The Mayors of Schwabendorf

Dürer, Albrecht. The Adoration of the Magi. Oil on Panel. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. 1504.
The mayor of Schwabendorf was elected annually on the Festival of Epiphany. This holy day is on the sixth of January, the first day after Christmastide, and celebrates the adoration of Christ by the Magi.

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/

Of Chestnuts and Troubadours

From Recueil des poésies des troubadours, contenant leurs vies, a 14th century collection of poems from the troubadour tradition. Here, the troubadour Perdigon, the son of a fisherman, is seen playing his fiddle. The word troubadour is derived from the Occitan trobador. The troubadour tradition arose in Occitania in the 11th century.

In the course of researching my Chastain family, I’ve stumbled upon an excellent online dictionary of French surnames.

The entry for Chastang translates roughly to the following:

Worn in the Cantal, Corrèze and Lozère, it is a toponym evoking the chestnut tree (Occitan “castanh”). Variants or similar forms: Chastain, Chastaing, Chastaingt, Chastan, Chastand, Chastant, names all encountered in the northern part of the Occitan domain, from the Dordogne to the Drôme.

The Drôme, the area mentioned at the end of the entry, is where Vesc, ancestral village of the Chastains, is located. Chastain is a toponym, a type of surname derived from a feature in the local environment, typically near where the person who was given the surname lived. In the case of Chastain, the name would have been given to someone who lived near a prominent chestnut tree.

Occitan, mentioned in the entry, is a Romance language still spoken in the south of France. This was the language of the medieval troubadours and, centuries ago, was widely known even outside of France. Like any other language, Occitan has several dialects. A feature of the Vivaro-Alpin dialect, spoken in northern parts of southern France, such as the Drôme, is a soft ‘ch’ sound instead of a hard ‘c’. This would seem to explain the evolution of the Latin word for chestnut, castanea, with its hard ‘c’, to chastain and its variants, with their soft ‘ch’, in French (like the ‘ch’ in champagne i.e. an English ‘sh’ sound).

The dialects of the Occitan region. The Department of Drôme is labeled with a 26. This area is part of the region that speaks the Vivaro-Alpin dialect. (Map from Dictionnaire Des Noms De Familles Et Noms De Lieux Du Midi De La France by Jacques Astor.)

A map displaying differences in pronunciation by area. The Latin castanea became castanh in Occitan. Then, in the region where Vesc resides, castanh became chastanh and, eventually, mutated into the variations chastain, chastan, and chastaing, just to name a few. Eventually, chastain made its way into the English language as chestnut. (Map from Dictionnaire Des Noms De Familles Et Noms De Lieux Du Midi De La France by Jacques Astor.)

Switching gears, another resource that’s been helpful in my research is this Dictionary of Middle French. In the course of translating historical documents, I often give this a try if the translation into Modern French isn’t making sense. It’s clarified quite a few passages that were previously impenetrable.

Finally, moving even further into the past, the Etymological Dictionary of Old French is another fascinating resource. (I think I was a linguist in another life). It details different spellings of words in Old French and, citing original medieval texts, gives examples of each spelling variant. This dictionary led me to an old 12th century manuscript titled Liber de simplici medicina. In it, a reference is made to miel chastain, a cold remedy consisting of honey infused with a bitter chestnut flour.

I’m tickled to see my surname, spelled exactly how it is today, in a text that’s over eight hundred years old. The word chastain, having evolved into other forms, hasn’t been a part of the French language for centuries, making my surname, Chastain, a fossilized record of an ancient, extinct word.

Occitania in southern France (Author: Jiròni B.)

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

Sources:
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.

Hugo the Huguenot



Here is a neat Kickstarter project by Jennifer Bruntil, an employee of Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, New York. New Paltz was originally settled by Huguenots in the 17th century, and, in an attempt to get children more involved and interested in this history, Jennifer has a written a children’s book. This is a wonderful idea. I’ll be picking up a copy for my own little Huguenot.

