Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Jacob & Christina Leeak

This story is as written by my great aunt Lillian, my grandfather's older sister, about her grandparents.

As written by Lillian Mae Leeak Dickmeyer.

Here is the story of my grandmother and
grandfather, Jacob and Christina Leeak, nee Ulmer.

The Leeak family came to America from Germany in the 1830’s, settling in the state of Ohio. There Jacob Leeak was born February 8, 1835. Six years later, the family made another move, this time crossing the Mississippi river and setting up a claim in Warren County, Missouri, on a track of land known in later years as the Smith farm, and still later as the Windman farm. Their motive in moving to Warren County was partly to escape a cholera epidemic which was raging in Ohio, and partly to seek greater fortunes in the West. The opportunities of the vast Louisiana Territory had been painted in glowing colors. Adventure was in the air.

The Ullmers were natives of Baden-Baden, Germany, where my great grandfather, Michael Ullmer, was born February 4, 1811. His wife, Elizabeth Ullmer, was born two years earlier in the same community on January 21, 1809. Christina Ulmler was the oldest child, born January 17, 1841. A second child, Jacob Ullmer, was born November 13, 1843. In 1846, when my grandmother was five years of age, the Ullmers migrated to American, spending three months on the Atlantic. My grandmother remembered the trip and often told her children of the severe storms on the high seas, of the high waves, and of the rocking ship. During the journey across the Atlantic, twin babies were born to the Ullmers, but they died and were buried at sea. The family eventually reached American soil, and made their way across the Mississippi river. They set up a claim for land in Warren County, Missouri, several miles north of Warrenton in the Steinhagen vicinity. They established their home on a tract of land later known as the August Bushman farm. The Ullmer and Leeak farms adjoined. On May 1, 1854, another child was born, Lucy M. Ullmer, who later married Henry Bebermeyer.

Besides farming, Michael Ullmer, was a stone mason. He built Stone Church in the Steinhagen vicinity, where he and his family attended for many years. Many of the old stone fireplaces of Warren County still stand as memorials to him and the skill of his hands. His wife dies in 1877. Their mortal remains lie together in the little country church yard adjoining Stone Church.

My grandmother, Christina Ullmer, devoted part of her youthful days working in a near-by tobacco factory, owned by the Dyer family. The Dyers were numbered among the few settlers of Warren County who owned slaves.

Thus the Leeaks and Ullmers lived on adjoining farms in the Steinhagen vicinity, and the children grew up together. The old folks cut down trees and cleared land for farming. Log cabins with large stone fireplaces were built and homes established. There were no public schools and the children grew up with but meager knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Theirs was a rugged life of pioneers.

In addition to farming, Jacob’s father also owned a bur mill and ground flour and corn meal for the settlers for miles around. He was known as “Miller” Leeak to distinguish him from his brother, “Tailor” Leeak.

A story which Grandpa Leeak often told me occurred when he was a boy in his father’s mill. He was playing marbles for keeps with Jade Riddle, a boy about his age. Jade lost the game, but being a poor loser, grabbed the marbles and ran. Jake flew into a rage, drew his bow and shot an arrow at Jade which hit him in the neck, barely missing the jugular vein. Jade cried, “Pull it out, Jake!” which he did. Of course, the accident was regrettable. Jake and Jade remained friends throughout life and in later years often spoke of this near tragedy.

Young Jake Leeak later found employment on a farm of Captain McFaden, north of Pendleton. But his heart was not in his work, for news had reached the settlers in Missouri that gold had been discovered on the farm of Captain John A. Sutter in California. On January 24, 1848, as some of Sutter’s men were building a water powered sawmill on the swift American river, they discovered some shining particles in the mill race, which proved to be gold. The news spread over the country like wildfire. Thousands of laborers left their work and hurried to the gold diggings. The Gold Rush was on. In the spring of 1849, thousands of men, women and children started to California. Here was an opportunity to get rich.

