In 1792, four German brothers, John, Jacob, Joseph, and Daniel Keithley moved into Bourbon Co, Kentucky. There is some evidence that they were in western North Carolina in the 1780s, and family tradition places them in Pennsylvania at some earlier time. Supporting this is the fact that John was married to a Pennsylvania Dutch woman, Maryanne Riblen, and that the customary migration trail from Pennsylvania would have passed through the western part of North Carolina, and not the east. The Germans left a slim paper trail as they moved westward through Kentucky into Lawrence Co, Indiana about 1810. The existence of a fifth brother, Samuel, has been postulated for years, but no certain evidence has ever surfaced.
These people were clearly German, as they read German Bibles and spoke German at home. While it is possible that they originally had roots in Medieval England (see below), it is more likely that they are not real Keithleys at all, but simply adopted the name. Etymologically speaking, there is no history of the name "Keithley" in the Germanic languages. There is evidence, in fact, that these Germans originally spelled their name "Kicheli" or "Kucheli". Whether that spelling is the Germanization of "Kygheley" (later Keighley), or a completely unrelated name, is not known. If it is unrelated, the use of the modern spelling "Keithley" is probably coincidental.
During the Protestant Reformation, Henry VIII evicted the (Catholic) church from England. In 1553, Queen Mary took the throne, and restored Catholicism, leading to the Marian Exodus, in which many supporters of the Reformation left England for Switzerland, Germany, and other points on the Continent. Many of these "Marian Exiles" became Baptist Bretheren (Dunkards). Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 and restored the Church of England, which caused some of the Marians to return.
The early 1700s ushered in a new era of migration to the colonies in America, including a large number of German and Swiss Dunkards. The German Keithleys are most likely to have roots in the Dunkard traditions.
The descendants of the German families are found mostly in Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, and points west.
For detailed information on the German Keithleys, please contact Karen Isaacson.
View brief overview of German families (PDF)