Remembering Jacob Wisener

None of us are here without the sacrifice and effort of those who came before.

One reason I’ve become attracted to family history is the deeper appreciation I have for how fleeting life is.

You don’t have to go very far back in your ancestry before you come across people who are integral to your existence but whom time has completely forgotten.

It’s incredibly humbling and bittersweet.

It’s also true that you can’t fully appreciate who you and your family are until you know the stories that have impacted them.

As each of us does, I have a deep and varied family history across many of my branches. But the one that holds a lot of my interest, as it does for most of us, is the branch responsible for my surname.

The origin of the Wisener’s remains somewhat shrouded in mystery, though the investigative work accomplished by others that I’ve been able to work on when combined with the results of DNA research has shed a good bit of light with fairly high probabilities.

What I know for a fact is that my particular Wisener line traces its American story to a man named Jacob, born in approximately 1724 and died in South Carolina in 1777.

It’s not definitive where this Jacob came from – family hearsay had believed we were German. He first appears in South Carolina with the purchase of land in 1756, part of the King’s land grant deal to encourage immigration – he acquired 150 acres, 50 acres for each member of his household.

It’s possible that this Jacob is a Jacob Wyser whom arrived in South Carolina from Germany, but my conclusion based on multiple factors places him as a Jacob Wiessener whom arrived in Philadelphia in 1749 from Switzerland.

My DNA connects me to the Buser family, which is the family of that Jacob’s wife Anna Buser, a family that had previously emigrated to America and established a presence in both Pennsylvania and South Carolina. I’m also genetically connected to the Wisner’s of New York, who trace their lineage to a Johannes Wisner whom came from Switzerland in 1714.

So Jacob came from a small village in the northwest corner of Switzerland called Bubendorf. Swiss genealogists suspect the group of Wisener’s from this area trace their name back to the village of Wisen, about 15 miles from Bubendorf (a Wisener in German means a person from Wisen).

I traveled to Bubendorf three years ago and had the kind help of a Swiss genealogist in locating original documents from Jacob’s departure to America. The Swiss government discouraged emigration, so one needed letters of recommendation (which he has from the local pastor) and agreement to an oath never to return to Switzerland.

As such, it’s likely I was the first American Wisener to step foot back where Jacob had been banished, something that was spiritually and emotionally significant for me and I trust my family.

Simply enough, Jacob was poor. Economic conditions were not positive in Switzerland at the time, and the allure of America and the promise of land (hard to come by in Europe) would have been enticing, with tales of one or two Wisener family members who had gone on before as well as members of his wife’s family.

Jacob’s recommendation noted him as “hard working” and “industrious,” and as it’s shown he was unable to pay for the voyage for his wife and newborn daughter Anna, he would have indentured himself in service for a period of years to pay the debt.

In 1749, he, his family, and some of his wife’s brothers arrived in Philadelphia, and in 1756 (seven years being a common length of indenture), he acquired land in South Carolina.

In South Carolina, starting with 150 acres, he began to farm. In 1760 he is listed on militia roles for local service in the French and Indian War for the Crown. The land he chose wouldn’t bring him any peace, unfortunately.

By 1770, he had acquired well over 500 acres of land in different nearby locations, and court documents show he was farming rice, wheat, and barley. Said documents stem from a court case where he lodged a complaint of trespass stating that he had been forced off his homestead by two men and deprived of 1,000 pounds worth of crops (an enormous sum of money at the time).

Jacob died of unknown causes in 1777, and sadly his five sons (at least) saw the tale end of the fate their father’s choice in land would have to pay.

The Revolutionary War was fought fiercely in the area over a period of at least three years. It was very much a civil war as the population was split in its allegiance. The British presence in South Carolina was heavy after 1780 as their focus to win the war shifted to a Southern Campaign in which they intended to seize complete control of the South, ignoring the stalemate in the North, to crush the rebellion.

My own sixth great grandfather, John (Jacob’s oldest son) and his brother Martin are both shown on militia roles as being loyal to the Crown – not very surprising knowing that their father owed his land to grants from the Crown. This likely explains why, after the War’s conclusion, the Wisener’s virtually disappear from South Carolina record and appear in neighboring states – given the results of the War, leaving a past of British sympathy behind and silenced lay in the family’s best interest.

My fifth great grandfather actually converted to Quakerism, a pacifist Christian sect, and became a pioneer settler of western Ohio in the early 1800s.

The rest of Jacob’s sons and descendants dispersed from South Carolina in a manner that made piecing their history back together challenging – one descendant, Joshua, settles in Georgia, being responsible for a line of Wisener’s both there and in Alabama; Jacob’s son Henry relocated to Tennessee, starting a thriving branch there that even produced a well known politician during the Civil War who nearly won the governorship and would have fought to keep Tennessee within the Union; and my own ancestor who started a large branch of Wisener’s in Ohio and eastern Indiana that subsequently branches out to Iowa and California (while my own immediate family came to Florida starting with my grandfather).

Yet none of us would be here if not for Jacob and his sacrifice, a somewhat tragic sounding tale of a man who didn’t seem to quite find what he had been striving for. The horrors of war then split a family apart.

But I’m happy to be commemorating Jacob’s legacy this Summer with the placement of a plaque on an existing South Carolina historical marker noting the land donation he made for a church that exists to this day. Flat Creek Baptist Church dates itself to July 4, 1776 (an oddly coincidental date), but records prove it existed before that date, and even physically at its current location as early as 1771, when Jacob donated the land in which it still sits. Knowing the allegiance of at least two of his sons, perhaps the church wished to distance itself from British sympathies and whitewash its history with a July 4 origin story.

But now your efforts are remembered, Jacob, and the ordeals your family went through while trying to find their way in a new place. Rest easy, grandfather, in knowing that even if things didn’t turn out exactly as you may have wanted, you’ve made a positive difference in the world in a very big way.

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