Michael Peter Harness and Maria Elisabetha Dieffenbach From Germany to the New World

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The Harness Family Joins the McDonald Family

The McDonald and Harness families join through several couples and one single mother. The descent is as follows:

This page is about Michael Harness (1701-1785) and Maria Elisabetha Dieffenbach (1705-1789). To learn more about the other couples in the list, click on their links.

Michael and the Palatine German Emigrants

Michael Ernst Horner (later known as Michael Harness) was born in 1 Jan 1701 in Unterowisheim in the Baden-Wuerttemberg region of Germany. In June of 1710, when he was only nine years old, Michael arrived in New York Harbor with several members of his family: his father, Joachim Ernst Kraft Horner; an older sister and brother; and probably his mother Apollonia.

Michael and his family were most likely following in the path of a group of Palatine German emigrant families from along the Rhine River south of Heidelberg. The Palatines were about 13,000 German refugees who fled to England between May and November of 1709. Their arrival in England caused a highly politicized debate over the merits of immigration; there were several unsuccessful attempts to settle them in England, Ireland, and the Colonies. Michael’s family came a year later, but they were undoubtedly a part of this same group, desperately trying to find a better life. They had travelled from their home in Germany to Rotterdam and sailed from there to London, and finally to America.

Michael has Many Name Changes

Michael was known by several surnames over the years. According to researcher John L. Tevebaugh, when Michael arrived in New York as an emigrant he was “Johann Michael Ernst Horner.” In 1733, he was sometimes known in Pennsylvania as “Michael Ernst Kraft-Horner. When his daughter was baptized in the South Branch Valley of VA in 1743, he was again “Johann Michael Ernst Horner.” He was referred to in several documents in 1725, 1727, and 1732 as simply “Michael Ernst.” He went by that name when Moravian missionaries visited him on the South Branch in 1749. He also identified himself as “Michael Ernst” in his 1779 will.

With a few exceptions, all of his children were always identified by the surname “Harness.” How did Ernst become Harness? Researcher John L. Tevebaugh believes the name transition occurred this way:

“The closest name to Ernst in English was probably Ernest. Those surnames appear often on documents with Michael’s given name after he arrived in South branch. Englishmen often drop the initial “H” from their spoken words, but include it when writing. A final ‘t’ often would not be said very distinctly and the English ear would not be expecting it combined [with] the harsh German ‘St’ sound. So the written result in the 1750’s and 1760’s moved easily away from Ernst to Earnst, to Earness, to Herness and eventually to Harness. Researcher Tevebaugh says that Michael was involved in a long war of attrition with Virginia record-keepers over his surname. Hampshire County Clerk Andrew Woodrow during the proving of Michael’s will changed the identification of it by leaving out the ‘Ernst’ written in the proof notification and inserted ‘Harness.’”

An Immigrant Camp and, all too soon, Nearly Alone

After their arrival in New York, Michael and his family lived first in an emigrant camp on Nutten Island 7 in New York Harbor. Michael’s father, Joachin Ernst Kraft Horner, died only a month or so after his arrival in America, at West Camp, a Palatine emigrants’ camp on the Hudson river in Ulster County, New York. It is likely that Michael’s mother, Apollonia, died in October of that year, also probably at West Camp.

New York Governor Robert Hunter, on November 23, 1710, apprenticed Michael’s older brother, Conrad (then age 15) to a New York City man named Enoch Freeland, leaving Michael by himself and not yet 10 years old. By the end of December, 1710, Michael appears to have joined the subsistence list of his sister, Margaretha, and her new husband, Johannes Keyser, probably at West Camp. Michael apparently remained with his sister and her husband until the end of September, 1712.

The governor of New York stopped subsistence payments to the Palatine emigrants after 1712, and the Keyser family, with Michael, left West Camp on the Hudson River and moved to Stone Arabia Patent along the Mohawk River. This is the general area of today’s Lansingburgh and Albany, New York.

The Tulpehocken Creek Settlement

Sometime between 1722 and 1725, Michael, now in his early 20’s, was among a group of Palatine emigrants who left New York state for the Tulpehocken Creek Settlement in what was then Chester County, Pennsylvania. Tulpehocken Creek (known locally as the "Tully") is a tributary of the Schuylkill River in southeastern Pennsylvania. Important for transportation, the creek drains a hill country area of Berks County south of the Appalachian Mountains and is considered a fine trout stream. The valley was inhabited by the Lenape and was a destination for early German-speaking settlers. The name comes from a Lenape word Tulpewikaki, meaning "land of turtle.”

By 1725, Michael is listed on the January 1725 tax assessment as a landowner in Tulpehocken Creek Township. His farm land was just east of a lot owned by Conrad Dieffenbach, whose daughter, Elisabetha, Michael had married in July 1723, probably at Scholarie, Scholarie, in New York state. It is believed that seven of the couple’s thirteen children were born at Tulpehocken Creek Township in Pennsylvania. The other six were born in Virginia, probably in Frederick County.

