Johann Carl Heinrich Herbst (John Charles Henry Herbst as reported on his death certificate) was born April 13, 1822 in Luttrum, Germany. In public records throughout his long life he is referred to as Carl, Charles, and John. His surname, which means “autumn” or “fall” in German, is sometimes spelled with a “p” and in later years most of his children (including my great-grandmother Lillie) used the spelling “Herpst.” Both of Charles’ parents were German-born. His father’s name was Andreas Herbst; his mother is unknown. If he had siblings, they have never come to light.
Charles immigrated to America when he was about 27 years old. Virtually nothing is known of his life in Germany. His birthplace, Luttrum, is a small village located in north-central Germany. It lies near the 52nd latitude, which in North America runs through Canada. Luttrum is in the rural district of Hildesheim, in what is now the state of Lower Saxony. When Charles lived there, Lower Saxony was part of the Kingdom of Hanover. The area around Luttrum was (and is) primarily agricultural. There is no evidence in later records that Charles practiced a trade, and it is likely that he was a farmer.
Between 1820 and 1900, more than 28 million immigrants descended upon America. Charles was part of the first wave of this great immigration, which continued until the eve of the Civil War. Approximately four million Germans arrived here between 1840 and 1880, seeking refuge from severe economic depression and unemployment, as well as political unrest. Charles arrived in America, at the port of New Orleans, in December 1849. I haven’t found the record of Charles’ trip across the ocean, but many German immigrants arriving in New Orleans departed from Bremen aboard a barque, a three-masted sailing ship. Like many thousands of others, Charles made his way by steamboat up the Mississippi River, settling in St. Louis.
Charles shows up in the public record soon after his arrival. On January 6, 1850, he married Henriette Kreuzberg in the Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Louis. Charles (Carl) and Henriette appear in the 1850 U.S. Census in St. Louis, living next door to Henriette’s parents and three of her siblings. The census, enumerated in April 1850, shows Carl and Henriette with a child, Carl Herbst, age 2, who was reportedly born in Missouri. In all the later censuses, the younger Charles/Carl is reported to have been born in Germany, which is more likely correct. His parentage remains a mystery, but my best guess is that Charles was married and widowed in Germany, and left with a young son. I suspect (but have not been able to confirm) that Charles and his namesake made the journey to America with Henriette’s family—the Kreuzbergs came from the village of Wartjenstedt, just 2-1/2 miles away from Luttrum. In any case, throughout the rest of his life, Charles remained close to the Kreuzberg family, and Henriette’s brother Conrad in particular.
For the next several years the Herbsts lived in St. Louis. The 1850 census shows Charles as a laborer, and it’s quite possible he worked on the Mississippi River. (His obituary many years later reported that Charles spent some years as a steamboat captain on the Mississippi, which could have been a bit of an exaggeration.) In about 1856, the Herbsts moved to Madison County, Illinois, rich rolling farm country some 30 miles east of St. Louis. Most of Henriette’s now-extended family made the move to Illinois in that same time frame, including her two sisters and two brothers, who were married with families, and her mother. Her father had died in St. Louis in 1854.
After residing in the United States for two years, an immigrant could file a “declaration of intent” (so-called “first papers”) to become a citizen. After three additional years, the immigrant could file a petition for naturalization. After the petition was granted, a certificate of citizenship was issued. Charles filed his first papers May 25, 1858. We don’t have his certificate of citizenship, but presumably it was issued as he self-reported as a “naturalized citizen” in both the 1900 and 1910 censuses.
In the 1860 census, the Herbst family was living near the village of Marine and had four children. Charles’ occupation was listed as “laborer.” He did not own land. The 1870 census tells us two more children were born to the Herbsts in about 1861. It is not clear if they were twins or born in close proximity. What we do know is that sometime between 1860 and 1864, Henriette died—and by the time Charles was 40, he was (probably) twice widowed and had six children in his household, ranging in age from about 13 to 1. Henriette’s brother Conrad lost his wife around the same time, so he and Charles would have been in a similar situation. I can imagine the men received support from the close-knit German community in Marine, including the Kreuzbergs extended family. The older children in both families no doubt shouldered a lot of the responsibility of taking care of their younger siblings.
Charles remarried on February 21, 1864. His was the first marriage recorded in the record book of the recently established Marine United Church of Christ: Carl Herbst, widower, to Mrs. Caroline Bergers, widow (nee Muehlberg). In December 1864, their first child was baptised. The record book shows this son was born January 25, 1863, although it seems more likely he was born in 1864. In either case, he was apparently born before Charles and Caroline were married. A daughter was born in 1866. In about 1867 the Herbst family, with eight children in tow, moved north to Montgomery County. Soon after the move my great-grandmother Lillie Caroline was born, on December 1, 1868. The 1870 census shows the family of eleven living in Butler Grove Township.
Other interesting facts can be gleaned from the 1870 census. For instance, Caroline is nearly twenty years younger than Charles. She is close enough in age to his older children to be their sibling, and definitely not old enough to be their mother, though she stepped into that role (and how!). Charles is a farmer. In the agricultural schedule of the census he is shown to be working a farm of 80 acres in Butler Grove Township, raising winter wheat, Indian corn and oats, and owning 4 horses, 4 milch cows, and 20 swine. Two hundred pounds of butter was made on the farm in the year ending June 1, 1870. I wonder how much of the farm’s production went to feed the family? The oldest son, Charles-the-second, now 21 years old, worked as a saddler, making and repairing saddles and other leather equipment for horses.
Between 1870 and 1880, we begin to lose track of the children. German naming conventions were complicated. The names the children were commonly called seemed to change over time and were sometimes repeated—Bertha was called Emma or Minna or Minnie; Lillie was called Caroline; Alice may have been called Alwine or Larvena; and it appears that two different children were called Josephine. Baptismal names were often very different from common names, and records have not been located for several children. Baptisms (like marriages) occurred when and where it was most convenient to get to a church, and they often took place a year or two after birth. One thing is clear—the kids kept coming. Some of the older children had moved on, but at least three and maybe up to five more children joined the Herpst clan in this ten-year period. This decade also saw the birth of Charles’ first grandchildren. There would eventually be more than thirty!
The 1890 United States census was destroyed in a fire, leaving a twenty-year gap (1880 to 1900) that is hard to fill. We know that at least one more child was born to Charles and Caroline, in 1881. Several more children married and began having families of their own. The Herbsts experienced loss as well. At least two of Charles’ grown daughters died, and two of the younger children disappear from the public records and are presumed to have died. Sadly, Caroline died in 1895, when she was 54 years old. By 1900 Charles had moved back to Marine and was living next door to his old friend Conrad Kreuzberg. As proof of fortunes never made, in 1897 and 1898, nearing the three-quarter century mark, he appears in the local newspaper in a list of men awarded pauper claims (public assistance).
By 1910, Charles was living with his daughter Josephine and her family in Marine. (His friend Conrad had died in 1908.) Charles’ family gathered in 1915 at Josephine’s Marine home to celebrate Charles’ 93rd birthday. To our great good fortune, a photograph memorializes the event—all of his then-living children were present except Frank.
John Charles Henry Herbst died in February 1918, at the age of 95, apparently healthy and vigorous to the end. He was preceded in death by three wives and seven children; eight children survived him. Imagine all that Charles experienced in his long life: From a tiny village in Germany to the bustle of the American Midwest, the Old World to the New World. Sailing across the ocean and steaming up the Mississippi. Working on farms, working on the river, and who knows what in between. Always getting by, but never getting much ahead. If you could ask Grandfather Charles just one question, what would it be? Tell me!