The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin
(p.9) Chapter One: Departures and Arrivals
Land, freedom, and hope. In the narrow stony valleys of Norway, and the heavily taxed towns of Saxony and Westphalia, in Ukrainian villages bled by the recruiting officers of the czars, and Bohemian farms that had been owned and tilled for generations by the same families, land, freedom, and hope meant much the same thing in the last quarter of the nineteenth century: America.
Word had spread throughout Europe that there was land, empty land, free land, in the middle of the continent to the west. Land so flat and fertile and unencumbered that a family could plant as soon as they got there and harvest their first season.
“Great prairies stretching out as far as one could see,” wrote one Norwegian immigrant, of the image that lured him and his wife and three sons to America in 1876, “with never a stone to gather up, a tree to cut down, or a stump to grub out, the soil so black and rich that as somebody said, you had only ‘to tickle it with a plow, and it would laugh with a beautiful harvest.’ ”
As for the sky (p.10) above this land, there was no need to worry. Rain, they were promised, would fall abundantly, and at just the right times. Winters were bright and bracing, snowfalls light and quick to melt. “Indeed, it may be justly claimed as one of the most beautiful climates in the world,” proclaimed a pamphlet written, translated, and distributed by agents of one of the railroad companies that owned millions of the choicest acres of this land, “and one best adapted to the enjoyment of long and vigorous life.”
And so they came for land, freedom, and hope, some 16.5 million of them between 1850 and 1900, but the majority of them never getting beyond the East Coast cities, but many hundreds of thousands, especially the Germans and Scandinavians, ultimately bound for the vast American grassland frontier bordered by the Mississippi to the east and the Missouri River to the west.
Gro Rollag was one of the seven hundred fifty thousand Norwegians who emigrated to America in the nineteenth century. She was twenty-two years old and a bride of several days when she left her family’s farm in Tinn, in the Telemark region of southern Norway, in April 1873. Gro had married a strapping blond boy named Ole, three years her junior, from a neighboring farm. Rollag was his surname as well, since it was the custom in that part of Norway for families to take the names of the farms where they lived.
In Tinn, there were six Rollag farms scattered through the valley, North Rollag, South Rollag, Center Rollag, and so on, all of them small and niggardly in yields of barley, oats, potatoes, hay. Growing seasons were short this far north, crop failures all too common in chilly overcast summers, fields so pinched that only the most primitive tools could be brought in.
“Our honeymoon took us to America,” Gro Rollag wrote fifty-six years later with her dry humor, as if they might have chosen Paris or Nice instead. While the truth, of course, was that Gro and Ole left Tinn because the fields of the Rollag farms were being divided into smaller and smaller parcels every generation, because they didn’t want to leave their children with (p.11) less than they had, because in Norway only the firstborn sons inherited the arable valley parcels known as “bonde gaard,” and because Ole was facing five years of compulsory military service.
But it wasn’t in Gro’s nature to write this in the memoir she titled “Recollections from the Old Days.” Nor did she mention how hard it was to leave behind this stunningly beautiful landscape at the beginning of spring, the mountains rising sharply from the shores of a twenty-five-mile-long lake known as the Tinnsjo, the farms clustered on a level shelf of land at the head of the lake, the waterfalls gleaming on the sides of the mountains and feeding streams that merged into the broad Mana River, the red and white farmhouses scattered around the stately white church.
Beauty was abundant and free in the countryside of Tinn, but you couldn’t eat beauty, and the beautiful farms were yielding less and less, while the population steadily grew. But they were comparatively lucky in Tinn. Elsewhere in Telemark, the farm fields had become so small from repeated division that farmers had to harvest the hay that grew on the thatch of their roofs, and grow vegetables by spreading dirt and manure on top of rocks. It was a sad, haunted country for all its beauty. Men in the prime of their lives built their coffins and stored them inside until they were needed. “It was not a very pleasant thing to look at before you got used to it,” recalled one Norwegian immigrant.
Gro Rollag was no beauty, but she was a strong capable young woman with a long face, prominent cheekbones, high forehead, and a kindly intelligent look in her rather narrow eyes. According to family lore, she was not the most conscientious housekeeper, because she preferred reading to housework. A love of books and reading ran in the family.
