A Cold Day in Milwaukee

Week 20: #52 Ancestors – Another Language

By Eilene Lyon

“Charlie Gusso (1862 – [19]31) was born in Milwaukee, Wisc. When he was three days old his father was killed in a train accident. Charlie married Olive Springer (1870 – [19]41), daughter of Charles and Margaret Springer of Sparta, Wisc. After their marriage in 1889 they farmed on the Gusso homestead northeast of Florence in Dexter Township.”1

I don’t know who wrote this biographical blurb for the Codington County, South Dakota, history book, nor who has the original of this photo. It’s the only picture I have of my great-great-grandfather, Charles J. Gusso. Whenever I find a family history tidbit like this, I feel compelled to discover the truth (if any) behind the tale. This scenario sounds positively gruesome and tragic. What really happened to Charlie’s father, my 3rd-great-grandfather?

In this case, the journey of discovery took a couple years and included a trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Carl Heinrich Gasow and his wife, Dorethea, emigrated from the Mecklenburg region of Germany in May 1856 and settled in the city of Milwaukee, along with their three daughters.2,3 When the family arrived at Castle Garden, only Carl was recorded, giving his occupation as gentleman’s servant.4 He and Dorethea had two more children, born in Milwaukee prior to Charlie.5

Because they settled in a German-speaking section of the city, it’s probable that Carl spoke only his native tongue during the brief time he lived there.

IMG_8816

Mecklenburg Colony Milwaukee, the area where the Gasow family lived. (Courtesy Milwaukee Historical Society)

The Gasow family was affiliated with Trinity Lutheran Church, and that is where I finally found records for Carl’s death and Charles’ birth/baptism. Volunteers at the church gave me the volume and page numbers for the records. I had to request copies of the actual records from Concordia Historical Institute, Department of Archives and History in St. Louis, Missouri. Of course, the problem then would be reading the copies – they would be in German!

Unfortunately, Concordia did not have the volume containing Carl’s funeral record. They did have the birth/baptism record, and to my delight and relief, they even provided a translation! They also provided a bit of historical context regarding the baptism, in which the child was given all the names of the sponsors/godparents.

Transcription/Translation of the Birth-Baptism Record for Carl Heinrich Friedrich Johann Gasow (later changed to Charles J. Gusso)6:

Parents:     Gasow, Carl from Kleingrankow, Mecklenburg, Schwerin

                    Dorathea (born Theisen)

Child’s name: Carl Heinrich Friedrich Johann

Born: 29 January 1863 here (Milwaukee)

Baptized: 22 February 1863 church (Trinity, Milwaukee)

Sponsors:     Carl Weis

                      Heinrich Ziegler

                      Friedrich Meier

                      Johann Dreier

Notes:  The father, a railroad worker, died as a consequence of losing both legs, which were run over.  The child was born when/as the father died. (my emphasis)

Thus, 36-year-old Carl Gasow, after crossing an ocean and half a continent to find a better life for his family, having gone from valet in a gentleman’s home to the dangerous physical labor of railroad work, was suddenly torn from his family in a fateful, bloody slip. Did a language barrier contribute to the accident? I suspect the shock of the incident may have sent his wife into labor.

In the depth of cold, dark winter, Dorethea’s world was suddenly rent by pain – the grief of losing her husband, and the agony of bringing a new life into the world. How horrible for this young immigrant to be left with six young children to care for in a new country. The only blessing was that she had the support of a large community of neighbors from her home region in Europe. Not surprisingly, she remarried the following year.7

Oddly, Charlie Gusso believed he had been born in March 1862, though his real birthday was in January 1863.8 Perhaps his mother did not wish to celebrate his birth at the same time she was mourning the anniversary of Carl’s death, so she created a new birthday for her sixth child. Sixty-eight years later, Charlie Gusso, who never knew his biological father, left this world after suffering an accident as senseless as that which took his father.

Feature image: Marriage portrait of Olive Springer and Charles J. Gusso from “The First 100 Years” in Codington County, South Dakota. 1979.


  1. “The First 100 Years” in Codington County, South Dakota 1879 – 1979. 1979. Codington County History Book Committee. Watertown Public Opinion Print. “Charlie Gusso Family” p. 185. 
  2. Carl Gagzow in the Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934. Staatsarchiv Hamburg. Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2008. 
  3. Carl Gazow in the 1860 United States Federal Census. Year: 1860; Census Place: Milwaukee Ward 6, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Roll: M653_1423; Page: 578; Family History Library Film: 805423. 
  4. Carl-Heinr. Gatzow. http://www.castlegarden.org/quick_search_detail.php?p_id=3866556 
  5. William John (Dorethea’s second husband) in the 1870 United States Federal Census. Year: 1870; Census Place: Rockland, Brown, Wisconsin; Roll: M593_1703; Page: 392B; Family History Library Film: 553202. 
  6. Trinity Lutheran Church Baptisms. Volume IX, p. 192 – 193. Translation provided by Concordia Historical Institute, Sept. 25, 2013. 
  7. Wilhelm Heyse (aka William John) in the Wisconsin, Marriage Index, 1820-1907. Ancestry.com. Wisconsin, Marriage Index, 1820-1907 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2000. 
  8. Charles Gusso in the 1900 United States Federal Census. Year: 1900; Census Place: Dexter, Codington, South Dakota; Page: 10; Enumeration District: 0100. 

7 thoughts on “A Cold Day in Milwaukee

Add yours

  1. The best and worst days can be separated by a nanosecond or a grain of sand. My best day ever as a mountain guide was because of a breadcrumb. No kidding. Imagine losing you husband and giving birth at the same time. The fate of generations may have been decided days before by a drop of oil. Wow Eileen. What a story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sad story. I went to Marquette in Milwaukee. Even in the 60s the Town was divided by ethnic groups: German areas, Polish areas, etc. Churches often served ethnic groups with services in the associated language. One was as likely to hear German, Polish, Hungarian, Italian, etc. depending on what part of town you were, which makes the current discussions about speaking English seem disingenuous at best. As for the RR accident that work was extremely dangerous regardless of the language spoken. Very sad for the family but the wife endured and ultimately thrived which speaks to her fortitude and resourcefulness in finding a new husband to help rear her family. Great research.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the feedback and discussion on languages. I’ve read that it is typical in immigrant families for the first generation to stick with their native tongue, second generation is bilingual, and third speaks only the language of the new country. Why should anyone have a problem with that?

      Like

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