The Chastans of Vesc: The Case of the Missing i

The cemetery in Vesc is full of Chastan tombstones.

The cemetery in Vesc is full of Chastan tombstones.

There we were in Vesc, the ancestral village of the Chastains in southeastern France, with, besides my wife and I, not a Chastain to be found. Instead, we found Chastans. Lots and lots of Chastans. Chastan was inscribed on a World War I memorial near the mayor’s office. A multitude of Chastans were buried in the cemetery next to the ruins of St. Pierre’s. A few miles outside the village was a Chastan lumberyard. A friendly baker in nearby Dieulefit knew of a piano teacher who was a Chastan. As we talked with her, she asked several customers if they knew of any Chastains. They didn’t, but they knew plenty of Chastans. I was confused. Where had the ‘i’ gone? Were the Chastans and Chastains the same? I wanted to believe that they were. At just one letter off, it seemed obvious, but I didn’t want to make that assumption without evidence.

The World War I Memorial in Vesc lists a Chastan

A Chastan is among those on the World War I Memorial in Vesc

Overall, our trip to France had been a huge success, but, in this one matter, I was disappointed. I had been expecting to find at least a few Chastains still in their ancestral village, but they had vanished completely. I was eager to discover what had happened. Once we returned home, I took a closer look at the records. Below are a few examples of what I found in the Vesc Parish records in the Drôme Departmental Archives in Valence, France.

The first two records are for the births of two brothers—Pierre Chastain (not my earliest known ancestor) and Jean Isaie Chastan. Pierre was born in 1738 to parents Jean Pierre Chastain and Marguerite Gueyle. Jean Isaie was born in 1760 to the same parents. Pierre was born as a Chastain while Jean Isaie was born “Chastan”.

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Pierre Chastain son of Jean Pierre Chastain and Marguerite Gueyle.

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Jean Isaie Chastan son of Jean Pierre Chastan and Marguerite Gueyle

The next two records are for Marguerite Chastain. She married Pierre Gueyle in 1737 as a Chastain, but, when she died in 1761, she was a Chastan.

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Marguerite Chastain married Pierre Gueyle in 1737.

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Marguerite Chastan, wife of Pierre Gueyle, died in 1761.

The final two records are for Claude Chastain. When he married Catherine Roussin in 1753, he was a Chastain. Claude died in 1815 as a Chastan.

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Claude Chastain was married in 1753 to Catherine Roussin.

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Claude Chastan, husband of Catherine Roussin, died in 1815

These are just three examples of this switch in the spelling of the surname. There are countless others. The Chastains and Chastans of Vesc were, in fact, the same. At some point in the mid-18th century, for unknown reasons, perhaps for no reason in particular, the ‘i’ was dropped from the name.

In the 1600s, and probably much earlier, Chastain was one of the most common surnames found in Vesc. Pierre Chastain, my earliest known ancestor, along with a few of his family members, fled to Germany in 1686 to escape religious persecution. They were the only Chastain family to do so. All of the others remained in Vesc. They were either Catholic or they were Protestants who didn’t have the resources necessary to flee or they simply chose to stay and face the persecution.

In Germany, our family retained the original spelling of the name and brought it to America. However, in Vesc, the name had completely disappeared by the 19th century. It had evolved into Chastan. And so all of the numerous Chastans I had discovered in and around Vesc, living and dead, they are almost certainly long lost cousins.

The North East Meehls Part IX: Loose Ends

In an earlier post, I mentioned Anne Mühl, the eldest living daughter of George and Anne when the family came to America. She was a bit of a mystery to me since I was unable to find her in any American records. Luckily, I’ve been in contact with some of my wife’s distant cousins. One of them graciously took the time to send me information she had collected on the family. This info included the whereabouts of Anne Mühl/Meehl. After arriving in America, she married Scott Aldrich in Hamburg, New York. They had several children, but Anne died in 1857 when she was just 43. She is buried in Fredonia, New York. Her burial record lists her birth date as June 1, 1813. This matches what I found for Anne Mühl in Geudertheim. So, there is another piece of evidence (as if we needed more!).

I’ve also been in contact with Mark Meehl, a descendant of William Meehl, Michael’s youngest son. He’s been going to town in the Bas-Rhin Departmental Archives and finding some great stuff. For one, it looks like George Mühl had a couple of brothers and, at one point, they were all in the French army. This means that Michael Meehl’s father did serve in the army along with two uncles. And, even though his father wasn’t an officer (and his name wasn’t Jacques de Mealle) and even though his uncles weren’t imperial bodyguards, there may be a kernel of truth to that family legend after all.

