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.)

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.