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 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.


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.


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…


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.

A Renaissance Man

Apothecary Shop

The Schwabendorf records for Pierre Chastain list his occupation as surgeon. The Swiss assistance records add another title along with “chirurgien”—apothecary (and don’t forget this renaissance man was also the head school teacher in Louisendorf!). Intriguingly, this tourism site for Vesc mentions an old apothecary sign on one of the buildings in town. Perhaps Pierre once prepared and dispensed medicine to his fellow villagers in that very building.

In Charles Weiss’ History of the French Protestant Refugees (one of Poole’s main sources) Weiss goes into great detail about the persecutions that the Protestants suffered in the years leading up to 1685. It’s infuriating to read and makes me truly despise King Louis XIV. I’ll dive into the gory details and summarize Weiss’ account later, but, for now, I want to highlight a relevant passage as I try to piece together what Pierre’s life may have been like in Vesc. In this section on the persecutions, Weiss discusses each of the professions that were denied to Protestants. The passage relevant to Pierre:

To physicians the exercise of their profession was interdicted under the pretext that they did not advise their Roman Catholic patients, when the moment was come for taking the sacraments. This prohibition was extended to surgeons, apothecaries, and even to midwives, who were accused, in dangerous confinements of sacrificing the child to the mother, at the risk of letting it die without baptism, and thus exposing it to eternal damnation.

Was Pierre, in the final years before he escaped, denied the right to practice as a surgeon and apothecary? If so, how did he make a living? This in itself would have been reason enough to emigrate, but it was just one of countless indignities, sanctioned by the full power of the state, that Protestants were forced to suffer in the name of religion.

New Mysteries

I’ve been having fun poking around in the charity registers that I mentioned last week. I’ve discovered three other Chastains from Vesc besides Pierre—Jacob, Jacques, and Etienne. The only other Chastain in the records is Jean Jacques, from Annonay, which is a bit further north in the Dauphiné. So it appears, based on what I’ve found so far, that there was a clan of Chastains in the Vesc area.

Another page lists some mid-17th century Chastains in Dieulefit, which is just 7 miles to the west of Vesc. I don’t think it’s preposterous to assume there is a connection. I’ve reached out to some folks in France to see if there are any records for Chastains in this area.

But, back to the charity registers, I discovered something of a mystery. A search for Chastain only reveals three records for Pierre. But when I search for Vesc, there is a fourth rogue record. Someone—either the original clerk over 300 years ago or whoever entered the information in the database recently—misspelled Chastain as Chaistain. This record states that Pierre requested assistance in Frankfurt, Germany on 08/13/1688.

This is slightly confusing since he was known to be further north in July of 1687. Perhaps the July of 1687 date is simply for when he reached Germany? As I’ve been saying, I don’t have his exact location in Germany pinned down until he was recorded in Louisendorf in 1692. Perhaps he was already settled there by 1688 but headed down to Frankfurt to get more money?

The above doesn’t really bother me too much. What is really confusing is that this record from Frankfurt states that he was traveling from Maburg (in Hesse near Schwabendorf and Louisendorf) to Geneva. So, according to this, in 1688, he was leaving the Hesse Province of Germany and heading back to Geneva, Switzerland? Is this possible? I suppose so. The refugees in Louisendorf were initially unhappy with their ramshackle houses until the Landgrave built them new ones. For a while, they considered moving on to a new country. On top of this, many Huguenots held out hope that Louis XIV would come to his senses and reinstate religious toleration. Maybe Pierre was fed up with his stone hut and decided to head back to Geneva, closer to his homeland, in case Louis did change his mind? Or perhaps he was heading back to the French Border to lead waiting friends and family to their new home in Germany? It could explain why there is an initial record of him in Germany in 1687 but then nothing for five years.

Or maybe the information is reversed. Maybe he had come from Geneva and was headed to Marburg. It’s possible that, along with the misspelling of Chastain, another mistake was made. This seems the most likely explanation to me. I’ve requested a copy of the original document from the Frankfurt archives. It may be clarifying.

One final note. This record also contains a comment, “On the recommendation of Barthelemey Schobinger”. I’d love to know what this means. The only Barthelemy Schobinger I can find is a Swiss alchemist, dead one hundred years prior to Pierre Chastain’s arrival in Frankfurt. Another mystery.


Beginner’s Luck

St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre by François Dubois.
St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois.

In just one short day the knowledge of my family’s history was extended by over a hundred years. While researching information about Schwabendorf, I quickly came across several German websites. With the aid of technology, namely Google Translate, I was fortunately able to make sense of them. One of the first sites I discovered was, which is a site for a historical society in Schwabendorf. I noticed they had an email address and, after browsing the site, there seemed a good chance of them having Chastain family records. I emailed them, in English of course, with the hope that whoever received the email could translate it or, with some luck, would know English. I wasn’t sure if I would even receive a reply, but I knew it couldn’t hurt to try.