There is much more work that could be done in the archives, including untangling the myriad of Mühls mentioned in the records, as well as tracing the family of Michael Meehl’s mother, the Wolffs. There is also work that could be done to trace other living Mühl/Meehl descendants, including the Endresses, Millers, and Aldriches (the families of Michael’s sisters, Catherine and Anne). I have discovered that George Meehl Jr. of Boston, New York had one son, David Meehl (he also had a few step children). David married Rose Eggen and had three children—Rose, Amelia, and George. Rose married a Mr. Grabau (first name unknown). Amelia married William Reed. I’ve been unable to determine if either of David Meehl’s daughters had children. George Meehl (son of David and grandson of George Meehl Jr.) married Louise Scheible, but, as far as I can tell, they had no children. George was born in 1890 and died in 1964. He had a farm in Boston, NY, but, whether this was the original property of the Mühls in America, I do not know. After George died, the farm was sold to a property developer.

For this project, my one and only goal has been to connect the Meehls to their ancestral hometown in Europe and to demonstrate how that connection was made, not to provide an exhaustive family history. I feel that I’ve accomplished this goal, and so this will be my last entry. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the documents and information available for the Meehls of North East. For those who are interested, there is much more out there to find.

The North East Meehls Part VIII: Of Mühls and Mills

King Louix XIV Receives Strasbourg City Key

Louis XIV receiving the keys of Strasbourg on 23 October 1681 by Constantijn Francken. Oil on canvas. Strasbourg Historical Museum.

Geudertheim is famous for its watermill on the River Zorn, a tributary of the Rhine. Mühl, a German surname meaning one who lives near a mill, can be traced back to the 1500s, where we find the earliest written records in Geudertheim. From the prevalence of the name in these early records, we can conclude that the mill has been a central part of the community since, at least, the late middle ages. We can also conclude that, in Geudertheim, the Mühls have ancient roots.

Geudertheim Mill on the Zorn
The Mill on the Zorn (photo from the National Library of France)
Geudertheim Mill Wheel
Geudertheim Mill Wheel (from the National Library of France)

Geudertheim, just nine miles from the Rhine (the current border between France and Germany), resides in the Bas-Rhin (Lower Rhine) Department of France. This is the northern half of the former province of Alsace. The general area that now makes up Alsace was conquered by the Roman Empire in the first century B.C. (The Romans were partial to its rich agricultural lands and, in particular, its vineyards.) After the fall of the empire, Alsace traded hands between the Alemanni (I’ve never heard of them either) and the Franks before becoming a part of the Holy Roman Empire until the 17th century.

During the Reformation, in the 16th century, Alsace became a prominent Protestant stronghold. When King Louis XIV took Alsace and its capital, Strasbourg, for the Catholic Kingdom of France in the late 17th century, he did not, thanks to the Treaty of Westphalia, interfere with their religion. The same cannot be said for the rest of France. In 1685, King Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes which had given Huguenots, the French Protestants, the freedom to worship in 1598. All over France, the Huguenots had to either renounce their religion, worship in secret, or flee, but the Lutherans and other Protestants of Alsace were, for political reasons, spared this fate. Otherwise, the Lutheran Mühl family would have been forced to flee Geudertheim or give up their faith long before they sailed for America in 1831.

Alsace remained part of France until the Franco-Prussian War when the victorious German Empire annexed it in 1871. After World War I, as part of the Treaty of Versailles, Alsace was given back to France. World War II saw it fall back into German hands, but it was liberated by the Allied Forces in 1944 and has remained under French control since.

After the Napoleonic Wars at the start of the 19th century, Alsace faced severe economic and demographic woes. Emigration to America picked up steam in the 1820s and continued well into the latter half of the century. The typical Alsatian emigrant’s path to America was from the French port of Le Havre to New York City. Once they arrived in New York, many gained passage on the newly opened Erie Canal to Western New York and the Great Lakes.

The Mühls can be found following this path. They sailed from Le Havre, France on the ship New Orleans and arrived in New York City on July 15, 1831. Steam ships were not yet used in Atlantic crossings, so they would have been on a sailing ship. The journey was likely a month in length.


Mühl-Passenger-List


There is some confusing information on the above passenger list for the Mühl family. First, the ages of the children are off, and, second, it lists Switzerland as the place of origin. These are most definitely clerical errors. If you look closely, you’ll notice it lists George, Anne, Michael, Anne, George Jr., Eva, Maria, and Catherine. These are all of the surviving Mühls from Geudertheim listed in their exact order of age. This record also fits into the family timeline perfectly. The last time they are mentioned in the Geudertheim records is 1828. The first time they are mentioned in the American records is post-1831. The odds are astronomical that this is any other family.

The North East Meehls Part VII: The Mühls of Geudertheim

From the

The Month of Floréal, April 20 – May 19, From the 1797-1798 French Republican Calendar.

