Chasing down Diebold in Alsace

Now we know that my great-great grandfather Diebold Soehnlen declared many times that he was from Alsace. It’s normally possible to drill down and find out exactly which village he came from. Unfortunately, I have yet to find anything, including immigration materials or passenger lists, that shed any light on where he came from and when he arrived.

So as with any investigation, we need to start by arranging the evidence. There are two areas of Alsace: Bas-Rhin, or low Rhine, which is in the north, and Haut-Rhin, or high Rhine, which is in the south. Most Soehnlens/Söhnlens appear to come from Haut-Rhin, so I am going to stick with that for now.

In what year was he born? This will help narrow down the search for his village. Various estimates are available, based on different forms and mostly subtracting his stated age in each resource. In these cases, of course, there’s a margin of error of one year. The naturalization record may not be accurate, since there his name is spelled “Schmidlin”, even where it is signed, but that doesn’t appear to have been signed in his hand; in fact, it’s in the same hand as the rest of the manuscript.

  • 1837 (1860 census: “age 23”)
  • 1834 (?Naturalization, 1856: “age 22”)
  • 1832 (1870 census: “age 38”)
  • 1822 (Death record, 1870: “age 48”)

When did he come to Ohio? Again, these are guesstimates, but these doesn’t seem to be as far off.

  • 1851 (Death record, 1870: 19 years)
  • 1853 (?Naturalization, 1856)

As far as narrowing down his place of birth, it’s also problematic. There is no mention of his home village, or commune, and in Haut-Rhin (which is a guess), there are as many as 366 communes.

If I could find a marriage record, or a passenger list, these would indicate his hometown. It’s likely he was illiterate; this would explain why the spelling of his name shifts so often.

To make this more complicated, there were TWO other Thiebaut (one of many variations) Sohnlens: one moved to New York with his brother Sebastien; the other moved to Galveston, Texas with his father. The ages of these individuals are too young on one hand and too old on the other hand, to cause anything more than more confusion.

Marching orders. These are where my clues may be hiding:

  • Ships from Alsace, Le Havre mostly, leaving 1851-1853
  • Marriage record from Ohio (1853-1855)
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Sunlin etymology

My father, William Sunlin, often joked that our last name was the result of his grandfather’s work as a missionary in China, and he had received the name of Sunlin while there.

Okay, he made that up. But it was a product – I think – of being out of touch with our roots, due to an obscure family name and small pool of relatives.

The truth is that Sunlin, or Sünlin, is an old German name. I propose to share with you the history of this family name as I uncover more and more.

OHG. –lin: sünlin ‘little son’, schtflin; in the modern –lein (scherflein &c.) and in the Swabian –le the effect of the I is obliterated, but in Swiss –li (büebli, füessli &c.) it is still a living force.

-Selected Writings of Otto Jespersen (Routledge Revivals); Otto Jespersen. Routledge, Mar 17, 2010