The author of today’s post is once again Fred Eggers. He is an outstanding researcher and has written this story with connections to his own family. It is a fascinating tale of a man’s survival during the calamity of a steamboat burning on the Mississippi River. This account also contains information that is important in the history of Trinity Lutheran Church in Altenburg. There are facts here that will help tell the the story of the building of Trinity’s church sanctuary in 1867. Later this year, Trinity will celebrate the 150th anniversary of this structure. We hope you enjoy the story. Thanks, Fred, for your contributions to our blog.
Johann Dietrich Hellwege died on June 27, 1887 and his death is recorded in the church records of Trinity Lutheran Church in Altenburg. What is unique for a death in that era is that his obituary was published in the Perry County Sun newspaper.
I have transcribed what was published in the obituary as follows:
The Perry County Sun
Friday, July 1, 1887
“At his residence, in Altenberg, Perry County, Mo., on last Sunday morning, June 27th. 1887, John Dietrich Hellevege, aged 72 years, 1 month, and 26 days. Deceased was born at Lahmstadt on der Elbe in the Kingdom of Hanover on May 1st, 1815, from where he emigrated to the United States, arriving at Birmingham, in this country, in December 1842. Being a deck-passenger on the steamboat “General Pratt,” which burnt about five miles above Memphis, he lost everything he had, saved the scanty clothing that he had on and a small lot of wagon-maker’s tools. Soon after his arrival in this county he took up his abode at Altenburg, where he resided until his death. Seven years ago the excessive hand labor he had performed, together with old age, began to show on him, and for the last two years he was compelled to remain in the house, nearly all the time bedfast, under the care of a special nurse, until relieved by death last Monday from “Merasueus Cerielis.” He was respected by everybody, and leaves an aged widow, an aged brother, one stepson, a stepdaughter, and the heirs of another stepdaughter to mourn his loss. He was laid to rest on June 28th, according to the rites of the Lutheran church, in the presence of a large concourse of friends, Rev. J. F. Koestring officiating.” Note: I found information that “Merasueus Cerielis” means Lung Fever or Pneumonia as we know it now.
I first learned about this obituary in 2008 when my brother Cal in Pittsburgh, who had completed our Eggers family tree, received a letter from Mark Miesner in Perryville asking if our ancestors had immigrated with the Hellwege family from Lamstedt in 1842. At that time we knew little of their immigration except that the year 1842 was listed for an Eggers family member in the 1900 US Federal Census. While doing research for a presentation on the immigrants from the former Kingdom of Hanover to Perry County for the 2012 Biennial Immigration Conference at the museum in Altenburg we found that there were several connections between the two families:
- Mette Hellwege, mother of Peter Johann Heinrich Jacob Hellwege and Johann Dietrich Hellwege, was a sponsor at the baptism of Hermann Friedrich Eggers in Lamstedt in 1830.
- Claus Eggers and Peter Johann Heinrich Jacob Hellwege both purchased land in Section 21 of Township 34 North, Range 13 East near Altenburg in March of 1843. The deeds were both recorded on April 7, 1845 in the Perry County Recorder Office and they follow one after the other in the records.
- Peter Johann Heinrich Jacob Hellwege married his second wife, Sophia Justine Hopfer Hesse, a widow, at the Paitzdorf (now Grace, Uniontown) Lutheran Church on August 1, 1847. Hermann Friedrich Eggers was married to Johanne Hopfer at Trinity Lutheran Church in Altenburg on November 2, 1854. The two brides were sisters.
We also learned that the two families were listed after one another in a list which Pastor Zeidler of the Lamstedt Parish had made in 1856 of the people from that congregation that had emigrated from Lamstedt from around 1840 until then. In 2014 I did a lengthy analysis of this list after I had obtained a complete copy of the list which was first published in Germany in 1990 that includes around sixty Lamstedters that emigrated to our area. I am in the process of updating that study which is available at the research library in Altenburg. This is a copy of the first page of seven of that list which contains the Claus Eggers and Hellwege entries:
This list includes Claus Eggers, Maurer (Mason), his Frau (wife), and three children which matches our family records; however, it only lists Tischler (Carpenter or Cabinet-Maker) Hellwege and his Mutter (Mother). The Tischler would be Johann Dietrich’s brother Peter Johann Heinrich Jacob. Apparently Pastor Ziedler did not recall Johann Dietrich or his brother’s wife and child.