Of all the possessions they were forced to sell or leave behind in Norway, what the Rollags remembered with deepest regret was the library they inherited from an eighteenth-century ancestor, lovely old books sold to pay for their passage to America.
(p.12) Gro and Ole were the first of the family to emigrate, leaving Oslo on April 24, 1873. “We traveled via England, and with the Cunard Line from Liverpool,” Gro wrote in her recollections half a century later, furnishing precious few details. “We were thirteen days on the Atlantic and landed at Boston. From there we went west in a railroad boxcar. We took a little snack for the journey, a piece of sausage and a few crackers each.”
Her brother, Osten Knutson Rollag, was a bit more expansive when he wrote down his own story. Osten explained that their mother, Kari Nilsdatter, had been left a widow in 1862, with three children to support, Soneva, the oldest, was thirteen; Gro, eleven; and Osten himself, eight.
It was the custom in that part of Norway for children to work to support themselves right after confirmation, at fourteen or fifteen, so presumably Soneva got a job soon after her father’s death, probably as a maid for a neighboring farm family. Soneva seems to have been the family favorite. “She was a more than usually nice person,” wrote Osten, “and respected by all who knew her.”
Soneva died in 1873 at the age of twenty-four. Her death severed the family’s ties to Norway. That same year, Kari sold the farm that her husband had purchased thirty-one years before, Gro married and left for America, and Osten and Kari followed them the next spring. “On the morning of the 15th of May, 1874, we left the home in the valley where my forefathers had lived, for how long one does not know,” Osten recorded solemnly.
“The morning of May 15 began with bright sunshine, and the old ‘graend’ was very beautiful. In the sunshine, we saw the new foliage on the birches and the many rushing waterfalls which flowed into the valley. It was very hard to say farewell forever to all of this.” He was nineteen years old.
“Among the various arguments for going to America, the strongest was the poverty among the common people where we lived in Norway,” wrote a fisherman named Lars Stavig, who left (p.13) his home in Romsdal on the west coast in 1876. “Also, the hopelessness of ever amounting to anything, and the hard struggle awaiting my boys if they were to remain in Norway.”
Two families to a wagon, they had agreed on this beforehand. The women would sit on top of the trunks and bags and bedrolls with the smaller children, while the men and older children walked alongside. Of the fifty-three families who loaded the wagons to overflowing that day, Anna and Johann Kaufmann were among the less encumbered. They only had the two children, a three-year-old named Johann, like his father, and Peter, a baby who would ride in his mother’s arms.
Some of their neighbors had five, seven, ten children to look after, mountains of luggage, feeble elderly parents. Until that day, Anna Kaufmann had spent her entire life in the village of Waldheim amid the wide windswept fields of the Ukrainian province of Volhynia.
She prayed with her family and neighbors every Sunday in the Mennonite church where her father, the Reverend Johann Schrag, served as the elder. The farthest Anna had ever traveled was to neighboring villages, Horodischtz, where her husband had grown up, Kotosufka, Sahorez, German-speaking Mennonite settlements whose names have long since fallen off the map. In a single summer day, all of these villages emptied.
In the weeks before, the fields and farmhouses had been sold to neighboring farmers, the horses and wagons to peasants, the furniture and kitchen items to Jews. The women packed baskets with flat bread and sausage and dried fruit for the long journey. The men scraped together enough rubles for the expensive Russian passports.
Then came the day of departure. Overnight, Horodischtz, Waldheim, Kotosufka ceased to be the homes of the Kaufmanns, Grabers, Albrechts, Schrags, Preheims, and Gerings. Fifty-three families, some 342 people in all, left together for America, late in July 1874.
(p.14) “Schweizers,” these Swiss-German Mennonites called themselves, though their families had not lived in Switzerland for some two hundred years. Because they practiced a different kind of Protestantism from their neighbors, they had been expelled from their farms in Emmental, in the Canton of Bern in the 1670s.
Rather than baptize their infants a few days after birth, the Schweizers waited until they were old enough to choose baptism as a “confession of faith.” They advocated complete separation of church and state and refused to serve in armed forces or fight in wars. For these beliefs, particularly the last, they had been crammed into the prisons of Bern, sold as galley slaves to Venetian merchants, branded, flogged, burned at the stake, and hounded through Europe.
