Feature Story June, 2007


A Davis Family Adventure
Submitted by:
Sharon Sprouse Bramhall
Davis descendant

       When a commercial photographer in New Jersey discovered his wife's Davis roots, he began to plan the ultimate journey every genealogist wishes to make sometime within his lifetime: Richard and Helen Brandstetter would retrace the footsteps of the 1789 Davis family migration from New Jersey to West Virginia.

       This massive pilgrimage of 1789 involved over forty families 1 - the entire body of the Shrewsbury Seventh Day Baptist Church in Monmouth County, New Jersey.

       A native of Colorado with West Virginia ties, Helen's church and family connections to Monmouth County "only came to light" when she and her husband, Richard, born in Newark, New Jersey, moved to Shrewsbury, New Jersey. 2

       Once the discovery was made, Richard, the history hound in the family, grabbed the gauntlet and was off and running. His next year was spent in intense research. As Richard questioned local residents of Monmouth 3 County about the historic Seventh Day Baptist settlements made by the extended Davis family, he was astonished to learn that most were oblivious to the events that had occurred on their home turf during the colonial era.

       With the benefit of computer technology and "unbelievable luck", Richard was turning over rocks at lightning speed, as he resourced works of past genealogists and historians. When the smoke cleared, he had not only pieced together a substantial family history that covered several branches of his wife's family tree, but had tracked down and photocopied original documents archived in that area. Now comes the fun part.

       Armed with copies of the church record book pages (just as the 1789 pioneers carried the original book) - Richard and Helen Brandstetter began their sojourn in August of 1998, at Mile Marker 98 on the Garden State Parkway - the exact spot where the Shrewsbury Seventh Day Baptist Church once sat in Monmouth County, New Jersey.  Richard felt that the wagons must have followed what is now U.S. Route 30 - because "at the time almost all western travel came through Bedford on the Forbes Road. It was the only road from the east of the colonies to the west north of the Cumberland Gap (southern Virginia)" 4, so that is the route they took across Pennsylvania. 5

       It must have been only natural for the Brandstetters to imagine what the pioneers were feeling and thinking at that moment of departure some two hundred years before. The 1789 group undoubtedly experienced a bittersweet excitement as their mile long line of horses, oxen, and wagons filed past familiar sites for the last time. Gifts of food were likely presented by neighbors and remaining families as they passed. Hands, no doubt, were lifted in the air, waving to distant figures until they were no longer visible. Covered wagons were packed to the brink, creaking with their most prized possessions. Yet, of all the things they owned, the pioneers must have been painfully aware that they were leaving behind a most precious thing - their roots.


<1>   According to Isaac F. Randolph, grandson of Greenbrier Billy Davis. (per Susie Davis Nicholson)

<2>   Helen Brandstetter's paternal line weaves its way from the MOSS family back to the SEE line (aka Cea/Sea) - whose family was said to have been victims in the 1778 Indian massacre at Muddy Creek, West Virginia; this, according to her husband, Richard.

<3>   Monmouth is also the name of a county in Wales (UK).

<4>   Richard Brandstetter email to Sharon Bramhall, 1999

<5>   U.S. Route 30 "the most famous of all Pennsylvania highways" is now a four-lane freeway.

One can only speculate why such a large group would leave the lush farmlands and beautiful Atlantic coastal waters of east New Jersey. Perhaps it was because Monmouth County, like no other place, had suffered more than its share of battles and had shed more than its share of blood. Their homes and shipyards had been robbed, burned, and livelihoods, destroyed.

        As with all wars, there may have been ill will between relatives and neighbors due to political allegiances. No family had gone untouched by the long Revolutionary War. Perhaps, the group looked to distant lands beyond the mountains as a place where memories of war and horror would be far, far away. The virgin forests of western Virginia provided the opportunity to carve out a new life, to heal the soul, and a chance to restore lost wealth through farming and land speculation. However, if the primary purpose of their pilgrimage was to seek peace, their chosen destination was no haven. Ongoing Indian massacres made western Virginia a most forbidding land.

