Keithleys and Retrograde Migration

by Frank Deis

It has been suggested (by Dr. Sandy Keathley , and before him by Mary Iantha Castlio), that the German Keithleys originated in England. Because most European migration has occurred in the Westward direction, I think it is fair to call this a "retrograde" migration. This sort of thing did occur but involved many fewer individuals and families than the normal Westward migration. There are some good examples of retrograde migration that involve German families. The "Donau Germans" were Swabians who moved down the Danube to the Banat region of eastern Hungary. It is interesting that they kept their language, and even their dialect of German, despite living for centuries among speakers of Hungarian. The architecture of their towns was clearly south German, and they never forgot where they came from. The same can be said of the "Volga Germans" who were invited by Catherine the Great to farm land along the Volga River. There are examples both in Westward migration and in retrograde migration where a group of people maintained their language, customs, and traditions despite lengthy periods living surrounded by other cultures.

Here is an excerpt from Dr. Sandy Keathley's description of the German Keithleys, as it read recently, with my notes added in brackets. Dr. Keathley has rewritten this page and lays less emphasis on the relationship between German and English Keithleys now:

The German Keithleys seem to have been vague about their origins. Mary Iantha Castlio says:

The confusion between what we call "German" and "Dutch" is another nearly universal problem with early immigrants to American. The word "deutsch" is used in German as an ethnic term for Hollanders, Austrians, Swiss, Alsatians, and Germans. Dutchmen are "niederdeutsch" (sometimes translated as "Low German") and Germans are "hochdeutsch" (sometimes "High German.") The "low Dutch" settlers of early NY and NJ are generally fairly easy to recognize because of their naming conventions. I have not seen any evidence that the Keithleys were from Holland, any more than I have seen evidence that they were English.

There are other sources which are unequivocal that the Keithleys were German. Susanna Keithley May states that her ancestor John Keithley was "born Jan. 1st, 1755 in Germany, on the Border between Germany and Denmark." Others have said that they Keithleys lived "along the Rhine" or "near Koblenz." These all point to the northwest quarter of Germany, and I feel that some day the town of origin will be found. The handwriting of Jacob Kicheli and that of Isac Hochstetter on the 1796 marriage bond between Polly Keithley and Isaac Hostetter is clearly the old "deutscher Schrift" and is easy to read for anyone who has read eighteenth century German documents. A scanned image of the marriage bond was kindly supplied by Kevin Daniel. The name on the bond looks like Kichli or Kuchli, a family originally Swiss. A book on this family, La Famille Kuchly by Louis Kuchly, is available online fromBrigham Young University (click on "Printing Version" at the bottom to download the entire book).

I think that the urge to associate the Keithleys with England comes from a kind of circular logic. Keithley is an English name with a long and interesting history, therefore everyone named Keithley has to be English. There is also probably a hint of xenophobia or anti-German sentiment. Mary Iantha Castlio wrote her book in 1923, just after World War I, in which "the Hun" was shamelessly demonized as an inhuman enemy. Many German families in the U.S. changed their names to conceal their origins, and those who admitted to German ancestry were subjected to discrimination and prejudice. As an example of this, in 1920 the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company fired everyone with a German surname, with no reason or explanation offered. I think that in that atmosphere it makes a little sense that genealogists like Castlio would look for a way to "purify" their ancestry by having an English connection. And failing the English connection, there is still the possibility of associating the immigrants with Holland.

There are several reasons to object to these fantasies. Genealogy is rewarding and satisfying when is based on facts and evidence. But genealogy has been plagued by imaginary linkages and invented "facts" for as long as it has existed. How many European monarchs were able to show their entire descent all the way back to Adam? More than one. Properly "sourced" genealogy should resemble detective work more than it should resemble romantic fiction.

Daniel Pinkwater, the author, has written a hilarious account of his family history that involves a retrograde migration. When you read it, consider the fact that Pinkwater has provided exactly as much evidence for this story as Castlio and others provided for the story of the "English" German Keithleys.