1836: Escape to America Scenes from Prussia, on board ship and in America
1836: Escape to America takes you to three very different worlds: Prussia in the era after the Napoleonic Wars and before Germany becomes a unified country in 1871, on board a sailing ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and onto the Mississippi River, into the American frontier at the time.
PRUSSIA, 1836 In 1836, there was no country called "Germany," and "German" was short for "German-speaking," a designation that covered multiple Germanic languages and dialects spoken over much of Northern Europe, from what is now Germany, Luxembourg and Austria to parts of Switzerland, Poland, Bohemia (now part of 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 1836: Escape to America From Chapter One, Friedrich learns that his family is in imminent danger Wait, thought Günter Erlinger, wait, wait, wait. He waited for the night watchman to pass, waited until he heard footsteps fade into the distance, sorting out the sound from his own heartbeat, so loud it seemed to fill his ears. Then he started again, slipping 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?” At Günter’s voice, Friedrich unbolted the old, heavy door. It opened with its usual weird creaking, and Günter was quickly admitted. “The Commandant has been told to expect more troops – a half-dozen, maybe a dozen, Prussians from the Imperial Police – to help him root out the disloyal and enforce the Sixty Articles. The Commandant, he’s a local man, not a bad man, but he will need to prove he is no slacker … as will our Prince.” “I’ll wager they went some way toward that today,” Friedrich said grimly. “How soon are these new men expected?” “A fortnight,” Günter said, more breathlessly than he meant to. “What happened today, the murder … they didn’t want the boy slipping away and getting back to the university. He was a Fischer from out west of town, a student at Warzburg.” Friedrich nodded. Warzburg. A hotbed of revolution, a source of the failed 1833 coup in Frankfurt. “A fortnight,” he said with finality.
From Chapter Three, 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 in alarm. 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 Nine, 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.” “Cholera!” said Friedrich. “An excellent reason to stay away.” He was disappointed, having never set foot on English soil and now unlikely ever to have the chance again, but he did not disagree with the young captain. Out of Friedrich’s hearing, Izak 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 Ten, 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 Eleven, 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.
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 excited hubbub, the signature of any city. With the sweet sounds of French spoken on all sides, New Orleans felt the very embodiment of gracious civilization. Katharina had tears in her eyes to think the family back safely among the civilized.
from 1837: Among Strangers 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 Five, aboard the Yellow Stone side-wheeler, steaming upriver on the Mississippi, as they approach a dangerous passage One experienced passenger explained to Izak and the Kästner men, “If we hit the bar, it’ll knock the boat’s brains out. Better if your womenfolk were on deck should we need to swim.” “A steamboat is nearly as flat as yon broadbeam,” another explained, waving toward a flatboat going downriver in the central current, “but top heavy. 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. All seven now stood at the rail, Katharina 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 am a strong swimmer. 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 might be the closest point of land. 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 Ten, Katherina and Friedrich on the Illinois prairie “Ach 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. The temperature had dropped precipitously, and both were soaked to the skin. 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. “Schauen Sie nicht,” he said to Katharina, “Don’t look,”