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.
Sources: 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.
The following, an excerpt from Die Hugenotten in Hessen-Kassel1 by Franz-Anton Kadell, translated by Ann Sherwin2, is a fascinating slice of Schwabendorf’s history circa 1750, involving, among others, Alexandre Chastain, my six times great-grandfather.
An unusual dispute arose in Schwabendorf in the year 1750 over the office of Grebe1, in the course of which the Germans and French split into two factions. In earlier times, the colony had elected or reconfirmed the Greben annually on Epiphany. Around 1734, the Rauschenberg district appointed Georg Wilhelm Keseler as permanent Grebe, with no resistance from the colony. Beginning in 1740, the Grebe of Schwabendorf was provided an annual payment of 3 Viertel2 of grain. Then tensions arose between the community, on the one hand, and the Grebe, the treasurer, and Mayor Stiglitz of Rauschenberg on the other. Pastor Riccardi, above all, spoke out in criticism of both sides. The government in Marburg finally ordered an investigation by councilman and advocatus fisci3 Hamel, which resulted in a formal declaration, on July 23, 1742, of the colony’s right to elect its Grebe annually. It stipulated that the office could also be awarded to a German and that the officeholder should receive a key to the church, for access to the clock, but that he had to see that the fire rake was stored elsewhere. Despite the government directive, Keseler did not give up, and in August 1742 he produced a character reference from the Rauschenberg mayor. It took a formal decree of dismissal dated June 28, 1743, and reconfirmation of the colonists’ right to elect their Grebe before he would step down.
In 1750 the matter was resurrected. Keseler applied to the government in Kassel for the office of Grebe once again. In his opinion, the residents had dismissed him earlier out of jealousy. In the period that followed, they had repeatedly elected merchants and businessmen as Grebe, who were always on the road and left the affairs of their office in disarray [it’s very likely Alexandre Chastain, a hatmaker, was one of the mayors facing this criticism]. Keseler therefore asked to be appointed Grebe for life, pointing out that he was bilingual and had served the office well for years. Again Keseler found support for his efforts in Mayor Stiglitz of Rauschenberg, who endorsed the life appointment. In the latter’s view, the performance of the French Greben had been unsatisfactory because of their “negligence” and frequent absence. Furthermore, they ignored sovereign decrees, failed to report revelry in fields and elsewhere, and, finally, did not collect the seigneurial taxes properly.
At the behest of the government, Frankenberg mayor J. H. Crause went into the colony, interrogated the head of every family individually, and recorded the opinions of the 16 French and 8 German men. The French unanimously favored an annual election of the Grebe. That way, they said, a Grebe could not become too autocratic and the colony would be able to reconfirm a good one. They made harsh accusations against the applicant Keseler from the time he held office. What bothered them most was his domineering nature and that “the colony had to do whatever he said.” In all community and church matters, he insisted on his own way and tried to force them to abstain from work on Lutheran holidays, even though most of them were Reformed. He oppressed the French, strove to increase the German population, and “no colonist dared open his mouth against him.” The French seemed especially incensed that Keseler had brought the fire rakes into the church, contrary to consistorial regulations, thus incurring a fine of 60 Reichstaler for the colony. In general the French were of the opinion that everything in the colony had been “much more calm and peaceful” before Keseler had come to office and that the colony had also paid less in taxes. But then quarrels often arose with the pastor, elders, schoolmaster and the other residents, because Keseler wanted to punish the poor and especially the French residents for every trifle.