       Religious reasons may have been a strong motivating factor for leaving New Jersey. To a devout and educated group such as they, the western wildernesses would have represented a frontier where Seventh Day Baptist churches needed to be planted.

       But Richard had his own theory as to why the entire church pulled up stakes and moved. Within New Jersey records, he discovered that the Seventh Day Baptists had petitioned the state in 1785-1786 to permit Sabbatarians to work on Sunday - the first work day of the week for them. Because a Blue Law of sorts was in place requiring all citizens to observe Sunday as the Sabbath, this meant Sabbatarians were forced to refrain from working TWO days, instead of one. Apparently, the Blue Law took precedent; their petition was denied. Three years later, they left New Jersey.

       Richard Brandstetter's theory makes sense. The timing is right. The Shewsbury Seventh Day Baptist Church congregation was determined to establish a society where they could live and work freely, according to their Sabbatarian beliefs - even if it meant settling in a hostile wilderness.

       One of the first stops the Brandstetters made on their trek from New Jersey to West Virginia was just outside of Bedford, Pennsylvania where they "found tantalizing tidbits". Evidence of passage came in the form of place names, such as "Babcock Ridge" and "Babcock Lost Brook". Because Thomas Babcock, Helen's maternal ancestor, was among the 1789 Davis family pioneers, they were particularly curious as to the name origin of these places. Upon inquiry, the locals merely responded that they had just "always been known by those names." 6   Their finds emphasized the fact that not all of the Shrewsbury sojourners continued on to West Virginia - many chose to settle along the way. It left the Brandstetters wondering if this was one of those places.

       Richard & Helen continued on to the sites of the Salemville (Bedford Co.) and Woodbridgetown (then Washington, now Fayette County) Seventh Day Baptist churches in Pennsylvania. 7 These churches had been founded through the joint efforts of Piscataway, New Jersey church members 8 and Pennsylvania residents, with the assistance from the Shrewsbury pioneer Elder Jacob Davis and Elder Woodbridge of Pennsylvania. 9

<6>  Richard Brandstetter letter to Sharon Bramhall, 1999.

<7> This area in Fayette County PA was also home to many German Baptist Brethren (Dunkards).

<8> Samuel Fitz Randolph, originally from Piscataway, NJ (north of Shrewsbury) was among them.. There is a town "Woodbridge" NE of Piscataway; Piscataway is home to Rudgers University, all considered part of greater New York City. An "Elder Woodbridge" was also a founder of the Woodbridgetown church (Corliss Randolph's "History of Seventh Day Baptists..".

<9>  Rev. Jacob Davis died revisiting Woodbridgetown, PA in 1793, and was buried there. He was the first pastor at New Salem, WV.

Woodbridgetown, Pennsylvania was just across the border from the first settlement of the Shrewsbury pioneers - White Day Creek (between Morgantown & Fairmont, WV) where the pioneers may have lived for almost two years with likely support from the Pennsylvania group. Responding to complaints about the land they had purchased, Samuel Fitz Randolph of Woodbridgetown, one of their own denomination who had migrated earlier from New Jersey, and who had accumulated a great deal of wilderness land - offered the pioneers a deed for "400 acres on the headwaters of the Monongahela River". It was an area ripe with Indian attacks, but theirs, "if they dared to take a chance"10. They took him up on his offer.

       As historian Dorothy Davis stated, "The chance the would-be settlers took was greater than their innocence let them know. No one before the Battle of Fallen Timbers in Ohio in 1795 would try to live beyond the West Fork River of the Monongahela River System." 11 But, the risk they took led to the founding of Salem, West Virginia, and the planting of many Seventh Day Baptist churches throughout West Virginia.

       In the Spring of 1792, when the Davis wagons, at long last, arrived in their new settlement which they named New Salem, they immediately built a blockhouse (fort) as protection against Indian attacks. But according to historian Dorothy Davis, it was not the fort that spared them - it was their manner of dress! Although the Indians killed as many buckskin clad "Long Knives" (Virginians) as they could, the New Salem settlers were left untouched because they recognized their clothing as those worn by people of New Jersey and Pennsylvania,12 likely relating them to men of peace.

