Just because we can’t “prove it,” doesn’t mean it isn’t true . . .

One of the enduring genealogy myths is that of the “three brothers.” It generally goes along the lines of three brothers emigrating to America, each one heading in a different direction once here, with one of them never heard from again. While it conveniently explains brick walls in our trees, there’s really no basis in fact. Yet, it persists!

My Meintzer line does have three brothers, but only one ends up in the United States. That would be my great grandfather, Christian (Colorful). The next younger brother, Heinrich (1834-1909) remained in the Alsatian village of Dehlingen. His descendants continued to live in the area, with some still living in the family homestead.

The youngest brother was Philippe. He never married, and died relatively young. The legend surrounding him is that his mandatory military service was done in Rome “at the Pope’s.” Supposedly he walked to and from Rome, and later died from a disease he got while there.

The parents of the three boys were Christian Meintzer (born in Volksberg in 1806) and Catharina Christina Isel (Jesel), born in 1809, in Dehlingen. There is a four year gap between Christian and Heinrich, and six years between Heinrich & Philippe. It’s possible Christina may have had miscarriages in those intervals. We know she gave birth to a daughter, Christina, 3 February 1840, who lived only 4 days before dying 7 February. The “tables décennales ” (10-year tables—an alphabetized index of a decade’s worth of births, deaths, and marriages) don’t point us to any other children for this family.

But back to Philippe. We find his birth documented in the civil records the day he was born, 13 December 1841 (no. 29).¹ I can’t post the image here, but the link will take you to that image on the “Archives Departmentales” (Department Archives) of Bas-Rhin website. You need to click the “accepter” button towards the bottom to accept their terms of use and see the image. It’s in French. His parents are listed, along with their ages, birth places, residence, and occupation. Similar information is recorded for the required two witnesses, with signatures for them, as well as the maire (mayor) who recorded the event. No real surprises are in the entry.

The only other vital record in the village was for his death, 28 April 1871 (no. 6).² Philippe didn’t make it to his thirtieth birthday. His occupation was “cultivateur” — one of many terms that could be used for someone working in agriculture. He was not married, and his parents’ names and ages confirm we have the right man. Both parents were still alive at that time. His father, Christian, and brother, Heinrich, also had the occupation of “cultivateur,” and reported the death to the maire.

No mention was made of Philippe’s cause of death—or for any of the other deaths on the page. That’s consistent with what I found with Elisabetha Weidmann Meintzer’s death record, and that of her son, Christian, Jr. (Cause of Death). Apparently it still wasn’t considered important to record, six years later. It’s very inconvenient! You would think the civil authorities would have been more concerned about something like that. It seems he arrived home and was able to work for at least a period of time. If he arrived home so sick he couldn’t work, I doubt they’d have included an occupation for him.

Supposedly, France has excellent military records. Unfortunately, they aren’t easy to locate if you aren’t on-site. Some are coming online, but it’s random as to which Departments have them digitized. It takes time. All young men were required to serve in the military. According to the French Military Records³ site, young men needed to register between their 20th and 21st birthdays. Looking at my great grandfather’s (Philippe’s oldest brother) discharge papers, Christian served about 3 years—from 1854-1857. That doesn’t mean he didn’t report between 1850 and 1851, they simply may not have needed him right then.

So presumably Philippe reported between 13 December 1861 and 13 December 1862. He is, in fact, still at home for the 1861 census,4 but is missing in the 1866 census.5 The next available census is 1880—nine years after he died. While we are fortunate to have reproductions of my great grandfather’s discharge papers, with no descendants, I don’t imagine anyone thought it necessary or important to keep Philippe’s. Until I can manage a trip to Alsace, with a visit to the archives, I can’t pinpoint his service dates better than that. I see no reason he would have been able to escape the mandatory military service, however.

What about the rest of the story? When I think of “military” and “the Pope,” the Swiss Guard immediately springs to mind. Unfortunately, Philippe was neither Swiss, nor Catholic. That branch of the family has a long history of being Lutheran. I doubt the Swiss Guard would have made an exception for him!

