Ancestry and Ministry of the Bishop: Peter Zehr (1851-1922)

by Donna Schrock Birkey
Originally published in the 
Winter 2008 (Vol. XXXV  •  No. 4)
Illinois Mennonite Heritage Quarterly (
(Used with permission of original publisher)

“Recently I found indications that the Amish Zehr name may have roots in the very early Zehringen family. The House of Zahringen has roots dating back to the late 900s with at least 25 generations of Margraves. There is a lot of info on the Internet on this family with royal connections to all the major royal families in Europe. Berthold the fourth Margrave of Baden in 1264 founded the cities of Bern and Freiburg in the province of Bern, Switzerland. This is the same area that the Zer, Zeer, and Zehr name has early roots. When I looked at heraldry about fifteen years ago one of three coats of arms indicated nobility with a similar Zehr spelling. In one encyclopedia, the Zehr name is given as an early contributor to history in this area. The name Zehr in Switzerland means “boarder.” —Ray Zehr.1

Zehr village of Niederstocken, Switzerland

Zehr Furniture Maker in Erlenbach, Switzerland (Photo 1980s)

Zehr Furniture Maker in Erlenbach, Switzerland (Photo 1980s)

Ancestry of Bishop Peter Zehr (1851-1922)

Christian Zehr was born in Niederstocken to parents Peter Zehr and Barbara Schultz.3 At the age of 12 he moved, most probably with his parents, to Struth in Bas-Rhin. While living in Struth he married Elisabethe Koch, born 1724. Their children were Daniel (1734-1819) and Christian (1762-<1798).

Christian and Elizabeth’s son Daniel Zehr was born 1734 in Struth. In 1772 he married Catherine Zehr,4 a daughter of Jacques/Jack (Jacob) Zehr. She, too, was born in Struth, about 1750, and died at her home there on 24 Dec 1805, at the age of 55. During his life Daniel was a farmer (cultivator). He died at the home of his son-in-law, Jean Springer, husband of his oldest daughter Catherine, on 21 May 1819 at the age of 85.

Near the village of Struth there remains visible an old mill on the property named Donnebachemueller. The property has recently been used as a retreat center, but in the late 1700s Donnebachemueller was a Zehr home. The wife of the

Donnebachemueller, near Struth, was a Zehr home in the late 1700s

mayor of Struth in the mid-1980s, herself a Zehr, related to me that both her father and grandfather were born there. It is quite possible the property was also home to Zehr families who later emigrated to Illinois. More research is needed to verify the possibility.

The record of Daniel and Catherine’s children was kept in a 1780 edition of Martyrs’ Mirror that has been passed down through the Ingold family.5 Their children are: Catherine (1778-); Daniel (1782-~1856); Joseph (1784-1872); Barbe (1791-1857); Lisabetha (1794-1795).

Daniel Zehr, the oldest son, was born 1782 in the village of Struth. Despite The Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Tazewell County statement that Daniel Zehr’s wife was Catherine Ringburk, documents tell a different story. Rather, the marriage records at Windstein reveal he married Magdalena Unzicker, b. 8 May 1785, in Windstein, Wissembourg, Bas-Rhin, to Johannes Unzicker (1747->1802) and Barbara Ullmann. Daniel and Magdalena were married 6 Jun 1803 in Windstein.6

Daniel and Magdalena’s marriage document gives the following information:

On 17 Prairial 10th year of the Republic (6 Jun 1803), at Windstein, District of Wissembourg, France, Daniel Zohr, age 19, son of Daniel Zehr and Catherina Zohr, married Magdalena Hunzicker, age 17, daughter of Johannes Unzicker and Barbara Uhlmann of Windstein. The following persons were witnesses and signed the marriage record: Joseph Zohr, farmer, age 47 years; Jacob Stepp, farmer, age 54 years, both residing at Windstein; Christian Bock, farmer, age 35 of Windstein; Christian Zohr, farmer, age 45 of Stultzthal.7

In 1803, Daniel and his wife with son Daniel, left Struth for Bavaria where he entered into a two-year lease on the dairy farm Abtsried of the Wessobrunn cloister. After the lease expired, they lived on the Bergerhof at Laim from 1810-1817.  On Dec. 2, 1818, Daniel purchased property at Manried, which was sold Dec. 15, 1827.  From 1828 the family lived at Hanfeld where Magdalena died on 16 Dec 1838 at the age of 53. All of these communities were near Munich.8

Daniel emigrated from Mang-Anwesen in Hanfeld as a 72-year-old widower in 1849 with the family of his nephew David Springer.  He joined the group departing from Bremen on the ship Minnesota, sailing via Liverpool to New York, arriving 21 June 1849.9 Many in the group then traveled directly to Central Illinois, where Daniel was reunited with his sons George, Christian, Peter, and Jakob/Jacob; oldest son Daniel followed in 1853, leaving only son Joseph remaining in Bavaria.

