The Germans Are Coming, Part 8 (The Last)

The Nisqually Delta, ca. 1878

Well, time to finish off the recounting of an influx of German immigrants to the Nisqually Valley in the late 19th Century. In previous episodes of this blog I acquainted you, at probably too great a length for your comfort, with the comings of goings of two young Prussians, Friedrich Richter and Joseph Klee, largely through the events surrounding the death, by drowning in the river, of Friedrich in 1880. Both were veterans of “Salomon’s Army,” the group of Chicago residents that had been enticed by Edward S. Salomon, himself a German immigrant, to follow on to Washington Territory when President Grant appointed Salomon territorial governor. The last episode was devoted to the estate sale of Richter’s effects—farm implements and livestock, clothing, weapons, even his Meerschaum pipe and straight razor—to the neighbors and friends that gathered at the farm of Daniel Mounts on July 31, 1880. Now, one last task remained to Mr. Mounts, who was administrator of the estate: to sell Richter’s land, the 153 acres of flats and uplands on the east bank of the Nisqually delta that he and Klee had acquired from August Wollf, and an additional 80 acres some distance to the northeast and just west of American Lake.

It took another year before Mounts offered up Richter’s 233 acres, on July 9, 1881. Steilacoom resident Ernst (Ernest) Serfling, a German, was on hand to place the winning bid of $405 for the 153 acres, while Virginian Joel Myers successfully bid $82 for the 80 acre piece.  The appraisers of the land—Edward Huggins, James E. Orr, and Henry Walker—had valued the properties at $316 and $80, respectively; the upland, forested portions, 100 acres of the Nisqually property and all 80 acres of the American Lake piece, were appraised at one dollar per acre; the 53 acres of marshland at Nisqually were worth four dollars per acre. In those days prior to any extensive diking of the delta, this difference probably reflected the renewable resource of the marsh grass, as feed for livestock, and perhaps the difficulty of clearing treed property by hand and horse.

We’ll get to Mr. Serfling who, fifteen years later would sell the Nisqually property to Ole Braget, in a bit. But first there is the matter of Joel Myers. Myers first appeared on the Nisqually scene at age 34 in 1853, the year Washington Territory was created, and established a donation land claim for 320 acres on the river. The land previously had been farmed by Luther Collins and family, though they never formally claimed it and had moved on to a parcel in the Duwamish Valley. Myers’s Nisqually claim would eventually become part of the Braget farm, by way of Mounts family ownership.

Joel Myers’s donation land claim deed

Myers was fresh from the California gold fields, where the extent of his good fortune is unknown. But given his success as an entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer before and after he established himself in Washington Territory, it is a fair guess that he made out all right in the gold fields, though probably not as a miner. In any case, in 1853 Myers settled on the Nisqually claim, just across the river from the spot where first Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens would bring the tribes together for the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty the following year.

Medicine Creek, now McAllister Creek winds its way out to Puget Sound

The self-reliance of pioneer stock is legendary, but so too is the dependence of the early settlers on one another for help, both in times of crisis and as a regular feature of life in the Territory. The best known stories of first settlement are characterized by shared labor and other resources as everyone struggled to survive and get a toehold in the new land. Some, like the pioneer George Bush who arrived in the Tumwater area in 1845 with Michael T. Simmons, the McAllisters, and others, became well-known and highly regarded for their willingness to share their expertise and material goods with those that required them. Others did what they could for their neighbors, knowing that their turn to be in need would come soon enough. Still others supplemented their livelihoods by providing to their neighbors necessary resources through the sale and trade of materials and labor and loans of cash. Joel Myers’s ledger, currently in the possession of the Washington State Historical Society, indicates that he was such a person.

A page from Joel Myers’s ledger recording notes he held against loans to his neighbors, including Daniel Mounts.