Since the late 18th century, France has kept excellent civil records, and we now had a place to begin the search for the Meehl family in earnest—Geudertheim. Confident that they could now be found, I headed on over to the Bas-Rhin Departmental Archives and started digging.

There are a few things that are helpful to know when looking at these records:

  1. The Catholic and Protestant parish registers existed before the local government kept civil records. The Protestant parish records in Geudertheim stretch back to 1600. Mühls can be found throughout.
  2. After the Catholic and Protestant parish registers, there are indices, based on date and surname, which will point you to the correct book and page number in the civil records for a specific event (births, marriages, and deaths).
  3. The French word for birth is naissance, marriage is mariage, and death is dècés. The books are labeled ‘N’ for births, ‘M’ for marriages, and ‘D’ for deaths.
  4. A brand new calendar was adopted during the French Revolution to represent the new order of “liberté, égalité, and fraternité”. Everything old was oppressive and unjust. They wanted to begin anew with rational, enlightenment ideals replacing ancient, worn-out creeds and absolute monarchies. So they re-designated 1793 as “Year 1” to signify this fresh start (and decapitated 40,000 people via guillotine but who’s counting?). This new French calendar was used from 1793 to 1805, and these years are referred to as Year One through Year Twelve. Since “An” is the French word for year, the books for this time span are labelled An I, An II, An III, An IV, An V, An VI, An VII, An VIII, An IX, An X, An XI, and An XII. And, to complicate things even more, “An I” didn’t begin on January 1st, 1793 but on the autumnal equinox of that year. To further add to the confusion, the French Republican Calendar introduced new months with names like Frimaire (frost), Floréal (flower), and Messidor (harvest). These months do not align with the traditional 12 months of the calendar so have fun sorting those dates out if you dig into the records between 1793 and 1805.
Michael Mühl Geudertheim birth record from 1811. Record from Bas-Rhin Departmental Archives.

Michael Mühl Geudertheim birth record from 1811. Record from Bas-Rhin Departmental Archives.

Once I familiarized myself with how to navigate the Geudertheim records, I headed straight for the book of 1811 births. I wanted to see if I could find a Michael Mühl whose parents were George and Anne. Find him, I did. Michael was born on May 7, 1811. His parents were George Mühl and Anne Wolff. George was a journalier or day laborer. He was not literate, as can be seen by the ‘X’ at the bottom of this record instead of a signature.

This was a promising piece of evidence, but I wasn’t yet convinced. Michael, George, and Anne are all common names. I’ve seen more unlikely genealogical coincidences. So what about the rest of the family? What about George Jr., Eva, Mary, and Catherine? What about the other five mystery children? Eventually, after an hour or two of scouring the records, I found them all.

George Mühl and Anne Wolff had ten children, as Anne claimed on the 1865 New York State Census. They were all born in Geudertheim.

  1. George was born on January 22, 1805 and died November 26, 1807.
  2. Michael was born on November 26, 1807 and died June 18, 1808.
  3. Anne was born on May 13, 1809 and died June 25, 1809.
  4. Michael (Michael Meehl of North East, Pennsylvania) was born on May 7, 1811. There is no death record for him in Geudertheim (which makes sense since we know he died in North East in 1895).
  5. Anne Meehl was born on June 1, 1813. There is no death record for her. (This was particularly interesting since, at the time, I hadn’t known of her existence. More on her in a later post.)
  6. George (George Meehl Jr. of Boston, New York) was born on December 13, 1815.
  7. Eve Meehl (Eva Meehl of Boston, New York) was born on February 9, 1818.
  8. Jean Adam was born on May 12, 1820 and died May 14, 1823.
  9. Marie (Mary Meehl of Boston, New York) was born on October 12, 1822.
  10. Catherine (Catherine Meehl, later Catherine Endress and Catherine Miller of Boston, New York) was born on May 21, 1828.

Ten children. Count them. Ten. No more. No less. There are no other records of children born to George and Anne. (As a quick aside, there are a few interesting things to note here. First, some of the names are slightly different than how we saw them in the American records. Anna is now Anne. Mary is Marie. Eva is Eve. Michael is Michel. This was common and can be explained by the names being reported in different languages. Second, Michael Meehl was George and Anne’s fourth child but the first to live past the age of 3. And the final item of note, as we can see quite plainly with the Mühls, it was common at this time to reuse the names of previously deceased children.)

So, to sum up the evidence, all five children that we knew about had been found. Including the parents, we had matched up all seven names from the family group in America to the family group in France. The other five children were also found, giving us the grand total of ten we were looking for. Michael Meehl’s birth year was 1811, and we found Michel Mühl born on May 7, 1811. And, finally, Geudertheim was in Alsace. These Mühls were the Meehls, and the Meehl’s ancestral hometown in Europe was Geudertheim, France.

