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A History of the Myers Overstreet and Gray Families — Part I

A bare bones history of the family can be put into one rather short paragraph. The family is of Germanic origin. At some point in the dark past, they moved into the Switzerland area. They left Switzerland by 1530 and moved to the Netherlands. After working in Vlissingen and Amsterdam until 1682, they migrated to “the new world”. William Penn needed ship builders in his new colony of Pennsylvania. The original Myers immigrant, Pieter Myers, arrived at what is now New Castle, Pennsylvania in July or August of 1682. They helped found the city of Philadelphia and lived in that general area unt6il 1790 when they moved south and west as part of the great migration following the Revolutionary War. This is really all one needs to know about the family; but if you are interested in a very simple description of how and where they lived, the following pages may interest you.

The name Myers and its many variants is of ancient Germanic origin, and was derived from the word “meier” meaning: a steward, bailiff, tenant of a farm or farmer. The first references I found that I was convinced belonged to the same family, was in the listings of various people of the name Myers in the Anabaptist literature. I cannot prove this but the family legend says: they left Switzerland because of religious persecution.

The date of 1530 would appear to be the latest date for the family to have left Switzerland for the Netherlands. By that date the majority of Anabaptists (later called Mennonites) had been driven into exile or killed. In fact by 1530 a contemporary, Sebastian Franck, said that over two thousand Anabaptists had been put to death. The Anabaptist sect was one of the most if not the most radical of the new sects that appeared in Switzerland, Austria and Germany in the early part of the 16th century. The sect was named from the belief that baptism should be deferred until the individual is old enough to have mature knowledge of his profession of Christian Faith. There were divisions with the Anabaptists. For instance, one group denied the divinity of Christ. But as a group, the Anabaptists believed that military service should be rejected on the grounds that it invariably takes human life and that is sinful. They refused to take oaths thereby putting themselves at odds with their various rulers. Their usual greeting of “The peace of the Lord be with you” is certainly reminiscent of Near Eastern greetings and becomes an ancestor of the Quaker mode of address. They refused to hold public office and would not involve themselves in resorting to litigation. As a general rule they did not advocate the communistic sharing of worldly goods. They did believe that Heaven would be communistic. They believed in “taking care of their own” which is certainly a prime belief of the Mennonites, their present day followers.

Since we know by definition of the name Myers, that they were either stewards, bailiffs or farmers, we can only hope that they were one of the first two and not the latter. If they lived in a rural area they no doubt were farmers. If they lived in an urban area, life would have been much kinder. The farmer of this time had many problems. (Many of the same problems existed for their descendants in the Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Missouri and Colorado.) Wolves and wild animals such as boars were a constant threat to life and to the domestic animals that the farmer might own. It would appear that life had some of the American frontier flavor in that the farmer realized the necessity of carrying a weapon into the field along with his agricultural implements.

The physical routine of the farmers (peasants) in most areas was dependent on the rain or the lack of it. They might have torrents or drought. Then the poor soul was always faced with that “deduct” factor. Off the top of what the man produced was a good percentage for the landlord, a 10% cut for the Church, and a certain percentage for the King or Duke or whomever. Sons would be drafted into the various armies and there was always the threat of the destruction of buildings and fields by advancing or retreating armies. Every five children born resulted only in two adults. Two of the five did not survive childhood and another did not gain maturity. To this “normal attrition” one had to add such factors as the regular visitations of the plague and cholera. Plague tended to cut the population of the area as much as 50% with less than twelve months.

Will Durant in his “The Reformation” describes the plight of the farmer and ends the description as follows:

“So the food produced that fed the barons in the castle, the kings in their court, the merchants and craftsmen in the towns, the physicians, teachers, artists, poets, scientists, philosophers, and last and least, the slaves of the soil themselves. Civilization is a parasite on the man with the hoe.”

The artist. Bruegel, depicts the everyday life of the common folk of this time in most of his paintings. The houses appear to be solidly built and of a reasonable size. This was a necessity since a child a year was the standard pattern—this would increase to two on certain years when the 10-11 month time between caught up with itself. The clothing of males tended to be relatively practical but more colorful that the female garb. The men wore a soft hat that was cup or bowl shape. The blouses were shown to hang below the waist slightly and the sleeves to be ballooned at the wrist. The tight trousers were adorned with a rather obvious codpiece which at times was decorated and or emphasized. The women usually had a white head-dress similar in many ways to the starched bonnet of Brittany. It was less elaborate, but similar in shape and function. Dresses were of floor length, and modesty in the peasant class was not only expected but demanded. Some cynic of the times remarked that only the prostitutes washed what could not be seen. Ordinary houses were beginning to have some furniture. The loose arrangement of trestles and boards was made into a permanent table. Beds replaced the platforms that had been along with the floor, the sleeping spots. Dishes of pewter and spoons of tin or pewter were replacing the wooden items that had been in use.