Myers’ life and ledger deserve an extensive treatment all on their own, and so will be subjects of this blog in the future. Suffice it to say for now that Myers’s ledger contained the record of his business transactions as he bought, sold and bartered produce, animals, provisions, implements, and labor with his neighbors and with nearby merchants in Steilacoom and Olympia. For the historian, the ledger contains a wealth of information about the territory and its inhabitants at the time.

Myers held on to the Nisqually land for only 13 years before selling it to Daniel Mounts in 1866. He moved to a residence in Steilacoom and eventually bought 320 acres near American Lake[i]. In 1872 at age 53 he married Mary (née Morris) Lowell, a widow six years his junior (rumors of a previous liaison with a Nisqually woman persist). Joel Myers died in 1893 at age 74 (eleven years after also purchasing Richter’s land near his American Lake holdings). Mary survived into the 20th Century and passed away at the age of 77. Both are buried at the Old Settlers Cemetery in Lakewood.

The Myers family plot at the Old Settlers Cemetery in Lakewood

By September, 1881, Daniel Mounts had paid off  all of Richter’s debts, and it seemed that only the process of transferring the proceeds of the estate sales to the family in Germany remained. But then in July, 1883, inquiry came from Adolph Rosenthal of San Francisco, the Consul for the German Empire, on behalf of the sister of one Catharina Henriette Fecher Richter, deceased widow of Nicholas Richter, whom they had heard died in Tacoma in the recent past. It took almost three years to clear up the confusion, and the estate was about to be put to bed when a problem was revealed with Joel Myers’s purchase. Apparently Richter had sold off part of the 80 acres before he died.

In a letter to the Probate Court on February 17, 1886, Daniel Mounts wrote:

In the matter of the above [Richter’s] estate I have to report that no business has been transacted since my last annual settlement; except that the sale of one forty acre tract of [the 80 acre piece of] land sold to Joel Myers has been found to be invalid by reason of the existence of a deed to one Ward made by Frederick [sic] Richter before his death. I have paid Mr. Myers the sum of $41, being the exact sum paid, without interest. This leaves in my hands the sum of Eighty four dollars which I herewith return into court to be transmitted to the heirs in Germany.

Mounts was discharged from his administrative duties the following day, and the funds were transmitted to Richter père through the consular offices of Herr Rosenthal in San Francisco. Richter’s grave, and his cabin, were all that remained. Subsequent owners of the land soon lost track of his resting place, until in the 1950s Walter Braget unearthed some bones while bulldozing an access to the bridge across the slough that his father had built near Richter’s cabin and its adjacent orchard. The cabin persisted into the 1960s before time, and Washington weather, brought it down. The Braget children often played on and in “the Grape House” as they called it, after the tangle of grape vines that covered the structure. The tiny loft up under the roof was a good place to hide.

“The Grape House,” Richter’s cabin, at Nisqually

All right, the last of our Germans, Ernst Arno Serfling. What’s his story?

Born in Thüringen in 1836, Ernst was the oldest child (of eight) of Ernst, his father, an Evangelical Lutheran minister, and Ernst Sr.’s second wife, Christina Sophia Frederica “Teresa,” née Fisher. Our Ernst was 14 when he and his family journeyed to New York, travelling in steerage aboard the vessel “Irma,” in August, 1852. The Serflings’ reasons for immigrating were probably similar to the thousands of others who suffered travelling by steerage. But in addition to social and religious freedom, it was rumored that Ernst Sr. was set on sparing his sons (the oldest were then 14, 13, and 12) being subjected to mandatory military conscription at home, and that he had smuggled the family to Switzerland and then emigrated to the U.S. to do so.

Ernst Sr. and Teresa first took their family to Cook County, Ill., near Chicago, where they farmed 80 acres, and Ernst Sr. again took up his calling as a minister, serving several nearby churches. It was there that a major outbreak of cholera around Chicago claimed the oldest daughter in 1854. Eventually the family moved on to Fillmore County in Minnesota, where the older children, now young adults, took their own homesteads. Despite Ernst Sr.’s hopes, if the rumor was true, the three oldest boys eventually enlisted, first as volunteers “to protect the southern boundary” during the so-called Dakota War of 1862[ii], and then in the Union Army in the Civil War. Ernst Jr. enlisted in Company G of the 2nd Minnesota infantry in 1864, at age 30, and, after participating in the Union’s March to the Sea along with Edward Salomon, was discharged barely a year later. His discharge papers reveal that he was all of five feet five inches tall, dark of complexion and hair, and blue-eyed.

