Updated: Jul 19
In late 2022, I purchase a boxful of covers at a stamp auction. The covers were a fascinating lot dating from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, but there was a peculiar one: A stampless folded letter from 1845 written in German (Figures 1 and 2).
Figure 1 - Front of letter. Source: Author's collection.
Figure 2- Back of letter. Source: Author's collection.
Although I had taken German for two years in high school and four years in college, I remembered little of it other than "Bitte" and "Danke." I could make out several words in the letter but not enough to make out the context. I needed someone to translate it, and through an online search, I found Abigail Huber, a highly skilled translator of old German documents (https://www.ajordanhuber.com/). She and her colleagues provided me with the translation shown at the end of this article. It turned out to be quite an interesting missive.
The letter was penned on July 10, 1845, by 38-year-old Gabriel LaFayette Miesse, a doctor then living in Columbus, Ohio. Gabriel was born in Berks County, Pennsylvania (about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia) in 1807, as were his father Jacob Miesse (1778-1856) and mother Catherine Dundore (1782-1840). Gabriel moved to Lancaster, Ohio, some 35 miles southeast of Columbus, in 1831. He lived for a short time in Columbus before moving to Greenville, Darke County, Ohio in 1848. He posted this letter from Columbus on July 13, 1845, as indicated by the circular date stamp in the upper lefthand corner of Figure 1.
Gabriel addressed the letter to "Daniel or Joseph Miese or to their heirs" in Elsoff, Germany, a village in what is today the town of Bad Berleburg. That area is in the western part of Germany, some 90 miles north of Frankfurt. At the time, Elsoff was in the county of Wittgenstein, which had been annexed to Prussia at the end of the Napoleonic Wars .
So, what motivated a 38-year-old doctor living in Ohio with roots in Pennsylvania to write a letter to someone who may or may not have been alive in a village in Prussia? His reasons were twofold. First, he wanted to connect with any distant relatives in Germany. Second, he wanted to be of assistance to anyone from Elsoff who was thinking of emigrating to the U.S.
Gabriel's connection to Elshof was through his paternal grandfather, Johann Daniel Miesse, who went by Daniel. Daniel was born in Elsoff in 1743 and arrived in Pennsylvania in 1770. It isn't clear why Daniel emigrated to America, but according to one source, it may have been due to the prevalence of the plague and that his family was accused of witchcraft . Economic opportunities and/or religious freedom may also have been reasons. The people of Wittgenstein lived under the absolutistic rule of the Princes of Wittgenstein who extracted whatever value they could from the villagers. That coupled with opportunities for religious freedom resulted in a wave of immigration to America - specifically to Pennsylvania - in the late 18th century. Gabriel's grandfather Daniel was part of that wave.
It didn't take long for Daniel to adjust to his adopted country. In 1771, he married Margaret Ebeling (1748-1789), a native of Berks County, and they had two of their eight children by the time Daniel enlisted in the Pennsylvania militia in 1776 to fight in the Revolutionary War. He was quite the patriot, being one of 42 men chosen by General George Washington to tend fires to fool the British into thinking the Continental Army was in New Jersey while Washington and the army were in fact crossing the Delaware River into Pennsylvania on Christmas night of 1776. He was chosen for that role because of his "immense stature" - he was six-foot, four-inches in height! The family had a letter from Washington complimenting Daniel and the other men for their service . Daniel passed away in 1818 and, according to Gabriel, left an estate valued at 27,000 guilders, equivalent to about a quarter million dollars in today's money.
Gabriel's hopes that others would emigrate from Germany to the U.S. were not unfounded. Germany was a few years away from the revolutions of 1848, but economic and political conditions were rapidly deteriorating, especially in light of the very poor harvests in 1845 and 1846. Indeed, over one million Germans would immigrate to the U.S. between 1845 and 1855. and many would settle in the Midwest in cities like Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. Gabriel's letter may well been the catalyst for others to make the journey.
Gabriel's family enjoyed great success in the U.S., and he would have made a persuasive argument for the benefits of emigrating. His grandfather made quite a name for himself, as did Gabriel's father Jacob who became a farmer and wealthy landowner in Berks County and served as Justice of the Peace for 20 years. Gabriel may have outshone them all.
The most complete biographical sketch I found on Gabriel appeared in a 1900 publication titled, A Biographical History of Darke County Ohio . Here are some excerpts from that write-up:
Gabriel Miesse, physician and surgeon, Greenville, Ohio was born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, March 26. 1807. ...