There are plenty of other records to be found in the Bas-Rhin Archives—George and Anne’s marriage, their births, their parents and grandparents, etc. Like I mentioned briefly above, the Mühls can be traced back to the earliest surviving records in 1600.

The Spirit of ’98

King Henry IV

Henry IV, King of France in Armour by Frans Pourbus the Younger. circa 1610. Louvre Museum. Paris, France.

 

Recently, in some old German records, I found for the first time the signature of my earliest known ancestor, Pierre Chastain. This discovery was exciting enough on its own, but then I noticed something curious after his name. At first, I thought it was just a fancy way of terminating the signature, perhaps a symbol of some significance to the family. Whatever it was, to me, it looked purely ornamental. For a day or two, I was focused solely on how it would have been written. I had the image zoomed in so close I could see the pen strokes, three loops connected without the pen being lifted, the middle loop created last.

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The signature of Pierre Chastain from the Schwabendorf, Germany kirchenbuch (church records) from 1695. Pierre was a witness at the wedding of Noë Villang and Susanne Allard.

 

I sent this image to a good friend of mine to see what he could make of it. He has a PhD in history and is an all around smart guy. To him, he said, it was clearly the number 98. I looked again and had to laugh at myself. It was absolutely a 98, but I never saw it until he pointed it out. (Hey, they don’t hand out PhDs to just anyone.)

I next compared Pierre’s signature to some other Chastain signatures from Vesc, France circa 1680. Vesc was Pierre’s hometown, which he had fled in 1685. These signatures all had a 98 as well.

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Three different Chastain signatures circa 1680 from Vesc, France. These signatures were found in the notarial records of Vesc from the Drôme Departmental Archives.

 

And The Chastains weren’t the only ones…

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Other signatures circa 1680 from Vesc, France.

 

I even checked other towns and villages around Vesc from that period. All of the records had at least some signatures that consistently included a 98, some so ornamental the 98 was almost hidden. What was going on?

I stared at these signatures until a light bulb appeared over my head, lit up, and exploded. The 98 was actually a ’98, which represented the year 1598. What was so special about the year 1598 you ask? Not much really, except that King Henry IV signed the Edict of Nantes which granted Huguenots religious freedom and, for the most part, put an end to the religious civil wars that had ravaged France for decades.

Adding a 98 to one’s signature was a way of claiming Huguenotship. It was a proud symbol of the hard-won freedom to worship as conscience, not the state, dictated. It was a celebration of heritage.

In 1685, King Louis XIV revoked his grandfather’s edict, causing hundreds of thousands of Huguenots to flee from France. Despite this loss of freedom, in 1695, in another country, Pierre Chastain still signed his name with a 98.

This is my theory anyway. I’ve so far been unable to discover an official explanation. I’ll update this post if I am ever able to confirm or deny. In closing, I’d like to add that I’m probably the first person to ever use the word Huguenotship. Of that, I am proud.

Update (23 August 2016): I’ve heard back from some experts from France on this matter. My theory was wrong. It’s not a 98. Hives are the name given to this part of the signature in France. The three interlocking loops stand for SubScriptiS or “undersigned”. Pierre’s signature demonstrates the simplest form. They could be personalized as the signer pleased and were often used to show off their skill with a feather pen. I’ll give a few examples in a lengthier update and link to it here.

The North East Meehls Part VI: Back Across the Atlantic

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An Emigrant’s Thoughts of Home by Marshall Claxton. 1859. Oil on cardboard. National Gallery of Victoria.

In the previous post, I neglected to include the following piece of evidence. The first document below is the 1855 NY State Census for Michael Meehl’s family in Eden, New York. The second is for George Meehl Jr’s family in Boston, New York. Column thirteen records how long each person had resided in the current town or city. Michael Meehl claimed 25 years, George Meehl, 24. They were both in the general vicinity for roughly the same amount of time. This is not conclusive proof of a connection by itself but, when added to the growing list of facts, it’s compelling.


Eden-1855-NY-State-Census


Boston-1855-NY-State-Census


Now that I had a solid theory about Michael’s parents, I hoped to find the Meehl family’s ancestral hometown in Alsace. I had a decent sized family group to look for—George, Anne, Michael, George Jr., Eva, and Mary. If I could find these names together on a passenger list or in the civil records in Alsace, there was a good chance it would be them.

The main difficulty in this pursuit was the surname. As I’ve said before, I wasn’t convinced Meehl was the original form. Without knowing the original surname, tracing the family back across the Atlantic was going to be challenging to say the least. After perusing a book of German surnames, I developed a theory that the name was not Meehl, but Mehl, which would have been given to a miller or someone who worked with flour. It was only one letter off, a small mutation compared to others I’d seen, and it was particularly popular in Alsace.

