Life and Death in the 1800s

(Content warning-tragic deaths)

Theresa Gerling Heisler

Theresa (Gerling) Heisler 1886, the year of her marriage.

Continuing with my study of ancestors, I want to talk about the family of my great grandmother, my dad’s mother’s mother, Maria Theresia (called Theresa) Gerling. Earlier, I spoke of her marriage to Thomas Heisler in 1886 in St. Thomas, Missouri. Her parents were Heinrich (Henry) Gerling and Sibella Agnes Hahn. They were both born in what is now part of Germany, but came to Missouri before they met and married. They were devout Catholics.

Heinrich Gerling was born 18 April 1824, in Osterath, in the Lower Rhine region (in German, Niederrhine).  Osterath is now part of the town of Meerbusch, west across the Rhine River from the city of Dusseldorf.  His parents were Gerhard Gerling and his first wife Anna Christina Wilms (or Wilmes), who were married Oct 23, 1821 in Osterath. They had three children: Wilhelm (1822), Heinrich (1824), and Maria Catharina (1830).

When Heinrich was five, his 7 year old brother died.  When he was nine, his mother died, and some months later, on 22 Oct 1833, his father married Maria Christina Kronen (b. 1800-1805?). Heinrich’s sister also died the next year, but three more children were born to Gerhard and Christina: Joseph Herman (1834), Ludovicus (1836), and Michael (1839).  I am moved by how many children died at such a young age, in the stories of these families of the 1800s. This was also true for the Heisler family during a similar time frame.

Gerhard Gerling was identified as a “hotelmeister/hotel master” in Osterath.  In any case, they decided to leave, apparently along with several other families from their town. I found a great story of another family from Osterath who came over on the same ship at the same time.  They left from Havre, on the ship Edmund Perkins, and arrived in New Orleans on November 7, 1840.  They came with their children, Heinrich, who was 16 1/2, Herman, 6, Ludwig, 4, & Michael, 1.  One source said they were “early Niederrhine settlers in the Loose Creek area.” Another source said, “They were the second group of settlers that arrived in the St. Thomas area.”

Perhaps they started in Loose Creek, but they did end up in St. Thomas, where both Gerhard and Christina eventually died (Gerhard about 1852 and Christina 1885-6) and were buried.  Heinrich, it is said, had red hair! He married Agnes Hahn October 21, 1851, at St. Joseph Church in Westphalia, MO, but all their children were born in St. Thomas.  (All of these small rural towns are within 30 miles of each other.)

Agnes was born in July of 1833, but I don’t have much more information about where in Germany it was, or when she came to Missouri.  Her parents were Mathias Hahn (1778) and Margaret Durst (1788) and they remained in Germany, but her brother Philip also came to Missouri. It might be most likely that she was also from the Rhineland/Westphalia region, since people tended to congregate with those from similar regions.

Agnes apparently had an earlier marriage to a John Peter Loethen, but he must have died quite soon, since she was only 18 when she married Heinrich (26). She and Heinrich had nine children together, three of whom had died in childhood, when another tragedy struck, just a few months after baby Theresa was born. We have a letter from Heinrich’s second cousin Heinrich Koersches to family in Germany, loosely translated:

May 24 1868

I received your letter on April 20th. I’m so late in answering your letter because on the following Sunday an accident happened to Heinrich Gerling when we had divine service. In the afternoon after the divine service he wanted to mount his horse. Having one foot in the stirrup, he went to swing his other foot over the saddle. As he did so the horse jumped and threw him off so that his right leg hit on a tree stump that was cut about one foot above the ground and broke his shin, so that the bone could be seen from the outside. There lives in St. Thomas a German physician who was close to the church where the accident happened. They carried Gerling to a house where the bone was set. In the evening eight men took him to his home. There they had to put cold water and compresses on the leg every five minutes. The leg wound didn’t bleed.

Heinrich was a big, thick and heavy man. The compresses and water were put on as long as the doctor ordered it to be done. The doctor came on horseback every day. One day Heinrich would complain of backache, on another he would complain of chest pains. He had to cough up what looked like pus. He asked the doctor for medicine. The chest pains were increasing. The doctor ordered more medicine. On the ninth day it got so bad that the doctor said that he did not think that Heinrich would live another 48 hours. Then they asked for the priest to give him the Last Sacraments. Heinrich lived until the 15 of May.

Heinrich’s accident happened on April 26, 1868.  The following year, the 35 year old widow Agnes married his cousin Heinrich Koersches. They had four more children together, two of whom died in infancy. Then two more of her children died of illness in 1872, leaving only six of 13 to survive to adulthood.  Heinrich Koersches died at the age of 45 sometime after 1877.  I wonder how Agnes carried all of the grief she must have felt from so many deaths, and whether she found a balance to appreciate the joyous moments of life.

