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  • Writer's pictureDiane Mague Stanley

My Trusty Friend

Week 9, “Where there’s a Will,” brings to mind a story of family and friendship.

The good thing about my great, great grandfather, Sebastian Conrad, was that he never missed an opportunity to create a record. Unlike so many other ancestors (Saunders, I’m looking at you!), Sebastian Conrad was always the figurative first in line to leave his mark. It’s no surprise that a few weeks before his death in 1883, he made his will.[1] He was 85 years old and must have known the end was near. True to form, he left a document that laid bare more than just his worldly possessions, and set in motion years of legal wrangling for his family and friend.

Sebastian was not a wealthy man. He was the youngest in a farming family in Bierbach, Bavaria (now in Saarland, Germany) and was left with nothing when his father died. In the late 1830’s, he immigrated to the United States via Le Havre, France, with his second wife, Margaretha Geyer, and assorted children, along with a group of emigration-minded neighbors. By the time he arrived in the United States, he was 43 and tackled the job of starting a new life. Following a short stint in Brooklyn, he moved his family to the German farming community in Meyersville, New Jersey. At 66, again a widower, he took a third wife, Magdalena Guyer, almost 40 years his junior. They had 7 more children. Sebastian ran a farm typical for the Meyersville, growing fruits, potatoes, grains, chickens, cows, and hogs. But with time, debts grew and taxes went unpaid.

When he wrote his will in December 1882, Sebastian chose a neighbor, John H. Ortman, as his executor. John was a middle-aged man, the son of a fellow octogenarian neighbor, Caspar Ortman. Sebastian referred to John as “My Trusty Friend,” a standard legal phrase for the time perhaps, but one that hinted at more to come. Questions remain about why Sebastian did not choose one of his sons-in-law as executor. Were they neither trusty nor his friend? Another mystery was why Sebastian did not mention his older daughters, Angelina Uhrhahn who lived in North Plainfield and Josephina Ott who lived in Brooklyn, in his will. Perhaps the intent was to leave his earlier families out entirely, or maybe Sebastian figured they didn't need his help, compared to his young wife and children. Did Ellen have a role in encouraging that view?

Someone must have intervened because when Sebastian's estate went to probate the older daughters mysteriously re-appeared as heirs. As executor, John H. Ortman's first order of business was to take the farm to public auction to pay off Sebastian’s debts. Conveniently, Angelina’s husband, Henry Uhrhahn, was the only bidder, which succeeded in keeping the little farm in the family.[2] Henry then successfully petitioned to get Ellen’s dower portion carved out of his purchase. Sebastian's oldest daughter and her husband had come to the rescue.

In spite of saving the farm, the next 16 years were a struggle for Ellen and youngest daughter, Maggie. The farm was kept afloat with mortgages from John H. Ortman. Maggie took up full time work as a silk winder at the Silk Mill in Stirling and moved her mother a rooming house near the mill.[3] Eventually, the family defaulted on the mortgage and the property again went to sheriff’s sale.[4] It was sold at auction for $25 to the single, highest bidder ... who happened to be none other than John H. Ortman. Ortman was able to sell the farm for $675, thereby recouping the $500 he had loaned and made a modest profit. John H. Ortman was a trusty friend indeed.


[1] Morris County, New Jersey, Orphan's Court, docket no. 199 1, Estate of Sebastian Conrad; Morris County Surrogate's Court, Morristown.

[2] Morris County, New Jersey, County Deeds (1883), vol. G-11, p. 494 - 497, Sebastian Conrad; microfilm 4-197, New Jersey State Archives, Trenton.

[3] 1900 U.S. census, Morris County, New Jersey, population schedule, Passaic Township, enumeration district (ED) 72, sheet 17 B (penned), dwelling 357, family no. 382, Mary [sic] Conrad household; NARA microfilm publication T623, roll 988.

[4] Morris County, New Jersey, County Deeds (1899), E 16, p. 26, Charles A. Baker, Shff. to John H. Ortman; Morris County Clerk's Office, Morristown.

© 2016-2018 Diane Mague Stanley ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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