Alsatians in Seneca County, Ohio

The "Schirrheimers" of St. Stephen, Seneca County

By Vincent Falter

This is a short history of two families of Schirrheim, who were influenced by two different revolutions to move halfway around the world from their small village in Alsace, France to found another small village in Seneca County, Ohio.

If you walk through the small, neat cemetery ¼ mile west of the church at the village of St. Stephen in Venice Township you will note the weathered tombstones which bear the recurring names of Dannemuller/Dannemiller, Lehmann/Lamon/Laman, Blust, Zirger/Zercher, and Steinmetz. All come from the small village of Schirrheim, Alsace, France. You will also note the names Falter, Wurm, and Gerhardstein, many of whom are descendants of the original Schirrheimers. In fact, well over a third of the people buried in the cemetery are Schirrheimers or descended from them. It is well known that neighbors in the "old country" often either immigrated and settled together in America, or immigrated separately and settled near their old neighbors here. This is a narrative about something generally less known about our immigrant ancestors; why they emigrated and how they came to settle together. It is also about how the village they settled in got its name.

The Villages of Schirrheim and Schirrhoffen
Schirrheim (known as Schirrhein since 1872) is a small village about five miles west of the Rhine River and about 12 miles west of the town of Baden-Baden in the state of Baden, Germany. It was a part of a German state for centuries prior to 1648 when it reverted to France, and again reverted to Germany in 1871 as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, and again to France after World War One. The people in the village today still speak German as their language of preference and some still consider themselves German. There is no industry in the village but parts of the area are heavily forested and logging and farming are the two major occupations, as they were when the Schirrheimers left for America. The third and lesser occupation is working at the large French Army garrison of D' Oberhoffen which borders Schirrheim on the west. That garrison plays a significant part in this history.

It is impossible to talk about Schirrheim, without considering Schirrhoffen, an adjacent village. The two have grown into one large village, separated only by a village limits sign on the main street. They share the single Catholic church and all other support services such as the bank, the LOTTO store, and the Gasthöfe (inns) which are in Schirrheim. The inhabitants of both villages are generally collectively referred to as "Schirrheimers" in Stark and Seneca Counties of Ohio where so many of them settled.

The Dannemuller Family
Benoit Dannemuller (also spelled Dannenmuller and Dannemiller) was born about 1786 and married Magdalena Baechel on 7 January 1812 in Schirrheim. They had 11 children. Among them was a son, also named Benoit, born in Schirrheim on 22 December 1813.

The Dannemullers knew Mr. Sharias, the owner of the cotton mill in Schirrhein. Sharias had been an American Revolutionary War soldier. He fought with General LaFayette who took a French Army contingent to America to assist General George Washington during the American Revolution. Young Benoit and his father often went to Sharias' mill and Sharias frequently visited and had dinner with the Dannemullers. The conversation oftentimes was about America, a subject which the old soldier never seemed to tire of discussing. All of the discussions of the America which emerged from its Revolution to become "the land of opportunity" led Benoit to convince his father to let him go there. He was only 16 years old but his father gave him 300 francs to pay his ship passage and told him that, if he did not like America, to write home and he would send him return fare. His uncle Philip Baechel accompanied him.

On 10 October 1830, Benoit and his uncle boarded the Erie, in Le Havre, France and, on 4 November 1830, they landed in New York. Benoit only had enough money left to get as far west as Canton, Stark County, Ohio. In fact, he was so short of money that he had to borrow a dollar from his uncle to see him through. They left New York City for Canton by way of Albany, Buffalo, and Cleveland. In Cleveland, while they were waiting for a canal boat to take them to Canton, Benoit earned his first money in America. There was a small schooner waiting to be loaded at the docks of the grain warehouse. The stevedore boss called Benoit over to the grain bins. He gave him a shovel and conveyed that Benoit was expected to shovel it into the schooner. He worked for an hour, and the stevedore boss paid him with a piece of Spanish silver worth 18 3/4 cents.

Benoit and his uncle arrived safely in Canton on 28 November 1830. They are the first known immigrants to arrive in America from Schirrheim.

Benoit loved America and, shortly before receiving his final naturalization papers on 31 December 1838, he sent for his parents, brothers, and sisters to join him. When they arrived they settled on a farm north of Harrisonburg, Stark County, Ohio.

The Steinmetz Family
Martin Steinmetz was a neighbor of the Dannemullers and came to America as a result of a revolution; in his case, the French Revolution.

Martin was the son of Sebastien (known as Bastien) Steinmetz, and the grandson of General Sebastien Steinmetz, the commander of the French Army garrison of D' Oberhoffen at Schirrheim.

