Hitting the brick wall: Peter Schultheiss Scheffe (Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany)

It’s inevitable.  When you’re researching your family you are going to hit a brick wall. Peter Schultheiss Scheffe is one of those walls.

Peter Scheffe family
Peter Scheffe family

For a man who became mayor of a town in 18th Century Germany, owned a milling business and is thought to have been a judge, precious little is known about this man. I’ve been throwing every trick I know to smash this wall down…to no avail.  If there is comfort to be taken, I am not the only one experiencing a sense of frustration where this man is concerned. A quick scan of family trees in  Ancestry.com shows a staggering number of family trees which stop at Peter Schultheiss Scheffe. Whether it’s an American descendant or descendants in Germany, France or The Netherlands – no one has been able to crack this mystery.

Why is he important?

He’s a keystone ancestor which links a number of families in Europe and the US together. It’s only natural to want to know more about him.  He is also the person who connects the Scheffe and Sheffey families in the US together as well as the Scheffey and Scheffe families in Germany.  In the aftermath of the religious wars which ragged across the region in the 17th and 18th Centuries, and Napoleon’s invasion, a number of his children, grand children and great grandchildren emigrated to the American colonies (PA initially and then MD and VA), Canada, England and the Netherlands.

So what do we know?

The paragraph below is one that appears over and over again in online searches:

Die Mühle wurde im Jahre 1725 durch Peter Scheffe, Schultheiß von Herschberg und Werschhausen, wieder aufgebaut. Besitzer wurde damals Peter Angne, dessen Nachkommen bis zum Jahre 1842 Müller dieser Mühle waren. Angne war wahrscheinlich Schweizer Einwanderer, der zu einer Hugenottenfamilie gehörte und nach dem Dreißigjährigen Krieg in das entvölkerte Gebiet kam. Er hatte sich 1726 mit Maria Margaretha, der Tochter des Schultheißen Peter Scheffe, verheiratet. Die Mühle war vier Generationen im Besitz der Familie Angne. Die Witwe des Peter Angne, Philippine, heiratete in zweiter Ehen den Müller zu Rieschweiler, Adam Bayer. Deren Sohn starb 1885. Dann war die Mühle 10 Jahre an Albert Lenhard von Schauerberg verpachtet. Der neue Besitzer Karl Ludwig Ziegler aus Schönenberg heiratete 1895 Bertha Bayer und hinterließ die Söhne Ludwig und Hermann.

The most reliable translation reads as follows:

The mill was built in 1725 by Peter Scheffe, mayor of Herschberg and Werschhausen. The next owner was Peter Angne, whose descendants owned it until 1842. Agne was probably  a Swiss immigrant and belonged to a Huguenot family, arriving after the Thirty Years War in the depopulated area. He had been married to Maria Margaretha in 1726, the daughter of the mayor Peter Scheffe. The mill was owned by four generations of the family Angne. The widow of Peter Angne, Philippine, married a second time to the Müller Rieschweiler, Adam Bayer. His son died in the 1885. Then the mill was leased 10 years to Albert Lenhard of Schauerberg. The new owner Karl Ludwig Ziegler from Schoenberg married Bertha Bayer in 1895 and left the mill to his sons Ludwig and Hermann.

Peter’s highlights are:

  • He was born around 1669.  There is some conflicting information about where he was born.  Some say he was born in Permasens in present day Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz (see the German map below, it’s the ‘state’ highlighted in dark green). Some say he was born in France and others that he came from Switzerland. German map. Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz is highlighted in dark green.
    German map. Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz is highlighted in dark green.
  • He married Anna Elizabetha from the influential Kiefer family.  No marriage certificate has been found so the date and place of this marriage is unknown. While little is currently known about this marriage, Anna Elisabetha was the mother of his children.
  • He married for a second time.  In 1779 he married Maria Elisabetha Margaretha Wagner in Thaleischweiler which is also in Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz.  This second union doesn’t seem to have produced any further children.
  • All of the digital information available illustrates the same story. He arrives in Herschberg, Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz at an unknown date.  In 1725 he either built or re-built the town’s flour mill, which he owned.
Scheffe family mill, Herschberg, Germany
Scheffe family mill, Herschberg, Germany
  • He was the Mayor of both Herschberg and  Würschhausermühle
  • He died in 1749 in Thaleischweiler, Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz,which where he is buried.

There is a conflicting account of his origins, as I’ve mentioned above. What we do know is that he practiced Lutheranism. If it is true that he was born in France, he would have been born within living memory of divisive and controversial historical figures like Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé (1530–1569, French Huguenot figurehead) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_I_de_Bourbon,_prince_de_Cond%C3%A9 and  Catherine de Medici, Queen Regent of France during a period of great religious upheavals. Like many French Huguenot families, his may have very well escaped to either neighbouring Rheinland-Pfalz in Germany or Switzerland.

It’s also worth remembering that Rheinland-Pfalz, like Alsace-Lorraine, passed back and forth between France and Germany like a football as succession of various kings won and lost territorial wars. So it is plausible that his family may have had to swap back and forth between French and German nationalities as control of this region changed hands.

Some online inquiries

In a pique of frustration, I contacted two professional genealogists who specialize in this region of Germany as well as the Herschberg municipal offices to see if any more information could be found. The municipal office knew the name but knew nothing of Peter’s origins. It was a complete mystery to them.  The genealogists took a punt.  The deal was that if they found anything after a week’s preliminary investigation, that I’d hire them to pursue this line of inquiry. They found very little that I didn’t already know.

