A Very, Very, Very Fine House

Five generations of Chastains lived in this house in Schwabendorf, Germany from 1724-1851.

From 1724-1851, five generations of the Chastain family lived in this house in Schwabendorf, Germany.1

In 1724, Pierre Chastain is the first recorded owner of house number 15 on Sommerseite (Summerside) Street in Schwabendorf. Including Pierre, the house stayed in the Chastain family for 5 generations (Pierre, Alexandre, Jean Pierre, Christian, and Peter). In 1851, Peter Chastain, having become responsible for the debt obligations of his siblings, was no longer able to afford living there.

He sold it to a merchant named Salomon Salzenstein, and, in turn, it was quickly purchased by a relative and neighbor, Conrad Aillaud, for 800 thalers. The property was described as such, “residential house with cultivated farm land along with a barn, stables and a yard opposite the house”2.

Peter and family moved into a smaller, more affordable house, number 9 on Sommerseite, just down the street. Here the Chastains lived until 1860 when, because of an increasingly difficult economic situation, they left for America.

1 Badouin, Gerhard. Vom Val Cluson nach Schwabendorf : die Waldenserfamilien Aillaud und Vinçon. Rauschenberg-Schwabendorf: Arbeitskreis für die Geschichte der Hugenotten und Waldenser Schwabendorf e.V., 1996.
2 ibid.

Earl of Exeter

George Washington at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.1

When starting research on a new family, the first thing I typically do is ask the family what they already know. Often, there are documents, pictures, oral histories, and stories that contain glimpses of the family’s past. Next, I look at the meaning and origin of the surname, which often provides further insight. Once I have a firm grasp on this information, in order to get the lay of the land of existing research, I take a gander online to see what others have already found. Someone else may have already done the work.

However, especially when no sources are cited, I never accept as fact what I find. Instead, I use this information, along with what I gathered in the above steps, as a starting point for my own research. If, on the rare occasion, someone does actually cite sources, then I double-check them, and, if they’re legit, I praise the genealogy gods. This is a rare thing.

Impatient and overeager descendants too often force together pieces of information that don’t fit. Then other impatient and overeager descendants copy this information without question. These erroneous family trees spread quickly.

Be wary. Be skeptical. Be careful. Or you’ll end up with a miraculous family tree where men father children ten years after shuffling off this mortal coil.

For the Kings of Erie County, Pennsylvania, the discussion thread found here is typical of what I’ve consistently found online. Everyone seems to trace the family back to an Earl King of Exeter, Rhode Island in the mid to late 1700s. (Note: this is not the same Earl King who married Persiana Brown in North East, Erie County, Pennsylvania. If the Earl in question is, in fact, the ancestor of the Kings of Erie County, he would be the other Earl King’s grandfather.)

The earliest record I’ve found for Earl King is for his marriage to Content Richmond in 1768 in Exeter. Just below the lines that record Earl and Content is the marriage of Stephen King to Dorcas Watson in 1789. Stephen, it is claimed by most online family trees, is the son of this Earl King and the father of the Earl King who we find married to Persiana Brown a few decades later in North East, Pennsylvania.

Record for the marriage of Earl King to Content Richmond, daughter of Stephen Richmond, and the marriage of Stephen King to Dorcas Watson. It appears Earl was originally from South Kingston. 2

The next mention of Earl King I can find is in the book Rhode Island in the Continental Congress.3 A digital copy is available here. Rhode Island was the only colony to hold a referendum on the proposed Constitution of the United States. Rhode Islanders, including Earl King and his father-in-law, Stephen Richmond, voted decisively to reject it.4 The vote was 2,708 to 237.

Earl King can also be found in Exeter on the first United States Census taken in 1790.

Earl King in Exeter, Rhode Island on the 1790 United States Census.5

And, with that, we must, for now, say goodbye to Earl of Exeter. I’ve already spent too much time on him. We’re not even certain he is the ancestor of the Kings of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Time is better spent by starting from the present, working with what we know for certain, and slowly making our way to each preceding generation. Once we make it back far enough, perhaps we’ll bump into him again. If so, we’ll already know a bit about him.

