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Heilner family letters and diaries, 1853-2010

Identifier: MSS 6721 Series 1 Sub-Series 2

Scope and Contents

Materials include letters written to brothers Sigmund and Seligmann Heilner, living in America, from the Heilner family, including their father, Aron, who were living in Germany. Also includes letters sent between Sigmund and Seligmann, and between them and their spouses and family members in America. Also contains photographs, ephemera, Sigmund's transcribed diary, and other historical clippings and documents that give context to the subjects and places mentioned in the letters. The family has included their own historical narrative in the collection, typed on sheets and filed between each item. Each handwritten letter is either transcribed from English or translated from German to English. Materials are dated 1853 to 2010.


  • 1853-2010


Conditions Governing Access

Open for public research.

Conditions Governing Use

It is the responsibility of the researcher to obtain any necessary copyright clearances. Permission to use material from this collection must be obtained from Reference Services at

Biographical History

The Heilner family were German Jewish immigrants to the United States. The family descended from Aron Heilner (1802-1891), a Jewish teacher, and his wife Magdalene Hirsch. They had four sons and three daughters; their sons Sigmund and Seligmann moved to America in the 1840s and 1850s.

Biographical History

Sigmund Heilner was born on August 13, 1834. Sigmund Heilner was the second son born to parents Aron and Magdalene Heilner in Urspringen, Germany. Aron Heilner believed that Sigmund would be the one to go to America and extract the Heilner family out of poverty. At the age of 19 Sigmund left to travel to America and eventually meet up with his older brother Seligmann who was already there. Sigmund set sail to America in July of 1853. Shortly after arriving in New York City, Sigmund moved to Washington, D.C where he worked until his brother Seligmann was able to send Sigmund $200.00, the amount needed to make the journey to the West coast. Sigmund boarded a steamship travelling a route that took him around the tip of South America, Cape Horn, and into the port of San Francisco where he proceeded directly onto Crescent City, California to meet Seligmann.

The two brothers worked hard to send money back to their family in Germany. Sigmund quickly learned that selling goods to the miners was more advantageous than standing in cold creeks prospecting for gold. Sigmund immediately settled in Browntown, Oregon where he opened a small store. Retailing became the main thrust of his business life. In 1860, Sigmund briefly entered the freight forwarding business in Crescent City. As goods began to be delayed and hard to forward due to winter storms at sea, the business began to fall. In December 1860, Sigmund abandoned the trade and returned to his store in Browntown. In 1865 Seligmann and Sigmund bought a gold mine in Jackson County, Oregon (now Oakland, CA). However by February 18, 1867 the mine had completely failed and resulted in the brothers declaring bankruptcy. Sigmund began peddling and selling goods along with his own paintings. He then went to Portland, Oregon where he worked for the Alaska Fur company. Shortly after, he moved to Brooklyn, California where he put together the means to build a little store which later burned down. For a brief time Sigmund returned to Germany to see if there was a place for him there. However, Sigmund quickly learned that like Seligmann, the brothers did not want to share their business, the very businesses Sigmund and Seligmann had, in great part, funded. In addition, Sigmund realized that he was now accustomed to the unrestricted life of America and after a month returned to Portland. Sigmund met Clara Neuberger in Portland and were married on June 14, 1874.

In 1872 Sigmund and his brother Seligmann reunited to build a stone store in Sparta, Oregon. The two brothers, once again, sold goods and supplies to miners. In 1876 Sigmund left the Sparta store to Seligmann and Clara and Sigmund moved to Baker City, Oregon. It was there where Sigmund and Clara settled. Sigmund opened one of Baker’s first stores and became a generous means of support for his family. In addition to operating his retail business, Sigmund became heavily involved in real estate, buying and selling extensive property in the town and county of Baker. He became the Baker banker. In addition, he was a State insurance agent, rancher, owner of Mammoth mine, built and owned the Baker theater, a fine artist, owned and ran timberland. He was elected mayor of Baker. Sigmund and Clara together had four children, Jesse Seligmann Heilner (1875), Joseph Jacob Heilner (1877), Mildred Heilner (1879), and Sanford Heilner (1883). Although Sigmund died on September 7, 1917, his success was passed on to his children as his son and two nephews continued running the Heilner store.