       Why did the pioneers name their settlement "New Salem"? Why not "New Shrewsbury" 13? One namesake possibility is Salem, Massachusetts, where many of the group's common ancestors first settled after coming to America. Going even further back, the name "Salem" may have been carried forward from a village north of Swansea, Wales - the vicinity from which the immigrant ancestor, William Davis (1663-1745) may have originated; or possibly for a village of the same name east of the coastal town of Aberystwyth, Wales. But my guess is that it was named for Salem, New Jersey, a prominent, most southwestern county seat situated on the Delaware River, 14 because the Shrewsbury pioneers anticipated their New Salem would also be a regional hub.

       Richard and Helen Brandstetter's fantastic genealogical trek concluded at New Salem - now simply called "Salem, West Virginia" which Helen's ancestors helped found. Although the original New Salem blockhouse was gone, they may have had a sense of what life might have been, by touring Fort New Salem, an outdoor living history museum, extension of Salem International University.

<10> Dorothy Davis, "City of Salem-Harrison County, West Virginia" (1996)

<11> Obid.

<12> Obid.

<13> Besides in Wales (UK), there are towns called "Shrewsbury" in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey.

<14> South Jersey Heritage: A Social, Economic and Cultural History, R. Craig Koedel

       While in Salem, Richard and Helen chanced upon an item that had made its way from New Jersey the long way around. Says Richard, "Here we found a gravestone that was taken from Monmouth County, New Jersey to Wisconsin … to West Virginia. About 1905, most of the gravestones were moved from Shrewsbury Seventh Day Baptist Church and used as a foundation for a barn. This one stone was at the site but not associated with a grave. In order to protect it, a minister removed it and hence made its way through a series of churches to finally rest in West Virginia." 15 The stone is a sad remnant exemplifying the indifference and disrespect some show toward ancestral burial grounds, proving that cemetery vandalism is not just a fad in our time.

       After accomplishing their mission, the Brandstetters returned to Shrewsbury, New Jersey, and the following month, reversed the order of Davis movement, traveling northward to Newport and Westerly, Rhode Island. It was there that William Davis of Wales and his family settled after leaving Philadelphia, and where their children connected and married into established New England families. New England ancestors of the Davis family include the Babcock, Barber, Bee, Brisley, Burdick, Chamberlain, Clarke, Clawson, Cooke, Crandall, Gifford, Hubbard, Jeffrey, Johnston, Kelley, Kerrich, Lawrence, Lippincott, Maxson, Mosher, Patterson, Pavior, Plumer, Fitz Randolph, Sutton, Worth families.

       As Richard Brandstetter stated: "These people were responsible for major development in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Monmouth County, New Jersey… The Newport Seventh Day Baptist Church, founded in 1640, was the first Seventh Day Baptist church in the United States. Its building (is still) intact and (is now used as ) the Newport Historical Society building.  The church at the Mystic Seaport is a Seventh Day Baptist church.  Unfortunately, the Monmouth County church (Shrewsbury Seventh Day Baptist) which was moved in 1830, only survived until the 1970s, when a fire destroyed it." 16

       Richard Brandstetter has placed copies of original church records (1740 to 1830), several pertinent books and documents relating to the extended Davis family, within the Monmouth County Archives, the Monmouth County Historical Society, and the historical societies in Wall, Howell, and Shrewsbury, New Jersey.  He has also built an enormous database of William Davis descendants, a remarkable achievement in a relatively short time.

         May Richard and Helen Brandstetter's novel 'genea-journey' inspire all family researchers to dim the computer, tie on those sneakers, and run the ridges!

<15>  Richard Brandstetter, in an email to Sharon Bramhall, 1999

<16>   Richard Brandstetter in an email to Sharon Bramhall, 5/25/2007

Many thanks to Richard and Helen Brandstetter for permission to tell their story. - ssb

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