Long Sea Passage Brings Family to Land of Opportunity

Few personal effects brought on board, as family struggles to make passage to land of opportunity.

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My husband's grandparents left Doelitz, Pomerania, Germany, April 11, 1866. Their family consisted of four boys, ages 12 to 3, and a baby girl, age 4 months. With nearly all the money they had in the world spent for the cheapest passage, this family started on the long voyage to America’s land of opportunity on the ship, Eugenie, with Captain Cahnbley in charge. Their personal effects were few, and their only food those several weeks on the sea was bread and crackers they had made before leaving Germany. On a sea voyage, bread that old takes on strange tastes, odors and colors.

It is not likely that the children's mother sang "Rock a Bye Baby," as a lullaby on the journey, for the voyage was very rough. Waves of mountainous proportions swept entirely over the boat, and even though the hatches were closed, considerable amounts of ocean water found its way to the holds of their steerage passage. It took them almost three months to make the journey. Seven weeks of this time they were afloat on the ocean in a sailboat – in those days steamboats were few and seldom used by the poorer classes. They landed at the Port of Immigration Station at New York about June 6.

Great disappointment was this immigrant family's first reaction on arrival in America, for the baby girl, who had smallpox, was placed in quarantine on Castle Clinton, later known as Ellis Island. They immediately learned the hard way that this nation safeguarded the lives and health of its citizens. The mother and babe were taken to a hospital and quarantined, and the father waited for their release.

Money – what was it? Something they had very little of, so the family separated. The four little boys, with no money in their pockets and their fares paid in advance, were compelled to continue their journey with an uncle and his family to the "extreme west," as it was called at that time: the land of Indians, buffalo and deer.

They came as far as St. Joseph, Missouri, by rail, which took a week, then traveled two days on a steamboat, which was more to their liking, up the Missouri River as far as Brownville, Nebraska. They then traveled by oxen team to Muddy Creek in Johnson County, near Auburn, where they stayed two weeks while waiting for the boys' parents to join them. The baby died in New York. Reportedly the mother later sent money to a New York nunnery to repay it for taking care of her and arranging the burial. The family then continued on to Jefferson County, Nebraska, arriving at their homestead just in time to spend their first Fourth of July in America.

During that first year, 20 acres were broken and planted with corn and pumpkins. They were very hungry, and they worked long and prayed for a crop. Being very poor was not a sin, but to stay poverty stricken would have been unthinkable to the pioneers, for they were healthy and industrious. They measured their stride against hardships, anxiety, droughts and disappointments and won. If one was to eat, he had to work; this law of self-preservation applied to men, women and children alike.

In their new home, the family experienced a thrilling incident with the Indians. The early settlers were extremely alarmed when a report came that wild Indians, the Sioux, had captured two children, a girl and a boy, about 20 miles away. The Sioux and another tribe were warring between each other, and the girl was exchanged for other war prisoners. When the second tribe later traveled through her territory, the girl found her way home. She reported that the Indians had killed her brother, who was the younger of the two, on account of him crying so much and being homesick.

This report caused great alarm. As Great-Grandfather had no team at this time, he walked about six miles and borrowed one. They loaded their few belongings, and, taking two cows and two pigs, went back to where the neighbors were fortifying. This was in August. The stock had to walk this six miles, and the pigs died of heat on the way.

My great-grandfather had 20 acres of sod corn, which looked very good. This was their only outlook for support. A neighbor two miles from this cornfield owned quite a herd of cattle, and as there were no fences or herd laws and everything roamed at will, that cornfield had to be protected.

My great-grandfather was employed mowing wild hay with a scythe for others, so it fell to the lot of two little boys, 10 and 8 years old, to guard this cornfield. Barefoot, they traveled the six miles each way, each day for about a week. Then, getting bolder, they took eats along to last more than one day. A dog was their only companion. One nice morning the boys overslept. The dog, making a great noise, awakened them. Thinking that there was something wrong outside, one boy looked out from the door of the dugout and spied the Indians sneaking along the side of the creek. To say that he was frightened would be putting it mildly. A hasty consultation took place between the two boys. Their first plan was to strike direct to the homefolks, six miles away, but looking in their starting direction, an Indian was right in their path. Thinking of a neighbor who might be home, they made a hasty retreat in the opposite direction. They were much relieved to find him there. Telling him of the Indians they had seen, he doubted them at first, saying, "Oh, you boys are scared." Seeing that they were determined in their belief, he said, "Let's go over to my watermelon patch across the creek and prove it," as he was certain the Indians would be after watermelons if near. They accompanied him to the melon patch, where four or five husky fellows were slashing melons right and left.

In the neighbor's former experiences with the Indians, he had learned a few words. Soon he began doing business with them, swapping his melons for such things as they carried: a bridle, a butcher knife, etc. Of course it turned out to be only a scare – they were a friendly tribe – but it might have been real.

Ruby Zabel
Daykin, Nebraska


Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.