Beach Pond in Exeter, Rhode Island.6

1 Stearns, Junius Brutus. Washington at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. 1856, oil on canvas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA.
2 Rhode Island, Vital Extracts, 1636-1899.
3 Staples, William R. Rhode Island in the Continental Congress. Edited by Reuben Aldridge Guild, Providence Press Company, 1870.
4 Wood, Gordon S. “The Great American Argument.” New Republic, 30 Dec. 2010.
5 United States Census. Year: 1790; Census Place: Exeter, Washington, Rhode Island; Series: M637; Roll: 10; Page: 142; Image: 87; Family History Library Film: 0568150
6 Munro, W.H. Picturesque Rhode Island. J.A. & R.A. Reid Publishers, 1881.

The King Family

King Henry I of England. Miniature from illuminated Chronicle of Matthew Paris (1236-1259), from BL MS Cotton Claudius D. vi, f.9, showing Henry I of England enthroned. Held and digitised by the British Library.

From the Dictionary of American Family Surnames:

English and Scottish: nickname from Middle English king, Old English cyning ‘king’ (originally merely a tribal leader, from Old English cyn(n) ‘tribe’, ‘race’ + the Germanic suffix -ing). The word was already used as a byname before the Norman Conquest, and the nickname was common in the Middle Ages, being used to refer to someone who conducted himself in a kingly manner, or one who had played the part of a king in a pageant, or one who had won the title in a tournament. In other cases it may actually have referred to someone who served in the king’s household…

The specific King family I’m researching can be traced back to the 1750s in Rhode Island before the trail grows cold. Based on the surname, location (New England), and their marriages with, exclusively, members of other English families, it can be safely assumed that the Kings originally came from England. They migrated west to Erie County, Pennsylvania in the early 1800s, settling in the Greenfield, Harborcreek, North East area.

My goal, which will be extremely difficult (and very likely impossible), is to discover their town of origin in England. I’ll be writing about the family and the documents that I find along the way, which will be a fun undertaking regardless of whether I can trace them back to England.

The North East Meehls Part IX: Loose Ends

In an earlier post, I mentioned Anne Mühl, the eldest living daughter of George and Anne when the family came to America. She was a bit of a mystery to me since I was unable to find her in any American records. Luckily, I’ve been in contact with some of my wife’s distant cousins. One of them graciously took the time to send me information she had collected on the family. This info included the whereabouts of Anne Mühl/Meehl. After arriving in America, she married Scott Aldrich in Hamburg, New York. They had several children, but Anne died in 1857 when she was just 43. She is buried in Fredonia, New York. Her burial record lists her birth date as June 1, 1813. This matches what I found for Anne Mühl in Geudertheim. So, there is another piece of evidence (as if we needed more!).

I’ve also been in contact with Mark Meehl, a descendant of William Meehl, Michael’s youngest son. He’s been going to town in the Bas-Rhin Departmental Archives and finding some great stuff. For one, it looks like George Mühl had a couple of brothers and, at one point, they were all in the French army. This means that Michael Meehl’s father did serve in the army along with two uncles. And, even though his father wasn’t an officer (and his name wasn’t Jacques de Mealle) and even though his uncles weren’t imperial bodyguards, there may be a kernel of truth to that family legend after all.

There is much more work that could be done in the archives, including untangling the myriad of Mühls mentioned in the records, as well as tracing the family of Michael Meehl’s mother, the Wolffs. There is also work that could be done to trace other living Mühl/Meehl descendants, including the Endresses, Millers, and Aldriches (the families of Michael’s sisters, Catherine and Anne). I have discovered that George Meehl Jr. of Boston, New York had one son, David Meehl (he also had a few step children). David married Rose Eggen and had three children—Rose, Amelia, and George. Rose married a Mr. Grabau (first name unknown). Amelia married William Reed. I’ve been unable to determine if either of David Meehl’s daughters had children. George Meehl (son of David and grandson of George Meehl Jr.) married Louise Scheible, but, as far as I can tell, they had no children. George was born in 1890 and died in 1964. He had a farm in Boston, NY, but, whether this was the original property of the Mühls in America, I do not know. After George died, the farm was sold to a property developer.

