A Family Mystery

Peter and Anna Maria Zehler

Peter and Anna Maria Zehler

The records available concerning Frank Zehler, present conflicting information about his birth.  These discrepancies, combined with other established facts, suggest that the Zehler family left Prussia under unusual circumstances.  Hence "A Zehler Mystery" presented below.

Frank's Grave Stone
Frank's Grave Stone

The first record of interest is Frank's grave stone in the Sacred Heart of Jesus cemetery in Bennington, New York.  It contains a clear inscription of Frank's birth date of July 1, 1855, nearly a year prior to when the family immigrated to America.  This date becomes interesting when compared to the 186047 and 187046 U.S. Census, which both state the Frank was born in America.  How could Frank have been born in America a year before his family immigrated?  The most likely explanation is: The family gave the census taker the wrong information.

The mystery is further heightened by information in the passenger list from the Sailing Ship Fairfield, the ship which brought Peter and Anna Maria Zehler to America with nine of their children.  The passenger list shows the Zehler family on the upper deck, presumably in steerage, and lists the following family members:

entry number name age sex actual
164 Zöhler Peter 50 M 50
165 Anna 47 F 47
166 Michel 18 M 18
167 Maria 16 F 16
168 Zöhler Mathias 14 M 15
169 Peter 10 M 13
170 Nicolas 8 M 11
171 Maria 6 F 8
172 Wilhelm 4 M 6
173 Johann 2 M 2
174 Jacob 11/12 M 2

In the above table, columns 1 through 4 give the entries in the ships log,
while column 5 gives the age of each child based on their birth records.

Several discrepancies in the passenger list are highlighted above.  First, Michel (Michael) arrived in America in 1855, accompanied by his sister Anna, and therefore was not on the Fairfield.  Second, the age of several of the children is misstated, giving them a lower age.  This is particularly obvious with Jacob, who is the twin brother of Johann.  Finally, Frank is absent from the list.  Thus again we have falsification of the record to hide the presence of Frank on the ship.  These discrepancies are hard to overlook and strongly suggest that the Peter and Anna Maria left Germany under unusual circumstances.

The Mystery

From the information outlined above, we can build a plausible picture of the circumstances surrounding our ancestor's departure from Germany.  The key players are Michael, who left for America in 1855, and Frank, who is not named in the passenger list.  Michael left Germany a few months prior to his 18th birthday, certainly with the intent of avoiding service in the Prussian Army.  And, just as with his oldest brother John, this move would have caused difficulty with the Prussian authorities.  As a result, the rest of the family planned to leave Germany and emigrated to America.

But, how to explain the deception surrounding the birth of Frank?  Here, I suggest that Peter and Anna Maria had planned to bring their family to America in 1855.  However, an unexpected pregnancy got in the way and Anna Maria could not safely travel.  Michael and his sister left anyway, so he could avoid military service, and the remainder of the family waited to follow later.

Of course, this second offence would have upset the Prussian authorities, with potentially major consequences for the family.  So, to avoid any possible punishment, Peter and his family "disappeared", i.e. left Nuhweiler and hide for the Prussian authorities.  The most likely place of hiding was in one of the small villages just 10 to 15 miles East of Nuhweiler.  This location would have had significant advantages.  First and foremost, the territory East of Nuhweiler and Mettnich was the Fürstentum Birkenfeld (Principality of Birkenfeld), which was governed by the Duchy of Oldenburg.  As a separate country, local officials would be less likely to pursue the family.  Second, several cousins of Peter lived in the village of Selbach and might well have helped hide the family.  Finally, one of the Zöhler Families from Selbach had already emigrated to America and settled in Sheldon, Wyoming County, New York.

In this scenario, Peter, Anna Maria and their young children hid in Selbach for nearly a year, waiting for their new born to grow and the weather improve, before undertaking the journey to America.  Of course, the need for secrecy means proof of this conjecture does not likely exist and, unfortunately, we will likely never know the real story.

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