Caroline Milberg was the first born of my eight second great-grandmothers. It becomes ever more difficult to research the ancestors as we go back in time, and this is particularly true of our female relatives. As I’ve worked on the family history, I’ve become acutely aware of how little I know about my distant grandmothers. Married women were “hidden” behind their husbands, in census records and property records and even in newspaper birth announcements (for instance, “a baby girl was born to Charles and Mrs. Herpst.”) And yet, there are breadcrumbs in the historical records, bits and pieces to help us learn. Let’s see what they tell us about Grandmother Caroline.
According to census records Caroline was born in about 1841 in Prussia. Some Milberg families who ended up in St. Louis came from the towns of Bielefeld and Spenge, then in Prussia, now in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. I would not be surprised to learn that Caroline came from that area.
Caroline arrived in America sometime between 1841 and early 1864. Like her future husband Charles, she very likely sailed from Bremen to New Orleans on a three-masted sailing ship, and then up the Mississippi to St. Louis on a steamboat. I wonder if she was old enough to remember the journey?
Caroline’s first appearance in a public record in America that I’ve found is in February 1864, when she married Charles Herbst. Their marriage was the first one recorded in the record book of the United Church of Christ in Marine, Madison County, Illinois. It reads: Carl Herbst, widower, to Mrs. Caroline Bergers, widow (nee Muehlberg). Caroline would have been about 23 years old at the time; Charles was about 20 years her senior. I have never found any record of Caroline’s first husband, Mr. Berger. But his death meant that Caroline was an available German-speaking bride for Charles, who was left with several young children when his wife Henriette died. I suppose that a young widow with no means of supporting herself had little choice in such matters.
In December 1864, Charles and Caroline baptized their first child, Henry. The church records show that Henry was born January 25, 1863, although it seems more likely he was born in 1864. In either case, Henry was apparently born before Charles and Caroline were married, and I have wondered if Henry’s mother was actually Henriette, who perhaps died in childbirth. No matter. When Caroline married Charles she stepped full-bore into the role of “mother,” into a ready-made family of six children plus a newborn. And for the next 17 years, like clockwork, another child came along every couple of years. There was never a time in that 20-year period when there were not young children around. Caroline and Charles had at least nine children together, and perhaps more. Their oldest and youngest were boys; the rest were girls.
Caroline and Charles lived in Madison County for the first three years of their marriage. In about 1867, they moved north to Montgomery County. Both counties had many German-speaking immigrants within their populations and Caroline would have had a community with which to speak her native language. For many years the Herpsts lived on farms that Charles leased, but at some point, the family moved to Litchfield and Caroline took in boarders to help make ends meet. What was one more mouth to feed?
In the early 1880s, Caroline’s oldest stepson, Charles, married Minnie Milberg in St. Louis. Aha, a Milberg family! As it turns out, these Milbergs lived near the Herpsts in Montgomery County in 1870, and Heinrich Milberg (Minnie’s father) was a witness to the 1882 baptism of Caroline’s youngest child. Surely these people were related to Caroline in some way. I think it’s possible that Henry (born in about 1815) was Caroline’s father, and that Minnie is a half-sister of Caroline. Maybe time will tell.
Caroline died in 1895, when she was 54 years old. She lived long enough to see several of her daughters marry and to meet some of her grandchildren. Caroline is buried in the Wares Grove Cemetery in Montgomery County. Next to her is Josephine Herpst, who died in 1879 at age 3, and who I believe (but cannot confirm) is her daughter. Regardless, it is nice to think of Caroline, whose life as I know it was so defined by children, resting alongside this child.
There we have it, the facts and my best guesses about the life of Caroline Milberg. A story filled with probablys, likelys, maybes, and possiblys. In time, more facts may come to light: where she was born, who her parents and siblings were, information about her first husband, the identity of all her children. Other questions will remain unanswered except in our imaginations: What was her life like in Prussia? Did she ever learn to speak English? Did she get along well with her stepchildren? Did she have friends in Illinois? What made her the happiest?
One hundred and forty-eight years ago today Caroline gave birth to my great-grandmother Lillie. She could never have dreamed that nearly a century and a half later her 2nd great granddaughter, also born on December 1, would be telling the world about her. Isn’t that a lovely bit of magic?