Thursday, September 8, 2011

He Was A Prussian Cavalryman, and Tired of War

(Johann) Gottfried Altmann
He was my father’s great grandfather.

(Johann) Gottfried Altmann  (1818-1909)

Johann Gottfried Altmann was born in the village of Bunzlau near the larger city of Breslau in Silesia, which was then a part of Prussia, on October 17, 1818. Of his ancestry, we know only that his father’s name was Johann, born at Friedeburg in Silesia.  

Altmann is German for “old man.” Since Gottfried’s father’s name was also Johann (the German equivalent of John), the son used Gottfried (which is German for “peace of God”). The final “n” in his surname was sometimes used, sometimes dropped when he signed it. On 5 March 1861, in District Court in Des Moines County, Burlington, Iowa, he signed as Gottfried Altmann his intention to become a citizen. He became an American citizen in 1863.

In the 1879 History of Henry County, both his printed sketch and his signature in the front of the book are “Gottfried Altman.” Added to the signature in his book is this bit of information: “Gottfried Altman aus (from) Siegersdorf Kr. (Kreis = district) Bunslau, Prussia 16/2/1879 (probably the date he received his copy of the book, February 16, 1879.)  On page 640 of this book, a sketch of his life is printed: “Altman, Gottfried, farmer, Sec. 35 (Baltimore Township, Henry County, Iowa); P.O. Lowell; born Oct. 17, 1818, in Prussia; in 1856, came to Henry Co.; owns 140 acres of land. Married Augusta Pohl in 1854; she was born Nov. 5, 1822, in Prussia; have one child—Paulina. He is School Treasurer and Director. Republican; Lutheran Church.” He prepared his will in 1807 using the full name “John Gottfried Altmann” and then signed it G. Altmann.”

In Prussia, Gottfried’s parents were farmers who owned quite a bit of land for people of that time. They lived in a village and each day went out to their farms. Moderately well-to-do, the parents were considered to be “minor nobility” and were able to provide Gottfried with an excellent education at a Prussian university. He was well versed in astronomy, history, religion, philosophy and other subjects he would not have received in the common schools.

Gottfried served in the Prussian cavalry from the age of 21 until he was 34, and advanced to the rank of a minor officer. He belonged to an elite unit of cavalrymen, where every man was at least six feet tall. At 6’2”, he was unusually tall for that era. When Gottfried chose to resign from his unit, his parents thought his decision was foolish. But he was very weary of fighting. And he apparently wanted a family life. He had known Auguste for about ten years before their marriage by which time they were both in their 30s.  They had lived not far apart in the Goerlitz-Bunzlau neighborhood and were married in 1854 at Breslau, a town equivalent to an American county seat. Breslau later became Wroclaw, in Poland. When two years after their marriage, they made a decision to go to America, one reason was that they now had sons whom they wanted to avoid having to face compulsory military duty. Sadly, their son Willie died aboard the ship upon which they traveled to America, and he was buried at sea.

Early in the spring of 1856, the Altmanns left their home at Bunzlau. They went down the Elbe River to the harbor at Hamburg, where they boarded the sailing ship Rudolph. It was a rough trip, taking seven weeks. Years later, my grandfather spoke of his grandfather’s elation that summer morning when he looked out at New York harbor, and saw the great sight of “a steamer”—a steam ship. The difficult, unhappy sea trip was over.

At New York, the Passenger List shows the ship’s arrival date as 23 June 1856. This list shows that about a month before arrival, Wilhelm Altmann, age 6 months, died at sea on 29 May 1856. On the line above that of Wilhelm, and just below the names of Gottfr. Altmann and Auguste, is the name of another boy, August, age 5. This child never appears in Iowa census nor in family records. An infant female child, Augt. C. Altmann (age 8/12) appears only in the 1860 census, and the family has no record about her either. The 1860 census also shows a daughter, age 3, named Elizabeth. Her descendants remember her as Pauline, and it is with that name that she appears in the 1870 census at age 12.

Processing took place at Castle Garden on the southern tip of Manhattan, where immigrants were landed from 1855 until 1892. After being there about three days, they took a train west until the railroad tracks ended at the Mississippi River opposite Burlington, Iowa. They crossed the Mississippi by ferry. This was in the year 1856 which marked the peak year of immigration into Iowa when some 20,000 people were ferried across the Mississippi.

Southeast Iowa Counties-- Lee in green, bordered by
Henry County in orange and Des Moines County in gold.
The Altmans lived near where the three counties met, close to Lowell. 