Indications of superior mental energy and practical talents were developed in the person of our subject at an extremely early age. His education was begun when he was a mere child and was conducted chiefly under...Dr, Charles Quinedon, a finely cultured physician from Prussia. This instruction was supplemented by...attendance...at the medical college in Philadelphia.
He left Philadelphia on foot...to seek a location [to practice]. ... In the spring of 1831 he located near Lancaster, Fairfield County, Ohio, and on August 24, 1832, married Mary Wiest [1814-1885], whose father Jacob Wiest, had moved there from Pennsylvania ... In 1848 Dr. Miesse settled in Greenville, Darke County, Ohio and ... acquired an enviable reputation as a good citizen, an eminent practitioner of medicine and a distinguished surgeon. Notices of his remarkable cures and delicate experiments in surgery frequently appeared in public prints and in medical journals of the west.
Dr. Miesse possessed a highly cultivated, esthetic taste, and his cabinet of relics, curiosities, etc. would in its size and choice selection have done credit to a university.
His family comprised eight children [who lived to adulthood]. His oldest son, Dr. Gabriel Miesse, Jr. of Lancaster, Ohio, is distinguished as a physician and surgeon, and possesses rare musical qualifications. His third son, Dr. Americus Miesse, is a prominent physician of Lima, Ohio. His youngest son, Dr. Leon Miesse, is a noted physician and surgeon of Chicago, Illinois.
Medicine certainly ran deep in the Miesse family. In addition to Gabriel and three of his sons being physicians, two of Gabriel's brothers were doctors. Gabriel, Jr. had the additional distinction of being a gifted musician. He was considered the most distinguished pianist in Ohio and was also known as a composer. One of his works, a comic opera titled Schermania in America, was not discovered until 2006 and was the subject of a 2011 Ph.D. dissertation by Carol A. Abbott of Ohio University .
Gabriel passed away on August 6, 1886, and his passing was noted with interest in newspapers in both Ohio and Pennsylvania . The Pottsville (Penn.) Republican shed additional light on "his cabinet of relics, curiosities, etc.":
His immense mansion at Greenville is a perfect museum and wonder. Several large rooms, and a large underground department being filled with relics, and thousands of specimens of his surgical work, from the whole human body to almost every part of it, and a very great amount of removed cancers, and all kinds of deformities.
If you ever visit the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia (https://muttermuseum.org/), I suspect that would probably come close to what you would have seen had you toured Gabriel's mansion (Figure 3). As for his collection of medical curiosities, I wonder if he retained this specimen reported on page 3 of The Troy Times of February 22, 1866:
We have been shown a tape worm, measuring seventy-eight feet in length, which was taken from John Lazaro, by Dr. G. Miesse, of this place. His wormship is a formidable looking creature to come from the stomach of a man and adds another laurel to the justly merited reputation of our fellow citizen, Dr. Miesse, as an able and successful Surgeon - Greenville Jour.
Figure 3 - Dr. Gabriel Miesse Home, Greenville. During the construction of this house in 1860, it was described as "a splendid residence on the corner of Third and Sycamore Street which, when completed, will be an ornament to our town." The home was torn down in 1975. Source: Greenville's Old Homes Past and Present, Toni T. Seiler, 2002. Copy provided by Brenda Garnett, Garst Museum, Greenville.
Gabriel was laid to rest at the Greenville Union Cemetery. (In 1853, he deeded eight acres to help organize that cemetery, reserving 24 of the 370 lots for his use .) His wife Mary, who died one year earlier in 1885, is buried beside him. It is a wonder that Mary lived to age 71 because she gave birth to 15 children with Gabriel! She and Gabriel suffered much heartbreak as five of their children died as infants and two more died as young children.
I found two photos of Gabriel online. One was published on page 6 of the March 20, 1950, issue of the The Daily Advocate of Greenville. It was a very poor image, but I received a crystal clear copy of that photo (Figure 4) from Karen Besecker at the Garst Museum Research Library in Greenville. It is a wonderful picture of Gabriel and his wife Mary taken on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1882. The other photo I found of Gabriel is from a tree on Ancestry.com (Figure 5).
Figure 4 - Gabriel and Mary Miesse, 1882. Source: Garst Museum Research Library, Greenville.
