By Irma Lommen – Salden,
English translation: 22 Jan 1999 by Peter Krekelberg, Australia
From the list of Limburg emigrants it appears that the big exodus did not really start until 1863. No less than 140 families emigrated in that year. Why such great interest?
Why did so many people leave their village, even their fatherland during the 1860’s to go to an unknown and to them foreign country in order to build a new existence? Unfortunately we cannot go back to those times and talk to some of them. Some guesswork is therefore necessary, but the economy during that era in Limburg paints a picture of a population that was not faring too well. Most people gave as reason for departure: ” a better way of life “. The financial situation for most of them was indigent or destitute and this provides the “why”. Approximately 2/3 of farms was smaller than 5 ha (about 12 acres). Rural residents on the whole had to find extra sources of income by means of artisan and handiwork occupations in order to survive. Lots of people went to the towns hoping to find work or emigrated to the United States, or to Belgium and Germany.
From Limburg a lot of them went to the Rhineland and the economically fast rising Ruhr area. Seasonal workers often went to Germany to do rural work or to seek employment in the brickwork’s there. The result of this was that the farm work was left to the wives, mothers and children. Because of the often long time absence of the men, the state of the farm deteriorated as no improvements were made. The result of all this was that small farmers had very little chance to build a decent living and more and more had to struggle for survival.
The majority of emigrants noted farmer or laborer as their occupation. Others gave baker, carpenter, bricklayer, tailor or shoemaker as theirs. That the majority gave farmer as occupation was no accident since in America this afforded the best possibilities. The famed ” Homestead Act ” of 1862 in particular led to the year 1863 being the peak of emigration. This act allowed for immigrants who were older than 21 and head of a family to receive a piece of land measuring 160 acres (approx. 64 ha). One had to become US citizen and cultivate the land for five years without interruptions. After this time title would pass to them against the payment of $10 for administration expenses. One can understand that this persuaded many a soul who still had doubts to take the decision and the risk. For many it was a jump into the unknown deep. The only thing they knew of their new “fatherland” was that which was heard from others. Did they know the land they could receive was totally uncultivated and wild? Shipping agents (travel agents?) advertised furiously. Information evenings were organized such as by Mr.Haenen at Hotel de Limbourg in Sittard and at Mr.Stox in Echt, for which advertisements were placed in the local weekly paper ‘ Mercurius’.
In these regions the German Shipping Company Strauss were very active. Each week saw advertisements with ” large and clean three masted clippers ” which departed twice a month from Antwerp. In 1863 these became steamers which went to North America on a weekly schedule. The Strauss Co. had agents such as J.Horn in Sittard, P.Pernot and F Savelkoul in Grevenbricht, Willem Joressen in Nieuwstadt, Jean Schoolmeesters in Maaseyck, Jennen in Stokkem and Van Maenen in Köln (Cologne, Ger.) Then there were the firm P.A. van Es & Co who departed from Londen and who had as agent J.L. Mentjens in Nieuwstadt and Steinmann &Co, departing from Antwerp, the agent for this region was G.Delhougne, ‘at Casino’ in Sittard. Another practice was to publish letters from emigrants. Letters that were at times flavored with homesickness, but on the whole painted a positive picture of their new homeland. As mentioned at the start, some guesswork is necessary to explain the ” why “.
Why did one leave all their family with the certainty they would never see them again, with certainty also that for most there was no way back because there was not enough money? The modest possessions one had were sold mostly by public sales. When viewing the weekly editions of the Mercurius of 1862 and 1863, we notice that more and more of these sales are taking place. Because of the oversupply it stands to reason that prices became depressed. Without becoming negative I note that the only ones doing well out of all this were the Lawyers and Agents. Everything was offered for sale. From home with yard and barn, cows, oxen and sheep, all furniture incl. tables and chairs, paintings, cups and saucers, pots and pans. Some still had land that could be sold even though the size of the property was fairly small, excepting maybe the odd one. For most of them the proceeds were just enough to pay for their passage and maybe some to pay for the first few necessities upon arrival in America. After studying many of these public sales I can say with certainty that for many the reason for leaving was poverty, no hope of a good future for themselves and especially not for their children.
