of baptism, marriage records, and the 1787 map leads me to conclude that, between Weidman's mills and the Dietzes, lived Peter Ball. Peter was 11 years old in 1710 when he and his parents immigrated with the other Palatine refugees brought by the British. His father died of disease on the sea journey. Young Peter and his widowed mother are not listed in the 1716 census of the early settlers of Schoharie. Because of the intermarriages between the Ball and Dietz families, and the baptisms sponsors of their children, it suggests that by 1740 Ball had settled on the flats below Berne next to the Dietz family.

Two of his children married his Dietz neighbors. Peter's son, Johannes, born 1724 in Princetown, Schenectady County, married Maria Dietz in 1747, showing conclusively he was in the area before Weidman arrived in 1750. Since there was no church in the Beaverdam, the marriage Was recorded in Schoharie. Although, based on my research, I have concluded that the Ball and Dietz (Deitz) families were living in the Berne area by 1740, undoubtedly no records will ever be produced to prove this, or to show where they actually built their homesteads. In this short article it is impossible to present all of documentation to support my conclusions.

That will have to await the publication of a detailed presentation, and lengthy interpretation, of the supporting baptismal and marriage records.

Frederick Bassler immigrated from Basil, Switzerland in 1749 and settled first in Philadelphia. There, he took as his second wife the widow Margaret Leip, who had two sons by her first husband. Since the 1753 birth of Frederick Bassler Jr. was recorded in Philadelphia, the Bassler family could not have arrived at the Beaverdam with the Weidman family in 1750. In 1758, the Frederick Bassler family settled in what is now the Town of Knox. With them were her two sons, John and George Leip (Leib), who later settled on an adjoining farm.

Jacob Hochstrasser was born in Germany about 1730. When, in 1775, one of his daughters married a son of Jacob Weidman, the family was likely living just east of the Weidman's lands, between what are now the hamlets of Berne and East Berne. Still, the only Hochstrassers shown on the 1787 Van Rensselaer survey map are Jacob's sons Paul and Balthazar, living near what is now East Township, in the Town of Knox. Balthazar's 1786 Schenectady marriage record to Catherine Achenbach, says he was born in Germany. Since he was born in 1764, his father could not have come to Berne with Jacob Weidman in 1750.

Balthazar's brother Paul was baptized in 1765 in the Reformed Church in Albany. Other baptism records show they lived in Albany and Guilderland for several years before moving to Berne.

The first known map to show the location of the Beaverdam community is dated 1757. Thompson's Lake is to the east of the settlement. All of the houses in Beaverdam are located between Jacob Weidman's house on his mill pond and where is now the hamlet of West Berne.

Houses are also shown in Schoharie and below the Helderberg escarpment. The lack of houses elsewhere on the Helderberg plateau confirms that the first settlers in Berne homesteaded the desirable flatlands below the present hamlet, rather than along the top of the escarpment.

For the first 50 or more years, the community was called the Beaverdam. When the town was organized in 1795 it was named Bern; there are no earlier records with this name.

Assuming Jacob Weidman was still alive at the time, at age 75, he would have been one of the oldest and most prominent citizens. He may well have suggested naming the new town after the capital of his homeland, Switzerland.

In summary, the story of Jacob Weidman leading a small group of weary settlers to Berne is apocryphal. We will never know which family was the earliest arrival. It well could have been one of the other early Berne settlers, such as Johannes Fischer, Anthony Engle, or Nicholas Ecker, all of whom also squatted on land owned by the Van Rensselaer family on the flats between Berne and West Berne.

Euretha W. Stapleton, the historian for the Town of Berne at the time of the publication of "Our Heritage,' wrote in the foreword: "The editors and authors of this volume recognize that a history such as this is never complete or perfectly accurate. It is our hope that, in time, other sources and documents will be discovered and the material added to our archives so that future generations will benefit."

Now that additional information is known about when various early settlers arrived, the teaching of the history of Berne in the public school should be revised to reflect this.

For the genealogy of the early settlers of Berne, Knox, and other Hilltown families, see the Berne Families Genealogy posted on the Berne History Project web site at

Altamont Enterprise - Thursday, November 13, 2003