Transatlantic Cousins

Bergmann brothers, Castle Garden
Bergmann brothers, Castle Garden

[America, around 1815] A few months later, Hedy Bergmann and her sons had left their home in the Duchy of Berg, to build a new life for themselves in America. Yet, parting had been hard.

The Bergmanns arrive in America

Their American family gave them a very warm welcome. “Niklas, Heinrich,” James cried excitedly, “I’ve been waiting eagerly to meet you! Father says that you, Niklas, draw and write, and that you, Heinrich, can fix almost everything. I work in the Library of Congress, and the fire destroyed it. We need you!”


Soon, the three young men were inseparable. Niklas and Heinrich were most of the time with James in Washington and helped re-build the city after the fire. Henry was out and about with the engineers and architects. As word about his abilities got around quickly, he was summoned to help with other major projects, among them even in the construction of the Erie Canal from New York City to Buffalo at the Erie Lake.

Jefferson’s library

Niklas worked with James at the Library of Congress. After the devastating fire, Thomas Jefferson had offered Congress to buy his personal library as a replacement, and it included some 6,500 books on philosophy, literature and science in different languages! Niklas read, sketched and cataloged. After the years in the Napoleonic army, he spoke French well and could also help translate documents in French. He was glad that he could contribute his services, and yet he felt they were so insignificant;. Hee deeply wanted to give more of himself to the people who had welcomed him so kindly.

James sensed that Niklas had not found his place in his new life yet. On the weekends he often took his sister Jenny and James on a countryside tour. One Sunday they saw from afar Monticello, Jefferson’s estate. “His library is so enormous,” Niklas said, “he must esteem education.” “Yes, he does,” James agreed, “and he is convinced that all issues are important for our legislation.”


Niklas was thoughtful. “Not only the issues,” he said, “above all the people. Now I live as a free man in a free country, in a state that is supported by its citizens. Where do these citizens come from, and what do they contribute? Just think of our family. You and Jenny, you were born here. In our home, most people were subjects, some even serfs. Then the French came and did away with serfdom. Now the Prussians rule and want to turn back time. We must write all this down, and continue what your Great Aunt Betty has begun.” “What are you waiting for?” James interrupted him with a big smile.

President James Monroe

From then on, Niklas was often seen with paper and pen. Even at the weekends he was often so wrapped up in his work that he even forgot about the meals until Jenny came for him. Then he realized that was she was not only being thoughtful, but wholeheartedly fond of him. And when he finished the first pages of his booklet “Subjects and citizens”, he knew: Niklas Bergmann had found his place in his new life. A few days later he proposed marriage to Jenny.

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