The Germans were less unified. A few declared that they didn’t care whether the Grebe changed or remained permanently in office, nor whether Keseler or someone else held the office. In addition to these, there were staunch Keseler supporters. In their view, a permanent appointment would better ensure the safeguarding of sovereign interests, especially since annual election would allow people to gain office who cared little about sovereign rules. For example, they said, Alexandre Chastain and Pierre Daniel Aillaud had violated forest rules by signing over 4 cords of wood to residents who had come from elsewhere and not taken the oath of loyalty “like other manufacturers.” They said that during Keseler’s time in office taxes had been collected on time, whereas François Joubert had collected the monies but not turned them in, thus failing in the execution. An annual change would diminish the “true welfare” of the colony and facilitate embezzlement. The French would scheme anyway and reach agreement long before the election. The Germans would be outvoted every time, since the French, because of friendship and kinship, would play into each other’s hands. Keseler, on the other hand, is “a very honest man” and, because of his knowledge of German, can follow orders precisely, unlike the French. As a man of means, he has no need to “see to his sustenance more than to his office,” and therefore during his time in office, things “things went very well” in the community. According to the Germans’ view, Keseler would have more support if he were not a Lutheran and “were not accurate to a fault in the performance of his duties.”
The French reacted to the interrogation by the Frankenberg mayor with a petition to the government, in which they appeared to have been alienated by the sending of the mayor and spoke out against Keseler once again. On Sept. 1, 1750, the government put an end to the dispute by barring Keseler from the office of Grebe and confirming the right of free election.
1 mayor of a rural Hessian village (plural: Greben) 2 old unit of measure; as a dry measure in Hesse, it may have been close to a peck. It was ¼ of a Scheffel, which is usually translated “bushel” but is not an exact equivalent. 3 state attorney for financial matters
Notes and Sources: 1Kadell, Franz-Anton. Die Hugenotten in Hessen-Kassel. Darmstadt und Marburg, 1980, pgs 627-630. 2Provides translations of German text and transcriptions of old German script. http://asherwin.com/
A few years ago, as I was walking by a cemetery, I saw a backhoe digging a grave. This is a sight I’d seen plenty of times before. Normally, besides momentary pity for the grieving family, I had never thought much about what I was seeing. This time, however, I frowned. Continuing my walk, I was unable to name the cause of this consternation. Finally, after several minutes, I hit upon the matter. We should be buried, not by unknowing, unloving, cold machines, but by the tears and toil of our grieving loved ones.
Machines and technology are both a blessing and a curse. They improve our lives with comforts undreamed of by our ancestors, but, as they liberate us from our responsibilities to each other, they also increase the distance between ourselves, our families, and our neighbors.
This was back in those heady days when I fancied myself a writer. The incident so moved me, I did what anyone would do, I composed a few verses. The first two stanzas are enough to convey what I was going for. (Since I’m currently in a merciful mood, I’ll spare you the rest.)
The tree lifts its arms high in praise
Shading the hushed and shrouded graves
The mournful music swells and sways
Through cracking branch and rustling waves
We bury our dead now with machines
Progress—that two-faced, craven thief
The dignity of man, to me, it seems
Deserves loving toil and heroic grief
Not just any grief but heroic grief. I pictured myself with shovel in hand, digging for hours in a downpour, numbed by my loss and the cold, barely able, by the end, to lift the shovel higher than my knees. Perhaps, in this daydream, I wanted to contrast this simple shovel in the hands of a caring, feeling human against the mechanical complexity and cold indifference of the backhoe. Because it wasn’t just any shovel. It was an old, sturdy shovel, in the family for generations, hallowed by decades of good, honest work, caked with soil from home. You get the idea. I was quite transported.
Not long after, I was reading Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. In it, the main character, a seminary dropout and barber, also doubles as the gravedigger for his small community. He knew each and every one he buried and condemned the use of machines for burials as “not at all the right way to do it.” Hear, hear! Berry’s fiction always emphasizes communal bonds. Those bonds don’t end with death.
It was with these romantic notions of grave digging firmly implanted that I approached a new development in my family history research. Upon receiving The Schwabendorf Book of Families by Gerhard Badouin1, a publication that details all families in the church records between 1687, when the village was established by Huguenot refugees (among them Pierre Chastain), and 1925, I paged through to examine the Chastain family. Along with dates of birth, death, marriage, and the names of spouses and children, the book also lists occupations. Next to Alexandre Chastain’s name (second son of Pierre born 1727) were the occupations ackermann and hutmacher. These were easy enough—farmer and hatmaker. But then there was a more mysterious word. One that I couldn’t translate satisfactorily—grebe.
