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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The above is a teaser for an event taking place on the Huguenot Trail starting on Sunday, August 28. Eric Longsworth, a cellist, is hiking from Le Poët-Laval, France to Geneva, Switzerland. He will stop along the way to collaborate with other musicians and artists. What a wonderful project.
While watching the video, it struck me that I was admiring mountains and valleys in France that no Chastain had set eyes upon since Pierre Chastain in 1686. Maybe someday I’ll get to hike the Huguenot Trail myself, starting in Vesc of course, and finishing in Schwabendorf and Louisendorf.
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.
In an earlier post, I mentioned Anne Mühl, the eldest living daughter of George and Anne when the family came to America. She was a bit of a mystery to me since I was unable to find her in any American records. Luckily, I’ve been in contact with some of my wife’s distant cousins. One of them graciously took the time to send me information she had collected on the family. This info included the whereabouts of Anne Mühl/Meehl. After arriving in America, she married Scott Aldrich in Hamburg, New York. They had several children, but Anne died in 1857 when she was just 43. She is buried in Fredonia, New York. Her burial record lists her birth date as June 1, 1813. This matches what I found for Anne Mühl in Geudertheim. So, there is another piece of evidence (as if we needed more!).
I’ve also been in contact with Mark Meehl, a descendant of William Meehl, Michael’s youngest son. He’s been going to town in the Bas-Rhin Departmental Archives and finding some great stuff. For one, it looks like George Mühl had a couple of brothers and, at one point, they were all in the French army. This means that Michael Meehl’s father did serve in the army along with two uncles. And, even though his father wasn’t an officer (and his name wasn’t Jacques de Mealle) and even though his uncles weren’t imperial bodyguards, there may be a kernel of truth to that family legend after all.
There is much more work that could be done in the archives, including untangling the myriad of Mühls mentioned in the records, as well as tracing the family of Michael Meehl’s mother, the Wolffs. There is also work that could be done to trace other living Mühl/Meehl descendants, including the Endresses, Millers, and Aldriches (the families of Michael’s sisters, Catherine and Anne). I have discovered that George Meehl Jr. of Boston, New York had one son, David Meehl (he also had a few step children). David married Rose Eggen and had three children—Rose, Amelia, and George. Rose married a Mr. Grabau (first name unknown). Amelia married William Reed. I’ve been unable to determine if either of David Meehl’s daughters had children. George Meehl (son of David and grandson of George Meehl Jr.) married Louise Scheible, but, as far as I can tell, they had no children. George was born in 1890 and died in 1964. He had a farm in Boston, NY, but, whether this was the original property of the Mühls in America, I do not know. After George died, the farm was sold to a property developer.
For this project, my one and only goal has been to connect the Meehls to their ancestral hometown in Europe and to demonstrate how that connection was made, not to provide an exhaustive family history. I feel that I’ve accomplished this goal, and so this will be my last entry. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the documents and information available for the Meehls of North East. For those who are interested, there is much more out there to find.
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.
Since the late 18th century, France has kept excellent civil records, and we now had a place to begin the search for the Meehl family in earnest—Geudertheim. Confident that they could now be found, I headed on over to the Bas-Rhin Departmental Archives and started digging.
There are a few things that are helpful to know when looking at these records:
The Catholic and Protestant parish registers existed before the local government kept civil records. The Protestant parish records in Geudertheim stretch back to 1600. Mühls can be found throughout.
After the Catholic and Protestant parish registers, there are indices, based on date and surname, which will point you to the correct book and page number in the civil records for a specific event (births, marriages, and deaths).
The French word for birth is naissance, marriage is mariage, and death is dècés. The books are labeled ‘N’ for births, ‘M’ for marriages, and ‘D’ for deaths.
