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

1762 Map of France

1762 Map of France

“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.

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

While researching family history, there comes a time when it’s extremely beneficial, if not downright necessary, to go grave hunting. Despite websites like 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.

The North East Meehls Part I: A Family Legend

French 4th Hussar at the Battle of Friedland

Vive L’Empereur by Édouard Detaille

I’ve been digging into the family history of my wife Stephanie, a Meehl from North East, Pennsylvania. To aid my research, her family gave me a copy of two articles detailing the history of the Meehl family first published in the North East Breeze in the 1930s. The first of these articles covers a family legend which the Meehl clan has passed down from generation to generation.

It goes something like this—Michael Meehl, the earliest Meehl ancestor to come to North East in 1865 (after living in Erie County, New York for approximately 35 years), had a father, Jacques de Mealle, who was a captain in Napoleon’s army during the disastrous Moscow campaign of 1812. Also, according to the legend, Jacques had two brothers, James and Louis, who, at 6 feet and 11 inches tall, were bodyguards for the Little Emperor himself. All three survived the Russian campaign and lived to tell the tale.

If the prestige of the above-mentioned Meehls wasn’t enough to stoke the family pride, the article assures us that the de Mealles were “an important people in France” and briefly mentions some 17th and 18th century adventures of the family in the New World. We are told that they were “sent” there to help with the colonization of the new French settlements. Whether these de Mealles stayed in the New World or traveled back to France is not mentioned. So from this story we cannot tell whether Jacques and Michael were descended from these particular de Mealles or from another branch that remained in France. We’re also never told why Michael, a scion of such a noteworthy family, emigrated to America, only that the de Mealles were well off and were able to live in some comfort (which makes one wonder why Michael emigrated at all).

Additionally, this first article states that Michael Meehl was born in 1807 in San Quintain, France. Using this information about his birth and his father’s name, Jacques de Mealle, I spent countless hours scouring the internet for records. I never found any.

Repeatedly frustrated by my lack of progress, I started my search over from scratch. I worked from the present backward in time to build the Meehl family tree. All of the records and clues found along the way eventually led me to the truth. And it turns out that Jacques de Mealle and his impossibly tall brothers are, in fact, pure fiction. Who knows how these stories started and took root. They were the creations of some mischievous prankster perhaps. Regardless of their origins, this legend, like many family legends, has withered under the eye of scrutiny.

That said, the second of the North East Breeze articles was tremendously helpful with information about the family after their arrival in America. But most everything said about the family in the first article is nothing but good old-fashioned yarn spinning.

Over the course of the next several posts, I plan on laying out in detail how I discovered Michael Meehl’s actual parents—George Meehl and Anne Wolff, his place of birth—Geudertheim, Bas-Rhin, Alsace, France, and the original surname of the family—Mühl. There are descendants out there still looking for Jacques de Mealle, but they’ll never find him. I want to set the record straight in the hopes that they will stumble upon these posts and learn the true origins of the Meehls.