Forgotten Books

Old Books

Mmm. Smell that mildew. (Photo: William Hoiles)

I’m currently devouring volume 2 of History of the Rise of the Huguenots by Henry Martyn Baird. The quality of the writing as well as the painstakingly detailed research is impressive. Baird wrote six volumes on the Huguenots (roughly three thousand pages). These books have long been out of print, but, since they’re in the public domain, they can all be found on Google Books for free. There are two volumes each for his three titles on the Huguenots: History of the Rise of the Huguenots, The Huguenots and Henry of Navarre, and The Huguenots and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Baird’s father was a Presbyterian minister, and Baird clearly has an opinion sympathetic to the Protestants. Nevertheless, he is fair and not as blindly partisan as other historians I’ve read.

Baird continues the trend of excellent Huguenot scholarship from the 19th century that I’ve encountered, including the first book on the Huguenots that I read—Reginald Lane Poole’s History of the Huguenots of the Dispersion at the Recall of the Edict of Nantes. Poole’s history holds a special place in my heart and on my virtual bookshelf since it directly led to discoveries about the Chastain family. Another laudable 19th century effort on this subject is History of the French Protestant Refugees by Charlie Weiss.

One thing I’ve learned from my efforts to research my family is how essential it is to read history. The more I read, the more I understand the lives of my ancestors. So read and read and read some more.

A Case of the Hives

A French Notary

An engraving of a French notary. Artist unknown.

In a previous post, I wrote about the signature of my earliest known ancestor, Pierre Chastain. A curious symbol follows his name. And it wasn’t just his. I discovered others whose signatures also included this same symbol. Not sure what to make of this, I asked a good friend for his opinion, and he pointed out that it looked like the number 98. I agreed. And I concocted, what I thought to be, a solid theory based on it being a 98. King Henry IV of France, in 1598, signed the Edict of Nantes, which gave Huguenots a measure of civil rights and religious freedom. I believed that, when signing documents, including a 98 was a way for Huguenots to commemorate this event.

Well, thanks to the good folks at the Genealogical Circle of Provençale Drôme, I finally have an official answer. To my great disappointment (for I fell in love with my own theory), it is, in fact, not a 98.

Sig

Pierre Chastain’s signature.

This symbol is an example of a practice referred to as “ruches”. In English, this translates literally to “hives”, which isn’t that helpful. The Oxford English Dictionary is more illuminating. Ruche is defined as “a frill or pleat of fabric as decoration on a garment or soft furnishing.” It’s not hard to see how the term came to describe this ornamental custom.

Hives first appeared in France in the 7th century as the use of signet rings gave way to manual signatures. They could be personalized however the signer deemed fit and, not coincidentally, were a way of demonstrating skill with a feather pen. This practice, which vanished by the 19th century, would have been most prominent among those whose work required the signing of documents on a regular basis, solicitors and notaries being two obvious examples.

Pierre Chastain’s signature is a specimen of hives at its most basic—three interlocking loops. It simply stood for “the undersigned”. Below is a more elaborate signature, though it is, when compared to the most ostentatious examples of hives, still fairly simple.

Hives

An example of hives found in the Vesc notary records.

Manuel de Diplomatique by Arthur Giry is the authoritative work on this subject. A digital copy is available at Gallica, the digital library run by the National Library of France.

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 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.

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.

My Name Is On A Plaque!

In 1687, Pierre Chastain was one of the original settlers of the village of Schwabendorf, Germany. (Photo courtesy of Gerhard Badouin.)

Memorial to the original Huguenot settlers of the village of Schwabendorf. Among them was Pierre Chastain. (Photo courtesy of Gerhard Badouin.)

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.

List of the founding settlers of the Huguenot colony of Schwabendorf in Hesse on July 4, 1687. Pierre Chastain is the last name listed under group #4.

List of the founding settlers of the Huguenot colony of Schwabendorf in Hesse. Recorded on July 4, 1687. Pierre Chastain is the last name listed under group #4. Moyse Chabrier, with whom he is listed, was his brother-in-law. Moyse had married Marguerite Chastain, one of Pierre’s sisters. Sadly, Marguerite died somewhere between Frankfurt Germany in 1686 and the establishment of the colony at Schwabendorf in 1687 and so doesn’t appear on this list. (Source: Hessian State Archives in Marburg. Bestand 40 a XXV Paket Generalia.)