The Esther Stauffer Clemens Story

Esther Stauffer Clemens was not an ancestor of mine, but her brother was, as well as her parents and grandparents. Her story has fascinated me since I first became acquainted with her in the Stauffer booklet in the 1980s. I couldn't forget the simple phrases there: "They had a family of eighteen children. Eleven reached maturity." Eighteen children? And Esther at age 46 died the year after the eighteenth one was born. I have chosen to include her story with those of our more direct family members not just because it is intriguing but because Esther's life happened to her whole extended family and many of the events happened to other families as well..

The way my mind works, I wondered and wondered about those other seven children. When did they die? Where did they fit in order with the eleven who survived? Did they all die in infancy as the five babies of my grandmother Delilah Porter did? I didn't expect to find answers to those questions, but I never imagined what the Internet would do for us. What follows is culled from information in the Stauffer booklet, on RootsWeb, and some from the Ezra Eby materials now available on the Web.

Esther was not yet twelve when her mother died leaving three brothers approaching adulthood, two sisters and a brother in adolescence, and a younger brother. In addition, when the mother Elizabeth died, the family was left with a surviving newborn twin, undoubtedly fairly small and fragile at first. There is little doubt that the three young sisters were thrust into adult responsibilities caring for the family and all that that entails. [See "Portrait of Elizabeth."]

Three years later, after a good bit of research and planning, Esther's father decided to join the many Pennsylvania Mennonite families who were migrating to Canada. Esther did not turn fifteen until the end of that year. How much schooling she might have had is anyone's guess. It is likely that she had had some education since the town of Lititz, where we believe she and her siblings were born, had established schools early in its history. There is no doubt that she was heavily involved in the preparations for the move. In the midst of it all, she faced losing one of her two sisters. Though records do not all agree, we believe it was her sister Elizabeth, a twin to her brother Abraham and two years older than Esther, who did not make the trip to Canada. We imagine she was already married and perhaps pregnant.

Three years before Esther's family moved to Canada, a young man from Chester county, to the east of Lancaster County, had already had the move. George Clemens seems to have been a take-charge, adventurous young man. When he heard about folks in the next county planning the move to Canada, he went straight to his father and described what he had heard. His father encouraged him to explore the idea. Though his father suggested George make a trip to check it out first, when George got there, he liked it so much he claimed land and settled down. 

We have some special stories about George Clemens that must have been handed down through his children and other descendants. One account reads as follows: "In course of time he found the words in Genesis 2:18 to be true; he therefore amended or improved his condition in life by taking a wife." The wife he chose was fifteen-year-old Esther Stauffer. George was 27. Because their first child was born in August 1806, they must have married not long after the Stauffer family arrived. I wonder what it was about Esther that attracted his attention? And I wonder how her father Abraham felt about seeing his young daughter thrust so soon into life with someone she could not have known very well at all.

As was typical among the Mennonite families, having babies began early. Baby Elizabeth was born the following summer, son Levi in April 1808, sister Mary in May 1809, Harriet in June 1811, and baby brother George in September 1812. It is interesting to note that not only Esther but her four brothers named their first daughter Elizabeth, undoubtedly in honor of their mother. Father George must have been happy to see his family taking shape so nicely. I imagine he couldn't wait for his boys to be old enough to help him farm the 200 acres he had bought from Abraham Gingerich when he arrived ten years earlier. Esther must have felt blessed because her older sister Susannah, though she had married, had not had a single baby come to brighten her home.

But when the next year--1813--was over, I'm sure that George and Esther Clemens wished they had never heard of it. In those days before vaccines were even dreamed of and medicines were scarce and of little help against horrendous diseases such as cholera, epidemics were cruel and indiscriminate. In April five-year-old Levi sickened and died. And then in a nightmare week in July, despite all they might have done, 7-year-old Elizabeth died one day, toddler Harriet the next day, and Mary three days later. They buried Harriet and Elizabeth in the same grave.

Pictures obtained here

Lemerick Cemetery

George Carlisle Clemens
Esther Gross by Esther Clemen's headstone, 
Limerick Cemetery south of Waterloo, June 2006
Daniel Stauffer Clemens
 Elizabeth and Harriet Stauffer Clemens
Levi Stauffer Clemens
Lewis Stauffer Clemens
Unknown Clemens
William Stauffer Clemens

It is almost impossible to imagine the family's grief. You can visit the graves of those four children, along with those of the three brothers who died later and parents George and Esther, in a neat and quaint cemetery called Limerick (or Lemerick).  The headstone listed as "Unknown" must be Mary's). At that time, Esther's brother Samuel had four children, though our ancestor, son Abraham, would not be born until the following year. Her other three brothers were not yet married. Her father Abraham was 65 (one record says he died in 1809, but others say much later, and his will is said to have been written in 1823). It is easy to imagine that the whole family grieved such a terrible loss. 

Though Baby George was a year old, Esther was apparently not pregnant, and she did not give birth again for two more years. Then seven more babies joined the family in quick succession: Isaac (1815), Mary Ann (1816), Wilhelmine (1817), Stauffer (1819), Maria (1820), Nancy (1821) and John (1822). Little George was just turning ten that year. Their mother Esther was 32 and had already given birth a dozen times. 

Then Esther apparently had a break. Her next two children were each born three years apart--William in 1825 and Daniel in 1828. William, however, died when Daniel was seven months old, and Daniel lived only four years. Esther turned forty in December 1830, and her last four children were born in 1830, 1831, 1833, and 1835. Three of those--Oliver, Rachel, and Amos--lived to see the 1900s, but Baby Lewis, #17, lived only three months. 

In the summer of 1836, when Amos was 19 months old, Esther died. She was 45. We know nothing of the circumstances of her death. For all the stories that have survived about George, none have survived about Esther. We assume she just wore out from so many births, but disease could have contributed as well. She already had several grandchildren, one born just three weeks before she died.  George would remarry, but not for four years, and then he married a 48-year-old widow. He would live to be 86. Nine of his surviving children were still alive then.

Who cared for Esther's three littlest ones, under six, during the four years before George remarried? Daughters Mary Ann and Wilhelmine were already married with little ones of their own, but Maria and Nancy were sixteen and fifteen. There's a good chance the care of the family fell to them as we imagine it had fallen to Esther and her teenage sisters when their mother died back in Pennsylvania 34 years before--in that case leaving a newborn. In fact, if you check the data, you'll find that Maria and Nancy did not marry until the year their father remarried.

Though Esther Stauffer Clemens is not our direct ancestor, her story illustrates a number of things that were common for families in their day and that happened in other branches of our ancestors--namely, many children (though not usually that many), deaths of multiple children, mothers dying before all their children were grown, young daughters holding the family together after mothers were gone, and grief over loss--of either children or parents (usually mothers).

These are things we can deduce from data, and to a degree the people come alive for us through such deductions. Other things cannot be ascertained from numbers--how they felt about their lives and their families, what they treasured most, what they feared the most, which struggles made them strong and which ones wore them down. Don't you wish these people had kept diaries or journals? But I have an idea they were too busy just keeping life afloat. I am pretty sure that they would be amazed to know that descendants this far down the line ever thought about them and even cared.

[Footnote: the Clemens family and descendants are well documented on the Internet.]