Digging a little deeper, one learns there were other military forces associated with the Vatican. One difficulty is that some of them disbanded, or morphed into a different structure, so it’s difficult to nail down who he would have been assigned to. Wikipedia mentions (under the”Papal Military” heading) the Papal Army (1860-1870), containing Italians, Swiss, Irish, plus “artillery and dragoons” (not specifying where those men came from). An international Catholic volunteer corps (Papal Zouaves) was another group formed in 1861 to defend the Papal States. It had a strong French influence, despite the many other nationalities participating. That could be a possibility.

No, I haven’t forgotten that he wasn’t Catholic, but the Second Empire still favored Catholicism, so it’s possible he was sent to Rome, regardless of his beliefs. Unfortunately, unless or until I can obtain access to the military registers, I cannot be more specific than those suggestions. It’s possible there were other, smaller units that simply have been forgotten about.

What about the walking? The distance from Dehlingen to the Vatican is 725 miles. That’s 250 miles longer than the Camino de Santiago—which people walk regularly, and about 1/3 of the Appalachian Trail—another busy route. Google maps tells me it takes 249 hours on foot, so it might be doable in about a month? While an undertaking of that sort rarely crosses our minds, today, back then it was probably more common, particularly for the infantry!

While I am unable to confirm all the details of this legend, nothing I discovered left me with the impression it was impossible, or even unlikely. I can’t imagine my Alsatian cousins would make up a story like that, or get the story so wrong. Philippe’s brother, Heinrich, lived until 1909. While most of Heinrich’s children were born after Philippe died, or were very young, it seems like Philippe was talked about and remembered by that family. Here in the States, we didn’t hear the story of him until 1994, but obviously someone had kept his memory alive! For that, I am grateful.


¹”États-civil”, database, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin (archives.bas-rhin.fr), Dehlingen, Registre de naissances (Birth Registers) 1841, p. 8, no. 29, Philippe MEINTZER, 13 December 1841; accessed 4 July 2019.

²”États-civil”, database, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin (archives.bas-rhin.fr), Dehlingen, Registre de décès (Death Registers) 1871, p. 3, no. 6, Philippe MEINTZER, 28 April 1871; accessed 4 July 2019.

³Morddell, Anne. 2010. “French Military Records – Les Recensements Militaires”. The French Genealogy Blog. https://french-genealogy.typepad.com/genealogie/2010/04/french-military-records-les-recensements-militaires.html.

41861 census of France, canton Saare-Union, arrondissement de Saverne, Bas-Rhin, p. 5, no. 39, family 48, person 215, Chrétien MEINTZER household. Chrétien MEINTZER, age 54; accessed 4 July 2019; digital image, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin, (archives.bas-rhin.fr).

51866 census of France, canton Sarre-Union, arrondissement de Saverne, Bas-Rhin, p. 5, no. 40, family 50, person 213, Chrétien MEINTZER household. Chrétien MEINTZER, age 59; accessed 4 July 2019 [Philippe absent from home]; digital image, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin, (archives.bas-rhin.fr).


Looks can be deceiving . . .

My great-grandfather, Christian Meintzer, lived his life spanning two centuries and two continents. You met him (and this photo) early on (My Favorite Photo). Looking at him here, I wouldn’t peg him as a particularly “colorful” guy (despite my cousin Mark’s artful tint job to the original black and white!). He’s a farmer, just doing his thing. But his life had a little more color than that.

Christian Meintzer and 2nd wife, Sophia Gaertner Meintzer, outside their farmhouse in the Riverwoods, Illinois, 1913 or earlier. Colorization by Mark Halvorsen.

He was born 3 April 1830 in Dehlingen, Bas Rhin, Alsace.¹ You all remember hearing about “Alsace-Lorraine” in school, but it’s not really a place. It’s like talking about “Illinois-Indiana” or “Michigan-Ohio.” But both regions got batted back and forth between France and Germany from 1871 until the end of World War II, and Germany lumped them together. Alsace is the “leg” part of the “sloppy 7” shape they make. His parents were Chrètién [Christian] Meintzer and Christine Isel (Jessel).