Maria Elisabetha Dieffenbach

Maria Elizabeth Dieffenbach left Germany for America with her family on May 15, 1709, a year before Michael’s family had arrived. Elizabeth was born around 8 July 1705 in Wiesloch, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany. She was one of three children. She and her mother and siblings were with her father for a few years after their arrival in America, living first in a Palatine settlement along the Scholarie River in New York, near present-day Albany. In about 1724, they made their way to the Tulpehocken Creek settlement in Pennsylvania. She and Michael are believed to have married sometime around 1723, probably at a New York Palatine settlement. They undoubtedly came from similar areas in Germany and spoke the same language: Palatine German.

Is there a better place?

Family tradition has it that, while a resident of Tulpehocken Creek Township, Michael learned of a valley along the South Branch of the Potomac River (known then as the Wappocomo) in Virginia from four men who had been sent out from Winchester, VA in 1737 to make an initial survey of the vast estate inherited by Lord Fairfax. Major William Mayo was the head of that survey expedition. He represented King George I, while the other three men represented Lord Fairfax. Their survey result provided the first useful map of the region. The favorable report of this initial survey in some way reportedly came to the attention of Michael and some of his friends.

In the spring of 1738, Michael (along with Mathias Yoakum and George Stump) set out to see for themselves whether the South Branch Valley of the Potomoc would be a suitable new home for them and their families to settle. Elizabeth would have been left at home with six children to care for.

With his family still left behind in Pennsylvania, Michael first settled on the South Fork of the river. He reportedly built a cabin there, cleared several acres of bottom land, started raising a small crop of corn and vegetables, then went back to Pennsylvania and brought his family in a wagon up Lost River, cutting a road most of the way. Packing their goods on horses, family lore has it that Michael left the wagon and with his family crossed the South Branch mountain on foot to the cabin that he had previously built. Some time later he is said to have returned and packed the wagon with the running gears taken apart on his horses, and ran the wheels over land by hand. It was said to be the first wagon on the South Branch.

Moving the Family

Later, Michael moved his family to the west side of the South Branch of the Potomoc River. He took up land running from “Mike’s Ford” (where the ridge terminates at the river) down river a distance of about five miles to “buzzard’s Ford” near present-day Fisher, West Virginia.

The town of Moorefield was nearby (and across the river from Fisher) and eventually became the county seat for Hardy County (it is the dot on the map at right). It was originally chartered in 1777 and named for Conrad Moore, who owned the land upon which the town was laid out. Moorefield is located at the confluence of the South Branch Potomac River and the South Fork South Branch Potomac River. Hardy County was created from Hampshire County in 1786 and named for Samuel Hardy, (1758-1785) who was a lawyer and statesman, and served as a delegate to the Continental Congress. When Michael and Elizabeth first arrived in this area, Hardy County would have still been Hampshire County. It changed only a few years before they died. As well, the area was known as Virginia in the 1700s, and did not change to West Virginia until the Civil War, long after both Michael and Elizabeth had died.

The Family

Michael and Maria had at least a dozen children, possibly thirteen, eight boys and four girls:

Fort Harness

Members of the Harness family built a small fort, probably around 1750 (but possibly as early as 1739), which was called Fort Harness, southeast of Moorefield, West Virginia, as a family fortification against Indian raids. Unfortunately, three of Michael and Elizabeth’s sons — Adam, Conrad, and Michael, Jr. — would all be killed by natives. At the time of Michael’s will in 1784, all of his children are mentioned except these three boys. They probably died as young men during the 1750’s.

In the summers of 1756 and 1757 during the French and Indian War, Fort Harness was ordered garrisoned by Colonel George Washington, commander of the Virginia militia, to help protect South Branch settlers from increasing Indian attacks. In May, 1756, 50 men were garrisoned at Fort Harness. Fort Harness is listed on Wickipedia as a fort.

Final Years

In 1782 Michael was taxed in Hampshire County, VA as owning 14 slaves, 39 cattle and 24 horses. He also appears in the 1782 and 1784 census of Hampshire County.

In his will (copy below) Michael left his wife two slaves, one-third of his property and one-third of “other effects and moveables” along with one third of the money. He gave a slave to his son, Peter. He bequeathed the rest of his property, slaves, farm tools and livestock to his youngest son, Jacob. Michael then divided the rest of the money equally among all of his children and two grandchidren.

The following is a copy of the will of Michael (Ernst) Harness, transcribed by John L. Tevebaugh on May 22, 2000:


In the name of God, Amen, I, Michael Ernest, of the South Branch, in the County of Hampshire, State of Virginia, being in Good health at present, and Considering the uncertenty [sic] of Humen [sic] Life and that it is Nesessary [sic] for all Persons while they have the happeness [sic] to Enjoy their Sences [sic] & Memory perfect, to Settle and Dispose of their affairs, in Such manner, as may Prevent any Dispute, or Lawsuits after their Death, amongst their Friends and Relations. Therefore to prevent the Same as Much as Possible in my own Family And Dispose of my Estate in manner Following Viz.

First, I recommend my Body after my Decise [sic] to the Earth from whence it Came to be Buried in a Decent Manner and my Soul until my Heavenly Father, and it is my Disire [sic] that all my Funeral Expence [sic] and other Lawful Debts to be paid as soon as Convinient [sic] Can be Done after my Decise [sic].