Biographical History

Seligmann Heilner (1823-1886) was a German immigrant to the United States and an entrepreneur. Seligmann Heilner was born on January 3, 1823. He was a German immigrant and American entrepreneur. Seligmann was born to parents Aron and Magdalene Heilner in Germany. Since Aron and Magdalene were not married through the German government, the birth of Seligmann was not recognized by law. No civil record has ever been found of this birth. Seligmann moved to America in 1845 to fulfill his father's wishes. Seligmann made his way over land to California in 1849 in the midst of the gold rush. Upon crossing over the country, Seligmann stopped in Cincinnati where he acquired a large amount of debt. The situation became so dangerous that Seligmann changed his identity to E.D. Cohn so he would not be followed. That name stuck with Seligmann through all his business ventures. After Seligmann fled from Cincinnati, he moved to Crescent City, California where he worked in partnership with a man named Julius Simonsfeld. Together they ran a small clothier business. Seligmann was able to assist in the immigration of his younger brother, Sigmund, to California. With Sigmund, Seligmann travelled around the western United States in search of a profitable business. Seligmann found luck but also loss in the gold mining business. In 1872, the brothers built a stone store in Sparta, Oregon. The two brothers sold goods and supplies to miners. The Sparta store was left to Seligmann as Sigmund moved to Baker, Oregon to open another store. On October 31, 1886 two lawyers from Baker got into a fight with Seligmann (E.D. Cohn) over a case that the lawyers were arguing in court. G.C. Israel, the lawyer, became so angry with Seligmann that he shot and killed him, assisted by another lawyer, O.M. Thorndyke. Seligmann's murderers were never charged as the lawyers bribed the judge who was charged with the responsibility to condemn the two lawyers. Sigmund tried for a long time to have the judgment overturned, but could not combat the corrupt system.

Biographical History

Claire Rose Heilner Freedman (1933- ) is a genealogist. Claire Rose Heilner Freedman was born April 21, 1933. Claire developed a love of family history from her mother. As a child she would play under her mother's "genealogy table" as her mother would do family history research and tell Claire stories of her ancestors. Most of her young life was spent in Baker, Oregon where she was educated until her junior year in high school. She then transferred to a girl's school in Tacoma, Washington where she completed her high school years. After attending college at University of California, Los Angeles, Claire married Eugene Freedman and moved to his native New York. They had five children. When the last child went to junior high school, Claire attended New York University, earning her master's degree in history and an archival certificate in Archival Management and Historical Editing. She became proficient in family history research and used her skills in helping others. Claire's husband, Eugene Freedman, passed away in 2020. Claire was a resident of Provo, Utah, as of 2012.

Biographical History

Sanford Joseph Heilner (1936-1985) was an entrepreneur and genealogist. Sanford Joseph Heilner was born on April 21, 1936, to Sanford and Marion Yancey Heilner. He was raised in Baker, Oregon. In 1956, when he was 19, he was called to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Stuttgart, Germany. While there he learned to love not only the German people but the German language. As always he learned it perfectly and used it throughout his life. Upon his return from his mission, Sanford completed his college education at Brigham Young University, married Margaret Madsen, had a family, and became successful in his professional life. Around 1977, he decided to teach himself to read Old German script in order to translate over 1000 family letters. He and Margaret visited Germany several times to facilitate this project. Sanford died October 26, 1985, at the age of 49.


15 folders

4 boxes

Language of Materials





Arranged chronologically.

Repository Details

Part of the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Repository

1130 HBLL
Brigham Young University
Provo Utah 84602 United States