A well turned-out Union soldier

Ernst married Sophia Maria Elisabeth Bastian, a dressmaker from Mecklenburg, on July 26, 1857, in Kane County, Illinois. They later homesteaded in Fillmore County, Minnesota, and then farmed in Thurston County, Washington. They had 10 children, four of whom died young, leaving them with daughters Theresa (dob 1859-60), Brisca (1863), Sophie (1866), May (1872), and Helena (1874) and one son, Frank (1865-6). By 1879 the Serflings had moved on to Steilacoom in Pierce County. Trained as a carpenter, Ernst undoubtedly found plenty of work in the fast-growing community, but he wanted a farm as well. In 1881 he was on hand to supply the winning bid for Friedrich Richter’s 150 acres of flats and uplands in the Nisqually Valley.

On the surface it appeared that Ernst was doing the right thing. He found a good farm, enlarged it by purchasing an additional 40 upland acres from the railroad, and built a house for his family. But when he moved his family to Nisqually, he may have failed to reckon the impact rural farm life, at a distance from Steilacoom, would have on them. His kids were in their late teens or early twenties and must have found it very difficult to maintain their social lives “in town.” The three older daughters, Theresa, Brisca, and Sophie, all had received their teaching certificates, with an eye on Steilacoom schools, and Frank was missing his best buds. Brisca was the first to leave the nest, to marry Ira D. Light of Steilacoom in 1883. Theresa follow suit in 1884, marrying Ernest A. Boatman of the same town.

The house that Ernst Serfling built at Nisqually

Finally, in 1886, Sophia, now in her mid 50s, apparently had had enough. She moved back to Steilacoom, taking the remaining children, some money and a good deal of the family furniture, including the piano, with her.[iii] Ernst eventually hired attorney Thomas Mattison from Tacoma and sued for divorce. Mattison had the Pierce County Sheriff, J.H. Price, serve papers on Sophia, who had gone to live with her daughter, Theresa Boatman, in Steilacoom, but according to court records, “the defendant was confined to her room by sickness,” so the Sheriff gave the papers to Mrs. Boatman instead.  Sophia hired attorney and family friend Elwood Evans[iv], and the battle was on.

Elwood Evans

It took six years before the matter came to court in September, 1892, with Ernst suing Sophia for divorce on the grounds of “desertion and abandonment” [and the fact that she had made off with two-thirds of their wealth, most of which “was the savings from Plaintiff’s earnings while a resident of other states and brought to this State with him.”] Ernst, then 55, testified that he and Sophia “cohabited until March, 1886”, at which point Sophia “went to work and packed up most of my furniture and left.” He “hadn’t seen her but twice since then.” By then Sophia was living with her daughter, Sophie, who would marry hardware magnate Carl S. Enger in a couple of years, along with their youngest daughter Ellen (Helena), who would turn 18 in just a few months. Ernst went on to say that the cause of separation, after 29 years of marriage, was “a little disagreement.” The Court defined the little disagreement as an “Incompatibility of temper,” and decreed that Ernst pay Sophia $1,100 and attorney’s fees. She got their property in Steilacoom, Lots 1 and 2 in Block 5 in “John Chapman’s part of town.”[v] Ernst got the Nisqually farm.

