A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Charles Cist (1792-1868) was early Cincinnati historian, driven by love of area

by Don Heinrich Tolzmann
Special to NKyTribune

Charles Cist (1792-1868) published several books that are valuable for anyone interested in the history of Cincinnati, including: Cincinnati in 1841 (1841) and Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1859 (1859).

Ohio historian Henry Howe wrote that Cist “was filled with a love of Cincinnati, and ministered to the extraordinary social fraternal feeling that existed among its old people – its pioneers.…He would often print some gossipy item….Much he wrote was tinged with humor, and some of his own experiences were comically told.”

His books are well known, but his fascinating family history is not. His father, Charles (originally Carl) Cist (1738-1805), was a German-speaking immigrant from Russia whose life reads like an adventure novel.

Steiner and Cist’s 1776 German-translated broadside of the Declaration of Independence (Provided)

Born in St. Petersburg, which had a sizable German colony, the elder Cist studied medicine at the University of Halle during the reign of Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia, known for his support of the ideals of the Enlightenment. They must have influenced Cist, since on his return to Russia he opened an apothecary in St. Petersburg, and got involved in an anti-government plot.

However, rather than face execution, he was exiled to Siberia. It may have been his German heritage that saved his life, as the sentence came from Empress Catherine the Great, a German princess from Pomerania. Whatever the case, it was good fortune for him; he escaped and fled to America in 1769/70, settling in Philadelphia.

On arrival in America he adopted the surname of Cist, basing it on the initials of his full name: Carl Jacob Sigismund Thiel, probably wanting to conceal his identity. In Philadelphia he became a journeyman printer at the press of Johann Heinrich Miller, publisher of a German newspaper, the Pennsylvanischer Staatsbote.

With another journeyman printer, Melchior Steiner, the elder Cist opened a print shop: Steiner and Cist on 2nd Street in Philadelphia. Sometime between the 6th and 9th of July 1776 they printed a historic broadside – a translation into German of the Declaration of Independence. It also appeared on 9 July 1776 in Miller’s Staatsbote.

Steiner and Cist’s broadside measures 16 3/8 by 13 1/8 inches. Several days earlier, on the night of 4/early 5 July 1776, John Dunlap of Philadelphia had printed a broadside of the Declaration in English. This no doubt became the basis for Steiner and Cist’s German translation

The Cincinnati Miscellany, by Charles Cist (1792-1868)

When the British advanced on Philadelphia in 1777, Steiner and Cist fled the city, but returned the following year after the British occupation had come to an end. They took over publication of Miller’s Staatsbote, and also published another German newspaper, the Philadelphisches Staatsregister, but dissolved their partnership in 1781.

Now on his own, Cist published German almanacs and two English-language journals: The American Herald and the Columbian Magazine. Later, he had a printing and binding business in Washington, D.C., and printed government documents.

Married in 1787 to Mary Weiss, their son Charles was born in 1792 in Philadelphia, and educated there. He served as postmaster at Harmony, Pennsylvania, where he had a store, before moving to Cincinnati in 1827/28. Here he published newspapers: The Western Weekly Advertiser and Cist’s Weekly Advertiser.

Writing and publishing seem to have been a Cist family “thing,” as two of Charles’ sons also took to the pen. Son Lewis was a published poet, and son Henry wrote a Civil War history on The Army of the Cumberland (1882).

Being of German immigrant stock, it is not surprising that the younger Charles Cist (1792-1868) wrote the following of the foreign-born of Cincinnati in 1851: “Their presence has accelerated the execution of our public improvements, and given impulse to our great manufacturing operations, without which they could not have reached their present extent and importance.”

Many of Cist’s works are still available as reprints, such as The Cincinnati Miscellany, or Antiquities of the West: and Pioneer History and General and Local Statistics, compiled from the Western General Advertiser, from October 1st 1844 to April 1st 1845.

Don Heinrich Tolzmann is a nationally and regionally noted historian of German Americana. He has written and edited dozens of books, and contributed to many others, including The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment