One thing Americans have in common is that we’ve all come here from someplace else.
We hear a lot of grumping these days about those ‘illegal aliens’ who seem to be such a big problem for so many of those who all have immigrants in their family background. That even goes for the Native Peoples who were here to greet the first European pioneers. I’ve been reading with fascination the latest theories about how the earliest people arriving in North America came via the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. Except now, researchers don’t think it was a relatively quick transit by nomadic hunters, but instead involved people settling and living on land that’s now under the Bering Strait for as long as 10,000 years as they gradually moved east.
The European invasion of North America started with the Vikings and their on-again, off-again settlement at Vineland, which we know today as Newfoundland. But the Norse didn’t stay long, and their brief occupation was forgotten. It wasn’t until Spanish explorers finally and once and for all established there was a whole continent blocking access to the Orient that permanent European settlements began on the North American continent. From Jamestown in 1607, the slow occupation of North America and displacement of its Native People began.
Back when I was just a kid, I listened to the stories my mother and grandmother told about my family that instilled a lifelong curiosity about history. And now that I’m officially a geezer, I’ve really been enjoying my subscription to Ancestry.com. Tracking down your family is a really good way to become familiar with United States history, at least is has been in my case. It also tends to teach a person that being angry at immigrants, legal and illegal, is, at the very least, hypocritical.
When my ancestors began arriving here, Ellis Island wasn’t even a gleam in someone’s eye. And for my earliest ancestors, neither was the United States. Instead, the process consisted of finding enough money for passage, getting to the seacoast, buying passage, and then trying to survive the trip across the North Atlantic.
My great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Baltzer Lantz, so the story goes, got so angry with his family that, while plowing on the family land in the German Palatinate one fine day in 1752, he left the ox and plow standing in the field and stomped off in a huff. Given that branch of the family’s temper, the story is not impossible.
But whatever the reasons, Baltzer made his way to Rotterdam on the North Sea coast, where he took passage to North America aboard the British flag passenger ship Phoenix, Capt. John Spurrier, master. The Phoenix appears to have been a flush-decked ship-rigged merchant vessel capable of transporting as many as 375 passengers plus crew. After leaving Rotterdam, the Phoenix took a southwesterly course down the English Channel, made a stop at Portsmouth, and then headed across the Atlantic.
Baltzer arrived at the busy port of Philadelphia on November 2, 1752. From Philadelphia, Baltzer seems to have worked at his trade as a mason, eventually enlisting to fight in the French and Indian War helping build fortifications. After the war he settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and was a solid citizen of the town until his death in 1812.
So much for the antecedents on my mother’s mother’s side of the family. My mother’s father’s parents, the Holzhueters, came over relatively late, arriving—again from Germany—in 1885. My great-grandfather was a man of position in East Prussia, working as a gardener at one of the Kaiser’s palaces at Koningsburg. My great-grandmother’s family, the Tesches, had come to the U.S. in the early 1880s, settling in Aurora, Illinois, and they sent back glowing letters to the Holzhueters, reportedly telling them the streets in America were almost literally paved with gold.
So, in April 1885, the Holzhueters, consisting of Wilhelm and Fredericka (Tesch) and their three children, Bernhold , age 3; Gustav, age 2; and Anna, just two months old, made their way west to the ancient Hanseatic League port of Bremen on the River Wesser. There, they took passage aboard the fast steamer Eider.
The Eider was a new ship, launched just a few months before on Dec. 15, at the John Eider & Company shipyard at Glasgow, Scotland. Iron hulled with four masts and two funnels, she was built for the North German Lloyd Line, a German flag carrier. At 4,719 tons berthen, the Eider measured 430 feet in length and 47 feet on the beam. She was propelled by one compound steam engine and a single screw. Built as one of four steamers in the Rivers class, she was designed for both comfort and speed, and could maintain 17 knots while carrying a full load of 167 crew and 1,250 passengers—125 in first class; 125 in second class; and 1,000 in third class. The Eider eventually cut the time for crossing the Atlantic from Southampton, England to slightly over seven days.
In April 1884, the Eider left the wharf at Bremen and headed down the Wesser, past Bremerhaven, and out into the North Sea. She then set a course west into the English Channel, steaming past Portsmouth where, 130 years before, the Phoenix with Baltzer Lantz aboard made a stop, and made port at Southampton, England. After a brief stop, she then headed back southeast down the Southampton Water to the Channel, before heading west across the Atlantic. The Holzhueters arrived at the port of New York on 26 April 1884. There, they were checked through New York State’s Castle Garden Immigration Depot in lower Manhattan, having arrived six years before the Federal Government assumed immigration control from the State of New York, and eight years before the Ellis Island facility opened.
From New York, the Holzhueters traveled west by train to Aurora where their Tesch relatives had arranged places for them to stay. They soon found the whole “paved with gold” thing was hooey, but Wilhelm and Fredericka, through hard work, were able to make a comfortable life for themselves.
On my dad’s side of the family, his grandparents, Henri Francois and Virginie (Ducommun-Dit-Veron) Matile along with their six children, Laura, 12; Anna, 10; Ferdinand, 9; Emma, 6; Alma, 4; and Cesar, 11 months, decided it was time to leave the French-speaking Neuchâtel region of Switzerland in 1867. Making their way to the port of LeHarve, France, they were among 127 passengers who booked passage aboard the Harvest Home with Capt. D.N. Berry in command.
The Harvest Home was a 598-ton wooden-hulled bark of U.S. registry. Barks are three-masted sailing vessels with square sails on the fore and main masts and triangular fore-and-aft sails on the mizzen mast.
A veteran of the Atlantic run, the Harvest Home arrived at the port of New York on Aug. 3, 1867. From there, the Matiles made their way west to Erie, Pennsylvania where Henri Francois pursued his trade as a watchmaker. After having two more sons—including my grandfather—Virginie died a few years after they arrived in the U.S. Henri Francois remarried Georgia Anna Swinrow, moved his family to the wide open spaces of Kansas, and had a bunch more kids.
When it comes to the antecedents of my grandmother on my father’s side—the Mitchells—I’ve struck out finding when they arrived on these shores. It was certainly before the Civil War, because my great-grandfather served in a 100-day Ohio infantry outfit. I keep searching and with luck one of these days I’ll find out when the first Mitchell got here.
Of the three ships that carried my ancestors to North America, at least two were wrecked. The Phoenix came to grief at Casco Bay in 1758 while enroute to Boston. The Eider, which brought the Holzhueters to America, went aground on the Atherfield Ledge just off the Isle of Wight after leaving Bremen on Jan. 31, 1892. While she didn’t sink, she had to be scrapped afterwards. The Harvest Home made a number of trips on the Atlantic run, and just sort of sailed off into history.
So as I said above, everybody here has come from somewhere else. And I’d say those of us who know who we are descended from and when our ancestors were lucky enough to make it her are pretty lucky folks.