WALTER'S GERMAN HERITAGE
by: Walter H. Berg, Jr.
All of my ancestors on my father's side are from the area presently known as Deutschland, or Germany. At the time of their immigration to America in the mid-1850s the Bergs came from the north - from Prussia - Westfalen province. The Joxes came from middle Germany - an area called Hesse-Darmstadt. The Bergs and the Joxes settled in Logansport, Indiana.
The evidence now points to the Croft family - my mother's paternal ancestors - also coming from Germany - probably a century earlier. They may have been Hessians drafted to help in the American Revolutionary War. The Crofts, or Kraffts, settled in South Carolina.
The story of Lahde probably typifies the conditions in Germany that led to the tremendous migration of Germans to America in the 19th century.
Lahde, Prussia - In the latter part of the twelfth century, Heinrich the Lion made a deed conveying a large tract of land to the Catholic Cathedral of Minden. In the land description is the first historical mention of the town of Lahde. Lahdians of today use the date of that deed to mark their beginning, so on 1 February 1968 they celebrated their 800th anniversary. There is presently nothing remaining in town that dates back that far, but there are some old buildings. The three most significant are the red brick church with its slender steeple, an old tavern bearing the date 1558 on the timber above its door, and an old windmill still in operation. The church is the most prominent. This is the Lutheran church where the records of the Berg family were found.
Lahde is located on the banks of the Weser River in the northern part of the present day Germany. The river with its history of flooding has through the years been both a boon and a threat to the town. During floods nutrients are deposited in the soil which when the river recedes make the land especially fertile, and the river has provided a means of transportation to the people of Lahde, but those unpredictable floods have also brought devastation.
Prior to 1871 there was no unified nation of Germany as we know it today. The area consisted of widely scattered "city-states" or mini-kingdoms. Prior to Napoleon's conquest, the land was claimed by the so-called Holy Roman Empire. Actually, that was neither holy, Roman, or an empire in the sense of political control. The claims of empire made from faraway Rome had little effect on the people of the area. The "kings" of the small independent hamlets were often in dispute with their neighbors. When major disputes erupted into war, sides were chosen, and loose alliances were made with other hamlets. Most of the villages in that time were surrounded by protective walls, each with their castle where the royal family lived, and each with their church where the people went, not only to worship, but for protection during times of fighting. Many of the old walls, castles and churches are still standing all over modern Germany.
Farmers from all around have for centuries brought their grain to the Lahde mill for grinding and still find it a good place to visit with their neighbors. After the wait at the mill, they gather at the tavern for more socializing. There is an aura of peace and contentment about the little town now, but it wasn't always so.
The church at Lahde serves several villages. The Bergs came from Quetzen, a short walk from Lahde. Church records show the Bergs' Quetzen address as No. 52 Masloh Street. Houses are numbered according to the order in which they were established, not sequentially along a street as in America. The farm house at No. 52 is relatively new, having replaced the older one which burned some years after the Bergs left. There is a barn on the property, easily 200 years old, which was there with the Bergs.
Quetzen is a clean and neat village, with paved streets, well trimmed lawns, and flowers in abundance. Most of the houses are sturdily built with red brick, the older ones with heavy timbered walls with brick sealing the spaces between the timbers. To the villagers a new house might be a hundred years old.
There are Bergs still in the area who descend from the Bergs of Quetzen No.52, distant cousins to the Bergs of America. Records in the church at Lahde go back to 1654, although fading ink makes the older ones difficult to read.
Napoleon invaded what we now call Germany in 1806, filling the political vacuum of the Holy Roman Empire and ending it even by name. He created the Kingdom of Westfalia and gave it to his brother, Jerome. French troops raped, pillaged, and virtually enslaved the native people. Confiscatory taxes were imposed to support the French presence, and the people suffered much humiliation under the occupation. French plundering continued for seven years. In 1813, the Prussian Army with a victory in the Battle of Leipzig began a two year process of ridding the land of the hated French. Throughout the occupation of both the French and Prussians, heavy taxes were imposed on the people, making it impossible for them to prosper.
