Emma Merkt (1873-1937)

I once asked my dad to tell me what he remembered about his grandmother. He squinted his eyes, trying to resurrect a memory of her that would satisfy his inquisitive daughter. My father was only six when his grandmother died in Denver, Colorado, so I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had no mental image of her. I suspect he only saw her a time or two, if that. However, after a time, my father looked at me and said, “I recall her having black hair sprinkled with grey. Wore it short. I’d say she was about 5’2” and stout. And it seems like she was a good cook.” I’ve since wondered if he actually remembered these things about her, or he picked them up from a conversation he once heard. Regardless of the source, I’ve held onto these tidbits to help humanize a woman I know little about.

My great-grandmother, Emma Merkt, was born in Coffeyville, Kansas, on November 27, 1873, one of seven children born to German immigrant parents, John Georg (John) and Christina (Baier) Merkt, who had come to America when they were teenagers. Emma spent her first 13 years on a Kansas farm, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Her father’s obituary states that he was a missionary for the Lutheran Church, so religion must have played an important role in their family life.

Emma Merkt, sepia

Emma Merkt (1873-1937)

Before medical research discovered the cause and cure of diseases like malaria and typhoid fever, these illnesses frequently swept through Midwestern communities at certain times of the year, taking the lives of young and old and devastating families. Such was the case when, in the fall of 1886, Emma’s mother succumbed to typhoid fever at age 44. It’s not difficult to imagine the loss a thirteen-year-old girl would have endured losing her mother at that critical time in her life. Emma had at least five siblings, two sisters who were 15 and seven when their mother died, and three brothers, aged 21, 19, and 15 at the time. Emma’s father may have felt the need to start afresh after his wife’s death and business opportunities elsewhere may have promised a better future for his family than farming. Whatever the reason, John abandoned the farm and departed for Colorado, where gold and silver mining and the booming railroad industry were attracting settlers from all over the country. Emma and two of her siblings accompanied their father in a covered wagon to Chaffee County in southern Colorado. It’s possible they may have lived in the wagon for a time until they could find a suitable place to live. John eventually became a patent medicine salesman, a popular and sometimes lucrative trade in that day, though considered more of a shady occupation as the medical profession and pharmaceutical industry developed. Continue reading

Johann Georg Merkt 1838-1910

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.

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The Neckar River Valley when Johann Merkt was born.

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.

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Johann Georg Merkt

Federal and state census records reveal about all I’ve been able to find about the family without more extensive research.

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