Grab translates to grave and greben to dig. These were the closest words I could find. On these shaky grounds, I concocted the theory that Alexandre Chastain was a gravedigger and that his fellow villagers had, like Wendell Berry, a high view of this office. Clearly our ancestors, living pre-Industrial Revolution, understood the importance of such work. As time passed, I forgot how weak my translation actually was, and I became very proud of my gravedigging ancestor.
Eventually, I found a German dictionary compiled by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm2. Yes, the Brothers Grimm. Along with collecting fairy tales, they did extensive linguistic work. This dictionary is filled with the language of the common country folk, much of it not found in typical dictionaries. The word grebe is included. It does not mean gravedigger but mayor! Alexandre Chastain was the mayor of Schwabendorf. Somehow, I was disappointed.
Sources: 1Badouin, Gerhard. Familienbuch von Schwabendorf und Wolfskaute. Marburg: Görich & Weiershäuser, 2002. 2Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Deutsches Wörterbuch, 32 Vols. Leipzig, 1854-1961.
Along with Pierre Chastain, I’ve come across a handful of other Chastains from Vesc, France who, attempting to escape religious persecution, emigrated to Germany after 1685. It seemed probable that these Chastains were related to Pierre, but, until now, I’ve had no direct evidence. Recently, the Drôme Departmental Archives in Valence, France sent me a copy of Elie Chastain’s last will and testament, dated November 8, 1686. I was hoping that this document would, among other things, definitively prove these relationships. Before I get to the will, which I’ll cover in another post, I want to review what I knew beforehand.
Pierre Chastain is first found in Germany in June of 1687 as one of the original settlers of Schwabendorf, a Huguenot colony. He is listed in family group number four along with Moyse Chabrier and two of Moyse’s sons. There is no wife listed for Monsieur Chabrier. Right away, I assumed there must be some connection between Moyse and Pierre. Otherwise, why would they be listed together?
For a while, I had nothing else to go on until I found the following, which shows Moyse Chabrier, of Ourches, France and his wife, Marguerite Chast(a)in, in Frankfurt, Germany on May 19, 1686. Moyse and Marguerite had 3 children. The document also notes that Marguerite was pregnant. With them is a Benjamin Gachet of Volvent, France. I’ll mention him again shortly.
Moyse and Marguerite can be found in Frankfurt again five months later on October 18, 1686. This time with five children, which would seem to indicate they had twins. Unfortunately, of these seven, only Moyse and two of the children made it to Schwabendorf by June 30, 1687. The other children and Marguerite died along the way.
For further evidence of the relationship between Pierre and Marguerite, the below is the second page of a marriage contract between Hector Grimolle and Louise Chabrier in Vesc, France. Louise’s parents are Marguerite Chastain and Moyse Chabrier. Marguerite, like Pierre, was a Chastain of Vesc. Was Marguerite an aunt? A cousin? A sister? If a sister, then Moyse Chabrier would have been Pierre’s brother-in-law.
Isabeau Chastain can be found in the same general vicinity as Pierre after the flight into Germany. Below is a document from September 6, 1686 in Frankfurt, Germany. It records Isabeau Cha(s)tain and Benjamin Gachet of Volvent, France, the same Benjamin Gachet found above with Moyse Chabrier and Marguerite Chastain.
Isabeau can also be found in Louisendorf, Germany as a godmother for a baptism in 1690. Pierre Chastain and his mother, Lucrèce Brotier, were living in Louisendorf at the time. In this entry, Isabeau is the wife of Benjamin Gachet of Marburg, so Benjamin and Isabeau were living in nearby Marburg. (Pierre was a godfather at the very next baptism in the church register.)
