John Minerd was hopping mad. A sheep was missing, and he knew who took it. Or so he thought.
Minerd, a 19th century farmer of Somerset County, PA, was so sure of the crook's identity that he began telling people. (Whether or not it was Minerd's sheep, the record is silent.) And at whom did he point his verbal finger? None other than his very own cousin, John Younkin.
"He stole a sheep," Minerd thundered to a group of friends and neighbors, "and I will prove it."
To make his point, Minerd spoke his words not in English but in the tongue that perhaps he knew best -- German. Someone listening to Minerd would have actually heard "Er hat ein shoaff gestohlen und ich wol es gut machen."
But Minerd's diatribe wasn't over. Shifting to English, he then amplified his point, saying "He stole a sheep, and I will say so before his face and behind his back as often as he wants to hear it."
And then, perhaps to make sure his message was unequivocally clear, or possibly in reply to someone else's comment, Minerd said, now back in German, "Er beist ein dieb." Those in hearing distance knew German and well understood what he meant: "He is a thief."
The year was 1828. Minerd was a headstrong 25-year-old, married to Sarah Ansell, with an infant son He more or less had his own turf -- a portion of a 318-acre Turkeyfoot Township farm that he and his father were renting (and would later buy) from absentee owners in Philadelphia. And he was fluently bilingual.
It's intriguing that Minerd spoke part of his anger in German, because his ancestors had been in America for many generations. In The Planting of Civilization in Western Pennsylvania, the definitive account of 18th and early 19th century life in the region, authors Solon J. and Elizabeth Hawthorn Buck write: "The Germans who pushed west [beyond the Allegheny Mountains] often lost contact with the central body [of Germans east of the Susquehanna River] and more or less rapidly conformed to the life of their neighbors, the English and the Scotch-Irish."
Not so with the ethnic farming communities of Somerset County. They preserved their German culture and heritage by continuing to cook German dishes such as schnitz and knepp,* speak the language of the old country,** and marry their neighbors, who often were also their cousins. At least 10 weddings in the 19th century are known between the Younkins and Minerds.
On his mother's side, Minerd was in the fifth American generation -- grandson of John and Catherine Younkin; great grandson of pioneers John Michael and Catharine Younkin; and great-great-grandson of German immigrants Johann Heinrich Junghen and Catharina Scherer. On his father's side, Minerd was a fourth-generation American, the son of Jacob and Catherine (Younkin) Minerd Jr.; grandson of Jacob and Maria (NeŁn) Minerd Sr., pioneer settlers of the region; and great-grandson of German immigrants Friedrich and Eva Maria (Weber) Meinert Sr.
The exact identity of the alleged thief is not clear. The documents simply call him "John Younkin of Jacob." He might have been John J. Younkin, age 50, son of Jacob Younkin and Hannah Nicola. Or he might have been John M. Younkin, age 28, son of Jacob and Eleanor Younkin, and, interestingly, Minerd's future brother in law. Either way, "John Younkin of Jacob" also was a Turkeyfoot Township farmer and, like his accuser, a descendant of German immigrant Johann Heinrich Junghen.
Back to the story. Minerd's German and English words had impact, but got him into trouble. Enough people apparently believed him that they began to shun Younkin. It soon became obvious to Younkin that "divers of [my] neighbours and others ... have withdrawn themselves from [my] company, society and fellowship...." As a "good, true, faithful and honest citizen", Younkin felt he had been "grievously hurt and injured".
So Younkin reacted as any red-blooded American would in the situation. He turned the tables on Minerd. He hired a lawyer and sued his cousin. And Younkin didn't want an apology. He demanded cash. To the tune of $500. A huge sum at the time, reflecting his outrage.
The slander suit was filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Somerset County. Younkin's attorney Charles Ogle wrote out Minerd's exact words, in German and in English, so the judge and all others could fully understand their meaning. It was a lengthy and perhaps exaggerated complaint, as lawyers have been known to do. Ogle claimed that Minerd uttered his words "contriving and wickedly and maliciously intending not only to deprive [Younkin] ... of his good name, fame, reputation and character ... but also to bring him ... into danger of incurring the pains and penalties of the law enacted against those who are guilty of such offences."
Instead of Younkin facing trial for suspected theft, Minerd was now on the defensive.
The case took two years to resolve. What was said at the trial, and who the witnesses were, and how Minerd defended himself are all lost to history. Court documents only reveal that Minerd was found guilty. But instead of having to fork over the enormous sum that Younkin wanted, Minerd instead paid just a small fraction of the amount.
In a signed statement dated April 6, 1830, Minerd wrote: "I hereby confefs judgment in the above suit for ten dollars damages with costs of suit."
Whether or not Younkin actually stole the sheep is unknown. Whether or not Younkin and Minerd ever restored their relationship also is not known.
What is clear, however, is that as neighbors in the cluster of German settlers in rural Somerset County in the 1820s, and notwithstanding the many intermarriages between the Younkins and Minerds, some families weren't always the best of friends.
Sad to say, some things never change.
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* A popular treat of cured ham, dried sweet apples, dumplings and milk still enjoyed today by Younkin-Minerd descendants in the Kingwood area.
** The German language was passed down further to at least one more generation of the family. John Minerd's son Henry A. Miner (a Kingwood-area and later Connellsville resident who lived until 1912), nephew Ephraim Miner (a lifelong Kingwood farmer who died in 1921) and niece Martha Gorsuch (of Mill Run, Rockwood and Somerset who lived until 1960) are known to have spoken German at times. Several fascinating questions remain. Do the German words used by Minerd in 1828 contain any dialect consistent with the Hesse region of Germany from whence the Junghens originated? Might the dialect help pinpoint the specific geographic area in Germany from where the Meinerts came?
© 1996, 2000, 2001 Mark A. Miner.