A brand new calendar was adopted during the French Revolution to represent the new order of “liberté, égalité, and fraternité”. Everything old was oppressive and unjust. They wanted to begin anew with rational, enlightenment ideals replacing ancient, worn-out creeds and absolute monarchies. So they re-designated 1793 as “Year 1” to signify this fresh start (and decapitated 40,000 people via guillotine but who’s counting?). This new French calendar was used from 1793 to 1805, and these years are referred to as Year One through Year Twelve. Since “An” is the French word for year, the books for this time span are labelled An I, An II, An III, An IV, An V, An VI, An VII, An VIII, An IX, An X, An XI, and An XII. And, to complicate things even more, “An I” didn’t begin on January 1st, 1793 but on the autumnal equinox of that year. To further add to the confusion, the French Republican Calendar introduced new months with names like Frimaire (frost), Floréal (flower), and Messidor (harvest). These months do not align with the traditional 12 months of the calendar so have fun sorting those dates out if you dig into the records between 1793 and 1805.
Once I familiarized myself with how to navigate the Geudertheim records, I headed straight for the book of 1811 births. I wanted to see if I could find a Michael Mühl whose parents were George and Anne. Find him, I did. Michael was born on May 7, 1811. His parents were George Mühl and Anne Wolff. George was a journalier or day laborer. He was not literate, as can be seen by the ‘X’ at the bottom of this record instead of a signature.
This was a promising piece of evidence, but I wasn’t yet convinced. Michael, George, and Anne are all common names. I’ve seen more unlikely genealogical coincidences. So what about the rest of the family? What about George Jr., Eva, Mary, and Catherine? What about the other five mystery children? Eventually, after an hour or two of scouring the records, I found them all.
George Mühl and Anne Wolff had ten children, as Anne claimed on the 1865 New York State Census. They were all born in Geudertheim.
George was born on January 22, 1805 and died November 26, 1807.
Michael was born on November 26, 1807 and died June 18, 1808.
Anne was born on May 13, 1809 and died June 25, 1809.
Michael (Michael Meehl of North East, Pennsylvania) was born on May 7, 1811. There is no death record for him in Geudertheim (which makes sense since we know he died in North East in 1895).
Anne Meehl was born on June 1, 1813. There is no death record for her. (This was particularly interesting since, at the time, I hadn’t known of her existence. More on her in a later post.)
George (George Meehl Jr. of Boston, New York) was born on December 13, 1815.
Eve Meehl (Eva Meehl of Boston, New York) was born on February 9, 1818.
Jean Adam was born on May 12, 1820 and died May 14, 1823.
Marie (Mary Meehl of Boston, New York) was born on October 12, 1822.
Catherine (Catherine Meehl, later Catherine Endress and Catherine Miller of Boston, New York) was born on May 21, 1828.
Ten children. Count them. Ten. No more. No less. There are no other records of children born to George and Anne. (As a quick aside, there are a few interesting things to note here. First, some of the names are slightly different than how we saw them in the American records. Anna is now Anne. Mary is Marie. Eva is Eve. Michael is Michel. This was common and can be explained by the names being reported in different languages. Second, Michael Meehl was George and Anne’s fourth child but the first to live past the age of 3. And the final item of note, as we can see quite plainly with the Mühls, it was common at this time to reuse the names of previously deceased children.)
So, to sum up the evidence, all five children that we knew about had been found. Including the parents, we had matched up all seven names from the family group in America to the family group in France. The other five children were also found, giving us the grand total of ten we were looking for. Michael Meehl’s birth year was 1811, and we found Michel Mühl born on May 7, 1811. And, finally, Geudertheim was in Alsace. These Mühls were the Meehls, and the Meehl’s ancestral hometown in Europe was Geudertheim, France.
There are plenty of other records to be found in the Bas-Rhin Archives—George and Anne’s marriage, their births, their parents and grandparents, etc. Like I mentioned briefly above, the Mühls can be traced back to the earliest surviving records in 1600.
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.
