Preview of A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through the Seasons
Written by Kathleen Ernst. Photographs by Loyd Heath.
Published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through the Seasons © 2015 by Kathleen Ernst.
On a breezy, salt-scented day in the 19th century, a group of Bohemian immigrants with tearstained cheeks leaned over the railing of the ship that would take them to America. Someone began to sing Where Is My Home? Husky-voiced, the others joined in as their last glimpse of Europe faded into the horizon behind them.
Another day, an Irish boy with haunted eyes and hollow cheeks boarded a ship. He did not look back at the land so desperately ravaged by potato blight and famine. Pinned inside his pocket was the note his mother had scribbled on a scrap of paper before she died—the name of an unknown uncle, and a single compass word: Wisconsin.
At a different dock, several German women gave the tail ends of fat balls of homespun wool to their weeping, shawl-wrapped mothers and sisters. The yarn unwound behind the emigrants as they trudged up the gangway to their ship and found space at the railing. When the ship left her moorings, the yarn unspooled all too fast through trembling fingers. Soon each woman felt her twisted filament slip away—the last ephemeral link to everything dear and familiar. Dozens of strands billowed lightly over the water, fading from sight like the tail of some fearful mare galloping back to familiar pastures.
Some time later a Swedish tenant farmer, deep in debt, slipped from home on a dark night and made his way to the nearest port. He left his family with nothing but a promise to send passage money when he could. Years would pass before the family could reunite.
Where is my home? The question haunted thousands of Europeans a century and more ago. They were caught between all they had ever known and the unimaginable—a new home on a different continent. Might America truly offer such dazzling possibilities to justify leaving loved ones? The decision was agonizing. Johann Schutster of Bavaria succumbed to gnawing doubts before departure: “We know how things are here,” he cried. “…Germany we know; America is an unknown country to us.” His wife replied, kindly but firmly, “Johann, we leave tomorrow for America.”
Some immigrants traveled alone; others took strength from friends, relatives, or neighbors who had chosen to journey together. They’d all gambled that the journey would lead to to a better life—if not for them, for their children. Wisconsin’s population rose from 11,000 to over 305,000 between 1836 and 1850. By then, one-third of the population was foreign-born—some from Great Britain, some from Europe.
Behind the statistics were more than 100,000 unique people, each with her or his own hopes and heartaches. School children can recite lists of “push and pull factors” that contributed to the mass immigration. Famine, wars and compulsory military service, political or religious oppression, lack of affordable or arable land, and primogeniture prompted thousands of European children, women, and men to turn their backs on home and family; available land and glowing reports from early immigrants and land agents lured them across the Atlantic. But many Polish immigrants, whose homeland was under Russian and German rule, summarized the reason for leaving succinctly: Za chlebem—For bread. Thousands of desperate Poles saw no hope of preserving their culture, tilling their own land, or otherwise providing the most basic necessities for themselves and their children in the Old World. They came in search of a new home.