From Emmental to the Rhineland of Germany, from Germany to Alsace and Galicia, and then to Poland and Central Ukraine near Zhitomir (west of Kiev), the Schweizers had fled and started over again every few generations, always moving together in groups of families, always settling together in enclaves of villages, always retaining their German language and Swiss customs, always clinging to their Mennonite faith.
They had come to the Polish-Ukrainian border region, at the end of the eighteenth century, at the invitation of Polish noblemen. It was the same period when thousands of other German-speaking Mennonites, so-called Low Germans, settled farther south in the Crimea at the behest of Catherine the Great.
Schweizers and Low Germans alike had been lured to this country by the promise of religious freedom, exemption from military service, the right to own land, and to speak German in school and church. And for three or four generations, they had prospered on their small farms between Kiev and Lublin.
Hardworking, thrifty, communal, ingenious, the Schweizers had almost uncanny success as farmers. Their flower and vegetable gardens were renowned, their cheese and butter were prized in Kiev and Odessa, silkworms fattened on their mulberry trees, and great swarms of bees pollinated their orchards.
But (p.15) the Schweizers’ golden age was short-lived. In 1870, Czar Alexander II withdrew the rights and protections granted by Catherine and inaugurated a policy of Slavicizing the German-speaking Mennonites. If they wanted to remain in the Crimea, they would have to submit to Russian military service and send their children to schools where only Russian was spoken.
Four years later, in the summer of 1874, Anna and Johann Kaufmann, and all the families in their congregation, piled their remaining possessions into wagons they had borrowed back from the Ukrainian peasants they had sold them to, the first wave of a mass decade-long migration that would bring some eighteen thousand Mennonites from Russia and the Ukraine to America between 1873 and 1883.
For Anna, the hardest part was that she would be leaving a child behind, her first Peter, who died at the age of four the year before. It was not callous of Anna and Johann to use the name again, when another son was born just months after Peter’s death. So many children died in those days that it was customary to keep the name alive with succeeding children.
Before the day of departure, Anna’s father, Johann Schrag, led a daylong prayer service at the Mennonite church in Waldheim. That would have been Anna’s last visit to Peter’s grave. A small woman of twenty-four, five years younger than her husband, fair-haired, and open-faced, Anna was gentle and tenderhearted and devout.
In later years her grandchildren remembered that when she came to greet them, Anna always had “a smile on her face, and tears in her eyes, which were tears of joy. She laughed and cried at the same time.”
“Die freundliche Grossmutter,” they called her, “the friendly grandmother.” Anna wept at Peter’s grave, knowing it would be the last time, thanking God that He had given her two more sons, praying that these boys would live longer than their brother.
Before they left Waldheim, the Schweizer families raised their voices in a song of farewell. “Jetzt ist die Zeit und Stunde da, dass wir zieh’n nach Amerika” (Now the time and hour are here that we should (p.16) move to America). Then all bowed their heads and folded their hands in prayer.
Supposedly, the peasants from surrounding farms gathered in large numbers and cried as the caravan of swaying wagons rolled by, although one boy remembered an old Ukrainian peasant telling his parents solemnly that their ship was sure to sink, or if it didn’t, then they would certainly be killed and eaten by Indians.
It was the logistics of the journeys that the immigrants wrote about in greatest detail. The emotions they either took for granted, or were too shy to record, especially the Norwegians, who were famous for their reserve. (There is a Norwegian joke about an old farmer who, in the grip of powerful emotion, once confessed to his best friend, “I love my wife so much I almost told her.”)
So there is a great deal in the Norwegian memoirs about their heavy trunks and chests, often painted blue, and the difficulty of transporting them from their villages to the train stations or harbors from which they embarked. Osten wrote that he and his mother began their journey to America on board a small steamship called the Rjukan, which took them down the long narrow Tinnsjo to the village of Tinnoset, at the southern end of the lake, where they spent the first night.
From there, it was sixty-five miles to Kongsberg, the nearest train station, a long way to haul the chests. After some searching and negotiating, Osten finally found a farmer named Anderson Moen who was willing to take their chests in his wagon. A few yards out of town it became apparent that Moen’s horse was so wretched that he could not possibly haul both the chests and the passengers, so the two men walked while Kari rode.