Gottfried left Auguste in Burlington, rented a horse, and rode out to look at prairie land available at $1.25 an acre, north of New London, Henry County, Iowa. He was disappointed with the land which at that time was swamp and flat as a floor, with prairie grass as high as his horse’s shoulders, and almost no trees. He turned south, and on July 4, 1856, he was in the village of Lowell, then a promising town on the Skunk River with a sizable population, a dam supplying power for mills, stores, a blacksmith shop, a school and two hotels where men could spend the night while waiting their turn to have their grain ground at the mill. Inquiry in Lowell led him to a farm which the owner wanted to sell, two miles east of the town. This appealed to him because it looked like the land he knew in Germany, with hills and woods; he bought it.


An 1870 map of Baltimore Township in Henry County, Iowa shows that Gottfried  owned three tracts there; one in Section 35 was the 20 acres upon which he replaced an old house with a German-style house, probably during the summer of 1872, during which time the family lived in the granary. The new house originally had four rooms downstairs and two large rooms upstairs, with a gambrel roof to give more usable space than a gable. [I remember the house, viewing it only from the outside, prior to it being torn down in 1982. But it was home to four generations of the Altman-Delang family; it  was my father’s home during much of his childhood. Both of his sisters were born there, and most of what I’ve learned about the Altman and Delang families comes from journals written by one of them -- my Aunt Ruth.]

Gottfried built a number of farm buildings, including a large barn with horse stalls on the west side, cattle stalls on the east, a corn crib, two box stalls and hay mows above both horse and cattle stalls, leaving a central plank-floored space which was probably used as a threshing floor. The second tract of land (also in Section 35) was 20 acres across the road to the south; a third was southwest of that, 35 acres of Skunk River bottom land and the bluffs above it, in Section 34. Then between 1870 and 1879, he bought 20 more acres from J. Ward and 40+ acres from Mrs. Dixon, later turning the Dixon place over to his son-in-law, Robert Delang.

Like most farmers, the Altmans planted an orchard. They raised grain and hay for livestock and grain to supply the family with flour, buckwheat flour, oatmeal and cornmeal; they had a garden patch to provide vegetables in season and to store for winter. They kept cows to supply milk and beef, pigs for pork and lard, and a flock of chickens for eggs and meat. There were fish in the river and game in the woods; there were nuts, wild berries, plums and mushrooms for the gathering.

Auguste and Gottfried Altman in Iowa

The Altmans had good friends among the German-speaking families in their neighborhood. There was a schoolhouse a quarter mile east of their home. Two miles away was the thriving village of Lowell. When weather permitted, the family traveled about fifteen miles to St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in West Burlington, Iowa, where services were in German.

Gottfried and Auguste’s daughter, Pauline Elizabeth, was born October 24, 1857, a little more than a year after they came to America. Then in 1870, 12-year-old Robert Delang came to live with them after his mother died, and the Altmans treated him like a son. Probably both Pauline and Robert attended the country school near their home. When Pauline was older, she attended an academy at Franklin, Iowa, operated by the German Lutheran Church. A school record with Pauline Altman’s name, noted that Gottfried Altman had paid her tuition with money and food for the school kitchen—potatoes, apples, meat, and so forth. At the age of 14 or 15, Robert started to work at Melcher’s Pottery Shop, walking the two miles from home daily; he was employed there for six years  Robert and Pauline  married on 5 March 1879.

Gottfried was a fine horseman and in his 80s he could still place one hand on his horse's back and mount without using a stirrup, a skill he had learned in the Cavalry when sometimes a soldier needed to get into the saddle fast.  He was a student of astronomy and music, a good speaker, an artistic penman, loved to read, gave lectures at school.  He learned to speak good English but preferred the familiar German; so the family spoke only German at home.  He had been "high German" and retained some accent. 

Gottfried’s grandchildren enjoyed hearing him talk about ancient history, politics, geography, astronomy, religion, philosophy and the things he had experienced. In turn, his grandson, my grandfather Louis DeLong carried on the tradition with his own children and grandchildren, adding his own love of music, nature, language, literature and poetry. Yet, both were practical men who labored hard. My grandfather described Gottfried as a jolly, friendly person who enjoyed life intensely.

In 1903, Gottfried’s daughter Pauline and son-in-law Robert DeLang and their family moved into Lowell where they operated a general store for three years. Robert bought a house and a couple of acres at the west edge of the village. It had three rooms in a row, west to east, each room having a front door. Robert added to the house for a total of nine rooms. Each of the six ground floor rooms had an outside door, and the east room of the original three had both a front and a back door—Gottfried Altman’s room. He died there on January 20, 1909, less than a year after his daughter Pauline died in a measles epidemic.

--genieBev (genealogy Beverly)
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