The extent of Ernst’s and Sophia’s incompatibility is not easily discernable from the court record, but there are some hints that it may have been rather severe at times, including Sophia’s apparently hiding behind her daughter’s skirts when the divorce papers were served, and the fate of their son, Frank. Frank was just twenty when the split occurred and, as future events would demonstrate, seemingly not the swiftest young man in the race. Four months after Sophia gathered up bag and baggage and left Nisqually, Frank was indicted for robbery. According to the inditement, he and two associates assaulted one James Spray and relieved him of three $1 silver coins, four 50¢ silver coins, and “all of the personal property, moneys, goods and chattels of the said James Spray.” Terms like “violence,” “forcibly,” and “feloniously” were used liberally. Witnesses stated that Frank held their horses while the other two committed the crime.

Frank was convicted and sentenced to three years hard labor in the state penitentiary at Walla Walla. He had served two and a half years when Sophia’s attorney, Elwood Evans, sent a Petition for Executive Clemency to then Governor Elisha P. Ferry.

Gov. Elisha P. Ferry

In his request for Frank’s pardon, Evans cited the prisoner’s good conduct as a visitor of the state and the fact that at the time of the crime he was married to a “woman of previous ill repute.” The co-defendants in the crime had been visiting her in their home and then had taken Frank along to commit the robbery. Evans pointed out that Frank was the only son of “respected parents, now advanced in years,” and that he had several sisters “who are humiliated and disgraced by his evil conduct,” yet join in the petition for clemency. Finally, according to Evans, if released, Frank would divorce his wife and “avoid bad company and evil associates and endeavor to lead a decent life.”

Evans plea was supported by letters from the judge who had passed sentence on Frank at trial, the prosecuting attorney, another influential judge of his acquaintance, and the warden and nine officers at the prison. Frank’s sister, Sophie Enger, wrote in his defense as well. Apparently Frank was pardoned, though there was no record of it in the judicial system’s paperwork later, when it became of significance to his freedom once again.

Frank Serfling was 63, thirty-five years later in 1925, when he got one to five years in prison for 2nd degree assault. Details of the event are sparse, but prison records indicate that Frank was still living “at home,” despite the fact that his parents had been dead about 15 years, that he was a moderate drinker and smoker, and that he didn’t “chew” or use “dope.” A letter written later in support of a request for clemency indicated that, while “under the influence of liquor,” he had gotten into a “shoving scrape.”

The writer of the letter, one Stephen Appleby (1869-1950), a Tacoma banker and vice president of the Preparedness League[vi], and a significant player in the campaign by Tacoma’s civic leaders to established Camp Lewis in Pierce County, apparently confused Frank with his father, Ernst, when he referred to the prisoner as “this old soldier of the civil war” and “sick, quite aged and infirm,” suggesting he was mainly doing a favor for Evans. Evans wrote to the governor, Louis T. Hart, as well, and included a petition from 57 citizens of Steilacoom requesting a pardon for this “honest and industrious citizen” of their town (signatories included Blairs, Lights, Rigneys, Gimels, a Packwood, and a Gaul). Frank Serfling was paroled in January, 1926, a year after confinement and the minimum term he had been sentenced to, and ultimately released in 1927. He lived another 13 years, apparently without incident.

All that remains is to see Ernst and Sophia to their final resting places. Sophia remained in Steilacoom for the rest of her life, until she died in 1909. Ernst stayed on the farm at Nisqually for another 15 years until, at age 60, he put it up for sale, and when, alerted by his wife’s cousin, N.P. Hansen, Ole Braget showed up and bought it.

Ole and Mathea Braget, ca. 1893

On February 13, 1896, Ole paid Ernst Serfling, “widower” (possibly a ploy to elicit sympathy and a better price, since Sophia was alive and well in Steilacoom at that time), $2,000 for:

All of Lots 5 and 6 of section 32 and the north ½ of the southwest ¼ of the southwest ¼ and the north ½ of the southwest ¼ and the southeast ¼ of the northwest ¼ of section 33 all in township 19 north of range 1 east of the W[illamette] M[eridian]…

… except for a 200 foot-wide right-of-way extending through the land for the Northern Pacific Railroad Company or any of its branches that “has been or shall be located on or over said described pieces or parcels of land and premises.” The list of accoutrements that Ole got from Serfling for an additional $200 indicated that the place had been a working farm:

