My great-great-grandfather’s multi-faceted life would make an interesting book, or provide a good story script for someone like Mark Twain or Garrison Keillor to turn into a magical stage show. Public records indicate that at various times he worked as a joiner (wood worker), farmer, clergyman, Lutheran missionary, and peddler of patent medicines. After emigrating from Germany with his sister when he was 16, he lived in New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Colorado. I suspect it may have been common for people mid-nineteenth century to live such a mobile, varied life, especially newcomers to a country that was spreading its boundaries on a regular basis and discovering its place in the world. Johann George Merkt seems to have stretched and discovered all his life.
Johann Georg Merkt was born in the village of Fluorn in the Oberndorf district, in Württemberg, Germany. Oberndorf lies in the Neckar River Valley in Germany’s Black Forest, surely one of the country’s most picturesque showplaces. I visited that area many years ago and have never forgotten its storybook aura and lush, natural beauty.
Johann began his life there on November 24, 1838. He was the son of 26-year-old Lucia Merkt and a father whose name has been lost to history. Lucia had also been born in Fluorn, as had her mother Margaretha (Ruos). Lucia had three other children, a daughter Anna Maria, born four years before Johann, another daughter, Christina, born two years after Johann and died within a month, and another unnamed child, who died four days after its birth in 1842. All four of Lucia’s children were illegitimate, which I’ve learned was common in that area of the world at that time. It’s unclear whether the children all had the same father.
German emigration records show that Johann’s grandparents, Nicolaus and Margaretha Merkt, took their children to the United States in 1817, including Lucia, who was only five at the time. Apparently, America did not suit them or something soon called them back to Germany, for they were living in Fluorn six years later, when Margaretha died, when Lucia was eleven.
I’ve learned nothing about Johann’s childhood before he was 16, when he immigrated with his 20-year-old sister Anna Maria to the United States on the Westphalia, arriving in New York on December 19, 1854. The ship’s manifest states that he departed from Bremen. There were other Merkts on the ship as well, but they’re not listed near the teenagers’ names on the ship’s manifest and their relationship to the brother and sister is unknown. I’ve wondered how the two could afford such a journey. As teenagers, Johann and Anna Maria worked prior to emigrating, for the manifest reported that he was a joiner and his sister a seamstress. One can only imagine the loss and heartache Lucia, then 42, experienced when her two children departed for America. Anna Maria was back in Germany only a few years later, however, for in 1859 she married Friedrich Knopfle in Oberndorf and remain there, raising six children.
Johann, who went by John or J.G. in America, married another German immigrant, Christina Baier (sometimes Beyer) shortly before his 24th birthday on November 13, 1862. The couple married in Cincinnati, Ohio, where numerous Merkts were living at the time, but I’ve been unable to link John with any of them. Perhaps John had stayed with some of these Merkts after arriving in America? John’s 20-year-old bride also came from the Wurttemberg area of Germany, but her parents are unknown, and it’s unclear where the couple met. John and Christina moved around a great deal in the early years of their marriage. The country was embroiled in the Civil War, and it’s possible societal unrest or lack of employment drove them from place to place. Their first child, George, was born in Illinois, the next three, Charles, William, and Mary, in Buffalo, New York, and the last two, Emma and Lena, were born in Kansas. (Emma was my great-grandmother.) John and Christina had seven children, but I’ve only been able to identify six.
Federal and state census records reveal about all I’ve been able to find about the family without more extensive research.
The family was living in Ottumwa, Coffey County, Kansas, when the State Census was taken in 1885. John, who was then farming, was 46 and Christina, 42. Their children were George, 20, Carley (Charles?) 18, Anna, 16, Mary, 15, William, 13, Emma, 11, Lena, 8. The family reported that they had moved to Kansas from New York.
Sadly, typhoid fever took Christina the following year. She died on September 15, 1886, in Burlington, Kansas, and was buried at Bowman and Adgate Cemetery in Ottumwa. A death notice was posted in the Burlington newspaper with no further information. One can imagine the loss felt by this young family. When John died 24 years later, his obituary stated that he went to Salida in Chaffee County, Colorado, in 1883. He likely misremembered the date, for he surely departed three or four years later, after Christina’s death. He traveled by overland prairie schooner, it was said, bringing three of his seven children with him, likely the youngest three. It’s clear that more than three of his children eventually came to Colorado, for various records reveal them living there.
Salida is a lovely town today, located in a valley surrounded by mountains. It grew to prominence in the early 1880s with the development of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Settlers flocked to the area as the city began to take shape from the ground up. John Merkt and his family were among those early settlers.
The 1910 Federal Census taken prior to his death that same year shows John G. Merkt, at age 72, living on D Street in Salida, Chaffee County, Colorado. The census states that he was a naturalized citizen working as an agent in the medicine industry. (His death certificate says he sold patent medicines.) He’s living with his daughter Mary, 40, who owned the home. John reported to the census taker that he immigrated in 1860, which was six years later than emigration records report, another instance of faulty memory.
According to his death certificate, Johann Georg Merkt died of heart trouble complicated by asthma and dropsy. His son William, who was then living about 60 miles away in Hooper, Colorado, provided information for the death certificate. His body was interred at Fairview Cemetery in Salida, Colorado. I have visited Salida and seen his gravestone and the house where he was living in 1910 when he died.
I’m struck by the attractive photo of him posted above. I found it at my grandmother’s house after her death. John would have been her grandfather, and I so wish I had asked her about him. She was seven and living in Pueblo, Colorado, about a hundred miles from her grandfather, when he died and may have never known him, but she may have heard stories about him. I find John a handsome man, well dressed and with a full head of hair late in life. John never remarried after Christina’s death, and I’ve wondered why. Clearly, this short profile of him only scratches the surface.
Note: If I eventually decide to flesh out this story, I would investigate the historical background behind John’s life events. What was occurring in Germany that would make the Merkt siblings decide to emigrate? Were many Germans still immigrating to America from that area at the time? How could they afford the voyage? Why did John and Christina move when they did, and why did they choose certain locations? What would have attracted John to the business of selling patent medicines? Would it have been a lucrative profession?