Family Search is an invaluable website when learning what records are available for a specific area. They have wiki pages for virtually every region in the world. Their page for Alsace has a section on emigration with some intriguing resources. One of them, The Alsace Emigration Book, I ordered immediately through inter-library loan. This book contains the names of twenty thousand emigrants who left Alsace between 1817 and 1870. Often, it includes the hometown of each family. When it arrived a week later, I searched for any Meehls or Mehls. There were a few Mehl families but none with the right combination of first names to match the Meehl family group. I then scanned all emigrants with a last name beginning with M. Of course they weren’t there. That would have been too easy and no fun at all.

Luckily, I discovered a few more records for the family in New York that were crucial. The first one was the 1865 NY State census for Boston, New York. There are vital pieces of information here. First, we find Anna Meal and Mary Meal living with a Wolfgang and Catherine Miller. Anna is listed as the mother-in-law and Mary, a sister-in-law. Mary is recorded as being deaf, dumb, blind or idiotic. This is Michael Meehl’s mother and sister, which means that Catherine Miller is Catherine Meehl, another sister of Michael’s. Now Catherine could be added to the family group, another name to help with the search.

Wolfgang Miller is Catherine Meehl’s second husband according to this census. The two other residents of the house are William and Charles Andrus (I’ve also seen the last name spelled Endress). These are two of Catherine’s children from her first marriage (she had a total of four children). Finally, one last fact that proved pivotal in identifying the family in Europe, Anne states that she had ten children. So far, I knew of Michael, George Jr., Eva, Mary, and Catherine. That was only half of them.


Boston-1865-NY-State-Census-Anna-Meehl-had-10-children-and-is-living-with-daughter-Catherine


Thanks to these next two records, I finally discovered the original last name of the family. It wasn’t Meehl or Mehl. The following are baptism records from Trinity Lutheran Church in Buffalo, New York for two of Michael and Sallie Meehl’s children. The first record is for George, their second son, born in 1841 in Hamburg, New York. The second record is for Jacob, their third son, born in 1843 in Eden, New York. Not surprisingly, these records are all in German, confirming that the Meehls originally came from a German-speaking area (Alsace). Sallie is listed on George’s record as Salomé Volmer. On both records, the father’s name is Michael Mühl.


George-Meehl-Baptism


Jacob-Meehl-Baptism


Mühl. This name, unlike Meehl, has a meaning. In German, it is a topographic name given to someone living near a mill. (Keep that in mind for something I’ll cover in a later post.)

Using Family Search’s wiki pages, I found this page which has links to name distribution maps for France. The first one I tried, http://www.geopatronyme.com/, divides France into its departments (which, instead of states or provinces, is how France has been politically organized since 1791) and shows in which departments the name appears most frequently in the historical records. The Bas-Rhin department, the northern portion of the former province of Alsace, was overflowing with Mühls.

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Each department of France has an official identification number. This number is displayed on the map. These are not the number of Mühls found in that department. The number of Mühls for each department can be found in the table to the right of the map. The darker the color on the map, the more the name is found in the civil records. The darkest colored department is Bas-Rhin.

The next distribution map I analyzed showed, not just departments where the name appeared, but individual towns. By far, the town with the most Mühls in the historical records was Geudertheim. This is where I started my search. And this is where I found the Mühl family—George, Anne, Michael, George Jr, Eva, Mary, Catherine, and, the other five children, giving us a grand total of ten.

The North East Meehls Part V: The Empire State

Edmonds, Francis William. Taking the Census. 1854. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Taking the Census by Francis William Edmonds. 1854. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The type and number of records available for researching our ancestors is determined mainly by two factors—events they were a part of (e.g. wars, emigration) and the places they lived. Luckily for us, the Meehls settled in a state that conducted its own census separate from the federal census. In addition to simply increasing the number of records available for the Meehls, these New York State censuses contain information that wasn’t collected on the US federal censuses. Had the family initially settled in Pennsylvania, these NY State records wouldn’t exist, and this puzzle would have been even more difficult to piece together.

Before moving to North East, Erie County, Pennsylvania in 1865, Michael Meehl can be found on the following censuses (the urge to use censi grows swiftly) in New York State—the 1840 US Census in Hamburg, Erie County, New York; the 1855 NY State Census in Eden, Erie County, New York; the 1860 US Census in Concord, Erie County, New York; and the 1865 NY State Census in Eden, Erie County, New York.

The second North East Breeze article on the Meehl family claims that Michael had a brother living in Boston, Erie County, New York. (They started a fertilizer business together at one point in the 1840s.) As seen on the map below, Boston is next door to all of the places of residence for Michael mentioned above.