Figure 5 - Gabriel Miesse. Source: https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/108681041/person/170071108891/facts
I have not been able to determine exactly how this letter traveled from Columbus, Ohio to Elsoff, Germany and the total postage, but I do know or can deduce the following:
As noted above, the letter was postmarked in Columbus, Ohio on July 13, 1845.
Gabriel paid 10-cents for this letter to travel from Columbus to New York, which was the jumping off point for its journey across the Atlantic. You can make out a faint, red "PAID" stamp just above the name "Joseph" and a manuscript "10" written over the top of the name "Miese" in Figure 1. U.S. postage rates had been significantly reduced effective July 1, 1845. Had Gabriel posted this letter two weeks earlier, it would have cost him 25-cents to mail it to New York. It would have been nice if Gabriel had franked this cover with the recently issued 10-cent adhesive postage stamp picturing George Washington (what is now U.S. Scott Catalog #2), but I suspect supplies of that stamp and its 5-cent counterpart depicting Benjamin Franklin (U.S. Scott Catalog #1) had not made it that far west by this time.
There is a second postmark in red just below the name "Miese" in Figure 1. The date appears to be July 23 and may indicate when the letter was received at an exchange office in New York. The letter was then placed on board a ship headed to Europe.
The letter was sent before the first postal convention between the U.S. and Germany and at a time when transit fees for transatlantic letters were complex and usually not prepaid . Mail from the U.S. to Germany at this time usually went through France, with delivery to the various German states provided by the Thurn-und-Taxis Post, a private postal service. There are three manuscript numbers in red - 13, 8, and 4-3/4 - just below the word "Elsoff," and those may be rates charged by a receiving entity in France and/or by the Thurn-und-Taxis Post. Those charges would have been paid by the receiving party.
There are three postmarks on the back, only one of which is legible. The digits "27| 8" may represent the date - August 27 - that the letter arrived at its final or an interim destination.
Whether Gabriel received a response, I'll never know, but it's comforting to think he did reconnect with some distant family members and helped an immigrant or two along the way.
 "Causes for Emigration From the German Counties of Wittgenstein," Karl-Ernst Riedesel, https://www.cob-net.org/photos/europe/wittgenstein-emigration.pdf.
 Pottsville (Penn.) Republican, August 16, 1886, p. 1.
 https://archive.org/details/biographicalhist00chi/page/n5/mode/2up, pp. 240-242.
 See footnote  and the Darke County Democratic Advocate, August 19, 1886, p. 1.
 The Daily Advocate, September 24, 1983, p. 3.
Page 1 of letter. Source: Author's collection.
Page 2 of letter. Source: Author's collection.
Text of letter as translated by Abigail Huber:
To Daniel or Joseph Miese or to their heirs
Express New York
Columbus Ohi [sic] North America
July 10th 1845.
With this letter, I would like to seek out an old and half-forgotten friendship and reacquaint myself with it in the future.
My grandfather’s name was Daniel Miese (or Müsse) (or Müse). I no longer know exactly how he spelled his name. We write our name Mieße (Miesse).
At a young age, Daniel came to Pennsylvania, North America, and got married to a girl named Ebling. His sons are Jacob, Daniel, Johannes, & Abraham. Young Daniel is dead, and son Jacob lives on the country estate of his late father Daniel 60 miles north of Philadelphia. Daniel the elder died 27 years ago.
There is also another Johannes Miesse living in Jembersburg, 160 miles northwest of Philadelphia, who was also a friend (relative) of Daniel’s. Daniel’s Jacob (my father) has been a justice of the peace for 20 years, 2 of his sons preachers, 3 doctors, and now in my old age I would like to hear more from my old friends and also learn what my grandfather Daniel’s father’s name was and if any of his siblings are still living, or whether they were survived by any children.
I would also like to know if any of my friends or relatives are thinking of coming to America. Should that be the case, then I would gladly provide a good and accurate description of everything they would like to know about America.
Daniel Mieße died 27 years ago. His estate was 27,000 guilders and all his children now have property worth just as much or more.
When Daniel first came to America, he had no money left. With hard work and luck he grew rich and died blessed, in the 74th year of his life.
I also know other people who claim to be from Wittgenstein, specifically Daniel and Johannes Eckhart, Johanjost Kinkert, & Laubert.
Do write me back right away, and really fill the letter up with things that you want to know.
Your friend and servant,