Item. I Give and Devise unto my beloved Wife Elizabeth one Third part of my Plantation, Massuage or Tenement Ordgard and all beloning to it. Induring [and during] hir [sic] life, as also Two Slaves, one Negro Man Named Manuel. & one wench Named Rachel to Labour for hir [sic]During hir [sic]life. And if Said wench Should Bear any Children, the one halfe [sic] of them to be my Wife’s own for hir and hir Heirs for Ever. And after hir Decise [sic], The above Named Manuel & Rachel and the other Halfe increase of Said Negro’s Children to be Returned unto my Son, Jacob Harness, to be his own for him and his Heirds for Ever. And I give and Devise also my beloved Wife the one Third of all my other Effects, or Moveables and also hir Thirds in the Money Left by me, to be hir own for Ever.

Item. I give Feoff [possession of land] and Devise unto my Youngest son, Jacob harness, my Plantation, Dwelling House, Baron Odgard and all utentials [sic] of Husbandry, & all the Household Furniture (my wifes part Exeppted [sic]), the Living Stock As also my Slvaves, except one for Peter, in Short he is to have Every thing Left by me on the Plantation and he is Likevice to have one Equel part of the Money Left by me, and This is for the Good Cause, and Reason, that I have Furnished and Suployed [sic]my Elder Sons with Land and other Necasaries before in Former Times, all to be his with out any Mollastation for Ever.

Item. I Give and Bequeath to my son John Harness, one Equel [sic] Part of the Money Left by me, for him and his Heirs for Ever and no more.

Item. I Give and Bequeath to my son George Harness one Equel part in the money Left by me to be for his Share for Ever and no more.

Item. I Give and Bequeath to my son Leonard Harness one part of the money Left by me to be for his Share for Ever and no more.

Item. I Give and Bequeath to my son Peter Harness one Negro Named Will, as also one Part of the money Left by me for his Share to be his own for him and his Heirs for Ever.

Item. I give and Bequeath to my Grand Son Michael Herness and his Sister Elizabeth Robinson one Equel Share of the money left by me, to be Divided amongst them for their part and no more.

Item. I give and Bequeath to my beloved Daughters Elizabeth Yoakem & Barbra Zee & Lickevice and: Dorothea Hornback & and Margaretha Trumbo Likevice. Each one of Them, to have one Equel Part, or share in the money Left by me, to be Equelly Divided amongst all my Children, above here Mentioned.

And Lastly I do here by Nominate and Oppoint [sic] my son John Harness, and my sonenLaw [sic] Samuel Hornbeck Whole and Sole Executors of this my Last Will and Testament.

And I Do Here by Revoke and Mak [sic] Void all former Wills, Declaring this to be my Last Will & Testament and no other. In Wittness [sic] where of I have here unto Set my hand Sign and Seal This Day one Thousand Seven hundert [sic] and Seventy Nine.

Signed Seled, and Pupplishet [sic] by the Testator in presence his of us Michael Me Ernest Anthony Baker (mark), Joseph Petty, Jacob Yoakum.

At a court held for Hampshire County this 8th Day of March, 1785, This last Will & Testament of Michael Ernest [Ernest crossed out] Harness dec’ed [sic] was presented in Court by John Harness one of the Executors therein named and proved by the Oaths of Joseph Petty & Jacob Yoakam Witnesses thereto and Ordered to be recorded, and on the Motion of the Said Executor who made Oath according to Law, Certificate is granted him for obtaining a Probate thereof [in due] Form giving Security. Whereupon he together with Jacob Yoakam & Daniel Teverbaugh his Securities entered into and acknowledged Bond in the penalty of Five Thousand Pounds for his due and faithful Administration of the said Decedant’s Estate & Performance of his Will.

Test. And Wodrow Co. Cur [Clerk]

According to family tradition, Michael and several members of his family were buried at a family graveyard located on a hill in back of their log cabin (which he called Hawthorne), but no trace of that cemetery has ever been found. Hawthorne was located just over a mile from Fort Harness. Hawthorne was torn down in the 1970’s as a result of severe termite damage. A white block house now stands at Hawthorne’s former location.

Maria Elisabetha, the Widow

A “Widow Harness” is listed in the 1785 tax list of Hampshire County (a year after Michael’s will was proved) as possessing two slaves, four horses, and nineteen head of cattle. Michael, therefore, is most likely to have died in 1784 or 1785. He would have been 84 years old, and come a long way from his poor beginnings and becoming an orphan at the age of ten. Except for the deaths of his three sons, he must have felt he was a rich man and left a lasting legacy for his wife and remaining nine children.

In 1786, “Widow Harness” was taxed as owning 83 acres of land in what had now become Hardy, Bedford County, West Virginia. That tax listing continued under the name of “Elizabeth Harness” through 1796. It is presumed, therefore, that she died in 1796. She would have been at least 91 years old.

[This page researched and written by Susan Overturf Ingraham, a descendant of the Michael Peter Harness and Elizabeth Dieffenbach. Last Updated June 23, 2019.]

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  2. More information about Michael and Elisabetha's lives is on this page. 

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