My immigrant German connection to the Yukon Gold Rush: Martin and Lucy Itjen

I am the first cousin, twice removed of Martin Itjen. Martin Itjen was a cousin of my grandmother, Christine (Gerdes) Wieking. And even though Martin and Lucy had no offspring, Martin had a large group of "Gerdes family" in the San Francisco Bay Area. Contrary to much of the writing and folk lore regarding Martin, he was actually born in Sievern, Germany. Sievern is North of Bremerhaven and is where my grandmother was born and raised. Martin and Henry's father was born in Dorum, Germany.

My father shared many stories of Martin Itjen. Martin's lone trip to the southern US was in 1935 during his infamous tour promoting Ford automobiles and to see Mae West. For one reason or another, only my father (of his siblings) is found in photographs that include Martin and many of his relatives in the Oakland, California Bay Area. Evidently, either my father was "recruited" to entertain this guest from the Northland or he was genuinely interested in Martin and his romantic lifetime spent in Skagway, Alaska. My father told me that he rode with Martin, in his Skagway Streetcar, down the streets of San Francisco. This "parade" was to act as a promotional event to advertise Martin's appearance at the Orpheum Theatre. In a large collection of newspaper articles and adverts, Martin was promoted as quite a stand-up comedian and story teller.

Documents in my collection indicate that Martin actually landed in Charleston, South Carolina. My father and I have often puzzled as to why Martin chose South Carolina as his point of immigration. I only recently learned about a possible reason for his choice during a recent visit of mine to Sievern and other points in the north of Germany. It happens that a citizen of Sievern, General John Wagener left Sievern to arrive in the USA and join the Civil War, fighting for the South! Wagener's subsequent history indicates that he became quite a respected citizen of South Carolina, including serving as an "Immigration Coordinator”. It is my hunch that Wagener’s life may have been an inspiration for Martin to exit Germany and arrive in South Carolina, too.

Itjen's legacy lives on in Skagway. He is remembered fondly by nearly everyone in Skagway who has lived there long enough to remember him. Although his streetcar was retired, Skagway residents George and Edna Rapuzzi continued to run his Soapy Smith saloon for another thirty years!

My grandmother Christine wrote to my father in 1935 letting him know that Martin was still in San Francisco.

"Friday April 2, 1935

Dear Henry
I guess you are on your way home by now.  If not Martin Itjen is going to be at the Orpheum in San Francisco beginning April 4 for one week. I think I read it in the paper this morning.  We are all fine, hope everybody there is the same.  We went to Kilkare Sunday was a lovely day. Onkel Henry and Tanta Ella went with us. Hope to see you soon.
Love, MA"

Martin sent these postcards to my grandmother Christine from Cuba and El Paso, TX.

© 2011 Bob Wieking. All rights reserved