A brief account of the events that led up to the Reformation in Switzerland should be discussed in order to see how the family was affected. In 1477 the Swiss Cantons repelled the attack of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. He was killed in the same year. This certainly confirmed to the Swiss that they were capable of being a strong military power. It also gave them chauvinistic pride that helped them with their dealing with the Holy Roman Empire. (Hereafter referred to as the HRE.) The Confederation became solely allied with the HRE which really meant for all practical purposes that they were independent. The following years showed little except lip service by the Cantons for the Union. They wrangled and quarreled among themselves and only united when any outsider threatened them. The quarrels ended in near civil war and it was only averted by the Diet of Stans in 1481, when the Cantons were persuaded to peace. The Diet did establish federal regulations and left the urban Cantons in control. The forest Cantons were relegated to their farming. The Confederation grew in that Fribourg and Solothurn were added in 1481. In 1499 the Cantons had a war with the HRE over territories in the east. The hostilities were concluded with the Treaty of Basel. Not formal but actual or factual separation did not come until 1648. Basel and Schaffhausen came into the group in 1501 and Appensell in 1513. This completed the list of thirteen Cantons all speaking German dialects. They were ruled by a single house or diet that was composed of an equal number of representatives from each Canton.

The Roman Church was as corrupt in Switzerland as it was in the rest of Europe. Most of the Swiss priests enjoyed their concubines. One Swiss bishop charged his clergy for each child born to them and in one year gathered 1522 guilders at four guilders per head! The priests also drank to excess. The start of the real breakdown came in 1510 when Pope Julius II, in return for the hire of some Swiss troops, agreed that the town council of Geneva was to be supreme in control of monasteries, convents and public morals. This was eleven years before Martin Luther nailed his famous thesis to the Church door in Germany. The action by Pope Julius II really cleared the way for Zwingli and Calvin to place the state in control of the church. Like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli was actually a member of the Roman clergy when he finally made a break with the Church. One item that seemed to have triggered both Luther and Zwingli to action was the selling of indulgences. Pope Leo X in 1517 was out of money and needed money to finish building new St. Peters. He had managed to spend all the money that his predecessor had left to him in the treasury of the Church. The various non-Italian rulers such as Henry the VIII objected to the selling of indulgences so King Henry was cut in for 25%. This set the pattern: King Charles I was given a loan against future collections; Frances I was to retain part of that which was collected in France; the Holy Roman Emperor was to get a token amount. Even the Fuggers (the 16th century Rothschilds) were to get a goodly amount. Only the areas with very weak monarchs were given shabby treatment. The Pope appointed an agent who was a proven salesman. Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, had been selling indulgences on a grand scale since 1500. The usual pattern was that the local clergy gave him a circus entrance into town. There would be a parade including city officials, pious hangers-on, and anyone who cared to join the parade. Organs would play, banners would wave, songs sung, and in star billing would be the indulgences carried on pillows of red or gold velvet.

This particular indulgence of 1517 had to be the best bargain ever offered to any sinner. First it absolved the buyer from any and all ecclesiastical censures in whatever manner they may have been incurred and then from all their sins, transgressions, and excesses, however enormous they might have been… and even to the remission of all punishment that the buyer deserved in purgatory. And the buyer was restored to the holy sacrament of the Church. Not only did the indulgence forgive and forget for the past sins and transgressions, but it had a future clause in which it forgave the sinner for any future sins he might commit up till the time of his death. This indulgence had to be the most incredible one ever offered for sale. If Tetzel had not tangled with Frederic the Wise, Elector of Saxony, he might not have incurred the wrath of Martin Luther and thereby postponed the reformation to another time and another group of actors. Switzerland was not part of Tetzel’s territory. A Franciscan friar named Bernhardin Samson had that territory. He crossed the Alps in 1518, offering the indulgence to the rich on parchment for a crown and to the poor for a few pennies. When Samson went so far as to absolve from purgatory all souls that had died in Bern, the Bishop of Constance protested and joined Zwingli in his protest. The Pope recalled his salesmen at this point but the harm had been done. The lines of battle were drawn between Zwingli and the Roman Church.

