1836 A Land Too Fabulous Scenes from Prussia, on board ship and in America
1836: A Land Too Fabulous takes you to three very different worlds: Prussia in the era after the Napoleonic Wars and before Germany becomes a country in 1871, on board a sailing ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and along the wild edge of America west of the Mississippi River.
PRUSSIA, 1836 In 1836, there was no country called "Germany," and "German" was short for "German-speaking," a designation that covered two languages and much of Northern Europe, from what is now Germany, Luxembourg and Austria to parts of Switzerland, Poland, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), Belgium and the Netherlands. German immigrants thought of themselves as Bavarians or Prussians or Swiss, and it was only in America that they were lumped together and called Germans.
From Chapter One, Friedrich learns that his family is in imminent danger Günter Erlinger waited for the night watchman to pass, and hearing footsteps fade in the distance, slipped through the night, placing each boot soundlessly on cobblestones silvered by ice and moonlight. He hurried down Old Kästner Lane to the ancient, half-timbered house at the end and gave the stout oak door three stealthy knocks. Friedrich Kästner, on the other side of the door, asked, “Who goes there?” and Günter was quickly admitted. “There could be another sweep within the fortnight,” Günter said, more breathlessly than he meant to. Friedrich nodded. He rose and paced the room soundlessly, his hands clasped behind his back. A fortnight was no more or less than he expected.
From Chapter One, while plowing a field by the woods, a rare sighting of a European bison Wilhelm Josef stood at the top of the last row as the horses turned and paused, ready for Hans’ “giddup.” That was when he saw it at the wood’s edge, a wisent, the European bison so rare as to be rumored extinct. A shaft of sunlight caught its golden brown coat, and it looked up when Wilhelm Josef quietly gave a firm command, “Whoa.” A surprised Hans looked at him and then followed his gaze to the wisent: a big, dangerous looking animal, almost six foot high at the shoulder. In a moment a wisp of breeze brought the scent of the wild bison to the horses, who snuffled and whinnied. The wisent raised its curved horns with a snort and then lowered its shaggy head. Its hump showed threateningly, and one hoof pawed the ground. Time came to a halt as man and beast waited to see who would make the next move. Their muskets, Wilhelm Josef realized, lay almost under its hooves.
SAILING ACROSS THE ATLANTIC OCEAN In 1836, sailing across the Atlantic took an average of forty-five days and longer on a passage like the Kästners' from Rotterdam to New Orleans. About twenty percent of ships went down, most often with all hands. Immigrants were still scarce. The big wave of German and Irish migrants did not begin until 1840. Larger groups traveling together might hire a ship, but individuals and families crossed however they could, mostly by booking passage on merchantmen (cargo ships). Passengers were expected to bring their own food and cook for themselves.
From Chapter Four, aboard the three-masted barque, the Atalanta, departing from Rotterdam The dawn was breathtakingly beautiful, the cold ocean a deep cerulean blue with crests of white showing here and there, the western sky still bearing wide strips of violet and indigo along the horizon. The palest blue filled all the dome above, with white puffs of clouds moving gently from west to east. Their three-masted barque, the Atalanta, would soon slip between Dover and Calais and run the length of the English Channel down towards Plymouth. There the entire Atlantic would lie open to them. When Friedrich asked if they would put in at Plymouth, the tall, brusque captain with a Danish accent and long blond hair in an old-fashioned pigtail told him firmly that they would not. “In the first place,” he said, “there ain’t nothin’ at Plymouth but ruffians and smugglers, who would sooner fleece you than look you in the eye.” The once-proud city, according to the captain, had had nothing to say for itself since the peace of ’15. “That there’s a dockyard that waren’t to be saved by nothin' but by the next good war, not that peace ain’t a wonderful thing,” Captain Peterssen said. As an afterthought he added, “Besides, in ’34 they had The Cholera. No, ’tis not safe nor wise to put in at Plymouth.” Out of Friedrich’s hearing, he grumbled, “Now, how are we ever going to get to America if they want to keep stopping everywhere?” It was bad enough that the Atalanta would have to put in at Gibraltar for the ship’s owner. Izak Peterssen was just a little disappointed that a man of the world like Friedrich would ask such a lubberly question. From Chapter Five, putting in at Gibraltar Captain Peterssen walked across to the rail, put a big foot on it and slung himself up on the ratlines. The Atalanta rose on the swell, and there lay the improbably high cliffs of Gibraltar, a dirty beige line far off to the ship’s larboard side and barely distinguishable from the gray sea and gray sky. Long hours later and not a moment too soon, when the headlands of Tangier had faded in the mist of an oncoming storm, and the Atalanta had fought her way across the vast bay, the barque hove to and picked up her moorings at Gibraltar. Rain spittered across the deck. A nasty chop was picking up even within the harbor, confused as it was by contrary winds, a tide at the full and hundreds of ships, from massive Indiamen and sleek galleys to cutters, barges