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.

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