Erie County, New York (click to enlarge)

Erie County, New York (click to enlarge)

The first time a Meehl family can be found in Boston is on the 1840 US Census. Censuses prior to 1850 only list the head of the household by name. In this case, it was George Meel (another variation of the last name, likely invented by the census recorder). George is an interesting name. Michael’s second oldest son was named George. Shared names across family groups may indicate a connection.


Boston-1840-US-Census


(Keep an eye on the place of birth for the Meehls in the following records. A familiar pattern emerges—Germany, France, Germany, France.)

The next time these other Meehls can be found in the records is on the 1850 U.S. Census. They’re still in Boston, but, on this one, there are two family groups living next to each other. The first is George Meal Jr. and his wife, Mary. The second family consists of George Meal Sr., age 70, his wife, Anna, and two adult daughters, Eva and Mary. In the last column, Eva and Mary are identified as “Idiotic”. Typically, this was in reference to some sort of developmental disease such as Down syndrome (though we don’t know for certain what the actual condition was). There is also a Lan Stanfal, age 4, living with them. I have yet to determine his connection to the family.


Boston-1850-US-Census


The next record, also in Boston, is the 1855 NY State Census. Here, the two family groups from the previous census are now living together under one roof. George Jr. is the head. His wife is now Martha (though, based on later records, I think this is the same Mary that we saw on the 1850 census). His parents, George Sr., now 75, and Anna, 70, as well as Eva and Mary, his sisters, are living with him. Two laborers, John and Michael Shophlet, are also enumerated.


Boston-1855-NY-State-Census


The 1860 US Census has the family spread across two pages. George Jr. is again the head of the household with Martha as his wife. George Sr. is nowhere to be found, which likely means he died sometime between 1855 and 1860. Anna is now 77. George Andrus, age 8, is also living with the family. (As I later discovered, this is a nephew of George Jr.) A 4 year old, whose identity is still uncertain, is living here. And, of extreme interest, is Michael Meehl, aged 22, listed as a farm laborer.

Michael Meehl’s eldest son, Michael Meehl Jr., would have been 22 in 1860. The age is a perfect match. Michael Jr. was no longer living with his parents, Michael Sr. and Sallie, and can be found nowhere else on the 1860 US Census. Also, there are no other Michael Meehls of the same general age to be found in this area. This 22 year old farm laborer is Michael Meehl Jr., Michael Meehl’s son, living with his uncle George and grandmother, Anna.


Boston-1860-US-Census-Page-1


Boston-1860-US-Census-Page-2


We also have proof that these Meehls interacted with Michael and Sallie Meehl. The exchange of land between individuals with the same surname is often a sign there is a family connection. A search of the Erie County, New York land records on familysearch.org yielded the following: In 1840, George Muehl Sr. and his wife, Ann, of Boston, New York, sold land to Michael Muehl. In 1843, Michael Meehl and his wife, Salomé, sold land to George Meehl Jr. And, in 1852, Michael and Sallie again sold land to George Jr.

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George Muehl Sr. and Ann Muehl of Boston, New York selling land to Michael Muehl in 1840

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Michael and Sally Meehl of Boston, New York selling land to George Meehl Jr. in 1852

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Michael Meehl and his wife, Salomé, selling land to George Meehl Jr. in 1843

The more records I found of the Meehls in New York, the more the evidence mounted that George Jr. was Michael’s brother, Eva and Mary, his sisters, and George Sr. and Anna, his parents. I wasn’t completely convinced yet, but I felt I had a solid case worth pursuing.

In the next post, we’ll look at more records of the family in New York State which will, among other things, reveal another sister. In addition, I’ll explain how I made the leap across the Atlantic to Geudertheim.

The North East Meehls Part IV: In Praise of Books

Der Bücherwurm by Carl Spitzweg. (This is what heaven looks like.)

Der Bücherwurm
by Carl Spitzweg. (This is what heaven looks like.)

(Note: this is the fourth in a series of posts about the North East Meehls. The first can be found here. The second, here, and the third, here.)

I’ve always enjoyed reading. Perhaps too much. My nightstand is permanently covered in piles of precariously stacked books. So it didn’t take long, once I became interested in genealogy, to pick up some books on this subject. One of the best I’ve stumbled upon is The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy by Val Greenwood. It’s stuffed full of sage advice. Two pieces of wisdom in particular led to the long-sought breakthrough in my search for the Meehl Family origins.

The first idea is that, for successful research, the researcher must consider all members of the family group. Mr. Greenwood quotes Donald Lines Jacobus, an esteemed American genealogist of the early and mid-20th century, “For many reasons it is advantageous in doing genealogical research to consider the family group, not to look upon each ancestor as an isolated individual, or a mere link in a chain of descent.” Speaking from my own experience, doing this leads to more family members in the family tree. More family members leads to more records, and more records increase the chances of finding new clues.

