Updated on April 16, 2005
Myth, Madness, & Murder
The Colony of South Carolina
This is the true story of an 18th century religious cult known as the Weberites, a uniquely formed sect of the Gifted Brethren, founded by Jacob Webber and several Swiss-German settlers in the South Carolina Backcountry at Saxe Gotha along the Saluda & Broad Rivers. Jacob Webber & his followers, the Weberites committed acts of heresy and murderedJohn George Smithpeter (Schmidtpeter) and Michael Hentz on February 24th, 1761, for which seven were tried, with Jacob Webber hanged at Charleston and three others convicted and granted pardons.
Please scroll down the page to enjoy this
interesting mystery about a people who
were doing their best to build a life in America.
"The past is not dead. It's not even past."
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Brenda Helen Keck Reed
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The Weberites emerged as a Protestant religious sect in the Backcountry of South Carolina circa 1758 in the settlement then known as Saxe-Gotha, near present-day Lexington. The sect arose out of a need for a deeper spiritual connection and a sense of community at a time when few ministers were present in the Backcountry and Indians were raiding settlements and causing harm to these brave souls. While its beginnings were innocent, by 1761 the outcome was tragic, leaving a community devastated, and several families irreparably harmed. Two men were murdered. One was hanged. Two other men and a woman were banished from the colony, rather than be hanged. Children were left without fathers at a time when they were needed most. Today an aura of mystery and shame still lingers when the subject of the Weberites is raised in the community of Lexington, South Carolina, where descendants of many of the Weberites live today. Questions, superstition and secrecy linger. Some have responded by writing flights of fantasy and evil-doing, further propagating a myth of tragedy and evil. This is my effort to bring some dignity back to these courageous souls who were truly doing their best in a most difficult situation. They deserve our understanding and open minds, respect for their courage, and forgiveness for what may have gone awry.
About 1758 a Switzer named Jacob Weber, began having gatherings with his neighbors and like-minded people at his home to sing hymns and read the Bible. Eventually Weber became an exhorter and allegedly proclaimed himself to be "God"; his wife, Hannah Weber, "the Virgin Mary"; Schmidt Peter or Peter Schmidt, the"Son of God"; "a godless colored preacher named Dauber", the Holy Spirit. The leaders eventually fell out with one another. Weber declared that Captain John George Smithpeter was "the Devil" and that Dauber [Frederick Dubard] was in cahoots with him. According to William Bull "Smith Pieter, the person murdered, who it seems differed with [Weber] in some points of doctrine, was the Old Serpent, and unless he was put to death the World could not be saved. The deluded people immediately seized Smith Pieter and with all the rage of religious persecution beat him to death without remorse." The Weberites also murdered a traveling man, Michael Hans [Ham or Hentz], and "a godless colored preacher named [Frederick] Dauber [Dubber or Dubard]." What actually happened in late February 1761 is not known for sure from this time and distance. However certain facts can be established through the South Carolina Gazette, the British Public Records Office, the South Carolina Memorials, S.C. Council Journals, accounts of ministers, Charles Woodmason and Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, and the letter of Jacob Weber to his children. What is abundantly clear is that two men were murdered and their wives and children were left to fend for themselves in the wilderness of South Carolina during a time of marauding Indians soon followed by the Regulator movement. More consideration was given to the perpetrators of these two horrendous crimes than to the victims and their loved ones. On February 23rd and 24th, 1761, Captain John George Smithpeter (Johann Georg Schmidtpeter) and Michael Hans [Ham or Hentz], were brutally murdered at the hands of the Weberites. The militia made arrests and.took the culprits from Saxe-Gotha down to Charlestown where they were imprisoned and held to account for their heinous acts. While in jail, the Weberites held firm and expressed the rightness and righteousness of their actions. Later they realized the magnitude of their crimes. Six men (Jacob Weber, John Geiger, Jacob Bourghart, and 3 others) and one woman (Hannah Weber) were tried in the General Sessions Court of the Peace at Charlestown on March 31st, 1761 for the murders of Captain John George Smithpeter (Johann Georg Schmidtpeter) and Michael Hans [Ham or Hentz]. Three of the six to include Jacob Weber, Hannah Weber, John Geiger, and Jacob Bourghart were convicted and sentenced to death. On the 17th of April, 1761, Jacob Weber was hanged at Charles Town. None were prosecuted for the murder of Frederick Dauber (Dubber or Dubard), the black preacher, casting doubts that he was actually a victim of the Weberites as put forth by some writers after the fact. Historical records from 1761 do not indicate that the Weberites actually murdered or harmed Dauber (Dubber/Dubard) as he continued to minister to the needs of people in the Carolinas possibly in the person of John Frederick Dubard. Little is known about Michael Hans (Hentz), The Annals of Newberry County by John Chapman indicate that Hentz was accused of witchcraft and put to death between two feather beds in keeping with some historical accounts of the Weberites' murders. This indicates he may have been the individual depicted as the "Holy Spirit" and dispels folklore accounts of Hentz having been chopped to pieces in a voodoo or ancient Celtic ritual as reported by some twentieth century folklorists to include Lee Gandee. Matthias Hentz of Newberry County was said to be the son of the Hentz murdered by Weaver [Jacob Weber]. Family legend said that Mathais Hentz' s father lived in "the lower German Settlement" and was accused of witchcraft and put to death by being smothered between featherbeds. His widow then left the Saluda area and settled on the Broad River at Cannon Creek. The descendants supposedly included two sons, David and Michael. Michael Hentz moved to Georgia and had several famous descendants to include John Hentz, a county sheriff and Legislator and his wife, Caroline Lee, a celebrated author.