I was sent a list of the children of Benjamin Gachet and Isabeau Chastain by the German Huguenot Society. The children were Lucrèce, Judith, and Marc. Marc Gachet of Marburg was the godfather of Pierre Chastain’s first son, Pierre, at his baptism in Schwabendorf in 1718. If Isabeau was Pierre’s sister, then Marc Gachet was Pierre’s nephew, and Marc and the younger Pierre were cousins.
Finally, there was a Jacques Chastain from Vesc, France who was in Frankfurt, Germany on April 17, 1686.
The below, from the Marburg church book, shows the deaths of Isabeau Chastain, wife of Benjamin Gachet, and her brother, Jacques Chastain, in 1691. She was 45 and he was 35. They were both from Vesc, France.
The only explicit relationship is between Jacques and Isabeau—brother and sister. As for the others, Isabeau was likely connected to Marguerite, since Isabeau’s husband, Benjamin Gachet, was traveling with Marguerite Chastain and Moyse Chabrier. And another connection existed between Marguerite and Pierre Chastain since Pierre is grouped with her husband, Moyse Chabrier, in Schwabendorf.
The will of Elie Chastain, Pierre’s father, mentions them all. They—Jacques, Isabeau, and Marguerite—are the children of Elie Chastain and Lucrèce Dubrotier of Vesc, France. Two other children, Marie and Judith, are also mentioned in the will. The fate of Marie is unknown. At the time of the will, she was unmarried and had remained in France. Judith married Etienne Noyer, the Royal Notary of Vesc, and had also remained in Vesc. The Catholic parish records have an entry for Judith’s death in 1718. She remained true to the faith of her father. The entry states that she was buried outside hallowed ground.
The genealogy gods are good. A few months ago, I found mention of Pierre Chastain’s mother in the Louisendorf church records. Before this, I had found no evidence for either of Pierre’s parents. Pierre was the end of the line for my Chastain branch. The records for Protestants in France from the 16th through 18th century are, to put it mildly, incomplete. Many were destroyed. Some have been lost. Most are missing. I’ve had better luck with the German records after the Chastain family emigrated from France.
This record from Germany is for the baptism of Elie Relincourt on 9 September 1695 in Louisendorf. The godparents were Pierre Chastain and his mother. To my great frustration, her name was not recorded. It simply says, “Mrs. Chastain, his mother”. I thought that this would be the end of it, and that I would have to be content at least knowing that Pierre had family with him after leaving his homeland behind.
In the earliest records I have for Pierre, there is no mention of his mother. He is first found fleeing from France through Switzerland in 1686 and 1687. In June of 1687, Pierre Chastain was in Schwabendorf, Germany as one the original settlers of this Huguenot colony. By August of 1688, he was in Frankfurt, Germany heading towards Geneva, Switzerland—back towards France. Then he shows back up again in Germany by 1690. I had often wondered why he went back to Geneva.
Recently, I’ve been poking through the records available at the Hessian State Archives in Marburg, Germany. One document that came in the mail two weeks ago has triggered an avalanche of discoveries. It is a list of citizens of Louisendorf (then called Hammonhausen) from 1690. In it, we find Pierre Chastain and his mother. But this time her name is given—Lucrèce. The last name is more difficult to decipher but looks like “Broucier”. This record also states that she was a widow.
Broucier does show up as surname in certain places. But it’s rare, and it can’t be found in Vesc. However, a very common name in Vesc is Brottier, Brotier, or Dubrotier. And, in Vesc, I found a Lucrèce Dubrotier, widow of Elie Chasta(i)n. (Elie is French for Elijah. Old Testament names were much more common among Huguenots than Catholics.)
The following is from the article Religionnaires fugitifs du canton de Dieulefit (Dauphiné): Sources Notariales by Jean Sambuc in the Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français. This article reviews information in the notarial records for religious refugees from the Canton of Dieulefit, where Vesc resides.
