In 1884 my great grandfather, Johann (John) Nelke, came to America when he was 17 with his uncle’s family. They settled in St. Louis, Missouri. John saved money to help pay for the passage of the rest of his family—his parents, Johann and Amelia, and his three younger sisters, Adeline, Hedwig (Hattie), and Bertha. They left from Rotterdam on a ship called the S.S. Rotterdam, arriving in New York on Thursday, May 26, 1887. The youngest Nelke passenger on the ship, Bertha, was twelve. After she grew up, one of her children, Melba Heyderich, wrote down what Bertha told her about life in Germany and the trip to St. Louis. So here is a secondhand account of a child’s journey from Germany to America in 1887. As later told to her daughter...

[Notes in brackets were added by me. I also made a few minor corrections.]

In Germany, the [Nelke] family lived on a large farm owned by a landowner that they worked for. My mother [Bertha Nelke] said that everyday her mother [Amelia] and father [Johann] had to work in the fields and left the three girls to knit socks, peel potatoes for the evening meal, etc. My mother’s job was to tend to a flock of geese, a neighboring boy took care of the cows, etc. They went to school—a long walk away—in a one room schoolhouse. The teacher was a man who taught all grades. When it was time for religious studies, the Catholic children went outside to play while the teacher, a Lutheran, taught. When the priest arrived, the Lutheran children and teacher went outside while the priest instructed the Catholic children. Their brother John [my great grandfather] was raised Catholic which was the custom then. All boys were raised in their father’s religion, the girls in the mother’s.

Johann and Amelia Nelke and three daughters, Adeline, Hattie and Bertha left Barkenfelde, Germany for [Rotterdam] Holland. My mother [Bertha] remembered the strange dress and shoes and language of the people. They sailed on Bertha’s 12th birthday, May 12, 1887. It was also the ship captain’s birthday and Mom remembered that he came over to shake hands. It took two weeks before the captain called them up on deck to see the Statue of Liberty. So it was May 27, 1887 when they reached New York.

She didn’t mention too much about the trip. They came steerage and her mother [Amelia] was ill the whole trip. The girls were afraid that she was going to die, but it was probably seasickness. The trip was uneventful except for spotting a large whale. She said the water spouted up like a fountain, but then they were ordered to move to the other side of the ship because the ship was tilting.

They also had their own tin cup, plate, spoon, knife and fork that they had to keep and wash for the entire trip.

Immigrants Landing at Castle Garden, 1880
Immigrants Landing at Castle Garden, 1880

She didn’t know exactly where they were, but she remembered a big, noisy room where they waited, and being pushed along and yelled at. [This would have been the Castle Garden immigration depot in New York City.] Since none spoke English they didn’t know what was going on. Some people were crying and were being sent back and I guess the parents too were terrified. Then she remembered a crowded dirty train ride for a long time. They were met in St. Louis by their older brother, John [my great grandfather], who had come over when he was about 17. I don’t know how long he had been here before he sent them money for the trip [it was about 3 years].

Melba’s story about her mother was sent to me in 1999 by Roy Held, who is my mother’s second cousin and the grandson of Bertha’s sister, Adeline. The previous year, I received an email from Roy, who had seen a photograph of my great grandparents, John and Elisabeth Nelke, on my genealogy website. I gave Roy’s papers to my mother who put them in a filing cabinet in her sewing room, which was once my bedroom. I found the papers three years ago while digging around in the sewing room to see what gems I might uncover, or in this case, rediscover, among all the colorful thread and fabric.

Bertha Nelke, c. 1905
Bertha Nelke, c. 1905

The Nelke family lived in a small village in West Prussia (Germany) called Barkenfelde that is now in Poland, where it is known as Barkowo. Barkenfelde did not have a Catholic or Lutheran church at the time the Nelke family lived there, so they attended Catholic church in Schlochau, about 14 km away, and later in Christfelde, a nearby village. Although they were raised Lutheran, the three Nelke girls were baptized in the Catholic church. The surviving church records for Schlochau and Christfelde are in a Catholic diocese archive in Pelplin, Poland. They have not been microfilmed and they are not online. I have not been able to locate Lutheran records for the area. They may have been lost or destroyed during the turmoil in the region at the time of World War II. The small wooden Catholic church in Christfelde was destroyed in the war. A new church was later built on the same spot.

Looking at my family tree, I see a twelve-year-old girl, exhilarated and scared at the same time, traveling from her tiny home village to Rotterdam, then a ship to New York City, and a crowded train to St. Louis. Along the way, she encountered new people and new languages. She worried about her mother, marveled at a whale, whose presence caused the ship to tilt, and then witnessed the unpleasant treatment of immigrants at Castle Garden.

S.S. Rotterdam
S.S. Rotterdam

This exciting and strange journey was followed by tragedy as Bertha’s father, Johann, died eight months after the family arrived in America when he was 49. He was found in the bottom of a well on the grounds of the urban garden where he worked. The St. Louis deputy coroner ruled his a death a suicide. Apparently the rigors of the trip sparked a nervous breakdown. He’s buried in an unmarked grave in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.

And then perhaps some calm arrived for the Nelke family as they settled into their new lives in this strange new place. Bertha and her sisters married Lutheran men, their brother married a Catholic woman. They all had children and passed things down. And somehow through the magic of connection, of wanting to connect—a discovery on the internet followed by an exchange of emails and letters and photographs—I ended up with this story to share.

This is the best part of genealogy, going beyond recording names, dates, and places, to find and share stories like this. Stories where we get to actually know our ancestors a little bit with a tiny peek into their lives.

-Joe Beine, September 2019

Thank you...

Roy Held for sharing Bertha’s story with me and my mother.
Hans-Jürgen Nelke, who assisted with research in Barkenfelde and the surrounding area.

The Nelke Family

Parents (my great great grandparents):
Johann Nelke, 1839-1888
Amelia (Emilie) Mahlke, 1839-1915

Their children:
Johann (John), 1866-1930 (my great grandfather)
Adeline (Lena), 1869-1913
Hermann, 1872-1873, died in Barkenfelde
Hedwig (Hattie), 1873-1915
Bertha, 1875-1944
(her daughter Melba Heyderich, 1917-2011)

All of the above people were born in West Prussia and died in St. Louis (except Melba and Hermann). Several of their relatives also came to America and settled in St. Louis, including Amelia’s brother, Carl, and her sister, Henrietta.


Sources and notes for this article can be found at: Nelke Family Genealogy Records


Shults, A. B., Artist. "Immigrants Landing at Castle Garden. New York: 1880." Illustration in Harper’s Weekly, May 29, 1880, p. 341. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Johnston, J. S, photographer. Detroit Publishing Co., Publisher. "S.S. Rotterdam." Between 1897 and 1907. Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Bertha Nelke photograph from the Held family collection.

© 2019 Joe Beine. May not be reproduced without permission.

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