The plague struck Zurich in 1519. It took over 30 percent of the population in six months. Zwingli worked night and day with the sick and even caught the plague himself. He recovered and as a result of his efforts with the sick he became the most revered figure in Zurich. He was made head priest of the Grossmunser in 1521. This placed him in a very strong position to start on the reform within the Roman Church that would return the Roman Church to some of its basic simplicity of former years.

Zwingli gradually changed the service in his churches to the point that the sermon became the dominant part of the ritual. He also argued that he could not find any place in the Bible that dictated that the payment of 10% to the church was mandatory. He insisted that such payment should be voluntary rather than mandatory. His Bishop did not agree with him on this statement but had to concur when the Council of Cantons did support Zwingli, and not only that, the Council ordered that the priests within their jurisdiction preach only what they found in the Bible. Another point of difference was Zwingli says he could not find in the Bible any rule forbidding the eating of meat during Lent.

All of the reforms that Zwingli wanted finally led to a meeting in 1523 when Zwingli was to debate all his reform program with various representatives of the Church. As might have been expected the Church refused to discuss all the reforms and claimed that in place of their being discuss all the reforms and claimed that in place of their being discussed in the present location that they should be put to the great universities and or to a general Council of the Church. The Council of Zurich agreed with Zwingli and told all Zurich clergymen to preach only what they could establish by the Bible. In essence, this is when the State took over the Church. The priests since their salaries were being guaranteed by the State accepted the order. Many of them married; neglected the ritual part of the mass; left out the veneration of the Saints, and started to present the sermon as the important part of the service. Catholics retained some civil rights but they were denied the right to hold public office. Attendance at mass was punished by a fine and the eating of fish on Friday in place of meat was forbidden by law. Monasteries and nunneries were closed and turned into hospitals or schools. Most of the monks and nuns came out of the cloister into marriage. Saints days were abandoned, holy water, masses for the dead, etc., just disappeared.

During this time religious reform and change the peasants decided it was a good time to try to right some of the economic and social injustices that were their way of life. This resulted in the Peasants War which lasted for two years from 1524-26. One would have thought that the religious reformers would have had some sympathy for such a social reform, but this was not true. It may have been that the leaders of the reformation were afraid of the chaos that might result from such a revolt. The threat of violence and the over threat of killing, burning, destruction and other things that would have been a direct violation to the peaceful return to simplicity of the church that all the reformers wanted. The peasant who thought that his new religion would condone his trying to get a better position in life ended up thinking only that the new religion had abandoned him in his real hour of need. So many of them became atheist at this point, and many of them as a result of the ever persuasive Jesuits returned to the Roman Church and many more joined various radical sects such as the Anabaptist.

One of the facts that had allowed such radical sects to expand without much interference was the disagreement between the Protestants and the Catholics. They were much too involved with fighting with each other to take much notice of some minor radical group. The joining of forces of the Catholics and Protestants against the Anabaptists was the final blow for the sect in Switzerland. In 1529 Charles V issued a mandate making rebaptism a capital crime. The Diet of Speyer in 1529 ratified this mandate. The mandate ordered that Anabaptists were to be taken and killed like wild beasts wherever found and that no judge or trial was necessary. One of the chroniclers of the sect reports the following:

“Some were racked and drawn asunder, others burned to ashes and dust. Some were roasted on pillars or torn with red hot pincers. Others were hanged on trees, beheaded by the sword or thrown into the water. Some starved or rotted in dark prisons, some were thought too young for execution so they were beaten to death with rods. Many lay for years in dungeons. Numbers had holes burned in their cheeks, and the rest were hunted from one country to another and like owls and ravens and were compelled to hide and live in rocks or cliffs in wild forests, caves or pits.”

There was in the Netherlands a Catholic priest who had converted to Anabaptism. He was called Menno Simons. He gave his Dutch followers such wise and skillful guidance that his followers did survive various persecutions. They founded very successful communities in Holland. They became know as Mennonites in honor of the first name of their leader.

It is no wonder that the Myers family decided to flee Switzerland and settle in the Netherlands. They had Hobson’s choices all over the place. They could remain and take a chance of being exterminated; they could return to being Roman Catholics which was not too safe a route either; or they could flee. The safest and swiftest route from Switzerland to Holland was the Rhine River, the so called smooth highway to the North. It flows all the way from Basel to Rotterdam. It is a 600 mile journey but it is all downstream. This would be the first of several such monumental movements that would face the family in the coming centuries.

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