When I was in graduate school, working to become a psychologist, I ran across a wonderful book titled, Every Person’s Life is Worth a Novel. This book said every person is fascinating–you just have to ask the right questions to get them to reveal the hidden story.
This is why I love history–it’s not just about dates and nations. It’s about people, about drama and overcoming adversity. This is definitely true for the Kneisly family. I had no idea that my ancestors lived through so many events I had read about. I didn’t ask the right questions of my grandmother, Lily Myrtle Kneisly Yarnell. I wonder if she had any idea of the richness of her heritage.
I started my genealogy journey searching for my paternal grandfather’s story. He was the interesting one, born in mystery to unknown parents. I wanted to find his parents, to discover where he came from. And when I accomplished my goal, I took a break from genealogy, not sure if I would return.
But then, I took a look at my maternal grandmother’s origins, and found a story of the Protestant Reformation, religious persecution, forced migration, exodus to America, the Revolutionary War…
And today, because of the internet, I am able to ask questions and get some amazing answers.
Let me set the opening scene for the Kneisly story…
The earliest record of the family is of a Martin Nussli , born in 1510. Believe it or not, I found a portrait of his grandson, Konrad, and his wife, Margaretha Wanner Nusslie, and daughter. Konrad was born in 1570. My niece noted that Margaretha appears pregnant in this picture. I did some research and discovered that the couple had 11 children, so my niece may very well be correct. (I believe this to be Margaretha. He was married previously to Dorothea Bolesterli Nussli, but she died within a few years of their marriage.)
For context, it was in 1517 that Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-five Theses that began the Protestant Reformation. What began as disagreement over dogma led to extreme fragmentation of Christianity with tragically violent consequences. Europe was very different back then–countries did not exist in the same way they do today. Religious entities held power, and enforced unity and purity of belief.
Zurich, Switzerland in the early 1600s was on the front lines of religious tumult. Martin Luther and his split from the Roman Catholic church had led to additional groups exploring other religious ideas. One of these groups followed a former Catholic priest, Menno Simons, a leader in an Anabaptist sect. His followers became known as “Mennonites.”
The Nussli family was Mennonite. Johannes “Hans” Nusli, born near Zurich in 1628. His story is amazingly well-documented…but only because his life was so difficult…
By the 1640s, the Mennonites were horribly persecuted, and they were easy victims. They lived a faith with a commitment to non-violence, even when it came to self-defense. A group of Mennonites around Zurich were taken hostage in 1647, and as one book describes the circumstances, they were later “driven from Zurich by fire and by sword.” Hans was jailed for a year. Other Nussli’s were chained in dungeons, dressed in nothing buy long gray coats, and subjected to mockery.
Hans left Zurich between 1646 and 1649. He went to Bern, where other Mennonites had congregated. Before long, they were then driven out that area, and they were refugees headed for the Alsace region (on the modern-day French/German border).
He and his family lived there for about 14 years, when they again had to leave, and headed for the Alsace region (now the German-French border area). Hans died in 1688, but his descendants carried on.
Census records from 1707 in Alsace show Anthoni Knussli, age 52, having a wife named Magdalena. They had six children: Hans (19), Anthony (14), Elizabeth (11), Maria (7), Barbara (4), and an infant daughter named Sybilla.
That same year, 1707, a group of Mennonites went to London to meet with William Penn and discuss colonizing Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In 1717, records show that the Knussli family traveled to Rotterdam, then to London, and then to Philadelphia.
Travel at that time was an arduous undertaking. People were packed onto ships like cargo, sleeping in what are best described as wooden boxes. Seasickness was routines as were other illnesses. But the Knussli clan had faith the travel would be worth it–in terms of religious freedom, as well as the opportunity to be able to farm their own land. Among that first group was my direct ancestor, Antonius.
(An interesting historical footnote: England’s Queen Ann provided financing for the Kneisly’s journey.)
Antonius (also listed as Anthony) made his way to Conestoga Township in Lancaster County. (Many family names from the records of Lancaster County in the early 1700s show up in my list of DNA matches on Ancestry.com.) in 1711, Antonius and his wife had a son, George.
George is noted for several reasons in the historical record. First, he is recognized as a “patriot” for participating in the Revolutionary War despite being 65 years old in 1776. His “participation” consisted of paying taxes to support the “Confederate Army” as it is listed in the documents.
George also built Kneisly’s Mill, a grist mill that still stands today. I found photos of the mill, which today, operates as an art studio.
George and Catherine had a son, George Jr., who served as a private in Captain James Beard’s 8th Company, 4th Battalion. All in all, 14 Kneislys are listed in records of having served in the Revolutionary War.
Having moved from Zurich to Bern in Switzerland, to Alsace, on to Rotterdam in Holland, to London, and then to Colonial America, the Kneislys were not done. From Lancaster County, some of them moved south to Maryland and Virginia. My direct ancestors ventured to the Western frontier, to near what is now Dayton, Ohio. (At one time, there was a railroad stop known as “Kneisly Station.”)
In Ohio, the next George Kneisly, built paper mills and a distillery (with a capacity of sixty barrels a day). He apparently did quite well, acquiring considerable land along the Miami River. His businesses built housing for his employees, and he had stores to supply what the employees’ families needed. So, he made money from their labor, and from their daily needs–the entire town was built around the company and it included the proverbial “company store.” (Much of the Kneisly land there is now part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.)
The next Kneisly did not do so well, and it appears he likely had a mental illness (that’s my diagnosis as a psychologist based on old family records), dying at age 31. He was described as going on “sprees” and gambling away his money. Those same family records, without saying so directly, suggest that he may have been murdered by those to whom he owed money. His wife was encouraged to give up her children, to “bind them out” as indentured servants since she was still attractive and young enough to get married again. (That’s what her father-in-law told her. He may not have been the most sympathetic person in my family tree…)
Mary Stuart Kneisly, did not bind out her children. Instead, she worked hard and eventually married a minister. At least one of her children served in the Union Army during the Civil War, enlisting numerous times against her wishes until she realized she could no longer stop him. After the War, she followed him to Missouri, where he purchased land. Mary, born in 1818, lived a long life, dying in 1900.
The Kneislys and their descendants farmed around Olean, Missouri, and in nearby counties. A 2007 history of Olean in the Jefferson City New-Tribune lists Charlie Kneisly (my grandmother’s brother) as being one of the town’s barbers.
There are Kneisly descendants throughout the United States, with many still near Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and Dayton, Ohio. As the family has spread out, the spelling of the name has evolved differently in various areas–Kneisley, Knicely, Nicely, Gnussli, and others…One of my favorite recent images I have found of a distant relative is that of Andrew Kneisly, who is a professional rugby player, and who has played on the U.S. national team.
In talking with my close family, I have been asked about when the Kneislys converted to being Mennonites. I can’t answer this with any certainty, but it appears it may have been in the early 1600s. And, given that central Missouri has many Mennonite communities, did they move to the area for that reason? The evidence suggest not–this was likely to be coincidence as land in Missouri was easily available after the Civil War, and many people came to Missouri at the time.
I also can’t say with any certainty when my ancestors stopped living as Mennonites, but it likely was quite a while back. Participating in the Revolutionary War suggests they no longer were strict Mennonites, or perhaps their interpretation of the tenets of their faith had evolved. Many sources note that most Mennonites, Quakers, and other “non-resistant” faiths did not serve in the War. This is a story remaining to be discovered.
Fortunately, for an amateur genealogist such as me, the Mennonites went into great detail documenting their history. With the Kneislys having played a prominent role in the early Mennonite communities, I have been able to find the answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. I’ve enjoyed telling the family story–thanks for reading.