Jake Leeak was eager for adventure, and the Gold Rush fever had gotten into his young blood, as it had for thousands of others. The occasion for a break came one spring morning when he was driving a team of oxen for Captain McFaden. His team of oxen was dragging an improvised harrow, made from a small crab apple tree. Oats had been broadcast over the plowed ground, and it was his task to harrow the seed into the ground. By noon the weather had become sultry, and the oxen were hot and tired. Ignoring the fourteen year old lad, the oxen decided to find a shade tree, and they became unmanageable. Dragging the crab apple tree with them, they ran along a rail fence toward a shade tree, tearing down a considerable portion of the fence. When Captain McFaden learned what had happened, he scolded Jake, and gave orders that the fence be rebuilt. When Jake returned home that evening, he told his father that he had decided to quit his job and go to California to prospect for gold. The father saw that it was useless to hold the boy at home, so he gave him a few dollars in cash, in exchange for some livestock which Jake had raised, and sent him on his perilous journey.

Jake went out to the old Boonslick trail, which ran through Warrenton, and joined up with one of the westbound caravans, earning his board and transportation by taking care of the livestock. The caravan consisted of heavy wagons with canvas-covered tops, drawn by teams of oxen, mules, or horses. Each night the caravan camped with the wagons arranged in a circle. The animals, as well as the travelers were gathered inside the circle to protect them from buffalo stampedes and Indian attacks. As Jake sat with the gold seekers about the campfire along the route, he joined with the singing “I’m off for California, Susannah, Don’t you cry.”

In these days of automobile and airplane transportation, it is difficult to imagine the hardships of two thousand miles of winding, rough trail. About twelve miles were traveled each day. The horror of thirst and famine always threatened; snakes and wild beasts took their toll; violent storms assailed the travelers; the streams were converted into raging and impassable floods with each rain; and there was constant danger from Indians who resented the white man crossing his hunting grounds. Then the lofty Sierra Nevadas had to be scaled before the autumn snows blocked the passes. To add to these horrors, cholera broke out among the travelers. As Jake and the gold seekers traveled westward, the lonely trail became well marked by the graves of men, women, and children and the bleaching skeletons of the livestock which had perished along the way. Many who were faint-hearted turned back, but Jake Leeak kept on, with thousands of others until they had crossed the plains and the Sierras and had reached El Dorado.

Grandpa Leeak often amused me with the tales of his experiences across the plains to California, as well as the success he had in finding gold in the Sacramento River Valley. He had me spellbound with his accounts of “diggings” of the rapid growth of mining towns, of lawless men robbing other of their gold through gambling, fraud, and outright stealing. There were accounts of drunken brawls, of shooting scrapes, of shameful resorts, of blasted hopes.

After some months as a gold “prospector,” Jake tired of this life, and longed for the peace and security of his home back in Missouri. Like the prodigal in a foreign land, Jake came to himself and resolved to return to his father’s house. He took a boat from San Diego arriving in Panama. Crossing the Isthmus by mule back, he took another boat for Mobile, Alabama, and thence to New Orleans, Louisiana. The rest of the journey up the Mississippi river was made by flat boat. While in California, he had owned a small gold mine, and had managed to send $700 back home for a down payment on a farm. He had also accumulated some gold jewelry, including a gold engagement ring for his future bride. But there wasn’t much else to show for his years of “prospecting.” He arrived home wiser, if not much richer, and his wanderlust had been cured. He was ready now to settle down.

Looking for a suitable mate, his attention was attracted to Christine Ullmer, a girl of about sixteen years his age, who had blossomed out since his sojourn in California. There were married in 1855. A home was established on a farm two miles north of Warrenton, later known as the Martin Overhellman farm. Nearly half a century later, this farm was also my birthplace.