I also wonder what life was like for her daughter Theresa Gerling, my great-grandmother? Her father died when she was just a baby, and her step-father died when she was still a young girl. She never knew her grandparents, though her step-grandmother was alive until she was about 17. She married just before her 18th birthday, and had twelve children of her own, my grandmother the sixth of those twelve.  Perhaps the strength and sternness of my grandmother was somehow the inheritance of the grief and survival of those who came before?

Great-great grandmother Agnes herself died on Sept 14, 1901, at the age of 68. I want to close with this photo of Agnes from the 1890s.

Agnes Hahn Gerling-g-g-grandmother

Agnes Hahn Gerling Koersches

Note: There seem to be even more ads lately attached by WordPress to my posts. So sorry about that. I don’t have any choice about what ads are posted.

 

Civil War Addendum

I want to add this update to my earlier post about my German Missouri immigrant ancestors connection to the Civil War.  In checking out my notes from another family source, I see that my great-great grandfather, Johann Heisler came to Cole County, Missouri, via New Orleans, arriving in New Orleans on January 13, 1840, ten years earlier than another source had suggested.  His three brothers came to this country in 1850.  One of them, his brother Anton, served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

He enlisted in October 1862 and served as a private in Company D, 42nd Regiment, Missouri Infantry.  He was discharged in December, 1864.  While he was on duty in October 1864, six miles from Jefferson City, he was captured by General Sterling Price’s command and held prisoner by the Confederates at Fort Scott, Kansas, until December of 1864.  He came back to St. Thomas, Missouri in much weakened health, and later applied for a pension related to that health condition, but was denied it.

Missouri Germans in the Civil War

I felt an odd sense of relief and satisfaction to learn that my German Missouri ancestors were on the Union side of the Civil War.  While recovering from my latest gardening exploits, I was watching episodes of the Ken Burns documentary “The West.”  I was surprised by the series’ level of truth-telling in stories about colonization, about racism, about the violence endemic to the history of the United States. It has been quite an eye-opener about the “settlement” of the West, and I recommend it to all students of decolonization.

In the episode about the lead-up to the Civil War, I learned that Missouri and Kansas were the site of the heaviest civilian conflict and bloodshed before and during the war.  Earlier, in 1820, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, in conjunction with Maine being admitted as a free state, in the compromise to keep a balance between the free and slave states.  When the Kansas territory was “opened for settlement” in the 1850s it was decided to let the residents vote on whether they would be a slave state or free state.

[“Opened for settlement,” of course, meant the removal and theft of the land from the Arapaho, Comanche, Osage, Kansa, Kiowa, Missouri, Otoe, and Pawnee peoples, plus a dozen more eastern tribes who had been relocated to Kansas/Oklahoma in what was to be their land forever. But moving on for now to the slavery question…]

This new Kansas territory turned into a tinderbox of the national tensions between slavery vs. freedom for African-Americans–white Abolitionists from New England, and white pro-slavery Missourians (with their enslaved people with them) were among those who rushed to live in Kansas to influence the direction it would go.  Eventually, after much bloodshed, burning, looting, and turmoil, Kansas joined the Union in 1861 as a free state.

But my own curiosity shifted from Kansas over to what happened in Missouri, where my Heisler/Gerling ancestors had settled in the 1850s. I had thought they were on the side of the Union, so what were they doing in a slave state?  Ken Burns didn’t tell their story, but I went hunting on the internet to sort it out.  There I found the rather satisfying news that the German emigrants in Missouri were in fact opposed to slavery, and avid supporters of the Union.  They had emigrated after a failed revolution for democracy in 1848 in the German lands, and held dear the ideals of freedom and equality.  According to Patrick Young, in an article that was part of a series, The Immigrants’ Civil War,

[German Americans] saw parallels in the military coups in the German states in 1848 that ended the democratic dream in Europe. One of the exiled revolutionaries, August Willich, wrote after the attack on Fort Sumter that Germans needed to “protect their new republican homeland against the aristocracy of the South.”

Their influence was part of what kept Missouri in the Union.  According to another article by Patrick Young,

Missouri was a border state. That meant that it was a slave state lying between the Confederacy and the free states of the North. In the 1850s, Missouri had been the staging ground for pro-slavery terror raids against free soil towns in Kansas, but by 1861, the state’s wealthy slaveholding class was being challenged for power from an unlikely quarter.

German immigrants had moved into the state in large numbers in the 1850s. Most crowded into the fast growing industrial metropolis of St. Louis. Others started small German-speaking rural communities, [Note–that would include my ancestors] where they found themselves expected to defer to nearby slaveholders who expressed their worth in the number of humans they owned. The Germans had come to America for freedom, and they resented both slavery and the power it gave slaveholders over Missouri politics. When the Germans became citizens, they quickly formed the state’s most consistently anti-slavery electorate.

Thomas HeislerWhen I look at the lists of Union and Confederate soldiers from Missouri, none of my direct ancestors are included, though there were two Heisler men listed as Union soldiers. It’s possible that my great-great grandfather, Johann Heisler, was too old to enlist–he would have been 40 years old in 1860, with young children. My great grandfather, Thomas Heisler was born in 1857–only a toddler when the war began. Maybe they just tried to farm their land, and keep the peace with their neighbors.  One family story says the four Heisler brothers had left Germany to avoid being drafted into the military there. [Note: see addendum about another brother’s service in the Union Army.]