They must have been a striking sight in the middle of the road, Osten a muscular young man of medium height, not yet twenty, with reddish blond hair, a mustache just coming in, and blue eyes that “sparkled with intelligence and humor,” as a relative wrote; the dignified and artistic Kari, a handsome widow of fifty-two, outspoken, well read, (p.17) opinionated, a fierce advocate of female suffrage; and the bumbling Anderson, whose nickname was “Bi Litt” (Wait a Little), his favorite expression. “Anderson was a strong and sturdy fellow,” wrote Osten. “I believe that he pushed more than that little horse pulled. It was some fine procession that struggled through the parishes on its way to Kongsberg.”
An immigrant named John B. Reese remembered setting out from the mountain town of Opdal in central Norway with a group of families in April 1880. It was a “strange and significant scene,” he wrote years later. “Here comes a procession of twenty or more sleds, each drawn by a single small horse.”
“The sleds were heavily loaded with large, blue-tinted chests, as also trunks, satchels and numerous smaller articles of household and family use. Riding on top of these loads are mothers with little children, as also a number of grandmothers, the latter upwards of seventy years of age.”
Reese recalled turning around for a final view of the snowcapped mountains and evergreen forests before a bend in the road swept the familiar landscape from view. Another Norwegian child remembered boarding a ship at 4 A.M. and standing on deck to watch hundreds of people standing at the edge of cliffs, waving pale handkerchiefs in the midsummer twilight.
Osten and Kari Rollag had a week in Oslo (then called Christiania, after the Danish king Christian IV, who conquered it in 1624), before embarking on the ill-fated steamship Kong Sverre. This 310-foot-long, two-masted iron-hulled ship was the pride of the Norwegian-owned Norsk Line, with elegant cabins for 75 first- and second-class passengers, and accommodations belowdecks for 650 steerage passengers.
But the Kong Sverre, named for an especially brutal twelfth-century king, lasted only two years, from her maiden voyage out of Bergen on June 29, 1873, until she was wrecked near the entrance to Dunkirk harbor on October 16, 1875. The wreck of the Kong Sverre bankrupted the Norsk Line, forcing Norwegian emigrants to embark for America (p.18) thereafter from foreign ports.
For Osten and Kari, the voyage on board this grand vessel was the experience of a lifetime. Osten wrote of the great crowd that gathered at the wharves in Christiania to see the steamship off: “When the ship pulled away from the dock, there was waving of handkerchiefs as long as we could see land, and then all stood and sang the national anthem, ‘Ja, vi elsker dette landet.’ ”
The ship stopped at Bergen, where she took on more passengers, so that by the time she left for America on June 4, 1874, she carried emigrants from every corner of the country, “from Vestland, from Nordland, from Trondheim, in all, 800 people,” according to Osten, “all Norwegians.”
In the endless days of June, there was little sleeping, and for the first- and second-class passengers, much dancing on the decks, at least at first. Then the ship hit the deep swells of the open ocean, and sea sicknesses put an end to the dancing. “The fine ladies who had danced so joyfully during the last days in Bergen lay around on the deck and vomited,” wrote Osten, with a touch of malice.
Of his own quarters belowdecks, Osten mentioned only that he and his mother were shocked to find “nothing more than hard boards, and … plenty of lice,” but one can imagine the squalor of the unventilated bunk rooms packed with 650 immigrants. On Sunday, the faithful gathered for prayers in the morning, and again in the afternoon.
Somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, a powerful storm hit the Kong Sverre, and “giant waves rolled over the great ship, and the water flooded some areas.” Part of the rudder broke in the storm, and the ship stood idle for two days while the crew repaired it. Fearful passengers begged the captain to turn around and head for England, but he refused.
In the event, the weather quieted, and they steamed into New York harbor on June 20, 1874, eighteen days after embarking from Christiania. “We enjoyed ourselves very much on the ship,” Osten concluded the saga of his voyage. “The trip was outstanding, but there were a few cranks who complained about everything on board and went (p.19) around with a list in order to send complaints to the company. No one signed it.”