This union was blessed with eleven children, ten of whom reached maturity. George W. Leeak, born March 5, 1858

Mary Ellen Leeak (Kemher), born March 11, 1860 Francis Siegal Leeak, born February 22, 1862 Lucy Leeak (Rickhoff), born August 7, 1864 Elizabeth Leeak (Liedke), born December 17, 1866 John Freemont Leeak, born August 28, 1868 Edward H. Leeak, born September 22, 1871 Noah Leeak, born December 6, 1873 Felicity C. Leeak (Hoffman), born March 7, 1876 Nellie Leeak (Stock), born August 29, 1878 Jacob Leeak, Jr., born March 26, 1881 (died in infancy)

This happy family of pioneers might have lived peacefully in their country home for many years had the Civil Was not broken out over the question of slavery. Missouri was a border state, and although few of the settlers in Warren Country owned slaves, disputes over slavery were common, and feelings toward the “Yankees” were anything but kind. When the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861, President Lincoln immediately called for soldiers to help the Union. Jake Leeak was numbered amonth the first volunteers, serving in the Missouri home guard. It was possible for him to come on frequent furloughs, and thus he assisted his wife in managing the farm. Two children, Francis and Lucy, were born during these hectic days. Food was scarce. One night a Rebel entered the garden and was about to steal a sack of cabbage when Jake fired his muzzle loaded shotgun into the darkness. The next day, bloody finger prints were found on the fence post. After that Jake feared that the Rebel would return to seek revenge.

The Leeaks shared in the joy of all Northerners when the war was ended and the Union preserved. Jake was so anxious to get back home to his young wife and four small children, and the spring plowing that he did not wait for an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. He came home as quickly as possible. No questions asked, and he was none the worse for his desertion until he applied for a pension years later. Then it was apparent that a small detail—an honorable discharge—had been neglected back in 1865.

The rejoicing of the Northerners, following the Civil War, was turned to grief five days after Lee’s surrender by the assassination of President Lincoln. The Leeaks shared the feeling of most Americans. Not only had the nation lost its President, but many citizens felt that they had also lost a personal friend. Grandpa Leeak had cast his first ballot for Lincoln, and had remained a staunch Republican throughout his life.

Reconstruction following the Civil War was slow, but gradually times began to improve for the Leeaks, and Americans in general. As the Leeak children grew older, they assisted with the farm work. Farm machinery increased production. In earlier years, the grain had been sown by hand, and harvested by cradles. A fast cradler did well to cut three acres of grain a day. But in time, new farm machinery was bought—drills for sowing grain, self-binders for harvesting, and threshing machines. The hoe was partly supplanted by the plow, the disk and the cultivator, however, it still served a useful purpose in my day, and Grandpa and I often worked side by side grubbing sprouts, cutting weeds and cultivating vegetables. The use of the spinning wheel and the loom were discontinued when thread and cloth could be bought in stores. The sewing machine was a big help to the ladies in keeping the family properly clothed. Tallow candles were made by hand and used for illumination, although kerosene lamps became more popular, and were used by our family during all the years that I lived on the farm.

High German was the language spoken by the Leeaks in their pioneer days, and the older children were taught to speak both German and English. Most of the children were sent to Strack’s Church near Wright City to be instructed in the German Catachism and confirmed in the Evangelical faith. Tutors were also brought into the home to teach the children. The English language gradually became more popular than  German, particularly after the establishing of the Lime Kiln School north of the Leeak farm, a district public school where the children were taught English. Several of the boys also took English courses at Central Wesleyan College at Warrenton. The decisive factor in the swing to English seemed to rest in the fact that the Leeaks spoke High German, while the neighbors including the Wessendorfs, spoke Low German. They compromised by all speaking English. The English language was so prevalent by the time my mother was born in 1878, that she never learned to speak the German language, nor did I. My grandfather continued to read his German Bible as long as I can remember, whispering each word as he read to himself. I still possess the Bible he read, with its well-worn cover and its yellow pages, thumbed and soiled with much use. My grandfather attended services at Friedens Evangelical Church at Warrenton, which was conducted in German until after World War I.

Grandma Leeak died in 1912. For five years, Grandpa Leeak made his home with my parents on the farm, a mile north of Warrentown. I still cherish memories of many spirited croquet games which we played together in the front yard of my home, beneath the shade trees. I was with him in the front yard when he soul slipped away on August 27, 1917.