Lost in the Dreams of our Fathers: My Ancestral History and the Founding of the Nation

I spend a great deal of time on the subject of ancient history; it is impersonal, but I love it nonetheless. But over the past year I have been engaged in another type of history: my lineage. I don’t write on my life often, generally because it isn’t very interesting—no more interesting than if I declined a Latin noun. Knowing about our own family histories is just as important (perhaps more important in some cases) than learning about our cultural history. And, I have to say, my lineage is pretty awesome, so I have decided to share it in the hopes that some of my readers will consider looking into their own bloodline.

I already knew a bit about my paternal side. I knew that the ‘Verenna’ family had come from Santo Stefano in Sicily. My great grandfather (Carmelo) immigrated to the United States when he was young (no one seems to know why and I’m not complaining), around age 23, on the ship Brasile which departed from Napoli and made port in New York in March of 1907. He lived in New York for a short while, probably to make some cash before moving to New Jersey to start a life as a railroad worker. My great grandmother (whose name, we believe, was Natalie) died shortly after my grandfather was born in 1919 (my grandfather used to say that the Black Hand killed her when Carmelo refused to join them), and Carmelo remarried soon after.

The Passenger Manifest from the Brasile. Carmelo’s name is squared-off for easy reference.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any more information. All our family history from Sicily died with Carmelo in 1958. As with most immigrants, ‘Verenna’ is not the original family name but an Americanized version given to Carmelo at Ellis Island, so there is no way to trace the line in Italy with the limited information I have. Obviously no one is now alive who might have had additional information about the original surname.

But my maternal side was something of a mystery. My interest was sparked with a rumor. There were tales that there may be some Scottish and even Native American descent. All of this was speculative; my mother’s side of the family is made up of a lot of very excellent story-tellers. But beyond my great grandfather, my family had no knowledge of the Schall lineage. This is due more or less a matter of circumstance, not because the information wasn’t there. My grandfather on my mother’s side, Mel, had a falling out with his family but remained close with his father (Calvin) when he was a youth; Mel was at one time a greaser and Calvin was quite into motorcycles. Still, Mel’s mother divorced Calvin and Mel ended up living with her for most of his childhood. Because tensions were high it was difficult to learn anything and even if my grandfather had known anything, it was little and he never cared to ask.

In kicked my detective skills (what ever little I have). I wanted to learn more about my heritage beyond the twentieth century, so I turned to several tools to help me discover them. Ancestry.com. Seriously, it is a fantastic site. I pay $22/month to get access to all of my family history in the United States and it is absolutely wonderful. Most of the images I have posted throughout the article came from that site. It helps if you have a starting point but going in blind doesn’t stall the process that much. I can’t recommend it enough.

On Ancestry, I entered in family information I knew about—grandparent’s names and birth years, area they lived in and when and Ancestry did most of the work from there. I say most because you can’t just expect Ancestry to do all the work. There is some fact-checking involved. Okay, a lot of fact-checking involved. If you have a common surname, this is especially important; there may have been twenty John Smith’s in your region a generation ago, and the further back you go the more difficult it is to narrow everything down just using Ancestry (you’ll see what I mean below). This is because the site draws upon links you install (by imputing whatever info you have) and searches millions of records and produces for you those records to ‘attach’ to your tree.

When I was doing a search on my great grandparents, the information was very easy to verify. But going back two more generations, I started to notice that people with the same name were living in two places at once—so obviously two different people. But which one belongs to my direct lineage? This is where fact-checking becomes important and where you need to do some leg work.

Thankfully, in my case, a lot of the work had been done–interestingly enough–by an ancestor. A generation or so ago, someone in my family wrote a lineage book and published it and their descendent picked up the task of updating the volume. So when I did my search, I came across their family tree which contained generational information I had not known. I contacted this relative (whom I had never met) and we have a great conversation. Lo and behold, we verified a significant detail: I am descended from nobility (shocked-face).

This information came as a surprise to everyone in the family. How had such an important detail not been handed down through tradition? I mean, the family can spin tales about Native American blood but not about being descended from the ranks of the elite? Seems to me like someone forgot to mention something somewhere down the line.

