Emma Franziska Murck Altgelt, pioneer, teacher, and author, daughter of Friedrich D. E. and Ambrosine (Reinbach) Murck, was born at Barmen (now in Wuppertal), Prussia, on December 4, 1833. Her father, a former army officer serving as the city's police commissioner, died of typhoid at age thirty-three, when she was only 3½. Her only sibling soon followed him. Before Emma was five, her maternal grandmother and aunt assumed her upbringing in Heinzberg, near the Dutch border. A precocious pupil and the lone girl in a supplementary evening class with forty boys, she studied algebra, history, literature, and French twelve hours weekly. Before Emma left for Liège to prepare herself as a teacher of German and English, her family moved to the Cologne area.
Charmed by stories her kinsmen the Brachts told of Texas, she sailed from Bremen on the Franziska in October 1854 and landed in Galveston just days before her twenty-first birthday. Her mother settled in Texas also. Emma's determination never to marry did not survive Ernst Hermann Altgelt's wooing. After their marriage (July 23, 1855), their home for some twelve years was Comfort, which Altgelt had founded. For 2½ years, starting when the eldest Altgelt child was barely seven, Mrs. Altgelt conducted the Comfort school in their home. During the Civil War in 1863, Altgelt, ardently Confederate in a town of strong Union sentiments, left for Germany at his wife's urging to preserve his fragile health and visit his aging father. After his return in 1865, the family could not rejoin him until a cholera epidemic had subsided in San Antonio, where he soon became the law partner of D. Y. Portis. For a brief time their residence in the city was the neglected Spanish Governor's Palace, which Altgelt had purchased and attempted to renovate. When he acquired a tract on which he laid out what he named King William Street (see KING WILLIAM HISTORIC DISTRICT), the family moved into a home constructed for them there. Hoping Altgelt's health would benefit, they next lived on their farm, Wassenberg, near Boerne. Almost immediately (1869) an infant son died of a childhood illness. In 1878 another small son's fatal fall hastened the father's death. Soon daughter Antonia's husband Adolph Benner was murdered and the Benners' infant died. For forty-four years a widow, Emma Altgelt had to sell properties disadvantageously. Nevertheless she helped her six remaining children to become educated.
Two visits to her homeland during the 1880s revived her wish to become a writer. She visited California and also studied Spanish intensively. At age seventy she was visiting close friends and grandchildren in the interior of Mexico. She lived briefly in New Braunfels, then returned to San Antonio, home of most of her children. Late in life her devoted companion was a longtime family servant, Virginia, a former slave. When Emma Altgelt died on July 19, 1922, twelve of her twenty surviving grandchildren were men named Altgelt. Some of her reminiscences, observations, and sentimental descriptive verses have been published, occasionally in translation (her recollections of the early years in Texas are especially prized). Her published works include a collection entitled Beobachtungen und Erinnerungen ("Observations and Memories"), published in 1930 by the Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung (see NEW BRAUNFELS HERALD-ZEITUNG), and "Schilderungen aus texanischem Leben" ("Descriptions from Texas Life"), translated by Guido Ransleben and published in the Comfort News weekly from May 22, 1969, through August 5, 1970.