Gravestone of Daniel Zehr

About 1856, Daniel died at the home of son Christian, and was buried at Slabtown Cemetery. The children of Daniel and Magdalena are: Daniel (1803-1855); George(1810-1871); Christian (1812-1893); Magdalena (1816-); Peter (1818-1886); Jacob E. (1825-1898).

Peter Zehr was born 30 Dec 1818, while his family lived in Manried, on the Hofmark at Hilgertshausen. At the age of 25, Peter arrived in New York from Le Havre on 17 Jun 1844 on the packet ship Baltimore.10(See illustration below.) He traveled as a single man and settled at Farmdale. On 12 Aug 1845, at Farmdale, he married Elizabeth Oyer
(b. 1828 at Niderhof, France), daughter of Joseph Oyer, Sr. (~1776-~1845)

The packet ship Baltimore

and Magdalena Litwiller (1801-~1855). Peter’s new wife was also a descendant of Christian Zehr and Elisabethe Koch, from their second son Christian, making Peter and Elizabeth second cousins once removed.

By 1850 Peter and Elizabeth lived in Tazewell County next door to his brother George, who was listed on the census as a brewer. At the next census in 1860, they lived next door to Peter’s brother, Christian, in Mackinaw Township on the Mackinaw River’s Rocky Ford area. Their homes stood high on the hill overlooking the Mackinaw Valley. By 1870 the couple was in Deer Creek Township, with seven children. In April 1886, Peter died and was buried in Slabtown Cemetery. Elizabeth lived ten more years and died 21 Mar 1896 at Foosland, Champaign County, and was buried at East Bend Mennonite Cemetery.

It was first thought the trunk shown above traveled with Peter (1818-1886) on his journey, but later research dated it to the Civil War era, making it more likely that it was purchased after his arrival in America.

Peter, a farmer and Amish minister, had four sons that grew to maturity. All four—Daniel, Peter, David, and Samuel—were also ordained to the ministry. Of the first nine children of Peter and Elizabeth, five died before their first birthday and a sixth before his second. In the year 1860 two small sons died within 3 months.11 Peter and Elizabeth’s children:  Magdalena (1846-?); Joseph (1847-1848); Daniel (1849-1942); Peter (1851-1922); Christian (1853-1854); Elizabeth (1855-1933); Jacob (1857-1857); John (1858-1860); Andrew (1860-1860); Mary (1861-1937); David (1864-1924); Phoebe (1866-1949); Samuel S. (1870-1943).

Bishop Peter Zehr’s birth occurred in Woodford County on 24 Aug 1851. On 8 Jun 1876 he married Barbara Heiser (b. 1 Nov 1857), daughter of Jacob Heiser (1817-1877) and Katharina Wagler (1834-1910). He was ordained minister 10 Jun 1883 at Goodfield, Woodford County, and served the Mennonite Church there (formed from the Mackinaw Meeting from 1883-1889). In 1889, he moved to East Bend Township, Champaign County, to become the first minister of the East Bend Mennonite Church. On 30 Apr 1893 he was ordained bishop.

In 1914, Peter started the practice of an all-day meeting on the Fourth of July, including morning session, noon basket lunch, afternoon and evening sessions. The year before, in 1913, Peter writes in his church record book that “an evening service was held at East Bend Church, Champaign Co., IL, on June 19, by the four brothers—Daniel Zehr, Peter Zehr, David Zehr, Samuel Zehr. A sermon was held again by the four brothers at Goodfield, IL, April 30, 1918.”12

Willard Smith in Mennonites in Illinois tells of the tense time following World War I: “At the East Bend church at Fisher, vandals splashed yellow paint only on the front door. They also put up a flagpole and flag. Some members wanted to remove it, but Bishop Peter Zehr instructed that it remain flying. It was left there until it became tattered.”13

The home of Peter Zehr and Barbara Heiser–perhaps on a Sunday afternoon

Peter died 14 Mar 1922 from complications of Bright’s disease. His wife, Barbara, died 16 Nov 1934, at 77 years of age. Both are buried in East Bend Mennonite Cemetery.