and other working boats – launches, fishing boats, lighters and every description of small craft – contesting for anchor room. A sketchy fog was sliding across the harbor, getting thicker as they watched. “Fend off, ye blind bastard of a bat, fend off,” came faintly across the water, one of many voices distorted by the fog, perhaps off starboard, perhaps not. Through the fog, Peterssen could just make out the long curved stone quay, and at its end the massive dockyard, now almost deserted, low warehouses on what had been ordnance and victualing wharfs during the wars, and the quarantine island with its hospital. Nowhere did he see the yellow flag of pestilence flying. From Chapter Six, aboard the three-masted barque, the Atalanta, man overboard One splendid day, all the passengers had quitted their hammocks as if of one mind to savor a delicious change in temperature. Among them, Wilhelm Josef and Little Jakob played on deck at rough-housing. Wilhelm Josef let the little boy chase and wrestle as if he might actually win. Cutlip glanced at them impassively. If he felt the disdain landsmen deserved, it did not show. His eyes went back to the sails, always his first concern during his watch. Just as Wilhelm Josef turned away, Jakob dove at him and with a fighter’s instinct, Wilhelm Josef threw the little boy off. Jakob landed awkwardly on the slanted deck and fairly bounced up – onto the rail itself. He hung there balancing, his arms beating the air, a face of pure surprise, while Wilhelm Josef spun around and leapt toward the little boy, grabbing for him. Then Jakob was falling, and there was a desperately long moment before they heard the splash – a moment in which Cutlip had tossed a line overboard where he knew Jakob would surface, grabbed another line and barked out, “Man overboard!” At the wheel the master roared orders, and men ran to back the sails. Jakob went far underwater and came up gasping and thrashing. The rope slid past him. Cutlip had already wrapped the second line around his wrist and run down the side of the ship. He snatched at Jakob, and had him. But the wet little boy slipped out of his hand and sank again.
GETTING TO KNOW AMERICA In his 1829 best-seller, Gottfried Duden said about America, "People in Europe will not and cannot believe how easy and how pleasant it can be to live in this country. It sounds too strange, too fabulous." By 1836, America was a land of extreme contrasts, with well-established cities in the East and at New Orleans, farmsteads carved out of the woods or plains, and vast areas of wilderness, where you had better to be ready to manage on your own.
From Chapter Ten, arriving in New Orleans Something about the way the streets marched ahead in straight, orderly lines was a great relief after their long immersion in a strange and untamed natural world. Carriages, wagons, men on horseback and many people on foot made their way along Elysian Fields Avenue in the enchanting hubbub one finds in any city. With the sweet sounds of French spoken on all sides, New Orleans looked and sounded the very embodiment of gracious civilization. Aboard the Yellow Stone side-wheeler, steaming upriver on the Mississippi, as they approach a dangerous passage One experienced passenger explained, “If we hit the sandbar, it’ll knock the boat’s brains out. Better if your womenfolk were on deck should we need to swim. If she hits the sandbar hard, she’ll tip, and we will be required to swim for our lives, those of us not fitted with wings right off.” Friedrich went immediately to fetch the rest of the family, and so all seven now stood at the rail, Katherine wrapped in a shawl, Lisette’s arm around her waist and Little Jakob asleep on her shoulder. Izak stood by Amalie and whispered in her ear: “I can swim. Should we go over, don’t panic. Just let me carry you.” He studied the riverbank and the current to see what he would be up against and where they might escape. She nodded at him almost imperceptibly. They stood at the rail, each grasping it, her left hand in a lace glove and his right hand barely touching, but quite close enough for electricity to pass between them. From Chapter Thirteen, Katherine and Friedrich on the Illinois prairie “Oh mein Gott!” said Friedrich, shocked to see the size of the funnel cloud forming in the western sky. The air had suddenly turned cold, and moments later they were lashed with hail, taking shelter as best they could, crouching together by the horses under the branches of the largest of the trees. A roaring rain began and then the roaring became louder than rain, louder than anything either had ever heard. The funnel cloud now touched the ground, kicking up a wide cuff of debris. With horror, they saw it cross a faraway creek like the one they were sheltering by and toss trees about like toothpicks. The roaring became impossibly loud, with rain and wind that left them unable to do anything but cover their heads and pray. And then, as quickly as it had come, they heard the roaring move off beyond them, and in a few moments they dared to look about. The tornado had passed a little south of them, but not so far away as to leave them untouched. Their faces and arms had been lashed by flying debris and their hair was littered with straw and twigs. One of the horses had been slashed open by a splintered tree branch and lay dying in desperate agony, the blood pouring from it, breathing hard, it having sunk to its knees, its head pulled up by the reins still tied to the tree. Friedrich circled it, studied the wound and pulled out his pistol. “Don’t look,” he said to Katherine.