Out of the previously mentioned letters, written by the emigrants to their families and published in the Mercurius, one of the sentiments expressed is a greater feeling of freedom. No boss to tell them what could and could not be done. In one letter written to his father in Limbricht, Peter Dircks says that the main reason for his departure was: overpopulation in Limburg. America, according to him had room for everyone whereas Limburg would be “full” in no time. One has to say that Peter Dircks had vision because today Limburg is reaching that stage. In October of 1862 Peter Jacob van Mulken writes to his son in Holtum about Minnesota: “This is a province surpassing the others I’m told, I have traveled through Canada and province of Wisconsin. The hay grows so quickly, you cannot believe. I have even measured it and in two days 6 zol! …… There is more land than forest and it is very healthy”…. Peter van Mulken writes very enthusiastically and urges his son to follow him there. He finishes his letter as follows: ” Give my regards to your uncle Pieter van Mulken and to his wife and children and to all that know me. Tell them in my name fare thee well poor Preussenland and I wish that many of them were over here. They would no longer have to push the dung-cart..! ” Van Mulken also writes that those who can bring $ 500 are able to look after themselves very well and one can buy for all sorts of prices and the more the better.
There are also negative messages from America. Writes Wilhelmus Paulussen (from Echt or Susteren) in 1863 to his family in Limburg: “…they also wrote that things were cheap here, everything the farmer has for sale does not realize much cash but everything he needs is nearly twice as expensive as in Europe…” He certainly is not enthusiastic about America and is angry with those who wrote such glowing accounts to those back in Limburg. About the so called riches he writes….” even a judge has the backside out of his pants for he has to work harder than a day laborer where you are…..and……as far as the hay is concerned, what we back home used to get off the side of the road is better than what they call hay over here…..” Paulussen is thinking seriously about returning to Europe before the winter.
The Catholic Church was not particularly positive about all these people moving to America. Parish priest Fourage of Buchten was a particularly fierce opponent. During the early years there were very few Catholic churches and priest in the ‘Wild West’. The few priests present would travel from area to area and during the few days they remained in the one spot would baptize, perform marriages and give First Communion. Paulussen writes about this in 1863:….” Mechel of Tis Koenen, she had a child of seven weeks old and still not had received the holy Baptism. There are children here seventeen and eighteen years old, that still had not done their first Holy Communion.” And thus one reaches the conclusion that the “WHY” (reason) for each one of those departed may have been different, but ultimately it was a search for freedom and a better way of life, not only for themselves, but especially for their children. For most of them the decision to move to America proved to be the right one, but there were also people who returned disappointed and without a penny to their name.
After selling their possessions and saying farewell to family and friends, the trip could commence. Many traveled by horse and cart via Sittard to Maastricht. From there, one continued by rail to Antwerp where the ship was boarded and the great adventure commenced. Cost of the trip from Antwerp was between 60 and 65 Gulden. When one realizes that a day’s wages was 1 Gulden, it is easy to work out how long people would have to save. A publication by the Secretary of the State Board of Immigration in 1870 lists cost of travel between various European ports to St Paul Minnesota. The voyage Antwerp-St Paul cost $45.50 which is approx.113 Gulden ($1 was about 2.5 Gulden) The train New York-St Paul was $37, approx. 92 Gulden, but immigrants would be entitled to a discount of between one third and fifty per cent. For food etc.on board one was expected to cater for themselves, but in later years a law was passed which ensured a certain standard of accommodation and care aboard ship. Especially during the first few years of migratory influx, conditions were abominable. Lack of space below deck and lack of fresh food contributed to many becoming ill and even causing deaths. Sadly, this also happened to one of the Limbricht emigrants. Theodoor van den Bongard from Guttecoven died during the voyage in 1867 leaving behind his pregnant wife and 7 children! Although circumstances improved in later years, the trip was anything but a vacation. Most had not seen the sea, let alone sailed. One can imagine seasickness, close quarters and the length of time it took to cross, leading to unhygienic situations. A quick shower at the end of the day did not exist and I wonder if there were any bathing facilities at all.
On arrival in New York, (they also traveled via Canada) one disembarked feeling totally exhausted. From the port they would walk to Castle Garden in Lower Manhattan (now Battery Park) to fulfill immigrant requirements. (Ellis Island was not used until 1892) Originally Castle Garden was a fortress, built around 1810. After 1821 when the army had departed, the town of New York used the facility as a restaurant and entertainment centre. 1855 became the first year for processing migrants through Castle Garden. Until about 1890 some 8 million people passed through this building. This is where the first sorting took place. Control by the American Immigration, to see if there were any contagious diseases, if one had any starting capital and were able to give a place of destination. Not until 1882 the new, more stringent federal law of immigration came into force. Before that the old 1819 law, which allowed minimum requirements, was in use. After passing this first obstacle, one had to look after oneself. Many had already lost their few possessions, stolen when leaving the ship. From there it was by horse and cart or train via Chicago, direction Mississippi. From there by river to St Paul in Minnesota, when one could travel by smaller vessels via the Minnesota to Carver or Chaska. These places are where many settled. Some continued on to Benton in Carver County. Now one was in AMERICA the Promised Land and the start of a new life had begun.