Relatedly, Mr. Greenwood takes to task those who are in a rush to dig as far back into the past as possible without taking the time to ensure validity, “There is too great a tendency among ancestor hunters to see how far back they can go rather than how accurate and complete they can be. Somehow it seems to matter little whether a pedigree is accurate or not just so long as it goes back a long way.”

With these thoughts in mind, I began filling out the Meehl family tree as completely as I could. My main sources were the second article from the North East Breeze, my pictures from the North East cemetery, and records that were available online. As seen in my last post, among other positives, this strategy led to solid evidence that the Meehls were from Alsace.

The second idea is that, in the general area where the research is focused, a genealogist must be interested in every person with the same surname. Mr. Greenwood puts it this way, “Another thing that will add to the quality of your genealogical research, as well as to your success, is your being concerned for every person of the surname of interest who was living in the localities where your ancestors lived at the time your ancestors lived there, rather than being concerned only for those whom you can already identify.” This would turn out to be crucial.

Which brings me to something that I had struggled with throughout my research of the Meehls. As I’ve done more and more genealogy work, I’ve become interested in surnames—their origins, their meanings, their variations. My own surname, for example, is Chastain. Chastain was the Old French word for chestnut. In fact, the English word chestnut itself is derived from the word chastain in the Old French. It’s been speculated that the name arose to describe someone with chestnut-colored hair or that it may have been given to someone who lived near a chestnut tree.

This interest in names adds some flavor and color to genealogical research, but it can also serve a practical purpose. Clues about the family may be revealed through names, and studying them may provide spelling variations to keep in mind while poring over records. For example, the Chastains emigrated from Germany and arrived in America in 1860. What was a German family doing with a French last name? It turns out that they were Huguenots. The Chastains had settled in Germany after fleeing France in 1685 to escape persecution. By 1860 they were, for all intents and purposes, German, yet the surname pointed further into the past and to a different country.

So what was the story behind the Meehl surname? It was a maddening question. I kept finding records with endless mutations—Mehl, Miehl, Meal, Meuhl, Muehl—and on and on they went. I looked through countless books and websites but could find nothing about the meaning or origin of the name. This made me quite certain that “Meehl” was not the original form. I knew finding the original surname could be decisive in discovering Michael Meehl’s specific place of birth as well as adding more context regarding the family’s roots in general.

Armed with Mr. Greenwood’s advice, I re-read the second North East Breeze article. This time something stood out that hadn’t before—Michael had a brother who lived in Boston, Erie County, New York. Hoping to find him, I began searching for other Meehls, Mehls, Miehls, Meals, Meuhls, Meuhls, etc. in and around Erie County, New York.

In the end, I not only found Michael’s brother, George Meehl Jr., and a few of his sisters, but also, with considerable satisfaction, his parents. Jacques de Meale, the illustrious captain in Napoleon’s army, was nowhere to be found. In his place, we find George and Anne Meehl, illiterate farmers. In the next post, I’ll go over the relevant records in detail.

The North East Meehls Part III: In Search of San Quintain

1762 Map of France

1762 Map of France

(Note: this is the third in a series of posts about the North East Meehls. The first can be found here. The second, here.)

“Alsace”, he said. “I was always told we came from Alsace”. Steph’s father was adamant about this fact. However, the town of origin for Michael Meehl given in the North East Breeze article was San Quintain, France. This created three problems. The first—there is no town in France called San Quintain. Most likely this was referring to Saint-Quentin, which leads us to problem number two—there are several places throughout France called Saint-Quentin. And, finally, the third problem—none of these Saint-Quentins are in Alsace.

This contradiction led me to review more closely the records I had collected for the Meehls. What did they have to say about place of origin? What I found was curious. On some records, Michael Meehl, or his children, claimed that he was from France. On others, it was Germany. France. Germany. France. Germany. These are not the same country. While researching family history, it’s common to find records that contradict each other. Usually these mistakes are just a one time misunderstanding or clerical error. This was different. Both France and Germany were listed as the place of origin about an equal number of times. Surely there was something unique going on here. Below are a few examples of these records. (Sources are on the last page of each document.)


The first record is the 1860 U.S. Census in Concord, Erie County, New York for Michael Meehl. The place of birth for Michael is France.
Concord-1860-US-Census


The second record, also for Michael Meehl, is the 1870 U.S. Census in North East, Erie County, Pennsylvania. Again, the place of birth for Michael Meehl is France. North-East-1870-US-Census


The next three records are for William Meehl, Michael’s youngest son.