The March 30, 1922 Gospel Herald printed the following obituary:

Zehr. – Bishop Peter Zehr was born in Tazewell Co., Ill., Aug. 24, 1851; died at his home near Fisher, Ill., Mar. 14, 1922; aged 70 y. 6 m. 18 d. He suffered from a complication of diseases. He bore it very patiently. He was married to Barbara Heiser of Morton, Ill., June 8, 1876. To this union were born five children (Mrs. Catharine Cender, Dan P. Zehr, Mrs. Lizzie Cender, Mrs. Amelia Birky, and Joseph A., who preceded his father in his infancy). He leaves 15 grandchildren, three brothers, and three sisters. Five brothers and 1 sister preceded him to eternity. He united with the Mennonite Church in his youth. June 10, 1883, he was ordained to the ministry in Deer Creek, Ill. In 1893 he was ordained bishop in charge of the East Bend congregation near Fisher. He was known for his heart concern for the flock. His last prayers were for her welfare. The funeral was held Mar. 17, 1922, conducted by Bros. Samuel Gerber, C. F. Derstine, and Ezra B. Yordy. Text, I Thes. 4:14; II Cor. 5:1.

Peter and Barbara’s children: Katherine Frances (1877-1944); Daniel Peter (1880-1959); Elizabeth Barbara (1886-1928); Joseph A. (1888-1889); Amelia Alberta (1891-1965).


1 Mennonite Family History, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, April 2005, Queries p. 87; Ray Zehr, RR#1 Shakespeare, ONT NOB 2PO; [email protected]
Amish Mennonites in Germany, “Their Congregations, The Estates Where They Lived, Their Families,” Hermann Guth, 1995, Masthof Press.
Amish Mennonites in Tazewell Co., Joseph Staker, 2004-2007,
Illinois Mennonite Heritage, “Zehrs From Europe to Illinois,”  Vol. XIX, No.3, September 1992, p. 53, Ardys Serpette.
Daniel Zehr, Martyr’s Mirror Family Record, 1780, Erna Ingold, Beigarten, Germany. From original text a typed copy was made on 20 Sep 1987 by Mariele Ingold, Sachsen near Ansbach.
E-mail to Joseph Staker from Helmut Funck of Weitersweiler, Germany, 2007.
Marriage records of Windstein, Bas-Rhin, France, 1793-1862.
Illinois Mennonite Heritage, Zehrs From Europe to Illinois,” Vol. XIX, No.3, September 1992, Ardys Serpette.
Illinois Mennonite Heritage, Zehrs from Europe to Illinois, Vol. XIX, No. 3, Ardys Serpette, p. 53.
Illinois Mennonite Heritage, Vol. XVII, No. 4, December 1990, “Illinois Mennonite Women: A Legacy of Caring,” Myrna Slagell Park.
“East Bend Mennonite Church Records,” Peter Zehr, 1894-1919.
Mennonites in Illinois, Willard H. Smith, 1983, Herald Press, Scottdale, PA, p. 356.

The Ministry of the Bishop

The church book of Peter Zehr was a nondescript notebook, probably purchased at a local variety goods store–perhaps Koyen-Kenward in the village of Fisher.  Peter’s words written on the first page describe its use, “about some Family Records and about the East Bend Church organized.” It contains records of baptisms, marriages, deaths, church letters given and taken from one church to another, trustees and church committees, and “superintend and assistend.” Also included are Peter’s notes of significant happenings, such as the locust years:

Locusts was in 1854
17 yrs later in  1871
17 yrs later in  1888
17 yrs later in  1905

To accomplish the 1895 construction of the original East Bend “churchhouse,” Peter records collections of funds from the following churches:

Our church Champaign Co. $849
Livingston Co. church 45.
Hopedale church 126.50
Roanoke church 124.
Metamora church 185.75
Pleasant Grove church 225.
From friends 23.
Total $1578.25

Then he wrote:

“Churchhouse was builded in Sept 1895 and opened and dedicated for service-1895-and was replaced after storm in the summer 1902–and was rebuilded after storms in the fall and opened (for service) again and dedicated in Nov. 17 year of 1907.”

NOTE: Peter Zehr’s church book is in the possession of great-granddaughter Kathy Cender Martin, with a copy in the archives of East Bend Mennonite Church, Fisher, IL. The trunk was with other items belonging to Peter Zehr, and now is held by great-grandson John Cender.

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