What they did find made me laugh, in a good way. Peter Scheffe began his working life as…a Schuhmacher – or shoe maker. He was engaged in the same profession as his son Johann Adam Scheffe (later Adam Sheffey of Fredericksburg, MD) and Adam Sheffey’s son Daniel Henry Sheffey (who would go on to become a celebrated lawyer and congressman).  Peter then went on to become a Mühlenbeständer – miller (auf der Mühlhauser Mühle und Schultheiß) and then mayor of  Herschberg and Wörschhausen…and then a Schultheiss, or judge. So shoe making and public office were in the family’s blood as far back as the mid to late 17th century. Traits the family brought to the New World.

The genealogists went on to offer some other interesting insights.  These are around the family’s name itself. They suggested that Peter’s father perhaps had the surname Schoffe, Schoeffe = Gerichtsmann or Schaefer = shepherd. I have to admit I’m still getting my head around 17th Century German naming conventions, which I’m finding confusing.  Added to this, family names changed radically during this period and the preceding centuries, just as they did elsewhere in Europe.  This is based on phonetic spelling variations of names as well as spellings which were considered ‘fashionable’ at different periods in time. Added to the variations given above, we can also add Shaff and Sheaff to the mix. It makes finding the ancestors of Peter Scheffe a Herculean challenge. One that’s just too expensive for me to hire a professional genealogist to sort out (not that they aren’t worth every penny).

The genealogists then went on to say that the 30 Years War  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Years’_War was an important consideration. During the war, and immediately afterwards, people from many parts of Germany, the Tirol and Switzerland emigrated to the Palatinate.

Then came the kicker that I wasn’t expecting: it’s really interesting that he was a mayor and Schultheiss, a judge, in early 18th Century Germany. Neither of these professions were taken lightly and only men of standing could hold them. Normally, an immigrant could never be considered for this level of public office. Which makes it all the more intriguing, mysterious and surprising that nothing is known of Peter’s origins.

Will this mystery ever be solved?  I hope so.  I have the feeling that there’s a compelling story behind this man which has remained hidden for centuries.

A new update on Peter Scheffe can be found here: http://wp.me/p1fqOP-ay

4 thoughts on “Hitting the brick wall: Peter Schultheiss Scheffe (Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany)

  1. Brian, there is a 50yr difference between Johann and older sister Anna.
    Peter! you the man(lol)
    In all seriousness that is quite an amazing accomplishment at age 65 or 66.

    FYI. There was a Johan Adam Schaff noted on the 1764 Passenger list(3) from Germany arrriving in Philadelphia, PA. I tried to find a Johan Scheffe but was unsuccessful. I am sure this is right person given the poor spelling in those days.

    Thanks for all of the hard research


  2. Hi Brian,
    about the translation (I’m German and bilingual):
    The German text says “re-built” (!) by Peter Scheffe.
    Also in the German language you need to be careful, because there is a difference between “Besitzer” and “Eigner/Eigentum von”. Obviously I don’t know what’s the case here, but the “Besitzer” could be renting or leasing the mill. The German text really tells too little to be sure what was the case here.
    This should be from some of the extensive documentation of mill owners and millers, isn’t it? Do you know which book?
    “Mühlenbeständer” also only says that he had the right to mill (local monopoly), which was lucrative, but it doesn’t mean he actually owned (as Eigner) the mill. (And yes, that right was awarded and not to just anyone, he was a respected man. The people knew him and his family.) He might have been awarded the right and then he leased the mill or re-built the mill and then gave it too his son-in-law …
    Unfortunately I don’t know anything more about mills and millers, but what might also be the case is, that the Schultheiß (I’m speaking of Peter’s function here) had to re-built the much needed mill. If that was the case, he wasn’t a miller, “just” a Schultheiß taking care of village business, making sure the farmers could mill their produce … or even just trying to revive the area that seemed to have been hit hard by the 30-years-war?
    And last but not least – the 30-years-war is THE brick wall in German genealogy as during this war literally all of Germany and all it’s public and clerical as well as many civilian buildings were burnt down. (Remember – Peter Scheffe “RE-built” the mill?) If you manage to break down this brick wall, consider yourself very lucky.
    If Peter came/fled from France maybe there is hope. He does sound like an interesting guy!
    Fingers crossed for you, Brian! 🙂

    1. Hello Verna

      Thank you so much for your comment. The 30 Years War – of course! Talk about a blatant piece of the puzzle being right under my nose 😉 No wonder he’s proving such a challenging fellow to research. And no wonder his local district administrative office doesn’t have vital records for him.

      The orginal text comes from the Wallhalben website: http://www.wallhalben.de/wallhalben/tourismus/muehlen_im_wallalbtal/wuerschhauser_muehle.php Something similar appears on the Herschberg website. To be honest, I’m not sure who did the English translation. However, it’s a translation that appears all over the internet. And like many translations, the subtleties of the native language have probably been lost. So your insights are much appreciated.

      The likelihood is he wasn’t native to the area. So to achieve, in modern terms, success in the middle class of German society was quite an achievement. The thing I keep coming back to is the original German text. To have so much written about a commoner who lived centuries ago leads me to believe he had to be a gentleman of standing in the community and the district. The marriage of daughter into the prosperous and respected Agne family adds further credence to this.

      If my proposed TV series gets the green light, Peter Scheffe is top of the list of European ancestors to research in much more depth. You’ve given me a great angle to research: mill owners. After all, in the 17th Century, mills were at the heart of their communities.

      Thanks once again!

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