DESPERATE FOR CHANGE
It is really hard to imagine what would cause me to pack all my valuables and leave my home of millennia, board a clipper ship for an uncomfortable voyage of six weeks, and arrive to a place very foreign. How different my ancestors lived in Germany compared to the peace I enjoy now!
The conditions in the mid 1800’s, especially in the Rhineland, certainly inspired no walk in the park!! This was a crossroads of western Europe history, even a microcosm of change. Family records in the Rhineland go back to the early 1600’s, and it is evident that as literacy grew, their records got more complete.
LEAVING THE OLD WORLD—INFLUENCES ON GERMAN MIGRATION:
The first wave of German immigrants to America occurred in the colonial 1700’s, some were soldiers in the Revolutionary War. The majority of the signers on the Declaration of Independence were German Americans, though most were behind the scenes, and never became well-known names.
In the second wave, 1840-1860, when my first immigrant ancestors arrived, the same challenges that attracted those in the late 1700’s were still present. The very factors that repulsed them from Germany could be erased, as they faced new challenges. Contemplating the differences from my life today, these factors reveal a huge contrast:
• Land shortage. Agricultural society passed farms on to new generations that divided them with siblings. Soon the farms became to small to be efficient or profitable. The first of the family to come to the area in Ridgeville came to farm.
• Strict inheritance. Laws were passed that the oldest son would inherit property so that estates could retain value. The second son often went into the military. The third son was expected to go into the church. And the fourth son was doomed to have an identity crisis—often adopting a trade or finding an advantageous marriage. The latter could elevate the unfortunate younger son to inherit when his wife had no brothers. My ancestors in this wave had many youngest sons among them.
• Arranged marriages. Marriage had nothing to do with love, but with property. An examination of my family trees in Germany demonstrates that siblings married siblings, and marriages were almost always between cousins.
• Related communities. Because all the families lived in small villages and married cousins, everyone was related to everyone else. If we think today that extended families cause crazy genealogical charts, try charting out cousins marrying cousins! What it does show is a very different kind of community. Today, families are much more spread out. I have relatives in my area, but they are a minuscule percentage of this total population!
• Lifespan contrasts. Most of the women had a baby every two to three years, well into their forties. Half of the children died before the age of five. This is really hard to imagine. Adult lifespan was also significantly shorter, so death was something they had to deal with more often.
• Limited travel. Most Europeans did not travel more than ten miles from their home. Up until the early 1700’s they didn’t move either. Living for centuries in one place, my family did have some migration from outlining communities in the late 1600’s to Hermeskeil, the area offering economic opportunity.
• Political conflict. The Rhineland was continually victimized by war. Armies marching through would strip the villages of all resources, grab up young men to fight, and leave a beleaguered population to recover, just in time for the next wave. The area was a great target due to natural resources and industrious natives. The first wave of German immigrants were mostly farmers. But of this second wave, like my family, they were tradesmen.
• Starvation. Sometimes weather was to blame for crop failures. Sometimes war destroyed everything. Starvation for the population during any war is part of it’s horror. Sadly, family records display entire groups with the same death dates that correspond to tragic historic developments.
• Military service. There was no volunteer army or draft. If a young man was conscripted, there was no choice about it. Off he went. Many never came back! The conflicts of the early 1800’s took a toll as many young men perished. My family is filled with examples of military escapees, beginning in this 1850’s migration and into the next wave of the 1870’s.
CONFRONTING THE NEW WORLD
Like all immigrants, my ancestors settled in ethnic neighborhoods, with the exception of the first in 1840. He was a pioneer building a log cabin and created a farm out of a forested area along a trading route. In Germany, his ancestors were also farmers, but he left conditions of destitute.
In the 1850’s, the newcomers discovered cities, where they had only lived in villages in the past. The culture shock must have been enormous! Even living in clusters and continuing to speak German, they coped with adjustment to an urban setting. The railroad was just laying track that caused the area to begin booming. Events to inspire the Civil War were heating up. And the first generation to be born in the United States acted as the bridge to a total adjustment.
Attracted to places of resources, always ready to improve circumstances, highly entrepreneurial and hard working, my family is representative of the immigration transition. I love to pause and pay tribute to these courageous people, and thank them for the peace and freedom that I enjoy.
—Always inspired, Liane
Liane Sebastian wears an editor’s hat, designer’s coat, and artist’s shoes.