David Hentz's descendants stayed in the area and included two sons, three daughters, and six grandchildren by male descendants. The Dutch Fork, A Catalog of Early Land Records indicate that David Hentz, Christiana Sligh, and Adam Leitzey inherited 300 acres at Cattail Branch of Cannon's Creek originally claimed 13 December 1752 by Ulrick Sleigh, his wife, and four children -- Eva Catherine (18), Creda (15), John Jacob (5), and Margaretta (3) -- and inherited by Jacob Sligh at Ulrick Sleigh's death. The 1790 United States Census for Lexington County, Dutch Fork, listed Mathias Hentz (1-2-2).
Chapman relates in his The History of Newberry County, SC that when Jakob Hentz's wife learned of her husband's fate, she took refuge with her own family on Little River, and in due time bore a son, from whom the excellent Hentz family of Newberry County all descend. The South Carolina Gazette recorded the murder victim's name as Michael Hans in April 1761.
South Carolina Council Journal Records for 1 January 1754 indicate that a Michael Hatz arrived in South Carolina about 1750 on the Encouragement of Protestants and was bound for four years to William Backshel and served part of his time with George Beringer, Esq. The said Hatz claimed 200 acres of vacant land near the Congarees for himself, a wife, two children, William Michael (age 3 1/2) and Jacob (age 1 1/4). His petition was filed on 20 December 1753.
On 26 April 1761 William Bull wrote William Pitt requesting pardons for Hannah Weber, John Geiger, and Jacob Bourghart, who acted by the commands of Jacob Weber, subject to hearing from William Pitt and "till his Majesty's pleasure therein be known." Bull stated in his letter dated 26 April 1761 that each had "numerous Families, bear the character of being long known, orderly and industrious ... are very poor." Bull made no mention of the murders of Michael Hans (Hentz or Ham) or Frederick Dauber (Dubard or Dubber) in his letter to Pitt. This researcher has not located in the B.P.R.O. William Pitt's decision as of this date. Rev. Charles Woodmason wrote that the three reprieved persons were subsequently exiled from South Carolina and may have later returned to the Dutch Fork. Some Weberites, including John Geiger, Repsiman (Turnipseed), and a man named Schmidt (John George Smith) not to be confused with the murdered man, (John George Smithpeter) moved across the Broad River and settled in present Fairfield and Richland Counties where they founded the Appii Forum Church in 1761. Hannah Weber changed her name to Hannah Weaver and eventually returned to the Dutch Fork. (See Articles from the South Carolina Gazette or go to end of page for other links.) Descendants of Jacob and Hannah Weber can be found living in present-day Alabama and Georgia.
WHO WAS JOHANN GEORG SCHMITPETER?
Johann Georg Schmidtpeter was born October 28th, 1730 at Wollmertzhoffen, Ettenstadt, Mittlefranken, Bavaria on the outskirts of Nuremberg to George Schmidtpeter and Martha Heberling as the fourth of eight children. His mother died in 1760 and his father in 1773 in Wollmertzhoffen. It is unlikely that any of his siblings came to America. At age twenty John George Smithpeter (Johann Georg Schmidtpeter) and his eighteen-year-old wife, Caterin, left their home in Ettenstadt, Bavaria, Germany (near Nuremberg), and made their way to Rotterdam. They sailed from Rotterdam to Charles Town (Charleston), South Carolina, on the ship Rowand, a snow, arriving on October 2nd, 1752. As SmithPader he claimed a 100 acre headright on the north side of the Saluda River shortly thereafter. In 1756 he sold his 100 acres to Archibald Duncan and moved to the South side of the Saluda onto a 200 acre tract that his only son, John Michael Smithpeter, sold in 1778 to John Kleckley, a weaver from Orangeburg district. Captain Smithpeter served in the Cherokee wars and in 1760 received nearly 1000 pounds current money for organizing the wagons from the Congarees for the expedition to Fort Prince George and north to fight the Cherokee. He was murdered at age thirty-one on February 24th, 1761 most likely at his own on the Saluda River when he disagreed with the deluded Jacob Weber on spiritual matters and possibly did not approve of the murder of Michael Hans (Ham or Hentz) about whom little is known. John George Smithpeter was survived by his twenty-eight year old wife, Caterin Schmidtpeter, and an eight year old son John Michael Smithpeter. When his estate was settled, no record was found of the 1000 pounds current money. His estate included horses, cattle, hogs, a wagon with tackling, a slave girl, one book of Sermons in German, one Bible, one Dutch Psalm book, an English grammar, a New Testament, two Catechisms, various other pots, pans, and household goods. No weapon of any kind was noted in the inventory.