The Schall Coat of Arms

My earliest known ancestor was a Freiherr (Baron) in Germany: Baron Maximilian Ramian Henrich Schall von Bell. His wife, Baroness Anna Marie Elisabeth Hatzfeldt, belonged to a (still) illustrious lineage, which we can trace back to at least the 12th century (possibly earlier). Her father’s name was Melchior von Hatzfeldt, but because of some possible confusion with his birth/death date it is difficult to know if this is the same Baron Melchior von Hatzfeldt that led an army as a Field Marshall in the 30 Years War (but I have a suspicion it was for reasons I’ll discuss below). What is certain is that both families—the Schall von Bell’s and the Hatzfeldt’s—were some of the oldest noble families of their time. There are rumors within the line that lineage can be traced back to the Greek kings of the Hellenistic Age (but this is more fantasy than fact—probably the result of a time when lineage meant everything and everyone wanted to trace a line back to the ancient world).

More to the point then, Maximilian died in 1742 in Germany, and soon after his son Nicolas, age 43, came to the United States in late October of 1752 on the ship Neptune with his wife Catharine, sons Andreas (who is my ancestor direct) and Nicolas Jr., and their daughter Mary Ann.

This is the brigantine Mary Celeste, but it is a good representation of what the Neptune would have looked like.

Now here is where some things get a little tricky. Nicolas’s other son, Michael (the youngest), may have come later in 1754 on the brigantine Mary and Sarah as there is a record of a ‘John Michael Schall’ on that boat but no record of a Michael Schall on the Neptune. But, it is also possible that Michael, being under 16 at the time, was not registered as a passenger—so it is also possible that John Michael and Michael Schall are two different people. Either way, the arrival was in Philadelphia and from there, not knowing where John Michael ran off to, Nicolas and family (possibly including Michael) moved to the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, bought 100 acres of land (they clearly brought with them their wealth) and settled near the Moravian mission town of Bethlehem.

Now, there is some confusion over why my ancestors chose to leave Germany. After all, they were Barons and they immigrated to the United States to become farmers. So what gives? Well, as it turns out, they had good reasons. It breaks down like this:

  1. Religious Persecution
  2. Political Change
  3. New Beginnings

The reformation in the 16th century, leading to the spread of Lutheranism throughout Europe, played a large role in setting the stage for the eventual German immigration to the United States. In Germany, where the reformation began, many converts strove for rights to practice their own religion. The Holy Roman Empire (which was neither of those things) was less enthusiastic about it. Many Lutherans were persecuted in the years that followed. Religious wars dominated the landscape, especially in the Palatinate which is where the Schall’s called home.

Charter drafted and signed by King Charles II to William Penn granting him the land which they would call Pennsylvania.

It seems that the Schall von Bell’s remained relatively catholic throughout the next few generations (as best as it suited them, it seems) until, for some reason, Nicolas converted to Lutheranism—his father Maximilian remained Catholic until his death—and was then excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Undoubtedly, Nicolas would have been pressured from the Catholic nobility to convert or leave. Many Lutherans in the Palatinate chose to leave (probably the right choice—better leave than find yourself at the edge of a blade) and fled to Holland. It seems likely that this is what Nicolas had done, since Holland was the country from whence the Neptune departed.

In Colonial America, William Penn had established a region (Pennsylvania) for the development of his community of Quakers, but also for religious freedom in general—German Lutherans found themselves a home among the Quakers and Mennonites, enjoying a life free from the political and religious turmoil of Europe. Little did they know they would find themselves in the middle of a new kind of war for a new kind of government for a new type of society.

Nicolas Schall Sr. gravestone.

Nicolas died in 1772 at the age of 63, but he had built up a large homestead, fighting off attacks from local Native American tribes forced from the Lehigh Valley by the Walking Purchase. Michael Schall was made executor of the homestead, but Andreas bought it from his brother and settled his family there. He probably felt the tensions rising between the colonists and the British well before his father’s death. It would not be long before America’s war for independence would begin.