(There was an entry for Brotier but it simply stated “see Dubrotier”.) So, here we have a Lucrèce from Vesc, a widow of a Chasta(i)n, who left the Kingdom of France as a religious refugee. The Lucrèce “Broucier” found in Louisendorf is, in fact, Lucrèce Dubrotier of Vesc, wife of Elie Chastain. These are Pierre’s parents, and my eight-times great-grandparents (that’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents) or, to put it another way, ten generations ago. Like I said, the genealogy gods are good. I’m not worthy.
What was Pierre up to when he left Germany for Geneva, Switzerland? He had gone to retrieve his mother and bring her back into Germany with him. Lucrèce was living with a daughter, Marie, in Vesc after Elie died in December of 1686. Some months after this she fled France to, presumably, find her son and other children.
Geneva was the Rome of the Huguenots, and most refugees passed through on their way to other destinations. Lucrèce probably thought it wise to begin her search there. Perhaps, while staying in Geneva, she sent messages on ahead with refugees traveling further into Switzerland and Germany. Or maybe the family somehow remained in contact as some emigrated to Germany and others stayed behind. Perhaps Pierre and his other siblings sent letters back home, notifying Lucrèce of their progress and where they finally settled. Then, once Lucrèce made the decision to follow them, they made plans to meet in Switzerland. Either way, somehow receiving word that his mother had left France and was in Geneva, Pierre is found traveling that way in August of 1688.
The below is a record for Lucrèce Brottier (Brotier, Dubrotier) of Vesc and one son, two months later, receiving aid in Schaffhausen, Switzerland in October of 1688, on their way into Germany, after their reunion in Geneva.
Here is a rough timeline:
1685 or 1686: Pierre flees Vesc, France.
November, 1686: Pierre is in Neuchâtel and then La Neuveville, Switzerland.
December, 1686: Pierre’s father, Elie Chastain, dies in Vesc.
February, 1687: Pierre is in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, next to the German border.
June, 1687: Pierre is in Schwabendorf, Germany.
1687 or 1688: Lucrèce, then living with her daughter, Marie, leaves Vesc and arrives in Geneva, Switzerland. Marie stays in Vesc.
August, 1688: Pierre is in Frankfurt, Germany heading toward Geneva.
October, 1688: Lucrèce and Pierre are in Schaffhausen.
1690: Lucrèce and Pierre are in Louisendorf, Germany.
The same article that mentions Lucrèce and Elie, also has an entry for Pierre Dubrotier, Lucrèce’s brother and Pierre Chastain’s uncle. He was an apothecary in Vesc. It’s likely that Pierre Chastain apprenticed under him (and was perhaps named after him). Further research has shown that Pierre Dubrotier and Lucrèce’s father, and Pierre Chastain’s maternal grandfather, Estienne Dubrotier (married to Clairette Marseille), was also an apothecary in Vesc. It appears that Pierre Chastain was continuing the family business. Pierre Dubrotier died in his attempt to flee the Kingdom of France.
The above also mentions some of Pierre Chastain’s aunts and uncles, as well as two sisters, Judith and Marie Chasta(i)n. Judith was married to Etienne Noyer, the royal notary of Vesc. Marie was unmarried. Pierre had three other siblings who left the Kingdom of France for Hesse—Jacques Chastain, Isabeau Chastain (wife of Benjamin Gachet of Volvent), and Marguerite Chastain (wife of Moyse Chabrier of Ourches). Judith and Marie stayed in Vesc facing the imminent persecution.
There we were in Vesc, the ancestral village of the Chastains in southeastern France, with, besides my wife and I, not a Chastain to be found. Instead, we found Chastans. Lots and lots of Chastans. Chastan was inscribed on a World War I memorial near the mayor’s office. A multitude of Chastans were buried in the cemetery next to the ruins of St. Pierre’s. A few miles outside the village was a Chastan lumberyard. A friendly baker in nearby Dieulefit knew of a piano teacher who was a Chastan. As we talked with her, she asked several customers if they knew of any Chastains. They didn’t, but they knew plenty of Chastans. I was confused. Where had the ‘i’ gone? Were the Chastans and Chastains the same? I wanted to believe that they were. At just one letter off, it seemed obvious, but I didn’t want to make that assumption without evidence.
