Beginner’s Luck

St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre by François Dubois.
St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois.

In just one short day the knowledge of my family’s history was extended by over a hundred years. While researching information about Schwabendorf, I quickly came across several German websites. With the aid of technology, namely Google Translate, I was fortunately able to make sense of them. One of the first sites I discovered was http://www.ak-schwabendorf.de/, which is a site for a historical society in Schwabendorf. I noticed they had an email address and, after browsing the site, there seemed a good chance of them having Chastain family records. I emailed them, in English of course, with the hope that whoever received the email could translate it or, with some luck, would know English. I wasn’t sure if I would even receive a reply, but I knew it couldn’t hurt to try.

I didn’t want to sit around waiting for a reply that might never come, so I began reading about The Huguenots, the French Protestants who founded Schwabendorf. The origin of the word Huguenot is still contested, but my understanding is that it basically means “confederate” (used in a pejorative sense of course). Here is an extremely brief overview of their history. During the 16th century, Protestantism quickly spread throughout France. This led to fighting, strife, and the persecution of the Huguenot minority by the Catholic majority, including the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 when thousands of Huguenots were killed in Paris.

Eventually, after decades of this bloodshed, the Edict of Nantes was issued in 1598 by the King of France, Henry IV. This edict guaranteed religious freedom for the Huguenots, and the persecution was temporarily quelled. Henry had been a Protestant. But to claim the throne he was forced to convert to Catholicism. He had been a strong ally of the Huguenots before becoming king, and he remained one while wearing the crown as a Catholic.

The situation was better yet far from perfect after the Edict of Nantes. Still, things remained relatively calm until the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King (who, as far as historical figures go, is up there with Oliver Cromwell in deserving contempt). Louis ignored the Edict of Nantes and did whatever he could to harass the Huguenots. Throughout the 17th century, Huguenots steadily began to leave France. However, it wasn’t until Louis completely revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 that a crisis was reached. The floodgates opened. Hundreds of thousands fled. They went wherever they could – England, America, Ireland, Germany, The Netherlands, Switzerland, even South Africa.

I was completely immersed in this fascinating historical narrative, wondering the whole time where the Chastains were in all of this. Had any been killed? Had some played it safe and reconverted to Catholicism? How did those who bravely clung to their religion escape?

I was jolted abruptly out of this reverie by a reply from Schwabendorf. A reply from Schwabendorf! Yes, they said, we do have Chastain family records (and yes, they said, we do know English). They confirmed Peter Alexander Chastain was born there in 1820 and emigrated in 1860 with four children. Peter’s father was Christian (born in 1792) and his mother was Catherine Elisabeth. They had 10 children, but most died young. The oldest entry for a Chastain was Pierre (another Peter!), a surgeon who had settled in Schwabendorf in 1717. He came from Louisendorf, another German colony of French refugees not far from Schwabendorf.

From 1820 back to 1717, the knowledge of the Chastain line had increased by a hundred years in just one day. I’m working on getting a copy of the Schwabendorf Book of Families. It has names and dates for the entire Chastain family in Schwabendorf between 1717 and 1860, almost 150 years. Which, now that I think about it, is as long as we’ve been in America. And now, if I’m lucky, there’s a new trail to pick up in Louisendorf.

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