A few days ago, I had the chance to sit and visit with a member of the Greatest Generation. Mr. Dillon Wallace is 92-years old and resides in Shreveport.
After graduation from Springhill High School he was drafted in the US Army during World War II where he served with the 43rd Infantry and the 99th Field Artillery of the 1st Cavalry Division. He served in the Philippines and the occupation of Japan.
Upon his discharge, he took his GI Bill and enrolled in Centenary College. He left school when the GI Bill benefits ran out, but eventually returned and earned his degree in 1962.
He worked for nearly a half-century in data processing and later computing in businesses in Shreveport. He is a delightful and interesting gentleman and just discussing his life was fascinating. However, the purpose of our visit was to talk about one of his ancestors, a man Mr. Wallace refers to as “The Immigrant.”
That man, and the contribution he and other German immigrants made to our area is the topic of today’s Echo of Our Past.
Meckie Frederick Braley was born in Wurttemberg, Germany in about 1810. The spelling of the name varies. On the ship manifest for his voyage of immigration to the United States, the name is spelled Johan Freidrich Brahle, a fisher by trade.
Once in this country the name is spelled Brailey, Braily and the most common Braley, that I will use for this article.
The 1830s were a time of political turmoil in the remnants of the old Holy Roman Empire as the more than 600 small principalities and kingdoms jockeyed for power. Braley, like so many others sought to leave for the promise of the United States.
He left Rotterdam in the Kingdom of the Netherlands early in 1832 on the ship Marcus, bound for the New World. The ship reached Sag Harbor on Long Island, New York in May 1832 and the immigrant found himself truly a stranger in a strange land.
While there were others from Wurttemberg on that ship, no indication exists that Braley had any familial ties to anyone on the trip. For the next few years, we really have no information as to how he survived; but, by 1836 he had reached North Louisiana.
Along the way he married Elizabeth Edwards in 1833.
He learned of a new settlement of Germans in the woods of North Louisiana – the Germantown Colony. While he was not a member of the religious sect of Count Leon, he knew that most of the Germantown settlers had roots in Wurttemberg and he would hear familiar language and see a lifestyle he recognized.
He reached the area near Germantown in 1836, about a year after the colony was established.
Braley was not alone, several other German families who did not subscribe to the odd religious teachings of the Colony also came to settle near the colony, and a few families broke away from the colony. A small community of non-affiliated Germans sprang up around the Colony.
Braley settled into his new home as a farmer and in a few years rose in status to where he was classed as a planter.
By the 1850 Census, he and Elizabeth had four children and Frederick owned $350 worth of land – about $10,000, today.
After more than two decades in the United States, Braley decided to pursue citizenship. In those years it was a much more simplified process, you simply applied to the nearest court and went through a waiting period and took an oath.
He appeared in the 17th Judicial District Court in Homer on September 22, 1855 and filed the following declaration as recorded by Clerk of Court D. Henry Dyer: “Be it remembered that on this the 22d day of September 1855, in open Court personally came and appeared before me, D. Henry Dyer, Clerk of the said Court Frederick Braily, who after having been first duly sworn declared and said that he was born in Wittenberg Germany in the year 1810, that in the month of May 1832 he landed in the city of New York, in the year 1836 he came to the Louisiana where he has remained ever since, for the express purpose of becoming a citizen of the United States, that he has at no time left or departed from this Government since his arrival, that it has been his purpose ever since his arrival, and is now to become a citizen of the United States of America to renounce and adjure all allegiance to all foreign Kings, Princes, Emperors, Potentates, whomsoever and especially the Emperor of Russia or all or any power controlling said Government of Germany. And that he is willing to swear allegiance to the Government of the United States of America, and to support the Constitution of the same (signed) F. Brailey.”
After the three-year waiting period, Braley appeared in the same court on October 26, 1858, where the judge affirmed the filing of the paper work and declared Braley a naturalized citizen of the United States.
Braley turned 51 in 1861, when the Civil War broke out, and there is no record of him serving for either side. That is not unusual as there was a strong resistance to slavery among many of the German settlers, in fact differences over that issue contributed to the break-up of the Germantown Colony.
It is interesting to note that even though he had a sizable farm, there is no record of Braley owning slaves in either the 1850 or 1860 Census.
After the Civil War, Braley largely disappears from public records. He and Elizabeth had a fifth child in 1858 and we know that by the 1880 Census, Braley was a widower, living in Ward 2, Webster Parish, one of his sons lived with him in that year.
At some point a few years later, sometime around 1888, Braley had grown ill and as a result of that illness he decided to commit suicide. Braley was buried near a now vanished church just across Bayou Bodcau in Bossier Parish.
According to tradition, he was denied burial in the church cemetery because he committed suicide. The grave is on private property and sat alone, unmarked for nearly a century. The property owner was aware it was a grave site and left it untampered with, but isolated in a pasture.
In recent years, three descendants of Braley, Mr. Wallace, James Randolph Braley and Jack Coffee formerly of Minden were able to locate the grave a place a burial marker at the site.
Much of the detailed research I used for this article was done by Jack Coffee, and I was pointed to his work by Mr. Wallace and Mike Wright who shared the research to an online family tree.
Well, some of you may be saying “so what?” There is a purpose to this column and honestly it is not directly related to the current controversy over immigration.
Over the years, I have often written about the impact the long-ago Germantown Colony settlement made on our life in Minden, today. It seems particularly important to talk about that legacy again at this time.
The state budget crisis is hitting home for museums and other cultural pursuits in Louisiana. The future of the Germantown Colony Museum is shaky at best.
We know we are going to need to come up with ways to pay for our operations without depending on state money. After so many years of no facilities, the state has provided us with the wonderful Visitor’s Center and we need to keep the museum going.
So, in addition to the obvious historical significance of the religious communal colony surviving for nearly four decades in the rural south. There is the enrichment the settlers of the colony and those who came because of the colony’s presence in the area provided to our community.
I have written before that the first trained music teachers for the children of Minden were residents of the colony. Hundreds of educators, business leaders and even the only Governor of Louisiana to call Minden home are descended from members of the colony and the other Germans, like Braley who came to our area.
To bring it directly home to Frederick Braley, among his descendants you might know are: the Samuel family, pioneers in bringing modern electronics to Minden; Harry Coffee, quarterback for Minden High, LSU and the Chicago Cardinals, the first NFL player from Minden and a long-time dentist in Baton Rouge after his football career; Harry’s brother, Loy Coffee, who was killed in a domestic crash while serving in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II; David Lee, Minden High, Louisiana Tech and NFL football player who had a long successful career in the NFL as a punter, largely with the Baltimore Colts and played in two Super Bowls; and Dillon Wallace, the man who told me this story.
(Now if you are descended from this gentleman, please don’t be offended or feel like, “what am I, chopped liver?” This was a quick list compiled off the top of my head and I am sure if I were to fully go through the family trees I would find perhaps dozens of other good examples.)
A fascinating story of “The Immigrant” and how his journey to the Minden area has left lasting impact and is not merely an Echo of our Past. An Echo you may be able to help preserve as we look for support for the Germantown Colony Museum.
Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.