That he had books in his possession meant that he was a learned and scholarly man who had come from some means.
John George Smithpeter (Schmidtpeter) has been mistakenly identified as an emigrant who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1750 by the name of Peter Schmidt, from Ingelsheim in the Zweibruecken in the Palatinate, an area from which many of the Brethren faith came to America. The records there state that the said Peter Schmidt left Germany with his wife and six children for America. (This is either Peter Schmidt who arrived 13 August 1750 on the ship Edinburgh, or Peter Schmitt, who arrived 28 August 1750 on the ship Phoenix, or Peter Shmit, who arrived 30 November 1750 on the ship Sandwich.) [Source: Pennsylvania German Immigrants, 1709-1786, edited by Don Yoder, 1980, page 318.) German church records confirm that Johann Georg Schmidtpeter came from Ettenstadt, Mittlefranken, Bavaria to America in 1752. Ettenstadt, a small village, is located a short distance from Nuremberg and north of Weissenberg. This clearly establishes that one Peter Schmitt and John George Schmidtpeter/Smithpeter are two distinct and separate individuals.
Mrs. Caterin Smithpeter disappeared from the records after settling her husband's estate in November 1761. She was twenty-eight years old and had an eight-year old son to raise and a two-hundred acre plantation to manage with the help of one slave girl when she became a widow. Perhaps she remarried or became part of another household, however the records indicate that someone paid taxes on the Smithpeter land from 1761 to 1778. Caterin probably would have needed someone to protect her and her son during the dangerous period of the Cherokee wars and the Regulator movement. Captain Smithpeter and Johannes Kleckley, the emigrant widower with three children, would most likely have known one another from their service in the Cherokee wars and the Congarees. As such Caterin Smithpeter may have developed a friendship or close relationship of some kind with Johannes Kleckley, either before or after her husband's death. What is known for certain is that the Smithpeter land remains in the Kleckley family to this day. The Kleckley family deeded three acres to their Reunion Association and the remainder of the original land is retained by a Kleckley descendant. The Kleckley family reunion is held yearly on part of the original 200 acres. (See Smithpeter Land Records or Smithpeter Estate Records or Genealogy page to learn more about the Smithpeter family. John Michael Smithpeter served in the American Revolution as an Indian scout and fought at the Battle of Kings Mountain. He settled in present Johnson County in east Tennessee where he prospered and raised a large family. The author of this website descends through his daughter, Caterin Smithpeter and her husband, James Bradley. The descendants of John Michael Smithpeter can be found throughout the United States, though few if any live in Lexington, the current name for the old Saxe Gotha settlement. Much has been written about the Weberites during these many years that is founded in gossip, conjecture, and speculation. Well-meaning historians, folklorists and hexmeisters have grossly exaggerated the historical record, adding color and drama to these tragic events. To learn more about the varied stories see Woodmason's 1765 Account, Muhlenberg's 1774 Account, Leitner's 1934 Account, or Lee Gandee's 1975 Letter. Other accounts , skirting the facts and bordering on fantasy and mythology, have been written by Lee R. Gandee, Walter Summer, and James Everett Kibler, Jr. One author has used remnants of the story to write a purely fictional novel about evil doings and witchcraft in the backcountry. While interesting and even fun to read, they do create challenges for the serious historian or genealogist -- and do not honor these ancestors for their diligence and good works.
I am a descendant of John George & Caterin Schmidtpeter/Smithpeter through their only known child, John Michael Smithpeter, who settled in Carter (now Johnson) County, Tennessee, where he prospered and raised a large family by two wives.
The purpose of this site is to encourage dialogue among interested historians and Weberite descendants so that we may share our facts, theories, stories and information. Let us never forget that eighteenth century ministers voiced the opinion that the Weberite heresy and related events should be openly discussed lest history repeat itself. Together perhaps we can bring some light into this fascinating story and our ancestors -- and together solve one of South Carolina history's mysteries. I invite you to share your family history & knowledge of this story. Let's celebrate our history, learn from the past, & have fun in the process.