The Tislands, also from the Telemark region, were not as fortunate in their crossing as the Rollags. Of the nine children born to Ole and Karen Tisland, five had died of diphtheria and were buried in Norway. Though their son Andreas survived the disease, he was left deaf and weakened. Andreas was six and a half when Ole and Karen emigrated to America with their three other children.
Their crossing was rough. In the course of the voyage, twenty-two children and one adult died. Ole and Karen watched helplessly as Andreas shivered with fever in the unheated steerage quarters. When he died, his body was sewn into a canvas shroud with weights attached to either end. The ship’s captain read the last rites, and then the bundle was tipped off the side of the ship and into the sea.
Some mothers on board immigrant ships kept the deaths of their children secret, so they could bury them properly on land. Even burying a child in the strange land of a country they had never seen was better than losing a child’s body to the ocean. About one in ten steerage passengers died on board immigrant ships.
The Norwegians journeyed to America on the strength of rumors, railroad company propaganda, hearsay, and letters from friends and relatives, “the America letters,” singing the praises of the New World. But the Swiss-German Mennonites, characteristically, wanted to see the country for themselves before making up their minds to emigrate.
In the summer of 1873, three years after the Czar revoked their protections, two Schweizer leaders left on a scouting party to America, with ten other Ukrainian Mennonites. Shortly after their arrival, the somber black-clad elders managed to secure an audience with President Ulysses S. Grant in Washington, D.C., to request the same privileges and exemptions they had enjoyed under Catherine the Great.
Strangely, General George Armstrong Custer (p.20) attended the meeting and conversed with the Mennonites in German (he had picked it up from his German family). Grant promised nothing, no military exemption, no tax incentive, no guarantee of German schools, but the scouts decided to have a look around the country anyway.
They spent the spring and summer touring the republic, traveling by train out to Chicago, Saint Paul, and Duluth, then westward by horse and wagon through the still largely unsettled expanses of Dakota Territory, north into Manitoba, and then south to Nebraska. They liked what they saw, especially the great empty prairies of Dakota.
It was July, and the unbroken grass looked rich and beautiful, and full of promise. No trees to clear, no neighbors to disturb them, abundant sun. In the few homesteads scattered on the river bottoms, they examined the potato patches with approval. By the time the delegation returned to the Ukraine, the Schweizers among them had decided that Dakota was the place.
And so the following July, Anna and Johann Kaufmann, and their two young sons, began their journey from Waldheim to America, in a long caravan of wagons. It took two days to reach the nearest train station, at the Ukranian city of Slavuta, some fifty miles east of the border of the Austrian Empire.
Most of the Schweizers had never laid eyes on a train before, and there were many prayers offered for their safety. They traveled by train to Brody, near the Ukrainian-Austrian border, and on to Lemberg (Lvov) in Galicia, and then, changing trains, on to Breslau, the principal city of Silesia, where they spent the night on the floor of a spare room next to a beer hall and endured the taunts of drunken patrons.
From Breslau, they took another train to Berlin, and from Berlin to Hamburg, where they found lodging in an “immigration house.” A German Mennonite preacher who was invited to pray with the Schweizers at Hamburg left a moving account of the “unforgettable worship service” with some three hundred faithful in attendance.
Gathering in the evening in the close quarters of the immigrant house, the congregation began by raising their voices in the migration song, “In (p.21) all my deeds, I let the Lord rule,” and then sat in silence as the text of Isaiah 44:24-28 was read aloud: “I am the Lord that maketh all things … that saith to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be inhabited; and to the cities of Judah, Ye shall be built, and I will raise up the decayed places thereof: That saith to the deep, Be dry, and I will dry up thy rivers … .” At the end, after the preacher “pronounced the blessing of the Lord for the last time in this part of the world,” the Schweizer men sang in four-part harmony.
Thus fortified by prayer, the group boarded a steamship at Hamburg and crossed the North Sea to Hull. Then yet another train from Hull to Liverpool. Here they boarded the 4,770-ton, 445-foot steamship City of Chester, one of the largest ships on the Inman Line, bound for New York.
What struck them most about the ship was the fact that all the waiters and cooks were black; they had never encountered people of African descent before. One little boy was convinced that the first black man he saw was “old Nick himself.” Traveling in steerage, the Schweizers did not even glimpse the ornate luxury of the first-class staterooms and public rooms above, dining room tables set with linen and crystal, velvet sofas, carved paneling in the saloons.
