Abraham Boehm, Mennonite Loyalist

Martin Boehm

Martin Boehm, Abraham’s younger brother, whose search for assurance of salvation led him to leave the Mennonites and help found the United Brethren in Christ.

We referred to Abraham Boehm/Beam in an earlier blog, but this week I’d like to provide a fuller sketch of the man.

Abraham Boehm was born around 1720 as part of a large Mennonite family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He was one of four sons and seven daughters of Jacob and Barbara Böhm. Abraham’s youngest brother, Martin, became well known as a Mennonite bishop, and later as one of the founders of the United Brethren in Christ Church (part of the United Methodist Church in the U.S., but still a separate denomination in Canada.)

Abraham was a farmer, first and foremost, and did not have the benefit of much education, except what he received within the home. On numerous legal documents he signed his name with an “X.”

He was apparently married twice. His first wife’s name is not known; his second wife, whom he married about 1763, was Barbara, the widow of Jacob Nissley.

For a time he farmed on 100 acres purchased from his father. In 1766 Abraham sold this land to his brother, Martin, and purchased another farm in Bart Township, Lancaster County, from his brother John, who had moved to Virginia.

By all accounts things were prosperous for Abraham and Barbara until the coming of the American Revolution. Like almost all Mennonites,  Abraham would have wanted to avoid militia service for himself and his sons. Mennonites paid fines in order to avoid this service.

Generally Mennonites tried not to take sides, and to assist anyone who required assistance. In 1777 the Pennsylvania Assembly passed the Test Act that demanded everyone give allegiance to the revolutionary government by renouncing the British King. To do so would reject a pledge Mennonites made years earlier to the British crown. Thus most Mennonites declined to give this allegiance to the revolutionary government, which meant they couldn’t vote, hold office, take people who owed them money to court, or transfer property by deed, even to family members.

This made things financially difficult, and Abraham had to sell produce and cattle where he could, in order to earn sufficient money to keep things together. He sold cattle to anyone with hard currency, with little concern for their political position.

Near the end of 1780, the Boehms needed to butcher some pigs, and hired a neighbor to help out. He brought along two strangers to help. They were good workers, so Abraham kept them as hired hands for a time. He later claimed he didn’t know they were deserters from the Continental Army, and had nothing to do with their efforts to join the British down at the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

He was accused of encouraging them to flee, and a hired girl told authorities that he had sold cattle to persons with British sympathies. Abraham was jailed and fined £750, a sum far beyond what he could pay. He borrowed money from a neighbor to pay the fine, but continued to struggle financially. He had to sell half the farm in order to keep things going.

In 1788, already in his 60s, Abraham moved his family to Upper Canada where he obtained land located right on the Niagara River at the mouth of Black Creek.

In his petition for 200 acres of land, he wrote:

that your petitioner was an inhabitant of Pennsylvania before the late rebellion in the Colonies. That during that period he experienced all the sufferings generally enumerated in the catalogue of Loyalists and at one time was fined 800 lbs Pennsylvania currency. In a word everything he possessed was sacrificed to the fury of an unnatural rebellion, except his life and integrity.

Although he was never acknowledged as a Loyalist, since he had not served in the British militias, he was granted land at a good price.

Conestoga Wagon Trek historical marker

This historical marker about the Conestoga Wagon, located on the Niagara Parkway near the intersection with Netherby Road, is where Abraham Boehm settled in 1788.

Abraham died in 1799, before there was an organized Mennonite Church in Canada. But as far as we know his family remained Mennonite. Many of his descendants actually became part of the Reformed Mennonite Church in the 1830s.

Abraham was one of a handful of Mennonite “Loyalists.”

I am indebted to several good sources for information on the Abraham Boehm story, including:

R. Robert Mutrie, “Abraham Beam : From Pennsylvania to Canada,” Beam Branches, http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~boehm/data/biographies/1719_Beam_Abraham_bio.pdf.

“Miscellaneous Boehm/Beam/Beahm Family Will Transcriptions.” http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~boehm/data/Miscellaneous_Will_Transcriptions.pdf

To learn more about Mennonites and the American Revolution, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Were Early Mennonite Immigrants in Canada Loyalists?

Staats Overholt (“Staats” was his mother’s maiden name) had a difficult start in life. His father, Mark, died in 1754, leaving his widow, Elizabeth, and three young children in difficult financial circumstances. But Staats persevered and eventually married Susannah Hunsberger, with whom he had six children. Staats and Susannah lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, along with many fellow Mennonites. When the Revolutionary War came, Staats and most of his fellow Mennonites chose to pay hefty fines in order to avoid mustering with local militia units. Three years after the war ended, when their oldest son was approaching the age for militia service, Staats and Susannah chose to move to Canada, along with several other families from Bucks County. Were Staats Overholt and his fellow 1786 immigrants Loyalists? Or was Staats primarily seeking for land he could afford to buy for his six children? The motivation for Mennonite emigration from well-settled Pennsylvania farm country to a land with few buildings and covered with trees has long been debated by descendants of early Ontario Mennonite.

The Niagara Peninsula was part of Quebec under the French sphere of influence until it was taken by the British in 1759 during the French and Indian War.  When the Revolutionary War began, Fort Niagara became a gathering point for Loyalists, and it became a launching point for British military activity. The territory on the west (Canadian) side of the river was then minimally inhabited. In 1781 the Ojibwa Nation surrendered some of this land to the British; it than began to be informally settled by individual Loyalists who had been displaced by the fighting further south. In May 1784 the British obtained additional Ojibwa land (about three million acres).

Conestoga Wagon Trek historical marker

This historical marker about the Conestoga Wagon, located on the Niagara Parkway near the intersection with Netherby Road, is where Abraham Boehm lived in 1788.

Initially there were many Loyalist settlers who had served in British militias during the Revolution. After the war even more Loyalists began to settle on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, even though land surveys had not been completed. Indeed, the land survey on the Niagara Peninsula was not completed until after the first Mennonites had arrived.

Historians are not certain when the first self-identified Mennonites came to Canada. It is likely that individual Amish or Mennonite families found their way to the Maritimes before the Revolutionary War. Loyalist soldiers with Amish and Mennonite heritage also arrived in Canada by the end of the war. But the first settlers who have been clearly identified as Mennonites. such as Staats and Susannah, came to Niagara in 1786.

Were these Mennonites Loyalists? Without question some of these families had Loyalist impulses. The Pennsylvania Test Act of 1777 deprived Mennonites and Tunkers of many civil rights if they did not renounce the British Crown. These lost rights included the ability to vote, hold political office, take people to court who owed money or, initially, even transfer property by deed. The Test Act was not repealed until 1789.

A prime example of a Mennonite loyalist would have been Abraham Boehm, a Mennonite farmer in Lancaster County. In 1780 he was accused of selling cattle to the British, and later of helping deserters from the Continental Army escape to British territory. He was imprisoned and fined an amount that equaled half the value of his farm. He had to borrow money to pay the fine. In 1788 he sold what he had left, and moved to just across the Niagara River into what became Upper Canada. Even with his experience in Pennsylvania, Abraham was never formally recognized as a United Empire Loyalist, because he had never served in a British militia.

It is my belief that some Mennonites and Amish who came to Canada before 1790 can be thought of as Loyalists. But those who came later were seeking lower priced “promised lands.”

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