Nothing colorful happens until he gets older. France required its young men to serve a mandatory 2-year military stint. From 19 April 1854 to 31 December 1857, he served in the 6th Division, 8th Regiment, of the French Army. Luckily, we still have his discharge papers! He served as a Hussar–light cavalry (horsemen) and was apparently proud of his uniform and his fancy plumed hat. He was not married yet.

Family stories claim Christian fought a dual with Napoleon over improper care of a horse. That would be really exciting . . . except that Napoleon Bonaparte (the person I think of when hearing only “Napoleon”) was dead before Christian was born! Christian actually served when Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon–Bonaparte’s nephew) was emperor. Somehow I doubt Napoleon III was mingling with the troops. So what gives?

From all accounts I’ve heard, Christian was not large (light cavalry, remember?), but was strong for his size, and wiry. His horse, and the others, would have been hugely important to his–and his regiment’s–survival, so I can see him picking a fight with someone who didn’t seem to be taking proper care of his mount–probably not the Emperor, though!

His time in the army also enlarged his vocabulary. The everyday language in Dehlingen would have been Alsatian–a dialect based on German (I’m grossly oversimplifying it!). According to his children (my grandfather and his older siblings), when he was angry, Christian would swear in French! His children did not speak or understand French, so while they knew he was saying something bad, they didn’t know exactly what was said. I hope they knew better than to try and repeat any of it–at least not around their father!

Two years after his discharge from the army, he married his first wife, Elisabeth Weidmann. They had four children, but nine months after their youngest (Catherine–Favorite Name) was born, Elisabeth and their oldest son died. Six months later, he married his second wife, Sophia Gaertner. They had five more children, but lost two.

In 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War, Alsace was surrendered to the newly-formed Germany. Residents were given two choices:

  • remain French–and move elsewhere in France
  • remain where they were–and become German citizens

I’m sure it wasn’t an easy choice for anyone to make. According to Wikipedia, 10.4% of the residents chose French citizenship,² though only 1/3 of them actually emigrated. Christian decided to stay, at least for a while. One granddaughter, Anna Kranz Schultz, told me when his son, Jacob, was born in 1876, Christian decided he needed to emigrate to the United States. According to Anna, he didn’t want his son to serve in the German Army when he grew up. It took until May 1881 for them to sail on the Labrador, moving his wife, two daughters from his first marriage, and 4 children from his second marriage, to America.

Reaching the Riverwoods (north and west of Chicago), the family settled into farming again. Not very exciting or colorful! Christian was 51 years old, and still had three more children to add to the family. He remained on the farm until at least 1910–probably until 1913, when his wife, Sophia, died. At that point (age 83), he moved around to the households of various children. He still spoke only German (Alsatian?).

As he aged, Christian didn’t really slow down much. My 2nd cousin, Richard Jahn (now age 92), once told me his dad remembered Christian out in the fields with his sons and sons-in-law, helping bring in the harvest. It sounded like they all pitched in with whichever field was ready to harvest, knowing they’d later have help with their own. Despite his age, Christian kept up pretty well with the pace of the younger men. We also have this photo of him, out sawing wood. Clearly he held his own with chores!

Christian Meintzer sawing wood. Date undetermined, but before 1922.

Anna also told a story about Christian rowing a boat out into the water and taking off all his clothes. He was living with her mom, Sophie, in Des Plaines at the time, very near the Des Plaines River. Did he go out to fish, and just got too hot? Was he going a bit senile? I don’t know. But at 83+, he was clearly still a colorful guy! He passed away 28 January 1922.

Most times we don’t know much about our ancestors’ lives. Social media didn’t exist. Photos are scarce–and sometimes tossed because they aren’t identified. Their stories, inconsequential as they may seem, disappear because no one takes the time to write them down. Making time to do that preserves these bits of color from their lives. It’s worth the effort.


¹”États-civil”, database, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin (archives.bas-rhin.fr), Dehlingen, naissance [birth] 1830, p. 4, no. 10, Chrètién Meintzer, 3 Avril [April] 1830.

²https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alsace-Lorraine. Section 2.2 “From annexation to World War I,” paragraph 9 (“The Treaty of Frankfurt . . .”), citing reference 6.