But they were better off than most emigrants. William Inman, the principal owner of the Liverpool-based line that bore his name, was determined that his modern iron-screw steamers provide steerage passengers safe, sanitary passage, without “the discomforts and evil hitherto but too common in emigrant ships.”
The passage of the Schweizers was not without tragedy. Anna and Johann Kaufmann’s baby, Peter, died before the City of Chester reached America. For a group as tight-knit and community-minded as the Schweizers, the loss of one child was a loss to all.
Anna’s father gathered his congregation into a quiet corner of the steerage quarters and led them in prayer for the eternal life of his unbaptized infant grandson. Johann Schrag may well have chosen a text from Revelations, his favorite book of the Bible, to weave into the prayer service.
A pious and austere man, even by Mennonite standards, Schrag was (p.22) quick to see dire signs and portents in the tragedies of life. When the prayers were ended and the last hymn sung, the small body was taken up to the deck and consigned to the Atlantic Ocean. It was some comfort to Anna to have her entire family on board the ship with her, her four brothers and their wives and children, her two unmarried younger sisters. And there was her three-year-old son, Johann, to look after. After seven years of marriage, after the births of three sons, Johann was all Anna and her husband had left. One small child to bring with them into the unknown reaches of the New World.
The City of Chester arrived in New York Harbor on August 24, 1874, anchoring just off the Battery. A vigorous cold front had pushed through the previous night, dropping temperatures from the mid-80s to the upper-60s, and clearing the rank city air.
The families gathered on deck to look across the dark water at a city of cobblestone and brick and steep pitched roofs, a hodgepodge of three- and four-story buildings, and narrow streets jammed with horses and carts. From the waterfront in those days, you could still see the spire of Trinity Church jutting above the rooftops, and the granite towers that would soon be strung with the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge.
White sails and gray columns of steamer smoke rippled on the water, and the crowded buildings loomed at the water’s edge with that ineffable sense of infinite possibility peculiar to New York harbor. Since the City of Chester was too big to tie up at one of the wharves that radiated out of the Battery, the ship remained in the deeper water offshore, while a smaller boat ferried the passengers and their baggage across.
Family by family, the Kaufmanns and their neighbors from Waldheim and Horodischa, the Albrechts, Grabers, Schrags, Blocks, Gerings, Preheims, marched down the wharf, and directly into the low-domed circular building known as Castle Garden. (p.23) This curious structure, neither a castle nor a garden, was an early example of creative urban recycling.
Built between 1808 and 1811, to fortify the southern tip of Manhattan (hence the name Battery), Castle Garden was reborn as a summer restaurant in 1824. Then in the 1840s, it was roofed over and converted into an opera house and theater (Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, sang there for an audience of four thousand).
And finally, in 1855, it became the nation’s primary immigrant processing center. Over the next thirty-four years, more than eight million immigrants passed through these thick red granite walls on their way to new lives in America.
To the Schweizers, the scene inside Castle Garden looked like pandemonium, and sounded like Babel. Immigrants in their heavy woolen clothes filled the rows of benches on the lower level. Overhead hung two tiers of balconies, where families who had arrived earlier camped while awaiting clearance.
Children shouted and babies squalled. The smell of cheese, rolls, and coffee drifted in from the humid kitchens. Red-faced officials tried vainly to contain and channel the human flood. At the center of the great theatrical rotunda, capped by a glass dome, stood a dozen representatives of the leading railroads, accosting the newcomers with offers of every kind, cheap land out West, easy transportation, temporary lodging while they looked around.
A few paces away, an immigration official standing on a kind of rostrum shouted instructions over the hubbub, how and where to get rail or steamer tickets, where to register for employment, how to change money without falling prey to the sharpers and runners and scalpers who were lying in wait outside.
Each immigrant was called up for a thorough physical examination, and those with illnesses were removed to a hospital run by the city. The Schweizers wisely changed their rubles for dollars inside Castle Garden, what few rubles they had left after paying the equivalent of fifty dollars each for Russian passports, and the steep fares for the trains and ships they had been traveling on for nearly a (p.24) month.