But it sounds like the war came to everyone’s land.  From the same article:

Even before the war, pro-slavery raiders had tried to drive German farmers out of rural Missouri. Now bringing about the submission or eradication of the Unionist German community became an imperative for Confederates.

Historian Ella Lonn wrote that after the Germans foiled the takeover [by the Missouri Confederates] of the [St. Louis] arsenal and fired into the mob:

“The hatred that Missouri Confederates felt for the Germans was frightful…German farmers were shot down, their fields laid waste, and their houses burned.” 9

German immigrants responded by supplying nearly half the soldiers raised by Missouri for the Union cause over the next four years.9 In that state, the war would take on the vicious character of a guerrilla struggle between Germans trying to make a place in a free America, and native-born Confederates trying to drive them out.

The Germans refused to leave.

So, in the midst of so much that is soul crushing about the history of this country, that’s a satisfying story to learn! There were many other stories about the Germans in Missouri of that time–too numerous to include, but check out the series, The Immigrants’ Civil War. I am inspired in my own work against racism to know they were carrying those values of equality and freedom from their homeland.

 

Osage River Bend

Thomas & Theresa Heisler wedding

[Thomas Heisler and Maria Theresia (Theresa) Gerling at their wedding 2/16/1886]

I am continuing my exploration of my own ancestors settling in America, and how they may have participated in the colonization of this land.  My dad’s mother, born Lucille Mary Heisler in 1897, was the daughter of Thomas and Theresa (Gerling) Heisler, originally of St. Thomas, in Cole County, Missouri.  Thomas’s father (and my great-great-grandfather) was Johann Heisler, who came to Missouri about 1850, where he lived in St. Thomas with his wife Elizabeth (Koetzner) and was a farmer. They became a “well-known” Cole County family.

The first post office in St. Thomas was dated 1855.  It was a small German Catholic farming community, named for St. Thomas the Apostle, which is also the name of their church.  It was one of several Catholic communities founded by the Belgian Jesuit priest, Ferdinand Helias, who was known as the father of mid-Missouri German Catholics.

According to Russel Gerlach, in “The German Presence in the Ozarks,”

Some Germans were attracted to the Ozarks seeking religious freedom. Osage County attracted several thousand German Catholics whose principal reason for emigrating from Germany was religious. Their spiritual leader, Father Helias, established a parish in Westphalia in 1834, and in subsequent years seventeen settlements, composed primarily of Rhinelanders, were established in Osage, Cole, Miller and Maries counties.

I read that because the immigrants from various regions in Germany carried those tensions with them to these lands, he helped to settle them in communities which were ethnically differentiated. By the way, it was eye-opening for me to learn that in the German ancestry of my dad’s family, at least four different cultural and linguistic communities were represented–the East Frisians, the Rhinelanders, the Swabians, and the Westphalians.  The Heislers were from the Swabian culture. (But more on that in another post.)

What about the Indigenous peoples who had lived in Cole County before?  Well, their name remains in the river that winds through the area–the Osage River.  St. Thomas was formed in a fertile bend of the Osage River.  It was Osage Nation land before the settlers came. According to the website of St. Thomas the Apostle church:

The Indian Territorial Government established Cole County in 1821, paving the way for eager settlers to purchase this fertile land.  Perched above the river bottom and close to today’s parish cemetery, German immigrants built a small log church for the families that lived in the area.  Fr. Ferdinand Helias, S.J. began ministering to the needs of Catholics in this area in the early part of the 19th century.  A larger frame church was built to support the Indian Bottom Settlement.  As the city of St. Thomas took shape further east of the river, Father Peter Eysvogles, S.J. persuaded the families of Indian Bottom to move the church to this growing community.

I was struck by how the names “Indian Bottom” and “Osage River” spoke to the history of the land, even after its people had been removed. My own ancestors came a full generation after that removal, but definitely were among the settlers eager to purchase this newly “available” land.  The Osage Indians had a wide ranging territory that included land now in the five U.S. states of Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.   The first Europeans to meet them were the French explorers Joliet and Marquette in 1673.Osage Ancestral TerritoryIn 1803, when the United States made the Louisiana Purchase agreement with France, they claimed ownership of Osage territory. According to educational materials of the Osage Culture Traveling Trunk,

Between 1808 and 1872, the Osages had little choice but to cede all their lands in present-day Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas, and most of their land in Oklahoma, to the U.S. Government. The last land cession was in 1872, when the Osages ceded their reservation in Kansas and moved to a new reservation in Oklahoma. This is the current Osage reservation.

You can find out much more information about the Osage on that website, which is dedicated to educating children in Missouri.  I want to include one more map from that program to emphasize the extent of these ceded lands. osage_ceded_lands_poster

Special thanks to my cousin Jim Pattyn for sharing his genealogical research into our Johnson family.