For this project, my one and only goal has been to connect the Meehls to their ancestral hometown in Europe and to demonstrate how that connection was made, not to provide an exhaustive family history. I feel that I’ve accomplished this goal, and so this will be my last entry. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the documents and information available for the Meehls of North East. For those who are interested, there is much more out there to find.

The North East Meehls Part VIII: The Mill on the River Zorn

King Louix XIV Receives Strasbourg City Key

Louis XIV receiving the keys of Strasbourg on 23 October 1681 by Constantijn Francken. Oil on canvas. Strasbourg Historical Museum.

Geudertheim is famous for its watermill on the River Zorn, a tributary of the Rhine. Mühl, a German surname meaning one who lives near a mill, can be traced back to the 1500s, where we find the earliest written records in Geudertheim. From the prevalence of the name in these early records, we can conclude that the mill has been a central part of the community since, at least, the late middle ages. We can also conclude that, in Geudertheim, the Mühls have ancient roots.

Geudertheim Mill on the Zorn
The Mill on the Zorn (photo from the National Library of France)
Geudertheim Mill Wheel
Geudertheim Mill Wheel (from the National Library of France)

Geudertheim, just nine miles from the Rhine (the current border between France and Germany), resides in the Bas-Rhin (Lower Rhine) Department of France. This is the northern half of the former province of Alsace. The general area that now makes up Alsace was conquered by the Roman Empire in the first century B.C. (The Romans were partial to its rich agricultural lands and, in particular, its vineyards.) After the fall of the empire, Alsace traded hands between the Alemanni (I’ve never heard of them either) and the Franks before becoming a part of the Holy Roman Empire until the 17th century.

During the Reformation, in the 16th century, Alsace became a prominent Protestant stronghold. When King Louis XIV took Alsace and its capital, Strasbourg, for the Catholic Kingdom of France in the late 17th century, he did not, thanks to the Treaty of Westphalia, interfere with their religion. The same cannot be said for the rest of France. In 1685, King Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes which had given Huguenots, the French Protestants, the freedom to worship in 1598. All over France, the Huguenots had to either renounce their religion, worship in secret, or flee, but the Lutherans and other Protestants of Alsace were, for political reasons, spared this fate. Otherwise, the Lutheran Mühl family would have been forced to flee Geudertheim or give up their faith long before they sailed for America in 1831.

Alsace remained part of France until the Franco-Prussian War when the victorious German Empire annexed it in 1871. After World War I, as part of the Treaty of Versailles, Alsace was given back to France. World War II saw it fall back into German hands, but it was liberated by the Allied Forces in 1944 and has remained under French control since.

After the Napoleonic Wars at the start of the 19th century, Alsace faced severe economic and demographic woes. Emigration to America picked up steam in the 1820s and continued well into the latter half of the century. The typical Alsatian emigrant’s path to America was from the French port of Le Havre to New York City. Once they arrived in New York, many gained passage on the newly opened Erie Canal to Western New York and the Great Lakes.

The Mühls can be found following this path. They sailed from Le Havre, France on the ship New Orleans and arrived in New York City on July 15, 1831. Steam ships were not yet used in Atlantic crossings, so they would have been on a sailing ship. The journey was likely a month in length.


There is some confusing information on the above passenger list for the Mühl family. First, the ages of the children are off, and, second, it lists Switzerland as the place of origin. These are most definitely clerical errors. If you look closely, you’ll notice it lists George, Anne, Michael, Anne, George Jr., Eva, Maria, and Catherine. These are all of the surviving Mühls from Geudertheim listed in their exact order of age. This record also fits into the family timeline perfectly. The last time they are mentioned in the Geudertheim records is 1828. The first time they are mentioned in the American records is post-1831. The odds are astronomical that this is any other family.

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.


(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.


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.


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.



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.


George Muehl Sr. and Ann Muehl of Boston, New York selling land to Michael Muehl in 1840


Michael and Sally Meehl of Boston, New York selling land to George Meehl Jr. in 1852


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.

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 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.