They had been warned that railway company agents would try to lure them with competitive offers, and they were ready to do business. Before leaving Russia, the families had chosen three leaders to represent the group interests, and these three, with the help of an earlier Mennonite immigrant named David Goerz, who had traveled back to New York to be of assistance, arranged with one of the railroads for a special “immigrant train” to transport them all out to Dakota.
For immigrants traveling alone, and without friends or relatives to greet them on arrival, Castle Garden could be a nightmare. John Reese, who was six when his family arrived in New York from Opdal in Norway, remembered that the most terrifying moment of the long journey occurred at Castle Garden.
John’s parents entrusted him to the care of a servant girl, while they went off to arrange for their train tickets. In the milling confusion of hundreds of families speaking strange languages, John wandered off through the “vast spaces” of the Battery and ended up back at the docks. By this time, he was sobbing hysterically for his father.
At the dock, an immigration official, assuming the child had become separated from his family on board a newly arrived ship, took him out on a ferry to where this ship was anchored. One of the women on board promptly claimed that John was her son. Had the boy not howled in protest, the official would have left him.
Somehow John was returned to shore and found his frantic parents. A harrowing story was told by Finnish immigrants of one of their countrywomen who went into labor just as her immigrant ship anchored off the Battery. The woman was taken to a hospital on shore and forced to leave her baggage and her two-year-old daughter unattended on board the ship.
While she was in the hospital, the ship returned to Europe. “In New York we lost heart again,” wrote Norwegian immigrant (p.25) Aagot Raaen in her sad and lovely memoir, Grass of the Earth. “We could not speak the language. We were driven like cattle onto trains that took us to Wisconsin and Iowa. We came from Wisconsin and Iowa to Dakota in covered wagons; we came through a country that had no bridges and no roads; we often traveled for days without seeing anything but prairie. But we again arrived. Empty-handed, we started to work.”
The fifty-three Schweizer families stayed in New York for a week during the last week of August, waiting for an even larger party of their fellow Schweizers to arrive from Europe on the City of Richmond, another Inman Line steamship.
There were some 440 Schweizers in this second group, most of them bound for Kansas, but fourteen of the seventy-three families decided to split off and throw in their lot with the first group. Among these fourteen were Johann and Maria Albrecht, from the village of Kotosufka. There is no record of a prior friendship between the Albrechts and Anna and Johann Kaufmann, though their villages were just a few miles apart in the Ukraine, and their families connected by kinship, as all the Schweizer families were.
Nor is there a record that the two families were drawn together in New York once the Albrechts decided to join up with the Kaufmanns’ group. But there was a strange symmetry in their recent experiences that may well have served as a bond between them.
Just as Anna and Johann Kaufmann had lost a son on the ocean voyage to America, so Maria Albrecht had borne a son on board the immigrant ship, a baby boy named Johann after his father, delivered on August 28, 1874, three days before the City of Richmond dropped anchor in New York.
For Maria and Johann Albrecht, the birth of their son in the steerage quarters of the immigrant ship came as both a blessing and a terror. Johann at twenty-seven, and Maria, twenty-four, had already lost three babies, two daughters and a son, back in the (p.26) Ukraine.
The Albrechts had been married eight years. They were a small couple, hardly bigger than children themselves, with the round faces, fair complexions, and high, fleshy noses characteristic of their people. Just weeks before, they had sold almost all they owned to Ukrainian peasants and Jews back in Kotosufka. They had spent almost all their money to pay their way across a continent, an ocean, and soon half of another continent. Now, with an infant of three days, a trunk, and the clothes on their backs, they were starting over again on the strength of their faith alone.
The Schweizer group, swelled to sixty-seven families by the addition of the City of Richmond party, planned to travel by train from New York, or rather from Jersey City, New Jersey, the metropolitan area rail hub then, to Yankton in Dakota Territory, which was as far west as the train went in 1874.
They chose Yankton because the previous year a small Schweizer contingent, led by the Unruh and Schrag families, had claimed homesteads north of the town. Letters were posted back to the Ukraine describing the open land and the deep, rich soil. The advance party had already built sod houses and plowed small fields. They would help the newcomers get established. Yankton was the place.