I didn’t want to sit around waiting for a reply that might never come, so I began reading about The Huguenots, the French Protestants who founded Schwabendorf. The origin of the word Huguenot is still contested, but my understanding is that it basically means “confederate” (used in a pejorative sense of course). Here is an extremely brief overview of their history. During the 16th century, Protestantism quickly spread throughout France. This led to fighting, strife, and the persecution of the Huguenot minority by the Catholic majority, including the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 when thousands of Huguenots were killed in Paris.

Eventually, after decades of this bloodshed, the Edict of Nantes was issued in 1598 by the King of France, Henry IV. This edict guaranteed religious freedom for the Huguenots, and the persecution was temporarily quelled. Henry had been a Protestant. But to claim the throne he was forced to convert to Catholicism. He had been a strong ally of the Huguenots before becoming king, and he remained one while wearing the crown as a Catholic.

The situation was better yet far from perfect after the Edict of Nantes. Still, things remained relatively calm until the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King (who, as far as historical figures go, is up there with Oliver Cromwell in deserving contempt). Louis ignored the Edict of Nantes and did whatever he could to harass the Huguenots. Throughout the 17th century, Huguenots steadily began to leave France. However, it wasn’t until Louis completely revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 that a crisis was reached. The floodgates opened. Hundreds of thousands fled. They went wherever they could – England, America, Ireland, Germany, The Netherlands, Switzerland, even South Africa.

I was completely immersed in this fascinating historical narrative, wondering the whole time where the Chastains were in all of this. Had any been killed? Had some played it safe and reconverted to Catholicism? How did those who bravely clung to their religion escape?

I was jolted abruptly out of this reverie by a reply from Schwabendorf. A reply from Schwabendorf! Yes, they said, we do have Chastain family records (and yes, they said, we do know English). They confirmed Peter Alexander Chastain was born there in 1820 and emigrated in 1860 with four children. Peter’s father was Christian (born in 1792) and his mother was Catherine Elisabeth. They had 10 children, but most died young. The oldest entry for a Chastain was Pierre (another Peter!), a surgeon who had settled in Schwabendorf in 1717. He came from Louisendorf, another German colony of French refugees not far from Schwabendorf.

From 1820 back to 1717, the knowledge of the Chastain line had increased by a hundred years in just one day. I’m working on getting a copy of the Schwabendorf Book of Families. It has names and dates for the entire Chastain family in Schwabendorf between 1717 and 1860, almost 150 years. Which, now that I think about it, is as long as we’ve been in America. And now, if I’m lucky, there’s a new trail to pick up in Louisendorf.

Little Red Riding Hood and The Huguenots

Relief, describing the arrival of Huguenots in Prussia (modern day Germany)1685. Johannes Boese

A relief depicting the arrival of Huguenots in Prussia in 1685. Artist: Johannes Boese

Late last week, I began researching my Chastain family line with the knowledge that my great-great-great grandfather, Peter Chastain, had come from Schwabendorf Germany in 1860, and that his father was named Christian Chastain. Armed with this information, I began researching (i.e. Googling) Schwabendorf (which is very fun to say). One of the first things I stumbled upon was this lovely article from 1987.

FAMILY. Tradition. Heritage. An ideal ancestral hometown. Schwabendorf is a place so real it seems almost imagined. You won’t find it on a standard road map of West Germany. This tiny hamlet is no more than a handful of houses surrounded by lush, rolling farm fields ripening with wheat, hops, hay, and corn.

An ideal ancestral hometown? I had only known it was my ancestral hometown for a few hours, but, already, I agreed. It continues:

Nearby on a low hill above the town is a dense, dark forested area cleared of underbrush, firewood neatly stacked between trees. It’s a Little Red Riding Hood landscape. Yet on the first Sunday in July, the 430 people who live in the village were hosts to more than 5,000 visitors – relatives from America, France, other parts of Germany, friends from Italy, Denmark, and the surrounding cities and towns. The crowd had gathered to help celebrate the 300th anniversary of a community created as a refuge for Huguenots – French Protestants – fleeing from religious persecution in their homeland.

The Huguenots? I hadn’t read or thought about them in years. Reading that word swiftly plucked me from out of 2014 and set me down in 1998, sitting studiously in my 10th grade World History class. The Chastains were Huguenots? I’d always loved history, but to suddenly learn of my family’s involvement in dramatic historical events, that made it personal and therefore much more meaningful. This also solved a mystery I had occasionally puzzled over. What vagaries of history had led my family, with a very French last name, to live in Germany? Now I knew.