Friday, April 20, 2012

I is for Immigrant's Letter

Long before there was a TV show called “who Do You Think You Are” or Ancestry.com or Family Tree Maker,  my family has had a passion for learning about the past (granted, it’s gotten easier since those things have arrived).  They would visit old country cemeteries and look through old church records.  We spent a recent family reunion browsing through attendance records and teacher’s notes from the one-room schoolhouse my grandparents attended.   There’s the story of one relative that hid in a cave rather than be conscripted in the Confederate Army while a younger boy had to drive a wagon load of salt to the Confederates before he was allowed to return home.  One of our dearest treasures is a letter written in 1851  by my great-great-great grandfather.  The story of how we got the letter is fascinating in itself:  Johann Kuhlenhoelter wrote back to friends and relatives back in Germany about the wonderful opportunities of life in Missouri.  In case anyone wanted to join him, he gave 19th century directions to the farm—

“…take a bout on the Mississippi to St. Louis, from St. Louis he has to take a boat on the Missouri river to Herman, from Herman on foot circa 7 hours to Second Creek.  From second creek I am three quarters of an hour away.” 

A descendant of the letter’s recipient brought the letter with him when he vacationed to the United States more than 150 years later.  He stopped at the county historical society and asked if there was anyone around with the same last name.  Because of our family’s research trips to the society, they knew my grandmother would be interested.  They even helped us find a translator for the letter.

The letter itself is long and rambling—apparently in those days (at least in Germany)  the recipient had to pay a steep fee before the letter was handed over.  Johann wrote to the one who could best afford to pay and asked him to share the news with everyone else, answering their questions helter-skelter. There are also some issues in translation that make the phrasing sound awkward but there are a few passages I’d like to share----

Mid August 1851
In the name of Jesus
Yes, Lord, in your hands are my beginning and my end—and also while I am writing this letter.  Jesus Christ the crucified, the true Savior, or only salvation in life and in death, be with all who seek thee and who love Him with all their hearts.  To live with the most beautiful among the living and in true belief and love to trust Him, that—wishes you your least worthy brother (Johann Otto Kulenhoelter) with all his heart. 


First let me pause to say “How cool is that?”  It sounds like the Apostle Paul writing to the Corinthians, not some farmer letting the folks back home know he’s okay.  It just proves God’s promise in Proverbs 20:7 “The righteous man leads a blameless life; blessed are his children after him.”  (I can say that as a great-great-great granddaughter.  Even my son, another generation, has accepted Christ as his savior).

Of course everyone back home is curious about life in the states.  Johann writes about the weather, his crops, his farm...

 My beloved readers--it is a rare occasion to read about the conditions of this country.  How one lives and what is happening here...therefore the reader in Germany cannot get the whole picture and remains doubtful and confused.  Even I cannot give you everything I know, because my time and the paper is limited. 

Nobody will find America to be the way we all thought it would be.  I live in the State of Missouri.  As you look at the map, this is a southern state of America.  The longest days here are about two hours shorter than the longest days in Germany.  From that you can conclude that the climate is a lot warmer here and the winters not so cold and long lasting.  The weather here is quite changeable, and we have a lot of thunderstorms.  Spring comes a little earlier than in Germany.  Crops come here to an end much earlier.  Grain, for instance, is ready to be brought in by the end of June.  Oats can be harvested in the middle of July.  Maize is one of the main crops and can be planted around March to June.  The plants are separated by around 4-5 feet, because the whole plant can be about 10-12 feet high, and even higher at times.  This way you can keep the underbrush from spreading out between plants, and you can plow on both sides just using one horse.  When you start the plants, you have to keep the ground raked, which you can do with small rakes or a mall pick ax.  But whoever is too lazy to take the time and look after the plants has only himself to blame.  In good times and with good care an acre can produce up to 60 or 80 bushels, even more if there is some top soil.

Wheat and oats don't grow here as well as in Germany.  It must be the heat--they ripen much too fast.  And one doesn't change the ground as much as one does in Germany. Corn can be grown in the same spot for several years.  Germans will grow potatoes, Americans don't even try.  I haven't seen brown cabbage grown here but white cabbage grows very will and all like it.  Peas are grown here also, but like beans, they are more likely eaten by Germans than Americans.  But they are not considered to be the main meal.

