The Geography of My Heart

Vesc

A view from Vesc, in the former Dauphiné Province.

This past June, Peter Wortsman wrote a fantastic article for the New York Times Travel section. It’s titled Le Dauphiné, a French Region With a History Both Ancient and Personal. This is the ancient land where the Chastains came from.

Wortsman begins:

Driving along a winding highway in the Alps in Southeast France last August, I thought back to the Romans. When they came charging down the mountains into the Rhône River Valley in the first century B.C., how did they ever maneuver their chariots around some of the hairpin curves I was navigating? Did they ever stall, as I once did, at a pivotal juncture at the foot of the Vercors Massif, drawing the ire of Gallic motorists — or the ancient equivalent — honking behind? (As a recent convert from automatic to stick shift, it was my “baptism of the road,” as my French wife, Claudie, put it.)

One thing I knew: They braked long enough to establish the colony of Delphinatus Viennensis, which would eventually blossom into Le Dauphiné — the one-time French province where personal and ancient history are intertwined for me in a place that Claudie once lyrically called “the geography of my heart.”

My wife and I visited the Dauphiné last June. I hope to write about my own experiences eventually, but, when I do, I doubt I’ll come up with anything as evocative as “the geography of my heart”. The phrase rings true. Memories of the Alps, lavender fields, olive groves, vineyards, markets, and medieval villages are firmly lodged in my mind and my heart.

I came, I saw, I was conquered. For 31 years and counting, I have had privileged access to this charmed enclave of roughly 7,695 square miles in the southeast corner of France, ringed by the lavender fields and olive groves of Provence, the vineyards of the Rhône River Valley, and the plateaus and peaks of the Alps. On past visits we invariably dashed from Claudie’s native town, Valence, near some of the country’s finest vineyards, to arrive in time for dinner at her father’s ancestral village, Les Savoyons, in the Alps. But my beloved in-laws have died. There was no one awaiting us at table this time, so we took it slow.

The French Revolution divided the royal province into three departments — the Drôme, Isère and Hautes Alpes — and though the geography varies from fertile plains to rolling hills, to highlands and vertiginous summits, the regional identity remains distinctly Dauphinois. The mood is laid-back, down-to-earth, modulated by a midday siesta and a chilled sip of pastis.

Wortsman even makes brief mention of the Huguenots in his love letter to the old province.

But behind that mellow mood lie centuries of upheaval.

The area was the Roman military and commercial corridor of choice between the Alps and the Rhône; the Punic general Hannibal passed through with his elephants up from North Africa to challenge Rome, allegedly leaving behind the pintade (guinea hen), a succulent cousin of the turkey, traditionally raised in the Drôme. (It also became our favorite holiday fare, best roasted with chestnuts from Ardèche, across the Rhône.)

In the Middle Ages, the Dauphiné was a quasi-independent principality. Its rulers were called Dauphins, until the impecunious Dauphin Humbert II sold his holdings to the King of France in 1349, when the title fell to the king’s eldest son. The rugged terrain made it an optimal refuge for French Huguenots fleeing persecution during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century. In the 20th century, Jews fleeing the Nazi army and the Vichy Regime hid out here. It is hard for a visitor to square the scenic splendor of gorges like Grands Goulets and Combe Laval with the turmoil that took place on the Vercors where the French resistance made a valiant stand.

Read the whole thing.

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.


Mühl-Passenger-List


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 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.
Concord-1860-US-Census


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.