–           all the hay situated on said Ernst Serfling’s farm;

–           8 cows, each marked with Serfling’s ear marks, being one slit in each ear

–           4 calves each marked with same ear marks

–           all the sheep on said farm bearing similar earmarks

–           18 pigs and hogs

–           50 chickens

–           3 Cayuse ponies described as follows: two black mares with white stripe in face, and one roan horse

–           one light wagon and one lumber wagon, each in use about 8 years

–           one mower in use about 6 years

–           one scow marked “1887”

–           one plow

–           one harrow

–           one hay rack

–           and all other farm implements and tools situated on said farm

The number of livestock alone indicate that Ernst must have had help in running the farm (no documents from his occupancy are known to exist), and it is likely that some of that help would have been Indian. The great-granddaughter of Helen Serfling (wife of husbands Stephen P. Judson and Eugene E. Rooklidge) heard about Indians living on “float houses” on the river, near the Serfling farm.

Ernst was just over 65 when he left the farm and returned to Steilacoom, where he and Sophia lived in separate homes. In December, 1908, at age 72, he applied for and was admitted to residence in the Washington Soldiers Home, in Orting in central Pierce County. Records indicate that he was afflicted with rheumatism, kidney troubles, and muscular cramps, and living on a $15 a month pension. He listed a brother in Granger, Minnesota, as his nearest living relative. Ernst passed away in 1911 at the Home, and was buried there.

[i] At just over 1,000 acres, American Lake is the largest natural lake in Pierce County. It is located in what is now Lakewood, about five miles northeast of the Nisqually Delta.

[ii] This war, also known as the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, or Little Crow’s War, typified the circumstances and conditions that spelled out so much suffering and difficulty for Native Americans being forced to adapt to the expansion of white settlement into their homelands and the taking of same by the United States government. After being pushed onto a reservation and encouraged to take up farming, and now dependent on government annuity payments to survive, bands of eastern Dakota experienced severe hardship and starvation due to a crop failure, a harsh winter, and depletion of wild game, in 1861. A combination of late annuity payments in 1862 and the Dakotas’ inability to get credit from traders drove the Indians to desperation, and the violence began. By the time Chief Little Crow was defeated, later that year, and the war came to an end, 358 white settlers, 77 soldiers, and 29 members of the volunteer militia had died. Other than 38 Dakota men who were later hung in what was purported to be the largest one-day mass execution in American history, the number of casualties among the Dakota is unknown. For more information, see

[iii] Ernst and Sophia’s daughter May (Mary), also a school teacher, married Thomas Huggins, himself a teacher, in 1894. Thomas was son of Edward Huggins, formerly of the Hudson’s Bay Company and neighbor of Richter’s.

[iv] Philadelphian Evans (1828-1898) was one of the first lawyers to practice in Olympia, where he served as mayor. He filled many elected and appointed positions during his life, including collector of customs at Nisqually, member of the first Legislative Assembly in Washington Territory, secretary to Governor Isaac Stevens, and Secretary of Washington Territory under Governor William T. Pickering. He was a historian and author of many articles in local papers and of a major work, History Of The Pacific Northwest: Oregon And Washington: Embracing An Account Of The Original Discoveries On The Pacific Coast Of North America, And A Description Of The Conquest, Settlement And Subjugation Of The Original Territory Of Oregon.

[v] Like Tacoma, Steilacoom started out as two separate plats. In 1851, sea captain Lafayette Balch found what he hoped would be a good anchorage for his lumber trade just south of Chambers Bay and platted Port Steilacoom. The same year, John B. Chapman started Steilacoom City on a claim adjacent to Balch’s. During its first session, in 1854, the first Washington territorial legislature combined the two rivals into an incorporated town and named it Pierce County’s seat.

[vi] The World War I era saw great interest in universal military training and preparedness to defend the United States. See History Link ( for a full treatment of the subject.