Monday, January 11, 2016

The Emigrants

When I recently saw the movie Brooklyn, one of the most poignant scenes was, as I recall, soundless. The harbor scene where the young Irish girl stands on the deck gazing sorrowfully at her  mother and sister standing on the dock far below. She knows she may never see them again.  

As I said, if there were sounds I don't remember them, didn't hear them. And as for movement, my memory is of the entire scene taking place in slow motion. Such stillness with each figure frozen in his or her own separate anguish. And it goes on and on, the camera panning the faces of the passengers and of the ones staying ashore. There is none of the exuberance and chaos of most movie ship-launching scenes—the throwing of confetti, the waving of handkerchiefs, the tossing of caps in the air, the wild cheering. Just this endless, dreamlike montage of heartbreak. This documenting of families coming apart at the seams, and wanting things to be different.

It all put me in mind of each set of my ancestors and their leave-takings from their respective homelands. I had often wondered about the circumstances that brought each family to that point, but I had thought of each departure separately. Being bathed in this movie scene, I felt the full impact of separation experienced by all my families and all the families of anyone who ever emigrated.

Presbyterian Cemetery, Northampton PA
The first of my people to cross the Atlantic (at least, the first I have any record of) were my 4th great-grandparents, John and Jane Love Hays. It was sometime between 1730 and 1736. There is no passenger list or census to establish the date. I don't know who they may have left behind when they said good-bye to Northern Ireland. John and Jane, with at least two, possibly three children, embarked from Londonderry in Donegal county. There they'd been called Ulster Scots—meaning that at some point in the preceding century or two, their ancestors had come from the Scottish borderlands to settle in northern Ireland. But opportunities for Ulster Scots were limited by the church and government regulations imposed by the British. That repression—combined with several years of poor harvests—is the likely reason they emigrated. Once they arrived in Pennsylvania, they would be known as Scotch-Irish. They settled ultimately in Northampton County where they kept a public house, a store and a tannery.

Leonard in his later years
The next to arrive, on July 6, 1836, was my twenty-one-year-old great-great grandfather, Leonard Odenweller. He left from the German port of Bremen on the brig Talisman. The passenger list shows only that he came from Mannheim and that his occupation was “smith”. I don't know who his family was, why he left, or what his immediate destination was. The 1940 US Federal Census shows a Lemard Odenwilen living in Darke County, Ohio, conveniently abutting Miami County where my great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Danley, lived with her family. I google-mapped Leonard's Wayne Township and found it to be about forty miles from Elizabeth's Bethel Township. My guess is that the two of them met and married sometime shortly after 1840. The 1850 census is yet to be found, but the 1860 census shows that Elizabeth and Leonard had moved to McDonough County, Illinois and had produced six living children. Two others died in infancy and were buried, nameless, in the Craig Cemetery in Scotland, Illinoisidentified only as "infant sons".

Syver and Barbro
Then came the Norwegians in August of 1849. In June, Syver Guttormsen and his wife Barbro Helgesdatter had said farewell to their brothers and sisters and Barbro's parents, and to their farm in the beautiful Valdres valley. With their ten children (ranging in age from four months to twenty-two years), one daughter-in-law, and seven neighbors, they set sail from the port of Drammen and spent ten weeks on the bark Benedicte. From New York, the party made their way to Wisconsin where they had temporary shelter at a parsonage in Rock Prairie County. As leader of the whole enterprise, Syver went off and found land in neighboring Green County where, within a few months, they were settled in their new homes and were back to their farming life.

A bark like the Drafna  
My father's grandmother Bergit, also from Norway, made the passage a few years later. She  was seventeen when she and her three-year-old brother came with their parents, Knud Halvorsen and Ragnild Pedersdatter. In Drammen, they boarded the bark Drafna and arrived in New York on July 16, 1852. After they came ashore, there is no record of what happened to them until they fetched up several years later in the Norwegian Settlement in Albany,Wisconsin in the very community founded by Syver and Barbro Guttormsen. The 1860 US Census showed them living in the same household as mothers- and fathers-in-law of Helge and Bergit! I hope some day to find out how that all came about.

Last to arrive was my Swedish great-grandmother Stina Ellstrom. In April of 1880, just a few weeks after her twentieth birthday, she boarded the steamship Marsdin in Gothenburg to come to "Amerika". In contrast to the Guttormsen family's experience of making the crossing as a party of twenty, Stina was embarking on a solo voyage. I looked at the lines before and after her name on the passenger list to see if maybe she had another young woman as her travel companion. Someone to help her through the imagined hard times of rough seas, frightening storms, menstrual cramps, sea-sickness, unwanted attention from a randy deckhand. There was no such companion. But I did see, just above her name, the names of a slightly older couple who were also traveling from her little town of Elfsbacka. Maybe they were shepherding her through the process. Once they arrived in the New York harbor, however, they parted waysthe couple's destination being Chicago. Stina, according to the passenger list information, was heading to Moline, Illinois. When I checked for other Ellstroms in Moline, I found that she had at least one brother and one sister waiting to welcome her at the end of her long journey. Over the next few years, all but two of her seven siblings had emigrated to the Moline area.
Stina (front left) with her siblings in Moline

 So all these families separated themselves from their former lives, braved the seas, survived the conditions of traveling steerage class, and arrived in unknown territory. They made their way westward where somehow they found each other, connected, and combined into new families. And so... here I am!

Drafna image courtesy of Norway Heritage

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