In the previous post, I neglected to include the following piece of evidence. The first document below is the 1855 NY State Census for Michael Meehl’s family in Eden, New York. The second is for George Meehl Jr’s family in Boston, New York. Column thirteen records how long each person had resided in the current town or city. Michael Meehl claimed 25 years, George Meehl, 24. They were both in the general vicinity for roughly the same amount of time. This is not conclusive proof of a connection by itself but, when added to the growing list of facts, it’s compelling.
Now that I had a solid theory about Michael’s parents, I hoped to find the Meehl family’s ancestral hometown in Alsace. I had a decent sized family group to look for—George, Anne, Michael, George Jr., Eva, and Mary. If I could find these names together on a passenger list or in the civil records in Alsace, there was a good chance it would be them.
The main difficulty in this pursuit was the surname. As I’ve said before, I wasn’t convinced Meehl was the original form. Without knowing the original surname, tracing the family back across the Atlantic was going to be challenging to say the least. After perusing a book of German surnames, I developed a theory that the name was not Meehl, but Mehl, which would have been given to a miller or someone who worked with flour. It was only one letter off, a small mutation compared to others I’d seen, and it was particularly popular in Alsace.
Family Search is an invaluable website when learning what records are available for a specific area. They have wiki pages for virtually every region in the world. Their page for Alsace has a section on emigration with some intriguing resources. One of them, The Alsace Emigration Book, I ordered immediately through inter-library loan. This book contains the names of twenty thousand emigrants who left Alsace between 1817 and 1870. Often, it includes the hometown of each family. When it arrived a week later, I searched for any Meehls or Mehls. There were a few Mehl families but none with the right combination of first names to match the Meehl family group. I then scanned all emigrants with a last name beginning with M. Of course they weren’t there. That would have been too easy and no fun at all.
Luckily, I discovered a few more records for the family in New York that were crucial. The first one was the 1865 NY State census for Boston, New York. There are vital pieces of information here. First, we find Anna Meal and Mary Meal living with a Wolfgang and Catherine Miller. Anna is listed as the mother-in-law and Mary, a sister-in-law. Mary is recorded as being deaf, dumb, blind or idiotic. This is Michael Meehl’s mother and sister, which means that Catherine Miller is Catherine Meehl, another sister of Michael’s. Now Catherine could be added to the family group, another name to help with the search.
Wolfgang Miller is Catherine Meehl’s second husband according to this census. The two other residents of the house are William and Charles Andrus (I’ve also seen the last name spelled Endress). These are two of Catherine’s children from her first marriage (she had a total of four children). Finally, one last fact that proved pivotal in identifying the family in Europe, Anne states that she had ten children. So far, I knew of Michael, George Jr., Eva, Mary, and Catherine. That was only half of them.
Thanks to these next two records, I finally discovered the original last name of the family. It wasn’t Meehl or Mehl. The following are baptism records from Trinity Lutheran Church in Buffalo, New York for two of Michael and Sallie Meehl’s children. The first record is for George, their second son, born in 1841 in Hamburg, New York. The second record is for Jacob, their third son, born in 1843 in Eden, New York. Not surprisingly, these records are all in German, confirming that the Meehls originally came from a German-speaking area (Alsace). Sallie is listed on George’s record as Salomé Volmer. On both records, the father’s name is Michael Mühl.
Mühl. This name, unlike Meehl, has a meaning. In German, it is a topographic name given to someone living near a mill. (Keep that in mind for something I’ll cover in a later post.)
Using Family Search’s wiki pages, I found this page which has links to name distribution maps for France. The first one I tried, http://www.geopatronyme.com/, divides France into its departments (which, instead of states or provinces, is how France has been politically organized since 1791) and shows in which departments the name appears most frequently in the historical records. The Bas-Rhin department, the northern portion of the former province of Alsace, was overflowing with Mühls.
The next distribution map I analyzed showed, not just departments where the name appeared, but individual towns. By far, the town with the most Mühls in the historical records was Geudertheim. This is where I started my search. And this is where I found the Mühl family—George, Anne, Michael, George Jr, Eva, Mary, Catherine, and, the other five children, giving us a grand total of ten.