There was a short period of prosperity followed the "Freedom War" in which many civic projects were begun. A dam was built on the Weser to control flooding, and a schoolhouse was built. In 1818 there were 437 villagers in Lahde, 367 in Bierde, and 539 in Quetzen. Then the economy began to deteriorate. The heavy tax burden of previous years had made it impossible for the people to make improvements to their farms or in their farming implements. Still using wooden plows, hand held scythes, thrashers and other crude tools, the farmers were inefficient, and production was poor. They also suffered from a lack of knowledge. Instead of using manure from the farm animals for fertilizer, it was tossed into piles and allowed to stand. This harbored rats, insects and disease. The situation with but few exceptions was distressing. The Lahde Chronicle reported one poor harvest after another. While technology and machinery were revolutionizing the rest of the world, not much changed in Lahde, and the men of the village grew increasingly discouraged. In the mid 1800s a failed revolution in Prussia brought more hardship. Those who participated were blackballed to the extent that even their lives were threatened. This set the stage for an exodus to America when news spread that new opportunities existed there.
Advertisements began appearing in local newspapers offering good wages for men to work on the railroads in America. The temptation to leave home grew. The younger men were particularly challenged to improve their lot. As word drifted back describing the remarkable freedom in America, more people decided to leave. Apparently, religion played little part in the Lahdians' decisions to leave. Most of the German immigrants were staunch Protestants, quick to establish new Lutheran churches in their American communities.
The small number of immigrants in the beginning turned into a virtual flood in the 1840s and 1850s. The reasons were plenty for exodus, but there were undoubtedly deep feelings of sadness and anxiety too, knowing their lives were to be irrevocably changed. Tears were no doubt shed as they left their homes and friends, knowing they would never return. The first Lahdians to leave for America, according to the Lahde Chronicle, were old Schmeid Helbig with his wife and two sons in May of 1835. Not long after came Klempner Grossmann, and the laborers, Tegtmeier and Kiel. For the most part the emigrants travelled by river boat from Petershagen and Windheim northward as far as possible, and then by road to Bremen. Most could only scrape together enough for "steerage" passage on a sailing ship. From Bremen to North America on the "steerage" decks cost about 36 Taler. That price included food, but the quality and quantity was always bad. Sanitary conditions were often so defective that many died on every trip. Yet, they kept coming.
Germany was not the only place in Europe from which people were leaving in droves. Conditions were poor all over, and governments were repressive. In the 1840s there were 1.7 million immigrants to the United States, and in the 1850s there was a staggering 2.5 million. New York was the preferred port of entry for the sailing vessels. As the numbers grew, conditions became chaotic, and many of the new immigrants were swindled and robbed by dishonest boarding houses and ticket agents on their arrival. People of German descent already in America did their best to help their countrymen adapt and find safety in a new home, but many lost what little they had before help came. To solve the problem the federal government stepped in.
America's first receiving station of immigrants opened in New York on 1 August 1855. Shabby and makeshift, Castle Garden nevertheless provided a measure of control of the immigration situation. The poor and hopeful kept streaming in at the rate of a thousand a day. Then in 1882 Congress passed the first federal immigration law. That law established a head tax of fifty cents to be levied on all aliens as they landed. The law also denied entry to "undesirables," defined vaguely as including "prostitutes, Chinese 'coolies,' convicts, lunatics, idiots, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge." After several years, complaints of political patronage and excessive profits on the sale of railroad tickets brought a federal inquiry. The result was the closing of Castle Garden in 1890 and the opening of Ellis Island.
The Bergs and related families of this book arrived before Castle Garden and Ellis Island, yet the story of those immigration points reveals much about the Europeans who came to America in the nineteenth century. From 1892 to 1954 twelve million people passed through the facilities at Ellis Island. These were the steerage passengers, unable to afford the more comfortable cabins topside. From Italy, Russia, Germany, Ireland, Poland, and from all over Europe they flooded in. The holds of the vessels were often disease ridden. At Ellis Island, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, the immigrants were checked for small pox, typhoid, cholera, and signs of any other disease. They were then loaded back on the ship and, if healthy, allowed to enter New York. Those that did not pass the tests were sent back home. The faces in the pictures that line the walls of the National Monument at Ellis Island reflect a mixture of apprehension, worry, __ and hope.