It appears likely that the Eggers and Hellwege families traveled together to America in 1842 to settle in the Altenburg area. Now, back to Johann Dietrich Hellwege and the perilous journey. After reading the obituary and the comments regarding the burning of the steamboat General Pratt near Memphis I tried to find more documentation on this incident. The only information that I was able to find was an 1841 newspaper article from Fort Madison, Iowa that “the steamboat Gen. Pratt, brought up Friday last, 150 Mormons, all of them are from England, and are bound for Nauvoo, Illinois, the “Promised Land” and the city of the “Latter Day Saints”, and a letter written by another passenger that traveled from Vicksburg, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee that gave a brief description of the fire and that there were “400 passengers, principally German Emigrants who lost all of their baggage and escaped barely with their lives.”
I just knew that there was more documentation to be found on the burning of this steamboat so I continued to search. In a recent Google search for “General Pratt” I found several references to a General Bernard Pratte who was an American that fought in the War of 1812 and later lived in St. Louis, Missouri. Lesson learned – just as we find spelling variations in names in church and census records, these errors can also be found in other historical articles and documents.
The General Pratte steamboat was built in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1840 and was considered to be one of the better boats of its time. It was likely that it was named in honor of General Bernard Pratte who had died in 1836. A U S Army Corp of Engineers document from 1977 describes the site of the steamboat burning as Islands Number 40 and 41 which lay in the middle of the river and were known to boatmen as Beef Island. That document talks about the fire and the rescue of the passengers and mostly repeats what I found in something published soon after the event which occurred on November 24, 1842.
The late John Francis McDermott III, who was a noted author and professor of American History at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville, included eight pages of articles from the St. Louis Missouri Republican entitled The Burning of the General Pratte in his book Before Mark Twain, A Sampler of Old, Old Times on the Mississippi published in 1968.
The articles include the first report on the accident based on the information given on December 2 by Mr. Papin, a clerk of the steamboat, a letter from Captain T. J. Casey and a letter from the cabin passengers published on December 5, and a tribute paid to Captain Casey and his officers and crew by the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce published on December 9 along with a letter of thanks for the tribute by Captain Casey.
It would be great to include all eight pages of these articles because it is great reading and demonstrates the writing style of 1842, but I will give a brief summary of the incident based primarily on Captain Casey’s account. The fire broke out at about 2 A.M. forward of the starboard wheel-house, which is where the paddle wheel was located, by sparks from the smoke stacks. It was windy and the flames spread rapidly and the crew was unable to extinguish the fire. The captain instructed the pilot to run the boat ashore and stop the engines. The crew then awoke all of the passengers which was difficult since most of them did not speak English and guided them off the burning boat to the island. This included several aged men and women that had to be carried from the boat and some children that were not one month old. Bonfires were built on the island to warm the passengers. In morning after everyone was reunited with their families it was determined that miraculously there were no lives lost. The iron chest containing the funds of the cabin passengers was saved with only some damage to the paper documents. The boat and its cargo were a total loss.
One thing in the letter by Captain Casey was of great interest to me because it discusses the passengers on the steamboat and how they came to New Orleans.
Most of the passenger lists for the immigrant ships of 1842 that arrived at New Orleans have been lost, but having the names of the four ships that carried these passengers greatly increases the possibility of finding the immigration information for the families involved. So, the search continues.
After arriving in Altenburg, Johann Dietrich Hellwege continued to work as a wagon maker. In the 1850 census he is living just a few houses from Rev. Schrieferdecker.
He married a widow, Christiane Rosine Sittner Krahmer on May 11, 1845 and, although they had no children of their own, they raised her three children.
The most interesting document that I located regarding Johann Dietrich Hellwege was the minutes of Trinity Lutheran Church from 1865 when the decision was made to build a new church and use the old (1845) church as a school rather than build a new school building. I am told that these minutes were translated by Vernon R. Meyr in 1967 for the centennial of the church building. In naming the committee for the church building, the first member listed was John D. Hellwege who was selected as the “Werkführer” or as we would say now Superintendent for the construction project.
Like in so many other stories that we find in the history of the German Lutheran immigrants to Perry County, we find God’s hand guiding and protecting his people as they traveled to a new world and a new life among like believers.