He was commanding the garrison when the French Revolution began in 1789. It resulted in the overthrow the French royal family and eventual execution of the King and Queen. General Sebastien was dismissed from the Army and was elected the first mayor of Schirrhoffen. It was late in 1793 when revolutionary mobs marched toward Schirrheim and Schirrhoffen, and the inhabitants fled across the Rhine River into Germany and sought protection there. Sebastien was crossing the Rhine River to rejoin them when he was shot by Revolutionaries. The Story of General Sebastien Steinmetz

The Steinmetz Return to Alsace
Surprisingly, General Sebastien's children and grandchildren returned to Schirrheim in about 1810, long after the excesses of the Revolution had been curbed and calm reigned under Emperor Napoleon. Martin Steinmetz was a young boy when his family fled to Germany and his grandfather was killed, and when the family returned he was about 21 years old and had an occupation; he was a barrel stave-maker. He married Elisabeth Lang of Schirrheim and began raising a family. He was dissatisfied though. The Revolution had killed his grandfather and disrupted his family's life but there was no more opportunity to improve his status under the French Republic than there had been under the monarchy. Although he prospered financially, in a relative sense, taxes were outrageous. At the same time, his family friends, the Dannemullers were receiving letters from Benoit and his uncle extolling the virtues of cheap, fertile land and their low or no tax life in America. It was clear to Martin that the common people in America were better off after the American Revolution than the Steinmetz family was after the French Revolution. Martin was apparently not alone in that conclusion; 205 persons emigrated from Schirrheim during the period 1828-1838. How large that percentage of the population was can be seen from the fact that the village had a population of only 1,261 people in 1831.

Martin decided to try his luck in America like so many Schirrheimers had before him. He and his family immigrated to America during the 1835-1837 period; the exact year is uncertain due to conflicts in surviving records. Their youngest child, Helena, was born during the voyage. The ship landed at Charleston, South Carolina and the family made its way to Pennsylvania where they spent the winter. In the spring Martin and his family moved west and lived for a time on a farm in Stark County, Ohio. Most probably, they stayed with Benoit or his uncle.

From Stark to Seneca County
On 25 April 1837 Martin bought a farm in Bloom Township, Seneca County. He purchased his 78.8 acre farm from John Shanower of Stark County, Ohio for $200. The deed recorded at the land office at Bucyrus (which recorded for Seneca County at that time) states that Martin was "new of the [Seneca] County." From that point on, shinglemaking was far from his thoughts and he became a diligent and successful farmer.

Two of Martin's children married Dannemullers in Stark County; Nicholas married Magdalena Dannemuller, and Barbara married Stephen Dannemuller. When Martin moved to Seneca County, so did some of the Dannemillers, and they settled nearby in Venice Township. They were followed by other Schirrheimers who knew or were related to both of these families; the Langs, Lehmanns, Zirgers, and Blusts.

The Founding of St. Stephen
Martin lost his wife in tragic, freak, accident on 3 January, 1837. Martin and some other men were going hunting and were outside of his cabin when one of their guns accidentally discharged. The bullet went through a chink in the log wall of the cabin and struck Elisabeth who was inside, holding their baby, Helena. Elisabeth was killed but Helena was uninjured. Martin buried Elisabeth on one corner of his farm.

In May of 1844 the little but growing community at the corners of Bloom and Venice Townships built a small log church, and Martin either donated or sold a four acre plot of his farm for the church and its cemetery. The area around Elisabeth's grave became the cemetery, making hers the first burial there. The men who built the church were Martin Steinmetz, Philip Falter, Matthew Delaney, Stephen Dick, Joseph Danker, and John Wurm. The church was originally named St. Maurice. Tradition has it that its name was changed to St. Stephen sometime before 1847, to honor Stephen Dick who had been the principal organizer of the effort to construct the church and obtain the services of a priest. As the village grew, it took the name of its church, St. Stephen. As an interesting sidelight, Stephen Dick was from Mackenheim, Alsace, France, a few miles from Schirrheim, and was Martin's son-in-law, having married Martin's daughter Madelaine, in Stark County. Philip Falter's son Johann Baptiste would later marry Martin's daughter.

It has been about 160 years since the Dannemullers, Langs, Zirgers, Lehmanns, and the Steinmetzes arrived in America and several hundred of their descendants still live in Seneca County. It has been 153 years since the first church was built at St. Stephen and it is still a revered part of the community. We hope that the descendants of your Schirrhein ancestors thrive as well as have those of Martin Steinmetz and Benoit Dannemuller.