Main meals here consist of pork, fried or cooked, with bread, which is made various ways.  It's not baked in the oven, but made in pots and pans and consists of flour of various grains.  Coffee, eggs and sweet milk and butter is good in the summer time, when everything like that is in plenty supply.  In the morning one drinks the coffee first and then makes sandwiches with various meats.  Now, in the spring we eat eggs, fried or boiled, because there are so many chickens and they lay many eggs, and it goes on all day.  Now the reader shouldn't get angry--it's the truth, we have meat with every meal.  Same in the wintertime.  Then we have plenty of sausages.

Anyone can live like that, even if you come to this country without a penny to your name.  Granted, not quite as much in the first year, a little more in the second year, but in the 3rd and 4th year everything will be improving, because the livestock has been started and is growing.  And this happened with much less work than in Germany.  Dear reader, America is a country which leads poor and honest people to the road of prosperity. From the food that is just enough to the food that's plenty.

Now you would like to know how much I have.  I have restored 8 acres of pretty good land.  On all 8 acres I have planted corn, because it brought me the best reward.  I had more than 50 bushels from last year...On my grounds I have 3 little houses, the biggest is the size of your living room Bernd.  That is the henhouse, then I have a horse house and then my house where we live.  I will build another 2 houses this year--a larger house for ourselves and a house where I can keep my grains.  I want to build two  more-- a larger horse house and a smoke house.  And when the Lord is willing I will have 5 more acres and a meadow, but not all in one year, and only if the Lord says yes.  My livestock is rather small.  I have one horse, two oxen, two cows with calves and two more cattle.  This fall I will buy two more small oxen.  I have not been lucky with pigs.  I have all together only 14.  It should have been 30.  Sheep I don't have at all.  I had 2 the first year, but I sold them because they are hard to keep because of wolves.

Dear Brothers, I need to answer your questions:  How does a man start to live and earn if he comes here without money?  I will tell you--nobody puts you and your things into the cold and leaves you there.  The oldest farmers take the newcomers into their houses and keep you there until you have worked the ground and have put a house on it.  

[ Imagine that...neighbors helping neighbors.  No one asking the government for a handout...I'm just saying.  Johann concludes with the American dream, but with a Christian twist]

If I would have stayed in Germany you know what my fate would have been.  I would have been a day worker, and how hard that kind of life is you know yourself.  Here I don't need to pay rent to anyone, no money to pay for wood, no money to rent some land.  And I don't even need to buy bread.  Here I am every day with my family, here I use my own livestock to work the land.  No police will come by, no miner boss and no judge of farmers will appear.  No farmer will employ me and fire me at will and nobody can evict me from my house.  In this free county I don't take my hat off to anybody but my Lord.  In this free country anybody can worship his belief as he pleases.


Now I am getting to my last page.  Anyone reading this letter will have to see how he wants to see the truth, because I have not written this letter to antagonize nor to entice anyone.  He who has the notion and the ability to leave, should leave the misery of Germany and come--in God's name and fortified with prayers, and with faith in HIM, you will make the crossing over the Atlantic into this large, wide country.  There is room enough for millions of people who wish to live free and not worry about food and drink.  Whoever doesn't want to come, nor has the means to come, will have to stay in Germany.  When the days of your life are up, it doesn't matter where on dies, in Germany or America.  It depends on who is the boss: belief in God or belief in man, the Holy Ghost or one's own pursuit, if we are children of God or the children of Satan.  Nobody will ask you that but you have to ask yourself that question.

I remain--for the grace of God, the least of your brothers,
Johann-Otto Kuhlenhoelter

Someday I will get to meet this ancestor of mine in heaven  and I will thank him for having the courage to come to this new land and also for the heritage of faith that he passed down. 

This was week 9 of the Ben & Me's ABC challenge.  Check her blog to see what others have come up with.

1 comment:

Kym Thorpe said...

What an incredible piece of the past! A beautiful letter and testimony to God's faithfulness - WOW!! Love this post!!

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