She wasn’t famous. She didn’t do anything that would make historians sit up and take notice. But there is a story attached to Wilhemina Ostermann.
She was born on Dec. 5, 1833, somewhere in Germany. We know who her parents were – Johann Ostermann and Lucie Hoffman Ostermann – but that’s about all we know. We can presume, but it’s only a presumption, that she had siblings. In the 1850s, Wilhelmina (and likely her parents) came to the United States, part of the second great wave of German immigrants to America in the 19th century. German immigrants had come to Louisiana since the 1720s (New Orleans was founded in 1718), many settling in what was called the “German Coast,” a few miles west of the city. Today, the small town of Des Allemands testifies to that early German presence – the name is French for “The Germans.”
The Ostermann’s settled in New Orleans, which had a large German immigrant population. In fact, before the Civil War, it’s estimated that 12 percent of the New Orleans population was immigrants from Germany. It was a lively, thriving culture, with beer halls and breweries, literary societies, and German-language newspapers.
In 1858, 24-year-old Wilhelmina married Peter Dietrich Bosch in New Orleans, where they made their home. He was 15 years her senior, and all we know about his was that he was born in Germany and likely came to New Orleans in the first wave of 19th century German immigrations, which lasted form the 1820s and 1840s. (The third and final wave was in the 1880s to 1890s.)
Wilhelmina and Peter had six children, born between 1861 and 1879, three of whom survived until adulthood. One of those who survived was a daughter, named Wilhelmina after her mother. She was born Oct. 7, 1861, some six months into the Civil War and six months before Union Admiral David Farragut sailed up the Mississippi River and captured the city in April, 1862.
It’s not known which side Wilhelmina and Peter supported in the Civil War. They were citizens of Louisiana and so of the Confederacy. But German immigrants largely opposed slavery and supported the Union; in St. Louis, for example, which another large population of German immigrants like New Orleans, it was the “German vote” that supported Lincoln in both St. Louis County in the election of 1860, one of only two counties in the entire state that voted Republican.
The Bosch family remained in New Orleans under Union occupation. After Wilhelmina’s birth in 1861, the other two surviving children were August (1865-1945) and Julia (1875-1907). Their daughter Wilhelmina married Henry Wetzel in 1884; he was also of German immigrant extraction. They had three daughters – Edrienna, Lillian, and Beatrice – before Wilhelmina’s death in 1893, the same year her father Peter Bosch died. I think about those three girls, ages 8, 6, and 3, respectively, losing their mother and grandfather a few months apart. And I think about Wilhelmina Bosch, losing her husband and her oldest daughter in the same year.
Henry Wetzel remarried six years later, when his daughters were 14, 12, and 9. In the interim, I suspect that Wilhelmina helped raise her granddaughters. The middle girl, Lillian, married in 1904; her husband died in 1908. Two years later, she married again, this time to Edwin Jacob, 12 years her senior and himself with two sons (his first wife had died). Edwin and Lillian had six children, the fourth of which was my mother.
My mother didn’t know her great-grandmother Wilhelmina Bosch (she died in 1923, four months after my mother was born), but she said her mother always spoke of her with great affection.
My mother somehow ended up with the photograph of Wilhelmina Bosch at the top. This was a woman who emigrated to the United States as a teenager, had a child during a civil war, endured that war and occupation, helped raise three young girls when her daughter and their mother died, and lived to almost 90. The photograph would have been taken about the time of the Civil War or shortly before.