The Arrival of Athena: The Chastains Come to America

The British steamship, Persia, built in 1856.

The British steamship, Persia, built in 1856.

Before 1820, it’s difficult to find passenger lists for immigrants arriving in America. It’s more likely to find immigrant ancestors on a ship if they arrived after 1820. This was when ship captains were first required to provide a list of all passengers to customs at the port of arrival.

I’d been searching passenger lists for the Chastains without success for months. For me it was one of the glaring holes in my research. What port in Germany did they leave from? What ship did they sail on? When and where did they arrive in America? Thankfully, I’d been able to narrow down a time frame for their arrival. Peter Chastain renounced his Hessian citizenship in January of 1860 and the Chastains were living in Galloway, New Jersey in August of that same year. So they left for and arrived in America some time between January and August of 1860.

Passenger manifest for the ship Athena, sailing from Bremerhaven, Germay, to New York City.

Passenger manifest for the ship Athena, sailing from Bremerhaven, Germay, to New York City. (New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957. Ancestry.com, 2010. Provo, UT USA.)

A few weeks ago, I thought I’d continue my hunt but with a new strategy. I’d seen surnames butchered often enough to wonder if that’s what was stopping my finding the record. Maybe it was best to take the last name out of the equation. Using Ancestry.com’s immigration database, I searched for immigrants named Peter who were roughly 39 years of age and were sailing from Germany to America in 1860. I don’t remember exact numbers, but there were something like five hundred results returned. I only had to scan through twenty or so when a record for a Peter “Schasting” jumped out at me. I looked closer. Peter Schasting had a wife and four children. All with the right names and ages. This was the Chastain family. I would never have found this record if I’d stubbornly continued searching with Chastain as the surname.

Peter, Catherine, and Conrad Chastain

Peter, Catherine, and Conrad Chastain. (New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957. Ancestry.com, 2010. Provo, UT USA.)

Françon (Frances), Peter, and Henry Chastain.

The Chastain family continued on the next page—Françon (Frances), Peter, and Henry Chastain. (New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957. Ancestry.com, 2010. Provo, UT USA.)

The Chastain family—Peter, Catherine, Conrad, Frances, Peter Jr., and Henry (with Lizzie on the way)—along with 453 other passengers, arrived in America on May 30, 1860 after a 21-day journey. They sailed on a steamer named “Athena” (after the Greek goddess), captained by Diedrich Schilling. Their port of departure was Bremerhaven, Germany, and their port of arrival was New York City.

Bremerhaven, Germany

Bremerhaven, Germany. The port of departure for the Chastains.

According to this website , the Athena was an American ship built in 1857. She was purchased by the Konitzky & Thiermann shipping firm of Bremen, Germany and regularly sailed between Bremerhaven and New York City. The ship is listed as weighing 1,057 American tons.

The site mentions two later adventures of the ship as well as its demise:

During the morning of June 1st, 1873, the Athena collided with the English steamer Stammington near Beachy Head. The captain, the mate and a sailor of the steamer jumped onto the Athena as they thought that the Stammington would sink. The steamer however had not been injured below the waterline and was brought to New Haven by the first engineer, two seamen and four of the engine crew. The lower yardarms of the Athena had yanked the mainmast and the smokestack of the steamer overboard. The Athena arrived in New York without damage.

On May 16th, 1877 she sailed from New York and ran into heavy weather in the North Atlantic. She started to leak and had to throw 150 barrels of oil overboard and return to New York. After 1880 she was again registered in Bremen. The Athena was lost in 1886 running ashore, and was a total wreck.

Announcement of The Athena's arrival in the New York Evening Express. Peter Chastain and family were on board.

Announcement of The Athena’s arrival in the New York Evening Express. Peter Chastain and family were on board.


The Ulster. A paddle steamer of the mid-19th century.

The Ulster. A paddle steamer of the mid-19th century.

Update (06/15/2017): As pointed out by Ken in the comments, the Athena was not a steamer, but a sailship. This is a better fit with the time it took the Athena to cross the Atlantic, 21 days, and some other details that I found. I will likely make another post in the future with more details about the Athena. I’ll post a link here when I do.