The special immigrant train that the Schweizer leaders booked proved to be little more than cattle cars fitted with hard wooden benches, no tables where they could sit down to proper meals, seats barely big enough to accommodate children, no possibility of lying down to sleep, a viciously indifferent crew.
When the train stopped to refuel, the crew refused to linger long enough for the immigrants to buy food, and soon they were suffering through what one called “sweltering foodless days, when some of us almost perished.” A fire broke out in the baggage cars in Buffalo, and many of their belongings were destroyed.
Chicago, their next stop after Buffalo, was still largely in ruins from the devastating fire of (p.27) October 1871. At Sioux City, Iowa, the immigrants rebelled. The men descended en masse and marched down the street searching for food. The engineer whistled repeatedly, and finally in disgust started the train rolling, but the men paid no attention. When they returned to the station with their provisions, they found the train waiting for them. The conductor, his bluff called, had backed up. Mennonite stubbornness and communal action had prevailed.
It was afternoon by the time the train shuddered to a stop at Yankton, on the Dakota side of the wide Missouri. No accommodations could be arranged for so large a party. The families spent their first night in Dakota sleeping out under the stars, using their dusty bags for bedding.
The first task at hand the next day was to find the Unruh/Schrag settlement north of town, in the bottom lands of Turkey Creek. A delegation set out from town on foot. The trodden earth, milled lumber, and sawdust of Yankton made but a small brown scratch on the prairie. After a few dozen paces, the sea of summer grass, as deep as their waists and as wide as the horizon, closed around them.
They followed an old Indian trail that had been deepened and rutted by the wagon wheels of pioneers. Prairie chickens scurried out of the grass ahead of them, and quail flew up in little panicked explosions. When the flapping of wings died away, the silence was absolute, but for the drone of mosquitoes, and the soughing of wind through the brittle blades.
The men sweated in their woolen traveling clothes, and by noon they were sunburned; the sun literally scoured the fair skin off their faces. They yearned for a bit of shade. Miles away they could see the pale green of cottonwoods shadowing the banks of some creek or stream, but otherwise, there was not a tree, or even so much as a decent shrub to break the flow of grass.
The few dugouts and sod huts they passed only made the prairie look vaster and lonelier. The first night out, one man swore they must be approaching a thickly settled part, for the horizon twinkled with lights. It turned out he had been gazing at fireflies playing in the breeze over the next rise.
The one reassuring (p.28) feature of this strange land was the presence of many small lakes and potholes, dotted with waterfowl, and thick with tall reeds. It was customary for Schweizers to settle by ponds or streams, so they took the bits of blue water in the midst of all the tawny grass as a good sign.
And as farmers, they understood instinctively the immense agricultural potential of the prairie. “Where there is such an abundance of grass,” one of the men remarked, “grain can also grow there, if the ground is worked up.” By the time they returned to their families in Yankton, they were ready to stake their claims.
The Indian trail through the grass seemed less alien the second time they walked it. About thirty-five miles north of Yankton, the men fanned out across the prairie. Wherever one of them sighted a small lake or stream, he would drop his hat or coat as a sign that this land was taken.
This was how the Kaufmanns, Albrechts, Grabers, and their fellow Schweizers, eventually some sixty families in all, came to settle around Freeman and Marion, and farther out around Turkey Creek and Swan Lake. The families that still had enough money left to buy a pair of oxen, and a wagon and a few boards of lumber, moved out to their claims at once, while those who were too poor stayed behind in Yankton and picked up any paying jobs they could get to earn the cash they needed to homestead.
Fifty cents a day was the going wage. The ride out over the prairie, behind the expensive but often barely broken oxen, was what the women recalled with greatest horror. “Oh such a ride!” one woman wrote years later. “I was so afraid the oxen would run away (no lines). There we sat, flat on the lumber load, nothing to hang onto, the wagon and lumber swaying this way and that way, and we poor things slipping and sliding every old way trying to hang onto our kids and our belongings….”
“No bridges on the creeks, and so much water in those days.” Night fell before they reached the claims, so they made camp near a small lake, using the pieces of lumber for shelter. Some of the younger men, who had brought (p.29) along shotguns from the Ukraine, brought down a few ducks as they flew up from the lake, their first taste of wild American game.