Thousands of American colonists joined up to fight. Among them, the Schall’s took up arms and did what they had to do to secure the freedom they so longed for after leaving Germany. Nicolas Schall Jr. fought along the frontier of Pennsylvania and eventually move down to what is now West Virginia and established a homestead of his own, fighting off Native American raids in the Shenandoah Valley. Andreas Schall worked the farm and made sure that a portion of his crop was sent to the front lines to hungry soldiers. Michael Schall enlisted with the rank of sergeant in the 8th Company, 2nd Battalion of the Northampton County Militia and went on to become a field officer (Lieutenant) in the 6th Battalion, eventually befriending General George Washington. Michael would even cross the Delaware with Washington in his famous Christmas raid.

I kind of want to imagine it a lot like this.

Another one of my ancestors (direct lineage), a German immigrant by the name of Gerlach Paul Flick, also had a large part to play in the founding of this nation. Having only arrived in America a year before Nicolas Schall and his family (coincidentally, also on the ship Neptune), Paul Flick settled in Northampton County, near where the Schall homestead would later be built. When the war broke out, he was commissioned a Captain and given command over the 8th Company, 4th Battalion Northampton County Militia. Later in the war he joined up with a group of Rangers (which I think is just the coolest thing) and went west into the Pennsylvania frontier to hold off the Native American tribes that the British had enlisted to help quell the rebellion. (Spoiler Alert: we won)

Ranger and Light Infantry Outfits of the American revolution.

Following the war, the Schall’s reestablished themselves in the new world. Nicolas Jr. was on the first Grand Jury of Virginia with George Washington as foreman. Michael Schall and Andreas Schall served in various capacities in the community. I can’t really express the sense of pride I have towards this information—much of it I only just recently learned. It is a fantastic feeling to know that your ancestors played a role, even a minor one, in the forging of a nation. That I have noble blood is also pretty exceptional news to me. I wonder how my ancestors would have understood the changing American climate, if they had any foresight to see where this nation might be headed at the turn of the nineteenth century. I wonder how these German immigrants, exiled (essentially) from their homeland due to religious persecution, would feel about the rise of religion in politics? How would a group of soldiers feel, after preparing and launching an attack on Christmas and the morning following, about the steady ‘religionization’ of the nation?

Dedication of Lt. Michael Schall on the land that Nicolas bought when he came over to America.

One of the really surprising things about research is how many little coincidences I ran across. It turns out that Michael Schall fought next to one of my friends ancestors (who knew?!) and that one of my girlfriend’s distant ancestors was a Hessian soldier that was conscripted to fight with the British (so chances are our ancestors fought one another) and after the war sought to build a home for himself in Lancaster. The graves of all my ancestors are close to where I was raised and I was none the wiser to any of this until I started to dig around (not literally). It just goes to show all that history can tell you–about yourself, your community, your family–and what we can all learn from it.

Seems my family is full of courageous individuals willing to sacrifice everything for the protection of this nation.  In America’s second war with Britain (the oft forgotten War of 1812 where we nearly lost everything), John Shaffer stepped up and joined the 71st Regiment (Hutter’s) of Pennsylvania Militia and was commissioned a Captain.

Second flag issued to the 153rd PA, which never saw combat–though the first flag witnessed the gruesome battle of Gettysburg.

During the Civil War, several Schall’s enlisted in the 153rd Pennsylvania (a Regiment made up of men from just Northampton County), just in time to take part in the Battle of Gettysburg, where Absalom Schall received shrapnel wounds to his shoulder and arm from an exploding shell.

In the end, my family history really comes down to a tale of two families: One family had nothing and came here to America to make something of themselves; the other family had everything and came here to start fresh. And they did it. These two families forged a new path for themselves–one helped to establish a nation (Schall’s, Flick’s, Shafers), the other helped build it (Verenna’s, Regina’s). I never did locate a Native American bloodline, though it may have been through a maternal line directly connected to me–that will require yet even more research, and who knows what I will discover! Alas, no Scottish blood was to be found. Still, I could not have asked for a better lineage. It is a lot to live up to.


3 responses to “Lost in the Dreams of our Fathers: My Ancestral History and the Founding of the Nation

  1. You’re right; but ‘Carmello’ is the Americanized equivalent (essentially non Italians taking down the names phonetically without a care for the proper spelling…hence ‘Verenna’). I changed it in the article to reflect the proper spelling. Thank you! =)

  2. Pingback: Cats in the Cradle: The Importance of Family Trees | The Musings of Thomas Verenna·

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