During the following you will come across certain American expressions and terms of usage that I will endeavor to explain.
What is a Township?
America does not have Provinces but States. A state is divided into counties and in turn counties into Townships. When measuring and mapping lines are drawn East West, the so-called Township Line and North South the Range Line. These form squares 6 by 6 miles. The resulting 36 Sq. mile area is called a Township. Each Township in turn is subdivided into a further 36 squares called sections. These are numbered from right to left in the first row and then from left to right in the second and so on. Each section can be divided into a half, quarter or eighth section. A whole section is 640 acres. The land offered according the Homestead Act, 160 acres is therefore a ¼ section, named a Quarter.
From about 1790 onwards and every five years thereafter a Census is conducted. Years ending in 5 the State – and those ending in 0 the Federal Census. The Federal Census being the more thorough as authorities clearly want to know more about their ‘ subjects’. The 1880 census for example contained some 25 questions whereas the 1885 State census only 10. Questions to be answered in each; name and surname, age, gender, color of skin and country of birth. An assessor would take a census, mostly someone involved with the running of a township. Often, because of problems with language, names would be misspelled and often the ages were not correct either. An outstanding phenomenon that emerges is that many Limburgers, especially during the early years give Germany as their country of origin. Whether this was done by the Limburgers themselves or by the census taker will probably never be known. What is a fact however is that many immigrants from the town of Limbricht in Limburg settled in an area where a lot of Germans, many from the ‘Selfkant’ area also lived.
How did the purchase of land eventuate? When during the early 1860’s a lot of immigrants from the Limbricht district came to Minnesota, most of the land in Carver County and that of the neighboring Counties had already been taken. This meant they had to buy land from earlier settlers. Before it was possible to obtain land under various laws such as the first preemption law +/- 1841 where one could buy land that was measured but not occupied by first of all living on and working the land for 5 consecutive years. Then there was the so-called Military Land Warrants, which was a type of payment to compensate for the low payments of veterans during the civil war. The railroads also possessed many millions of acres of land. This was given to the railroads in order to stimulate economic growth by laying tracks throughout the nation. A lot of this land was sold to immigrants. When in 1862 the Homestead Act was proclaimed, no more land was available under the terms of this Act in the counties where the Limbricht people settled.
What else do we need to know?
Those areas where Limbricht immigrants went were to a large extent settled by Germans also. Both spoke very little or no English. The German language on the other hand was no problem for Limburgers. Therefore it is no surprise that some of them went as far as denouncing the German Emperor on receipt of the American citizenship when they had 6 years previously, when first registering, done the same but with the Dutch king. Church services were conducted in German for many years to come. In schools, English as well as German was used during lessons. Children did not take long to learn English although German or the Limburg language was the norm at home. From the above-mentioned 5 yearly censuses, we learn that eventually the parents learnt to speak and read English, but not write in that language.
Many customs from the old country were steadfastly kept such as the ” shooting in ” of the new year and going from house to house to wish everyone Happy New Year to return home in the early hours, slightly under the weather. Weddings were held with great frivolity and with lots of food, drink and music. As November was slaughter time and a feast also, weddings were often held around that time. The wearing of clogs was customary also and after the pair they brought had worn out, a trip to Chaska where a Dutch shoemaker specializing in clogs had settled became necessary. In the area around Victoria in Carver County, the weaving of baskets is one of the crafts still practiced today. The stone ovens outside (bakkus) is where bread was baked the traditional way for many years.
In the (to me) available literature no mention is made of the Limburger Vlaai (note: = a sort of flat fruit flan).
One of the new skills one learnt was the making of maple syrup. Earlier migrants had, for lack of sugar or money learnt to make sweet syrup from the sap of the maple tree. By boiling 100 liters of sap one could finish up with 1 liter of syrup. Often this would be done in the forest and in large kettles. By suspending a white thread in the syrup and leaving it for 5 to 6 weeks hard candy would form which of course was loved by children.
- Local Weekly Newspaper ‘Mercurius’, several issues.
- Notary archives Sittard.
- History of St Victoria Parish, 1857-1957, John A Diethelm.
- The “Metes and Bounds” and “Township & Range” system of land measurement.
- International Internet Genealogical Society University.
- Land and Dollars, Minnesota and Dakota; Inlichtingen voor Landverhuizers, J.Knuppe, 1883 (Information for Emigrants).
- Geschiedenis van de beide Limburgen. Prof. Dr. W. Jappe Alberts. (History of the two Limburg regions in Belgium and in the Netherlands)