Overall, our trip to France had been a huge success, but, in this one matter, I was disappointed. I had been expecting to find at least a few Chastains still in their ancestral village, but they had vanished completely. I was eager to discover what had happened. Once we returned home, I took a closer look at the records. Below are a few examples of what I found in the Vesc Parish records in the Drôme Departmental Archives in Valence, France.
The first two records are for the births of two brothers—Pierre Chastain (not my ancestor) and Jean Isaie Chastan. Pierre was born in 1738 to parents Jean Pierre Chastain and Marguerite Gueyle. Jean Isaie was born in 1760 to the same parents. Pierre was born as a Chastain while Jean Isaie was born “Chastan”.
The next two records are for Marguerite Chastain. She married Pierre Gueyle in 1737 as a Chastain, but, when she died in 1761, she was a Chastan.
The final two records are for Claude Chastain. When he married Catherine Roussin in 1753, he was a Chastain. Claude died in 1815 as a Chastan.
These are just three examples of this switch in the spelling of the surname. There are countless others. Previous to this, Chastain, Chastan and Chastaing were all common spellings of the name, but, at some point in the mid-18th century, for unknown reasons, perhaps for no reason in particular, the ‘i’ was dropped from the name. And, from that point on, it was consistently spelled ‘Chastan’. All of those Chastans I discovered in Vesc are almost certainly long lost cousins.
Our family, having emigrated to Germany, left before this change took place in Vesc, and so we retain the ‘Chastain’ variation.
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, 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.
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.
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.
And The Chastains weren’t the only ones…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Of the 200,000 Huguenots who fled France circa 1685, 50,000 fled to Germany. Of the 50,000 who fled to Germany, 116 found themselves in the town of Rauschenberg. The ruler of Hesse granted these refugees land to the northwest of Rauschenberg to start their own settlement. And so, on June 30, 1687, the Huguenot colony of Schwabendorf was established. Among those 116 Frenchmen, we find Pierre Chastain, and, because of this, we find the surname Chastain engraved on the memorial pictured above. It was erected in Schwabendorf in 1987 to celebrate 300 years.
Pierre wasn’t in Schwabendorf for long. In 1688, there is evidence he traveled back to Geneva, Switzerland for some unknown reason (going back to the French border to retrieve family members was not uncommon). Between 1688 and 1690-91, it appears he was living in Marburg, Germany with some relatives, Jacques Chastain and Isabeau Chastain, both from Pierre’s hometown of Vesc in France. Eventually, Pierre settled in Louisendorf, another Huguenot colony in Hesse, where he was the schoolmaster and a church elder from 1692 to 1717. In 1717, he moved back to Schwabendorf and married Anne Marie Gautier, the eldest daughter of a local stocking weaver, Claude Gautier. Pierre died in Schwabendorf in 1731, forty-four years after he was recorded as one of its founders.
Update July 2017: After leaving Schwabendorf, Pierre was living in Marburg with his brother, Jacques, his sister, Isabeau Chastain, and her family. Isabeau was married to Benjamin Gachet, a merchant from Volvent, France. Pierre left Marburg for Geneva to retrieve his mother, Lucrèce Dubrotier. She had stayed behind in France with Pierre’s ailing father, Elie Chastain. Once Elie died in December of 1686, Lucrèce began to make her way into Germany to join Pierre and her other children. She must have been a stout old lady to cross the Alps on her journey. Pierre somehow received word of her coming and traveled back toward his homeland to meet her. On returning, Pierre and his mother settled in Louisendorf, near Marburg and Schwabendorf. They lived together there until her death sometime after 1695.