On the 1910 U.S. Census in North East, William Meehl is the head of family. This record has some additional, intriguing information. William claims that his father was born in France, but that his native tongue was German. North-East-1910-US-Census-for-William-Meehl


On the 1920 U.S. Census William states that Michael was born in Germany. North-East-1920-US-Census-for-William-Meehl-1


Then on the 1930 U.S. Census, the birthplace of his father is listed as France again. North-East-1930-US-Census-for-William-Meehl


I’ll leave it to Anne at The French Genealogy Blog to explain:

Alsace and Lorraine are two areas in eastern France that have often been in western Germany and before that, the Holy Roman Empire. Being border territories, when the border shifts, so does their legal nationality…This is a part of the world where French and German identities intermingle. Thus, when researching ancestors from this region, one must recognize this fluidity and expect that documents on the same person could say that he was French or German, came from Alsace or France or Germany or maybe Baden, and that all would be true. Ancestors who said they were French could have spoken a variation of German, and vice versa.

And if all of this wasn’t enough evidence, Catherine Meehl Schiefferle, one of Michael’s daughters, on the 1920 U.S. Census in North East, states that her father was born neither in Germany nor France but in Alsace-Lorraine specifically. Catherine-Meehl-Schiefferle-1920-US-Census-in-North-East


There was no doubt about it. The Meehls were from Alsace, not San Quintain/Saint-Quentin. We didn’t yet know which of the several hundred towns in Alsace they were from, but at least we were now on the right track. The article was wrong about both the date of birth and the place of birth. I was beginning to question the entire thing.

The North East Meehls Part II: A Saunter through the Cemetery

Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard by Eugene Delacroix

Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard by Eugene Delacroix

(Note: this is the second in a series of posts about the North East Meehls. The first can be found here.)

While researching family history, there comes a time when it’s extremely beneficial, if not downright necessary, to go grave hunting. Despite websites like findagrave.com constantly adding mountains of tombstone images online, many graves can still only be found the old-fashioned way. And so it is that cemeteries are haunted chiefly by three miserable creatures—ghosts, the grieving, and genealogists.

Depending on the size of the cemetery, it may be prudent to find out who the record keepers or caretakers are. If contacted, they can likely provide the plot and row of the deceased to help locate them (or they can inform you that no such person is buried there). Otherwise, it’s possible to end up wandering the cemetery rows for hours without a guarantee of ever finding their final resting place. Though, if time isn’t an issue, it’s not at all a bad idea to do some wandering. One may stumble upon other relatives, known and unknown, along the way.

Getting nowhere with the information about Michael Meehl’s birth provided in the first North East Breeze article, I wanted to track down other sources. Michael’s tombstone, if it existed, seemed a good place to start. It was not on findagrave or anywhere else online that I could find, so it was time to head to the cemetery itself. I contacted the North East Cemetery Association to see if they had burial records for Michael, but I never heard back. If he was buried there, we would have to find him on our own.

And so there we were (Steph, her parents, one of her sisters, a nephew, and myself) in the cemetery on a sunny day in May of last year, visiting the dead with new life sprouting up around us. After paying our respects to Steph’s grandparents, great-grandparents, and great aunts and uncles, we headed to the old cemetery to look for Michael and Sallie Meehl, her great-great-great-grandparents and the original settlers of the family in North East. It turns out that North East Cemetery (also known as Oak Hill Cemetery) is full of Meehls. Though we were left scratching our heads trying to figure out how each one was related, I took pictures of every Meehl stone that we came across. These images proved invaluable later on as I worked on filling out the various branches of the family tree.

In the old cemetery are many old stones with faded, weather-worn engravings. Neither names nor dates were visible. As we passed them by, I hoped that none of them were Michael’s. He had died, so we were told, in 1895. Rarely are stones that recent worn to the point of illegibility, but, still, the thought pestered me. As I examined one of these stones, I heard a shout of discovery behind me.

In the end, it had taken us only about an hour. Michael and Sallie were indeed buried in North East Cemetery. Born thousands of miles away in another country, Michael Meehl’s bones rested within sight of Lake Erie, where he had brought his family in 1865. The modest inscription on his grave reads: “Michael Meehl 1811-1895”. He was born in 1811, not 1807. The more I read the first North East Breeze article on the origins of the Meehls, the more the cracks began to show. If it had the year of birth wrong, perhaps the place of birth, San Quintain, France, was wrong as well.

Michael Meehl's final resting place in North East Cemetery, North East, Pennsylvania

Michael Meehl’s final resting place in North East Cemetery, North East, Pennsylvania

Salomé Vollmer Meehl, 1810 - 1873.

Salomé Vollmer Meehl, Michael Meehl’s wife, 1810 – 1873.