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.

Sig

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.

Sig

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…

sig

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.

Update (5 September 2016): As promised, here is the full explanation.